The Oscar 100: #75-71

This post marks Part 6 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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75. Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Her competition...

Gladys Cooper, Now, Voyager
Susan Peters, Random Harvest
May Whitty, Mrs. Miniver
Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver (WINNER)

Moorehead portrays Fanny Minafer, spinster aunt of the spoiled, self-absorbed George (Tim Holt). Fanny and George form an unlikely alliance to prevent his recently widowed mother Isabel (Dolores Costello) from falling for Eugene (Joseph Cotten), the man who unsuccessfully courted Isabel years prior and who Fanny is enamored with. Complicating matters is the family's financial downfall, the result of poor investments Fanny made over the years. This performance marked Moorehead's first Oscar nomination.

Dammit, RKO. Under different circumstances, this, well, magnificent performance surely would have ranked even higher on this list. 

Those unfamiliar with the studio's post-production hit job on The Magnificent Ambersons may come away from Orson Welles' picture - his follow-up to Citizen Kane - viewing Moorehead's performance, while an unimpeachable scene-stealer, as feeling curiously incomplete.

This, of course, was the result of RKO taking a chainsaw to more than 40 minutes of the picture (footage that remains lost), which included tacking on a happy ending that rings wholly false. Because Welles kept extensive notes on the original cut (and gave no shortage of interviews in the decades following the film's release), we know Fanny was initially a plenty fleshed-out, prominent role, not the ill-defined presence that lurks in the studio cut. 

Even with this travesty, Moorehead is a riveting sight in The Magnificent Ambersons, managing, even with the egregious cuts, to emerge the clear MVP.

An audacious performance years ahead of its time, test audiences inexplicably laughed at Moorehead's unhinged portrayal of the feverish Fanny in the original cut that was first screened. Welles was forced to even reshoot Moorehead's best scene of all, Fanny's boiler room breakdown in which she reveals to George that the family has lost everything, leaving the two with only a few hundred dollars left to live on.

Fanny's meltdown may be a tad operatic but justifiably so - this is, after all, a deeply despondent woman, long the family punching bag, whose brother's death not only instills her with even greater despair but also vexation over the opening it leaves for Eugene to now go in for the kill with Isabel. That she loses it when the spiteful George chastises her over losing the family fortune seems entirely warranted. It's hard for me to fathom audiences back in the day weren't rooting for Fanny but rather perplexed by Moorehead's raw delivery.

Given the then-lukewarm reception to The Magnificent Ambersons, by critics and especially audiences, it is scant surprise Wright triumphed for the more popular, crowd-pleasing Mrs. Miniver (though I could fathom the brilliant Cooper having won too).

Thankfully, over the decades to follow, most have come around to the picture and Moorehead's performance, many deeming it a career-best for both the filmmaker and actress. That Moorehead could shine as bright as she does, despite her performance having been so brutally axed, is a testament to her impeccable strengths as an actress and commanding screen presence. She would be nominated another three times in Best Supporting Actress, all for memorable turns but none quite as compelling as Fanny, that miserable yet fetching spinster who you just want to give a hug.

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74 and 73. Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek in Carrie (1976)

Their competition...

Marie-Christine Barrault, Cousin Cousine
Faye Dunaway, Network (WINNER)
Talia Shire, Rocky
Liv Ullmann, Face to Face

Jane Alexander, All the President's Men
Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver
Lee Grant, Voyage of the Damned
Beatrice Straight, Network (WINNER)

Laurie and Spacek portray Margaret and Carrie White, a religious fanatic mother and her withdrawn teenage daughter. Bizarre happenings around Carrie leave her convinced she has supernatural powers, abilities she learns are akin to telekinesis, the moving of objects with one's mind. Constantly bullied at school, Carrie is stunned to be invited to prom by the the kind, dreamy Tommy (William Katt) - a development that hardly sits well with Margaret. Carrie is crowned prom queen but, after a pair of nasty classmates (Nancy Allen and John Travolta) sabotage her perfect evening, attendees will be lucky to make it out alive. These performances marked Laurie's second Oscar nomination and Spacek's first.

On a number of occasions throughout this list (eight, to be exact), there will be pairs of performances from the same pictures that I find simply inseparable for ranking purposes - turns that beautifully compliment each other and are tough to fathom achieving such immense success without the strength of his or her co-star. The first of these duos are comeback kid Laurie and extraordinary up-and-comer Spacek, unforgettable in Brian De Palma's Carrie.

After a 15-year hiatus from the silver screen, her last film being The Hustler (for which she earned her first Oscar nomination), Laurie made her grand return to cinema with this spectacular Mother from Hell turn. As hair-raising and iconic as the performance turned out, it took no shortage of convincing to bring Laurie aboard the project. She viewed Margaret White and the Stephen King novel as too outlandish to possibly be taken seriously. Only after she researched De Palma's prior work, and saw the humor he so often instilled in his projects, was Laurie sold on Carrie - that is, as a very dark comedy. 

Laurie took this approach to the material despite De Palma's insistence that Carrie was no comedy and co-star Spacek's tackling of the project as a serious horror-drama. Alas, in the end, Laurie's wacky, sinister portrayal and Spacek's downcast, sensitive one would prove a perfect match, creating all the more empathy for the latter as Carrie suffers at the hands of her deranged mother. It's a pairing right up there with the legendary mother-daughter likes of Gladys Cooper and Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and Kim Stanley and Jessica Lange in Frances.

As Margaret, Laurie pulls off a remarkable balancing act, painting a woman who, while spectacularly bonkers and terrifying, also feels entirely grounded in reality, not just some scenery-chewing cartoon. She sells the psychotic dialogue and indeed, there is a sense Laurie perhaps views this woman as a laugh riot (supposedly, she would burst out in laughter after filming several scenes), but it's not like she plays Margaret for parody.

Laurie's Margaret is a sick and twisted woman, descending into paranoia throughout the picture until she completely cracks on prom night. As Margaret delivers her big 11-'o-clock hour monologue in which she reflects on the evening Carrie was conceived, Laurie throbs her way through the scene, as if on the verge of orgasm. Where another actress may have just gone through the motions, Laurie instills into Margaret an unusual vitality that is equal parts fascinating and frightening. It's a fabulous performance.

Just as incredible, of course, is Carrie herself, the inimitable Spacek, in only her fourth appearance on the big screen. 

In stark contrast to Laurie's larger-than-life portrayal, Spacek is exceedingly subdued throughout Carrie, her self-effacing heroine trying to get through the school day with her head kept down, only to be terrorized during the day by her repugnant classmates and in the evening by her loon of a mother.

Spacek conveys overwhelming senses of insecurity and sensitivity, crafting a despairing and altogether empathetic figure. When Carrie's classmates incessantly pick on her, you share the rage boiling underneath her skin. And, when big man on campus Tommy asks her out, you too have that enchanted yet dubious feeling. Ultimately, Spacek makes Carrie so impossible not to root for, one can't help but feel a certain sense of euphoria when she burns the whole place down. 

In the end, neither actress would emerge triumphant on the big night. Spacek, as expected, lost to Dunaway, already viewed as due for a prize. Laurie, on the other hand, stood a real chance.

Not only was Laurie a veteran of the silver screen, having worked alongside countless industry folks, Best Supporting Actress was also a damn mess in '76, the Golden Globe winner (Katharine Ross) not even earning a nomination. Alexander was way too low-key to win (and also barely in her film) and Grant hadn't a prayer with that trainwreck of a picture, so odds are, Laurie at least finished third, probably even runner-up. Sorry but Straight, fierce as she is in her one scene in Network, is no Laurie.

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72. Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937)

Her competition...

Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth
Greta Garbo, Camille
Janet Gaynor, A Star Is Born
Luise Rainer, The Good Earth (WINNER)

Stanwyck portrays Stella Martin, a working class woman who weds the wealthy Stephen Dallas (John Boles). Their marriage hardly flourishes but out of it comes a daughter, Laurel (Anne Shirley), who Stella adores more than anything. When the couple at last splits, Stella struggles to provide Laurel the prosperous life she believes she deserves, ultimately coming to a heartbreaking conclusion - her daughter would probably be better off without her. This performance marked Stanwyck's first Oscar nomination.

Glenn Close, Irene Dunne, Deborah Kerr, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck - five of the finest leading ladies to ever grace the screen and all inexplicably Oscar-less, despite at least four nominations a piece. Among these divine stars, no loss do I find more egregious than Stanwyck's on her first Oscar bid, for the devastating Stella Dallas

The picture was a hit, both critically and at the box office, and Stanwyck, despite stiff competition, was widely seen as a slam dunk for Oscar victory. Yet, instead of the evening going as expected, it would be Rainer emerging triumphant, her second conservative Best Actress win, this time for a supremely low-key turn in The Good Earth. It's tough to fathom what did Stanwyck in, though her refusal to contract with a single studio (and the suspensions she faced on several occasions for refusing to do crummy films) may have played a factor.

Stanwyck's legendary gut-puncher of a performance still completely holds up, even if the actors and film around her are, at best, very hit-or-miss (even the Oscar-nominated Shirley underwhelms). She creates a woman who, while crass and vulgar, also exudes an immense sense of warmth. Stella struggles to better herself or fit in with society on her own, so she marries, hoping that'll do the trick and, while that marriage proves a flop, at least she learns in the process of the enormous fulfillment motherhood brings. But she still struggles to flourish or win acceptance.

In one of the film's many overwhelming scenes, Stella overhears Laurel's friends describe her as nothing short of poor white trash. Unable to change, she ultimately faces the most shattering decision of all - hold on to Laurel, preventing her from the lucrative life Stella so believes she deserves, or let her go.  

All of this, of course, is played as melodrama but Stanwyck is able to transcend the mawkish nature of the material and prevent the proceedings from descending into full-on soap opera. She creates a genuine, compelling woman with grand dreams, aspirations she is convinced will come true through money. This, of course, proves not the case - it's being a mother that at last makes her feel whole and, in the end, she gives it all up.

I struggle to think of many other moments in cinema that so intensely pull at the heartstrings as the final minutes of the picture, in which Stella, having made her sacrifice, observes Laurel's wedding at a distance. Stanwyck conveys so much without overplaying it in the slightest. It's a magnificent turn from a career full of them.

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71. Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Her competition...

Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful (WINNER)
Colette Marchand, Moulin Rouge
Terry Moore, Come Back, Little Sheba
Thelma Ritter, With a Song in My Heart

Hagen portrays Lina Lamont, glamorous star of the silver screen and the supposed love of fellow actor Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly)'s life. In reality, their romance is all a facade for the fans, who adore the couple and flock to all of their pictures. Throwing a wrench into this success is Hollywood's transition from silent to sound cinema, a change none too rewarding for the shrill-voiced Lina. When she discovers chorus girl Kathy Reynolds (Debbie Reynolds), who also happens to be the apple of Don's eye, has been hired to dub her on the next Lockwood-Lamont picture, Lina is beside herself. This performance marked Hagen's first and only Oscar nomination.

One of the more perplexing years at the Oscars, 1952 found the Academy make room in Best Picture for the bombastic likes of Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge and, the ultimate winner, The Greatest Show on Earth, while leaving mere table scraps (two nominations, Hagen's and another in Best Musical Score) for Singin' in the Rain, now widely regarding as one of the greatest films of all-time, if not the finest movie musical. 

This lukewarm reception to the Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen film makes it not terribly surprising Hagen failed to prevail on Oscar night, despite being leaps and bounds superior to her lackluster competition. (Grahame does close to nothing, Marchand leaves minimal impression, Moore is completely out-acted by her leading lady and this is perhaps the weakest of Ritter's nominated performances.) No doubt, Grahame triumphed in honor of her body of work that year - for this, The Greatest Show on Earth, Macao and Sudden Fear combined.

In hindsight, there isn't the slightest question who really should've emerged victorious. 

A priceless performance of true comic genius that went on to inspire many a daffy turn (including fellow Oscar 100 inductee Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria), Hagen is brilliant both vocally and physically, unforgettable of course for that heavy, grinding New York accent but just as amazing acting out the silent scenes. She's a laugh riot from the moment the film opens alongside Kelly, so, despite the countless pleasures of the picture, it is something of a disappointment when you realize she'll be a mere supporting player moving forward. Not that the likes of Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds aren't flat-out fabulous too but Hagen still manages to emerge MVP, despite a lot less screen time. It's a performance that seems to only get better and funnier with age.

Hagen, whose career was sadly cut short by cancer at age 54, was a real virtuoso of acting, a master in screwball comedy but also darker fare, like The Asphalt Jungle and The Big Knife. To view her more demure turns in pictures like that pair only makes her sparkling work in Singin' in the Rain all the more awe-inspiring. Here was a star who could play just about any role and, over her all-too-short career, turned in at least half a dozen superb performances, albeit no other quite as magnificent as Lina Lamont.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

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 - I've got another pair of incredible actresses from the same picture (one of who triumphed on the big night); a veteran actor who won his Oscar portraying another real-life actor; a sublime actress of the stage and screen in her final nominated performance; and, for the first and only occasion, a turn from the 2010s. 

The Oscar 100: #80-76

This post marks Part 5 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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80. Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982)

His competition...

Ben Kingsley, Gandhi (WINNER)
Jack Lemmon, Missing
Paul Newman, The Verdict
Peter O'Toole, My Favorite Year

Hoffman portrays Michael Dorsey, the struggling actor who, unable to find anyone in New York who will hire him, reinvents himself as actress Dorothy Michaels. Dorothy lands what was supposed to be a short-lived role on a daytime soap but, proving a surprise smash, is instead signed into a long-term contract. Among the many new complications in Michael's life is his affection for co-star Julie (Jessica Lange), who adores her new colleague (as a girlfriend) and whose lonely father (Charles Durning) develops feelings for Dorothy. This performance marked Hoffman's fifth Oscar nomination.

On Oscar night 1982, a then-record 53 million viewers - later surpassed only by the 1997 ceremony - tuned in to watch the two biggest box office hits of the year, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and Tootsie, battle it out for awards glory. Those hoping for a barn burner between the two were instead treated to a Gandhi sweep, as the Richard Attenborough picture steamrolled the evening, scoring eight trophies, including Best Picture. E.T. mustered a quartet of technical prizes, four times the single award Tootsie earned, in Best Supporting Actress (Lange, a consolation prize both for the film and the star, who would've won in Best Actress for Frances nearly any other year). 

Among Tootsie's nine losses, of course, was Best Actor, a prize which, despite some awfully stiff competition (all five nominees are fabulous), surely should have gone to Hoffman. That he'd just prevailed three years earlier for Kramer vs. Kramer could not have helped his chances, not that anyone was beating Kingsley, the star of a picture the Academy so adored.

Kingsley is in fine form, no doubt, but, for my money, Tootsie is a career-topper for Hoffman. (Oh, and did I mention Tootsie is totally the greatest comedy of all-time.) It's a dazzling comic turn, leaps and bounds more satisfying than say, his twitchy, exasperating Oscar-winning performance in Rain Man. He's even better here than in Kramer vs. Kramer, and that's one hell of an effort.

Chowing down on the legendary Larry Gelbart-Murray Schisgal-Elaine May-Barry Levinson screenplay, Hoffman has a field day, both as Michael and Dorothy. As Michael, he has gangbusters scenes opposite Teri Garr (who should've won the Oscar), Bill Murray (never been funnier) and, of course, director Sydney Pollack, whose rapport with Hoffman ("you were a tomato!") couldn't be better. As Dorothy, he has equally marvelous moments with the likes of Durning (oh so sweet), George Gaynes ("does Jeff know?") and Dabney Coleman (the perfect slimeball). Lange, never lovelier, shares charming scenes with both.

Of course, Hoffman's best scene of all comes toward the picture's end, as Dorothy, too popular to possibly let leave the show, is asked to extend her contract for another year. Desperate to get out, Michael improvises the speech of all speeches live on air, revealing Dorothy's Emily Kimberly to in fact be Emily's twin brother Edward Kimberly, thus providing Michael the opportunity to shed the wig and makeup and at last reveal himself.

The script and Pollack's direction here are pitch-perfect but the moment would not work without a true master of an actor there to pull it off. What Hoffman does, in this scene and many more, is the stuff of real movie magic. It's a riotous, endearing and exciting performance in a picture that, no doubt, will stand the test of time as a comedy classic. 

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79. Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950)

Her competition...

Anne Baxter, All About Eve
Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday (WINNER)
Eleanor Parker, Caged
Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard

Davis portrays Margo Channing, beloved Broadway superstar. Life is peachy keen for the actress until the entrance one evening of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an aspiring starlet who wins Margo over with her moving story of supposedly growing up poor in Wisconsin, losing her husband in World War II and having nothing but her favorite actress to look up to. Margo hires Eve as her new assistant and it isn't long before Eve's mischievous plan kicks into action - to use the aging star as a mere stepping stone to achieve her own fame. This performance marked Davis' eighth Oscar nomination.

In 1944, Davis earned her seventh Best Actress Oscar nomination, over the course of a mere nine years, for her turn in Mr. Skeffington. For the first time, Davis would see a significant drought over the coming years, with no nomination between 1945 and 1949. Despite her unimpeachable status as one of the great, if not the greatest star of the silver screen in this era, Davis' pictures under contract with Warner Bros. in the latter half of the 1940s were hardly up to par with her prior offerings. 

All About Eve and her new partnership with 20th Century Fox marked a real comeback for Davis, albeit a rather short-lived one, that is until her next comeback, this time again with Warner Bros. in the following decade. When Margo deliciously asks that we fasten our seat belts for the bumpy ride again, one cannot help but think of the roller coaster ride of Davis' own career during this time. She would rise and fall and rise again, in the end emerging a true survivor of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Davis slips oh so perfectly into Margo's shoes. She is the quintessential Broadway diva - funny, fabulous and a tad self-absorbed but irresistibly so. Davis also, however, instills powerful senses of warmth and vulnerability in her veteran actress. Margo takes Eve in with open, compassionate arms and is absolutely shattered when she at last realizes she's been played - not only has she lost who she figured was a friend, maybe even a daughter figure, but Eve's rise has come at the expense of Margo's career standing. If only she'd listened to Birdie/Thelma Ritter!

Margo may feel autobiographical for Davis but it's hardly an effortless turn. Where another, less restrained actress could have easily played this role for colorful camp, Davis actually brings a ton of nuance to the role. Sure, her line deliveries are zesty and legendary as can be but Davis manages to make Margo a larger-than-life figure without ever really going over-the-top. And while Margo may have her mean moments, she is completely self-conscious of that and detests her own behavior. She concedes she has turned into one of her own showy stage characters.

Ironically, it was probably Baxter's presence in the Best Actress race that prevented Davis from emerging triumphant - if All About Eve is grabbing half a dozen Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, you would think its leading lady, the heart and soul of the film, would be along for the ride. Alas, Holliday, the one light and funny turn of the five, was triumphant - not a bad performance or egregiously undeserved victory but also just not on the same level as Davis, Swanson or the underrated (and sadly underseen) Parker. 

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78. Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice (1982) (WINNER)

Her competition...

Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
Jessica Lange, Frances
Sissy Spacek, Missing
Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman

Streep portrays Sophie Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant who resides in a Brooklyn boarding house alongside her paranoid schizophrenic lover Nathan (Kevin Kline) and new tenant Stingo (Peter MacNicol), an aspiring writer. Stingo comes to learn of Sophie's survival in a concentration camp and the devastating decision she was forced to make upon arrival at Auschwitz. This performance marked Streep's fourth Oscar nomination and second win.

Sophie's Choice was such a runaway sensation, it's easy to forget Streep was initially thought to have not one but two Oscar contenders for 1982.

On paper, that second picture, Still of the Night, had the looks of a guaranteed winner. It would reunite Streep with Robert Benton, who directed her to an Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, and pair her with Roy Scheider, still very much on the A-list after the success of All That Jazz. Alas, the thriller, a Hitchcock-wannabe without the vitality of Brian De Palma, proved an embarrassment for all. Panned by critics (even Streep earned poor reviews), the film was in and out of theaters in the blink of an eye, thankfully long forgotten by the release of the watchable Streep picture of 1982.

Not that Sophie's Choice is a perfect film either. It's at least half an hour too long, stretches of the picture are meandering and it's surely not up to pir with Alan J. Pakula's best efforts from the 1970s. What ultimately make the proceedings a must-see are the first-rate performances, Streep of course best of all but both Kline and MacNicol in stellar form too. 

Streep feels less constrained here than in the likes of The Deer Hunter and The French Lieutenant's Woman, where she either had little to do or was supremely miscast. It's really her first great leading turn on the big screen, having the license to at last have a field day without sharing the camera with a leading man.

While the performance is a heartbreaker, she has also rarely been in such glowing or charming form. Though some, Katharine Hepburn Hepburn among them, have deemed Streep's performance as too calculated, I happen to think she nails the Polish-American accent and is altogether convincing. It's also a very subtle turn. Even upon her introduction in the picture, when she's simply endearing and lovable, Streep suggests something far darker is present beneath the surface. As the film moves along, she captures Sophie's terror and agony without ever overplaying. It's hard to imagine the 'choice' being more painfully and convincingly performed than it is in the picture. 

As members of the Academy took to their Oscar ballots that year, they too faced the most impossible of decisions - Streep or Lange, at her most mesmerizing in Frances. The obvious solution, which ultimately came into play, had Lange taking the Supporting Actress trophy for Tootsie, despite that being a clearly inferior performance (and a lesser one, vis a vis the other nominees in that category). 

Lange would have won in 9 out of 10 years at the Oscars. Alas, Streep was just too powerful to resist.

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77. Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) (WINNER)

His competition...

Laurence Olivier, Henry V
Larry Parks, The Jolson Story
Gregory Peck, The Yearling
James Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life

March portrays Al Stephenson, a World War II veteran who faces no shortage of challenges upon reentry into civilian life. He resumes his career as a banker but struggles to balance his loyalties to fellow infantrymen with the economic realities of the time. Hitting the bottle after his boss advises Al against approving loans to veterans without collateral, he vies to convince his colleagues to stand with those who risked everything to defend the nation and are now grappling to rebuild their lives. This performance marked March's fourth Oscar nomination and second win.

The 1946 Oscars found William Wyler's post-WWII drama staging a near-sweep, triumphing on all but one of its eight nominations (it fell short in Best Sound to The Jolson Story). This lovefest makes it especially perplexing that a mere two of The Best Years of Our Lives actors were up for prizes - March and co-star Harold Russell, a WWII veteran who lost his hands during wartime. Where on earth were Dana Andrews and Myrna Loy, both inexplicably never Oscar-nominated over their marvelous careers?

That mystery aside, at least the Academy had the good sense to honor March, in a turn a far cry from his ravenous scenery-chewing that won him his first Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The actor has a screen presence here that is naturally commanding and hardly in need of the showy antics that earned him that first prize.

Wyler's picture is an ensemble showcase through and through, with no performer ever really dominating the proceedings, but March comes close in the early-going, with much of the focus on Al in the film's first half. 

Al returns home from war into the adoring arms of his wife (Loy) of 20 years and two children. Yet, while his family tries to make the homecoming as seamless and comfortable as possible, the reunion is a jarring experience for Al. He's missed so much of their lives, his kids having grown up in his absence. Al's drinking begins as part of rowdy fun with his WWII pals and then it's used to water down his vexation over veterans being screwed over by the bank.

March plays plastered pitch-perfectly, especially in a scene in which Al hijacks the company dinner to deliver his two cents on the importance of helping the returning servicemen. Also absorbing is the conflict that later surfaces between Al and Fred (the Andrews character), the latter having begun courting the former's daughter.

All of this could have been played as soapy melodrama but The Best Years of Our Lives is a strikingly subdued affair from start to finish, perhaps the greatest and most affecting of all WWII pictures. As the family patriarch, March's first-rate effort is absolutely essential to the film's success. He has an undeniable presence even when he's just there, sitting in the background - an unusually reigned-in turn from an actor with a penchant for often playing to the balcony.

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76. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Her competition...

Doris Day, Pillow Talk
Audrey Hepburn, The Nun's Story
Katharine Hepburn, Suddenly, Last Summer
Simone Signoret, Room at the Top (WINNER)

Taylor portrays Catherine Holly, a young socialite who, traumatized after witnessing her cousin's gruesome death on a trip to Europe, is institutionalized. Her aunt, Mrs. Venable (Katharine Hepburn), hellbent on ensuring the details of her son's death are never revealed, calls upon psycho-surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) to perform a lobotomy on Catherine, washing away the vicious memories. Thankfully for Catherine, Dr. Cukrowicz is in no rush to do the deed and determined to get to the bottom of her breakdown. This performance marked Taylor's third Oscar nomination.

Heading into Oscar night 1959, the Best Actress race was thought to be a barn burner between Taylor, on her third consecutive nomination after losses for Raintree County and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and (Audrey) Hepburn, whose The Nun's Story was a significant box office hit and earned eight nominations, including Best Picture. Alas, Signoret, the toast of that year's Cannes Film Festival, would stage the upset. Taylor's third loss, coupled with a near-fatal battle with pneumonia, resulted in her inexplicable 1960 victory for BUtterfield 8, a picture Taylor herself did not even care for.

If only Taylor had triumphed here, Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment) wins in '60, winds up with two career Oscars after '83, and all is right in the world!

Taylor manages to pull off the unimaginable in Suddenly, Last Summer - she upstages the usually untouchable (Katharine) Hepburn. Not that Hepburn is in poor form in the Joseph L. Mankiewicz picture - her Mrs. Venable is a deliciously wicked villain - but this is a Taylor showcase through and through, the sort of challenging vehicle you'd think would be a sure bet for Oscar glory. Taylor seems even more invigorated by the material here than in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, her other beloved Tennessee Williams film.

Feasting on Gore Vidal's hyperbolic adaptation of the Williams play, and with Mankiewicz hardly keen on reigning her in, Taylor roars right out of the starting gate, fiercely and unabashedly playing the proceedings for melodrama. It's a raw, sexy, unpredictable performance that, while over-the-top, is never anything less than wholly convincing. Taylor has rarely been so intensely alluring, yet she also perfectly conveys the fear, confusion and vulnerability plaguing this damaged woman. 

Suddenly, Last Summer is largely carried on the shoulders of Taylor and, to a lesser extent, Hepburn. Both Williams and Vidal went on to denounce the picture and sadly, there's no denying the problem of Clift's lifeless performance. He's so unsteady and unfocused, it often becomes a distraction, and his scenes opposite Taylor hardly ring of the legendary chemistry of A Place in the Sun. Some of the material is so overwrought, it nearly plays like Tennessee Williams parody, yet Taylor's fearless dedication to the role and the vitality she instills in the proceedings, from start to finish, make Suddenly, Last Summer an altogether absorbing and fascinating endeavor. 

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

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 both one of the funniest performances to ever earn an Oscar nomination and one of the scariest. I've got a pair of nominees from the same picture; an actress whose timeless film, now widely regarded as one of the all-time greats, deserved way more than the measly two Oscar nominations it earned; a sublime scene-stealer in her first recognized performance; and, for the first time, a turn from the glorious 1930s.

The Oscar 100: #85-81

This post marks Part 4 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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85. Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter (1978)

His competition...

Warren Beatty, Heaven Can Wait
Gary Busey, The Buddy Holly Story
Laurence Olivier, The Boys from Brazil
Jon Voight, Coming Home (WINNER)

De Niro portrays Mike Vronsky, steel worker and lifelong friend of Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage). The trio's cozy lives are forever changed after enlisting in the airborne infantry en route to Vietnam, where they witness the horrors and inhumanities of war and are ultimately taken prisoner. They escape and Mike returns home a broken man, wrestling with his harrowing experience. He is especially haunted by the thought of Nick, who stayed behind in Vietnam. This performance marked De Niro's third Oscar nomination.

Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter is about two-thirds an extraordinary picture. The first hour, focused mostly on Steven's wedding, is a meandering and entirely uninvolving affair, in dire need of editing. The center of the film, in which the men go off to Vietnam, is, for my money, some of the most intense and distressing cinema ever captured on film. And then the rest of the picture, in which the men have escaped but are separated, is sorrowful, truly devastating stuff, with De Niro, Walken, Savage and Meryl Streep (as Nick's fiancee) all in sublime form. 

The picture reveals Cimino to be an astute, yet undisciplined filmmaker. Of course, this post is not about the director but rather The Deer Hunter's leading man, who has never been in more exquisite form. His Oscars may have come for The Godfather Part II and Raging Bull - both iconic turns - but I would argue it's Cimino's film that really brings out the best in De Niro. 

De Niro makes the most of the film's dire opening hour. At the longest wedding ever held in the history of mankind, his Mike and Streep's Linda have a charming, flirty rapport that makes the picture's final third all the more affecting. Ultimately, however, the material's not really there for anyone for much flourish early on in the proceedings.

Blood at last rushes through the film's veins in the move from Pennsylvania to Vietnam and De Niro is a terrifying sight as Mike somehow musters the strength to survive the prison camp and get his pals the hell out of there. The actor has never been in form so fierce, not even in the boxing ring as Jake LaMotta. There is a blood-curdling intensity to his performance in these scenes, yet not once does he overplay it.

Then, Mike returns to Pennsylvania and it's here, in The Deer Hunter's final hour, that De Niro largely has the screen all to himself. It is beautiful, introspective work. 

As he strolls through his working-class town a newfound war hero, Mike seems less moved by the warm response from the community than he does haunted by the silence that otherwise now surrounds him. He also can't get Steven, now handicapped at the VA hospital, and Nick, still somewhere out there in Vietnam, off his mind. When Mike and Linda at last act on their affections for each other, it is less out of passion than it is shared anguish over Nick. Both De Niro and Streep (in only her second film appearance) are in exceptional form.

Then, of course, there is arresting finale of the picture, in which Mike goes back to Vietnam to save his old friend, a journey that ends on the most gruesome and tragic of notes. The look on Mike's face when that brutal game of Russian Roulette comes to its end is that of an altogether shattered man.

Despite The Deer Hunter's award season success in 1978, De Niro never had much traction in Best Actor. With his victory at the Cannes Film Festival, Voight began as front-runner and, all but steamrolling through the precursors, maintained that position through Oscar night. Having prevailed four years prior, there was no urgency to bestow De Niro with a second prize.

Terrific as Voight is, however, (Busey is phenomenal too) I don't consider that performance quite on the same level as the towering work De Niro does here. It's a superb performance deserving of a less haphazard picture.

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84. Michael O'Keefe in The Great Santini (1980)

His competition...

Judd Hirsch, Ordinary People
Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People (WINNER)
Joe Pesci, Raging Bull
Jason Robards, Melvin and Howard

O'Keefe portrays Ben Meechum, teenage son of fighter pilot Bull (Robert Duvall). Ben has long struggled to win the respect and love of his father, a formidable man whose hostile behavior has worked wonders for him in the military but hardly had a positive impact at home. Their relationship hits new heights of strain upon their latest move, this time to South Carolina. This performance marked O'Keefe's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.

The Great Santini is among the finest, most underappreciated films of 1980...or 1979, depending on how you see it.

While the Academy deemed it eligible for consideration at the 1980 Oscars, it in fact first saw a limited release in South Carolina and North Carolina over the summer of 1979. Business was so anemic, Warner Bros. pulled the film and then screened it under a variety of different titles in the mid-west, where it also saw scant traction. Eventually, in 1980, Orion Pictures got its hands on The Great Santini and provided it a traditional New York/Los Angeles release but, despite glowing reviews, the effort was a half-hearted one and the film negligibly expanded into other markets. 

Thankfully, enough members of the Academy caught The Great Santini for its two incredible stars, Duvall and O'Keefe, to earn nominations. I will have more to say about Duvall later in the Oscar 100 (spoiler alert!), so let's focus on his young co-star, who's nearly as terrific as the film's leading man.

As The Great Santini opens, life is rather humdrum for O'Keefe's Ben, which is to say the constant moving around for the Meechum family and their patriarch's impossible behavior have just become part of the routine. Ben puts up with Bull's nasty temper and drinking, as does his mom Lillian (Blythe Danner), who fully sees Bull's flaws but is still mostly a walking mat at home. O'Keefe perfectly captures Ben's sensitivity and vulnerability, while also conveying a sense of suffocating exasperation, both at his father's temperament and inability to show a hint of love or respect for the family.

Then, there is that unforgettable scene in which Ben exacts revenge on Bull, at last beating him in a one-on-one game of basketball after years of his father winning such games by taunting, humiliating and throwing the ball at his son. Instead of feeling any sense of pride about his son's victory, Bull becomes hellbent at taking Ben down a few notches, insulting him and later causing a drunken scene at a high school basketball game. 

A subplot involving Ben's friendship with a young African-American man (Stan Shaw) is ultimately less compelling than the Ben-Bull dynamic but stills offers O'Keefe the opportunity to flex his acting chops, as Ben tries to intervene in a violent squabble between his new friend and the town racist. Bull, of course, continues to not give a shit, even when his military colleagues try to convince him of Ben's bravery. 

Much like Hutton, O'Keefe's placement in Best Supporting Actor was egregious category fraud, designed to not get in the way of a Lead nomination for Duvall (or, in the former's case, the snubbed Donald Sutherland). That hardly, however, takes away from either of their remarkable turns. Like Hutton opposite Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, O'Keefe more than holds his own against Duvall and Danner, delivering a heart-rending and altogether absorbing performance.

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83. Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940)

Her competition...

Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath (WINNER)
Ruth Hussey, The Philadelphia Story
Barbara O'Neil, All This, and Heaven Too
Marjorie Rambeau, Primrose Path

Anderson portrays Mrs. Danvers, housekeeper to wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Mrs. Danvers, who adored Maxim's first wife, is none too pleased with the arrival of his second wife (Joan Fontaine), a young woman who first met Maxim mere weeks prior. Viewing the new Mrs. de Winter as a vastly inferior companion, Mrs. Danvers is committed to driving her stark raving mad. This performance marked Anderson's first and only Oscar nomination.

The 1940 Oscars were the epitome of a "let's spread the love" affair, as the Academy bestowed equal affection upon Rebecca, The Grapes of Wrath and The Philadelphia Story. No film that evening won more than three awards, with Rebecca's lone prize besides Best Picture being in Best Cinematography. This was also that remarkable year in which three filmmakers - Alfred Hitchcock (Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent), John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home) and Sam Wood (Kitty Foyle and Our Town) - directed multiple films to Best Picture nominations.

Of course, this post isn't about Mr. Hitchcock, Mr. Ford or Mr. Wood but about Anderson, whose terrifying turn as Mrs. Danvers surely would have prevailed in most other years but couldn't quite top Darwell's decidedly more heart-rending performance.

There's an unsettling aura about Rebecca right out of the starting gate but the proceedings don't begin sending chills down the spine until Mrs. Danvers' entrance into the picture. And, while Anderson in fact has less than 20 minutes in screen time, her presence can be overwhelmingly felt through to the film's end. She is cold, conniving and all-around awe-inspiring. 

Anderson and Fontaine have a marvelous chemistry as Mrs. Danvers spends their time together intensely leering at the young woman, incessantly talking up the late Rebecca as if she was the most incredible woman to ever grace the earth. Then, of course, there is that remarkable scene in which Mrs. Danvers more or less tells Mrs. de Winter to hit the road, that she'll never be able to take Rebecca's place and that she might as well just jump to her death.

Another, showier actress may have played material like this for camp but Anderson is dead serious in her entire performance. What could've been a cartoon villain is instead a truly paralyzing presence. Anderson also has the benefit of being exquisitely filmed by Hitchcock and cinematographer George Barnes, who know how to make Mrs. Danvers all the more dark and daunting a figure. She largely disappears in the picture's final third but Hitch ensures one leaves Rebecca with this horrifying housekeeper on the brain.

Anderson's is a fierce and exciting portrayal of an unforgettable character, one of the all-time great villains of the silver screen.

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82. Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) (WINNER)

His competition...

Tom Berenger, Platoon
Willem Dafoe, Platoon
Denholm Elliott, A Room with a View
Dennis Hopper, Hoosiers

Caine portrays Elliot, the emotionally unsatisfied husband of Hannah (Mia Farrow). Enamored with Hannah's younger sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), who is also in a relationship, the two begin an affair which, over the coming year, is sorely tested by Elliot's unwillingness to end his marriage. Inadvertently threatening to expose the liaison is Hannah's other sister Holly (Dianne Wiest), a wannabe-playwright whose latest script includes personal details on Elliot and Hannah's marriage. This performance marked Caine's fourth Oscar nomination and first win.

After three unsuccessful Oscar bids (all in Lead Actor, for Alfie, Sleuth and Educating Rita), it was a nomination down in Supporting Actor that would at last deliver victory for Caine. What a shame he had to miss that year's ceremony, too busy filming that timeless masterpiece Jaws: The Revenge. Thankfully, more than a decade down the road, Caine would have the chance to grace that Oscar stage as a winner, albeit for his vastly inferior work in The Cider House Rules. 

Hannah and Her Sisters is the most sterling of Caine's half dozen Oscar nominated performances, an ingenious blend of comedy and drama that at once makes his Elliot both charming and despicable.

On one hand, his early courting of Hershey's Lee is a reprehensible sight - after all, what on earth has Hannah done wrong, besides be supremely strong and self-sufficient for everyone around her? Yet, the gleeful buoyancy of Caine's portrayal as Elliot follows Lee around and later hangs with her at the local book store is awfully endearing. When Elliot tells himself "I'm walking on air" in response to Lee's positive reception, his ebullient feeling sure is palpable, even though, at the same time, he's being a total prick of a husband.

As the affair blossoms and then falters, Caine perfectly convey's Elliot's haphazard feelings, still head over heels for Lee but also committed to ensuring Hannah somehow does not get hurt in all of this. As it becomes clearer he'll never leave her, Lee pushes away, leaving Elliot all the more incensed, as he lashes out at Hannah over Thanksgiving for well, basically being too perfect.

All along, though, despite his terrible behavior, Caine makes Elliot a very empathetic figure, hardly a one-dimensional cheating husband. Credit both Caine and, of course, director/writer Woody Allen for making Elliot such a compelling character.  

Despite great reviews and a sense of Caine being overdue, he was no shoo-in going into Oscar night. Berenger had strong support in the likely Best Picture winner, Hopper saw one hell of a comeback with not one but two acclaimed performances (the other being Blue Velvet) and that marvelous character actor Elliott could not be counted out either. Alas, Caine won and deservedly so - one of the very best winners in Supporting Actor.

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81. Jason Miller in The Exorcist (1973)

His competition...

Vincent Gardenia, Bang the Drum Slowly
Jack Gilford, Save the Tiger
John Houseman, The Paper Chase (WINNER)
Randy Quaid, The Last Detail

Miller portrays Father Damien Karras, a young priest and psychiatrist who, amidst his mother's terminal illness, finds himself doubting his faith. Not long after his mother's passing, his is drawn into the lives of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). With Regan exhibiting bizarre and violent behavior and Chris finding no resolution from the medical community, Karras joins with the veteran Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) to drive out of her soul what Karras believes to be the devil. This performance marked Miller's first and only Oscar nomination.

Miller may have, as expected, fallen short to the legendary producer and writer Houseman on Oscar night but there's no question 1973 marked the time of his life. Not only did he grace the box office phenomenon that was The Exorcist, he also took home both a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for his superb play That Championship Season, a drama about the disastrous reunion of a Catholic high school basketball team.

Brilliant as Miller was behind the typewriter, he was just as stirring in front of the camera. Every actor involved with The Exorcist is operating at or near the tops of their games but it's Miller's melancholy, quiet performance that most gets under my skin. 

As William Friedkin's picture opens, Miller's Karras is the most despondent and fragile of figures, wrestling with his mother's health decline in both the senses that he will not only imminently lose her but perhaps his faith in God to boot. The entrance of the MacNeils into his life at first draws vexation and skepticism from him - exorcising a demon out of this little girl? Really? But then, over time, having witnessed firsthand Regan's untamed behavior, he becomes convinced and, through this frightening experience, at last finds purpose. 

The subdued nature of Miller's portrayal makes it all the more of a wallop when Karras gets some blood flowing through the veins in the final act. Once a man who could all but fade into the wallpaper, Karras is suddenly the most intense of figures. When he and the demon go head-to-head for the final time, Miller displays a ferocity that's far more terrifying than any of the head-spinning special effects from earlier in the picture. 

More keen on regional theatre than the big screen, Miller shied away from cinema over the following decades, the bulk of his screen appearances arriving on television. While he may not have reached the heights of De Niro and Pacino in fame, his turn in The Exorcist can surely be placed among the finest big screen turns of the '70s.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

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 - it's all about the leading men and ladies. I've got two headliners from Best Picture winners; the star of the one of the all-time great comedies; an actress who somehow managed to upstage Kate Hepburn with ease; and, at last, Meryl Streep.

 

The Oscar 100: #90-86

This post marks Part 3 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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90. Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

His competition...

Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (WINNER)
Nigel Hawthorne, The Madness of King George
Paul Newman, Nobody's Fool
John Travolta, Pulp Fiction

Freeman portrays Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding, a contraband smuggler serving a life sentence at the Shawshank State Penitentiary in Maine. He befriends Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker imprisoned to two life terms for the murders of his wife and her lover - crimes he did not commit. Over the coming two decades, Red watches as Andy struggles to adjust to prison life, so often the subject of brutality from fellow inmates. Then, following one particularly dark and stormy night, Andy suddenly disappears. This performance marked Freeman's third Oscar nomination.

What is it about The Shawshank Redemption that so intensely resonates? It's a question I ask myself prior to nearly every viewing of the picture, which tends to surface on TNT about every other day. Is this thing, ranked the greatest film of all time on IMDb, really on the same level as the likes of Casablanca, Citizen Kane and The Godfather?

Then, I watch the film. And, every single time, I'm wholeheartedly won over, from the opening scenes of Andy's conviction and arrival at Shawshank, all the way through to that glorious reunion on the beach at Zihuatanejo. It is a riveting, absorbing, altogether satisfying film adaptation of a Stephen King short story that, if not for this picture, probably would have faded into obscurity.

While I don't consider Frank Darabont's adaptation of King's The Green Mile nearly as successful, he sure hit the bullseye here. This should have won Best Picture, not found itself steamrolled by the overpraised and haphazard Forrest Gump. (Oddly enough, I believe Hanks should have prevailed for Big, not for either of his two winning performances.)

Though Robbins is the true leading man of this picture (one has to wonder how Freeman may have fared down in Supporting Actor), Freeman, with his sublime narration, is the heart and soul of the proceedings. The final half hour of Shawshank marks perhaps the finest work of Freeman's storied career, as an exhausted Red at last wins over the parole board and gets himself the hell out of there, only to encounter the same struggles old pal Brooks (James Whitmore, in a late-career performance that richly deserved some Oscar love) faced upon parole.

Then, he goes on that stirring journey to the elusive Zihuatanejo. The Thomas Newman score swells as Freeman delivers that sublime monologue ("For the second time in my life, I am guilty of committing a crime - parole violation"and the proceedings end on just about the most heavenly and uplifting note possible.

There isn't a whole lot that's especially inventive or groundbreaking about The Shawshank Redemption but it still manages to be a pretty pitch-perfect affair. And without Freeman and his magnificent screen presence, Shawshank wouldn't be half the picture it is.

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89. Sally Kirkland in Anna (1987)

Her competition...

Cher, Moonstruck (WINNER)
Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
Meryl Streep, Ironweed

Kirkland portrays Anna, once a major star of the silver screen in her homeland of Czechoslovakia but now struggling to land off-Broadway acting gigs in New York. She takes in the young Krystyna (Paulina Porizkova), who has immigrated from Czechoslovakia to meet her idol, only to watch as the beautiful and charming Krystyna becomes an overnight showbiz smash. This performance marked Kirkland's first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination.

By the time Anna, more or less an art house All About Eve, opened in New York and Los Angeles in the fall of 1987, Kirkland, out of nowhere discovering her 15 minutes of leading lady fame, had upwards of 30 film credits under her belt, plus a plethora of television appearances over the past two decades. Among her turns were brief roles in the Oscar-winning likes of A Star Is Born, The Sting and The Way We Were and meatier supporting appearances in more offbeat fare like Crazy Mama and Pipe Dreams.

Early raves for Kirkland inspired the dying film distributor Vestron Pictures to pick up Anna. Alas, despite Vestron's Dirty Dancing scoring box office gold out of nowhere that year, the studio found itself unable to financially support an Oscar campaign for Anna and its renowned star. 

For Kirkland, the goddaughter of two-time Oscar winner Shelley Winters, this presented a challenge she was more than happy to tackle. She took the picture's awards campaign into her own hands and, in a pre-Miramax era, embarked on an aggressive (and effective) marketing effort like never seen before. She hosted her own screenings for members of the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and, on Oscar nominations morning, edged out the legendary likes of Faye Dunaway (Barfly), Lillian Gish (The Whales of August) and Barbra Streisand (Nuts) for recognition.

Able to reach every HFPA voter, Kirkland triumphed at the Golden Globes. Of course, it's a whole lot easier to win over a modest body like the HFPA, compared to the thousands who comprised the Academy's membership. On Oscar night, it was Cher who triumphed. What would have happened if every voter sat down and watched Anna, who knows. But it was surely a struggle to get this little picture seen.

None of this is to say Kirkland's awards recognition, which also included Best Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (tied with Hunter), was exclusively a way to honor the chutzpah of her self-campaign. 

Kirkland is downright mesmerizing in Anna, delivering the sort of master class in acting that performers of the stage and screen would be wise to study. During one of the title character's agonizing auditions, Kirkland delivers a reading of "Humpty Dumpty" that might just be the most incredible rendition of the nursery rhyme ever recorded. She has wonderful chemistry with co-stars Porizkova and Daniel Fields (who portrays Anna's off-and-on lover), both also terrific.

The best scene in Anna, and a devastating one at that, finds the title character attending a New York screening of one of her old pictures from back home. Anna finds the theatre all but empty and, at a crucial moment in the film, the reel melts. This comes at a point where Krystyna is sky-high in fame and Anna, the woman who kindly took her in, is at rock bottom. It's a haunting moment is a poignant little film that happens to sport one of the finest performances of the decade.

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88. Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (1978)

Her competition...

Ingrid Bergman, Autumn Sonata
Ellen Burstyn, Same Time, Next Year
Jane Fonda, Coming Home (WINNER)
Geraldine Page, Interiors

Clayburgh portrays Erica Benton, whose 17-year marriage to loser husband Martin (Michael Murphy) comes to an end after he leaves her for a younger woman. Stunned by the betrayal, Erica finds herself reevaluating her life and exploring the freedoms she suddenly now has as a single woman. On this exciting new journey, she falls for a man leaps and bounds different from her former beau, the rugged artist Saul (Alan Bates). This performance marked Clayburgh's first Oscar nomination.

When An Unmarried Woman premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978, Clayburgh's performance, which won Best Actress honors there, was hailed as one of the finest big screen turns of the decade, perhaps a shoo-in for the Oscar. Fox quickly picked the picture up for a March release (which sounds early but was hardly unheard of for awards contenders back then...Coming Home was released even earlier) and the film did fabulously at the box office.

Then, awards season actually came...and Clayburgh won nothing, not even a critics' award. Ultimately, she had the misfortune of gracing one of the all-time great line-ups in Best Actress history. Bergman and Fonda split the critics' honors, Burstyn won a Golden Globe...even Page later would pick up a prize, at the BAFTAs, in Supporting Actress. 

Post-Cannes, Clayburgh may have seen anemic awards success but that hardly means her performance is anything less than extraordinary.

Even now, in a post-Sex and the City era, there's a freshness to the frankness of An Unmarried Woman and Clayburgh's turn in how they approach sexual freedom. There are engrossing conversations among Erica and her friends that ring of the HBO series but without some of the sitcom-level dialogue that so often made Sex and the City feel not entirely grounded in reality.

Among Clayburgh's best scenes in the picture is when Murphy's Martin, a pathetic, blubbering mess, admits to his affair. This should be Murphy's big moment (and he's completely convincing as this prick, just as he is in Manhattan the following year) but it's actually Clayburgh who still steals the scene, exuding a feeling of devastation in the most nuanced way. There are also marvelous scenes between Erica and her therapist (Daniel Seltzer) which provide Clayburgh the opportunity to flaunt her impeccable acting chops.

Sadly, amidst the battle between the Vietnam pictures (Coming Home and The Deer Hunter), An Unmarried Woman just ended up kind of lost in the 1978 awards season. Further upstaging it was the following year's even more successful end-of-marriage film, Kramer vs. Kramer. Even more disheartening - the film hasn't seen a DVD release in more than a decade, since 2006. Fox, this inexusable problem must be rectified!

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87. George Sanders in All About Eve (1950) (WINNER)

His competition...

Jeff Chandler, Broken Arrow
Edmund Gwenn, Mister 880
Sam Jaffe, The Asphalt Jungle
Erich Von Stroheim, Sunset Boulevard

Sanders portrays Addison DeWitt, the cynical New York playwright and critic who takes wannabe-Broadway starlet Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) under his wing. Addison, a master manipulator, brings Eve's idol, the aging actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis), down a few notches but when he recognizes he's being manipulated by Eve herself, Addison has more than a few tricks up his sleeve to keep from being played. This performance marked Sanders' lone Oscar nomination and win.

Despite more than 100 appearances on the silver screen, including memorable turns in Best Picture nominees like Foreign Correspondent, Rebecca and Ivanhoe, Sanders was the recipient of just one Oscar nomination over his storied career. Thankfully, this lone appearance would result in victory, for his delicious turn in the legendary All About Eve.  

As the inimitable Margo Channing, Davis may be the heart and soul of the picture but it's hard to imagine the film being nearly as satisfying without Sanders' rich presence.

Like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, another sensational release from 1950, Sanders opens All About Eve with a narration that pitch-perfectly sets the mood for the roller coaster ride to come. Sanders' Addison is scheming and self-serving and yet, altogether endearing. He watches the backstage drama around him in a sort of detached state, entertained by it all as often as he is nauseated. So, it's especially jarring when Addison goes in for the kill against Eve, unwilling to let himself be the latest victim of her games.

1950 marked a strong affair in Supporting Actor, with Gwenn and Jaffe in reliable form and Von Stroheim so intense and haunting in Sunset Boulevard (only Chandler underwhelms, though he by far has the most screen time of the five nominees). Even so, this is a no-brainer for Sanders, a magnificent actor whose career should have extended into the the '80s and 90s' but was ultimately cut short by dementia and other poor health. In 1972, he committed suicide at age 65. 

Sanders' marvelous work in All About Eve and countless other pictures will never be forgotten.

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86. William Holden in Network (1976)

His competition...

Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver
Peter Finch, Network (WINNER)
Giancarlo Giannini, Seven Beauties
Sylvester Stallone, Rocky

Holden portrays Max Schumacher, news division president at the Union Broadcasting System (UBS) and longtime pal of anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch). After Max delivers the bad news that Howard is about to be fired on account of poor ratings, the anchor takes to the airwaves to announce he will commit suicide, live on television. As Howard's antics send the newscast's ratings soaring, Max becomes romantically involved with new UBS Vice President Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), a ratings-hungry programmer hell-bent on exploiting their new "mad prophet of the airwaves." This performance marked Holden's third and final Oscar nomination.

Speaking of remarkable actors whose careers ended far too soon, Holden delivered this brilliant leading turn just five years prior to his death at age 63. While I hesitate to label Network as career-best work from Holden or even the most riveting performance in the picture (a film full of them), he couldn't be more a perfect fit as Max, the one dignified human being (well, besides betrayed wife Louise, portrayed by Oscar winner Beatrice Straight) to be found in the Sidney Lumet-Paddy Chayefsky classic.

Chayefsky reportedly wanted Gene Hackman or Henry Fonda for the role of Max but I'm not convinced either would have sported the quiet sadness that makes Holden's portrayal so affecting.

Sharp-witted, yet worn down, Holden's Max looks and feels like one of the last survivors of the Edward R. Murrow era of journalism, when truthfulness actually meant something in the news. Vis a vis the unstable Howard and ruthless Diana, Max emerges the moral center of this chaotic and distasteful world. Yet, Max is also a profoundly flawed man who puts his family through hell for, as Louise so fiercely puts it, his "great winter romance" and "last roar of passion" with the soulless Diana.

Acting opposite Finch, Dunaway and Straight, all playing (quite splendidly so) to the last row of the balcony, Holden is always in subdued form, yet never allows himself to be upstaged by his larger-than-life co-stars. He's especially stirring in the picture's final act, as the Max-Diana romance comes to its bitter end.

Holden relishes the incredible Chayefsky dialogue as Max bemoans Diana's indifference to the pain both Max's family and Howard have suffered. In mid-life crisis mode throughout the picture, Max admits his fears about death, "suddenly a perceptible thing, with definable features." And when he at last leaves Diana - "Wayward husband comes to his senses, returns to his wife, with whom he has established a long and sustaining love. Heartless young woman left alone in her arctic desolation. Music up with a swell; final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week's show" - it marks one of the film's finest moments.

Already an Oscar winner, Holden hadn't a prayer against the showier Finch, who died two months prior to the ceremony. (Odds are, both De Niro and Stallone also finished ahead.) For my money, however, in hindsight, Holden's nuanced work in Network is even more powerful than Finch's legendary histrionics. In a film full of actors shouting at each other, this veteran of the silver screen is a breath of fresh air, always captivating even when everyone around him gets to chew the scenery.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

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 not one, not two but three gentlemen from Best Supporting Actor, including one winner; a two-time Oscar winner in his second (and to date, final) Best Picture winner; and the lone Alfred Hitchcock-directed performance that shall grace this list.

The Oscar 100: #95-91

This post marks Part 2 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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95. Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

His competition...

Warren Beatty, Heaven Can Wait
Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter
Laurence Olivier, The Boys from Brazil
Jon Voight, Coming Home (WINNER)

Busey portrays Buddy Holly, a Texas teenager who, alongside pals Jesse (Don Stroud) and Ray Bob (Charles Martin Smith), forms the rock 'n roll group the Crickets. Their big break comes with an invitation to record in Nashville but Buddy quickly finds himself at odds with music producers who are slow to embrace Buddy's inventive sound. The following years find Buddy fall in love and the Crickets' tunes win over the nation but, with Buddy the runaway star of the group, Jesse and Ray Bob, both overshadowed, bolt from the band. This performance marked Busey's first (and only) Oscar nomination.

Yes, in my humble opinion, Gary Busey - indeed, the Gary Busey - delivers the 95th finest performance recognized at the Oscars. Long before devouring scenery with supporting turns as villains in box office hits Lethal Weapon and Under Siege, which was later followed by more D-list fame as a reality TV star, Busey turned in this truly extraordinary performance as the legendary Buddy Holly.

Heck, it really doesn't feel like a performance - Busey is Buddy Holly, through and through. He's so convincing from the get-go, the picture quickly takes on a more documentary-like than biopic feel and the musical numbers more recall concert footage than scripted cinema. What makes the portrayal all the more stunning is Busey's decision to sing all of Holly's arrangements himself and, to boot, not recorded but live. Whether it's on "That'll Be the Day" or "It's So Easy," Busey completely does Holly justice.

At just under two hours and, with a healthy chunk of the picture comprised of music, The Buddy Holly Story feels a tad fleeting and incomplete. We do get a glimpse into Holly's personal life and his marriage to Maria Santiago (endearingly portrayed in the film by Maria Richwine) but those yearning to really dig into the musician's life may find the proceedings a little lacking.

That said, the picture remains an absolute must-see for Busey's electrifying performance alone. He never had a prayer against Voight, who more or less steamrolled that awards season - frankly, he may have ended up placing dead last in the end. In hindsight, however, I think it's actually a far superior turn to the Oscar-winning one and a performance that surely deserves to be rediscovered.

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94. James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

His competition...

Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives (WINNER)
Laurence Olivier, Henry V
Larry Parks, The Jolson Story
Gregory Peck, The Yearling

Stewart portrays George Bailey, the Bedford Falls native who, on Christmas Eve, is despondent and suicidal, his business on the verge of going under and convinced he will be held legally responsible for its woes. Brought to earth to save George is Clarence (Henry Travers), an angel who will show George what the world would have been like had he never been born. This performance marked Stewart's third Oscar nomination.

Stewart may have take home the Oscar for his blissful comic turn in George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story but it's really his performance in Frank Capra's timeless Christmas classic that marks a career-best (with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Anatomy of a Murder not far behind). 

When It's a Wonderful Life hit theaters in late 1946, the picture earned mixed reviews and hardly set the box office on fire - in the end, it ranked 26th of the year, earning less than a third of the gross the Best Picture-winning The Best Years of Our Lives raked in. Marketed as a light romantic vehicle for Stewart and leading lady Donna Reed, audiences were surprised to instead find an often dark and sorrowful film, one not without comedy but a whole lot more complex than amiable holiday fluff. 

What's so marvelous about the film as a vehicle for Stewart is how it so splendidly shows off the star's range as an actor. He has the chance to do some adorable slapstick comedy alongside Reed; convincingly play drunk (not terribly commonplace in this era of film in general, let alone in a Christmas fantasy); break our hearts (like when he goes to visit his mother in the George-less universe); and, of course, with the finale, tug at the heartstrings in the way only a Capra film can.

The Academy, I think, ultimately got this category right (so, spoiler alert: Fredric March is on the horizon). That said, Stewart of course would've been richly deserving of the trophy too. It's an extraordinary effort from one of the all-time great stars of the silver screen...which had the misfortune of facing another top turn from one of the more underrated actors of the Golden Age.

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93. John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980)

His competition...

Robert De Niro, Raging Bull (WINNER)
Robert Duvall, The Great Santini
Jack Lemmon, Tribute
Peter O'Toole, The Stunt Man

Hurt portrays John Merrick, who, left disfigured by a congenital disorder, makes his living as the "Elephant Man" in a circus sideshow. He is discovered by the kind Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins), who brings Merrick into his home and comes to realize that, beneath the jarring exterior, is an intelligent and articulate man. Soon, he becomes the toast of London's upper class, mingling with celebrities like actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft). His old employer, Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), is none too thrilled with this development. This performance marked Hurt's second and final Oscar nomination.

Oh, how I miss this extraordinary actor. Doused in Christopher Tucker's makeup, which would surely leave lesser performers lost, Hurt delivers a vivid and ultimately devastating performance - this is no creature from a Universal monster movie, even if, with John Morris' haunting score and Freddie Francis' gorgeous black and white photography, it sure has the look and feel of one.

Though only his second feature film (following the even more idiosyncratic Eraserhead), this is career-best work from David Lynch, a production which while inspired and unusual, also has the feel of grand Oscar contender (sadly, it would go 0-for-8 on the big night).

The picture's best and most affecting scene has the rescued Merrick joining Dr. and Mrs. Treves for tea in their lavish Victorian home. Being a mannerly gentleman of English high society seems to come so naturally for him. He marvels at the Treves' family photos before showing his hosts a picture of his own mother and, on the most heartbreaking of notes, admits that, while he tried his best, he believes he was a great disappointment to her.

Hopkins, in a role country miles away from Hannibal Lecter, and Bancroft, a delight as this 19th century actress (husband Mel Brooks was a producer on the film too), are memorable but even these distinguished, typically scene-stealing thespians cannot compete with the force of nature that is their leading man.

Remarkably, even with this effusive praise, Hurt would not have been my selection in this category, which was dominated by De Niro (who also isn't my favorite) that awards season. Even so, in terms of a sheer gut-puncher of a performance, one that never fails to leave me wrecked on every viewing, there aren't many turns that rival Hurt's.

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92. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Her competition...

Jodie Foster, The Accused (WINNER)
Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist

Close portrays Marquise de Merteuil, the cool and conniving master manipulator who challengers former lover Valmont (John Malkovich) to seduce the virginal Cecile (Uma Thurman). Valmont has a bold counter-challenge - he bets he can instead bed the moral and married Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). While Valmont is overcome by contrition during this quest, however, the Marquise becomes all the more fierce. This performance marked Close's fifth Oscar nomination.

What a travesty Close found herself 0-for-5 at the close of the 1988 Oscars, falling short to Foster for what amounted to a middling Lifetime TV movie. For years, I have actually see-sawed between Close and Weaver (who is also fabulous) for the win here but recent viewings of Dangerous Liaisons have drawn me closer to the former.

Oddly enough, the Stephen Frears picture itself doesn't leave me all that hot and bothered. Sure, it's sumptuously designed and richly deserved those Art Direction and Costume Design Oscars but other performances are either flat (Thurman and Keanu Reeves) or overwrought (Malkovich, playing to the last row of the balcony) and much of the proceedings don't really resonate on an emotional level. Still, its leading lady stuns every time - it's career-best work, if you're not counting her even more stirring stage efforts.

Close has a field day in this magnificently wicked and self-absorbed role. When she graces the screen, she owns it and leaves everyone and everything around her in the dust.

While her Marquise displays the coolest of self-confidence, there is also an intense sense of sadness and loneliness all along. She never seems the least bit happy, constantly checking herself out in the mirror to ensure her graceful exterior masks the insecurities deep down plaguing her. When she removes all of her makeup, the Marquise looks like a lifeless shell of her former self. In essence, Close delivers a performance of a woman always putting on a performance.

Close hits all of the right notes here - it's a portrayal that would work pitch-perfectly on both the stage and screen, a true master class in acting from one of the finest film stars of the past half-century.

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91. Maureen Stapleton in Interiors (1978)

Her competition...

Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
Penelope Milford, Coming Home
Maggie Smith, California Suite (WINNER)
Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter

Stapleton portrays Pearl, an effervescent firecracker whose introduction rattles the family of husband-to-be Arthur (E.G. Marshall). Arthur's children are still reeling from his separation from depressed matriarch Eve (Geraldine Page), who recently attempted suicide, and are hardly keen on future step-mama Pearl. This performance marked Stapleton's third Oscar nomination.

Stapleton may have (at last!) scored her Oscar for Warren Beatty's dizzying Reds but it's her comparably scene-stealing work in this Woody Allen picture that marks a career high. The first of four Allen-directed performances that shall grace this list, Stapleton enters the solemn Interiors like a tornado, lifting an already powerful family drama into something truly stimulating and exceptional. 

Vis a vis Page's desolate (albeit also brilliant) turn as the dejected wife, Stapleton is the polar opposite, a vibrant and appealing (and happy) woman. She always brings her A-game, whether it's an Interiors-level tour de force or a middling comedy, but Stapleton has rarely been in this dynamic a form. It's as if the proceedings turn from black and white into Technicolor when she enters the film. 

Stapleton's boisterous Pearl hardly rubs this family, downcast and all but sleeping through life, the right way. But while she exudes confidence, she's also clearly a sensitive woman, deeply affected by the daughters' dismissive response to her presence. Alas, in the end, it's Pearl's presence that will save this family in free fall. With another, lesser actress, Pearl could have come off as vulgar and one-note but Stapleton instills complexity and a vitality in this woman that must have even taken Allen aback.

Smith is in decent form in California Suite but she's been much better and her film, the Smith/Michael Caine scenes aside, is virtually unwatchable. (Somehow, Cannon won the Golden Globe for doing close to nothing in her film.) This totally should have been Stapleton's Oscar.

The Oscar 100 (thus far)...

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 - I've got one of the all-time great film narrators; a pair of heavenly turns from two supremely underrated actresses; a late career performance from a legendary star of the silver screen; and (finally!) a performance that actually won an Oscar.