The Oscar 100: #75-71

This post marks Part 6 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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75. Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Her competition...

Gladys Cooper, Now, Voyager
Susan Peters, Random Harvest
May Whitty, Mrs. Miniver
Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver (WINNER)

Moorehead portrays Fanny Minafer, spinster aunt of the spoiled, self-absorbed George (Tim Holt). Fanny and George form an unlikely alliance to prevent his recently widowed mother Isabel (Dolores Costello) from falling for Eugene (Joseph Cotten), the man who unsuccessfully courted Isabel years prior and who Fanny is enamored with. Complicating matters is the family's financial downfall, the result of poor investments Fanny made over the years. This performance marked Moorehead's first Oscar nomination.

Dammit, RKO. Under different circumstances, this, well, magnificent performance surely would have ranked even higher on this list. 

Those unfamiliar with the studio's post-production hit job on The Magnificent Ambersons may come away from Orson Welles' picture - his follow-up to Citizen Kane - viewing Moorehead's performance, while an unimpeachable scene-stealer, as feeling curiously incomplete.

This, of course, was the result of RKO taking a chainsaw to more than 40 minutes of the picture (footage that remains lost), which included tacking on a happy ending that rings wholly false. Because Welles kept extensive notes on the original cut (and gave no shortage of interviews in the decades following the film's release), we know Fanny was initially a plenty fleshed-out, prominent role, not the ill-defined presence that lurks in the studio cut. 

Even with this travesty, Moorehead is a riveting sight in The Magnificent Ambersons, managing, even with the egregious cuts, to emerge the clear MVP.

An audacious performance years ahead of its time, test audiences inexplicably laughed at Moorehead's unhinged portrayal of the feverish Fanny in the original cut that was first screened. Welles was forced to even reshoot Moorehead's best scene of all, Fanny's boiler room breakdown in which she reveals to George that the family has lost everything, leaving the two with only a few hundred dollars left to live on.

Fanny's meltdown may be a tad operatic but justifiably so - this is, after all, a deeply despondent woman, long the family punching bag, whose brother's death not only instills her with even greater despair but also vexation over the opening it leaves for Eugene to now go in for the kill with Isabel. That she loses it when the spiteful George chastises her over losing the family fortune seems entirely warranted. It's hard for me to fathom audiences back in the day weren't rooting for Fanny but rather perplexed by Moorehead's raw delivery.

Given the then-lukewarm reception to The Magnificent Ambersons, by critics and especially audiences, it is scant surprise Wright triumphed for the more popular, crowd-pleasing Mrs. Miniver (though I could fathom the brilliant Cooper having won too).

Thankfully, over the decades to follow, most have come around to the picture and Moorehead's performance, many deeming it a career-best for both the filmmaker and actress. That Moorehead could shine as bright as she does, despite her performance having been so brutally axed, is a testament to her impeccable strengths as an actress and commanding screen presence. She would be nominated another three times in Best Supporting Actress, all for memorable turns but none quite as compelling as Fanny, that miserable yet fetching spinster who you just want to give a hug.

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74 and 73. Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek in Carrie (1976)

Their competition...

Marie-Christine Barrault, Cousin Cousine
Faye Dunaway, Network (WINNER)
Talia Shire, Rocky
Liv Ullmann, Face to Face

Jane Alexander, All the President's Men
Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver
Lee Grant, Voyage of the Damned
Beatrice Straight, Network (WINNER)

Laurie and Spacek portray Margaret and Carrie White, a religious fanatic mother and her withdrawn teenage daughter. Bizarre happenings around Carrie leave her convinced she has supernatural powers, abilities she learns are akin to telekinesis, the moving of objects with one's mind. Constantly bullied at school, Carrie is stunned to be invited to prom by the the kind, dreamy Tommy (William Katt) - a development that hardly sits well with Margaret. Carrie is crowned prom queen but, after a pair of nasty classmates (Nancy Allen and John Travolta) sabotage her perfect evening, attendees will be lucky to make it out alive. These performances marked Laurie's second Oscar nomination and Spacek's first.

On a number of occasions throughout this list (eight, to be exact), there will be pairs of performances from the same pictures that I find simply inseparable for ranking purposes - turns that beautifully compliment each other and are tough to fathom achieving such immense success without the strength of his or her co-star. The first of these duos are comeback kid Laurie and extraordinary up-and-comer Spacek, unforgettable in Brian De Palma's Carrie.

After a 15-year hiatus from the silver screen, her last film being The Hustler (for which she earned her first Oscar nomination), Laurie made her grand return to cinema with this spectacular Mother from Hell turn. As hair-raising and iconic as the performance turned out, it took no shortage of convincing to bring Laurie aboard the project. She viewed Margaret White and the Stephen King novel as too outlandish to possibly be taken seriously. Only after she researched De Palma's prior work, and saw the humor he so often instilled in his projects, was Laurie sold on Carrie - that is, as a very dark comedy. 

Laurie took this approach to the material despite De Palma's insistence that Carrie was no comedy and co-star Spacek's tackling of the project as a serious horror-drama. Alas, in the end, Laurie's wacky, sinister portrayal and Spacek's downcast, sensitive one would prove a perfect match, creating all the more empathy for the latter as Carrie suffers at the hands of her deranged mother. It's a pairing right up there with the legendary mother-daughter likes of Gladys Cooper and Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and Kim Stanley and Jessica Lange in Frances.

As Margaret, Laurie pulls off a remarkable balancing act, painting a woman who, while spectacularly bonkers and terrifying, also feels entirely grounded in reality, not just some scenery-chewing cartoon. She sells the psychotic dialogue and indeed, there is a sense Laurie perhaps views this woman as a laugh riot (supposedly, she would burst out in laughter after filming several scenes), but it's not like she plays Margaret for parody.

Laurie's Margaret is a sick and twisted woman, descending into paranoia throughout the picture until she completely cracks on prom night. As Margaret delivers her big 11-'o-clock hour monologue in which she reflects on the evening Carrie was conceived, Laurie throbs her way through the scene, as if on the verge of orgasm. Where another actress may have just gone through the motions, Laurie instills into Margaret an unusual vitality that is equal parts fascinating and frightening. It's a fabulous performance.

Just as incredible, of course, is Carrie herself, the inimitable Spacek, in only her fourth appearance on the big screen. 

In stark contrast to Laurie's larger-than-life portrayal, Spacek is exceedingly subdued throughout Carrie, her self-effacing heroine trying to get through the school day with her head kept down, only to be terrorized during the day by her repugnant classmates and in the evening by her loon of a mother.

Spacek conveys overwhelming senses of insecurity and sensitivity, crafting a despairing and altogether empathetic figure. When Carrie's classmates incessantly pick on her, you share the rage boiling underneath her skin. And, when big man on campus Tommy asks her out, you too have that enchanted yet dubious feeling. Ultimately, Spacek makes Carrie so impossible not to root for, one can't help but feel a certain sense of euphoria when she burns the whole place down. 

In the end, neither actress would emerge triumphant on the big night. Spacek, as expected, lost to Dunaway, already viewed as due for a prize. Laurie, on the other hand, stood a real chance.

Not only was Laurie a veteran of the silver screen, having worked alongside countless industry folks, Best Supporting Actress was also a damn mess in '76, the Golden Globe winner (Katharine Ross) not even earning a nomination. Alexander was way too low-key to win (and also barely in her film) and Grant hadn't a prayer with that trainwreck of a picture, so odds are, Laurie at least finished third, probably even runner-up. Sorry but Straight, fierce as she is in her one scene in Network, is no Laurie.

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72. Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937)

Her competition...

Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth
Greta Garbo, Camille
Janet Gaynor, A Star Is Born
Luise Rainer, The Good Earth (WINNER)

Stanwyck portrays Stella Martin, a working class woman who weds the wealthy Stephen Dallas (John Boles). Their marriage hardly flourishes but out of it comes a daughter, Laurel (Anne Shirley), who Stella adores more than anything. When the couple at last splits, Stella struggles to provide Laurel the prosperous life she believes she deserves, ultimately coming to a heartbreaking conclusion - her daughter would probably be better off without her. This performance marked Stanwyck's first Oscar nomination.

Glenn Close, Irene Dunne, Deborah Kerr, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck - five of the finest leading ladies to ever grace the screen and all inexplicably Oscar-less, despite at least four nominations a piece. Among these divine stars, no loss do I find more egregious than Stanwyck's on her first Oscar bid, for the devastating Stella Dallas

The picture was a hit, both critically and at the box office, and Stanwyck, despite stiff competition, was widely seen as a slam dunk for Oscar victory. Yet, instead of the evening going as expected, it would be Rainer emerging triumphant, her second conservative Best Actress win, this time for a supremely low-key turn in The Good Earth. It's tough to fathom what did Stanwyck in, though her refusal to contract with a single studio (and the suspensions she faced on several occasions for refusing to do crummy films) may have played a factor.

Stanwyck's legendary gut-puncher of a performance still completely holds up, even if the actors and film around her are, at best, very hit-or-miss (even the Oscar-nominated Shirley underwhelms). She creates a woman who, while crass and vulgar, also exudes an immense sense of warmth. Stella struggles to better herself or fit in with society on her own, so she marries, hoping that'll do the trick and, while that marriage proves a flop, at least she learns in the process of the enormous fulfillment motherhood brings. But she still struggles to flourish or win acceptance.

In one of the film's many overwhelming scenes, Stella overhears Laurel's friends describe her as nothing short of poor white trash. Unable to change, she ultimately faces the most shattering decision of all - hold on to Laurel, preventing her from the lucrative life Stella so believes she deserves, or let her go.  

All of this, of course, is played as melodrama but Stanwyck is able to transcend the mawkish nature of the material and prevent the proceedings from descending into full-on soap opera. She creates a genuine, compelling woman with grand dreams, aspirations she is convinced will come true through money. This, of course, proves not the case - it's being a mother that at last makes her feel whole and, in the end, she gives it all up.

I struggle to think of many other moments in cinema that so intensely pull at the heartstrings as the final minutes of the picture, in which Stella, having made her sacrifice, observes Laurel's wedding at a distance. Stanwyck conveys so much without overplaying it in the slightest. It's a magnificent turn from a career full of them.

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71. Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Her competition...

Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful (WINNER)
Colette Marchand, Moulin Rouge
Terry Moore, Come Back, Little Sheba
Thelma Ritter, With a Song in My Heart

Hagen portrays Lina Lamont, glamorous star of the silver screen and the supposed love of fellow actor Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly)'s life. In reality, their romance is all a facade for the fans, who adore the couple and flock to all of their pictures. Throwing a wrench into this success is Hollywood's transition from silent to sound cinema, a change none too rewarding for the shrill-voiced Lina. When she discovers chorus girl Kathy Reynolds (Debbie Reynolds), who also happens to be the apple of Don's eye, has been hired to dub her on the next Lockwood-Lamont picture, Lina is beside herself. This performance marked Hagen's first and only Oscar nomination.

One of the more perplexing years at the Oscars, 1952 found the Academy make room in Best Picture for the bombastic likes of Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge and, the ultimate winner, The Greatest Show on Earth, while leaving mere table scraps (two nominations, Hagen's and another in Best Musical Score) for Singin' in the Rain, now widely regarding as one of the greatest films of all-time, if not the finest movie musical. 

This lukewarm reception to the Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen film makes it not terribly surprising Hagen failed to prevail on Oscar night, despite being leaps and bounds superior to her lackluster competition. (Grahame does close to nothing, Marchand leaves minimal impression, Moore is completely out-acted by her leading lady and this is perhaps the weakest of Ritter's nominated performances.) No doubt, Grahame triumphed in honor of her body of work that year - for this, The Greatest Show on Earth, Macao and Sudden Fear combined.

In hindsight, there isn't the slightest question who really should've emerged victorious. 

A priceless performance of true comic genius that went on to inspire many a daffy turn (including fellow Oscar 100 inductee Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria), Hagen is brilliant both vocally and physically, unforgettable of course for that heavy, grinding New York accent but just as amazing acting out the silent scenes. She's a laugh riot from the moment the film opens alongside Kelly, so, despite the countless pleasures of the picture, it is something of a disappointment when you realize she'll be a mere supporting player moving forward. Not that the likes of Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds aren't flat-out fabulous too but Hagen still manages to emerge MVP, despite a lot less screen time. It's a performance that seems to only get better and funnier with age.

Hagen, whose career was sadly cut short by cancer at age 54, was a real virtuoso of acting, a master in screwball comedy but also darker fare, like The Asphalt Jungle and The Big Knife. To view her more demure turns in pictures like that pair only makes her sparkling work in Singin' in the Rain all the more awe-inspiring. Here was a star who could play just about any role and, over her all-too-short career, turned in at least half a dozen superb performances, albeit no other quite as magnificent as Lina Lamont.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

71. Jean Hagen, Singin' in the Rain
72. Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas
73. Sissy Spacek, Carrie
74. Piper Laurie, Carrie
75. Agnes Moorehead, The Magnificent Ambersons
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 - I've got another pair of incredible actresses from the same picture (one of who triumphed on the big night); a veteran actor who won his Oscar portraying another real-life actor; a sublime actress of the stage and screen in her final nominated performance; and, for the first and only occasion, a turn from the 2010s.