The Oscar 100: #35-31

This post marks Part 14 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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35 and 34. Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter (1968) (WINNER - Hepburn, tied with Streisand)

Their competition...

Alan Arkin, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Alan Bates, The Fixer
Ron Moody, Oliver!
Cliff Robertson, Charly (WINNER)

Patricia Neal, The Subject Was Roses
Vanessa Redgrave, Isadora
Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl (WINNER - tied with Hepburn)
Joanne Woodward, Rachel, Rachel

O'Toole and Hepburn portray King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine who, over Christmas 1183, are at their most estranged. He's got a young mistress, Princess Alais (Jane Merrow), while she's been imprisoned - not that such exile has in the least numbed her sharpness. Eleanor is temporarily released for a key occasion - Henry's announcement of his successor to the throne. He's determined to ensure John (Nigel Terry), their youngest son, will take over. She, however, favors Richard (Anthony Hopkins), their eldest child. With Henry and Eleanor at odds and the rest of the family hardly shy about manipulating their way to success, a whole lot of scheming is about to go down. These performances marked O'Toole's third Oscar nomination and Hepburn's 11th nomination and third win.

In recent years, Oscar aficionados have looked back in perplexing awe at O'Toole's 0-for-8 record in Best Actor. Sure, in 2003, he picked up an honorary prize for his legendary body of work but such didn't seem to quite compensate for losses for the likes of, among others, Lawrence of Arabia, Becket and The Lion in Winter - his first three Oscar appearances. By 2006, O'Toole was still viewed as overdue for competitive Oscar glory, so much so that his turn in the little British dramedy Venus was championed as a vehicle that could at last take him all the way (it didn't).

In 1968, however, such urgency to award O'Toole hadn't quite yet come to fruition. (It wasn't really until the 1980s that O'Toole was talked up as overdue for victory - alas, he hadn't a prayer of prevailing for inferior, if still memorable turns in The Stunt Man or My Favorite Year.) O'Toole was the front-runner to triumph for The Lion in Winter but a soft favorite at that.

The critics were partial to Arkin and behind the scenes, Robertson and ABC Motion Pictures were waging the sort of aggressive Oscar campaign later spearheaded by the likes of Harvey Weinstein but at that time rarely conducted - in fact, the Robertson campaign was deemed so unusual and overbearing, the Academy later released a statement condemning what they saw as the "outright excessive and vulgar solicitation of votes" and a "serious embarrassment." 

Despite such sentiment, however, Robertson and his cloying turn indeed triumphed on the big night - in hindsight, one of the all-time worst Best Actor wins, not merely in terms of quality of performance but inferiority vis a vis his competition. 

While Arkin and Bates are quite splendid as well, this should have been a slam dunk for O'Toole, who seems a tad more at-ease here in the role of Henry than he did a few years back in Becket. The actor hardly copies and pastes his prior portrayal - this is a more exhausted Henry, hardly lacking in ambition or willingness to partake in games of treachery but also a man who clearly no longer sees himself as invincible or immortal. This Henry is at once a larger than life figure and a man vividly consumed with heartache - the messier the family dynamic gets, the more inclined he is to compensate his feelings with a livelier and more imposing demeanor. 

O'Toole has a ball alongside Hepburn, the two sporting some of the most electrifying chemistry to ever grace the screen. Unlike say, Sir Laurence Olivier, who in all too many of his pictures seemed to be playing to the last row of the balcony, O'Toole and Hepburn are remarkably reigned in, the extravangance of the material considered - they may chew scenery but never feel anything less than grounded in reality. 

Hepburn, who lost her beloved Spencer Tracy the year prior, was said to have tackled Eleanor with all of the emotion she'd been consumed with in her grieving over Tracy. No doubt, that sense of distress is palpable on the screen - yet, this is also one of Hepburn's more sensual and scintillating turns. She has a field day with James Goldman's sparking screenplay, chowing down and delivering with delight lines like, "I even made poor Louis take me on crusade. How's that for blasphemy? I dressed my maids as amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure, and I damn near died of windburn...but the troops were dazzled." 

As I discussed in my write-up of Streisand in Funny Girl, the 1968 race in Best Actress was a riveting roller coaster ride, with both Hepburn and Streisand at points viewed as inevitable winners and even Woodward spending some time as the category front-runner. When Paul Newman, Woodward's husband, failed to earn a Best Director nomination for Rachel, Rachel, his leading lady briefly boycotted the ceremony - ultimately, Newman persuaded Woodward to attend but, in a race so competitive, the damage was done. In the end, that extraordinary tie would come to fruition. 

If only Woodward hadn't had that initial reaction...

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33. Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel (1968)

Her competition...

Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter (WINNER - tied with Streisand)
Patricia Neal, The Subject Was Roses
Vanessa Redgrave, Isadora
Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl (WINNER - tied with Hepburn)

Woodward portrays Rachel Cameron, a despondent 35-year-old spinster and schoolteacher who lives with her widowed mother (Kate Harrington) above a funeral parlor. Disillusioned with the world around her, Rachel spends her life daydreaming to distract herself from this humdrum existence - that is, until her friend Calla (Estelle Parsons) persuades her to attend a revival meeting. Rachel finds herself invigorated by the religious experience and later further enchanted upon the entrance of old classmate Nick (James Olson) into her life. In love for the first time, Rachel immediately begins making plans for a future with Nick. Alas, he is hardly on the same page. This performance marked Woodward's second Oscar nomination.

Perhaps the most purely sorrowful performance ever recognized in Best Actress, Woodward in Rachel, Rachel is an overwhelmingly fragile and despairing sight you wish you could hop into the screen to give a hug. Woodward always operated at the top of her game when either directed by husband Paul Newman (as was the case here and in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds) or starring alongside him (see The Long, Hot Summer and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, among others). 

Woodward may have earned her Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve - an impressive turn in an otherwise clunky picture - but Rachel, Rachel far outpaces that turn (oddly enough, I think Eve is easily the least of her four nominated performances). It's career-best work from one of the more underrated leading ladies of the big screen.

Rachel, Rachel is a fascinating piece of cinema, a prime showcase for its leading lady, no doubt, but also a remarkable directorial debut for Newman and strong ensemble showcase. Parsons, as Rachel's pal who gets the wheels turning on her long overdue awakening, is actually much more interesting here than in Bonnie & Clyde, which earned her the Best Supporting Actress prize the year prior. (Parsons was nominated again but lost to Rosemary's Baby's Ruth Gordon.) Harrington does terrific work, too, as Rachel's overbearing mother. Oh, and Stewart Stern's script? Even better than his screenplay on Rebel Without a Cause. (Stewart would later write Woodward to another Oscar nom, for Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.) Incredibly, this downer was a big box office hit to boot, spending several weeks at number one - as if such could ever come to fruition today. 

Of course, front and center is Woodward, exquisitely directed by her husband - knowing the genius he's capturing, Newman wisely keeps the camera constantly focused on his leading lady's face, capturing Rachel's plethora of emotions Rachel.

Woodward's Rachel is a woman who, to the public, has managed to make herself out to be a pitch-perfectly pleasant schoolteacher. In reality, however, Rachel has shut herself off from the world around her, in a never-ending daydream to distract herself from the agony and loneliness she's buried deep down. Any dream will do, whether it's a pleasant (like saving one of her students from neglectful parents) or morbid one (dropping dead on the street). She also has sexual fantasies, too, like hooking up with the married school principal - visions she can at last act on with the arrival of Nick.

To us, the Rachel-Nick romance seems obviously doomed from the get-go. To Rachel, however, who's never experienced love, Nick's advances automatically inspire wedding bells in her head. On one hand, we're relieved to see Rachel experience such human, impassioned interaction. It's also tough not to cringe as well, however, knowing this high is destined to be short-lived.

Nick's departure provides Woodward all the more meat to chew on as Rachel becomes convinced she is pregnant with his child and plots to ditch Connecticut for Oregon. Tragedy again strikes upon the discovery she is not pregnant after all but rather carrying a cyst - at this point, however, Rachel has built up enough confidence in herself to still leave town, whether or not her mom wants to come along. The film ultimately ends on a surprisingly uplifting note as Rachel moves forward in her life at least knowing she's able to make her own choices.

In 1968, Newman was among the top box office stars and whatever the subject matter of his directorial debut, it was bound to attract significant interest. Kudos to him for selecting a project as surprising and perceptive as Rachel, Rachel and mega kudos to Woodward to grabbing this role by the throat and turning in one of the all-time most heartbreaking performances.

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32. Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945) (WINNER)

Her competition...

Ingrid Bergman, The Bells of St. Mary's
Greer Garson, The Valley of Decision
Jennifer Jones, Love Letters
Gene Tierney, Leave Her to Heaven

Crawford portrays Mildred Pierce, mother of Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) and wife of Bert (Bruce Bennett). After Mildred and Bert's unhappy marriage comes to its inevitable end, she retains custody of her daughters and is determined to provide for them, especially Veda, who yearns for a social status higher than what she's been raised in. Mildred takes a job as a waitress and, with the help of pal Ida (Eve Arden), opens a successful restaurant that spawns a whole chain of eateries across Southern Carolina. All along, however, Veda remains an insufferable spoiled brat with scant respect for her mother's hard work. This performance marked Crawford's first Oscar nomination and only win.

(Sophia Petrillo voice) Picture it - Hollywood, March 7, 1946. It's the big night, the 18th Annual Academy Awards, and Billy Wilder's acclaimed The Lost Weekend is heavily favored to take home several prizes, including Best Picture and Best Director. The real drama is in Best Actress, as comeback kid Joan Crawford, who ditched MGM for Warner Bros. to headline Mildred Pierce, has opted not to attend the ceremony, instead listening to the festivities on the radio from her Brentwood mansion bedroom.

Supposedly, Crawford is ill with a fever and pneumonia. Presenting the Best Actress prize is three-time Oscar nominee Charles Boyer and...there it is, the winner is Joan Crawford! Director Michael Curtiz accepts the prize on her behalf and, following the ceremony, makes his way to Brentford - alongside the giddy press - to present the star with her golden man. The Crawford comeback is complete and, over the coming decade, she'll go on to score an additional pair of Best Actress nominations. 

Later, Crawford was remarkably candid about her Oscar night antics. Indeed, she wasn't really sick - the mere idea of the ceremony, of standing before that boundless crowd of colleagues, petrified her. Moreover, Crawford was convinced Bergman - who headlined two Best Picture nominees - would in fact emerge victorious. The star would also suggest the Mildred Pierce win was less an honor for the performance itself but something of a career prize, for sticking around this maddening industry for so long.

While I can empathize with such sentiment, I think Crawford shortchanged herself. Mildred Pierce is a fantastic film in its own right but especially prospers as a grand vehicle for its leading lady. Crawford transforms into the title role with seamless success, turning in perhaps the greatest of all film noir performances.

Inexplicably, Crawford nearly missed out on this iconic role. Curtiz was partial to Bette Davis, who turned it down, and then Barbara Stanwyck, who expressed some interest. Approaching the opportunity with far more determination, however, was Crawford, who tested for the role and eventually won Curtiz over with her fervent perseverance in landing the job. 

Never before or after in her career has Crawford's mere screen presence been so radiant or absorbing. She's made all the stronger by her supporting players, namely Blyth and Arden, the former drawing out of Crawford palpable senses of both warmth and exasperation. That Crawford's Mildred emerges one of the all-time great and most unconditionally devoted and compassionate screen moms makes the star's portrayal by her own daughter as a monstrous Mommie Dearest all the more perplexing. The ugliness Blyth so effectively instills into Veda makes Mildred all the more impossible not to root for.

As for Arden, her presence allows for Crawford to approach Mildred with a lighter touch - not that their scenes together exactly ring of Lucy and Ethel but the chemistry is aces and Ida's sparkling banter is always a welcome diversion away from Veda and her bratty tirades. 

Unlike all too many Crawford vehicles, in which she struggled to much shed her star persona and really disappear into the role at hand, she is Mildred Pierce, through and through. It's a sensitive, captivating and magnetic portrayal of a tragically unappreciated woman, with Crawford dominating the screen in an awe-inspiring fashion that I'm skeptical even the likes of Davis or Stanwyck could have pulled off. 

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31. Angela Bassett in What's Love Got to Do with It (1993)

Her competition...

Stockard Channing, Six Degrees of Separation
Holly Hunter, The Piano (WINNER)
Emma Thompson, The Remains of the Day
Debra Winger, Shadowlands

Bassett portrays Tina Turner, the legendary R&B superstar who began her life as Anna Mae Bullock, a small town Tennessee girl abandoned by her parents at a young age. Following her grandmother's death, Anna Mae moves to St. Louis to be with her mother (Jenifer Lewis) and sister (Phyllis Yvonne Stickney). Fond of singing since she was a child in her church choir, Anna Mae meets the charming bandleader Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne), who mentors, woos and marries the up-and-comer. Now sporting the stage name Tina Turner, she soars in national fame. As her star rises, however, the volatile Ike grows increasingly jealous, turns to drugs and inflicts constant violence upon Tina. This performance marked Bassett's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.

Allow me to get something off my chest - what on earth is it with the Academy and its penchant for not recognizing black actresses?

Over the course of Oscar history, a mere 11 black women have earned nominations in Best Actress. Of these, only two - Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis - have gone on to score additional recognition, which ultimately came down in Best Supporting Actress. For Dorothy Dandridge, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry (the first and, thus far, lone African-American winner in this category), Gabourey Sidibe, Quvenzhane Wallis and Ruth Negga, the Oscars have inexplicably proven a one-time affair - shameful, considering the exquisite filmographies of some of these stars.

Now that I've had my little rant...my very favorite of these performances, in fact one of the all-time great turns to surface in Best Actress, is Bassett, whose powerhouse portrayal of Turner continues to send chills down the spine 25 years since the release of What's Love Got to Do with It.

Watching this spectacular turn, it's hard to fathom how Bassett didn't have a prayer on the big night but that was precisely the case - Hunter, who all but steamrolled that awards season, was the sole shoo-in among the acting categories that evening. She had the fortune of headlining a Best Picture nominee, was a double-nominee herself (also a Best Supporting Actress contender for inferior work in The Firm), also earned raves for her Emmy-winning turn on the small screen in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom and was already seen as due for a win. Incredible as her competition was (Channing would've made a fine winner too), the cake was baked the moment The Piano hit New York and Los Angeles that fall.

Hunter is a sublime actress, no doubt, but her turn in The Piano, haunting as it is, just doesn't have that same spellbinding impact Bassett leaves on me. Her portrayal of Turner is, to put it bluntly, one of the most purely badass performances ever captured on screen. Forget The Avengers - this is a real superhero. 

Bassett may lip sync her way through the picture but has more flawless lip-syncing ever before or after been captured on screen? Her recreations of the likes of "Shake a Tail Feather," "River Deep, Mountain High" and "Proud Mary" are absolutely riveting and on not one occasion does her portrayal ring as the slightest bit false. Bassett breathes limitless life through every musical performance and has a presence just as captivating as Turner herself. 

Of course, What's Love Got to Do with It is perhaps most remembered for its vivid portrayal of the nightmare that was the marriage between Tina and Ike. Bassett and Fishburne are all too convincing as Ike turns Tina into his punching bag, gradually incensed over the recognition and stardom he believes she's winning at his expense. Irate at being overshadowed by his better (and frankly, more talented) half, Ike beats Tina not only at home but in public, in front of friends and family. Tina, of course, is no shrinking violet. She keeps their kids protected and eventually, to his great chagrin, starts to fight back. 

Perhaps the most powerful scene in the picture - just ahead of a startling scene late in the film in which Ike tries, to negligible success, to win back Tina one last time - is when Tina at last makes the decision she's going to leave Ike. She's been battered and bloodied once again and, at her wit's end, bolts from their hotel room, down the highway to a Ramada Inn, where, without a dollar in her pocket, she all but begs for a room. Bassett all too vividly conveys Turner's agony and exasperation - she just cannot take him anymore. 

Over the years, there have been countless music biopics headlined by terrific performances - the likes of Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter, Jennifer Lopez in Selena, Paul Dano in Love & Mercy and fellow Oscar 100 inductee Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story. Bassett, however, towers above them all. She is downright breathtaking and, fingers crossed, will be back as an Oscar nominee someday.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

31. Angela Bassett, What's Love Got to Do with It
32. Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce
33. Joanne Woodward, Rachel, Rachel
34. Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter
35. Peter O'Toole, The Lion in Winter
36. Roy Scheider, All That Jazz
37. Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters
38. Julianne Moore, Far from Heaven
39. Katharine Hepburn, Long Day's Journey Into Night
40. Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream
41. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
42. Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl
43. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront
44. William Holden, Sunset Boulevard
45. Robert Duvall, The Great Santini
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 - Liz is back! This time, she'll be appearing alongside a comparably brilliant leading man. I've also got an incomparable Dame, Al Pacino in his lone appearance on the list and, to quote Groucho Marx, "the biggest robbery since Brinks."