In her first eight appearances on the silver screen, Meryl Streep portrayed a diverse host of characters, all fictional. In 1983, Streep at last took on a real-life role, that of the plutonium technician-turned-nuclear safety whistleblower Karen Silkwood in Silkwood. The project marked Streep's first of four career collaborations with filmmaker Mike Nichols and first of three efforts alongside screenwriter Nora Ephron. (The gang would get back together three years later for Heartburn, which gave all three talents a lot of heartburn.)
No one had more riding on the success of Silkwood than the picture's director. After a string of acclaimed box office hits in the late '60s, into the early '70s, including Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate (which won him the Best Director Oscar) and Carnal Knowledge, Nichols stumbled with two misfires - The Day of the Dolphin and The Fortune. He left Hollywood for Broadway, where at this point in his career he'd already racked up five Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Play. He produced and directed several productions, winning a Tony for producing Annie and netting two more direction nods, for Comedians and The Gin Game.
Sans his direction of the stage-to-stage production Gilda Live, however, Nichols did not direct any feature film between 1975 and 1983, the year of Silkwood's release. Thankfully for the filmmaker, Silkwood not only garnered critical acclaim but solid box office receipts to boot, knocking Terms of Endearment from the top slot after that film spent four consecutive weeks as the highest grosser. Terms would, however, soon get its revenge on Oscar night...
The 1983 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...
Jane Alexander, Testament
Alexander portrays Carol Wetherly, a wife and mother whose quiet suburban existence is irreversibly shattered by the onslaught of nuclear war. Cities across the United States, including nearby San Francisco, are hit, and while residents try to proceed with business as usual for some time, it is not long before many, particularly children and the elderly, fall gravely ill. Carol guides her family and other stranded survivors toward a future with no light at the end of the tunnel. This performance marked Alexander's fourth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.
Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
MacLaine portrays Aurora Greenway, the brash but loving mother of Emma (Debra Winger). Aurora's relationship with her daughter has its share of tumultuous moments, especially on the heels of Emma's marriage to Flap (Jeff Daniels), a man Aurora isn't terribly fond of. Aurora also finds love, becoming romantically involved with the charming former astronaut (Jack Nicholson, in an Oscar-winning turn) who for years has lived next door without much interaction. This performance, which also won MacLaine a Golden Globe and Best Lead Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review and New York Film Critics Circle, marked her sixth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and first victory.
Meryl Streep, Silkwood
Streep portrays Karen Silkwood, a nuclear facility technician who lives alongside boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell) and friend and co-worker Dolly (Oscar-nominee Cher). A union activist with concerns about nuclear plant safety practices, Karen believes her employers are placing her and fellow personnel at risk of radiation contamination. With union officials of negligible help, Karen investigates on her own and comes across evidence that could bring down the nuclear site but also place her at great risk. This performance marked Streep's fifth Oscar nomination.
Julie Walters, Educating Rita
Walters portrays Rita, a twentysomething hair dresser, with a dud of a husband, who decides to go back to school before having children. She studies with Dr. Bryant (Michael Caine), an alcoholic professor of literature who lost passion for teaching long ago but is completely won over by Rita's enthusiasm. Before long, Rita sees Dr. Bryant as her hero and he sees her as the apple of his eye. This performance, which won Walters a BAFTA Award and Golden Globe, marked Walters' first Oscar nomination.
Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
Winger portrays Emma Greenway Horton, daughter of the strong-willed Aurora (MacLaine) and wife of the mild-mannered Flap (Daniels). Emma has roller coaster rides of relationships with both. Her marriage sours on account of Flap's cheating, which leads to Emma briefly taking on a lover (John Lithgow, somehow Oscar-nominated) of her own. Tragedy strikes when Emma is diagnosed with terminal cancer, a development that draws her closer than ever to Aurora and Flap. This performance, which won Best Lead Actress honors from the National Society of Film Critics, marked Winger's second Oscar nomination.
Overlooked: Anne Bancroft, To Be or Not to Be; Louise Fletcher, Brainstorm; Mariel Hemingway, Star 80; Dee Wallace, Cujo
Won and should've won: Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
1983 was a rough awards season, even though I'm ultimately fond of most of the year's Oscar-winners. This was a season in which garbage (albeit nicely scored garbage) like Flashdance was garnering recognition left and right and middling performances like Tom Conti in Reuben, Reuben; Charles Durning in To Be or Not to Be; and (the also Razzie-nominated) Amy Irving in Yentl scored Oscar nominations. That and, much as I love John Lithgow, his Oscar nod for seven minutes of screen time in Terms of Endearment is the epitome of riding a picture's coattails.
Best Lead Actress, thankfully, was a mostly splendid affair in '83, nearly on-par overall with the leading ladies from the year prior, even if none of the turns is quite on the level of a Lange in Frances or Streep in Sophie's Choice.
Even the weakest of the five, Julie Walters, is still a plenty commendable performance, though I would've much preferred seeing Louise Fletcher (brilliant in the strange and completely fascinating Brainstorm) or Mariel Hemingway (all too convincing playing out the tragic life of the late Dorothy Stratten in Bob Fosse's terrifying Star 80) in her slot.
I think Walters is a fabulous actress - I probably would've voted for her in Best Supporting Actress for Billy Elliot nearly two decades down the line - but I'm just not fond of Educating Rita at all. The film, based on the 1980 stage play (which was a two-person show, in contrast to the film, which is packed with supporting players who feel entirely unnecessary) has a stagebound, claustrophobic feel and it reminds me all too much of another piece I'm not fond of - My Fair Lady. Also, even if it's not among his best career turns, I think Caine is more compelling than Walters here. So, while I'm delighted the success of Educating Rita opened up heaps of career opportunities for Walters, I'm not so enamored with this nomination.
Beyond Walters, though, this is a pretty dynamite line-up.
Oscar nomination number two for Debra Winger was a nice step-up from the doldrums of LOVE LIFT US UP WHERE WE BELONG. I adore Terms of Endearment and am committed to defending its victory over The Right Stuff (just like I'll go to bat for Kramer vs. Kramer over Apocalypse Now and Ordinary People over Raging Bull). I guess I'm just a sucker for an all-star family drama, especially from this era.
Winger has plenty of remarkable moments in Terms, most of them in the second half. The big 'holy shit' scene is of course Emma's final conversation with Teddy and Tommy in the hospital (I get a lump in my throat just writing about it). Winger plays it pitch-perfectly there, as does she in the devastating last scene with MacLaine - her facial expressions say everything. And she has several great moments earlier in the film with both Daniels and Lithgow too. That being said, I do tend to prefer the MacLaine/Nicholson stuff in Terms, not because those scenes don't drive me to the tissue box but because I frankly think, for the most part, they're a bit better-written and directed.
When it comes to restrained acting, Winger is on-point but she still hasn't a thing on the Queen of Nuance, that quiet scene-stealer Jane Alexander. If you found her Oscar-nominated Supporting work in All the President's Men and Kramer vs. Kramer riveting, just wait 'til you discover (presuming you haven't already seen the film) her Lead turn in Testament.
'83 was THE year for nuclear war cinema. There were two much-buzzed-about, Emmy-winning television specials - The Day After and Special Bulletin - and then a big screen feature, Testament. None of the three hold up terribly well, I'm afraid, but I do think the most compelling and moving of the films is Testament, even if it too largely has the look and feel of a humdrum '80s 'Movie of the Week.'
Unlike those two aforementioned TV projects, Testament has a performer willing to take on considerable heavy-lifting. Indeed, Alexander is essentially the only reason to seek out the picture but, for her turn alone, Testament becomes something of a must-see. What's so powerful and ultimately overwhelming about Alexander's performance is the sense of just how deep Carol goes in suppressing her emotions - that is, her commitment to remaining cool while the world around her is literally exploding. There comes a point when Carol at last loses it (a rare obvious 'Oscar scene' from Alexander) and the moment is equal parts heartbreaking and cathartic. There was a time when I actually thought of Alexander as my favorite of this category (I love the idea of her having an Oscar) but, in revisiting the line-up, I think Testament is just too vastly inferior to Terms and Silkwood for me to go that distance. I love Alexander here but the film is a middling ball and chain constantly tugging at her.
Decidedly not middling is Silkwood, one of my very favorite Mike Nichols pictures and, in a close call with When Harry Met Sally..., probably the best Nora Ephron script too (she co-wrote with Alice Arlen). Cher is phenomenal in her breakout big screen appearance and Kurt Russell doesn't get nearly enough credit for his fine work - he certainly should've garnered an Oscar nod over the likes of Charles Durning and John Lithgow.
Streep is, of course, splendid as well. The performance and film, for obvious reasons, remind me a lot of Norma Rae, though I think the Nichols picture is ultimately even more infuriating and engrossing (I tend to think Sally Field carried most of that film on her shoulders). Like watching a superhero flick, the audience is cheering and on the edge of their seats for Karen from start and finish and Streep is convincing throughout. Even though I'm not picking her for the win, this has to be among the five or so best Streep turns recognized by the Academy.
I do, however, think the Academy got this one right - the first time I'm agreeing with them on a Streep category.
Some, I know, tend to view the MacLaine victory as something of a career win, which makes sense, given how absurdly overdue she was at the time. She should have totally triumphed in 1960 for The Apartment, as opposed to Elizabeth Taylor's eyebrow-raising sympathy victory for the dreadful BUtterfield 8. To write it off as a mere "she was just due" win, however, I don't think is quite fair, given how absolutely fabulous she is in Terms.
MacLaine's scenes with Nicholson are a delightful hoot - you can tell how much of a ball these two had finally working together. Her performance really comes to life, however, in the film's second half, with the onset of Emma's illness. The "give my daughter the shot" moment is of course legendary but I'm even more taken with Aurora knocking some sense into Tommy outside the hospital; her lunch with Flap; and Aurora's final moments with her daughter. The turn is a masterful blend of hilarity and heartbreak and I don't think MacLaine has come the least bit close to topping it since.
Like Lange vs. Streep the year before, it's downright agonizing to have to choose among MacLaine, Streep and Alexander, and with Winger not terribly far behind. I've gone from once preferring Alexander to now thinking the Academy got MacLaine right...maybe in another five years I'll be siding with Streep?
The performances ranked (thus far)...
- Jessica Lange, Frances
- Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
- Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
- Meryl Streep, Silkwood
- Jane Alexander, Testament
- Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
- Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
- Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
- Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
- Diane Keaton, Reds
- Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
- Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
- Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
- Sissy Spacek, Missing
- Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
- Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
- Julie Walters, Educating Rita
- Candice Bergen, Starting Over
- Maggie Smith, California Suite
- Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
- Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
- Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
- Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
- Penelope Milford, Coming Home
- Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away