The Oscar 100: #60-56

This post marks Part 9 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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60. Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies (1996)

Her competition...

Diane Keaton, Marvin's Room
Frances McDormand, Fargo (WINNER)
Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient
Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves

Blethyn portrays Cynthia Purley, a white, working class London woman barely making ends meet for herself and her daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). Lonely and on shaky terms with her family, Cynthia's despondent existence receives a startling jolt in the form of Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a successful black optometrist who is revealed to be the daughter Cynthia gave up at birth. After some initial hesitation, Cynthia embraces Hortense and even invites her to a family barbecue, all the more testing Cynthia's uneasy relationship with her kin. This performance marked Blethyn's first Oscar nomination.

Previously best known for her work on the small screen in the U.K. (which is to say, barely known among American audiences), Blethyn exploded onto the big screen at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where she scored Best Actress honors and her film, Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, took home the Palme d'Or. Blethyn would go on to earn raves upon the film's fall U.S. release and later pick up a scattering of critics' awards, plus a Golden Globe and, of course, the BAFTA Award. Alas, McDormand's victory at the SAG Awards all but baked the cake in Best Actress going into Oscar night. It was always going to be a tall order for Blethyn to triumph with two other Brits (Scott Thomas and Watson) in the running, plus Secrets & Lies wasn't terribly commercially successful stateside.

Delightful as McDormand is, however, I don't think she holds a candle to Blethyn's magnificent turn. This is one of the very best performances of the '90s, nearly the richest of all of the decade's Best Actress nominees.

As Secrets & Lies opens, Blethyn's Cynthia is the most forlorn of sights, a woman living paycheck to paycheck with a daughter who hardly shows her affection or appreciation. Cynthia clearly sees in Roxanne her former self, someone physically appealing who could at least succeed in drawing the attention of men - an ability Cynthia no longer has, though she's ultimately too downcast to give into feeling resentful of her daughter. Blethyn paints a woman who desperately could use a simple hug, who has nobody to find emotional fulfillment through, including from her brother (Timothy Spall, also brilliant). Blethyn gives Cynthia a rather outlandish exterior but there's no doubt of the sadness suffocating her underneath.

Watching Cynthia amidst the entrance of Hortense into her life is absolutely fascinating. First, as expected, she's stunned beyond belief, incapable of believing this is all really happening. Then, no hyperbole, in basically one of the greatest scenes ever captured on film, Cynthia concedes that she is indeed Hortense's mother, giving Blethyn the opportunity to show how an emotional breakdown should really be portrayed on the screen. 

What happens after this is just as compelling, as Cynthia wholeheartedly embraces Hortense and suddenly, probably for the first time in her life, feels a sense of pride, having somehow managed to produce a daughter so smart and prosperous. Making the proceedings all the more affecting is just how convincing Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste end up coming off as a mother and daughter - they hardly look alike, yet have a rapport and chemistry that is sensational.

Blethyn's performance isn't exactly a subdued one but who cares? Cynthia rings painfully true and her emotionally journey throughout Secrets & Lies is the most compelling of cinema. It's a breathtaking turn from an actress who unfortunately never scored a follow-up on nearly the same level.

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59. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949) (WINNER)

Her competition...

Jeanne Crain, Pinky
Susan Hayward, My Foolish Heart
Deborah Kerr, Edward, My Son
Loretta Young, Come to the Stable

De Havilland portrays Catherine Sloper, the lonesome daughter of wealthy doctor Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). While Catherine stands to inherit her father's vast fortune, she has never felt from him the deep affection he gave to his late wife. This lack of love makes Catherine fall all the harder for the dashing Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), an enchanting young man who begins courting her from the moment they meet. Dr. Sloper, however, is none too pleased, convinced Morris is exclusively interested in the money Catherine will someday inherit. This performance marked de Havilland's fifth and final Oscar nomination and second win.

Gosh, de Havilland must have been the lock of all locks venturing into Oscar night. Her sublime performance aside, this is, for my money at least, actually one of the all-time most lackluster Best Actress affairs. Crain is serviceable but upstaged by all of her supporting cast (Ethel Waters especially); Hayward is grating in a picture that was so dreadful, it convinced J.D. Salinger (author of the short story it was based upon) to never again allow his source material to be adapted to the screen; Kerr is fine but has no business being in Lead; and finally, Young is very pleasant in a very pleasant and negligible film. Who on earth was runner-up?

Anyway, this post isn't about that quartet of actresses but rather de Havilland, who is devastatingly good in William Wyler's The Heiress, somehow the last film to earn her Oscar recognition.

De Havilland's Catherine is such a tragically shy and fragile sight as the picture opens, you fear the slightest touch might be enough to shatter her. All of this time spent floundering in the shadow of her apparent goddess of her mother, and her father's incessant putting her down as inferior to his late wife, has all too clearly taken a toll on this woman. While de Havilland physically deglams for the role, she also vividly exudes the fatigue and melancholy of someone who, for far too long, has not felt loved.

Well, that of course changes with the entrance of the charming Morris (Clift, in one of his many stunning turns from the '40s/'50s), who awakens in Catherine a vitality that surely hasn't seen the light of day in quite some time. The de Havilland-Clift romance nearly recalls the awe-inspiring chemistry between Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun. There's a sense Catherine knows that Morris may indeed just be in it for the money but that long-lost emotional feeling is so intense, it might be worth diving into a marriage anyway.

De Havilland also shares stirring scenes opposite Richardson, who frankly, appears hellbent on out-acting his leading lady with a more theatrical delivery. Alas, he only serves to make de Havilland's Catherine all more empathetic and convincing a heroine. 

Catherine's evolution, as she's ultimately abandoned by Morris, only for him to return several years later, determined to win her back, is enthralling stuff and de Havilland is pitch-perfect every step of the way, including in that unforgettable final shot. This is a legit superstar of the silver screen who wholly deserved all five of her Oscar nominations, yet the other four, even Gone with the Wind, just aren't quite on this same sky-high level. It's a magnificent performance.

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58. Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind (1956) (WINNER)

Her competition...

Mildred Dunnock, Baby Doll
Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed
Mercedes McCambridge, Giant
Patty McCormack, The Bad Seed

Malone portrays Marylee Hadley, the sex-crazed, hard-drinking daughter of an oil tycoon (Robert Keith). Marylee pines for the dashing Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), a geologist who works for the Hadleys, who in turn is enamored with Lucy (Lauren Bacall), the unhappy wife of Kyle (Robert Stack), Marylee's insecure brother. Hellbent on throwing a wrench into this love triangle, Marylee suggests to Kyle that Mitch and Lucy are lovers and that Lucy is carrying Mitch's child. This performance marked Malone's first and only Oscar nomination and win. 

Heavens, what a deliciously campy category! For some time, I was actually partial to Heckart's glorious hot mess of a performance in The Bad Seed but in recent years, having grown fond of all things Douglas Sirk, have come strongly around to supporting Malone's victory. All of these nominees are, however, quite memorable.

Malone is absolutely fearless in Written on the Wind, taking Marylee to exciting and alluring places that a less audacious actress may have missed. Making her turn stand out all the more is the decision by Hudson and Bacall to inexplicably play this trashy material completely straight - rarely have these two stars come off so bland or been so upstaged by their supporting co-stars (like Malone, Stack totally gets the flamboyant feeling Sirk is going for). Even with Hudson and Bacall in lackluster form, however, Written on the Wind proves grand entertainment, if for Malone's contribution alone. 

Shot in glorious Technicolor, Malone owns the screen every time she graces it. Her Marylee is a shamelessly spoiled nymphomaniac, a woman who bounces from man to man to fill the emptiness from her unrequited love for Hudson's Mitch. Sirk and the camera are infatuated with the star - even Frank Skinner's music perks up when Marylee is front and center. 

While Hudson and Bacall phone it in, Malone finds a way of surprising in nearly every scene, feasting on Robert Wilder's wicked dialogue as Marylee becomes hellbent on blowing up the picture's love triangle. Malone mambos like no other has ever mambo-ed on the screen before, has that stunning scene by the lake opposite Hudson and completely kills it in the final courtroom scene, culminating in that incredible final shot that all but sets in stone that Malone owns this picture.

Malone is altogether provocative, pathetic and enthralling - an unforgettable turn made all the more absorbing by Sirk's striking vision.

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57. Geraldine Page in Interiors (1978)

Her competition...

Ingrid Bergman, Autumn Sonata
Ellen Burstyn, Same Time, Next Year
Jill Clayburgh, An Unmarried Woman
Jane Fonda, Coming Home (WINNER)

Page portrays Eve, an interior decorator whose ceaseless negativity has made life miserable for husband Arthur (E.G. Marshall) and daughters Renata (Diane Keaton), Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) and Flyn (Kristin Griffith). A profoundly unhappy woman, Eve attempts suicide after Arthur's declaration that he wishes to be separated from his wife. The entrance of gaudy new wife-to-be Pearl (Maureen Stapleton) pushes the family into deeper turmoil. This performance marked Page's sixth Oscar nomination.

When F. Murray Abraham took to the stage at the 1985 Oscars and proclaimed Page "the greatest actress in the English language," such wasn't hyperbole. Then on her eighth Oscar nomination, Page was even more overdue than say, Glenn Close is viewed today. It's a damn shame it took so long for the Academy to come around, and to ultimately recognize her for that performance - not that Page isn't in perfectly fine form in The Trip to Bountiful but it just isn't a turn on the same masterful level as say, her spellbinding work in Woody Allen's Interiors.

Speaking of characters in dire need of a hug, Page's Eve is among the saddest sights I've ever seen on screen and surely the more despairing presence in an Allen picture. It's a performance on the fence between Lead and Supporting - odds are, she could have triumphed in the latter category, instead of batting it out with unimpeachable leading turns in the former - but Page, even if she doesn't grace the screen for a majority of the proceedings, always feels right there, lingering in the atmosphere.

Eve is a doomed woman, as exasperating as she is empathetic. She always seems right on the cusp of falling apart for good, so, when Marshall's Arthur tells her at church that their marriage is officially over, that he's fallen for Stapleton's Pearl, it's inevitable that she'll lose it. Page may not be an actress known for her grand subtlety but in this particular scene, she brings real nuance to Eve, painting a woman whose scant life left in her eyes has now vanished for eternity. She may be a plenty intelligent and talented woman but there is no hope left for her, no light to be found on the horizon. 

Page has dynamite chemistry with all of her co-stars, perhaps Marshall most of all but also Hurt, whose Joey seems most affected of all by her mother's constant misery.

Over his career, Allen has directed several marvelous actresses in the role of family matriarch, from Colleen Dewhurst in Annie Hall to Maureen O'Sullivan in Hannah and Her Sisters and Elaine Stritch in September - all remarkable performances, yet none as much an intense gut-punch like Page in Interiors. It's one of the fiercest turns to ever grace one of his pictures and, for my money, the best performance of Page's storied career.

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56. Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street (1953)

Her competition...

Grace Kelly, Mogambo
Geraldine Page, Hondo
Marjorie Rambeau, Torch Song
Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity (WINNER)

Ritter portrays Moe Williams, a New York hustler who services criminals as often as she does law enforcement. In the role of informant, she's brought in by police who are on the hunt for Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), a pickpocket and friend of Moe's who unwittingly got his hands on a piece of top-secret microfilm wanted by the Communists. What begins as business as usual for the crafty Moe takes a troubling turn as she finds herself faced with a dilemma - rat out her pal or take a fatal fall herself. This performance marked Ritter's fourth Oscar nomination.

Oh, how I adore this woman. Has there ever been a scene she didn't steal?

With that said, Ritter would, far more often than not, play a certain type of character, a spirited, salt-of-the-earth housekeeper or mother who serves as the voice of reason. In the 1950s and 1960s, nobody could play this part better. Over her remarkable career, Ritter would earn half a dozen Oscar nominations and, much as I worship her, I actually would have awarded her on a mere one occasion, for Pickup on South Street, one of the few pictures that refreshingly provided Ritter the opportunity to flex her acting muscles outside of her usual routine.

Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street is a gangbusters piece of film noir, one of the all-time great crime thrillers. The likes of Widmark and the alluring Jean Peters (who plays Candy, the ex-hooker who just dated a Communist spy and had her wallet stolen by Widmark's Skip) would never again find roles so rich, nor would Fuller, despite many terrific pictures, deliver another film on this sky-high sublime level. Yet, for all of the film's merits, it's Ritter, even with rather scant screen time, who walks away with the proceedings.

The evolution of Ritter's Moe Williams throughout the picture is captivating to behold, as she first enters the police station ready to do business with law enforcement - that is, of course, for the right price. Moe's physical appearance may be that of a pleasant old lady but, the moment she opens her mouth, there is no doubt of the crafty, devious woman underneath that exterior. Yet, there is also a sadness to Moe - she is, after all, amassing all of this money to save up for her own funeral. 

As the film progresses, Moe begins to exude senses of uncertainty and vulnerability, torn between giving up information on her friend and the obvious financial benefits of doing so. In the most powerful scene of Ritter's entire career, Moe, after failing to convince Skip to provide the film to the government, is confronted by that aforementioned Communist spy (Richard Kiley) in her own apartment. Already on the verge of death, her strength dwindling by the day, she decides to face the consequences of not ratting Skip out. She lashes out at the spy and the world around her, fed up for the last time at the underworld she's spent her life in.

Moe may enter Pickup on South Street looking like merely another one of Ritter's many colorful creations but by the end, she's among the most heartbreaking sights you'll ever have seen on the silver screen. 

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

56. Thelma Ritter, Pickup on South Street
57. Geraldine Page, Interiors
58. Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind
59. Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress
60. Brenda Blethyn, Secrets & Lies
61. Faye Dunaway, Network
62. Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
63. Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire
64. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
65. Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate
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 - so, I just noticed that 23 of the past 25 inductees into the Oscar 100 have been women. Well, get ready for another quintet of ladies! Meryl Streep is back, plus I've got one hell of a Best Actress winner, two fabulous one-time Oscar nominees and a chilling rare big screen turn from a sublime star of the stage.