The Oscar 100: #95-91

This post marks Part 2 of the 20-part series The Oscar 100. Join me as I reflect on the 100 greatest Oscar-nominated performances and what made them so richly deserving of recognition.

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95. Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

His competition...

Warren Beatty, Heaven Can Wait
Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter
Laurence Olivier, The Boys from Brazil
Jon Voight, Coming Home (WINNER)

Busey portrays Buddy Holly, a Texas teenager who, alongside pals Jesse (Don Stroud) and Ray Bob (Charles Martin Smith), forms the rock 'n roll group the Crickets. Their big break comes with an invitation to record in Nashville but Buddy quickly finds himself at odds with music producers who are slow to embrace Buddy's inventive sound. The following years find Buddy fall in love and the Crickets' tunes win over the nation but, with Buddy the runaway star of the group, Jesse and Ray Bob, both overshadowed, bolt from the band. This performance marked Busey's first (and only) Oscar nomination.

Yes, in my humble opinion, Gary Busey - indeed, the Gary Busey - delivers the 95th finest performance recognized at the Oscars. Long before devouring scenery with supporting turns as villains in box office hits Lethal Weapon and Under Siege, which was later followed by more D-list fame as a reality TV star, Busey turned in this truly extraordinary performance as the legendary Buddy Holly.

Heck, it really doesn't feel like a performance - Busey is Buddy Holly, through and through. He's so convincing from the get-go, the picture quickly takes on a more documentary-like than biopic feel and the musical numbers more recall concert footage than scripted cinema. What makes the portrayal all the more stunning is Busey's decision to sing all of Holly's arrangements himself and, to boot, not recorded but live. Whether it's on "That'll Be the Day" or "It's So Easy," Busey completely does Holly justice.

At just under two hours and, with a healthy chunk of the picture comprised of music, The Buddy Holly Story feels a tad fleeting and incomplete. We do get a glimpse into Holly's personal life and his marriage to Maria Santiago (endearingly portrayed in the film by Maria Richwine) but those yearning to really dig into the musician's life may find the proceedings a little lacking.

That said, the picture remains an absolute must-see for Busey's electrifying performance alone. He never had a prayer against Voight, who more or less steamrolled that awards season - frankly, he may have ended up placing dead last in the end. In hindsight, however, I think it's actually a far superior turn to the Oscar-winning one and a performance that surely deserves to be rediscovered.

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94. James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

His competition...

Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives (WINNER)
Laurence Olivier, Henry V
Larry Parks, The Jolson Story
Gregory Peck, The Yearling

Stewart portrays George Bailey, the Bedford Falls native who, on Christmas Eve, is despondent and suicidal, his business on the verge of going under and convinced he will be held legally responsible for its woes. Brought to earth to save George is Clarence (Henry Travers), an angel who will show George what the world would have been like had he never been born. This performance marked Stewart's third Oscar nomination.

Stewart may have take home the Oscar for his blissful comic turn in George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story but it's really his performance in Frank Capra's timeless Christmas classic that marks a career-best (with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Anatomy of a Murder not far behind). 

When It's a Wonderful Life hit theaters in late 1946, the picture earned mixed reviews and hardly set the box office on fire - in the end, it ranked 26th of the year, earning less than a third of the gross the Best Picture-winning The Best Years of Our Lives raked in. Marketed as a light romantic vehicle for Stewart and leading lady Donna Reed, audiences were surprised to instead find an often dark and sorrowful film, one not without comedy but a whole lot more complex than amiable holiday fluff. 

What's so marvelous about the film as a vehicle for Stewart is how it so splendidly shows off the star's range as an actor. He has the chance to do some adorable slapstick comedy alongside Reed; convincingly play drunk (not terribly commonplace in this era of film in general, let alone in a Christmas fantasy); break our hearts (like when he goes to visit his mother in the George-less universe); and, of course, with the finale, tug at the heartstrings in the way only a Capra film can.

The Academy, I think, ultimately got this category right (so, spoiler alert: Fredric March is on the horizon). That said, Stewart of course would've been richly deserving of the trophy too. It's an extraordinary effort from one of the all-time great stars of the silver screen...which had the misfortune of facing another top turn from one of the more underrated actors of the Golden Age.

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93. John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980)

His competition...

Robert De Niro, Raging Bull (WINNER)
Robert Duvall, The Great Santini
Jack Lemmon, Tribute
Peter O'Toole, The Stunt Man

Hurt portrays John Merrick, who, left disfigured by a congenital disorder, makes his living as the "Elephant Man" in a circus sideshow. He is discovered by the kind Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins), who brings Merrick into his home and comes to realize that, beneath the jarring exterior, is an intelligent and articulate man. Soon, he becomes the toast of London's upper class, mingling with celebrities like actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft). His old employer, Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), is none too thrilled with this development. This performance marked Hurt's second and final Oscar nomination.

Oh, how I miss this extraordinary actor. Doused in Christopher Tucker's makeup, which would surely leave lesser performers lost, Hurt delivers a vivid and ultimately devastating performance - this is no creature from a Universal monster movie, even if, with John Morris' haunting score and Freddie Francis' gorgeous black and white photography, it sure has the look and feel of one.

Though only his second feature film (following the even more idiosyncratic Eraserhead), this is career-best work from David Lynch, a production which while inspired and unusual, also has the feel of grand Oscar contender (sadly, it would go 0-for-8 on the big night).

The picture's best and most affecting scene has the rescued Merrick joining Dr. and Mrs. Treves for tea in their lavish Victorian home. Being a mannerly gentleman of English high society seems to come so naturally for him. He marvels at the Treves' family photos before showing his hosts a picture of his own mother and, on the most heartbreaking of notes, admits that, while he tried his best, he believes he was a great disappointment to her.

Hopkins, in a role country miles away from Hannibal Lecter, and Bancroft, a delight as this 19th century actress (husband Mel Brooks was a producer on the film too), are memorable but even these distinguished, typically scene-stealing thespians cannot compete with the force of nature that is their leading man.

Remarkably, even with this effusive praise, Hurt would not have been my selection in this category, which was dominated by De Niro (who also isn't my favorite) that awards season. Even so, in terms of a sheer gut-puncher of a performance, one that never fails to leave me wrecked on every viewing, there aren't many turns that rival Hurt's.

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92. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Her competition...

Jodie Foster, The Accused (WINNER)
Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist

Close portrays Marquise de Merteuil, the cool and conniving master manipulator who challengers former lover Valmont (John Malkovich) to seduce the virginal Cecile (Uma Thurman). Valmont has a bold counter-challenge - he bets he can instead bed the moral and married Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). While Valmont is overcome by contrition during this quest, however, the Marquise becomes all the more fierce. This performance marked Close's fifth Oscar nomination.

What a travesty Close found herself 0-for-5 at the close of the 1988 Oscars, falling short to Foster for what amounted to a middling Lifetime TV movie. For years, I have actually see-sawed between Close and Weaver (who is also fabulous) for the win here but recent viewings of Dangerous Liaisons have drawn me closer to the former.

Oddly enough, the Stephen Frears picture itself doesn't leave me all that hot and bothered. Sure, it's sumptuously designed and richly deserved those Art Direction and Costume Design Oscars but other performances are either flat (Thurman and Keanu Reeves) or overwrought (Malkovich, playing to the last row of the balcony) and much of the proceedings don't really resonate on an emotional level. Still, its leading lady stuns every time - it's career-best work, if you're not counting her even more stirring stage efforts.

Close has a field day in this magnificently wicked and self-absorbed role. When she graces the screen, she owns it and leaves everyone and everything around her in the dust.

While her Marquise displays the coolest of self-confidence, there is also an intense sense of sadness and loneliness all along. She never seems the least bit happy, constantly checking herself out in the mirror to ensure her graceful exterior masks the insecurities deep down plaguing her. When she removes all of her makeup, the Marquise looks like a lifeless shell of her former self. In essence, Close delivers a performance of a woman always putting on a performance.

Close hits all of the right notes here - it's a portrayal that would work pitch-perfectly on both the stage and screen, a true master class in acting from one of the finest film stars of the past half-century.

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91. Maureen Stapleton in Interiors (1978)

Her competition...

Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
Penelope Milford, Coming Home
Maggie Smith, California Suite (WINNER)
Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter

Stapleton portrays Pearl, an effervescent firecracker whose introduction rattles the family of husband-to-be Arthur (E.G. Marshall). Arthur's children are still reeling from his separation from depressed matriarch Eve (Geraldine Page), who recently attempted suicide, and are hardly keen on future step-mama Pearl. This performance marked Stapleton's third Oscar nomination.

Stapleton may have (at last!) scored her Oscar for Warren Beatty's dizzying Reds but it's her comparably scene-stealing work in this Woody Allen picture that marks a career high. The first of four Allen-directed performances that shall grace this list, Stapleton enters the solemn Interiors like a tornado, lifting an already powerful family drama into something truly stimulating and exceptional. 

Vis a vis Page's desolate (albeit also brilliant) turn as the dejected wife, Stapleton is the polar opposite, a vibrant and appealing (and happy) woman. She always brings her A-game, whether it's an Interiors-level tour de force or a middling comedy, but Stapleton has rarely been in this dynamic a form. It's as if the proceedings turn from black and white into Technicolor when she enters the film. 

Stapleton's boisterous Pearl hardly rubs this family, downcast and all but sleeping through life, the right way. But while she exudes confidence, she's also clearly a sensitive woman, deeply affected by the daughters' dismissive response to her presence. Alas, in the end, it's Pearl's presence that will save this family in free fall. With another, lesser actress, Pearl could have come off as vulgar and one-note but Stapleton instills complexity and a vitality in this woman that must have even taken Allen aback.

Smith is in decent form in California Suite but she's been much better and her film, the Smith/Michael Caine scenes aside, is virtually unwatchable. (Somehow, Cannon won the Golden Globe for doing close to nothing in her film.) This totally should have been Stapleton's Oscar.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

91. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
92. Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
93. John Hurt, The Elephant Man
94. James Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life
95. Gary Busey, The Buddy Holly Story
96. Kathy Bates, Primary Colors
97. Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria
98. Rosie Perez, Fearless
99. Shelley Winters, A Place in the Sun
100. Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue Got Married

Next week - I've got one of the all-time great film narrators; a pair of heavenly turns from two supremely underrated actresses; a late career performance from a legendary star of the silver screen; and (finally!) a performance that actually won an Oscar.

 

The Oscar 100: #100-96

This post marks Part 1 of the 20-part series The Oscar 100. Join me as I reflect on the 100 greatest Oscar-nominated performances and what made them so richly deserving of recognition.

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100. Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Her competition...

Jane Fonda, The Morning After
Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God (WINNER)
Sissy Spacek, Crimes of the Heart
Sigourney Weaver, Aliens

Turner portrays Peggy Sue Bodell, a thirtysomething woman who, while attending her 25-year high school reunion, passes out, only to awaken as her teenage self in 1960. Peggy Sue had just separated from her cheating husband Charlie (Nicolas Cage) and for years regretted decisions she'd made in life, including having a baby with him while in high school. With foreknowledge to spare, Peggy Sue is able to make a number of positive changes but such is more complicated with Charlie, who again wins her over with his idiosyncratic charm. This performance marked Turner's first (and somehow only) Oscar nomination.

For Turner and director Francis Ford Coppola, 1986 marked a year to celebrate. Peggy Sue Got Married was Coppola's first successful picture since Apocalypse Now nearly a decade earlier - One from the Heart, Rumble Fish and The Cotton Club were unimpeachable flops, while The Outsiders did OK business but hardly resonated on the level of Coppola's hits from the '70s.

As for Turner, she may have been one of the hottest stars of the '80s but the Oscars, for some time at least, just wouldn't bite. She wasn't nominated for her stirring debut turn in Body Heat but it was her snubs for Romancing the Stone and Prizzi's Honor - two performances that won her Golden Globes - that really surprised. At last, Peggy Sue landed Turner that long overdue recognition and, venturing into Oscar night, many pundits pegged her as likely for the win. Alas, it would be Matlin achieving that Oscar glory and Turner inexplicably would not be nominated again, despite awards-caliber turns in the likes of The War of the Roses, Serial Mom and The Virgin Suicides.

While Peggy Sue earned mostly warm notices upon release (Siskel & Ebert were huge champions of the picture), there were a handful of critics who wrote it off as something of a Back to the Future retread. I for one actually see Peggy Sue as the superior and more compelling film, much as I enjoy the Robert Zemeckis flick too.

In Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly traveled back to the '50s, where he met his parents when they were teenagers. What I think makes Peggy Sue a more affecting endeavor is the title character being transported back and, with her adult mind intact, having the ability to inhabit her own body as a teenager. It's sweet and funny watching Marty McFly interact with his teenage parents and while there are moments like that in Peggy Sue, there are also deeply poignant, at times even devastating scenes, like when Peggy Sue gets to visit with her grandparents again.

The picture, of course, wouldn't work at all without Turner being dead-on convincing as a 17-year-old and she sure is, as are her marvelous co-stars (Cage, plus Joan Allen, Catherine Hicks and Jim Carrey, among others). Debra Winger was initially slated to portray Peggy Sue and, while I have no doubt she would've slayed as well, Turner is absolutely pitch-perfect. It's a warm and wonderful performance from an actress who surely deserved more than one measly Oscar nomination.

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99. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)

Her competition...

Katharine Hepburn, The African Queen
Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire (WINNER)
Eleanor Parker, Detective Story
Jane Wyman, The Blue Veil

Winters portrays Alice Tripp, a poor, lonely factory worker who falls head over heels for George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), her new co-worker. The two begin dating but, amidst their courtship, George becomes more enamored with glamorous socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). Complications arise from Alice's announcement that she is pregnant with George's child and insistence that he marry her - a development that will ultimately have tragic consequences. This performance marked Winters' first Oscar nomination.

I will have heaps more to say about Montgomery Clift and A Place in the Sun later in this project - it should come as scant surprise that Clift will be gracing my top 100, and in probably quite a high position. Suffice to say Clift is one of my favorite performances, Oscar-nominated or not, to ever grace the screen and A Place in the Sun is, at the very least, among my 10 favorite films of the '50s.

This entry, of course, is not about Clift but his co-star Winters who, while not quite as off-the-charts extraordinary as her leading man, is still in plenty compelling form, unforgettable as the doomed Alice Tripp.

Winters' placement in Lead is rather remarkable (though not as perplexing as Eleanor Parker's Lead push), given her modest screen time. Yet, much like say, Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, it's a performance that is constantly on your mind, even when Winters isn't on screen. Her haunting presence can even be felt in the much-celebrated scenes with Clift and Taylor, deservedly cited as among the most romantic in all of cinema, yet also made rather uneasy by Winters, her helpless and hopeless spirit always lingering in the air.

A Place in the Sun finds Winters in atypical form, both a far cry from the blonde bombshells she was famous for portraying before and from the bold and brazen (and later grandmotherly) roles she would tackle in the decades to follow. Her Alice is a fragile figure, devoid of confidence and eventually, deep down knowing that George would be a whole lot happier if their paths had never crossed. Winters' portrayal has a quiet sadness and desperation that is unlike anything she's displayed before - contrast this subtly devastating turn with her bombastic scenery-chewing in A Patch of Blue (which earned Winters her second Oscar) and you find an actress with some killer range.

Ultimately, director George Stevens and screenwriters Harry Brown and Michael Wilson give Alice Tripp about as much TLC as George Eastman does. The character isn't really fleshed out and even in her critical scenes, Stevens seems more concerned with George's reaction than Alice's plight. Still, Winters brings her A-game to every moment and is a plenty inspired choice for a role that's such a 180 from the colorful characters she became renowned for portraying.

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98. Rosie Perez in Fearless (1993)

Her competition...

Holly Hunter, The Firm
Anna Paquin, The Piano (WINNER)
Winona Ryder, The Age of Innocence
Emma Thompson, In the Name of the Father

Perez portrays Carla Rodrigo, a survivor of a catastrophic plane crash. While Carla made it out alive, her baby son did not and she blames herself for not holding on to him tightly enough as the plane went down. Anguished with guilt and grief, she meets Max (Jeff Bridges), another survivor of the crash, who has had a starkly different reaction to the experience - he now sees himself as an unstoppable, God-like figure and is determined to lift Carla out of her depression. This performance marked Perez's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.

Perez had one gangbusters streak going in the early '90s, between this, Night on Earth, White Men Can't Jump, Untamed Heart and It Could Happen to You - it's inexplicable to me that she did not continue to land rich parts worthy of her talents.

Fearless is the most poignant of these performances, a harrowing, scene-stealing turn in one of the more underrated pictures of '93. Bridges is in top form, as is Isabella Rossellini (portraying Bridges' wife), but for my money, it's Perez who walks away with the film.

Carla's pain is intensely palpable and there isn't a moment in Perez's performance that doesn't ring true. The scene in which Carla admits to Max the responsibility she feels for her son's death is devastating and I'm even more fond of another, quieter moment in the picture in which Carla and Max are at a mall and she becomes entranced by a baby there who reminds her of her own.

The '93 race in Best Supporting Actress found Ryder holding steady as front-runner, albeit a soft one, through most of the awards season. The lukewarm reception to The Age of Innocence, however, left a clear opening for an upset. Alas, despite only picking up a single precursor that year (honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, which she shared with Perez), it would be Paquin, not Perez, seizing that opening.

Paquin and Ryder are both in fine form in their respective pictures but I don't think either really holds a candle to the extraordinary work Perez turned in this year.

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97. Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria (1982)

Her competition...

Glenn Close, The World According to Garp
Teri Garr, Tootsie
Jessica Lange, Tootsie (WINNER)
Kim Stanley, Frances

Warren portrays Norma Cassidy, the deliciously ditzy girlfriend of King Marchand (James Garner), a mob-associated nightclub owner. Norma is overcome with jealously when King falls for Count Victor Grazinski (Julie Andrews), a supposed female impersonator who King isn't the least bit convinced is really a man. This performance marked Warren's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.

Victor/Victoria opens on a surprisingly tame note. Andrews and co-star Robert Preston are a pleasure to watch as the down-and-out entertainer Victoria Grant and Toddy, the cabaret performer who comes up with the ingenious idea to have his new pal put on shows as a male impersonator posing as a female impersonator, but the proceedings otherwise lack that usual vitality of the best Blake Edwards farces.

Then, Warren enters the picture and, for all too brief a time, we're in legit comedy heaven.

Warren may only grace Victor/Victoria for a mere 15 minutes but she juices all she can out of that slim screen time. It's an uproariously funny, irresistibly sexy turn that rings of vintage Carol Channing and Mae West but still feels entirely inspired and original. She aces her one big musical number (the jovial "Chicago, Illinois") and has a field day with the dialogue, able to draw big laughs through the delivery of a mere word. 

Once Warren graces the film, any scene without her cannot help but feel a little vacant. She sports a larger-than-life comic energy that is mostly missing from a picture that otherwise feels rather labored. I like Victor/Victoria but LOVE Warren's performance in it. It's a plenty more memorable turn that the winning performance in this category, albeit not quite as fetching as another '82 Supporting Actress nominee, who shall later be gracing this list.

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96. Kathy Bates in Primary Colors (1998)

Her competition...

Brenda Blethyn, Little Voice
Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love (WINNER)
Rachel Griffiths, Hilary and Jackie
Lynn Redgrave, Gods and Monsters

Bates portrays Libby Holden, longtime friend and advisor of presidential candidate Jack Stanton (John Travolta). A self-proclaimed "dust buster," Libby is hired by Jack's campaign to gather dirt that political foes may use against her old pal, a notorious womanizer. Libby proves plenty successful on that front but, when later deployed to do research on Fred Picker (Larry Hagman), Jack's opponent, she faces a moral dilemma upon uncovering sensitive information about Picker's past that would surely end his campaign. She believes it would be reprehensible to leak it to the press but Jack, desperate for victory, is inclined to use it. Their dispute results in tragedy. This performance marked Bates' second Oscar nomination.

When Bates enters Mike Nichols' sensational Primary Colors, like a tornado, she does so in unsurprising fashion. She's raunchy and hilarious and chows down on Elaine May's brilliant dialogue with gleeful vigor...but, let's face it, we've seen this Kathy Bates before. There's nothing terribly revelatory there, even if she's a vulgar delight to watch (and we do, at last, have the opportunity to hear Bates sing a bit, to Olivia Newton-John's "Please Mr. Please," no less).

At nearly the two-hour mark, however, Bates and the film take a sharp and serious turn. That her material was so outrageously funny before makes it all the more jarring and ultimately devastating when the proceedings veer toward the dramatic.

Libby goes on that opposition research mission, alongside fellow campaign worker Henry Burton (the terrific Adrian Lester), against Jack's foe and ends up uncovering that 1) Picker had a cocaine addiction that ended his first marriage and 2) Picker had sexual relations with at least one man. Libby finds the idea of leaking this info to the press - though it would surely get her friend elected - morally reprehensible but Jack and wife Susan (Emma Thompson) have scant qualms about taking advantage of it. 

This development results in the picture's most stunning and expertly acted scene, in which Libby threatens to go to the press with incriminating information on Jack if he and Susan indeed leak the Picker revelations. After decades of friendship and idealizing the Stantons, Libby at last realizes just how flawed and reckless they really are. 

Following this clash, Libby takes off with Henry and delivers a monologue that should've landed both she and May Oscars. She compares herself to the moon and the Stantons to the sun and how she's lived her entire life drawing light and warmth from them. Without their presence in it, life is nothing but bleak, cold and airless. 

After spending the bulk of Primary Colors making you laugh 'til you cry, Bates punches you right in the gut and makes you sob all over again. It's the best of her three Oscar-nominated performances (though not quite as extraordinary as her leading turn in Dolores Claiborne) and surely should've triumphed over Dench's amusing but otherwise insignificant cameo. 

Next week - I'm ditching the '90s for the '40s, '70s and '80s. We've got career-best work from two of the most dynamite actresses of the stage and screen; a heartbreaking turn from an actor we recently lost; the star of a timeless holiday classic; and Gary Busey. Yes, Gary Busey.

Beginning Next Week - The Oscar 100!

Here we go!

As I first noted last month, I will, over the coming 20 weeks, be venturing back through awards history as I reveal my selections for the 100 greatest performances ever nominated for an Oscar - let's call it the Oscar 100. I will do five performances per week, starting at #100, as I look back at what made each portrayal so richly deserving of recognition and what went down in each Oscar race.

The format of this shall go as follows... (and no worries, fellow Ellen Burstyn fans, she'll be making at least one appearance in the Oscar 100)

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101. Ellen Burstyn in Resurrection (1980)

Her competition...

Goldie Hawn, Private Benjamin
Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People
Gena Rowlands, Gloria
Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner's Daughter (WINNER)

Burstyn portrays Edna Mae McCauley, a woman who briefly experiences the afterlife following a car accident that leaves her widowed and paralyzed. Edna moves from California to Kansas to be closer to her extended family and, while in recovery, discovers she now has a supernatural power to heal. She herself quickly, fully recovers from her injuries and becomes something of a local celebrity, healing anyone who needs assistance. While most accept and even celebrate her gift, Edna's lover (Sam Shepard), an unstable and deeply religious man, sincerely believes she is the resurrection of Christ. This performance marked Burstyn's fifth Oscar nomination.

For far too long, Resurrection and Burstyn's haunting performance were exceedingly difficult to access. Rarely aired on television and scarcely distributed on DVD in 2009, Universal at last gave the picture a sufficient DVD re-release just two years ago. We should all be thankful, as Burstyn's stirring work here is to be treasured.

Working alongside two pros - director Daniel Petrie, whose Sybil and Eleanor and Franklin were two of the best TV specials of the '70s, and screenwriter Lewis John Carlino, who also had The Great Santini in 1980 - Burstyn is pitch-perfect in a remarkably challenging and idiosyncratic role. Her transformation from ordinary woman to mystical miracle worker is dead-on convincing. There's an especially stunning scene in the picture in which Edna is called upon to heal a gravely ill woman and it's a moment which, if played incorrectly, could have easily ended up unintentionally funny. As played by Burstyn, however, it's a captivating and cathartic scene in a picture full of them. She also has several memorable scenes opposite that brilliant stage actress Eva Le Gallienne, also Oscar-nominated here, in a rare screen appearance.

The picture, I'm afraid, falters a bit in the final act, with Burstyn donning a truly hideous wig and old lady makeup. It's a misstep that brings the film down from masterpiece-level but thankfully isn't enough to much detract from Burstyn's superb work.

Not that Burstyn had a prayer of prevailing this year. With Spacek steamrolling and Moore viewed as the only real threat (albeit a modest one at that), she, Hawn and Rowlands were stuck watching on the sidelines. Even so, this is a remarkable performance in a film that someday, hopefully will be rediscovered.

Next week - time to officially kick off the Oscar 100 with #100-96! I'll be starting things off with five women, two pairs from the '80s and '90s, plus a turn from perhaps my favorite film of the '50s.

Nicholson at the Oscars: 2002 ("About Schmidt")

And I thought 20 Years of Streep flew by!

As I bring this project to a close - my final 2017 "Oscar Flashback" before I focus exclusively on this year's awards season insanity - I of course want to thank my followers, both here and on Twitter, for joining me on this ride through Jack Nicholson's run at the Oscars.

Looking back on his dozen nominations and career as a whole serves as a testament to his richly deserved status as one of the finest feature film actors of the past half-century. And, I happen to think the Academy got it right - three wins, even though I'd switch out As Good As It Gets for Ironweed.

Who knows what or who I'll take on next year for an Oscar Flashback...

With that said, there is of course a 12th and final chapter to go in this project.

The 2000s, much like the 1990s and 1970s, marked a scattershot decade for Nicholson on the silver screen. Remarkably, 1997's As Good As It Gets would be Nicholson's final picture of that decade, the actor not returning to cinema until 2001's The Pledge, his second collaboration with director Sean Penn.

Like the first Nicholson-Penn picture (1995's The Crossing Guard), The Pledge was warmly received by critics but, despite one hell of an ensemble (including Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave and Robin Wright), the film didn't take off in theaters, never even cracking the box office top 10.

Then (whew) came 2002 and Nicholson's 12th Oscar nomination. The film was About Schmidt, writer/director Alexander Payne's much-awaited follow-up to his 1999 cult hit Election. With rave reviews and healthy box office receipts, the picture was a major player that awards season, also picking up an Oscar nod for co-star Kathy Bates. More, of course, on About Schmidt in a bit.

Nicholson's filmography post-About Schmidt has been a roller coaster of ups and downs.

In 2003, he scored two box office hits, one praised (Something's Gotta Give) and one panned (Anger Management). Three years later, Nicholson came roaring back into the awards season with a plump part in Martin Scorsese's Best Picture Oscar-winning The Departed. Co-star Mark Wahlberg, however, would ultimately emerge the film's sole Oscar acting nominee.

Since The Departed, Nicholson has graced the screen in two motion pictures, both maligned by critics. At least Rob Reiner's The Bucket List was a box office hit, unlike James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, which hardly resonated on the level of Terms of Endearment or As Good As It Gets or even Brooks' 1994 flop I'll Do Anything.

That said, let's not dwell on Nicholson's last couple of pictures. It's time for the hilarity and heartbreak that is 2002's About Schmidt.

The 2002 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Adrien Brody, The Pianist

Brody portrays Wladyslaw Szpilman, an acclaimed Polish Jewish pianist who fights for survival in World War II. Once a mainstay of concert halls, Szpilman now finds himself forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, separated from his beloved family. He manages to escape and spends the remainder of the war hiding out as a refugee. This performance, which won him honors from the National Society of Film Critics, marked Brody's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and win.

Nicolas Cage, Adaptation

Cage portrays Charlie Kaufman, a Los Angeles screenwriter plagued by feelings of inadequacy as he struggles to pen the screenplay for a film adaptation of Susan Orlean (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep)'s book The Orchid Thief. Hardly helping matters is overbearing twin brother Donald (also Cage), who has moved into Charlie's house with his own screenwriting aspirations. This performance marked Cage's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Michael Caine, The Quiet American

Caine portrays Thomas Fowler, a London Times reporter who in 1952 is covering the early stages of the war in Indo-China. Fowler befriends Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an American supposedly visiting Saigon as part of a medical mission, and even introduces the young man to his mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). The men's friendship is shaken by Pyle's growing infatuation with Phuong and Fowler's discovery of Pyle's actual intentions in Saigon. This performance marked Caine's sixth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York

Day-Lewis portrays William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting, a vicious New York gang leader who, toward the middle of the 19th century, vigorously fights against the waves of immigrants, namely those from Ireland, flooding into the Five Points neighborhood. His inner-circle is penetrated by Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), the son of a priest (Liam Neeson) murdered by Bill. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (tied with Nicholson) and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Screen Actors Guild Award and BAFTA Award, marked Day-Lewis' third Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt

Nicholson portrays Warren Schmidt, a lethargic insurance salesman who finds himself at a crossroads upon his retirement and the sudden death of wife Helen (June Squibb). Schmidt, unhappy with his daughter (Hope Davis)'s engagement to a dopey waterbed salesman (Dermut Mulroney), embarks on an RV road trip, determined to prevent the nuptials. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (tied with Day-Lewis) and a Golden Globe, marked Nicholson's 12th Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Kieran Culkin, Igby Goes Down; Leonardo DiCaprio, Catch Me if You Can; Tom Hanks, Road to Perdition; Greg Kinnear, Auto Focus; Edward Norton, 25th Hour; Aaron Stanford, Tadpole; Robin Williams, One Hour Photo

Won: Adrien Brody, The Pianist

Should've won: Michael Caine, The Quiet American

Woah. Could it be, for once, that the Academy completely nailed a category?

Almost. Only one contender strikes me as egregiously overlooked - Williams, chilling as "Sy the Photo Guy" in One Hour Photo. The thing is, I hesitate to boot any of the nominees here. All five are in strong form (in at least one case, career-best form) and I struggle to sort out a ranking for three of them (my #3-5). There is, however, a clear winner for me, and runner-up.

I can't fault the Academy for siding with Brody here. He was, after all, the only non-Oscar winner going into this race. He also graces, by far, the strongest film of the five - I happen to think The Pianist should've won Best Picture by a country mile.

That said, I don't find Brody a terribly compelling actor. He's spectacularly well-directed here and makes for a convincing and harrowing Szpilman but I've never once been enamored with Brody in another project. In fact, more often than not, I find him downright vapid. I see the success of this performance and picture as far more a result of Roman Polanski's exquisite grasp on the material than anything Brody on his own brought to the table. It's a commendable, clearly career-best turn by a middling actor who once, to his supreme luck, caught the eye of one of cinema's all-time great filmmakers.

Adaptation does not quite operate on the same sublime level as The Pianist. Still, it's one very sharp picture and essential to its vitality, beyond the distinct look and feel Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman give the proceedings, are the performances of Cage, Streep and Chris Cooper.

Cage, I think, actually gives the least engrossing turn of the three, which is to say he's still quite splendid (arguably, this is his last great performance before he emerged King of the Razzies) but doesn't wow in the awe-inspiring way Streep or especially Cooper do. Cage's effort, while a lot of fun, also feels a little labored vis a vis Cooper, who disappears with ease into the role of John Laroche. This isn't a Leaving Las Vegas-level performance but still a plenty memorable one.

Then, you have Day-Lewis, the best (only good?) part of a stunningly shambolic picture. He sinks his teeth into the role of Bill the Butcher like a starved barbarian, chowing down on scenery, steamrolling over all of his co-stars and somehow making something out of the dreadful Jay Cocks-Steven Zaillian-Kenneth Lonergan (if only they could've pulled an Alan Smithee) screenplay.

To lift Gangs of New York, one of the very worst Martin Scorsese films, into something worthwhile is one hell of a tall order and while I wouldn't say Day-Lewis turns the picture into a must-see, he does sport enough fortitude to hold interest over the film's near-three hour length. I do think his Bill the Butcher plays more like caricature than a convincing human being but hey, at least Day-Lewis is in there trying, injecting life into the proceedings, unlike DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, hopelessly lost at sea and miscast in their respective roles.

I would rank About Schmidt just behind Sideways and Nebraska and right alongside Election in the Payne filmography. It's a fabulous late-career vehicle for Nicholson, his best comic turn since Ironweed. As was the case in Ironweed, Nicholson sheds his trademark charisma, here convincing as a lost and spiritless man, for too long sleepwalking his way through life. He has great, laugh-out-loud scenes opposite Bates but plenty of sad and affecting moments too. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about the ending as I write this!

On more than just the rare occasion over his career, Nicholson has collaborated with a brilliant, challenging filmmaker and, for one reason or another, the project simply failed to gel. See, for instance, the late Nicholson-Rafelson pictures. About Schmidt is a testament to the movie magic that can come about when the pieces properly fall into place for the actor and the director/screenwriter. The combination of one of the greatest actors of his generation and finest filmmakers of recent years proves irresistible here.

Now, given my salivating over Nicholson, you might presume I'd be giving him the win here. Alas, there is one more performance, and it's a superior one.

Philip Noyce's The Quiet American should have been stirring enough to emerge a Best Picture contender in 2002. His direction of the film is steady and absorbing and the Christopher Hampton adaptation of Graham Greene's novel is for sure more compelling than Joseph L. Mankiewicz's script for his misguided 1958 picture. The film is handsomely designed and, as I'll soon mention, Caine has rarely been better. There is one problem, though, and it's a near-fatal one - Fraser, much as I've adored him in lighter fare, is woefully miscast as Pyle, so much so he winds up somewhat serving as an anchor to an otherwise sensational effort.

Thankfully, Fraser is not vapid enough to detract from Caine's mesmerizing work here. This is my second-favorite of his Oscar-nominated turns, just behind Hannah and Her Sisters (one of my all-time favorite performances period). Caine exquisitely captures a man replete with heartache, a sad and detached figure who does not realize how in love he is until he's on the verge of losing his partner. He says so much with a simple, nuanced glance. It's a beautifully unaffected, soulful performance, one of the actor's last (alongside Youth) truly great leading turns on the silver screen.

All 60 Oscar-nominated performances ranked!

  1. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  2. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  3. George C. Scott, Patton
  4. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  5. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  6. Al Pacino, Serpico
  7. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  8. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  9. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  10. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  11. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  12. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  13. James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!
  14. James Coco, Only When I Laugh
  15. Peter Fonda, Ulee's Gold
  16. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  17. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  18. James Garner, Murphy's Romance
  19. Jack Nicholson, Ironweed
  20. Robert Duvall, The Apostle
  21. Michael Caine, The Quiet American
  22. Gene Hackman, Unforgiven
  23. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  24. John Gielgud, Arthur
  25. Harrison Ford, Witness
  26. Marcello Mastroianni, Dark Eyes
  27. Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
  28. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  29. Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor
  30. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  31. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  32. Michael Douglas, Wall Street
  33. Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York
  34. Nicolas Cage, Adaptation
  35. Adrien Brody, The Pianist
  36. Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
  37. David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night
  38. Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game
  39. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  40. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  41. Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam
  42. Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting
  43. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  44. Dustin Hoffman, Wag the Dog
  45. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  46. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  47. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  48. William Hurt, Broadcast News
  49. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  50. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  51. Robert Redford, The Sting
  52. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  53. Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross
  54. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  55. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  56. Jon Voight, Runaway Train
  57. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  58. Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men
  59. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  60. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth