In 1978, Meryl Streep, already renowned for her work on the New York stage, grabbed the attention of moviegoers across the country with her Oscar-nominated turn in the Best Picture-winning The Deer Hunter. That year, however, would prove a nothingburger in comparison to what was on the horizon in 1979.
Streep was about to work with three of the decade's hottest directors - Woody Allen (in Oscar heaven after Annie Hall and Interiors), Robert Benton (whose The Late Show killed with critics in 1977) and (Jerry Schatzberg, underappreciated even after brilliant efforts like The Panic in Needle Park and Scarecrow).
The resulting trio of Manhattan, Kramer vs. Kramer and The Seduction of Joe Tynan would wow the pants off critics, audiences and, of course, members of the Academy.
The 1979 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actress were...
Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
Alexander portrays Margaret Phelps, neighbor and close friend of Ted and Joanna Kramer (Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep). Margaret encouraged the unhappy Joanna to leave Ted but, a single parent herself, grows quite close to Ted when Joanna indeed leaves her husband and son Billy (Justin Henry). This performance marked Alexander's third Oscar nomination.
Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
Barrie portrays Evelyn Stoller, mom of Dave (Dennis Christopher), the film's protagonist. While father Ray (Paul Dooley) is bewildered by Dave's infatuation with Italian cyclists and their culture, Evelyn proves a bit more supportive. This performance marked Barrie's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.
Candice Bergen, Starting Over
Bergen portrays Jessica Potter, a negligibly talented wannabe-singer/songwriter, recently divorced from Phil (Burt Reynolds), who discovered she's been having an affair. Phil relocates from New York to Boston and strikes up a new romance with schoolteacher Marilyn (Jill Clayburgh) but complications arise when Jessica resurfaces, looking "better than ever" (as the film's Marvin Hamlisch-composed original song goes) and an inexplicable success in the music industry. This performance marked Bergen's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.
Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
Hemingway portrays Tracy, who, at 17 years old, is enamored with her 42-year-old boyfriend Issac (Woody Allen), a uber-neurotic New York TV comedy writer. Issac spends most of their time together trying to break up with Tracy and strongly encourages her to go off to London on a scholarship. When he at last succeeds in driving her away, Tracy is devastated but it isn't long before Issac, who moves on to the erratic Mary (Diane Keaton), begins to have second thoughts. This performance marked Hemingway's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.
Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
Streep portrays Joanna Kramer, a deeply unhappy wife and mother who finally decides to leave her husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and son Billy (Justin Henry). More than a year later, Joanna resurfaces in their lives and wages a contentious custody battle with Ted over their son. Streep won the Golden Globe, plus honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle for this performance, which marked her secondOscar nomination and first win.
Overlooked: Veronica Cartwright, Alien; Colleen Dewhurst, When a Stranger Calls; Valerie Harper, Chapter Two; Carol Kane, When a Stranger Calls; Ann Reinking, All That Jazz
Won: Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
Should've won: Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
I, no doubt, will get a ton of shit for this one.
Much like in the year prior, this Best Supporting Actress line-up is a strong affair overall, though I think there's a clear Tier 1 and Tier 2. If only Cartwright and Kane were here!
Bringing up the rear this time around are Barrie and Bergen, both fabulous actress (how awesome it is that Bergen has an Oscar nom under her belt, on top of the gargantuan Emmy love?) but neither mind-blowingly amazing in their turns here.
Barrie, like Penelope Milford in 1978, was clearly riding her film's coattails here. Breaking Away is a marvelous coming-of-age film, sadly kind of forgotten even with the Best Picture nod, but it's Dooley's funny performance, not Barrie's, that leaves a greater impression. She does have some nice moments and I'm always fond of the parents in this genre (think of all the Emmy nominations Alley Mills was robbed of for The Wonder Years) but Evelyn is an underwritten character and Barrie spends most of her scenes relegated to the background.
A bit more notable, though still saddled with a rather ho-hum character, is Bergen. She looks flat-out fantastic in Starting Over, a dead-ringer for Lauren Bacall, and has dynamite chemistry with Reynolds (in possibly his finest leading man turn ever) but the role is too often a distraction from the heart and soul and reason to sit through the film in the first place, that being the romance that blossoms between Reynolds and Clayburgh. Bergen has one side-splittingly funny scene in which she tries to seduce her ex with a godawful disco track but still, it's the third-best performance in a picture that's largely carried on the shoulders of its two leads.
Beyond Barrie and Bergen, the line-up sports a lot more to write home about and it especially excites me as Kramer vs. Kramer and Manhattan are among my all-time favorite films.
Alexander's Margaret, much like Barrie's Evelyn and Bergen's Jessica, isn't the most fleshed-out of characters. This is an actress, however, with a history of making a lot out of a little - just look at her Oscar-nominated turn in All the President's Men a few years prior, for instance, in which Alexander, with about five minutes of screen time and no Beatrice Straight-level material to really work with, nonetheless managed to deliver a haunting performance that lingered through the rest of that picture.
In Kramer vs. Kramer, Alexander, unlike Streep, is not provided half a dozen or more scenes that automatically scream "Oscahhhhhhhh!" on paper. Instead, the actress makes the most out of her quieter moments opposite Hoffman. It's a warm, lived-in performance and Alexander's screen presence is always a welcome one in the film, even with Hoffman and Streep dominating. She does get one kinda-sorta "Oscar scene" toward the film's end when Margaret, who counseled Streep's Joanna to leave Hoffman's Ted in the first place, pleads with Joanna to see what a great single dad Ted's turned out to be. It's a wonderful moment in a film full of them.
Alas, much as I love Alexander, this race is very much a two-contender affair for me, and I suppose poses something of a "head vs. heart" dilemma.
It's a no-brainer how and why Streep prevailed in 1979. Not only was she the hot up-and-comer, already beloved by critics and audiences alike, but Streep had three terrific performances this year. I would argue, in fact, that her turn in The Seduction of Joe Tynan - in which she portrays a brilliant attorney who starts hooking up with a married U.S. senator (Alan Alda) - is even more compelling than her Oscar-winning one in Kramer vs. Kramer (which is no jab at that performance, a superb one too). Streep steamrolled her way through the precursors this season, her competition picking up nothing beyond runner-up notices at the critics' awards. (Streep's only loss period was at the 1980 BAFTAs, where she garnered a Lead nomination and lost to My Brilliant Career's Judy Davis.)
Unlike the critics and probably countless Academy members, however, I'm not so keen on factoring her Joe Tynan and Manhattan performances into my decision-making in 1979 Best Supporting Actress. (Just like I wouldn't give Dennis Hopper the 1986 Best Supporting Actor prize for Hoosiers on account of his superior work that year in Blue Velvet.) This has to be all about Kramer vs. Kramer, which is no slouch, since she's amazing in this one film alone.
Streep's Joanna is a heartbreaker, even if you spend nearly all of the picture rooting for Hoffman's Ted to prevail. As noted, she has a plethora of devastating scenes in the film, from her farewell to son Billy at the film's start, to the film's A-M-A-Z-I-N-G ending, in which Joanna pays a key visit to Ted following the end of the custody trial. Streep legit kills it in all of her scenes - Joanna's first meeting with Ted after being away for so long, in which she reveals the legal battle she's about to wage, is unforgettable too.
In most years of Best Supporting Actress, I'd award Streep. But, not unlike in the year prior, my great affection for Woody Allen cinema gets in the way.
Manhattan is not only my favorite Allen picture, it's among my 10 favorite films ever. Critical to the film's success, beyond the glorious Gordon Willis cinematography and Allen's dead-on-brilliant dialogue, is the witty and quietly moving performance of Hemingway, in only her second-ever feature film performance. (It's the first of two incredible turns in her all-too-sparse career, the other being 1983's Star 80.) Her Tracy may be half the age of everyone else in the film but she's infinitely more rational, maybe even more sophisticated. In fact, Tracy often comes off as the only sane character around.
Hemingway has strong comic timing and nails Allen's lines but it's the dramatic moments that most hit home. Isaac's long-awaited breakup with Tracy feels all too real and her reaction ("now I don't feel so good") leaves viewers feeling just as shattered as she does. Just as jolting, in a much different way, is the film's ending, when Isaac literally runs back to Tracy as the 11-'o-clock-hour, though it might be too late. Tracy, now taking Isaac's prior advice to study abroad, tries to reassure the regretful Isaac - "not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people."
This, followed by one final round of George Gershwin, concludes one of the finest pieces of American cinema. Should most of the credit go to Allen himself? Sure. But count me as skeptical that another actress could have captured Tracy in the unaffected, down-to-earth way Hemingway so appropriately does.
Choosing between Streep and Hemingway (with Alexander not terribly far behind) is a legit Sophie's Choice but, in the end, I've got to go with the latter...even if 'Oscar-winner Mariel Hemingway' has a curious ring to it.