The Oscar 100: #70-66

This post marks Part 7 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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70. Jane Alexander in Testament (1983)

Her competition...

Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment (WINNER)
Meryl Streep, Silkwood
Julie Walters, Educating Rita
Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment

Alexander portrays Carol Wetherly, a wife and mother whose quiet suburban life is irreversibly devastated by the onslaught of nuclear war. Cities across the United States, including nearby San Francisco, are hit and, while residents try to proceed with business as usual for some time, it is not long before many, especially children and the elderly, fall gravely ill. Carol guides her family and other stranded survivors toward a future with no light at the end of the tunnel. This performance marked Alexander's fourth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Ah, 1983, the year of nuclear war cinema. There were two much-discussed television specials - The Day After and Special Bulletin - and this, a big screen feature. None of the three productions hold up terribly well, I'm afraid, though Testament is clearly the most absorbing and affecting of the trio, even if it too largely has the look and feel of a middling 'TV Movie of the Week' (of which there was no shortage in this decade).

What sets Testament apart from the other two films is really only one thing - a brilliant performer game to take on some considerable heavy-lifting. Alexander, who was memorable but not exactly MVP in her first three Oscar-nominated turns (The Great White Hope, All the President's Men and Kramer vs. Kramer), is the lone reason to sit through this agonizing endeavor but it's such a powerful and ultimately overwhelming performance, it makes Testament something of a must-see.

Making the turn all the more heartbreaking is Alexander's underplaying of the material for most of the proceedings. Throughout the picture, there is a palpable sense of Carol struggling to suppress her emotions and remain cool while the world around her is literally exploding.

Alexander has several moving scenes alongside her young co-stars, including one especially tragic moment in which the topic of sex is discussed between Carol and her daughter - who will never live to experience it. The ending, too, is devastating in a very understated way. Inevitably, Carol at last completely loses it and it's a moment both harrowing and cathartic - for the character, who has carried infinite weight on her shoulders, and for the audience too, which has witnessed this warm and compassionate woman emotionally and physically disintegrate. 

There was a time when I actually considered Alexander my favorite of this extraordinary, nearly perfect line-up (I would only boot Walters, in favor of Mariel Hemingway in Star 80). In recently revisiting the picture, however, I do think Alexander, while incredible, is perhaps prevented from soaring quite as sky-high as she should, the ho-hum film around her acting like a ball and chain. Not that she had a prayer against MacLaine, who was all but a shoo-in for victory (and deservedly so), but it's still a magnificent performance from Alexander, one of the more undervalued actresses of the stage and screen of the past half-century, in a rare and welcome feature film leading turn.

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69 and 68. Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show (1971) (WINNER - Leachman)

Their competition...

Barbara Harris, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?
Margaret Leighton, The Go-Between
Ann-Margret, Carnal Knowledge

Leachman portrays Ruth Popper, the despondent, lonely wife of a high school football coach (Bill Thurman). Over Christmas 1951, she begins an affair with the comparably forlorn Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a high school senior unsure of what his future holds. Tragically for Ruth, that future includes the drop dead gorgeous Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) sweeping Sonny off his feet, leaving her all the more sorrowful. This performance marked Leachman's first and only Oscar nomination and win.

Burstyn portrays Lois Farrow, once the prettiest girl in town but now upstaged by her daughter, Jacy. On the heels of age 40, Lois no longer gets a kick out of chasing boys and breaking hearts, instead seeing in her daughter a viciousness that no one else seems to recognize. Lois continues to wax nostalgic for the late, legendary Sam "the Lion" (Ben Johnson), the man who instilled in her a confidence and sense of self-worth that she seems to be losing with time. This performance marked Burstyn's first Oscar nomination.

In a perfect world, this category would have been jam-packed with ladies from The Last Picture Show - not merely Leachman and Burstyn but the comparably brilliant Eileen Brennan and Cybill Shepherd to boot. Keep one of Harris, sublime in an otherwise unwatchable film, or Margret, at her career-best, in that fifth slot. Frankly, it's a surprise to me that voters were able to choose between Leachman and Burstyn, instead of a vote split going down in Margret's favor.

Thankfully, that did not come to fruition, though what a damn shame it is the Peter Bogdanovich picture only mustered one other victory, for Ben Johnson in Best Supporting Actor. Exciting as Best Picture winner The French Connection is, it still isn't half the film The Last Picture Show is.

Over the years, I've see-sawed between Leachman and Burstyn in this category and, while I most certainly cannot fault the Academy's preference, I've come ever-so-slightly around to Burstyn after my most recent viewing. Let's, however, start with Leachman first.

From the moment the initially glum, fragile-looking Ruth graces the screen, we can intensely sense her feeling of abandonment, unloved by her husband and otherwise ignored by everyone else. That is, besides Sonny, also terribly lonely and in need of emotional satisfaction. Leachman and Bottoms have a heart-rending, if curious chemistry as their doomed romance begins. There is a sense that, deep down, Ruth and Sonny could be soulmates but the circumstances around them make such a unity improbable.

Ruth blossoms with vitality as their fling advances and deservedly rips Sonny to shreds when, after deserting her for three months to be with Jacy, he shows up at her front door. Leachman absolutely kills it in this scene, all the more stirring given the subdued fashion in which she portrays Ruth in the early-going. Sonny undoubtedly helped Ruth escape her depression but no way will she allow this kid to bring her back down. 

Ruth's evolution is one of the most compelling parts of The Last Picture Show and yet Burstyn, despite roughly half the screen time as Leachman, gets under my skin just as much, if not a tad more.

Leachman's Ruth and Burstyn's Lois are both unhappy women but where Ruth is all-out in despair, Lois is mostly just restless. Once the most gorgeous girl in Anarene, Texas, she now watches with disdain as her spoiled daughter flourishes with that title, winning and then crushing boys' hearts, not for any emotional fulfillment but just as something diverting to do, to pass the time in this ghost town. Lois, once exactly that person, now realizes those games got her nowhere and, about to hit age 40, sees little positive awaiting her on the horizon.

In perhaps the most affecting scene of the film, Lois, having just stopped Sonny and Jacy from eloping, reveals to Sonny that she was once the lover of Sam "the Lion," who earlier in the picture reflected (in a monologue delivered beautifully by Johnson) on a young woman who once gave him pleasure. Not only does Lois make it clear she feels lost without Sam, the man who inspired her and made her feel her most beautiful, but she even gets in a dig against her own daughter by admitting to Sonny that he was better off with Ruth.

This being among Burstyn's first appearances on the big screen, I can only imagine how taken aback audiences were by her stunning performance here. It's a vivid and fascinating turn that leaves a huge impact, despite only clocking in at about 10 minutes. 

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67. Martin Landau in Ed Wood (1994) (WINNER)

His competition...

Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction
Chazz Palmenteri, Bullets Over Broadway
Paul Scofield, Quiz Show
Gary Sinise, Forrest Gump

Landau portrays Bela Lugosi, once a star of the silver screen in the 1930s but by 1952 a washed-up morphine addict, barely making ends meet. He is rescued by Ed Wood (Johnny Depp), an aspiring filmmaker who idolizes Lugosi and casts him in his transsexual docudrama Glen or Glenda. They go on to make another irresistibly dreadful B-movie, Bride of the Monster, but Lugosi's declining health - and inability to afford proper rehabilitation - rapidly takes a toll on the Dracula icon. This performance marked Landau's third Oscar nomination and first win.

Oh, how I adore the Martin Landau comeback of the late-'80s/early-'90s. After well more than a decade slumming in B-movie (and eventually direct-to-video) fare, the brilliant character actor, of North by Northwest and Cleopatra fame, suddenly found himself working alongside the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, both of who directed Landau to Oscar nominations for Tucker: The Man and His Dream and Crimes and Misdemeanors, respectively. 

Then, five years after the Allen picture, Tim Burton (scorching hot after the Batman films and Edward Scissorhands and at last able to tackle any desired pet project) gave Landau the role of all roles, that of the legendary horror icon Bela Lugosi - an actor whose projects late in his career were about as depressing as the films Landau did through much of the '70s and '80s. 

Donning the remarkable, Oscar-winning Rick Baker/Ve Neill/Yolanda Toussieng makeup, Landau disappears into the role from the moment he graces the screen - in a coffin, fittingly, as Lugosi plans the arrangements for his own death. There is heaps to love in Ed Wood, from Depp's delightful turn in the title role to Stefan Czapsky's stunning cinematography, yet Landau all but manages to walk away with the picture, scenes without him lacking the sky-high verve of those with him.

As Lugosi, Landau is as heartbreaking as he is devastatingly funny. His recreation of the Glen or Glenda ("pull the strings!") and Bride of the Monster scenes are a hoot and boy does he let it rip when a fan of Lugosi's asks the star for his autograph...only to suggest the actor was the sidekick to Frankenstein star Boris Karloff. Not a wise move. 

As the film progresses and Lugosi's health worsens, Landau's portrayal exudes more and more fragility. Plucked out of rehab by Wood, given there are no funds left to support his treatment, Lugosi recites a monologue from Glen or Glenda before an adoring crowd on the sidewalk - one last grand bit of acting before his imminent end. Landau is simply astonishing from start to finish, fully embodying Lugosi and adding layer after layer to a man who was always seen in a one-note light on the screen.

Landau's competition in '94 was formidable - Palmenteri and Sinise are especially wonderful - but he deservedly ran away with the trophy. And no, this was no career Oscar but rather one of the all-time great performances to triumph in Best Supporting Actor.

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66. Natalie Portman in Jackie (2016)

Her competition...

Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Emma Stone, La La Land (WINNER)
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Portman portrays First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who, following the assassination of her husband, invites journalist Theodore White (Billy Crudup) to the family compound to discuss the legacy of the 35th U.S. president. Kennedy reflects on the glory days of the presidency, the horrors of that fall day in Dallas, Texas and the chaotic whirlwind of arrangements that followed. This performance marked Portman's third Oscar nomination.

I remain flabbergasted as to how Jackie, my favorite film of 2016, managed to find itself so egregiously shortchanged two awards seasons ago. Pablo Larrain's direction is visually stirring and haunting enough to rival Stanley Kubrick at his finest, the absorbing Noah Oppenheim sheds light on Kennedy in a fashion never seen before and the entire ensemble, even if the proceedings are largely a one-woman show, is dead-on convincing. 

Beyond that, you have Madeline Fontaine's glorious costumes, the extraordinary Stephane Fontaine cinematography, Mica Levi's stirring music and so on. It's an overwhelming cinematic experience, leaps and bounds more riveting than say, oh, I don't know, La La Land.

Of course, the heart and soul of the picture is Portman, who runs a roller coaster of emotions, playing out the highs of the Kennedy presidency, when the White House was filled with buoyancy and grand entertainment (and when she filed the famous A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy television special), to the devastation of that autumn day in Dallas. She shares fascinating, intimate scenes opposite the likes of John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard and Greta Gerwig - all in top form - but is really at her most mesmerizing when she has the screen all to herself (which is, thankfully, quite often).

Portman's Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan is a fabulous one too, no doubt, but it's occasionally upstaged by the visual insanity around her. Here, she's front and center, and has the prime opportunity to deliver a real master class in acting. In a way, I kind of wish she hadn't triumphed for Black Swan, not only because Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole) is superior that year, but also because her win created no urgency to award her again for Jackie. Ultimately, it was Huppert, not Portman, who emerged the greatest threat to preventing a Stone victory, not that such an upset came to fruition. 

Never striking a false note, Portman is Jackie Kennedy, through and through. It's one of the very best performances, Oscar nominated or not, from this decade.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

66. Natalie Portman, Jackie
67. Martin Landau, Ed Wood
68. Ellen Burstyn, The Last Picture Show
69. Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show
70. Jane Alexander, Testament
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 - holy shit, this list is getting epic. I've got not one, not two but three Best Actress winners, not to mention one of the all-time great Best Supporting Actress champions. Round out the quintet with a deliciously scary villain and you've got a fivesome guaranteed to send chills down your spine.