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.
100. Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
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.
99. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
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.
98. Rosie Perez in Fearless (1993)
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.
97. Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria (1982)
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.
96. Kathy Bates in Primary Colors (1998)
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.