The Oscar 100: #50-46

This post marks Part 11 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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50. Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata (1978)

Her competition...

Ellen Burstyn, Same Time, Next Year
Jill Clayburgh, An Unmarried Woman
Jane Fonda, Coming Home (WINNER)
Geraldine Page, Interiors

Bergman portrays Charlotte Andergast, a renowned pianist who travels to Sweden to visit Eva (Liv Ullmann), the daughter she hasn't seen in seven years. The reunion immediately marks an uneasy affair for Charlotte, who long prioritized her career over the demands of motherhood. All the more pushing Charlotte out of her comfort zone is the realization that her other daughter Helena (Lena Nyman), who is developmentally disabled and who Charlotte had placed in an institution, has been living with Eva. This performance marked Bergman's seventh and final Oscar nomination.

If only Bergman hadn't inexplicably triumphed in Best Supporting Actress (for a nothing performance in Murder on the Orient Express), Autumn Sonata surely could have marked her third Oscar victory. She had the critics behind her but, having just prevailed a few years prior, there was negligible urgency to make Bergman the first performer in Oscar history to earn four acting trophies. Fonda, gracing the most commercially successful picture of the five Best Actress nominees, would ultimately take home the golden statue.

Over the course of The Oscar 100, I have written about both Clayburgh and Page - and Burstyn and Fonda are quite splendid too (this is really one of the all-time great Best Actress line-ups, if not the best) - but this really should have been Bergman's Oscar. It's a performance that towers over the trio of turns that previously delivered her victories (Gaslight, Anastasia and Murder on the Orient Express) and certainly it doesn't hurt to be featured in, for my money at least, the greatest of all Ingmar Bergman films.

Like Interiors, Autumn Sonata is a painfully somber affair, a picture not a breeze to sit through but a must-see nonetheless, for it sports some of the finest acting, writing and directing to ever grace the screen. Not only is Bergman magnificent but Ullmann is even better, also at her career-best, turning in one of the most forlorn performances I've ever seen in any medium.

As Bergman's Charlotte first enters the picture, we are introduced to an elegant and sophisticated woman who is a master at pleasantries but clearly ill-at-ease with anything much deeper, particularly when it concerns her daughters. From the get-go, there is a palpable sense of pain and resentment lurking beneath the surface between Charlotte and Eva and this tension fails to let up over the course of the proceedings. Moreover, Charlotte has already been in a fragile emotional state, still grieving the loss of a dear friend who recently lost his battle with cancer.

Yet, Charlotte hasn't been there for Eva in such tragic times, not even when the latter's little boy died. This is a woman who just cannot deal with the tough stuff, someone who has distracted herself with her career to avoid having to deal with such heartbreak. Now, however, in the same setting as her two daughters, two women wounded by the lack of relationship with their own mother, Charlotte has no choice but to face the damage she has done.

Bergman hardly, however, plays Charlotte as some one-note ice queen. There is a sense that Charlotte feels profound shame over her mothering (or lack thereof) and is genuinely heartbroken about the current state of her daughters. When, during an intense late-night discussion, Eva at last lets it rip, revealing to her mother all of the anguish she's been carrying around all of these years, the look on Charlotte's face is every bit as devastating as her daughter's outcry - there is no use trying to defend herself, as Eva's onslaught is absolutely dead-on. This is master class acting from both Bergman and Ullmann. 

By the time production began on Autumn Sonata, ultimately her final feature film, Bergman had been battling breast cancer for nearly five years. While Bergman would not succumb to this illness for another four years - and in fact graced the small screen one last time, with an Emmy-winning turn in A Woman Called Golda - Autumn Sonata does have the feel of one final, fierce roar on the silver screen, an actress aiming to top herself after a career full of splendid performances. And boy, did she ever.

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49 and 48. James Coburn and Nick Nolte in Affliction (1998) (WINNER - Coburn)

Their competition...

Robert Duvall, A Civil Action
Ed Harris, The Truman Show
Geoffrey Rush, Shakespeare in Love
Billy Bob Thornton, A Simple Plan

Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful (WINNER)
Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan
Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters
Edward Norton, American History X

Coburn portrays Glen Whitehouse, the abusive, alcoholic father of Wade (Nolte), the sheriff of a small New Hampshire town. Ridiculed by his father and loathed by his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt), Wade, also a heavy drinker, finds at least a glimmer of purpose through work. He becomes obsessed with an investigation into the death of a businessman, unconvinced by claims the man died from an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound. Wade's declining mental state is made all the worse by Glen, who relishes any opportunity to taunt his shattered son. These performances marked Coburn's first and only Oscar nomination and win and Nolte's second Oscar nomination.

For both Coburn and Nolte, the stars of a gloomy, scantly seen independent film (one not backed by a Miramax-level distributor), the 1998 awards season went about as splendidly as it could going into Oscar night. Neither race had a clear front-runner.

In Best Supporting Actor, the critics' favorite, Bill Murray in Rushmore, failed to surface on nominations morning. Likewise, the two Golden Globe winners up in Best Lead Actor, Jim Carrey in The Truman Show and Michael Caine in Little Voice, were missing in action. Harris won the Golden Globe, while Duvall triumphed at the SAG Awards and Benigni was victorious at the SAG Awards, though he wasn't even nominated at the Globes. Thornton, McKellen and Nolte all earned love from the critics' associations.

For Coburn, the veteran tough guy never before even nominated at the Oscars, the haphazard mess of Best Supporting Actor proved just unfocused enough to score the upset. For Nolte, sadly, he couldn't compete with Benigni and the Miramax machine that fiercely backed Life Is Beautiful. While Benigni's performance has only looked more cloying with time, Nolte's turn in Affliction remains a grueling gut-punch, among the most intense turns ever recognized in Best Actor. Coburn, for his part, is for sure among the most purely terrifying performances to ever earn an Oscar nomination, an embodiment of evil without ever becoming some one-note monster.

As the Paul Schrader picture opens, Nolte's Wade is already in awfully rough shape, at odds with his ex-wife and determined to secure custody of their daughter, even though their relationship too is hardly a stable one. No doubt, Wade yearns for the sort of steady, loving bond with his daughter that he could never have with his father but suffocating memories from Wade's childhood incessantly drive him to the bottle, making such a happy union all the more improbable. As his family turmoil worsens, he further tangles himself up in this murder investigation, which really only adds to his anxiety.

Through blood-curdling flashbacks, we see the abuse, both physical and verbal, Coburn's Glen put Wade and the rest of his family through. Decades later, Glen may be more grey but he still has the stamina to unleash fury on everyone and everything around him, seemingly hellbent on digging his own son further into a hole. The casting of Coburn is ingenious, as only a man of his daunting, barrel-chested stature could make someone like Nolte look so microscopic. 

As the film progresses, Wade grows more hopeless, both professionally and personally. His investigation is en route to nowhere (though he's convinced himself otherwise) and then his mother is found dead of hypothermia - a development Glen seemingly couldn't care less about. Inevitably, Wade will crack once and for all and oddly enough, it's sparked by a "compliment" from Glen, congratulating his son for acting like a "real man" after he injures his daughter. The fight that erupts between father and son is downright explosive and all too convincing. Making it all the more compulsive is the deranged sense of pride Glen clearly feels about this development, taking delight in Wade at last sinking to his level. 

For Coburn, whose filmography looked barely better than Charles Brosnan's in recent decades, Affliction was like a gift from heaven. Kudos to Schrader for seeing in Coburn the ability to absolutely soar in this role. It's a spectacularly scary performance.

Likewise, Nolte, who had a much better track record than Coburn (and, for my money, should have prevailed for The Prince of Tides in 1991), has never been better. Acting opposite the formidable Coburn, Nolte has never looked so fragile or sorrowful. He paints a man with a real heart and soul who, hard as he's tried, tragically cannot overcome the horrors of the past. 

Like Autumn Sonata, Affliction is a punishing watch that nonetheless demands to be seen for the incredible performances that grace it.

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47 and 46. Joan Allen and Anthony Hopkins in Nixon (1995)

Their competition...

Kathleen Quinlan, Apollo 13
Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite (WINNER)
Mare Winningham, Georgia
Kate Winslet, Sense and Sensibility

Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas (WINNER)
Richard Dreyfuss, Mr. Holland's Opus
Sean Penn, Dead Man Walking
Massimo Troisi, Il Postino

Allen and Hopkins portray Pat and Richard Nixon, the 37th first lady and president of the United States. Short on charisma but an exceptional political operator, Dick overcomes defeats for the presidency in 1960 and the California governorship in 1962 to seize the White House in 1968. Even as his position in Washington grows seemingly more secure, leading prospective opponents by high margins ahead of the 1972 race, his paranoia only worsens, resulting in the notorious Watergate scandal. Beside him through these countless highs and lows is Pat, both his most stalwart supporter and candid critic. These performances marked Allen's first and Hopkins' third Oscar nominations.

At more than three hours in length, Oliver Stone's Nixon is an exasperating whirlwind of a motion picture,  a tough film to finish in a single sitting and an effort not without its flaws. It is, however, also Stone's best and most absorbing film, which also happens to sport two of the most riveting performances to grace any picture in the '90s.

Despite negligibly resembling Pat and Richard Nixon, Allen and Hopkins are never anything less than dead-on convincing as the first lady and president. They look and feel like an inseparable couple who've been together for ages, living a life both extraordinary and excruciating. 

As Dick descends into madness, Pat is the lone person he can take comfort in, the one empathetic soul who will hold him when he's broken. While she has no qualms about giving her husband tough love, Pat also understands him better than anyone and knows the traumatic troubles of his past that made Dick the unsteady man he is today. 

Nixon is a picture all but owned by its leading man, as Hopkins dominates the proceedings with overwhelming vigor - that is, unless Allen is present too.

Despite an excessively starry ensemble that includes the likes of James Woods, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, E.G. Marshall, Mary Steenburgen and Paul Sorvino, just to name a few, Allen is the only one with the commanding screen presence to really go toe-to-toe with Hopkins, who plays Dick like a tragic, larger-than-life Shakespearean figure. Stone has never been the greatest at directing women on the big screen but in the case of Allen and Nixon, he managed to capture one of the fiercest, if not the greatest turn from one of the finest actresses of the stage and screen. 

Frankly, I wish there was even more of Pat in Nixon. At just a tad over half an hour of screen time, Pat is no cameo but in a film this prolonged, there are far too many long stretches without her. Still, it's a magnificent turn and, with Hopkins so mightily steering the ship, Nixon is never a snooze.

In their respective Oscar races, Hopkins, who'd just triumphed a few years earlier for The Silence of the Lambs, hadn't a prayer against front-runner Cage. Allen, the critics' favorite, had a more reasonable shot but ultimately couldn't overcome Sorvino and the Academy's penchant for awarding Woody Allen pictures in Best Supporting Actress (odds are, Winslet finished ahead of her too). Hopkins and Allen weren't the least bit helped by the commercial failure of Nixon, a nearly $50 million production that spent zero weeks in the box office top 10. 

Nixon was and is a tough sell for even the most patient of moviegoers but what a shame it is if its screen time prevents folks from beholding the dazzling turns from Hopkins and Allen here. They are sublime.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

46. Anthony Hopkins, Nixon
47. Joan Allen, Nixon
48. Nick Nolte, Affliction
49. James Coburn, Affliction
50. Ingrid Bergman, Autumn Sonata
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 - holy moly, this list is getting good. I've got five gangbusters leading performances, including two winners; one of the finest stars of the silver screen in his first Oscar-nominated turn; the sole Steven Spielberg-directed performance to grace this list; and the actor who should've knocked out Raging Bull's Robert De Niro for Oscar glory.