The Oscar 100: #90-86

This post marks Part 3 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.

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90. Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

His competition...

Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (WINNER)
Nigel Hawthorne, The Madness of King George
Paul Newman, Nobody's Fool
John Travolta, Pulp Fiction

Freeman portrays Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding, a contraband smuggler serving a life sentence at the Shawshank State Penitentiary in Maine. He befriends Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker imprisoned to two life terms for the murders of his wife and her lover - crimes he did not commit. Over the coming two decades, Red watches as Andy struggles to adjust to prison life, so often the subject of brutality from fellow inmates. Then, following one particularly dark and stormy night, Andy suddenly disappears. This performance marked Freeman's third Oscar nomination.

What is it about The Shawshank Redemption that so intensely resonates? It's a question I ask myself prior to nearly every viewing of the picture, which tends to surface on TNT about every other day. Is this thing, ranked the greatest film of all time on IMDb, really on the same level as the likes of Casablanca, Citizen Kane and The Godfather?

Then, I watch the film. And, every single time, I'm wholeheartedly won over, from the opening scenes of Andy's conviction and arrival at Shawshank, all the way through to that glorious reunion on the beach at Zihuatanejo. It is a riveting, absorbing, altogether satisfying film adaptation of a Stephen King short story that, if not for this picture, probably would have faded into obscurity.

While I don't consider Frank Darabont's adaptation of King's The Green Mile nearly as successful, he sure hit the bullseye here. This should have won Best Picture, not found itself steamrolled by the overpraised and haphazard Forrest Gump. (Oddly enough, I believe Hanks should have prevailed for Big, not for either of his two winning performances.)

Though Robbins is the true leading man of this picture (one has to wonder how Freeman may have fared down in Supporting Actor), Freeman, with his sublime narration, is the heart and soul of the proceedings. The final half hour of Shawshank marks perhaps the finest work of Freeman's storied career, as an exhausted Red at last wins over the parole board and gets himself the hell out of there, only to encounter the same struggles old pal Brooks (James Whitmore, in a late-career performance that richly deserved some Oscar love) faced upon parole.

Then, he goes on that stirring journey to the elusive Zihuatanejo. The Thomas Newman score swells as Freeman delivers that sublime monologue ("For the second time in my life, I am guilty of committing a crime - parole violation"and the proceedings end on just about the most heavenly and uplifting note possible.

There isn't a whole lot that's especially inventive or groundbreaking about The Shawshank Redemption but it still manages to be a pretty pitch-perfect affair. And without Freeman and his magnificent screen presence, Shawshank wouldn't be half the picture it is.

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89. Sally Kirkland in Anna (1987)

Her competition...

Cher, Moonstruck (WINNER)
Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
Meryl Streep, Ironweed

Kirkland portrays Anna, once a major star of the silver screen in her homeland of Czechoslovakia but now struggling to land off-Broadway acting gigs in New York. She takes in the young Krystyna (Paulina Porizkova), who has immigrated from Czechoslovakia to meet her idol, only to watch as the beautiful and charming Krystyna becomes an overnight showbiz smash. This performance marked Kirkland's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.

By the time Anna, more or less an art house All About Eve, opened in New York and Los Angeles in the fall of 1987, Kirkland, out of nowhere discovering her 15 minutes of leading lady fame, had upwards of 30 film credits under her belt, plus a plethora of television appearances over the past two decades. Among her turns were brief roles in the Oscar-winning likes of A Star Is Born, The Sting and The Way We Were and meatier supporting appearances in more offbeat fare like Crazy Mama and Pipe Dreams.

Early raves for Kirkland inspired the dying film distributor Vestron Pictures to pick up Anna. Alas, despite Vestron's Dirty Dancing scoring box office gold out of nowhere that year, the studio found itself unable to financially support an Oscar campaign for Anna and its renowned star. 

For Kirkland, the goddaughter of two-time Oscar winner Shelley Winters, this presented a challenge she was more than happy to tackle. She took the picture's awards campaign into her own hands and, in a pre-Miramax era, embarked on an aggressive (and effective) marketing effort like never seen before. She hosted her own screenings for members of the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and, on Oscar nominations morning, edged out the legendary likes of Faye Dunaway (Barfly), Lillian Gish (The Whales of August) and Barbra Streisand (Nuts) for recognition.

Able to reach every HFPA voter, Kirkland triumphed at the Golden Globes. Of course, it's a whole lot easier to win over a modest body like the HFPA, compared to the thousands who comprised the Academy's membership. On Oscar night, it was Cher who triumphed. What would have happened if every voter sat down and watched Anna, who knows. But it was surely a struggle to get this little picture seen.

None of this is to say Kirkland's awards recognition, which also included Best Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (tied with Hunter), was exclusively a way to honor the chutzpah of her self-campaign. 

Kirkland is downright mesmerizing in Anna, delivering the sort of master class in acting that performers of the stage and screen would be wise to study. During one of the title character's agonizing auditions, Kirkland delivers a reading of "Humpty Dumpty" that might just be the most incredible rendition of the nursery rhyme ever recorded. She has wonderful chemistry with co-stars Porizkova and Daniel Fields (who portrays Anna's off-and-on lover), both also terrific.

The best scene in Anna, and a devastating one at that, finds the title character attending a New York screening of one of her old pictures from back home. Anna finds the theatre all but empty and, at a crucial moment in the film, the reel melts. This comes at a point where Krystyna is sky-high in fame and Anna, the woman who kindly took her in, is at rock bottom. It's a haunting moment is a poignant little film that happens to sport one of the finest performances of the decade.

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88. Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (1978)

Her competition...

Ingrid Bergman, Autumn Sonata
Ellen Burstyn, Same Time, Next Year
Jane Fonda, Coming Home (WINNER)
Geraldine Page, Interiors

Clayburgh portrays Erica Benton, whose 17-year marriage to loser husband Martin (Michael Murphy) comes to an end after he leaves her for a younger woman. Stunned by the betrayal, Erica finds herself reevaluating her life and exploring the freedoms she suddenly now has as a single woman. On this exciting new journey, she falls for a man leaps and bounds different from her former beau, the rugged artist Saul (Alan Bates). This performance marked Clayburgh's first Oscar nomination.

When An Unmarried Woman premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978, Clayburgh's performance, which won Best Actress honors there, was hailed as one of the finest big screen turns of the decade, perhaps a shoo-in for the Oscar. Fox quickly picked the picture up for a March release (which sounds early but was hardly unheard of for awards contenders back then...Coming Home was released even earlier) and the film did fabulously at the box office.

Then, awards season actually came...and Clayburgh won nothing, not even a critics' award. Ultimately, she had the misfortune of gracing one of the all-time great line-ups in Best Actress history. Bergman and Fonda split the critics' honors, Burstyn won a Golden Globe...even Page later would pick up a prize, at the BAFTAs, in Supporting Actress. 

Post-Cannes, Clayburgh may have seen anemic awards success but that hardly means her performance is anything less than extraordinary.

Even now, in a post-Sex and the City era, there's a freshness to the frankness of An Unmarried Woman and Clayburgh's turn in how they approach sexual freedom. There are engrossing conversations among Erica and her friends that ring of the HBO series but without some of the sitcom-level dialogue that so often made Sex and the City feel not entirely grounded in reality.

Among Clayburgh's best scenes in the picture is when Murphy's Martin, a pathetic, blubbering mess, admits to his affair. This should be Murphy's big moment (and he's completely convincing as this prick, just as he is in Manhattan the following year) but it's actually Clayburgh who still steals the scene, exuding a feeling of devastation in the most nuanced way. There are also marvelous scenes between Erica and her therapist (Daniel Seltzer) which provide Clayburgh the opportunity to flaunt her impeccable acting chops.

Sadly, amidst the battle between the Vietnam pictures (Coming Home and The Deer Hunter), An Unmarried Woman just ended up kind of lost in the 1978 awards season. Further upstaging it was the following year's even more successful end-of-marriage film, Kramer vs. Kramer. Even more disheartening - the film hasn't seen a DVD release in more than a decade, since 2006. Fox, this inexusable problem must be rectified!

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87. George Sanders in All About Eve (1950) (WINNER)

His competition...

Jeff Chandler, Broken Arrow
Edmund Gwenn, Mister 880
Sam Jaffe, The Asphalt Jungle
Erich Von Stroheim, Sunset Boulevard

Sanders portrays Addison DeWitt, the cynical New York playwright and critic who takes wannabe-Broadway starlet Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) under his wing. Addison, a master manipulator, brings Eve's idol, the aging actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis), down a few notches but when he recognizes he's being manipulated by Eve herself, Addison has more than a few tricks up his sleeve to keep from being played. This performance marked Sanders' lone Oscar nomination and win.

Despite more than 100 appearances on the silver screen, including memorable turns in Best Picture nominees like Foreign Correspondent, Rebecca and Ivanhoe, Sanders was the recipient of just one Oscar nomination over his storied career. Thankfully, this lone appearance would result in victory, for his delicious turn in the legendary All About Eve.  

As the inimitable Margo Channing, Davis may be the heart and soul of the picture but it's hard to imagine the film being nearly as satisfying without Sanders' rich presence.

Like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, another sensational release from 1950, Sanders opens All About Eve with a narration that pitch-perfectly sets the mood for the roller coaster ride to come. Sanders' Addison is scheming and self-serving and yet, altogether endearing. He watches the backstage drama around him in a sort of detached state, entertained by it all as often as he is nauseated. So, it's especially jarring when Addison goes in for the kill against Eve, unwilling to let himself be the latest victim of her games.

1950 marked a strong affair in Supporting Actor, with Gwenn and Jaffe in reliable form and Von Stroheim so intense and haunting in Sunset Boulevard (only Chandler underwhelms, though he by far has the most screen time of the five nominees). Even so, this is a no-brainer for Sanders, a magnificent actor whose career should have extended into the the '80s and 90s' but was ultimately cut short by dementia and other poor health. In 1972, he committed suicide at age 65. 

Sanders' marvelous work in All About Eve and countless other pictures will never be forgotten.

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86. William Holden in Network (1976)

His competition...

Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver
Peter Finch, Network (WINNER)
Giancarlo Giannini, Seven Beauties
Sylvester Stallone, Rocky

Holden portrays Max Schumacher, news division president at the Union Broadcasting System (UBS) and longtime pal of anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch). After Max delivers the bad news that Howard is about to be fired on account of poor ratings, the anchor takes to the airwaves to announce he will commit suicide, live on television. As Howard's antics send the newscast's ratings soaring, Max becomes romantically involved with new UBS Vice President Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), a ratings-hungry programmer hell-bent on exploiting their new "mad prophet of the airwaves." This performance marked Holden's third and final Oscar nomination.

Speaking of remarkable actors whose careers ended far too soon, Holden delivered this brilliant leading turn just five years prior to his death at age 63. While I hesitate to label Network as career-best work from Holden or even the most riveting performance in the picture (a film full of them), he couldn't be more a perfect fit as Max, the one dignified human being (well, besides betrayed wife Louise, portrayed by Oscar winner Beatrice Straight) to be found in the Sidney Lumet-Paddy Chayefsky classic.

Chayefsky reportedly wanted Gene Hackman or Henry Fonda for the role of Max but I'm not convinced either would have sported the quiet sadness that makes Holden's portrayal so affecting.

Sharp-witted, yet worn down, Holden's Max looks and feels like one of the last survivors of the Edward R. Murrow era of journalism, when truthfulness actually meant something in the news. Vis a vis the unstable Howard and ruthless Diana, Max emerges the moral center of this chaotic and distasteful world. Yet, Max is also a profoundly flawed man who puts his family through hell for, as Louise so fiercely puts it, his "great winter romance" and "last roar of passion" with the soulless Diana.

Acting opposite Finch, Dunaway and Straight, all playing (quite splendidly so) to the last row of the balcony, Holden is always in subdued form, yet never allows himself to be upstaged by his larger-than-life co-stars. He's especially stirring in the picture's final act, as the Max-Diana romance comes to its bitter end.

Holden relishes the incredible Chayefsky dialogue as Max bemoans Diana's indifference to the pain both Max's family and Howard have suffered. In mid-life crisis mode throughout the picture, Max admits his fears about death, "suddenly a perceptible thing, with definable features." And when he at last leaves Diana - "Wayward husband comes to his senses, returns to his wife, with whom he has established a long and sustaining love. Heartless young woman left alone in her arctic desolation. Music up with a swell; final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week's show" - it marks one of the film's finest moments.

Already an Oscar winner, Holden hadn't a prayer against the showier Finch, who died two months prior to the ceremony. (Odds are, both De Niro and Stallone also finished ahead.) For my money, however, in hindsight, Holden's nuanced work in Network is even more powerful than Finch's legendary histrionics. In a film full of actors shouting at each other, this veteran of the silver screen is a breath of fresh air, always captivating even when everyone around him gets to chew the scenery.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

86. William Holden, Network
87. George Sanders, All About Eve
88. Jill Clayburgh, An Unmarried Woman
89. Sally Kirkland, Anna
90. Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption
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 - get ready for not one, not two but three gentlemen from Best Supporting Actor, including one winner; a two-time Oscar winner in his second (and to date, final) Best Picture winner; and the lone Alfred Hitchcock-directed performance that shall grace this list.