20 Years of Streep: 1981 ("The French Lieutenant's Woman")

After blowing the roof off the joint in 1979 with a trio of gangbusters performances - including an Oscar-winning one with Kramer vs. Kramer - Meryl Streep took 1980 off from the big screen, instead focusing her energies on a stage musical of Alice in Wonderland that premiered at New York's Public Theater in December 1980. While the production itself garnered mixed notices, Streep herself, of course, received wall-to-wall raves.

The following year, Streep not only returned to the screen but took on her very first leading role - a screen adaptation of John Fowles' acclaimed 1969 novel The French Lieutenant's Woman. The marvelous playwright Harold Pinter would adapt the book to the screen and British filmmaker Karel Reisz - who worked wonders with leading lady Vanessa Redgrave on Morgan! and Isadora in the 1960s - signed on to direct. Moreover, another hot up-and-comer would star opposite Streep - the dashing future Oscar/Emmy/Tony-winner Jeremy Irons.

The result then simply had to be an incredible motion picture, right? Well, the Academy, to some extent at least, evidently thought so. In my humble opinion, however...not so much.

The 1981 Oscar nominees for Best Lead Actress were...

Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond

Hepburn portrays Ethel Thayer, who, alongside husband Norman (Henry Fonda, at last taking home an Oscar), makes the annual summer trip up to New England and her beloved cottage that overlooks Golden Pond. Norman may be the ultimate curmudgeon but Ethel's love for him is unconditional and particularly critical at a time when, on the heels of his 80th birthday, Norman finds his memory fading and physical health declining. This performance, which also won Hepburn her second BAFTA Award, marked her 12th and final Oscar nomination and fourth victory.

Diane Keaton, Reds

Keaton portrays Louise Bryant, the famed American journalist known for her sympathetic coverage of the Bolsheviks throughout the Russian Revolution. Initially a bored, married socialite, Louise ultimately leaves her husband for journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty, who picked up an Oscar here for his directing) and from there, it's a roller coaster ride of a life as Louise emerges a proud radical, has an affair with playwright Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson) and goes off to Europe to write as a war correspondent. This performance marked Keaton's second Oscar nomination.

Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh

Mason portrays Georgia Hines, a boozy Broadway actress who emerges from rehab hell-bent on staying sober and revitalizing her career. Such sobriety is tested, however, by the drama of her two best friends (James Coco and Joan Hackett, also Oscar-nominated) and the entrance of estranged daughter Polly (Kristy McNichol) who moves in with her recovering mother. This performance marked Mason's fourth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City

Sarandon portrays Sally Matthews, an Atlantic City waitress with big dreams of one day working in Monte Carlo. She becomes involved with has-been gangster Lou (the brilliant Burt Lancaster, in his final Oscar-nominated turn) after Sally's estranged husband, in town to sell cocaine with Lou, is killed by mobsters. Sally and Lou are left with heaps of cocaine to sell but it isn't long before they too are in danger. This performance marked Sarandon's very first Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman

Streep portrays contemporary actress Anna, who in turn plays Sarah Woodruff in a film set during the Victorian Era. During the filming of their picture, Anna carries on an affair with British actor Mike (Jeremy Irons) but loses interest in the romance after production wraps. Meanwhile, in the film within the film, Sarah is a mysterious outcast who becomes the apple of biologist Charles' (Irons again) eye. Take a wild guess what happens on that end. This performance, which (inexplicably) won her a BAFTA Award, Golden Globe and Best Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, marked Streep's third overall Oscar nomination and first nod in Best Lead Actress.

Overlooked: Nancy Allen, Blow Out; Elizabeth Berridge, The Funhouse; Jill Clayburgh, First Monday in October; Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest; Sally Field, Absence of Malice; Audrey Hepburn, They All Laughed; Sissy Spacek, Raggedy Man; Kathleen Turner, Body Heat; Sigourney Weaver, Eyewitness

Won: Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond

Should've won: Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh

1981, the year Chariots of Fire scored a jaw-dropper of an upset over Reds for the Best Picture Oscar, was an embarrassment of riches for leading ladies on the silver screen. You wouldn't necessarily know that, however, based on the Academy's selections that year in Best Lead Actress. (Not that Dunaway's terrifying Joan Crawford likely had a prayer of winning approval from the Academy.) For while I generally adore the five actresses up for recognition here, I'm not super-enamored with any of their nominated performances. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to label this line-up one of the weaker Lead Actress affairs at the Oscars in the 1980s.

The least compelling of the nominees, by a country mile, is, I'm afraid, Streep. I suspect most Streep aficionados would label Music of the Heart as the worst Streep turn recognized at the Oscars in Best Lead Actress (or is it August: Osage County now?) but I'd make a strong case The French Lieutenant's Woman is actually far more egregious a nomination - it might well be my least favorite of all Streep performances. It's not entirely her fault, however - the picture she's in is the epitome of drab, a dreary romance that's devoid of any romantic feeling and may run only two hours but feels like at least three. Even the usually reliable Freddie Francis' photography is oddly lackluster. Streep herself has said she was miscast in the roles of Anna and Sarah and while I think she's right to some extent, I think she understates the fault Pinter and Reisz deserve for their sleepy adaptation. Just imagine what Merchant and Ivory could have done with this!

Now, on to Katharine Hepburn and Bette Dav..scratch that...Susan Sarandon! I'm coupling these two ladies together, as I have immense fondness for them and their pictures here but both are ultimately playing second banana to superior, more notable late-career turns from Henry Fonda and Burt Lancaster, respectively.

Hepburn's a delight to watch - then again, Hepburn reading from a thesaurus would be awe-inspiring - but, beyond that amazing "you are my knight in shining armor" scene late in the film, there's nothing Hepburn does in On Golden Pond that I would place alongside the all-time great Hepburn moments in film. I think I even prefer her Oscar-winning turn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which also, frankly, shouldn't have won the Lead Actress prize, over this. It's too bad she didn't win Oscars instead for superior work in films like Summertime and Long Day's Journey Into Night. That said, I'm hardly devastated Hepburn has the all-time record for Oscar victories, even if they're not for career-best performances.

Like Hepburn with Fonda, Sarandon is mostly upstaged by leading man Lancaster in Atlantic City, even if it's a thoroughly credible performance. Sarandon is sumptuously photographed here, much like she was a few years prior in director Louis Malle's Pretty Baby. It's an immensely sensual turn, like so many Sarandon performances, and she has a fine grasp on the wonderful playwright John Guare's dialogue. I have no qualms about Sarandon here other than to say the meat simply isn't there on the bone for her to chew as it is for her co-star. She would go on to upstage the likes of Nick Nolte, Kevin Costner and Sean Penn, among others, but Atlantic City is the Lancaster show through and through.

Ultimately, I find myself see-sawing between the final two contenders, Keaton and Mason.

I consider Keaton an astoundingly underappreciated dramatic talent. Her turns in Annie Hall, Baby Boom, Something's Gotta Give, etc. are all packed with subtle comic brilliance, of course, but it's her more somber work in pictures like Looking for Mr. Goodbar and especially Shoot the Moon (sadly neither of which she was Oscar-nominated for) that most floors me. Keaton is very compelling in Reds too, especially in the film's first half (Louise's transformation is pretty remarkable), but she doesn't quite command or flat-out own the screen in the same way she did those aforementioned dramas.

There's so much to like in the Warren Beatty picture (though I'd argue the Chariots victory was a deserving one) but I think the sprawling nature of it all and meticulous attention to detail with the film's design and look ultimately overshadow a lot of the acting. So, while Beatty, Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Maureen Stapleton are all terrific, I'm often more awe-struck by the scenery around them, and that incredible Vittorio Storaro photography too. In an even more anemic year, I could see myself siding with Keaton, even if it's not among her strongest work.

Alas, I think I lean ever-so-slightly toward Mason, who of course duked it out with (and lost to) Keaton in the 1977 Oscar race for The Goodbye Girl. (Mason and Keaton famously tied at that year's Golden Globes, where the Hollywood Foreign Press Association much preferred Neil Simon's The Goodbye Girl to Woody Allen's Annie Hall. The Academy was not on the same page.)

Mason might well be the least-remembered performer to garner four or more Best Lead Actress Oscar nominations. After a handful of small roles on stage and both the big and small screens, Mason floored critics with her turn as a hooker with a heart of gold, opposite James Caan, in 1973's Cinderella Liberty. There, she garnered her first Oscar nod and it was also in '73 that Mason married the much-celebrated screenwriter/playwright Neil Simon. Mason took four years off from the silver screen and returned in '77 with the most prominent role of her career, Paula McFadden in The Goodbye Girl, written by her husband. She quickly followed that one up with a third Lead Actress Oscar nomination, again in a Simon-penned picture, for 1979's Chapter Two.

The best of the four Oscar-nominated Mason performances, by far, is her final one, as on-edge recovering alcoholic actress Georgia in Only When I Laugh. The film itself, while no Atlantic City, On Golden Pond or Reds, is still one of the better Simon pictures, adapted from his play The Gingerbread Lady, which won a Tony Award for Maureen Stapleton in the Mason role. Mason is dead-on convincing as a woman desperate to maintain her sobriety and sanity, if only she weren't surrounded by such self-absorbed and needy people. The Mason-McNichol relationship has shades of Terms of Endearment and Postcards from the Edge and, like those superior pictures, Only When I Laugh goes for equal parts laughter and tears.

Mason may not be an actress on the spectacular level of the other four nominees here but in Georgia Hines she found the pitch-perfect role of her career. It would ultimately mark her penultimate performance in a Simon film (behind Max Dugan Returns) prior to the couple's divorce in 1983.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  2. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
  3. Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
  4. Diane Keaton, Reds
  5. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  6. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  7. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  8. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  9. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  10. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  11. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  12. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  13. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  14. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  15. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away