Nicholson at the Oscars: 1970 ("Five Easy Pieces")

In 1967, a then-unknown Jack Nicholson filmed The Rebel Rousers, an independent outlaw biker flick, alongside fellow big screen newcomers Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd and Harry Dean Stanton. A choppy, nearly unwatchable picture, the film festered on the shelf for three years - that is, unless the release and smashing success of Easy Rider.

With Nicholson now on the A-list (and Dern having had some success to boot), The Rebel Rousers at last hit theaters in 1970, marketed with ads noting Nicholson's recent Oscar nomination. While the picture found no traction with critics or audiences, its release was a testament to the pull Nicholson now grasped in the industry - if he was involved, even the crummiest of projects could see the light of day.

That summer, while The Rebel Rousers languished in drive-ins across the nation, Nicholson also appeared in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Barbra Streisand's first picture since Hello, Dolly! the year prior. His role, as Streisand's free-spirited step brother, was slimmed down from the 1965 Broadway production, with his one filmed musical number ultimately left on the cutting room floor. While only a modest success at the time, financially and among critics, On a Clear Day... maintains a loyal following, particularly among Streisand fans. (Plus, the sight of she and Nicholson gracing the screen together is awfully irresistible, even if the proceedings aren't among their finest hours.)

Nicholson's third and final project of the year would not only dwarf the reception to his other two 1970 pictures but firmly cement the actor as robust leading man material. Working alongside filmmaker Bob Rafelson for the second time (after collaborating on the Monkees musical Head in 1968), Nicholson was about to garner the first of his eight (to date, at least) Oscar nominations in Best Lead Actor.

The 1970 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father

Douglas portrays Tom Garrison, estranged father of Gene (Oscar nominee Gene Hackman, in one of his finest performances). Gene has long been troubled by their taciturn relationship and fears his planned move to California will create all the more distance between them. Father and son are forced to communicate, however, in the wake of matriarch Margaret (Dorothy Stickney)'s death. This performance marked Douglas' second Oscar nomination.

James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope

Jones portrays Jack Jefferson, a powerhouse boxer who, in the early 1910s, goes on a hot winning streak against a series of white boxers. Before long, racist sports fans and the press launch a search for a "great white hope" that can at last take Jack down. Spawning all the more hateful rage is Jack's romance with the white Eleanor (Oscar nominee Jane Alexander). This performance marked Jones' first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces

Nicholson portrays Robert Dupea, an oil rigger who rejected his upper-class background and training as a classical pianist for a more blue-collar life. When Robert learns his father has suffered multiple strokes, he reluctantly embarks on a road trip, alongside needy girlfriend Rayette (the brilliant, Oscar-nominated Karen Black), to see his family. This performance marked Nicholson's second Oscar nomination.

Ryan O'Neal, Love Story

O'Neal portrays Oliver Barrett IV, an affluent Harvard Law student who meets and falls head-over-heels for Jenny (Oscar nominee Ali MacGraw), a middle-class scholar studying music at Radcliffe. Despite family objection, the two marry, land jobs and build for themselves what looks to be a wonderful life together. Then, tragedy strikes. This performance marked O'Neal's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

George C. Scott, Patton

Scott portrays George S. Patton, the controversial World War II general. Patton achieves immense success leading American forces in North Africa, Germany and Italy but a series of unforced errors, including the striking of a hospitalized soldier suffering post-traumatic stress, threaten to derail his sterling reputation. This performance, which won him honors from the National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe, marked Scott's third Oscar nomination and first win.

Overlooked: Albert Finney, Scrooge; Elliott Gould, MASH; Paul Newman, Sometimes a Great Notion; Donald Sutherland, MASH

Won and should've won: George C. Scott, Patton

Now this is a great line-up.

Not once over the course of 20 Years of Streep, the unheralded contenders considered, did I think the Academy completely nail a category. Here, however, I cannot object to a single nominee, even the usually stiff O'Neal - all five performances are absolutely marvelous, though one, no doubt, could also make a valid case for either or both of the MASH leading men.

The Old vs. New Hollywood rivalry remained hot for the 1970 telecast, as bloated box office blockbuster Airport (described by Pauline Kael as "bland entertainment of the old school") battled the bolder, more culturally significant likes of Five Easy Pieces and MASH for the top prize. Not unlike Gig Young the year prior in his category, it was ultimately the contender able to floor folks on both sides of the aisle - in this case, Patton - that emerged triumphant.

On the big night, with Patton steamrolling to a hefty seven victories, fellow Best Picture contenders Airport, Love Story and MASH each went home with one consolation prize a piece, while Five Easy Pieces struck out completely.

Even in 1970, Love Story was deemed aggressively schmaltzy, one of the more nauseatingly manipulative romances to grace the silver screen. Nonetheless, with two appealing stars and an immensely successful novel as its inspiration, the picture was a big, fat box office hit, the highest-grossing film of the year. It even managed to nearly sweep the Golden Globes, scoring trophies in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Lead Actress and Best Screenplay.

It's tough to rationalize such a Love Story sweep without O'Neal among the honorees, considering he is, by far, the strongest, least mawkish part of the film. While molasses practically oozes from MacGraw's pores and the Erich Segal screenplay leaves viewers gagging, O'Neal turns in a remarkably poised, sensitive performance. He's downright heartbreaking toward the picture's end, even if the film itself hasn't an ounce of nuance.

Of the five actors recognized here, O'Neal is of course the most limited - I like to think of him as the male Cybill Shepherd - but let's not overlook the handful of fine turns he's delivered over the years. Besides Love Story, he's marvelous in What's Up, Doc?; Paper Moon; The Driver; and Irreconcilable Differences. There were far more clunkers than winners for sure but even if O'Neal's career skid off the tracks by the following decade, he's unimpeachably terrific here. Heck, in a really anemic year, I can see even considering him for the Oscar win. This, of course, was no lackluster line-up, though.

I Never Sang for My Father is truly an unsung picture, merely a modest success even upon its release and almost entirely forgotten now, sans by the most ardent movie buffs. It's a shame, since its leading men - two of the finest actors to ever grace the screen - are operating right at the tops of their game. To boot, Robert Anderson's screenplay (adapted from his Broadway play, which too wasn't a hit) is something so special, an honest, evocative examination of a rancorous father and son relationship.

Douglas is brilliant here, just as riveting as in his two Oscar-winning turns (Hud and Being There). He runs a gamut of emotions through the picture, making Tom an alternately combative, charming, aloof and wistful man - it's no wonder Hackman's Gene has such a taxing time figuring the guy out.

What is kind of odd here is the category placement - both Douglas and Hackman are indisputably Lead here, yet the latter garnered a Supporting push, no doubt to give the pair the off-chance of scoring two Oscars for the film. If pressed to split them, however, I would do the reverse and place Hackman in the top category. This isn't a knock on Douglas' performance at all but Hackman has greater screen time and in Supporting, a much lesser category this year, I actually think Douglas could have prevailed.

Also headlining a stage-to-screen adaptation is Jones who, unlike Douglas, originated his role in the Broadway production (and scored a Tony Award for it).

The Great White Hope packs a fierce punch, as does Jones' powerhouse performance (and Alexander, per usual, is fabulous too). It's a thrilling effort from an actor who should have graced the silver screen in many more leading roles than he ultimately did (check out 1972's Claudine for another top-notch Jones performance). This may not be a revolutionary turn on the level of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, and the film itself certainly doesn't have the visual ambition or electricity of the Martin Scorsese picture, but it's still a pleasure watching Jones tear it up in such a substantial starring role.

Not awarding Nicholson the victory here is like not giving the win to Meryl Streep for Silkwood - in just about any other year, I undoubtedly would have given him his first Oscar for Five Easy Pieces, a film I actually think should have taken the Best Picture prize, even though I prefer Scott in Lead Actor (odd as that sounds).

Nicholson is devastatingly great here. Yeah, yeah, there's the chicken salad moment and that's terrific and iconic but there's so much more to the performance than just the diner scene. I especially love Robert's strained interactions with his family, not to mention Catherine, his brother's alluring fiancee. And when Robert at last approaches his father, it's some of the best, most unaffected acting of Nicholson's career. His chemistry with Black (who surely should've won the Oscar over Airport's Helen Hayes) is of course legendary stuff too.

Part of me, frankly, cannot believe I'm not giving Nicholson the win here but sublime as he is, I do think the Academy nailed this one. Scott in Patton is truly among the greatest performances to ever grace this or any acting category at the Oscars.

What's remarkable about Patton, among other things, is how at three hours in length, it never feels like a Gandhi-level endeavor. Franklin J. Schaffner's filmmaking isn't terribly striking but the screenplay - by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North - is a leading man's dream, packed with rich, formidable dialogue, if that actor is up to the task. And holy shit, is Scott plenty game.

This is a towering barn burner of a performance, a turn that should grace the thesaurus under 'tour de force.' Scott grabs viewers by the throat in his opening monologue and never lets go for the picture's duration. This is a film that runs 170 minutes in length and has, largely on account of the ferocious performer steering the ship, not a single lull. Moreover, Scott's performance, while overwhelming, isn't really heavy on histrionics. You can sense the vulnerabilities in this larger-than-life man that probably wouldn't have been there with an actor hellbent on just hamming it up.

Poor Jack, James and Melvyn. And Ryan even! In any other year...

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. George C. Scott, Patton
  2. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  3. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  4. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  5. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  6. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  7. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  8. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  9. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  10. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days

Nicholson at the Oscars: 1969 ("Easy Rider")

Between 1958 and 1968, young actor Jack Nicholson appeared in 14 feature films, plus landed guest appearances on television programs like The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Dr. Kildare and The Andy Griffith Show. To say Nicholson was not a household name, however, would be an understatement.

Four of Nicholson's first silver screen appearances were in Roger Corman B-movies, the likes of The Raven and The Terror, both opposite horror legend Boris Karloff. Perhaps his most memorable early turn came in Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors, in which he portrayed, in one scene, a masochistic dental patient (later played by Bill Murray in the 1986 movie musical). Even with an eye-catching turn like that, however, Nicholson was not drawing the attention of major studios and certainly not piquing interest as a potential leading man.

At last, in 1969, Nicholson kicked down the door into the Hollywood mainstream with a key supporting role in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, a picture that would prove an unlikely box office smash and emerge one of the essential motion pictures of the New Hollywood era.

The 1969 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actor were...

Rupert Crosse, The Reivers

Crosse portrays Ned, pal and distant cousin of adventuresome handyman Boon (Steve McQueen). Enamored with a new car in town, Ned and Boon steal the vehicle and, alongside impressionable adolescent Lucius (Mitch Vogel), embark on a haphazard southern road trip. This performance marked Crosse's first and final Oscar nomination.

Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Gould portrays Ted Henderson, husband of Alice (Oscar-nominee Dyan Cannon) and best friend of Bob (Robert Culp). Ted is perplexed when Bob and wife Carol (Natalie Wood) return from a group therapy retreat with longing to loosen up and experiment with sexual freedom. He and Alice merely humor their friends at first but it isn't long before suppressed sexual tension among the foursome comes to the surface. This performance marked Gould's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider

Nicholson portrays George Hanson, an alcoholic ACLU lawyer who in jail befriends Wyatt (Peter Fonda and Billy (Dennis Hopper), two bikers road tripping through the American south after selling off heaps of cocaine. George helps his new pals get out of jail and is later introduced to the wonders of marijuana. This performance, which won him Best Supporting Actor honors from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, marked Nicholson's first Oscar nomination.

Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days

Quayle portrays Thomas Wolsey, cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in England, circa-1536. Wolsey pleads with King Henry VIII (Oscar-nominee Richard Burton) to abandon the King's desire to ditch wife Catherine of Aragon (Irene Papas) for the youthful and enticing Anne Boleyn (Geneviève Bujold). This performance marked Quayle's first and final Oscar nomination.

Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Young portrays Rocky, scheming emcee of a Great Depression-era marathon dance contest for a then-hefty $1,500 cash prize. As the competition drags on from days to weeks, the publicity-hungry Rocky is willing to go to sinister lengths to exploit the vulnerabilities of the remaining contestants. This performance, which won him a Golden Globe, marked Young's third and final Oscar nomination and first win.

Overlooked: Red Buttons, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?; Jack Klugman, Goodbye, Columbus; John McMartin, Sweet Charity; John Vernon, Topaz

Won and should've won: Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Like many ceremonies of the New Hollywood era, the 1969 Oscars are very much indicative of the wrestling between the industry's old guard - more often than not, losing money on their pictures, desperate to deliver another My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music - and those pesky progressive newcomers, determined to give American cinema a long overdue face lift.

This year proved a victory for the latter, as John Schlesinger's X-rated Midnight Cowboy defeated the more traditionally Oscar-friendly likes of Anne of the Thousand Days and Hello, Dolly! for the Best Picture prize. That Anne and Dolly were recognized in the first place, however, was a testament to the considerable influence Old Hollywood still sported among the Academy membership - neither film was a commercial success.

The old vs. new rivalry could be seen down the ballot too, including in Best Supporting Actor, with Quayle representing the old-school wing and Gould and Nicholson gracing two signature New Hollywood pictures. In a way, it made complete sense that Young - a veteran character actor who'd graced the silver screen for three decades, worked along countless performers and was recognized for a pivotal role in a bold, violent film - would triumph, drawing affection across the spectrum.

The Quayle nomination, while understandable, given the Academy's adoration of Anne of the Thousand Days (no doubt a result of Universal Pictures' aggressive campaign behind the picture), is still pretty inexplicable. Not that Quayle wasn't a brilliant actor - he most certainly was, having been a key force in the founding of the Royal Shakespeare Company and making memorable appearances in films like The Wrong Man, The Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia. But he looks bored out of his mind here.

Quayle, Burton and the rest of the cast may look exquisite in their Oscar-winning costumes but they're at a loss when it comes to making something of the stiff dialogue that plagues this picture. Anne marked the directorial debut of Charles Jarrott, perhaps best-known among movie buffs as a regular punching bag of critic Pauline Kael's. His staging of the picture is miserably uninspired and though the proceedings in actuality run just under two and half hours in length, the endeavor feels like a lifetime.

No doubt, with a competent filmmaker and stronger script, Quayle could have made something special of this role. Alas, under these circumstances, the actor phones it in.

At least having some fun on the screen, even if it's in a negligibly satisfying picture, is Crosse, the first African-American to ever grace Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars. Crosse, a protege of John Cassavetes', made his memorable big screen debut in Cassavetes' Shadows before finding greater success on a plethora of television series in the 1960s. His most prominent (and ultimately final) role on the silver screen was this one, McQueen's curious follow-up to Bullitt.

The Reivers marked director Mark Rydell's second picture, years before directing the likes of Marsha Mason (Cinderella Liberty), Bette Midler (The Rose), Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn (On Golden Pond), among others, to Oscar glory. The film has the feel of an idiosyncratic pet project for McQueen, the kind of picture that could only be green-lit on the heels of a big, fat hit. There are shades of Paper Moon but, in sensibility and sophistication, the proceedings most recall sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction.

Crosse seems to be having a ball as McQueen's sidekick. It's a mostly madcap comic turn that often upstages the picture's leading man (who has, frankly, limited comic timing) and he's able to show some range later in the picture when racism rears its ugly head. The film, however, is so humdrum that it's difficult to get terribly involved in any of it, unless you're a diehard McQueen or William Faulkner (who wrote the 1962 novel on which it's based) fan. Kudos to Crosse for making Oscar history (and for a fabulous run on the small screen) but it's not a performance remarkable enough to make this a must-see.

The remaining three nominees are leaps and bounds more compelling, and it sure doesn't hurt that their pictures are among the year's (if not the decade's) finest to boot.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a fabulous ensemble comedy, nearly the best film of Paul Mazursky's stellar career, just behind An Unmarried Woman (some might make a case for Enemies, A Love Story too). I think, however, it is more a triumph in screenwriting than acting. Not that the foursome isn't pitch-perfect - they're uniformly fantastic but if pressed to name a standout, I would actually side with Cannon, not Gould (and even then, Cannon would be my third or fourth choice among the Supporting Actress nominees).

I'm delighted Gould managed to pick up an Oscar nomination during his career, I just wish it were for a vehicle like The Long Goodbye or California Split instead, where the actor stood out in a more striking way. He's in fine form here but it's not a turn I could quite consider for the Oscar win.

Stealing his scenes with startling vigor, albeit with less screen time than Gould, is Nicholson, who comes roaring into Easy Rider like a tornado. Even without his presence, the picture would be one hell of a ride and still left an immense cultural impact.

When Nicholson does enter the film, however, he is able to take something already extraordinary and lift it to an even higher level. His performance here feels fresh and anomalous to this day, not just coasting on that natural Nicholson charisma, so I can only imagine how remarkable his screen presence felt to moviegoers back in the day, perhaps seeing him grace the screen for the very first time. Like, for instance, Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts and George C. Scott in Anatomy of a Murder, it's one of those riveting supporting turns that all but guaranteed juicy lead roles to follow.

Much as I adore Nicholson in his Oscar debut, I think the Academy got this one right.

One's impression of Young in They Shoot Horses... will, no doubt, be shaped by familiarity (or lack thereof) with his filmography. Prior to the Sydney Pollack picture, the actor was largely known for supporting turns light romcom fare, like That Touch of Mink, Desk Set and Teacher's Pet, the last of which earned him an Oscar nomination. Young graced his fair share of dramas too but, far more often than not, would still play the affable sidekick.

So, just imagine the audience response to Young, reliable for charming the pants off his fans, in the chilling role of emcee Rocky. What makes the performance all the more powerful is how Young never once overplays the proceedings, which certainly may not have been the case in the hands of a hammier actor. The role is a villainous one for sure, with shades of genuine sadism, but Young also instills humanity into Rocky, particularly opposite Susannah York's Alice.

They Shoot Horses... marks the career-best performance of one of the finest character actors of the 1950s and 1960s - a richly deserved victory for sure.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  2. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  3. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  4. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  5. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days

20 Years of Streep: 2016 ("Florence Foster Jenkins")

At last, Oscar nomination #20!

These past five months, revisiting 100 (!!!) Oscar-nominated performances, have been such blast for me and I hope you've enjoyed this project too. Thank you to the many fellow Oscar/Streep aficionados who joined me on this journey and commented, both here and on Twitter, along the way.

While I ultimately awarded Streep the win on just two occasions - for The Bridges of Madison County and Adaptation - I still of course wholeheartedly adore this living legend and would be completely cool with her having half a dozen or more trophies under her belt. She is truly one of the all-time greats, able to work wonders with even the most middling of projects (of which, frankly, there have been more than a few).

Streep's reputation as the greatest actress of her generation really isn't hyperbole, even when other fabulous performers of the past half century - Close, Lange and Weaver, among others - are considered. And it's been such a treat reflecting on their recognized work too.

That said, I do of course have one final entry to complete 20 Years of Streep.

In 2015, more than a decade since their collaboration on The Manchurian Candidate, Streep and filmmaker Jonathan Demme reunited on what would prove the director's final motion picture. Ricki and the Flash, written by another Oscar-winner (Diablo Cody), cast Streep as a wannabe-rock star who abandoned her family to chase her dreams. She later returns home, hoping to reconcile, to a chilly reception.

While Ricki and the Flash has its passionate proponents, the film was greeted that August to a lukewarm critical reception and modest box office - Streep's lowest-grossing live action feature in nearly a decade. Even more unnoticed was a brief supporting role that fall in the not-so-successful Oscar contender Suffragette. There was, no surprise, no Streep on Oscar nominations morning.

The following year, however, Streep signed on for a project with a filmmaker known for delivering Best Lead Actress Oscar nominations.

Over the course of his career, Stephen Frears directed Glenn Close (Dangerous Liaisons), Anjelica Huston (The Grifters), Helen Mirren (The Queen) and Judi Dench (Mrs. Henderson Presents... and Philomena) to awards season glory. With a record like that, odds were strong he could do the same for Streep, on the hunt for an unprecedented 20th Oscar nomination.

The 2016 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Huppert portrays Michèle Leblanc, a strong-willed and successful video game company executive who is raped by a masked man in her home. Wary of reporting the incident to law enforcement, she instead keeps a meticulous eye on the men in her life, determined to uncover the assailant's identity herself and draw him into a game of revenge. This performance, which won her honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe, marked Huppert's first Oscar nomination.

Ruth Negga, Loving

Negga portrays Mildred Loving, wife of bricklayer Richard (the brilliant Joel Edgerton). The interracial couple are harassed and arrested by local authorities for violating Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws. They ultimately move to Washington D.C. but, yearning to someday move back to their friends and family in the Commonwealth, team with the American Civil Liberties Union on a lawsuit against Virginia that will result in a landmark civil rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. This performance marked Negga's first Oscar nomination.

Natalie Portman, Jackie

Portman portrays First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who, not long after the assassination of her husband, invites journalist Theodore White (Billy Crudup) to the family compound to discuss the legacy of the 35th U.S. president's. Kennedy reflects on the glory days of the presidency, the horrors of that fall day in Dallas, Texas and the whirlwind of arrangements that followed. This performance marked Portman's third Oscar nomination.

Emma Stone, La La Land

Stone portrays Mia, an aspiring actress who makes her living as a barista on a Hollywood studio lot. She meets jazz pianist Sebastian (Oscar-nominee Ryan Gosling), who makes his ends meet playing uninspiring Christmas jingles at a restaurant. Over time, the two become romantically involved but their relationship is sorely tested by their careers, in the city notorious for building dreamers up, only to tear them down. This performance, which won her a BAFTA Award, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Stone's second Oscar nomination and first win.

Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Streep portrays Florence Foster Jenkins, an ambitious socialite who frequents and invests in the New York arts scene in the 1940s and, despite having negligible musical talent, manages to buy an opera concert for herself at Carnegie Hall. This performance marked Streep's 20th Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Amy Adams, Arrival; Annette Bening, 20th Century Women; Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train; Sally Field, Hello, My Name Is Doris; Rebecca Hall, Christine; Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures; Susan Sarandon, The Meddler; Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane

Won: Emma Stone, La La Land

Should've won: Natalie Portman, Jackie

Good heavens, it legit feels like just yesterday that Oscar junkies were debating Huppert's odds of somehow, someway scoring the upset over Stone in this. I never quite bought into that, not with the former's lack of a SAG nomination, but it sure was a blast watching the Huppert supporters try to convince me otherwise.

Last year was chock-full of fabulous leading lady turns and I don't think the Academy's fivesome, even if there's not a rotten apple among the bunch, is quite representative of that strength. If only enough voters had seen Hall's heartbreaking work or remembered the fantastic early-year performances from Field and Sarandon. Likewise, it's a shame Henson, the best part of Hidden Figures, couldn't ride her film's momentum to a surprise nomination. And Bening? When on earth is she at last scoring that Oscar win?!

Gotta love that in the final entry of 20 Years of Streep, I am ranking the Great One last in this final chapter. Not that Streep is bad in Florence Foster Jenkins (has she ever been?) but, if not for her incredible speech at last year's Golden Globes, I'm awfully skeptical she would have garnered a nomination for such a light piece of cinematic fluff.

Streep, no doubt, had a ball taking on this role and her comic chops are very much on display when her Jenkins graces the stage and leaves her audience aghast at the vocal trainwreck before them. The film around her, however, is thinly drawn, never much exploring the exciting hustle and bustle of New York at that time. It all seems better-suited to a stage production.

Ultimately, Streep emerges the sole reason to check the picture out, even though it doesn't break a ton of new ground on Jenkins' life. Moviegoers who were won over by Frears' comparably slight Mrs. Henderson Presents... will probably be quite fond of this.

Negligibly more exciting than Streep is this category's winner, Stone.

Upon first hearing about La La Land, I was pretty ecstatic. After all, Damien Chazelle's Whiplash was my favorite film of 2014 and I'm quite fond of both Stone and Gosling (and, when done right, movie musicals). Oddly enough, I think the picture works far better as a love story than it does a musical.

While the proceedings look fabulous and its stars have heaps of chemistry, I can't say the film leaves me humming a whole lot upon its conclusion. Chazelle sure knows how to shoot a musical but the songs are largely forgettable and the choreography more haphazard than anything. I'm glad Moonlight scored the Best Picture upset.

As for Stone, like Streep, the joy she clearly felt in making this movie is palpable. She makes for an electric duo with Gosling and her rendition of "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" marks one of the few moments in the film that operates as a successful musical. That said, it's hardly an amazing piece of acting. Stone has no shortage of charisma but this isn't a sharp vehicle like Easy A that knows how to perfectly utilize that personality.

One of the all-time worst Best Lead Actress winners? No way. Still, she's much more toward the bottom than the top and shouldn't have even been nominated.

Gracing a much stronger film than Streep and Stone is Negga, whose Loving was one of my very favorite films of 2016. The film is so convincing, it often has more the look and feel of a documentary than a scripted feature film. Kudos to writer/director Jeff Nichols and his entire cast for delivering such a beautiful, understated picture.

As for Negga specifically, this is perhaps among the most quiet, unaffected performances to ever garner an Oscar nomination - there's really no obvious 'Oscar scene' to speak of. It's lovely work but it's often subdued to the point where Negga is prone to fading into the background a bit. I think Edgerton, who time and time again proves himself one of today's finest actors, gives the more impassioned and resonant performance of the two. Some of the more lively supporting players too also steal scenes away from Negga.

Still, much as I would've rather seen another contender land a surprise nod, I was pleased on Oscar nominations morning to see Loving at least surface somewhere.

Leaps and bounds superior to Streep, Stone and Negga are the remaining two nominees, both richly deserving of their recognition here.

While I'm not quite as enamored with Huppert as some on social media, I do think it's quite fantastic she managed to garner an Oscar nomination for, of all things, a Paul Verhoeven film. Her work in Elle is truly fearless, an audacious, vivid portrayal that serves as the anchor of the entire picture - without her killing it, the film wouldn't work. Verhoeven's efforts here are striking but never before has he directed a film so dependent on a single performance.

Prior to Elle, I admittedly wasn't all that familiar with the Huppert filmography. I've seen Heaven's Gate on several occasions but, much as I admire so much about it, that's hardly a prime actors showcase. Beyond that, I believe the sleepy Madame Bovary is the only other Huppert picture I've caught over the years. Elle has for sure inspired me to check out more of her work in the future, even if I can't quite support her for the win here (though it sure would've been phenomenal if she somehow did pull that upset).

Impressive as Huppert is, Portman still wins this in a cake walk for me.

I still cannot comprehend how Jackie, my favorite film of 2016, was so egregiously shortchanged during the last awards season. Pablo Larrian's Kubrick-like direction is some of the most visually striking, haunting filmmaking I've seen in ages, the Noah Oppenheim screenplay is downright brilliant and the entire cast, even if it is largely a one-woman show, rings true.

Madeline Fontaine's costumes? Exquisite. Stephane Fontaine's cinematography? Breathtaking. Jean Rabasse's production design? Sublime. Mica Levi's music? Dazzling, almost overwhelming in its beauty.

Of course, however, Portman is the heart and soul of the picture. She runs a roller coaster of emotions, from the glory days of the Kennedy presidency, when the White House was filled with joy and grand entertainment, to the horrors of that autumn day in Dallas, Texas and the whirlwind of events that followed. Portman has wonderful, intimate scenes opposite John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard and Greta Gerwig but is often at her most riveting when she has the screen all to herself. This is one of the very best Oscar-nominated performances from recent years.

At last, all 100 Oscar-nominated performances ranked!

  1. Jessica Lange, Frances
  2. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
  3. Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
  4. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
  5. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
  6. Meryl Streep, Silkwood
  7. Jane Alexander, Testament
  8. Sally Kirkland, Anna
  9. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  10. Natalie Portman, Jackie
  11. Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
  12. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
  13. Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
  14. Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist
  15. Cher, Moonstruck
  16. Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
  17. Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
  18. Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
  19. Kathy Bates, Misery
  20. Anjelica Huston, The Grifters
  21. Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair
  22. Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
  23. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
  24. Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie
  25. Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
  26. Sharon Stone, Casino
  27. Melissa Leo, Frozen River
  28. Viola Davis, The Help
  29. Diane Keaton, Reds
  30. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  31. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  32. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  33. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
  34. Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
  35. Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
  36. Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
  37. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  38. Helen Mirren, The Queen
  39. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
  40. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  41. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
  42. Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
  43. Isabelle Huppert, Elle
  44. Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
  45. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
  46. Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  47. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  48. Judi Dench, Philomena
  49. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  50. Meryl Streep, Adaptation
  51. Penelope Cruz, Volver
  52. Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
  53. Meryl Streep, Doubt
  54. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
  55. Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
  56. Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
  57. Meryl Streep, One True Thing
  58. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  59. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  60. Helen Mirren, The Last Station
  61. Annette Bening, American Beauty
  62. Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
  63. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  64. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  65. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  66. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  67. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  68. Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
  69. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
  70. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
  71. Julianne Moore, The Hours
  72. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  73. Ruth Negga, Loving
  74. Laura Dern, Wild
  75. Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
  76. Emma Stone, La La Land
  77. Angelina Jolie, Changeling
  78. Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
  79. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
  80. Kate Winslet, Little Children
  81. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  82. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  83. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  84. Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
  85. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  86. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  87. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  88. Carey Mulligan, An Education
  89. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
  90. Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
  91. Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
  92. Kate Winslet, The Reader
  93. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  94. Queen Latifah, Chicago
  95. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  96. Emma Stone, Birdman
  97. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
  98. Amy Adams, American Hustle
  99. Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
  100. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love

 

20 Years of Streep: 2014 ("Into the Woods")

After scoring Oscar nomination #18 with August: Osage County in 2013, Meryl Streep lined up a trio of promising projects for the following year. That 19th nod would, no doubt, be lurking around the corner.

First, there was The Giver, the long-awaited film adaptation of Lois Lowry's best-selling dystopian young adult novel. The project paired Streep with, for the first time, two Hollywood heavyweights - Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges and Australian director Philip Noyce, who, on occasion, will crank out a real gem of a motion picture (see Dead Calm and The Quiet American, among others). A late summer release, The Giver mustered decent box office receipts but was resoundingly trashed by critics.

Garnering warm reviews but a chilly box office reception was Streep's second 2014 release, The Homesman, directed by Hope Springs co-star Tommy Lee Jones. Streep's modest supporting role in the western went largely unnoticed, with most acclaim directed to leading lady Hilary Swank and Jones' rich filmmaking and performance.

Streep's third and final 2014 picture would at last triumph on both critical and financial fronts.

While Rob Marshall's film adaptation of the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods may not have garnered the same glowing reception as the original 1987 Broadway production (or Marshall's Oscar-winning Chicago), the film at the very least marked an improvement over the director's Nine, which was laughed off the screen five years prior. A healthy box office success, Into the Woods would prove Streep's second highest-grossing picture to date, behind only (sigh) Mamma Mia!

The 2014 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actress were...

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Arquette portrays Olivia Evans, single mom of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelai Linklater). In 2003, Olivia moves the family out to Houston, Texas, so she can obtain a degree and find a fulfilling job. The decade to follow proves an eventful one, as Olivia weds her professor (Marco Perella), an affluent man ready and willing to provide for the Evans but battling inner demons that threaten the wreck their marriage and the childhoods of Mason and Samantha. This performance, which won her honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award and BAFTA Award, marked Arquette's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and win.

Laura Dern, Wild

Dern portrays Bobbi Grey, the late mother of Cheryl Strayed (Oscar-nominee Reese Witherspoon). During Cheryl's remarkable hike across the Pacific Crest Trail, she is overcome with memories of her mom, a bright, loving woman whose sudden death from cancer nearly shattered her daughter's spirit. This performance marked Dern's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

Knightley portrays Joan Clarke, a brilliant cryptanalyst who assists mathematician Alan Turning (Oscar-nominee Benedict Cumberbatch) in breaking Nazi Germany's secret communications. When Joan plans to leave the project, on the wishes of her parents, Alan proposes marriage, which she accepts, even knowing of his homosexuality. The performance marked Knightley's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Emma Stone, Birdman

Stone portrays Sam Thomson, estranged daughter of and assistant to Riggan (Oscar-nominee Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor preparing for the opening night of his new Broadway play. A recovering addict, Sam does not hold back in blaming her father for a rough upbringing, even as he frantically stresses over his latest project. This performance marked Stone's first Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Streep portrays the Witch, once gorgeous but now the most ghastly of sights. Desperate to restore her beauty, she sends the Baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) on a journey to find the ingredients that will bring it back. This performance marked Streep's 19th Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Lindsay Duncan, Birdman; Rene Russo, Nightcrawler; Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer

Won and should've won: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Yeesh!

The 2014 Oscar ceremony was not without its pleasures, namely the exhilarating Whiplash managing to score three prizes, but this Best Supporting Actress race was and is awfully tough to get excited about. What's perhaps most remarkable about the line-up is it sports, in my opinion at least, the weakest of all 20 Oscar-nominated Streep turns - and even her worst nomination still places a respectable third for me!

The most anemic honoree here - and nearly the least compelling performance to grace the 20 Streep categories - is Knightley, sleepwalking her way through the otherwise-compelling The Imitation Game. It's a vapid turn by a limited actress to begin with but, to be fair, I'm not sure even the greatest of performers could've made much of Clarke, as she's written here (which is to say very thinly). This is the epitome of a coattail nomination, even more egregious than a Milford in Coming Home or Latifah in Chicago.

Also riding her picture's awards momentum to an inexplicable nomination is Stone, not great but at least there's some blood flowing through the veins, unlike in Knightley's case. I don't get the hooplah for Birdman at all and frankly, if I had to recognize any supporting female from the film, it'd be Duncan, who graces the film's one terrific scene as a scathing film critic who has it out with Keaton's Riggan. Stone does get one bonafide Oscar scene, a shouting match with Keaton, but the writing is so on the nose and both actors, terrific as they've been in many other films, overplay it.

A little less eyebrow-raising a nomination (though still not a deserved one) is Streep's.

Like Birdman, Into the Woods is not a picture I'm terribly enamored with. Less headache-inducing than Nine but not as satisfying as Chicago, Marshall's Into the Woods is exceedingly workmanlike, overstuffed with CGI and, on occasion, performed with some enthusiasm. The Stephen Sondheim score has for sure seen better days. I actually think, among the cast, Cordon and Blunt are the MVPs here, both very charming. Streep, no doubt, had heaps of fun taking on the Witch but it's not a terribly inspired performance and she's constantly upstaged by the scenery. Likewise, she sings well but Marshall's staging of the musical numbers is haphazard and unflattering to all of the actors.

So, I suppose I was wrong, The French Lieutenant's Woman - you aren't, despite still being a complete drag, the absolute bottom of the barrel in the Streep Oscar echelon.

At last of praise in this category (and virtually interchangeable) are the remaining two nominees, Dern and Arquette.

Dern, vis a vis, Arquette is the superior actress for sure and I'm nearly tempted give her the win here as some sort of career victory. Alas, while Dern's presence is a critical one in Wild, it doesn't have the feel of a full performance. Instead of complete scenes, we're mostly treated to mere glimpses of Bobbi. When she does grace the screen, Dern is in vivid, arresting form - we feel her warmth and the love Cheryl so painstakingly misses. But while this utilization of the actress proves an effective one for the film itself, cutting back and forth between the past and present, it also somewhat undercuts Dern's efforts. Bobbi's presence is deeply felt throughout Wild but Dern never gets that extended scene that could have put her in contention for the win.

Arquette, while the more rangebound performer, is all over Boyhood, practically a co-lead for much of the proceedings. Like Dern in her picture, Arquette gives Olivia a wonderful authentic, lived-in feel. It's an unaffected performance that's right at home in such a documentary-like film. While Arquette somewhat fades into the background toward the picture's home stretch, she's a paramount presence in the film's first half, especially during Olivia's hazardous marriage to her professor.

One of the all-time great Supporting Actress Oscar winners? Hardly. In a less barren year, I would ideally throw all five of these performances overboard. Alas, given the circumstances, the Academy got this one right.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jessica Lange, Frances
  2. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
  3. Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
  4. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
  5. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
  6. Meryl Streep, Silkwood
  7. Jane Alexander, Testament
  8. Sally Kirkland, Anna
  9. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  10. Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
  11. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
  12. Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
  13. Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist
  14. Cher, Moonstruck
  15. Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
  16. Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
  17. Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
  18. Kathy Bates, Misery
  19. Anjelica Huston, The Grifters
  20. Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair
  21. Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
  22. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
  23. Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie
  24. Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
  25. Sharon Stone, Casino
  26. Melissa Leo, Frozen River
  27. Viola Davis, The Help
  28. Diane Keaton, Reds
  29. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  30. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  31. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  32. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
  33. Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
  34. Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
  35. Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
  36. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  37. Helen Mirren, The Queen
  38. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
  39. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  40. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
  41. Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
  42. Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
  43. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
  44. Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  45. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  46. Judi Dench, Philomena
  47. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  48. Meryl Streep, Adaptation
  49. Penelope Cruz, Volver
  50. Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
  51. Meryl Streep, Doubt
  52. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
  53. Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
  54. Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
  55. Meryl Streep, One True Thing
  56. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  57. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  58. Helen Mirren, The Last Station
  59. Annette Bening, American Beauty
  60. Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
  61. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  62. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  63. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  64. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  65. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  66. Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
  67. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
  68. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
  69. Julianne Moore, The Hours
  70. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  71. Laura Dern, Wild
  72. Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
  73. Angelina Jolie, Changeling
  74. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
  75. Kate Winslet, Little Children
  76. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  77. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  78. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  79. Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
  80. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  81. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  82. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  83. Carey Mulligan, An Education
  84. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
  85. Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
  86. Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
  87. Kate Winslet, The Reader
  88. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  89. Queen Latifah, Chicago
  90. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  91. Emma Stone, Birdman
  92. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
  93. Amy Adams, American Hustle
  94. Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
  95. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love