The Oscar 100: #80-76

This post marks Part 5 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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80. Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982)

His competition...

Ben Kingsley, Gandhi (WINNER)
Jack Lemmon, Missing
Paul Newman, The Verdict
Peter O'Toole, My Favorite Year

Hoffman portrays Michael Dorsey, the struggling actor who, unable to find anyone in New York who will hire him, reinvents himself as actress Dorothy Michaels. Dorothy lands what was supposed to be a short-lived role on a daytime soap but, proving a surprise smash, is instead signed into a long-term contract. Among the many new complications in Michael's life is his affection for co-star Julie (Jessica Lange), who adores her new colleague (as a girlfriend) and whose lonely father (Charles Durning) develops feelings for Dorothy. This performance marked Hoffman's fifth Oscar nomination.

On Oscar night 1982, a then-record 53 million viewers - later surpassed only by the 1997 ceremony - tuned in to watch the two biggest box office hits of the year, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and Tootsie, battle it out for awards glory. Those hoping for a barn burner between the two were instead treated to a Gandhi sweep, as the Richard Attenborough picture steamrolled the evening, scoring eight trophies, including Best Picture. E.T. mustered a quartet of technical prizes, four times the single award Tootsie earned, in Best Supporting Actress (Lange, a consolation prize both for the film and the star, who would've won in Best Actress for Frances nearly any other year). 

Among Tootsie's nine losses, of course, was Best Actor, a prize which, despite some awfully stiff competition (all five nominees are fabulous), surely should have gone to Hoffman. That he'd just prevailed three years earlier for Kramer vs. Kramer could not have helped his chances, not that anyone was beating Kingsley, the star of a picture the Academy so adored.

Kingsley is in fine form, no doubt, but, for my money, Tootsie is a career-topper for Hoffman. (Oh, and did I mention Tootsie is totally the greatest comedy of all-time.) It's a dazzling comic turn, leaps and bounds more satisfying than say, his twitchy, exasperating Oscar-winning performance in Rain Man. He's even better here than in Kramer vs. Kramer, and that's one hell of an effort.

Chowing down on the legendary Larry Gelbart-Murray Schisgal-Elaine May-Barry Levinson screenplay, Hoffman has a field day, both as Michael and Dorothy. As Michael, he has gangbusters scenes opposite Teri Garr (who should've won the Oscar), Bill Murray (never been funnier) and, of course, director Sydney Pollack, whose rapport with Hoffman ("you were a tomato!") couldn't be better. As Dorothy, he has equally marvelous moments with the likes of Durning (oh so sweet), George Gaynes ("does Jeff know?") and Dabney Coleman (the perfect slimeball). Lange, never lovelier, shares charming scenes with both.

Of course, Hoffman's best scene of all comes toward the picture's end, as Dorothy, too popular to possibly let leave the show, is asked to extend her contract for another year. Desperate to get out, Michael improvises the speech of all speeches live on air, revealing Dorothy's Emily Kimberly to in fact be Emily's twin brother Edward Kimberly, thus providing Michael the opportunity to shed the wig and makeup and at last reveal himself.

The script and Pollack's direction here are pitch-perfect but the moment would not work without a true master of an actor there to pull it off. What Hoffman does, in this scene and many more, is the stuff of real movie magic. It's a riotous, endearing and exciting performance in a picture that, no doubt, will stand the test of time as a comedy classic. 

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79. Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950)

Her competition...

Anne Baxter, All About Eve
Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday (WINNER)
Eleanor Parker, Caged
Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard

Davis portrays Margo Channing, beloved Broadway superstar. Life is peachy keen for the actress until the entrance one evening of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an aspiring starlet who wins Margo over with her moving story of supposedly growing up poor in Wisconsin, losing her husband in World War II and having nothing but her favorite actress to look up to. Margo hires Eve as her new assistant and it isn't long before Eve's mischievous plan kicks into action - to use the aging star as a mere stepping stone to achieve her own fame. This performance marked Davis' eighth Oscar nomination.

In 1944, Davis earned her seventh Best Actress Oscar nomination, over the course of a mere nine years, for her turn in Mr. Skeffington. For the first time, Davis would see a significant drought over the coming years, with no nomination between 1945 and 1949. Despite her unimpeachable status as one of the great, if not the greatest star of the silver screen in this era, Davis' pictures under contract with Warner Bros. in the latter half of the 1940s were hardly up to par with her prior offerings. 

All About Eve and her new partnership with 20th Century Fox marked a real comeback for Davis, albeit a rather short-lived one, that is until her next comeback, this time again with Warner Bros. in the following decade. When Margo deliciously asks that we fasten our seat belts for the bumpy ride again, one cannot help but think of the roller coaster ride of Davis' own career during this time. She would rise and fall and rise again, in the end emerging a true survivor of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Davis slips oh so perfectly into Margo's shoes. She is the quintessential Broadway diva - funny, fabulous and a tad self-absorbed but irresistibly so. Davis also, however, instills powerful senses of warmth and vulnerability in her veteran actress. Margo takes Eve in with open, compassionate arms and is absolutely shattered when she at last realizes she's been played - not only has she lost who she figured was a friend, maybe even a daughter figure, but Eve's rise has come at the expense of Margo's career standing. If only she'd listened to Birdie/Thelma Ritter!

Margo may feel autobiographical for Davis but it's hardly an effortless turn. Where another, less restrained actress could have easily played this role for colorful camp, Davis actually brings a ton of nuance to the role. Sure, her line deliveries are zesty and legendary as can be but Davis manages to make Margo a larger-than-life figure without ever really going over-the-top. And while Margo may have her mean moments, she is completely self-conscious of that and detests her own behavior. She concedes she has turned into one of her own showy stage characters.

Ironically, it was probably Baxter's presence in the Best Actress race that prevented Davis from emerging triumphant - if All About Eve is grabbing half a dozen Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, you would think its leading lady, the heart and soul of the film, would be along for the ride. Alas, Holliday, the one light and funny turn of the five, was triumphant - not a bad performance or egregiously undeserved victory but also just not on the same level as Davis, Swanson or the underrated (and sadly underseen) Parker. 

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78. Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice (1982) (WINNER)

Her competition...

Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
Jessica Lange, Frances
Sissy Spacek, Missing
Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman

Streep portrays Sophie Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant who resides in a Brooklyn boarding house alongside her paranoid schizophrenic lover Nathan (Kevin Kline) and new tenant Stingo (Peter MacNicol), an aspiring writer. Stingo comes to learn of Sophie's survival in a concentration camp and the devastating decision she was forced to make upon arrival at Auschwitz. This performance marked Streep's fourth Oscar nomination and second win.

Sophie's Choice was such a runaway sensation, it's easy to forget Streep was initially thought to have not one but two Oscar contenders for 1982.

On paper, that second picture, Still of the Night, had the looks of a guaranteed winner. It would reunite Streep with Robert Benton, who directed her to an Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, and pair her with Roy Scheider, still very much on the A-list after the success of All That Jazz. Alas, the thriller, a Hitchcock-wannabe without the vitality of Brian De Palma, proved an embarrassment for all. Panned by critics (even Streep earned poor reviews), the film was in and out of theaters in the blink of an eye, thankfully long forgotten by the release of the watchable Streep picture of 1982.

Not that Sophie's Choice is a perfect film either. It's at least half an hour too long, stretches of the picture are meandering and it's surely not up to pir with Alan J. Pakula's best efforts from the 1970s. What ultimately make the proceedings a must-see are the first-rate performances, Streep of course best of all but both Kline and MacNicol in stellar form too. 

Streep feels less constrained here than in the likes of The Deer Hunter and The French Lieutenant's Woman, where she either had little to do or was supremely miscast. It's really her first great leading turn on the big screen, having the license to at last have a field day without sharing the camera with a leading man.

While the performance is a heartbreaker, she has also rarely been in such glowing or charming form. Though some, Katharine Hepburn Hepburn among them, have deemed Streep's performance as too calculated, I happen to think she nails the Polish-American accent and is altogether convincing. It's also a very subtle turn. Even upon her introduction in the picture, when she's simply endearing and lovable, Streep suggests something far darker is present beneath the surface. As the film moves along, she captures Sophie's terror and agony without ever overplaying. It's hard to imagine the 'choice' being more painfully and convincingly performed than it is in the picture. 

As members of the Academy took to their Oscar ballots that year, they too faced the most impossible of decisions - Streep or Lange, at her most mesmerizing in Frances. The obvious solution, which ultimately came into play, had Lange taking the Supporting Actress trophy for Tootsie, despite that being a clearly inferior performance (and a lesser one, vis a vis the other nominees in that category). 

Lange would have won in 9 out of 10 years at the Oscars. Alas, Streep was just too powerful to resist.

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77. Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) (WINNER)

His competition...

Laurence Olivier, Henry V
Larry Parks, The Jolson Story
Gregory Peck, The Yearling
James Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life

March portrays Al Stephenson, a World War II veteran who faces no shortage of challenges upon reentry into civilian life. He resumes his career as a banker but struggles to balance his loyalties to fellow infantrymen with the economic realities of the time. Hitting the bottle after his boss advises Al against approving loans to veterans without collateral, he vies to convince his colleagues to stand with those who risked everything to defend the nation and are now grappling to rebuild their lives. This performance marked March's fourth Oscar nomination and second win.

The 1946 Oscars found William Wyler's post-WWII drama staging a near-sweep, triumphing on all but one of its eight nominations (it fell short in Best Sound to The Jolson Story). This lovefest makes it especially perplexing that a mere two of The Best Years of Our Lives actors were up for prizes - March and co-star Harold Russell, a WWII veteran who lost his hands during wartime. Where on earth were Dana Andrews and Myrna Loy, both inexplicably never Oscar-nominated over their marvelous careers?

That mystery aside, at least the Academy had the good sense to honor March, in a turn a far cry from his ravenous scenery-chewing that won him his first Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The actor has a screen presence here that is naturally commanding and hardly in need of the showy antics that earned him that first prize.

Wyler's picture is an ensemble showcase through and through, with no performer ever really dominating the proceedings, but March comes close in the early-going, with much of the focus on Al in the film's first half. 

Al returns home from war into the adoring arms of his wife (Loy) of 20 years and two children. Yet, while his family tries to make the homecoming as seamless and comfortable as possible, the reunion is a jarring experience for Al. He's missed so much of their lives, his kids having grown up in his absence. Al's drinking begins as part of rowdy fun with his WWII pals and then it's used to water down his vexation over veterans being screwed over by the bank.

March plays plastered pitch-perfectly, especially in a scene in which Al hijacks the company dinner to deliver his two cents on the importance of helping the returning servicemen. Also absorbing is the conflict that later surfaces between Al and Fred (the Andrews character), the latter having begun courting the former's daughter.

All of this could have been played as soapy melodrama but The Best Years of Our Lives is a strikingly subdued affair from start to finish, perhaps the greatest and most affecting of all WWII pictures. As the family patriarch, March's first-rate effort is absolutely essential to the film's success. He has an undeniable presence even when he's just there, sitting in the background - an unusually reigned-in turn from an actor with a penchant for often playing to the balcony.

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76. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Her competition...

Doris Day, Pillow Talk
Audrey Hepburn, The Nun's Story
Katharine Hepburn, Suddenly, Last Summer
Simone Signoret, Room at the Top (WINNER)

Taylor portrays Catherine Holly, a young socialite who, traumatized after witnessing her cousin's gruesome death on a trip to Europe, is institutionalized. Her aunt, Mrs. Venable (Katharine Hepburn), hellbent on ensuring the details of her son's death are never revealed, calls upon psycho-surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) to perform a lobotomy on Catherine, washing away the vicious memories. Thankfully for Catherine, Dr. Cukrowicz is in no rush to do the deed and determined to get to the bottom of her breakdown. This performance marked Taylor's third Oscar nomination.

Heading into Oscar night 1959, the Best Actress race was thought to be a barn burner between Taylor, on her third consecutive nomination after losses for Raintree County and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and (Audrey) Hepburn, whose The Nun's Story was a significant box office hit and earned eight nominations, including Best Picture. Alas, Signoret, the toast of that year's Cannes Film Festival, would stage the upset. Taylor's third loss, coupled with a near-fatal battle with pneumonia, resulted in her inexplicable 1960 victory for BUtterfield 8, a picture Taylor herself did not even care for.

If only Taylor had triumphed here, Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment) wins in '60, winds up with two career Oscars after '83, and all is right in the world!

Taylor manages to pull off the unimaginable in Suddenly, Last Summer - she upstages the usually untouchable (Katharine) Hepburn. Not that Hepburn is in poor form in the Joseph L. Mankiewicz picture - her Mrs. Venable is a deliciously wicked villain - but this is a Taylor showcase through and through, the sort of challenging vehicle you'd think would be a sure bet for Oscar glory. Taylor seems even more invigorated by the material here than in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, her other beloved Tennessee Williams film.

Feasting on Gore Vidal's hyperbolic adaptation of the Williams play, and with Mankiewicz hardly keen on reigning her in, Taylor roars right out of the starting gate, fiercely and unabashedly playing the proceedings for melodrama. It's a raw, sexy, unpredictable performance that, while over-the-top, is never anything less than wholly convincing. Taylor has rarely been so intensely alluring, yet she also perfectly conveys the fear, confusion and vulnerability plaguing this damaged woman. 

Suddenly, Last Summer is largely carried on the shoulders of Taylor and, to a lesser extent, Hepburn. Both Williams and Vidal went on to denounce the picture and sadly, there's no denying the problem of Clift's lifeless performance. He's so unsteady and unfocused, it often becomes a distraction, and his scenes opposite Taylor hardly ring of the legendary chemistry of A Place in the Sun. Some of the material is so overwrought, it nearly plays like Tennessee Williams parody, yet Taylor's fearless dedication to the role and the vitality she instills in the proceedings, from start to finish, make Suddenly, Last Summer an altogether absorbing and fascinating endeavor. 

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

76. Elizabeth Taylor, Suddenly, Last Summer
77. Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives
78. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
79. Bette Davis, All About Eve
80. Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie
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 - get ready for both one of the funniest performances to ever earn an Oscar nomination and one of the scariest. I've got a pair of nominees from the same picture; an actress whose timeless film, now widely regarded as one of the all-time greats, deserved way more than the measly two Oscar nominations it earned; a sublime scene-stealer in her first recognized performance; and, for the first time, a turn from the glorious 1930s.