The Oscar 100: #95-91

This post marks Part 2 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.


95. Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

His competition...

Warren Beatty, Heaven Can Wait
Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter
Laurence Olivier, The Boys from Brazil
Jon Voight, Coming Home (WINNER)

Busey portrays Buddy Holly, a Texas teenager who, alongside pals Jesse (Don Stroud) and Ray Bob (Charles Martin Smith), forms the rock 'n roll group the Crickets. Their big break comes with an invitation to record in Nashville but Buddy quickly finds himself at odds with music producers who are slow to embrace Buddy's inventive sound. The following years find Buddy fall in love and the Crickets' tunes win over the nation but, with Buddy the runaway star of the group, Jesse and Ray Bob, both overshadowed, bolt from the band. This performance marked Busey's first (and only) Oscar nomination.

Yes, in my humble opinion, Gary Busey - indeed, the Gary Busey - delivers the 95th finest performance recognized at the Oscars. Long before devouring scenery with supporting turns as villains in box office hits Lethal Weapon and Under Siege, which was later followed by more D-list fame as a reality TV star, Busey turned in this truly extraordinary performance as the legendary Buddy Holly.

Heck, it really doesn't feel like a performance - Busey is Buddy Holly, through and through. He's so convincing from the get-go, the picture quickly takes on a more documentary-like than biopic feel and the musical numbers more recall concert footage than scripted cinema. What makes the portrayal all the more stunning is Busey's decision to sing all of Holly's arrangements himself and, to boot, not recorded but live. Whether it's on "That'll Be the Day" or "It's So Easy," Busey completely does Holly justice.

At just under two hours and, with a healthy chunk of the picture comprised of music, The Buddy Holly Story feels a tad fleeting and incomplete. We do get a glimpse into Holly's personal life and his marriage to Maria Santiago (endearingly portrayed in the film by Maria Richwine) but those yearning to really dig into the musician's life may find the proceedings a little lacking.

That said, the picture remains an absolute must-see for Busey's electrifying performance alone. He never had a prayer against Voight, who more or less steamrolled that awards season - frankly, he may have ended up placing dead last in the end. In hindsight, however, I think it's actually a far superior turn to the Oscar-winning one and a performance that surely deserves to be rediscovered.


94. James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

His competition...

Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives (WINNER)
Laurence Olivier, Henry V
Larry Parks, The Jolson Story
Gregory Peck, The Yearling

Stewart portrays George Bailey, the Bedford Falls native who, on Christmas Eve, is despondent and suicidal, his business on the verge of going under and convinced he will be held legally responsible for its woes. Brought to earth to save George is Clarence (Henry Travers), an angel who will show George what the world would have been like had he never been born. This performance marked Stewart's third Oscar nomination.

Stewart may have take home the Oscar for his blissful comic turn in George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story but it's really his performance in Frank Capra's timeless Christmas classic that marks a career-best (with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Anatomy of a Murder not far behind). 

When It's a Wonderful Life hit theaters in late 1946, the picture earned mixed reviews and hardly set the box office on fire - in the end, it ranked 26th of the year, earning less than a third of the gross the Best Picture-winning The Best Years of Our Lives raked in. Marketed as a light romantic vehicle for Stewart and leading lady Donna Reed, audiences were surprised to instead find an often dark and sorrowful film, one not without comedy but a whole lot more complex than amiable holiday fluff. 

What's so marvelous about the film as a vehicle for Stewart is how it so splendidly shows off the star's range as an actor. He has the chance to do some adorable slapstick comedy alongside Reed; convincingly play drunk (not terribly commonplace in this era of film in general, let alone in a Christmas fantasy); break our hearts (like when he goes to visit his mother in the George-less universe); and, of course, with the finale, tug at the heartstrings in the way only a Capra film can.

The Academy, I think, ultimately got this category right (so, spoiler alert: Fredric March is on the horizon). That said, Stewart of course would've been richly deserving of the trophy too. It's an extraordinary effort from one of the all-time great stars of the silver screen...which had the misfortune of facing another top turn from one of the more underrated actors of the Golden Age.


93. John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980)

His competition...

Robert De Niro, Raging Bull (WINNER)
Robert Duvall, The Great Santini
Jack Lemmon, Tribute
Peter O'Toole, The Stunt Man

Hurt portrays John Merrick, who, left disfigured by a congenital disorder, makes his living as the "Elephant Man" in a circus sideshow. He is discovered by the kind Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins), who brings Merrick into his home and comes to realize that, beneath the jarring exterior, is an intelligent and articulate man. Soon, he becomes the toast of London's upper class, mingling with celebrities like actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft). His old employer, Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), is none too thrilled with this development. This performance marked Hurt's second and final Oscar nomination.

Oh, how I miss this extraordinary actor. Doused in Christopher Tucker's makeup, which would surely leave lesser performers lost, Hurt delivers a vivid and ultimately devastating performance - this is no creature from a Universal monster movie, even if, with John Morris' haunting score and Freddie Francis' gorgeous black and white photography, it sure has the look and feel of one.

Though only his second feature film (following the even more idiosyncratic Eraserhead), this is career-best work from David Lynch, a production which while inspired and unusual, also has the feel of grand Oscar contender (sadly, it would go 0-for-8 on the big night).

The picture's best and most affecting scene has the rescued Merrick joining Dr. and Mrs. Treves for tea in their lavish Victorian home. Being a mannerly gentleman of English high society seems to come so naturally for him. He marvels at the Treves' family photos before showing his hosts a picture of his own mother and, on the most heartbreaking of notes, admits that, while he tried his best, he believes he was a great disappointment to her.

Hopkins, in a role country miles away from Hannibal Lecter, and Bancroft, a delight as this 19th century actress (husband Mel Brooks was a producer on the film too), are memorable but even these distinguished, typically scene-stealing thespians cannot compete with the force of nature that is their leading man.

Remarkably, even with this effusive praise, Hurt would not have been my selection in this category, which was dominated by De Niro (who also isn't my favorite) that awards season. Even so, in terms of a sheer gut-puncher of a performance, one that never fails to leave me wrecked on every viewing, there aren't many turns that rival Hurt's.


92. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Her competition...

Jodie Foster, The Accused (WINNER)
Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist

Close portrays Marquise de Merteuil, the cool and conniving master manipulator who challengers former lover Valmont (John Malkovich) to seduce the virginal Cecile (Uma Thurman). Valmont has a bold counter-challenge - he bets he can instead bed the moral and married Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). While Valmont is overcome by contrition during this quest, however, the Marquise becomes all the more fierce. This performance marked Close's fifth Oscar nomination.

What a travesty Close found herself 0-for-5 at the close of the 1988 Oscars, falling short to Foster for what amounted to a middling Lifetime TV movie. For years, I have actually see-sawed between Close and Weaver (who is also fabulous) for the win here but recent viewings of Dangerous Liaisons have drawn me closer to the former.

Oddly enough, the Stephen Frears picture itself doesn't leave me all that hot and bothered. Sure, it's sumptuously designed and richly deserved those Art Direction and Costume Design Oscars but other performances are either flat (Thurman and Keanu Reeves) or overwrought (Malkovich, playing to the last row of the balcony) and much of the proceedings don't really resonate on an emotional level. Still, its leading lady stuns every time - it's career-best work, if you're not counting her even more stirring stage efforts.

Close has a field day in this magnificently wicked and self-absorbed role. When she graces the screen, she owns it and leaves everyone and everything around her in the dust.

While her Marquise displays the coolest of self-confidence, there is also an intense sense of sadness and loneliness all along. She never seems the least bit happy, constantly checking herself out in the mirror to ensure her graceful exterior masks the insecurities deep down plaguing her. When she removes all of her makeup, the Marquise looks like a lifeless shell of her former self. In essence, Close delivers a performance of a woman always putting on a performance.

Close hits all of the right notes here - it's a portrayal that would work pitch-perfectly on both the stage and screen, a true master class in acting from one of the finest film stars of the past half-century.


91. Maureen Stapleton in Interiors (1978)

Her competition...

Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
Penelope Milford, Coming Home
Maggie Smith, California Suite (WINNER)
Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter

Stapleton portrays Pearl, an effervescent firecracker whose introduction rattles the family of husband-to-be Arthur (E.G. Marshall). Arthur's children are still reeling from his separation from depressed matriarch Eve (Geraldine Page), who recently attempted suicide, and are hardly keen on future step-mama Pearl. This performance marked Stapleton's third Oscar nomination.

Stapleton may have (at last!) scored her Oscar for Warren Beatty's dizzying Reds but it's her comparably scene-stealing work in this Woody Allen picture that marks a career high. The first of four Allen-directed performances that shall grace this list, Stapleton enters the solemn Interiors like a tornado, lifting an already powerful family drama into something truly stimulating and exceptional. 

Vis a vis Page's desolate (albeit also brilliant) turn as the dejected wife, Stapleton is the polar opposite, a vibrant and appealing (and happy) woman. She always brings her A-game, whether it's an Interiors-level tour de force or a middling comedy, but Stapleton has rarely been in this dynamic a form. It's as if the proceedings turn from black and white into Technicolor when she enters the film. 

Stapleton's boisterous Pearl hardly rubs this family, downcast and all but sleeping through life, the right way. But while she exudes confidence, she's also clearly a sensitive woman, deeply affected by the daughters' dismissive response to her presence. Alas, in the end, it's Pearl's presence that will save this family in free fall. With another, lesser actress, Pearl could have come off as vulgar and one-note but Stapleton instills complexity and a vitality in this woman that must have even taken Allen aback.

Smith is in decent form in California Suite but she's been much better and her film, the Smith/Michael Caine scenes aside, is virtually unwatchable. (Somehow, Cannon won the Golden Globe for doing close to nothing in her film.) This totally should have been Stapleton's Oscar.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

91. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
92. Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
93. John Hurt, The Elephant Man
94. James Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life
95. Gary Busey, The Buddy Holly Story
96. Kathy Bates, Primary Colors
97. Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria
98. Rosie Perez, Fearless
99. Shelley Winters, A Place in the Sun
100. Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue Got Married

Next week - I've got one of the all-time great film narrators; a pair of heavenly turns from two supremely underrated actresses; a late career performance from a legendary star of the silver screen; and (finally!) a performance that actually won an Oscar.