The Oscar 100: #30-26

This post marks Part 15 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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30. Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II (1974)

His competition...

Art Carney, Harry and Tonto (WINNER)
Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
Jack Nicholson, Chinatown

Pacino portrays Michael Corleone who, in the 1950s, is running the family business out of Lake Tahoe and determined to expand into Hollywood, Las Vegas and pre-revolution Havana. Business is peachy keen until an assassination attempt on Michael's life sends him into a paranoia that is only worsened by his back-stabbing business partner Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and floundering marriage to Kay (Diane Keaton). Adding all the more stress is a lingering federal indictment and the troubling recent behavior of brother Fredo (John Cazale). This performance marked Pacino's third Oscar nomination.

Ah, Al Pacino's run at the Oscars - from an embarrassment of riches to...well, an embarrassment. 

Pacino's first four nominations - for The Godfather, Serpico, this and Dog Day Afternoon - are among the finest turns recognized by the Academy in the 1970s. His fifth nomination, for ...And Justice for All, marks a vexing turning point, the farewell of the absorbing, more subdued Pacino and entrance of the bombastic scenery chewer who screams every line as though he's hellbent on deafening everyone in the last row of the balcony. His most recent nominations, for Dick Tracy, Glengarry Glen Ross and Scent of a Woman (for which he inexplicably, if understandably won), are emblematic of the ear-piercing Pacino and hardly recall his earliest work.

If there is much fault to be found in Pacino's more recent offerings, there is also no denying the brilliance of his iconic turns in pictures like The Godfather Part II, a masterpiece which marks the actor's best work.

There is so much to be in awe of in Francis Ford Coppola's sequel, from the careful execution of its tricky nonlinear narrative, to the sumptuous look and feel of the proceedings (cinematographer Gordon Willis, per usual, at the very top of his game) and of course the acting is all-around spellbinding. Yet, even with all of this genius gracing the screen, Pacino manages to completely dominate the proceedings, even more so than Marlon Brando in the first picture.

At this point in the Corleone saga, Michael is a truly terrifying sight, with the most intimidating presence. Though his exterior may be a menacing one, Pacino also vividly captures Michael's vulnerabilities and doubts, constantly grappling with anxiety as he's forced to make one impossible decision after another, both in business and back at home. Pacino especially comes to life in scenes opposite Keaton, namely the most riveting one in the entire picture as Michael and Kay quarrel over her intention to last leave him.

Even when he's not speaking, Pacino manages to say so much by just sitting there, taking it all in. The rage and torment eating away at Michael from the inside is palpable and a far more painful sight than any gore that may splatter across the screen in the picture. His anguish toward the film's conclusion, as Michael wrestles with Fredo's betrayal, is downright suffocating.

Yet, despite this mesmerizing turn, Pacino of course did not win the Oscar for The Godfather Part II and it would be nearly two decades before the envelope at last read his name.

The winner was Carney, for a lovely, if decidedly inferior performance. It's not impossible to rationalize how Carney pulled it off - he was a beloved veteran of the small screen who finally scored a leading role on the big screen at age 55. His opponents, Finney aside, were a trio of New Hollywood up-and-comers, all in rather dark roles and still not wholeheartedly embraced by some in the industry's old guard. Carney also vigorously campaigned for the prize, unlike his competition (among the other contenders, only Nicholson even bothered to show up).

I cannot protest Carney's victory too much - again, it's a fine performance and hardly among the worst Best Actor winners. It's just one of those cases where, vis a vis the competition, it's a tough decision to swallow. It is simply not a turn anywhere near in the same league as Pacino (or Nicholson or Hoffman). This, not Scent of a Hoo-ah, should have marked Pacino's big Oscar win. It's among the richest, most intense performances ever recognized by the Academy and a career-topping effort from an actor who, for at least some time in his career, was delivering one dynamite turn after another.

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29. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)

Her competition...

Anne Bancroft, The Graduate
Faye Dunaway, Bonnie & Clyde
Audrey Hepburn, Wait Until Dark
Katharine Hepburn, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (WINNER)

Evans portrays Mrs. Margaret Ross, an elderly, impoverished woman who, ever since husband Archie (Eric Portman) abandoned her more than 20 years ago, has been living isolated existence. Increasingly losing her grip on reality, Mrs. Ross has been hearing "voices" coming from her radio and apartment building's pipes. She has also been patiently waiting for funds from her late father's estate - finances that in fact do not exist. When criminal son Charlie (Ronald Fraser) drops by to hide a package of stolen money in his mom's apartment, Mrs. Ross is convinced the stash is that long-awaited inheritance. This performance marked Evans' third and final Oscar nomination.

Over the course of five years in the 1960s, filmmaker Bryan Forbes, who in the following decade would score his greatest commercial success with The Stepford Wives, directed three women to Best Actress Oscar nominations - Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room, Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon and, last but certainly not least, Edith Evans in The Whisperers. Forbes, while perhaps not quite an extraordinary talent behind the camera, managed to draw out of these three performers career-topping turns, with Evans especially in immaculate form.

Evans, previously nominated in Best Supporting Actress for memorable, albeit inferior work in Tom Jones and The Chalk Garden, was for more than half a century an unimpeachable legend of the London stage, seemingly never taking a break. Appearances on the silver screen were less common and generally found Evans as a supporting scene-stealer, not a leading lady. That all changed with The Whisperers, which at last found this sublime actress front and center, not itching with modest screen time to wrestle the spotlight away from a leading man or lady. 

Especially in the early-going, before the proceedings become unnecessarily heavy on plot, Evans is the most transfixing of sights, exuding loneliness, sorrow and paranoia in an overwhelming way that rings of fellow Oscar 100 inductee Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. This is hardly the deliciously haughty Evans of Tom Jones and other lighter fare but rather a deeply morose, haunting portrayal of a helpless woman who is legitimately losing her mind. The way Evans asks "are you there," as she does on several occasions in the picture, corresponding with the supposed voices reaching out to her, is downright heartbreaking but it's so easy to see how another, less disciplined actress could have played the whole thing for William Castle-like camp. 

The film works best when honed in on Mrs. Ross' humdrum routine, the daily trips to church to secure a cup of soup, to the welfare office for the financial support she depends on and to the library, where she utilizes the heating pipes to stay warm. The rest of the picture, involving her useless son and husband and the money, is absorbing cinema too but anything that diverts attention away from Evans and her magnificent performance is a negative, not a plus. There's a lovely supporting turn from Gerald Sim, who portrays Mrs. Ross' kind and concerned social worker, but otherwise, everything and everyone is upstaged by the Dame. 

With the picture such a gloomy affair, it now seems not terribly surprising that Evans failed to emerge victorious except, at the time, she actually was the front-runner, albeit a soft one.

Dunaway was too much of a newbie to triumph in Best Actress quite yet and (Audrey) Hepburn was never going to win a second Oscar for what amounted to a horror film. Under different circumstances, Bancroft probably could have won for her iconic turn as Mrs. Robinson but there wasn't much urgency to award her a second Best Actress prize, having prevailed earlier in the decade for The Miracle Worker. Evans was the critics' favorite, won the Golden Globe and was also seen as reasonably due for an Oscar, though again, was the sort of character actor who you'd expect to win a Supporting prize.

Alas, on the big night, it would be the other Hepburn. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was a massive commercial success, scoring a total of 10 Oscar nominations, and the universally adored Hepburn hadn't won an Oscar in 34 years, since Morning Glory. No doubt, voters also felt great sympathy for the star, who lost her beloved Spencer Tracy shortly after production concluded on the picture. 

Hepburn is a delight in her Oscar winning turn and Bancroft and Dunaway are fabulous too. None of them, however, for my money at least, hold a candle to Evans' awe-inspiring work. It's a performance sorely in need of rediscovery (and unfortunately, exceedingly difficult to track down).

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28. Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (1954)

Her competition...

Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen Jones
Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina
Grace Kelly, The Country Girl (WINNER)
Jane Wyman, Magnificent Obsession

Garland portrays Esther Blodgett, a showgirl and aspiring actress who is inspired by fading movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) to move to L.A. to pursue her dream of Hollywood stardom. Esther flourishes in the industry and, reinvented by a top studio under the name Vicki Lester, headlines a movie musical. Vicki and Norman wed but their union is tested by her rise in popularity, which happens to coincide with his career decline and descent into alcoholism. With Norman struggling to lift himself out of these doldrums, Vicki faces a grueling decision - charge ahead with her blossoming career or focus on saving her husband. This performance marked Garland's first Oscar nomination.

"The biggest robbery since Brink's," indeed. 

Those famous words, delivered on Oscar night via telegram to Garland from comedian Groucho Marx, could not be more spot-on. The egregiousness of Garland's loss in Best Actress for A Star Is Born continues to rightfully reverberate among Oscar aficionados to this day, flabbergasted at how her master class in acting/singing/dancing could fall short to Kelly's comparatively lifeless turn in The Country Girl. Garland herself would go on to lament the defeat, with no hesitation to proclaim she deserved the prize, though she also claimed she didn't expect to win. 

In all fairness, it's not terribly difficult to rationalize how and why Kelly triumphed. She headlined not one, not two but five pictures in 1954 - The Country Girl, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Green Fire and The Bridges at Toko-Ri - and with The Country Girl, for the first and only time in her career, deglammed for a strikingly glum role. It also couldn't hurt that, unlike Garland and the other three nominees, her film was a Best Picture nominee.

I don't want to spend this entire post knocking the Kelly victory but COME ON. Not only is it a vastly inferior performance to Garland's, it's also far less compelling work than Dandridge (sensationally sizzling) and Wyman (fabulous, per usual, working alongside Douglas Sirk) were nominated for. Maybe, just maybe, Kelly leaves more of an impression than Hepburn but even that I'm not sure of. 

Anyway, Garland, who deserved to win this thing in a cakewalk, is every bit as spectacular as her performance's reputation suggests. For nearly three hours, she grabs you by the throat and sends you into movie musical heaven, while also at last having the opportunity to flex her dramatic chops. It's a tour de force in every sense of the phrase and nothing Garland did before or after - despite no shortage of memorable performances - comes close. 

A Star Is Born marked the comeback of all comebacks for Garland, who was infamously fired from production on Royal Wedding four years earlier, her constant failure to show up for work inspiring MGM to cancel her 14-year contract with the studio and replace the star with Jane Powell. Briefly viewed as a has-been at the mere age of 28, Garland of course bounced back with her legendary stint at the Palace Theatre and, with the support of producer/husband Sid Luft, secured the A Star Is Born remake as the vehicle to put her back on the map. And holy moly did she deliver. 

Garland serves up just about everything you could ask for - comedy, drama, laughter, tears, singing, dancing, all under the pitch-perfect direction of George Cukor, who clearly recognized the genius he was capturing on screen.

From her riveting performance of "The Man That Got Away" to her gut-punching delivery of "this is Mr. Norman Maine" at the picture's conclusion (and the preceding, devastating scene in which Vicki discovers the heart Norman once drew for her on the wall of the Shrine Auditorium), Garland is at the very top of her game, approaching the material with an ebullience that is a testament to the yearning she no doubt felt to hit a grand slam in her big return to the screen. Not to be overlooked is Mason, who may not quite have the material Garland is graced with but hardly falls to the sidelines either. They have an intense, convincing chemistry that makes Garland's performance all the more affecting.

A performance for the ages, Garland in A Star Is Born continues to slay and should be required viewing for anyone who calls themselves a movie and/or musical fan.

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27 and 26. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) (WINNER - Taylor)

Their competition...

Anouk Aimee, A Man and a Woman
Ida Kaminska, The Shop on Main Street
Lynn Redgrave, Georgy Girl
Vanessa Redgrave, Morgan!

Alan Arkin, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming
Michael Caine, Alfie
Steve McQueen, The Sand Pebbles
Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons (WINNER)

Burton and Taylor portray George and Martha, a history professor at a small New England college and his wife, the daughter of the university's president. One evening, following a cocktail party, the middle-aged couple returns home and hosts a younger duo, biology professor Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), for a nightcap. As the night progresses and the booze flows, Nick and Honey find themselves entangled in George and Martha's heated verbal duels and penchant for needing to damage each other and everyone around them. Adding additional pandemonium is the revelation that the following day is the birthday of George and Martha's curiously absent son. These performances marked Burton's fifth Oscar nomination and Taylor's fifth and final Oscar nomination and second win.

Speaking of legendary stars of the silver screen who came to play, Burton and Taylor have never been better than they are sharing the screen together in Mike Nichols' dizzying film adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Countless masters of acting, from Arthur Hill and Ute Hagen in the original Broadway production to John Lithgow and Glenda Jackson in the 1989 Los Angeles revival (directed by Albee himself) and Conleth Hill and Imelda Staunton in the recent West End staging, among others, have tackled these delicious roles. Always, however, have Burton and Taylor been reflected upon as the definitive George and Martha, two of the most brilliant actors to ever grace the screen giving the fiercest performances of their storied careers.

Albee and Warner Bros. were said to have wanted James Mason and Bette Davis for George and Martha - imagine the sight of Davis doing an impression of herself in the fabulous "what a dump!" scene - but Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were partial to Burton and Taylor. Albee would eventually go on to praise their performances but also advocate Mason and Davis as likely to have been even stronger.

Mason and Davis indeed may have made an dynamite pair but there's no knocking Burton and Taylor who, from the moment they first grace the screen, already looking a tad disheveled as they open the front door, are the most startling of sights. The opening scenes, prior to the entrance of Segal and Dennis, provide Burton and Taylor the chance to chew on lighter fare. They have a fabulously flirtatious rapport that makes one wonder how they may have thrived in a good romantic comedy (which, despite many pictures together, they never really did). Taylor is a hoot with the Davis line and plenty of other dialogue, while Burton displays a surprising flair for deadpan comedy.

The opening half hour or so is like an amiable appetizer compared to the violent earthquake that waits on the horizon. Once Nick and Honey enter the picture and the cocktails start really flowing through the veins, Martha quickly evolves into an awe-inspiring trainwreck, while George absorbs all of her madness like a sponge until he too cracks.

Taylor, who gained 30 pounds for the role and at the time had been viewed as one of the most glamorous women in the world, expertly paints Martha as the most abominable of sights on the outside, while hinting at something deeper and more forlorn underneath the surface. Her Martha goes from crass and stomach-churning in the early-going to hopeless and heartbreaking by the end. To watch this woman lose the one thing she ever wanted, even if it didn't really exist, is a devastating sight, even if, just an hour ago, she was downright cringe-worthy.

Tonally, Taylor and Burton basically flip-flop in the first hour, vis a vis the second. She largely dominates in the first half with her unhinged histrionics, while he is prone to wrestling away the spotlight in the latter half as George exacts the most tragic of revenge on Martha. For much of the proceedings early on, George is something of a blank slate - that isn't to say a diffident man but certainly a less expressive figure than the larger-than life-Martha. Ultimately, Burton's underplaying at the start just makes it all the more stirring when George lets loose, no longer content with suppressing the distaste he vividly feels toward his wife.

The grueling war between these two culminates in that sublime final shot of George and Martha at last left alone as the sun begins to rise outside. As exasperated by the whole experience as the two characters are, we're left simply breathless, both at the sight of Burton and Taylor and knowing we just bore witness to two of the most dynamite screen performances ever. 

In terms of the Oscar horse races, Best Actor and Best Actress went down as expected. Scofield was the overwhelming favorite for Best Picture front-runner (and eventual winner) A Man for All Seasons. (Oddly enough, chatter about Burton being due for an Oscar didn't really kick in until his seventh and final appearance, for Equus.) Over in Best Actress, Taylor was also the heavy favorite, though Kaminska, who triumphed at Cannes and whose The Shop on Main Street won Best Foreign Language Film, had a base of passionate supporters too. The Redgrave gals hadn't a prayer.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

26. Richard Burton, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
27. Elizabeth Taylor, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
28. Judy Garland, A Star Is Born
29. Edith Evans, The Whisperers
30. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
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 - get ready to dive into the top 25 of the Oscar 100! Kate Hepburn is back once again and I've also got Monty Clift (but which performance?); an actor directing himself to a nomination; the final Oscar appearance of one of the great comic stars of the big screen; and a Best Supporting Actor nominee who's sure to leave some of you initially scratching your heads...until I lavish heaps of praise on him!