The Oscar 100: #55-51

This post marks Part 10 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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55. Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Her competition...

Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins (WINNER)
Anne Bancroft, The Pumpkin Eater
Sophia Loren, Marriage Italian Style
Debbie Reynolds, The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Stanley portrays Myra Savage, a middle-class British housewife who, with the assistance of her doormat of a husband Billy (Richard Attenborough), moonlights as a medium. Hungry for fame and credibility, she devises a scheme in which Billy will kidnap the child of a wealthy couple and Myra, supposedly using her psychic abilities, will help the parents and law enforcement in the investigation. The plan proves peachy keen early on but, with Myra growing increasingly delusional, such success may prove short-lived. This performance marked Stanley's first Oscar nomination.

Oh, how I wish we were blessed with more of Kim Stanley on the big screen.

One of the brightest stars of Broadway in the 1950s, and a persistent presence on live television dramas during this time, Stanley studied under the likes of Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg and would go on to influence countless aspiring actors with her intense, lived-in performances. Over her entire career, however, Stanley only graced the big screen on half a dozen occasions, one of which was an uncredited, albeit legendary turn as the voice of the adult "Scout" Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Between 1966's The Three Sisters and 1982's Frances (for which she earned her second and final Oscar nomination), Stanley was entirely absent from cinema and her final turn would arrive the following year, in The Right Stuff.

Seance on a Wet Afternoon, the finest of all Stanley performances, is an unimpeachable master class in acting, a stirring tour de force directed by the terrific Bryan Forbes, who also captured two other leading ladies (Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room and Edith Evans in The Whisperers) in particularly sublime (and Oscar-nominated) form in this decade. 

The picture is a splendidly suspenseful affair as Stanley's Myra enters the proceedings in already frenzied form and further descends into madness with each passing minute. As her plan moves into motion, Myra at first looks like a mad genius who could somehow pull this whole charade off. Then, as complications arise, Myra turns unsteady and desperate, en route to orchestrating her own downfall. Stanley is especially a wonder to behold in the seance scenes, the chilling sight of this woman who clearly believes she holds these paranormal powers. Key to her performance, and the film overall, is how strikingly grounded in reality it feels, hardly some bonkers cartoon creation. 

Stanley has a marvelous rapport with Attenborough who, as an actor, has never been in more compelling form. More than a tad reminiscent of Who's Afraid of Virginia's Woolf's Martha and George, Stanley's Myra is an unhinged, larger-than-life force who steamrolls Attenborough's Billy. Yet, the more subdued Billy hardly fades into the scenery. Attenborough is fascinating to watch and he and Stanley ring so very true as a couple. 

That awards season found the stars of heavy British dramas, Stanley and Bancroft, earn the bulk of recognition, as critics most embraced the former and the latter claimed victory at the Cannes Film Festival, plus earned a Golden Globe. It's hard not to suspect they basically split the vote in a way, paving the path for the decidedly sunnier Mary Poppins star to claim victory.

Love ya, Julie Andrews, but you're no Kim Stanley here.

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54. Teri Garr in Tootsie (1982)

Her competition...

Glenn Close, The World According to Garp
Jessica Lange, Tootsie (WINNER)
Kim Stanley, Frances
Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria

Garr portrays Sandy Lester, the emotionally fragile friend of fellow struggling actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman). Sandy auditions for the role of new hospital administrator Emily Kimberly on the smash daytime soap Southwest General. While she, per usual, proves unsuccessful, Michael reinvents himself as the irresistibly feisty Dorothy Michaels and grabs the part himself. Sandy, unaware of Michael's charade, becomes romantically involved with her longtime pal, a development threatened by Michael's infatuation with television co-star Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange). This performance marked Garr's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.

Tootsie, the greatest comedy of all-time, sports one of the most gangbusters ensembles to ever grace the screen. Yet, even with all of Hoffman, Lange, Charles Durning, George Gaynes, Dabney Coleman, Sydney Pollack, Bill Murray and so on absolutely killing it, an MVP does emerge through all of this greatness. Her name is, of course, Teri Garr.

I wholeheartedly adore Garr but would have to concede she, more often than not, has been underused or misused on the big screen. She's fabulous in Young Frankenstein, for instance, but is saddled with rather ho-hum roles in the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Black Stallion - both terrific pictures but scant meat on the bone for Garr to chew. This decidedly is not the case in Tootsie. While Garr only earns about 15 minutes of screen time, she juices each second for all it's worth. It's an endearing and side-splittingly funny scene-stealer of the grandest kind.

Michael's climb to acting fame may be an exasperating one but Sandy really has it even tougher. Where losing out on a role only seems to embolden his efforts, such a response only brings Sandy further down. When we meet her, she's seemingly at the end of her journey in New York, ready to go back to the comforts of home in San Diego. Worse, she winds up in an inevitably doomed romance with Michael, who wasn't even all that interested in Sandy in that way before he fell for Julie. 

Yet, Garr never lets Sandy come off as pathetic or vanquished. In her most stirring scene, Sandy, at her wit's end with Michael, having been blown off by him time and time again, fiercely lashes out at her old friend after he reveals he's in love with another woman. ("I never said I love you! I don't care about I love you. I just don't like to be lied to!") She refuses to be anyone's, well, Tootsie.

Garr has ingenious little moments too, like when she surfaces from the bathroom at Michael's surprise birthday party - she's been trapped in there for more than half an hour, without help from anybody, yet she's able to emerge and go right back to socializing. This is a woman who's all too used to being ignored, yet she's not about to let that get too deep under her skin. Watch Garr, too, after she first sleeps with Michael and, already worrying about the future of their relationship, asks him if she'll ever see him again. She proclaims that sex changes things and, in a brilliant bit of acting, lifts up the bed sheet to take a peek at her body. 

Sadly, Garr never had a real prayer on Oscar night, nor did her three fellow losing nominees. Lange's inevitable loss in Best Actress to Meryl Streep (Sophie's Choice), having been dead-on brilliant in Frances (a performance that would have prevailed in nearly any other year), ensured a consolation prize was in the works down in Best Supporting Actress. Furthermore, awarding Lange was a way to throw a bone to Tootsie, a film otherwise squashed on the big night by Gandhi

In hindsight, however, Garr is superior to Lange and Tootsie is leaps and bounds more satisfying than the Richard Attenborough epic.
 

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53. Susan Tyrrell in Fat City (1972)

Her competition...

Jeannie Berlin, The Heartbreak Kid
Eileen Heckart, Butterflies Are Free (WINNER)
Geraldine Page, Pete 'n Tillie
Shelley Winters, The Poseidon Adventure

Tyrrell portrays Oma, a cream sherry-guzzling barfly. Though Oma has a boyfriend (Curtis Cokes), she becomes romantically involved with Tully (Stacy Keach), a washed-up boxer and fellow alcoholic who is desperate for a comeback in the ring. Tully's uphill climb is negligibly helped by his relationship with Oma, which proves a wobbly affair. This performance marked Tyrrell's first and only Oscar nomination.

Ah, Susan Tyrrell - a classic case of a spectacularly talented actress who Hollywood hadn't a clue what to do with. When she first graced the New York stage in Cactus Flower, as an understudy for Toni (played by Brenda Vaccaro on Broadway and later by an Oscar-winning Goldie Hawn on the big screen), the irresistibly eccentric Tyrrell earned raves and, over the following four years, would appear in four more Broadway productions.

A shot at film stardom for this Broadway baby was inevitable and, for too short a time, Tyrrell found mainstream success. First, there was Henry Hathaway's western Shoot Out, which cast Tyrrell opposite the legendary Gregory Peck. Her Oscar nomination for Fat City came the following year and then, two years after that, Tyrell landed a rich supporting role opposite Gene Hackman and Liv Ullmann in Jan Troell's Zandy's Bride.

From there, however, the pickings grew slim. Over the coming decade, there was memorable turns in future cult classics like Andy Warhol's Bad and Forbidden Zone, plus a plethora of appearances in direct-to-video fare in the 1980s, but never again would Tyrrell land a role on the rich level of Oma in John Huston's Fat City. That isn't to say Tyrrell didn't bring her A-game to even the most eyebrow-raising of fare but, not unlike fellow '70s Supporting Actress nominees Karen Black and Linda Blair, it was clear the industry hadn't an idea how to utilize this striking and unusual actress.

Among the most convincing drunks to ever grace the screen (even more so than Milland in The Lost Weekend and Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, and about on-par with Dunaway and Rourke in Barfly), Tyrrell's Oma is the most fascinating of hot messes. You can practically see the alcohol seeping through her pores as Oma looks liable to fall flat on her face at any moment. Yet, this trainwreck also has the biggest of hearts. Clearly not emotionally fulfilled by boyfriend Earl, Oma falls head over heels for Keach's Tully, another lost soul who drowns his many sorrows in liquor.

What's so heartbreaking is there's always a sense the Oma-Tully relationship will inevitably prove short-lived, that he's too distracted and overwhelmed by his flailing career and that she will never actually leave Earl. Huston doesn't sugarcoat the proceedings in the slightest - everything feels remarkably grounded in reality, even more so than the decidedly more optimistic Rocky a few years later.

Unthinkable as it sounds, I suspect there's a fair chance Tyrrell finished dead last in this category. Heckart and Page were viewed as supremely overdue for Oscar glory, Winters was the soft front-runner for her memorable turn in The Poseidon Adventure and Berlin, daughter of the beloved Elaine May, was the critics' favorite.

Fine was her competition was, however, I don't think any of the other contenders come even remotely close to achieving what Tyrrell does in Fat City. It's an exquisite performance from a true chameleon of a character actress who deserved a far better career than what came to fruition.

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52. Patricia Neal in Hud (1963) (WINNER)

Her competition...

Leslie Caron, The L-Shaped Room
Shirley MacLaine, Irma la Douce
Rachel Roberts, This Sporting Life
Natalie Wood, Love with the Proper Stranger

Neal portrays Alma Brown, housekeeper to the Bannon family in Texas. She is pursued by two of the Bannon men, the self-centered, womanizing Hud (Paul Newman) and Hud's teenage nephew Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde) who, as of late, has been looking more up to his uncle than his more principled grandfather Homer (Melvyn Douglas). Alma finds herself attracted to the hard-drinking Hud but hesitates to reciprocate his affections, fearful such courtship will end like past onerous relationships. This performance marked Neal's first Oscar nomination and only win.

By the time Neal earned her Oscar for Hud, she'd had nearly 20 big screen credits under her belt, made a plethora of appearances on thesmall screen and graced Broadway productions of The Children's Hour, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Miracle Worker. She was en route to an Anne Bancroft/Joanne Woodward-level career until tragedy struck when, a mere two years following production on Hud, Neal was sidelined by a series of aneurysms which, for three weeks, sent her into a coma. Neal would, over the coming years, recover and rebound, regaining her ability to speak and walk and eventually returning to Best Actress with a lovely performance in The Subject Was Roses. Still, it's a damn shame that grand momentum she'd built into the early '60s came to such a halt. 

Neal in Hud is a classic conundrum of Lead or Supporting. At just a tad over 20 minutes of screen time, Neal does not grace the screen for much of the proceedings yet, not unlike say, Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it's one of those powerful turns that stays with you, even when she's not on screen. Much as I adore this performance, I'd actually be inclined to place her in Best Supporting Actress - vis a vis her competition in Best Lead Actress, Neal's turn clearly has a more Supporting feel, even if it is vastly superior to the other four recognized performances. 

Neal's is perhaps the least showy of all performances to earn the Best Actress Oscar. As the lonesome Alma, working to suppress her feelings for the reckless but dashing Hud, Neal is in remarkably unaffected form, yet there's never any doubt what's lingering on her mind. In comparison to the the trio of men, Alma is thinly written and arguably could have been left out of the picture altogether, yet Neal's gripping portrayal of the character makes her feel essential. 

Even when Alma isn't speaking, Neal conveys a palpable sense of vulnerability and, through mere glances at Hud, paints a woman clearly intrigued by hasty stud before her - no doubt, had he arrived years ago, before other life experiences, she would have become involved. She is aroused by the stories he tells of relations with other women, yet has built up the strength to sway away Hud's many advances. The two actors have incredible chemistry as Hud yearns to move closer to Alma, only for her to take the necessary steps back. 

That Neal is so subdued for the bulk of her performance makes it all the more affecting when Alma breaks down toward the end of her appearance in the picture, bidding farewell to Lonnie and, of course, Hud, who realizes he'll never forget her as the one who got away.

The decision to place Neal in Best Lead Actress made for an unpredictable category going into Oscar night - had she been down in Supporting, odds are Caron would have triumphed, with MacLaine not terribly far behind. Alas, the Hail Mary in Lead worked just splendidly - one of the Academy's most inspired choices for the prize.

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51. Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Her competition...

Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking (WINNER)
Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
Sharon Stone, Casino
Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility

Streep portrays Francesca Johnson, a wife and mother who, while her family is away on a trip, embarks on a brief, tender affair with Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), a National Geographic photographer visiting to capture the bridges of Madison County, Iowa. Francesca finds herself at a painstaking crossroads - she can continue her humdrum existence or run away and travel the world with the man who so intensely feels like her soulmate. This performance marked Streep's 10th Oscar nomination.

It may sound unfathomable today but, in 1995, both Streep and Eastwood were in need of big screen comebacks. Streep's pictures from the year prior - The House of the Spirits and The River Wild - didn't exactly send audiences head over heels, nor did Eastwood's most recent effort, the 1993 release A Perfect World

Robert James Waller's best-seller The Bridges of Madison County, a misty-eyed romance about an Italian war bride and the dashing photographer who rolls into town - hardly had the looks of an Eastwood production on paper. Yet, his adaptation proved an unlikely match made in heaven, even after Waller fiercely advocated for Isabella Rossellini, not Streep, to take on the role of Francesca. 

Streep may be divine in the likes of Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge and so on but, for my money, she has never been better than in Eastwood's picture. How on earth have they not worked together since?

Under Eastwood's sumptuous direction - never has the camera been so in love with her - Streep looks downright ravishing. Her chemistry with Eastwood is less sizzling than it is something simply very sincere and special. This is a sensitive and delicate picture that, rightfully so, takes its sweet time in tracing its characters' journey. 

For me, The Bridges of Madison County has long brought to mind David Lean's Summertime, perhaps the most underrated vehicle of Katharine Hepburn's career. Neither Bridges nor Summertime necessarily marks the showiest, most extravagant turn of Streep's or Hepburn's careers, yet there's something truly extraordinary and improbable to replicate about their work. It's as if these legendary leading ladies at last found the directors best-suited to their sky-high talents and movie magic came to fruition.

When I reflect upon Streep's filmography, I cannot think of a more affecting scene than that of Francesca at the most painstaking of crossroads. With her pleasant but passionless husband beside her and newfound love Robert mere feet away, waiting in his car for Francesca to make her move to him, she faces the most grueling and unfair of decisions. It's an experience that's proves just as punishing for us as it does for Francesca.

Yet, at the end of the day, Streep was never going to win in 1995. With two Oscars up her sleeve, there was (not yet) much urgency to award her a third. The overdue candidate and category front-runner was Sarandon, though Shue and Stone had bases of support too. Odds are, Streep even finished behind Thompson. 

Streep may have been hopeless on Oscar night but that hardly detracts from the exceptional nature of her performance - the best in a career full of incredible turns.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

51. Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
52. Patricia Neal, Hud
53. Susan Tyrrell, Fat City
54. Teri Garr, Tootsie
55. Kim Stanley, Seance on a Wet Afternoon
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 - the upper half of the Oscar 100 makes a quick pit stop in the '70s before diving into the '90s with two pairs of performers from the same pictures. If you thought the past 50 performances have been knockouts, just wait 'til you see what the following 10 weeks bring!