The Oscar 100: #65-61

This post marks Part 8 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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65. Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Her competition...

Mary Badham, To Kill a Mockingbird
Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker (WINNER)
Shirley Knight, Sweet Bird of Youth
Thelma Ritter, Birdman of Alcatraz

Lansbury portrays Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin, mother of Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who earned the Medal of Honor for his service in the Korean War. A staunch McCarthy-era right-winger, Mrs. Iselin is married to the U.S. Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), an ineffective legislator she desperately wants to see elected to higher office. The Iselins' road to the White House is dependent on Shaw, who loathes them for exploiting his heroism for political gain but, ever since returning home, has also found himself oddly losing control over his actions. This performance marked Lansbury's third (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Ooh, I get goosebumps just thinking about this performance!

And to think the sublime Lansbury nearly missed out on this role, one envisioned by star Frank Sinatra as being perfect for, of all people, Lucille Ball. Ball would later get her revenge, wrestling away from Lansbury the title role of Mame in the 1974 film adaptation, albeit to disastrous results that ended Ball's career on the big screen.

Lansbury roars her way into The Manchurian Candidate from the moment she first graces the screen, pouncing her way onto the tarmac, where Mrs. Iselin is to be reunited with her son, returning home from the war. Lansbury wisely hides the manipulative genius of Mrs. Iselin early on, painting her as a woman perhaps just as fruitless as her lawmaker husband. That Mrs. Iselin reeks of a nothingburger makes it all the more startling when Lansbury begins to peel off the layers to this woman, slowly but surely revealing her to be a sinister monster with no qualms about cruelly using her son for political gain.

Unlike a certain Oscar winner who would go on to (much less successfully) tackle this role in a (vastly inferior) remake, Lansbury never much chews the scenery or grandstands. Mrs. Iselin always feels grounded in reality, which really makes her all the more chilling. Lansbury is especially sensational in her final extended scene opposite Harvey, in which Mrs. Iselin lays upon her son the most unsettling and notorious of movie smooches. Talk about a Mother from Hell. 

The Manchurian Candidate holds up awfully well, leaps and bounds more tense and compelling than the bulk of today's political thrillers. Yet, despite all of the talent involved, both in front of and behind the screen, Lansbury all but walks away with the picture, her pungent presence lingering even when she's not on screen. 

Even with stiff competition, including the brilliant Duke and Badham and lesser but still memorable Knight and Ritter, Lansbury was favored to pick up the Best Supporting Actress trophy. Alas, it would be Duke taking home the prize - in hindsight, perhaps not the most jaw-dropping of surprises, given the otherwise lukewarm reception for The Manchurian Candidate. Surely, the Academy's preference is not to be faulted but I suspect we can agree Lansbury would have triumphed for this turn in most years.

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64. Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment (1983) (WINNER)

Her competition...

Jane Alexander, Testament
Meryl Streep, Silkwood
Julie Walters, Educating Rita
Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment

MacLaine portrays Aurora Greenway, the irresistibly brash mother of Emma (Debra Winger). Aurora's relationship with her daughter is a tumultuous one, especially on the heels of Emma's marriage to Flap (Jeff Daniels), a man Aurora isn't terribly fond of. Aurora herself finds love, becoming romantically involved with the charming former astronaut (Jack Nicholson) who for years has lived next door without much interaction. This performance marked MacLaine's sixth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and first victory.

All too often, I've come across fellow awards season aficionados who write off MacLaine's Oscar victory as something of a mere career win. This isn't entirely nonsensical sentiment, given how obscenely overdue MacLaine was by 1983 - she should have handily triumphed 23 years earlier for The Apartment over Elizabeth Taylor and her inexplicable Oscar-winning turn in BUtterfield 8 - but I still don't think it's fair at all. She is absolutely fabulous in Terms of Endearment and, despite her incredible competition, certainly deserved to triumph.

Like all parties in the James L. Brooks picture, MacLaine masters a challenging balancing act between hilarity and heartbreak.

There are those endearing and often outrageously funny scenes opposite Nicholson, with whom you can tell MacLaine had a ball finally working opposite. Then, of course, there is the latter half of the film, with the onset of Emma's illness, which gives MacLaine the opportunity to tear up the screen with scenes like the legendary "give my daughter the shot" moment and Aurora knocking some sense into her stubborn grandson. I'm even more taken, however, with the quieter moments, like Aurora's uneasy lunch with Flap and her final heartbreaking moments with Emma. 

Sinking her teeth into Brooks' sparkling screenplay, MacLaine crafts an absorbing and altogether original character and, while she does overwhelmingly dominate much of the proceedings, MacLaine has marvelous chemistry opposite all of her co-stars and helps keep everyone on the top of their game. In a career full of memorable turns, this is perhaps MacLaine's best of all, a richly deserved Oscar winner.

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63. Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) (WINNER)

Her competition...

Katharine Hepburn, The African Queen
Eleanor Parker, Detective Story
Shelley Winters, A Place in the Sun
Jane Wyman, The Blue Veil

Leigh portrays Blanche DuBois, a schoolteacher who, under peculiar circumstances, abandons small town Mississippi to reside with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) in New Orleans. Blanche is shocked to find Stella living in a congested, decaying apartment and even more flabbergasted by Stella's fiery husband Stanley (Marlon Brando), a hyper-masculine figure Blanche views as crude and vulgar. As tensions rise among the trio, Blanche becomes romantically involved with Mitch (Karl Malden), a man lonely and desperate enough to fall for the unstable Blanche. This performance marked Leigh's second and final Oscar nomination and win.

Those familiar with my Montgomery Clift-Shelley Winters fawning on Twitter shouldn't be the faintest bit surprised I'm Team A Place in the Sun at the 1951 Oscars. I believe the George Stevens film deserved not only Best Director (which it scored) but also Best Picture (which it didn't) and yes, I even say Clift should have topped Marlon Brando's iconic turn in A Streetcar Named Desire

Alas, I would have to concede, the Academy got it right in Best Actress. Wonderful as Winters is, she can't quite hold a candle to Leigh, having a field day as the inimitable Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan's fierce adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play.

Tackling with tenacity the role originated by Jessica Tandy in the Broadway production, Leigh is absolutely mesmerizing from start to finish, painting Blanche as a woman as deranged as she is endearing. Without resorting to the sort of histrionics a lesser actress may have leaned on, Leigh's Blanche is an all-too-convincing portrait of a woman plagued by loneliness and sorrow and wrestling, with little success, mental illness. It's one of those rare pitch-perfect turns that would play just as splendidly on the stage as it does the screen. 

Leigh's chemistry with the barrel-chested Brando and lonesome Malden is remarkable. Powerful as Brando is, I'm even more taken with the moments between Leigh and Malden, particularly their extended scene together in which Blanche reveals the fate of the man she once loved. Leigh's heartrending delivery explains so much about Blanche and how she became this unsteady shell of her former self. As the picture goes on, Leigh so vividly conveys Blanche's further disillusionment from reality and descent into mania, made all the worse by Stanley's incessant taunting. Like Winters' Alice in A Place in the Sun, Leigh's Blanche emerges the most hopeless and tragic of figures.

It's no wonder Williams buoyantly raved over Leigh's portrayal of his creation. No actress since has nearly done Blanche the same justice. It's a knockout performance.

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62. Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) (WINNER)

Her competition...

Judith Anderson, Rebecca
Ruth Hussey, The Philadelphia Story
Barbara O'Neil, All This, and Heaven Too
Marjorie Rambeau, Primrose Path

Darwell portrays Ma Joad, matriarch of the Joad family, en route to California in search of a better life. Led by recently paroled son Tom (Henry Fonda), the Joads on the road come across countless other families chasing the dream of prosperity but, upon arriving in the Golden State, find the promised land doesn't nearly hold the riches they anticipated. Ma's fortitude, love and determination keep the family going through one hard time after another. This performance marked Darwell's first and only Oscar nomination and win.

For the rest of my lifetime, I suppose, I will find myself see-sawing between Anderson and Darwell for the win in 1940 Best Supporting Actress. Alas, for the time being, my heart is ever-so-slightly with the latter.

From the moment Darwell first graces John Ford's exquisite film, you can tell what a formidable performance this is going to be. She is Ma Joad, through and through, a soulful, tenacious, towering force who is committed to getting this family through hell. Darwell's rapport with Fonda (who has never been better) is incomparably affecting, from the moment Ma joyously sees Tom for the first time in years, to Tom's devastating departure and Ma's final crying out to her son.

Darwell has so many memorable moments in the picture, though perhaps the most poignant of all is a quiet one early on, as Ma, sifting through family treasures, discovers an old pair of earrings and tries them on at the mirror. With a single glance, Darwell says so much, not only conveying Ma's sorrow over leaving home but reflection on youth and what were no doubt much better days. That Darwell has this moment nearly right out of the starting gate makes her performance one you cannot keep your eyes off over the duration of the picture. Though surrounded by an incredible ensemble, Darwell always stands out, even when lingering in the background. She has an undeniable screen presence. 

I would be remiss in not noting her many other wonderful scenes, from Ma's desperate pleading with Tom to stay, to her blissful final dance alongside her son, to her knockout monologue that makes the picture close on the most perfect of notes.

Thank heavens for Fonda's insistence that Darwell take on this extraordinary role.

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61. Faye Dunaway in Network (1976) (WINNER)

Her competition...

Marie-Christine Barrault, Cousin Cousine
Talia Shire, Rocky
Sissy Spacek, Carrie
Liv Ullmann, Face to Face

Dunaway portrays Diana Christensen, the new, wildly ambitious vice president of programming for the floundering Union Broadcasting System (UBS). When veteran anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) takes to the airwaves to declare he will commit suicide live on air, Diana sees in the veteran an unstable superstar who can bolster the network's ratings. Meanwhile, news division president Max Schumacher (William Holden) may detest this exploitation of his old friend but such doesn't stop him becoming romantically involved with Diana. This performance marked Dunaway's third and final Oscar nomination and first win.

Ullmann, also sensational, may have been the critics' favorite in 1976 Best Actress but there was scant doubt Dunaway, at this point on her third nomination in the category (after Bonnie & Clyde and Network), was en route to Oscar glory on the big night, and deservedly so.

Sure, Dunaway, per usual, doesn't merely chew the scenery around her but rather viciously devours it (like all of the actors in Sidney Lumet's picture), but her Diana Christensen is hardly some one-note cartoon. Yes, she's a merciless, power-hungry figure but Dunaway instills in Diana a palpable sense of sadness too, a woman aware of her own heartlessness and despondent that she cannot change that. You can tell Diana wishes there was some way she could make it work with Holden's Max, yet she just wasn't built that way. Diana enters the film with a confident, larger-than-life roar, yet, by the end, looks rather small and pathetic. 

In a way, the Diana-Max romance is the heart and soul of Network. She is, as Max concedes to his jilted wife, a woman perhaps incapable of true feelings, or as Diana herself puts it, someone who is exclusively devoted to nailing that 30 share and 20 rating. During their first dinner together, all Diana can talk is work and the same is the case during their lovemaking. Max, on the other hand, seems to be the one person in Network with an actual conscience, a man eventually ridden with guilt over ditching his wife of 25 years for a person who is unable to love him back. 

The breakup scene between Diana and Max is absolutely devastating and expertly performed by Dunaway and Holden. All Max yearns for is for Diana to show him the affection he so feels for her and yet, much as she deep down would love for this thing to work, she cannot emotionally get there. Both Diana and Max end up looking like broken people. Ultimately, however, he will go back to his family to try to regain that emotional fulfillment - Diana, on the other hand, may have just missed out on her one real chance at a soulmate. 

Of course, there's heaps of fun to be found in Dunaway's performance too, like Diana's rapport with her aides, as she pitches the counterculture programming she's convinced will save the network. One of the funniest moments in the picture, even if it's a brief one, is the sight of Diana chowing down on a sandwich as she watches Howard's breakdown - is it the food she finds so delicious or is it the ratings potential she suddenly sees before her?

For too short a period, about a decade, Dunaway turned in one spectacular performance after another but no other quite as riveting as this one. The collaboration with Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky is apparently precisely what this goddess needed to hit the ultimate grand slam.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

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 - get ready for some unimpeachable legends of the silver screen. I've got Olivia de Havilland, Geraldine Page and Thelma Ritter...but I'll keep you in suspense about which specific performances. Also, I've got a magnificent Best Supporting Actress winner and one of the best Best Actress nominees of the '90s.