Prior to 1978, Meryl Streep was not exactly a household name. Her sole big screen appearance was a small, albeit memorable turn opposite Jane Fonda in 1977's Oscar-winning Julia. At the time, Streep was best-known for her acclaimed New York stage work. She made five Broadway appearances between 1975 and 1977 alone, including a 1976 turn in A Memory of Two Mondays/27 Wagons Full of Cotton that brought Streep her first - and to date, only - Tony Award nomination.
Streep's name recognition spiked in a huge way in 1978. First, there was a much-heralded performance in the epic NBC miniseries Holocaust that resulted in a Best Lead Actress Primetime Emmy Award. It was her second-ever appearance in a feature film, however - and in a Best Picture winner, no less - that really put Streep on the map and awarded her with the first of her 20 (so far) Oscar nominations.
The 1978 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actress were...
Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
Cannon portrays Julia Farnsworth, a scheming shrew of a wife who is flabbergasted when her uber-wealthy husband - who she thought she'd drowned to death - suddenly re-appears. Cannon won the Golden Globe for this performance, which marked her third (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.
Penelope Milford, Coming Home
Milford portrays Viola "Vi" Munson, a free-spirited party girl who befriends Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda, in an Oscar-winning turn) when their respective partners are shipped off to Vietnam. Vi and Sally both work at the local military hospital, where the former spends much of her time bonding with brother Bill (Robert Carradine), who was discharged from service after mere weeks abroad for mental health reasons. This performance marked Milford's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.
Maggie Smith, California Suite
Smith portrays Diana Barrie, a washed-up British actress who is at last nominated for an Academy Award in Best Lead Actress. She is convinced a victory will lead to a revival in her career but supremely skeptical she can actually win. Barrie rides a roller coaster of emotions, alongside husband Sidney (Michael Caine), in the lead-up to and aftermath of the big ceremony. Smith won the Golden Globe (in Lead Actress, tied with Ellen Burstyn for Same Time, Next Year) for this performance, which marked her fourth Oscar nomination and second victory.
Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
Stapleton portrays Pearl, an effervescent firecracker of a woman whose presence rattles the family of husband-to-be Arthur (E.G. Marshall) upon her introduction. Arthur's children are still reeling from his separation from depressed matriarch Eve (Geraldine Page), not to mention a suicide attempt by their mother, and are hardly keen on future step-mama Pearl. Stapleton scored honors from the Los Angles Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Association for this performance, which marked her third Oscar nomination.
Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
Streep portrays Linda, fiancee of Nick (Oscar-winner Christopher Walken) but the apple of Mike (Robert De Niro)'s eye. With Nick AWOL in Vietnam, Mike returns home to their small, working-class town in Pennsylvania, where he grows close to Linda, both of them distraught over their beloved missing friend. Streep garnered honors from the National Society of Film Critics for this performance, which marked her very first Oscar nomination.
Overlooked: Kelly Bishop, An Unmarried Woman; Stockard Channing, Grease; Bette Davis, Death on the Nile; Mary Beth Hurt, Interiors; Angela Lansbury, Death on the Nile; Mona Washbourne, Stevie.
Won: Maggie Smith, California Suite
Should've won: Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
1978 marked one hell of a year at the Oscars, especially in the acting categories. Just look at Best Lead Actress, for instance:
Ingrid Bergman, Autumn Sonata
Ellen Burstyn, Same Time, Next Year
Jill Clayburgh, An Unmarried Woman
Jane Fonda, Coming Home
Geraldine Page, Interiors
Yowsa. All of them legit could've been Oscar-winning turns in the right year. Ditto losers Bruce Dern (Coming Home), Robert De Niro (The Deer Hunter) and yes, the stunningly great Gary Busey (The Buddy Holly Story). Best Supporting Actress was pretty exceptional too. While it's easy to see why Smith prevailed - she is, after all, playing basically the most Oscar-baity role possible - at least two of the other performances could have totally prevailed in a different cycle.
First, the two weakest links here - Cannon and Milford - are still fine, commendable performances. They're just not among the more memorable parts of their respective films at all.
Cannon's Julia is hardly a presence in Heaven Can Wait - it's a far less meaty turn that her first Oscar-nominated performance, in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which one could probably an argument she should've won for (even if I personally prefer Catherine Burns in Last Summer). Cannon does have great comic timing and looks phenomenal in the film but the screen time isn't quite there to warrant any sort of awards recognition, I don't think. She also has the misfortune of being paired with Charles Grodin, who is downright insufferable in the film.
Likewise, Milford, while convincing and a nice screen presence, is clearly, far and away, the least compelling of the central foursome in Coming Home. Moreover, Carradine, as Vi's brother, actually leaves a bit more of an impression, and with significantly less screen time. Milford is a classic case, ala Talia Shire in The Godfather Part II and Kathleen Quinlan in Apollo 13, of a very modest performance riding her film's momentum to an Oscar nod. Go watch Channing in Grease or Washbourne in Stevie and try to tell me Milford was more deserving.
The other three performances are all really fantastic. I just wish Smith's was featured in a more watchable film.
California Suite, while a box office hit at a time and even (somehow) an Oscar nominee in Best Adapted Screenplay, is an absolutely terrible film. If you've never seen it before, the film follows four pairs of guests who are visiting Los Angeles from New York (Jane Fonda and Alan Alda), Chicago (Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby), Philadelphia (Elaine May and Walter Matthau) and London (Smith and Caine). The scenes featuring the Chicago and Philadelphia duos are unwatchable - what the hell were director Herbert Ross and writer Neil Simon thinking? The Fonda/Alda parts are pretty sluggish, too.
To be fair, the stuff involving Smith and Caine is interesting but boy, it's tough to fully appreciate it when three-fourths of the film they're in is so dreadful. And honestly, I'm not sure their scenes are amazing enough to make California Suite worth a look, beyond to Oscar completists. It's a shame Ross and Simon didn't opt to scrap the rest of the film and just shoot an entire picture around the Brits. If not for the Oscar element, I'm not convinced Smith would've won this.
As for the remaining two, I love both The Deer Hunter and Interiors and adore Streep and Stapleton in them. Why I lean ever-so-slightly toward Stapleton is she legit blows the roof off the joint upon her entry into the Woody Allen picture - without her presence, Interiors is a solid family drama, much like Allen's September, which dropped about a decade later. With Stapleton in the mix, however, it becomes something truly extraordinary - she enters the film like a tornado and does some career-best work here, frankly more exhilarating a turn that her Oscar-winning one for Reds a few years later.
Streep is marvelous too but doesn't walk away with her scenes like Stapleton does. She has several enormously moving, heartbreaking moments in The Deer Hunter, especially in the film's final third, but never takes over her scenes alongside Walken and De Niro, both at the very tops of their game. It's a lovely and lived-in performance and, in another year, I could probably see awarding her the win on her first nomination.
Alas, the combo of Stapleton and Allen is too much for me to resist.