The Oscar 100: #15-11

This post marks Part 18 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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15. Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940)

His competition...

Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath
Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln in Illinois
Laurence Olivier, Rebecca
James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story (WINNER)

Chaplin portrays a Jewish barber who, in the two decades following World War I, has spent his life in an army hospital, plagued by memory loss incurred from battle wounds. Long isolated from the outside world, he has been unaware of the rise of fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin) and the anti-Semitic policies ravaging his old neighborhood. Upon leaving the hospital, he is appalled by these developments and, alongside a neighbor (Paulette Goddard) and old friend from the first war (Reginald Gardiner), determined to rebel against the power-hungry tyrant. This performance marked Chaplin's first Oscar nomination (he was also up in Best Original Screenplay).

Two years prior to the release of Ernst Lubitsch's legendary To Be or Not To Be and nearly three decades before Mel Brooks' The Producers saw the light of the day, Chaplin wrote, directed, produced and headlined the anti-Nazi satire that would forever tower over all anti-Nazi satires (and nearly all political satires, for that matter). That Chaplin delivered The Great Dictator at a time when the United States was still on formally peaceful terms with Nazi Germany makes his effort all the more astounding. 

Chaplin's picture was nearly the first Hollywood parody of the Third Reich, beaten to theaters only by the Three Stooges' short film You Natzy Spy!, which actually went into production two months after The Great Dictator began filming. The film was a box office smash, the second-highest grossing picture of 1940 (behind Rebecca), and also resonated overseas. Besides the Lubitsch picture, however, there would hardly be an onslaught of Nazi-themed comedies over the coming years. Once the horrors of the Holocaust came to light, the industry shied away from the subject until the likes of Brooks and Stanley Kubrick (with Dr. Strangelove) had the chutzpah to bite. 

While Dr. Strangelove and The Producers are among the greatest comedies to ever grace the screen, The Great Dictator is, for my money at least, an even more awe-inspiring accomplishment, an expert, immensely influential blend of comedy and drama that finds its star at the top of his game, both in front of and behind the camera. 

For film buffs seeking slapstick at its finest, The Great Dictator, no surprise, delivers all of the goods. Chaplin is devastatingly funny as Hynkel, portraying him in a fashion that is buffoonish, yet also uneasily grounded in reality. Hynkel's ballet with the globe balloon is an unimpeachable master class in comedy.

It's with the barber, however, that Chaplin really provides himself the opportunity to display his chops as an actor. As this quiet man, who yearns for a serene existence back home after years of recovery in the hospital, Chaplin is absolutely enchanting. He's often quite funny in this role too but it's a far more restrained brand of comedy. Chaplin gets to play a romantic too and has lovely chemistry with Goddard, playing the beautiful neighbor and apple of the barber's eye. 

The real gut-punch of The Great Dictator comes in its conclusion, in which the barber, disguised as the dictator, delivers a public speech proclaiming that Hynkel has had a change of heart and urges kindness. It's an intensely affecting moment, beautifully written and performed, that ends the proceedings on a wholly satisfying note. 

Now, did Chaplin have a prayer of winning the Best Actor prize in 1940? Not really.

While Chaplin would, more than 30 years later, attend the Oscars to accept an honorary prize, he protested the entire 1940 awards season, lamenting the concept of actors competing with one another for prizes. Critics were partial to him and Fonda but it's scant surprise Stewart prevailed in the end. Not only did he have The Philadelphia Story, he also headlined three other pictures in 1940, including the beloved The Shop Around the Corner

In a dynamite year for leading men (Fonda and Olivier are so fabulous too), Chaplin would have made a richly deserving winner.

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14 and 13. Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980) (WINNER - Hutton)

Their competition...

Judd Hirsch, Ordinary People
Michael O'Keefe, The Great Santini
Joe Pesci, Raging Bull
Jason Robards, Melvin and Howard

Ellen Burstyn, Resurrection
Goldie Hawn, Private Benjamin
Gena Rowlands, Gloria
Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner's Daughter (WINNER)

Hutton and Moore portray Conrad and Beth Jarrett, a son and mother reeling from the loss of the family's eldest son Buck in a sailing accident. While Conrad remains ravaged with anguish and guilt over Buck's death, and has just returned home from the hospital following a suicide attempt, Beth is focused on maintaining perfect composure and unable to connect with her despondent son. In the middle is Calvin (Donald Sutherland), also drowning in grief and desperate to hold his strained family together. These performances marked Hutton's first and only Oscar nomination and win and Moore's first and only Oscar nomination.

Sorry, Raging Bull fans, but Ordinary People (my favorite of all Best Picture winners) wholeheartedly deserved to steamroll on Oscar night 1980 - and even more so than it ultimately did.

Terrific as Spacek is taking on Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter, I don't hesitate for a second in throwing my support behind Moore (and, for what it's worth, Burstyn would be my runner-up). No doubt, under a different campaign strategy, Moore would have triumphed down in the anemic Best Supporting Actress field (crazy as it sounds, her screen time only clocks in at about half an hour) but I happen to think all three of the Jarretts, Best Supporting Actor winner Hutton included, warranted pushes up in Lead.

After all, how on earth is Hutton on the same level as Hirsch - and likewise, how could Moore compete for a Supporting nomination with the picture's Elizabeth McGovern? Of course, Paramount, Ordinary People's distributor, didn't want to see Hutton face the most uphill of battles against the juggernaut that was Raging Bull's Robert De Niro. (Not that Sutherland even mustered a nomination in Best Actor - one of the all-time most egregious Oscar snubs.)

In the end, Hutton had scant awards season trouble down in Best Supporting Actor, though critics were awfully fond of Pesci too. Moore, on the other hand, didn't muster much traction against Spacek but was surely runner-up. 

For my money, Ordinary People is among the most affecting pictures to ever grace the big screen, an masterfully acted, written and directed film that marks the finest work of its stars, screenwriter (Alvin Sargent, adapting from the Judith Guest novel) and filmmaker (Robert Redford, in a remarkable directorial debut). Stunningly grounded in reality and packed with one gut-punching moment after another, the picture continues to intensely resonate, nearly four decades since its release.

At the heart of the film is Hutton's Conrad, the fragile, grief-stricken brother who struggles to get on with business at usual, at home and at school. He is on fine terms with his kind and understanding father but can never get through to Beth, who shared with Buck a special bond she never quite had with Conrad. The entrance of Hirsch's Dr. Berger, Conrad's new psychiatrist, is welcomed by Calvin but hardly embraced by Beth, who doesn't care for her son discussing family matters with a stranger. 

The scenes opposite Hirsch provide Hutton the license to flex his acting muscles as Conrad is sent on an emotional roller coaster ride that only heightens in potency as he digs deeper into how the events of that tragic day with Buck have affected him. Hutton also has the chance to show off a lighter, sweeter side in his moments with McGovern, who portrays Jeannine, the apple of Conrad's eye. 

Hutton's most startling scenes, however, come opposite Moore, who takes emotional suppression to sky-high heights as family matriarch Beth.

By having the most frigid and uneasy of chemistry, Hutton and Moore have an absolutely pitch-perfect rapport (or lack thereof) that is unmatched. The nervousness of their early scenes together - at breakfast and dinner, out in the backyard reflecting on Buck, setting the kitchen table - eventually turns explosive when Conrad makes changes in his life, like leaving the swimming team. Where Conrad believes he's helping himself, on the advice of Dr. Berger, Beth finds his behavior inexplicable. 

Moore is at once robotic and indisputably human as Beth. While Beth goes through the motions of her life, hitting up the mall, attending swanky functions with Calvin and so on, there is scant doubt about the pain eating away at her deep down.

Beth may be cold and often exasperating, and our hearts are certainly with Conrad and Calvin from start to finish, but Moore instills her with a palpable, if masked humanity that makes it difficult to view Beth as some one-note, irredeemable ice queen. Instead, as Moore herself described the character during the production and in interviews over the years, Beth is a victim. Moore slays in one scene after another, perhaps most notably Beth's big breakdown on the golf course, where she lashes out at Calvin for merely suggesting the idea of checking in on Conrad while they're away. And that sight of Conrad's attempt at a hug with his mother late in the picture...yikes.

Redford was said to have had Moore in mind to portray Beth from the get-go - an incredible feat, given the star's reputation as America's sweetheart and a queen of comedy on the small screen. Ultimately, however, Redford was spot-on and Moore turned in the performance of her career.

It's really a shame then, looking back, that more film roles of this incredible caliber didn't follow. When her subsequent picture, the drama Six Weeks with Dudley Moore, flopped, that was pretty much it. Likewise, while the occasional sparkling script would cross his path, albeit none on the level of Ordinary People, Hutton too didn't have the most illustrious of runs on the big screen.

Perhaps Ordinary People didn't send Hutton and Moore soaring to big screen super stardom like it should have but that hardly diminishes the fact that these are two of the most devastating performances ever recognized at the Oscars, with Hutton the greatest of all Best Supporting Actor winners. I have watched this sublime film annually for so many years and undoubtedly will continue to do so 'til the end of time.

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12. Ida Kaminska in The Shop on Main Street (1965)

Her competition...

Anouk Aimee, A Man and a Woman
Lynn Redgrave, Georgy Girl
Vanessa Redgrave, Morgan!
Elizabeth Taylor, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (WINNER)

Kaminska portrays Mrs. Rozalie Lautmann, the Jewish owner of a button shop in Nazi-occupied Slovakia. Old and hard of hearing, Mrs. Lautmann is disconnected from the ever-changing world outside. So, when carpenter Tono Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is recruited by authorities to be "Aryan comptroller" of her store, Mrs. Lautmann, convinced the friendly Tono is a nephew interested in helping the shop, welcomes him with open arms. Over time, Mrs. Lautmann and Tono strike up a friendly rapport, which leaves him guilt-ridden and later faced with the worst of moral dilemmas when all Jews in town are ordered to be turned in. This performance marked Kaminska's first and only Oscar nomination.

A titan of the stage in Poland - the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw is named in her honor - Kaminska found her 15 minutes of fame before American audiences with this breathtaking performance in The Shop on Main Street, which deservedly took home the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Serious kudos to the Academy for recognizing a Ukrainian-born stage actress in a Czechoslovakian picture hardly seen by a vast domestic audience. Voters easily could have gone for a safer, inferior selection, like Julie Andrews in Hawaii or Natalie Wood in This Property Is Condemned. Instead, they produced one of the all-time great nominations in Best Actress.

The Shop on Main Street is among the finest pictures about the Holocaust, refreshingly devoid of the mawkishness that plagues the likes of more contemporary fare like Life Is Beautiful and The Reader. Sensitively directed by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos and beautifully photographed by Vladimir Novotny, it also happens to sport two magnificent performances, from Kaminska and leading man Kroner, whose distressed Tono is every bit as absorbing as her disoriented Mrs. Lautmann.

Mrs. Lautmann, gradually losing her grip on reality, lives in her own little world. She's oblivious to the revolutionary events going down around her, instead clinging to her old memories and traditions. Pitiful as Mrs. Lautmann is, Kaminska also makes her a wholly endearing and irresistible old lady - it's no wonder Tono takes such a strong liking to her and is so consumed with grief when the inevitable rears its tragic head. She makes Mrs. Lautmann a sweet, grandmotherly figure but also a painfully honest one - she hardly hesitates to bring Tono down a few notches when he deserves it. Also, for a picture that ends on such a heart-wrenching note, Kaminska has moments where she is outrageously funny.

At age 65 during production, and still full of the energy necessary to do eight one-woman stage shows a week, Kaminska is completely convincing as the frail, 78-year-old Mrs. Lautmann. She portrays senility more vividly than any other performance I can think of and, though she in actuality only graces the screen for about a fifth of the proceedings, is never not on your mind once Mrs. Lautmann makes her entrance (which isn't until about half an hour in).

Sublime as Kaminska's performance is, she really didn't have a prayer against Taylor, the overwhelming favorite in Best Actress. Kaminska and Kroner shared honors at the Cannes Film Festival for their turns but otherwise, Kaminska failed to earn a single mention from the critics' awards, which would've been essential to her having a prayer on Oscar night.

Ultimately, she may have come up short but the raves for her performance propelled her all the way to Broadway for the first time, where she headlined and directed a well-received revival of Mother Courage and Her Children. Kaminska remained in New York for the remainder of her life and got under her belt one American film, The Angel Levine, opposite Zero Mostel and Harry Belafonte. Such would prove her final motion picture.

Kaminska in The Shop on Main Street is a jaw-dropping performance sorely in need of rediscovery.

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11. Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) (WINNER)

His competition...

Burt Lancaster, Birdman of Alcatraz
Jack Lemmon, Days of Wine and Roses
Marcello Mastroianni, Divorce Italian Style
Peter O'Toole, Lawrence of Arabia

Peck portrays Atticus Finch, a revered attorney in small town Alabama, circa 1932. A widower, Atticus is raising two young children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford), who spend their days playing games and spying on their mysterious neighbor Arthur "Boo" Radley (Robert Duvall). When Atticus is appointed to defend an African-American man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), against fabricated rape charges, Scout and Jem are exposed to the vile racism plaguing their beloved Maycomb. This performance marked Peck's fifth and final Oscar nomination and first and only win.

When Peck earned his Best Actor nomination in 1962, despite formidable competition, he was a sure bet for victory. Not only was To Kill a Mockingbird a commercial and critical smash, Peck was at this point on his fifth appearance in the category and, unlike O'Toole (whose Lawrence of Arabia won Best Picture and was the highest-grossing film of the year), viewed as overwhelmingly due for victory. Having another terrific performance under his belt this year (Cape Fear) certainly didn't hurt.

Despite his storied career, packed with one fantastic turn after another, Peck will rightfully, always be most associated with this picture. Not that the actor ever tired of this recognition - he wanted the role the moment Alan J. Pakula (the film's producer) approached him about it and, over the years to follow, would reflect on the picture with the utmost positivity. Critically offering her ringing endorsement was author Harper Lee, who viewed Peck as the pitch-perfect choice for her Atticus Finch.

Peck is Atticus, through and through, exuding immense warmth and kindness while also towering as an imposing figure in the eyes of his children. When, in the courtroom, the Reverend Sykes (William Walker) says to Scout, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up, your father's passing," we're liable to join her on our feet. Peck's presence is so powerful and strapping, it demands respect, and every moment he graces the screen, we feel as though we are beholding a genuine superhero. He avoids the mawkishness that could have easily ravaged an adaptation done in the wrong hands, yet delivers a performance so packed with heart and tenderness. Peck also instills in Atticus a palpable sense of vulnerability, both professionally and personally. Though we as an audience may feel to the contrary, this Atticus hardly views himself as a hero or a perfect father.

The trial of Tom Robinson of course provides Peck with the grandest opportunity to have a field day in the role and feast on Horton Foote's dialogue. And indeed, in his final summation to members of the jury near the conclusion of the trial, Peck is downright spellbinding. Yet, I'm even fonder of Peck's quieter scenes opposite Badham, who's a natural pro on the screen. They have a warm, lived-in chemistry that is essential to the picture's success.

Is it possible to be quietly larger than life? Well, if so, Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird is the definition of this.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

11. Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird
12. Ida Kaminska, The Shop on Main Street
13. Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People
14. Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People
15. Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
16. Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker
17. Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker
18. Jessica Lange, Frances
19. Martin Landau, Crimes and Misdemeanors
20. Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs
21. Robert Forster, Jackie Brown
22. Katharine Hepburn, Summertime
23. Montgomery Clift, The Search
24. Orson Welles, Citizen Kane
25. Peter Sellers, Being There
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 - top 10 time! With the best of the best lurking around the corner in just two weeks, we'll first take a look at the highest-ranking winners in Best Actor and Best Actress; two quietly devastating turns from actors perhaps better known for more animated work; and at last, "the greatest star of them all."