The Oscar 100: #20-16

This post marks Part 17 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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20. Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) (WINNER)

Her competition...

Geena Davis, Thelma & Louise
Laura Dern, Rambling Rose
Bette Midler, For the Boys
Susan Sarandon, Thelma & Louise

Foster portrays Clarice Starling, a top student at the FBI's training academy. She is recruited by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) of the Bureau's Behavioral Science Unit to interview the notorious psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who Crawford suspects may have insights into Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), another serial killer pursued by the Bureau. As Clarice strives to gain Lecter's confidence, she finds herself increasingly manipulated by the imposing inmate, who demands a quid pro quo - he'll only provide information on Buffalo Bill in exchange for details from Clarice's personal life. This performance marked Foster's third Oscar nomination and second win.

The tale of the pre-production on The Silence of the Lambs is nearly as compelling and dizzying as the masterpiece that ultimately emerged after years of negotiations and financing issues. This post isn't about that, of course, but let's just say the film was initially slated to feature Gene its director (and possibly in the role of Crawford to boot).

By the time Hackman was out (he reportedly wasn't enamored with Ted Tally's brutal screenplay) and Jonathan Demme in, it was Michelle Pfeiffer out in front for the role of Clarice Starling. Demme had just directed her in Married to the Mob and, no doubt, Pfeiffer would've been aces in such a reunion. Alas, like Hackman, Pfeiffer had reservations about the gruesome nature of the picture and ultimately passed.

Demme's subsequent preferences either rejected the offer (Meg Ryan) or were turned down by Orion Pictures (Laura Dern). To the great hesitation of Demme, who wasn't thrilled with her Oscar winning turn in The Accused, Orion wanted Foster all along and, unlike Pfeiffer and Ryan, she loved the part. In the end, with his top three out of contention, Demme caved, Foster was in and the rest is movie history. 

Fabulous as Hopkins is, sinking his teeth into his delicious role with giddy vigor (Levine is incredible too), Foster is absolutely the heart and soul of this picture. She has us under her spell from the moment she graces the screen, starting with that brilliant shot of Clarice hopping aboard the elevator with her male colleagues, and is an absorbing, enchanting and exciting sight throughout her blood-curdling journey. 

Once a poor orphan from the backwoods of West Virginia, Clarice has worked so valiantly to reach this fulfilling point in her life, both personally and professionally. Only Lecter seems to recognize the vulnerability and trembling self-confidence that in fact lies deep beneath the surface. As Lecter chips away at Clarice's armor, forcing her to recall one tragedy after another, Foster is a heartbreaking sight, yet never loses that sense of determination that is necessary to survive and win at Lecter's mind games. The actors' stirring rapport generates goosebumps in practically all of their scenes, even when it's a mere phone conversation. Foster thrives in their scenes apart too, including in the picture's petrifying cat-and-mouse conclusion. 

On Oscar night, The Silence of the Lambs was well-positioned for an impressive showing, yet not quite a shoo-in in Best Picture or Best Director, where the likes of Bugsy and JFK were ready to put up a fight. Such wasn't the case down in Best Actress, where Foster, despite having just triumphed three years earlier, was the shoo-in of shoo-ins. Voters were never going to decide between Davis and Sarandon and for Dern and Midler, the nominations themselves were the prizes. 

Every year, I revisit The Silence of the Lambs around Halloween time. As time passes, Foster's fabulous performance just seems to get better and better.

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19. Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) 

His competition...

Danny Aiello, Do the Right Thing
Dan Aykroyd, Driving Miss Daisy
Marlon Brando, A Dry White Season
Denzel Washington, Glory (WINNER)

Landau portrays Judah Rosenthal, a man with a seemingly perfect life. One of the top ophthalmologists in New York, he is a preeminent member of the community and adored by his family. Only one problem - he's been having an affair with flight attendant Dolores (Anjelica Huston) and, convinced Judah will never leave wife Miriam (Claire Bloom), she is determined to reveal their liaison to his family. Desperate to prevent this, Judah turns to his gangster brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) to hire a hitman to take out Dolores. When the deed is done, Judah finds himself consumed with grief and becomes convinced God is watching him. This performance marked Landau's second Oscar nomination.

In 1988, director Francis Ford Coppola rescued Landau out of direct-to-video hell for an Oscar-nominated supporting turn in Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Landau's performance was a lovely one, albeit somewhat lost in the otherwise bloated picture, one of Coppola's many productions that floundered at the box office. 

The following year found Landau in even better form, in a decidedly superior film. Not only does Crimes and Misdemeanors mark the finest work of the actor's career, it is also one of the very best Woody Allen films, an exquisitely crafted blend of drama and comedy that especially comes to life in the Landau half of the proceedings. (The Allen half, opposite Mia Farrow and Alan Alda, is more familiar, amiable territory for the filmmaker, albeit still plenty enjoyable.)

Judah is a contemptible figure, no doubt, concerned exclusively with himself and his standing with his family and colleagues, but Landau manages to elicit surprising empathy for the man as he suffocates under his sorrow, anguished with the decision he's made to knock off the woman he fell in love with. There are little glimpses of flashbacks to the Judah-Dolores romance that are sweet and all too convincing and ultimately make her demise all the more heartbreaking.

Landau and Huston have a remarkable chemistry as they make Judah and Dolores a wholly winning pair during earlier times and then bitterly at odds in the present as she makes her tell-all plans clear. Dolores of course wins all of our sympathy in the scenes leading to her death but it's tough to not get emotionally caught up in Judah's tribulation too, as he faces his moral dilemma and is drawn back into the religious teachings he rejected into adulthood.

There are moments in Crimes and Misdemeanors in which Landau graces the screen in silence and yet says so much through his eyes and face, his Judah vividly consumed with torment over the tragic events he has set in motion - just look at him, dazed and distressed, as Judah returns to Dolores' apartment after learning she has been killed. Landau also works wonders with Allen's sublime dialogue, like in the haunting scene in with Judah has a trembling conversation with an imaginary rabbi and of course in the final scene opposite Allen, whose Clifford Stern has also been having a tough go at life, albeit at a far less grueling level.

With another, lesser actor, Judah could have emerged a one-note embodiment of evil. Instead, Landau, the most gifted of character actors, adds layer upon layer to this complicated man, at once reprehensible and altogether human.

Despite the brilliance of his performance, Landau was never considered a threat for the Best Supporting Actor win, nor even a clear contender for a nomination, as critics proved partial to Alda, who portrays the pompous playboy in the Allen half of the picture. Landau, Brando and Aykroyd had to sit on the sidelines as Washington towered over the field as front-runner, with Aiello seen as the greatest threat.

Landau, of course, would at last emerge victorious just a few years down the road, back in Best Supporting Actor as he steamrolled the awards season with Ed Wood - a fabulous turn, albeit a slightly inferior one to his career-topper in Crimes and Misdemeanors.

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18. Jessica Lange in Frances (1982)

Her competition...

Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
Sissy Spacek, Missing
Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice (WINNER)
Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman

Lange portrays Frances Farmer, the brilliant, beautiful and famously rebellious actress whose modest stardom on the stage and screen in the 1930s was gradually derailed by substance abuse, a reputation as impossible to work with and the quintessential Mother from Hell (Kim Stanley), who cruelly institutionalized her daughter following a nervous breakdown. This performance, alongside Tootsie (in Best Supporting Actress), marked Lange's first Oscar appearance. 

Talk about terrible timing.

Had Universal Pictures released Frances in nearly any other year, Lange surely would have triumphed for her tour de force as the tragic star of the silver screen. Alas, in 1982, she was forced to face the most undeniable of Oscar contenders, the legendary Streep, tearing it up in Sophie's Choice, a film that proved a far greater commercial success than Frances. Hardly helping Lange's cause was Universal being the distributor for Sophie as well (ditto Missing), so, when Streep started to steamroll with awards and Frances faded at the box office while Sophie soared, Universal was understandably more focused on getting Streep across the finish line.

The compromise was predictable and not entirely satisfying - voters would throw Lange a bone down in Best Supporting Actress, a consolation prize not only for the loss up in Best Actress but for Tootsie itself, which would fall short in every other category.

Beyond the powerhouse that is Lange, Frances is a rather sloppy, haphazard picture, all but devoid of subtlety and riddled with inaccuracies. Yet, as a showcase for two dynamite actresses, Lange and the horrifying Stanley, it emerges an absolute must-see.

When these two titans of the screen go at it, it's about as riveting as cinema can get. Moreover, Sam Shepard, as Frances' on-and-off lover Harry, may be portraying more of an enigma than an actual character, but his chemistry with Lange is smoldering and the final scene of the picture, in which Harry crosses paths with Frances for the first time since an involuntary lobotomy turned her into something out of The Stepford Wives, is positively devastating.

Lange remarkably portrays Frances over a nearly 30-year span as the up-and-comer evolves from an apprehensive, unworldly girl from Seattle, to a larger than life, drop dead gorgeous starlet of the stage and screen and ultimately to an disorderly, disillusioned woman whose declining mental health is only exasperated by an industry and a mother who have scant compassion for her. When Frances is sent to the asylum, Lange descends into deranged madness that rings of Liz Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer and, like Taylor, expertly walks that fine line between bombast and all too convincing tragedy.

Among the stormiest, most startling performances to ever grace the screen, Lange in Frances continues to mesmerize, even if the film around her is vastly inferior to its headliner. It's the turn that forever put her on the map as one of the great American actresses, washing away all animosity critics back in the day may have felt toward Lange for the clunky King Kong remake that first sent her soaring into super stardom.

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17 and 16. Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker (1962) (WINNERS)

Their competition...

Mary Badham, To Kill a Mockingbird
Shirley Knight, Sweet Bird of Youth
Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate
Thelma Ritter, Birdman of Alcatraz

Bette Davis, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Katharine Hepburn, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Geraldine Page, Sweet Bird of Youth
Lee Remick, Days of Wine and Roses

Duke and Bancroft portray Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, a blind, deaf and mute girl and the half-blind tutor hired, in a last ditch effort before Helen's parents institutionalize her, to help the child. Helen, exasperated by her inability to communicate and prone to violent outbursts, is initially resistant to Annie's efforts but, through determination and tough love, the tutor is gradually able to connect with her and show Helen ways of reaching others. These performances marked both Duke's and Bancroft's first Oscar nominations and wins.

Good heavens, imaging being an awards season prognosticator in these races!

There was no clear front-runner in either of these categories, nor Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor for that matter. The case was the same up in Best Picture and Best Director, with Lawrence of Arabia and To Kill a Mockingbird battling it out in dead heats. 

If there was a favorite in Best Supporting Actress, albeit a soft favorite at that, it was Lansbury, who earned raves for her chilling turn in The Manchurian Candidate. No doubt, however, the star, now on her third Oscar nomination in the category, wasn't helped by the otherwise lackluster reception from voters for her picture. The Miracle Worker, while absent in Best Picture, was up in both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay and certainly a less anxiety-inducing endeavor than the Lansbury film. 

Events were more intriguing up in Best Actress.

Bancroft had won a Tony for the original Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, so she was of course in serious contention from the get-go - well, that is, after director Arthur Penn shot down United Artists' proposal to cast Liz Taylor of all people as Annie Sullivan.

Among Bancroft's opponents in Best Actress in a Play at the 1960 Tonys was none other than Page for Sweet Bird of Youth - despite her loss, however, Page was also seen as a viable winner. She won the Golden Globe and, now on her third Oscar nomination, was perhaps the most "due" of the contenders. Hepburn triumphed at Cannes for her turn but wasn't seen as a real threat, nor was newcomer Remick.

The heavy sentimental favorite was Davis, who hadn't won an Oscar since Jezebel in 1938 and whose comeback with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was a sizable commercial success. Fellow leading lady Joan Crawford, who had a frigid production experience with her Baby Jane co-star, took it upon herself to wage a behind-the-scenes whisper campaign to damage Davis' Oscar bid.

Part of this strategy was calling up Davis' opponents to offer herself up to anyone who couldn't make the ceremony and needed someone to accept the prize on her behalf. Both Bancroft and Page were no-shows, so, when the former ultimately won, Crawford gleefully waltzed upon the Oscar stage, taking grand delight in both being front and center at the ceremony (which wasn't the case the night she won for Mildred Pierce) and rubbing salt in Davis' wound. 

Now! Onto the performances themselves...

Both Duke and Bancroft are absolutely pitch-perfect in two exceedingly difficult roles. Helen Keller, the infuriated girl suffocating in a world of silence, is a rather one-note role, providing its actress scant opportunity to convey any sort of evolution. Yet, Duke completely, flawlessly disappears into this role - it's the definitive portrayal, conveying the child's ferocious temper and untamed voice and facial expressions, while also making Helen a wholly sympathetic figure. 

That Duke makes Helen both so disorderly and also so full of heart makes Annie's own exasperation and desperation to reach the girl all the more convincing. Duke and Bancroft have an intense rapport during their quarrels but there's also a deeply affecting sensitivity to other moments, like the legendary water pump scene.

Both actresses expertly reign in their portrayals from the stage to screen - Bancroft especially is impressive, given the histrionics that would so often emerge in later performances. She instills precisely the right amounts of toughness, compassion and vulnerability into Annie, a headstrong figure on the outside who in reality has no shortage of doubts. 

In different hands, The Miracle Worker could have been a mawkish TV Movie of the Week. Instead, under Penn's expert direction and headlined by these two performance, it's a fiery, wholly absorbing endeavor, full of moments both heartwarming and frightening. 

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

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 - as the top 10 lurks around the corner, I've got two Oscar winners, one in Best Actor and the other Best Supporting Actor; the all-time greatest nominee from a foreign language film; a funny lady slaying in a rare dramatic screen turn; and perhaps the funniest actor to ever grace the silver screen.