The Oscar 100: #85-81

This post marks Part 4 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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85. Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter (1978)

His competition...

Warren Beatty, Heaven Can Wait
Gary Busey, The Buddy Holly Story
Laurence Olivier, The Boys from Brazil
Jon Voight, Coming Home (WINNER)

De Niro portrays Mike Vronsky, steel worker and lifelong friend of Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage). The trio's cozy lives are forever changed after enlisting in the airborne infantry en route to Vietnam, where they witness the horrors and inhumanities of war and are ultimately taken prisoner. They escape and Mike returns home a broken man, wrestling with his harrowing experience. He is especially haunted by the thought of Nick, who stayed behind in Vietnam. This performance marked De Niro's third Oscar nomination.

Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter is about two-thirds an extraordinary picture. The first hour, focused mostly on Steven's wedding, is a meandering and entirely uninvolving affair, in dire need of editing. The center of the film, in which the men go off to Vietnam, is, for my money, some of the most intense and distressing cinema ever captured on film. And then the rest of the picture, in which the men have escaped but are separated, is sorrowful, truly devastating stuff, with De Niro, Walken, Savage and Meryl Streep (as Nick's fiancee) all in sublime form. 

The picture reveals Cimino to be an astute, yet undisciplined filmmaker. Of course, this post is not about the director but rather The Deer Hunter's leading man, who has never been in more exquisite form. His Oscars may have come for The Godfather Part II and Raging Bull - both iconic turns - but I would argue it's Cimino's film that really brings out the best in De Niro. 

De Niro makes the most of the film's dire opening hour. At the longest wedding ever held in the history of mankind, his Mike and Streep's Linda have a charming, flirty rapport that makes the picture's final third all the more affecting. Ultimately, however, the material's not really there for anyone for much flourish early on in the proceedings.

Blood at last rushes through the film's veins in the move from Pennsylvania to Vietnam and De Niro is a terrifying sight as Mike somehow musters the strength to survive the prison camp and get his pals the hell out of there. The actor has never been in form so fierce, not even in the boxing ring as Jake LaMotta. There is a blood-curdling intensity to his performance in these scenes, yet not once does he overplay it.

Then, Mike returns to Pennsylvania and it's here, in The Deer Hunter's final hour, that De Niro largely has the screen all to himself. It is beautiful, introspective work. 

As he strolls through his working-class town a newfound war hero, Mike seems less moved by the warm response from the community than he does haunted by the silence that otherwise now surrounds him. He also can't get Steven, now handicapped at the VA hospital, and Nick, still somewhere out there in Vietnam, off his mind. When Mike and Linda at last act on their affections for each other, it is less out of passion than it is shared anguish over Nick. Both De Niro and Streep (in only her second film appearance) are in exceptional form.

Then, of course, there is arresting finale of the picture, in which Mike goes back to Vietnam to save his old friend, a journey that ends on the most gruesome and tragic of notes. The look on Mike's face when that brutal game of Russian Roulette comes to its end is that of an altogether shattered man.

Despite The Deer Hunter's award season success in 1978, De Niro never had much traction in Best Actor. With his victory at the Cannes Film Festival, Voight began as front-runner and, all but steamrolling through the precursors, maintained that position through Oscar night. Having prevailed four years prior, there was no urgency to bestow De Niro with a second prize.

Terrific as Voight is, however, (Busey is phenomenal too) I don't consider that performance quite on the same level as the towering work De Niro does here. It's a superb performance deserving of a less haphazard picture.

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84. Michael O'Keefe in The Great Santini (1980)

His competition...

Judd Hirsch, Ordinary People
Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People (WINNER)
Joe Pesci, Raging Bull
Jason Robards, Melvin and Howard

O'Keefe portrays Ben Meechum, teenage son of fighter pilot Bull (Robert Duvall). Ben has long struggled to win the respect and love of his father, a formidable man whose hostile behavior has worked wonders for him in the military but hardly had a positive impact at home. Their relationship hits new heights of strain upon their latest move, this time to South Carolina. This performance marked O'Keefe's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.

The Great Santini is among the finest, most underappreciated films of 1980...or 1979, depending on how you see it.

While the Academy deemed it eligible for consideration at the 1980 Oscars, it in fact first saw a limited release in South Carolina and North Carolina over the summer of 1979. Business was so anemic, Warner Bros. pulled the film and then screened it under a variety of different titles in the mid-west, where it also saw scant traction. Eventually, in 1980, Orion Pictures got its hands on The Great Santini and provided it a traditional New York/Los Angeles release but, despite glowing reviews, the effort was a half-hearted one and the film negligibly expanded into other markets. 

Thankfully, enough members of the Academy caught The Great Santini for its two incredible stars, Duvall and O'Keefe, to earn nominations. I will have more to say about Duvall later in the Oscar 100 (spoiler alert!), so let's focus on his young co-star, who's nearly as terrific as the film's leading man.

As The Great Santini opens, life is rather humdrum for O'Keefe's Ben, which is to say the constant moving around for the Meechum family and their patriarch's impossible behavior have just become part of the routine. Ben puts up with Bull's nasty temper and drinking, as does his mom Lillian (Blythe Danner), who fully sees Bull's flaws but is still mostly a walking mat at home. O'Keefe perfectly captures Ben's sensitivity and vulnerability, while also conveying a sense of suffocating exasperation, both at his father's temperament and inability to show a hint of love or respect for the family.

Then, there is that unforgettable scene in which Ben exacts revenge on Bull, at last beating him in a one-on-one game of basketball after years of his father winning such games by taunting, humiliating and throwing the ball at his son. Instead of feeling any sense of pride about his son's victory, Bull becomes hellbent at taking Ben down a few notches, insulting him and later causing a drunken scene at a high school basketball game. 

A subplot involving Ben's friendship with a young African-American man (Stan Shaw) is ultimately less compelling than the Ben-Bull dynamic but stills offers O'Keefe the opportunity to flex his acting chops, as Ben tries to intervene in a violent squabble between his new friend and the town racist. Bull, of course, continues to not give a shit, even when his military colleagues try to convince him of Ben's bravery. 

Much like Hutton, O'Keefe's placement in Best Supporting Actor was egregious category fraud, designed to not get in the way of a Lead nomination for Duvall (or, in the former's case, the snubbed Donald Sutherland). That hardly, however, takes away from either of their remarkable turns. Like Hutton opposite Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, O'Keefe more than holds his own against Duvall and Danner, delivering a heart-rending and altogether absorbing performance.

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83. Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940)

Her competition...

Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath (WINNER)
Ruth Hussey, The Philadelphia Story
Barbara O'Neil, All This, and Heaven Too
Marjorie Rambeau, Primrose Path

Anderson portrays Mrs. Danvers, housekeeper to wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Mrs. Danvers, who adored Maxim's first wife, is none too pleased with the arrival of his second wife (Joan Fontaine), a young woman who first met Maxim mere weeks prior. Viewing the new Mrs. de Winter as a vastly inferior companion, Mrs. Danvers is committed to driving her stark raving mad. This performance marked Anderson's first and only Oscar nomination.

The 1940 Oscars were the epitome of a "let's spread the love" affair, as the Academy bestowed equal affection upon Rebecca, The Grapes of Wrath and The Philadelphia Story. No film that evening won more than three awards, with Rebecca's lone prize besides Best Picture being in Best Cinematography. This was also that remarkable year in which three filmmakers - Alfred Hitchcock (Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent), John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home) and Sam Wood (Kitty Foyle and Our Town) - directed multiple films to Best Picture nominations.

Of course, this post isn't about Mr. Hitchcock, Mr. Ford or Mr. Wood but about Anderson, whose terrifying turn as Mrs. Danvers surely would have prevailed in most other years but couldn't quite top Darwell's decidedly more heart-rending performance.

There's an unsettling aura about Rebecca right out of the starting gate but the proceedings don't begin sending chills down the spine until Mrs. Danvers' entrance into the picture. And, while Anderson in fact has less than 20 minutes in screen time, her presence can be overwhelmingly felt through to the film's end. She is cold, conniving and all-around awe-inspiring. 

Anderson and Fontaine have a marvelous chemistry as Mrs. Danvers spends their time together intensely leering at the young woman, incessantly talking up the late Rebecca as if she was the most incredible woman to ever grace the earth. Then, of course, there is that remarkable scene in which Mrs. Danvers more or less tells Mrs. de Winter to hit the road, that she'll never be able to take Rebecca's place and that she might as well just jump to her death.

Another, showier actress may have played material like this for camp but Anderson is dead serious in her entire performance. What could've been a cartoon villain is instead a truly paralyzing presence. Anderson also has the benefit of being exquisitely filmed by Hitchcock and cinematographer George Barnes, who know how to make Mrs. Danvers all the more dark and daunting a figure. She largely disappears in the picture's final third but Hitch ensures one leaves Rebecca with this horrifying housekeeper on the brain.

Anderson's is a fierce and exciting portrayal of an unforgettable character, one of the all-time great villains of the silver screen.

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82. Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) (WINNER)

His competition...

Tom Berenger, Platoon
Willem Dafoe, Platoon
Denholm Elliott, A Room with a View
Dennis Hopper, Hoosiers

Caine portrays Elliot, the emotionally unsatisfied husband of Hannah (Mia Farrow). Enamored with Hannah's younger sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), who is also in a relationship, the two begin an affair which, over the coming year, is sorely tested by Elliot's unwillingness to end his marriage. Inadvertently threatening to expose the liaison is Hannah's other sister Holly (Dianne Wiest), a wannabe-playwright whose latest script includes personal details on Elliot and Hannah's marriage. This performance marked Caine's fourth Oscar nomination and first win.

After three unsuccessful Oscar bids (all in Lead Actor, for Alfie, Sleuth and Educating Rita), it was a nomination down in Supporting Actor that would at last deliver victory for Caine. What a shame he had to miss that year's ceremony, too busy filming that timeless masterpiece Jaws: The Revenge. Thankfully, more than a decade down the road, Caine would have the chance to grace that Oscar stage as a winner, albeit for his vastly inferior work in The Cider House Rules. 

Hannah and Her Sisters is the most sterling of Caine's half dozen Oscar nominated performances, an ingenious blend of comedy and drama that at once makes his Elliot both charming and despicable.

On one hand, his early courting of Hershey's Lee is a reprehensible sight - after all, what on earth has Hannah done wrong, besides be supremely strong and self-sufficient for everyone around her? Yet, the gleeful buoyancy of Caine's portrayal as Elliot follows Lee around and later hangs with her at the local book store is awfully endearing. When Elliot tells himself "I'm walking on air" in response to Lee's positive reception, his ebullient feeling sure is palpable, even though, at the same time, he's being a total prick of a husband.

As the affair blossoms and then falters, Caine perfectly convey's Elliot's haphazard feelings, still head over heels for Lee but also committed to ensuring Hannah somehow does not get hurt in all of this. As it becomes clearer he'll never leave her, Lee pushes away, leaving Elliot all the more incensed, as he lashes out at Hannah over Thanksgiving for well, basically being too perfect.

All along, though, despite his terrible behavior, Caine makes Elliot a very empathetic figure, hardly a one-dimensional cheating husband. Credit both Caine and, of course, director/writer Woody Allen for making Elliot such a compelling character.  

Despite great reviews and a sense of Caine being overdue, he was no shoo-in going into Oscar night. Berenger had strong support in the likely Best Picture winner, Hopper saw one hell of a comeback with not one but two acclaimed performances (the other being Blue Velvet) and that marvelous character actor Elliott could not be counted out either. Alas, Caine won and deservedly so - one of the very best winners in Supporting Actor.

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81. Jason Miller in The Exorcist (1973)

His competition...

Vincent Gardenia, Bang the Drum Slowly
Jack Gilford, Save the Tiger
John Houseman, The Paper Chase (WINNER)
Randy Quaid, The Last Detail

Miller portrays Father Damien Karras, a young priest and psychiatrist who, amidst his mother's terminal illness, finds himself doubting his faith. Not long after his mother's passing, his is drawn into the lives of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). With Regan exhibiting bizarre and violent behavior and Chris finding no resolution from the medical community, Karras joins with the veteran Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) to drive out of her soul what Karras believes to be the devil. This performance marked Miller's first and only Oscar nomination.

Miller may have, as expected, fallen short to the legendary producer and writer Houseman on Oscar night but there's no question 1973 marked the time of his life. Not only did he grace the box office phenomenon that was The Exorcist, he also took home both a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for his superb play That Championship Season, a drama about the disastrous reunion of a Catholic high school basketball team.

Brilliant as Miller was behind the typewriter, he was just as stirring in front of the camera. Every actor involved with The Exorcist is operating at or near the tops of their games but it's Miller's melancholy, quiet performance that most gets under my skin. 

As William Friedkin's picture opens, Miller's Karras is the most despondent and fragile of figures, wrestling with his mother's health decline in both the senses that he will not only imminently lose her but perhaps his faith in God to boot. The entrance of the MacNeils into his life at first draws vexation and skepticism from him - exorcising a demon out of this little girl? Really? But then, over time, having witnessed firsthand Regan's untamed behavior, he becomes convinced and, through this frightening experience, at last finds purpose. 

The subdued nature of Miller's portrayal makes it all the more of a wallop when Karras gets some blood flowing through the veins in the final act. Once a man who could all but fade into the wallpaper, Karras is suddenly the most intense of figures. When he and the demon go head-to-head for the final time, Miller displays a ferocity that's far more terrifying than any of the head-spinning special effects from earlier in the picture. 

More keen on regional theatre than the big screen, Miller shied away from cinema over the following decades, the bulk of his screen appearances arriving on television. While he may not have reached the heights of De Niro and Pacino in fame, his turn in The Exorcist can surely be placed among the finest big screen turns of the '70s.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

81. Jason Miller, The Exorcist
82. Michael Caine, Hannah and Her Sisters
83. Judith Anderson, Rebecca
84. Michael O'Keefe, The Great Santini
85. Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter
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 - it's all about the leading men and ladies. I've got two headliners from Best Picture winners; the star of the one of the all-time great comedies; an actress who somehow managed to upstage Kate Hepburn with ease; and, at last, Meryl Streep.