Project: Best Actress Oscar winners

[Post updated 4/30/17]

BEST ACTRESS WINNERS
Janet Gaynor, 7th Heaven (1927, Frank Borzage)
Janet Gaynor, Street Angel (1928, Frank Borzage)
Janet Gaynor, Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)
Mary Pickford, Coquette (1929, Sam Taylor) [cap]
Norma Shearer, The Divorcee (1930, Robert Z. Leonard) [cap]
Marie Dressler, Min and Bill (1930, George W. Hill)
Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931, Edgar Selwyn) [cap]
Katharine Hepburn, Morning Glory (1933, Lowell Sherman) [cap]
Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)
Bette Davis, Dangerous (1935, Alfred E. Green) [cap]
Luise Rainer, The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard)
Luise Rainer, The Good Earth (1937, Sidney Franklin) [cap]
Bette Davis, Jezebel (1938, William Wyler) [cap]
Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)
Ginger Rogers, Kitty Foyle (1940, Sam Wood) [cap]
Joan Fontaine, Suspicion (1941, Alfred Hitchcock)
Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler)
Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette (1943, Henry King) [cap]
Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight (1944, George Cukor) [cap]
Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz) [cap]
Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own (1946, Mitchell Leisen) [cap]
Loretta Young, The Farmer’s Daughter (1947, H.C. Potter) [cap]
Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda (1948, Jean Negulesco) [cap]
Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress (1949, William Wyler) [cap]
Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday (1950, George Cukor) [cap]
Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
Shirley Booth, Come Back, Little Sheba (1952, Daniel Mann) [cap]
Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday (1953, William Wyler)
Grace Kelly, The Country Girl (1954, George Seaton)
Anna Magnani, The Rose Tattoo (1955, Daniel Mann) [cap]
Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia (1956, Anatole Litvak) [cap]
Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve (1957, Nunnally Johnson) [cap]
Susan Hayward, I Want to Live! (1958, Robert Wise) [cap]
Simone Signoret, Room at the Top (1959, Jack Clayton)
Elizabeth Taylor, BUtterfield 8 (1960, Daniel Mann) [cap]
Sophia Loren, Two Women (1960, Vittorio De Sica) [cap]
Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker (1962, Arthur Penn) [cap]
Patricia Neal, Hud (1963, Martin Ritt) [cap]
Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins (1964, Robert Stevenson)
Julie Christie, Darling (1965, John Schlesinger)
Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)
Katharine Hepburn, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967, Stanley Kramer)
Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter (1968, Anthony Harvey)
Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl (1968, William Wyler) [cap]
Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969, Ronald Neame) [cap]
Glenda Jackson, Women in Love (1969, Ken Russell) [cap]
Jane Fonda, Klute (1971, Alan J. Pakula) [cap]
Liza Minnelli, Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse)
Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class (1973, Melvin Frank) [cap]
Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974, Martin Scorsese) [cap]
Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Forman)
Faye Dunaway, Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
Diane Keaton, Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)
Jane Fonda, Coming Home (1978, Hal Ashby)
Sally Field, Norma Rae (1979, Martin Ritt) [cap]
Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980, Michael Apted) [cap]
Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond (1981, Mark Rydell) [cap]
Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice (1982, Alan J. Pakula)
Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment (1983, James L. Brooks)
Sally Field, Places in the Heart (1984, Robert Benton) [cap]
Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful (1985, Peter Masterson) [cap]
Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God (1986, Randa Haines) [cap]
Cher, Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison) [cap]
Jodie Foster, The Accused (1988, Jonathan Kaplan) [cap]
Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy (1989, Bruce Beresford)
Kathy Bates, Misery (1990, Rob Reiner)
Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
Emma Thompson, Howards End (1992, James Ivory) [cap]
Holly Hunter, The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
Jessica Lange, Blue Sky (1994, Tony Richardson) [cap]
Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking (1995, Tim Robbins) [cap]
Frances McDormand, Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)
Helen Hunt, As Good as It Gets (1997, James L. Brooks) [cap]
Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden)
Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry (1999, Kimberly Peirce) [cap]
Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich (2000, Steven Soderbergh) [cap]
Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball (2001, Marc Forster) [cap]
Nicole Kidman, The Hours (2002, Stephen Daldry) [cap]
Charlize Theron, Monster (2003, Patty Jenkins) [cap]
Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood)
Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line (2005, James Mangold) [cap]
Helen Mirren, The Queen (2006, Stephen Frears) [cap]
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose (2007, Olivier Dahan) [cap]
Kate Winslet, The Reader (2008, Stephen Daldry) [cap]
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side (2009, John Lee Hancock) [cap]
Natalie Portman, Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronosfky)
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady (2011, Phyllida Lloyd) [cap]
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook (2012, David O. Russell)
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)
Julianne Moore, Still Alice (2014, Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland) [cap]
Brie Larson, Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson) [cap]
Emma Stone, La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle) [cap]

Well, this was sort of a big one. Having now seen and written up every film whose leading female performance walked away with the Oscar, I can also say that I’ve seen and (sort of) reviewed every film that’s ever won any of the “Big Five” Academy Awards: Picture, Director, Writing (Story/Screenplay/Adaptation), Actor and Actress. (There are two exceptions, only because they are lost films.) Though it’s really only the beginning of all the stuff I want to do in this blog, it really represents the completion of something that kicked off here four and a half years ago. It’s been an interesting experience. At the bottom of this post we’ll talk a bit more about the “Big Five” and how the winners stack up now. For now, it seems fairly worthwhile to mention that for this fifth Oscars Project, I changed my tactic just a little bit — for the first time, I didn’t watch these films in chronological order, for reasons that were explained in a previous entry. It made the process quite a bit less cumbersome and, while no less pricey, at least manageable.

It’s hard to escape a general impression that the acting awards are skewed in favor of rather showy, unsubtle performances; if you were to watch them in order, something like Frances McDormand’s restraint and calm character-building in Fargo might feel extremely out of place. We’ll talk about the relative quality of these performances and what meaningful differences exist in the way the Academy recognizes men and women in the lower portion of this post. First off, it’s time to talk numbers!

In 89 Academy Award ceremonies, 92 performances have been honored; the discrepancy comes from a tie between fellow spelling bee losers Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand in 1969, and from Janet Gaynor’s award at the first ceremony being associated with three different films. As of the date this was originally posted 28 of the 91 received Oscars in one of the other four categories we’ve already covered and were thus already written up. (It’s quite interesting to note that the Best Actress-winning film has only received another award in the “Big Five” once this century!) One of those, The Piano, graduated from a capsule to a full essay this time. In addition to those, four titles were already logged for the blog on the already-completed AFI 100 list; five more were logged here for other reasons, and one of those was Street Angel, which also was revisited with a much longer review. That leaves 54 films newly capsuled or reviewed for the blog during this project, including six that I had previously seen pre-2012 (thus pre-blog). I started with Coquette on November 12, 2015 and finished up with Blue Sky on August 29, 2016; it took about a month longer than I had planned, mostly because I slowed down a bit this summer.

Notes on Availability: Grabbing or streaming watchable copies of the Oscar winners for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor is by and large a breeze. This category is, like the writing awards, a different ball game. While a decent number of these films are fairly simple to track down through the streaming video rental (Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu) and subscription (Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu; I had to get a trial subscription to the latter to watch The Trip to Bountiful) services, via library DVDs or through Netflix’s mail service (as of now I have not attempted to deal with ClassicFlix, the old-fogey equivalent), a few proved trickier. The good news is that all 92 films have been issued on home video at some point, but Coquette and The Farmer’s Daughter have never seen the light of day on DVD. They show up in washed-out, distractingly subtitled copies on YouTube sometimes but I resorted to a bootleg dealer to give them a fair shake in more ideal conditions. (Both were ripped from TCM, and very high quality.) [2017 update: The Farmer’s Daughter is now being released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Kino.] There is also the matter of To Each His Own, an extraordinary film only released on disc in other regions as of this writing. In addition, three films required a trip to the Warner Archive Collection and their burn-on-demand line: Min and Bill, The Sin of Madelon Claudet and Dangerous. I do not think you would be disappointed if you paid for your own copy of Min and Bill; your mileage may vary on the other two, though obviously the latter is bound to be of interest to Bette Davis’ many fans.

Obviously these situations change frequently and if you’re reading this some years down the line, I can’t promise all this remains true, though I certainly will update if an official U.S. release of To Each His Own ever happens. Before posting this I did a cursory check to make sure that the films on the list that I personally own or that I didn’t need to secure copies of for this project remain readily available, and so far as I can tell they are. (Feel free to comment with any corrections; I will note here if this section has been updated since the original post. [Current as of April 2017.])

Ranking First-Time Views: As is tradition at Slices of Cake, now we come to the fairly frivolous task of ranking the 48 films I saw for the first time for this project.

(A)
01 To Each His Own
02 Min and Bill
03 Gaslight
(A-)
04 The Heiress
05 I Want to Live!
06 Mildred Pierce
07 The Farmer’s Daughter
(B+)
08 Coal Miner’s Daughter
09 Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
10 Monster
11 Hud
12 Come Back, Little Sheba
13 The Good Earth
14 The Queen
15 The Divorcee
16 Morning Glory
(B)
17 Kitty Foyle
18 Blue Sky
19 The Trip to Bountiful
20 Jezebel
21 Norma Rae
22 The Accused
23 Born Yesterday
24 Erin Brockovich
25 The Song of Bernadette
26 Two Women
27 The Sin of Madelon Claudet
28 Anastasia
29 Johnny Belinda
(B-/C+)
30 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
31 Women in Love
32 BUtterfield 8
33 Monster’s Ball
34 The Reader
35 Dangerous
36 The Rose Tattoo
37 Children of a Lesser God
38 La Vie en Rose
39 Dead Man Walking
40 The Hours
41 Coquette
42 The Three Faces of Eve
(C/C-)
43 Funny Girl
44 A Touch of Class
45 Still Alice
46 The Blind Side
(D+)
47 Room
48 The Iron Lady

RANKING OF PERFS
Here’s the most elaborate portion of this retrospective, wherein I will attempt to judge not the films from which these award-winning performances came but solely the performances themselves. All 91 Academy Award-winning leading female parts: the who, when and why. Needless to say, everything in this blog is based on personal taste… but that goes double when you’re judging actors and their specific mannerisms and methodology. I hope you can detect some internal logic here and get some sense of what I look for, what bugs me, etc.; I’m going to try my best not to be unfair.

(Programming note: I wanted to have a chance to rewatch Terms of Endearment, Black Swan, Sunrise, The Silence of the Lambs and Blue Jasmine for this project and I ran out of time, but I still may do it sometime in the next few weeks. I’ll add any bracing new comments I feel the need to make below here.)

1. Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980, Michael Apted)
This movie suffers from the same done-to-death tropes and anticlimactic, stubbornly non-structural nature of nearly all musical biopics (and biopics in general, really), and don’t try and say it was a trailblazer: you can see all these clichés falling into place way back in Interrupted Melody and Love Me or Leave Me, probably even earlier (does Yankee Doodle Dandy count?). Another caveat: movies like this are always at a disadvantage with enthusiastic fans of the target subject; I’m quite sure I would have been far more taken with Love and Mercy if I hadn’t spent much of my young adulthood reading and writing about barely anything besides the Beach Boys. But as someone who feels Loretta Lynn to possess one of the half-dozen or so greatest voices in recorded music, and an artist who’s remained vital whenever she deigns to grace us with her presence, I can’t express enough how blown away I was by Spacek in this part. I’ve always liked Spacek but her embodiment of Lynn, not just as a mature singer at her height but as a young teenager and everything beyond, is so absolute and such a rich honor to her legacy I was knocked out, and would have been even if it was a pure triumph of acting… but Spacek and (as the equally brilliant Patsy Cline) Beverly D’Angelo sang every note you hear on this film’s soundtrack. There’s more than just showy virtuosity here, and there’s more than note-for-note mimicry, there’s unmistakable soul and depth and talent. Spacek proves herself nearly as extraordinary an artist as Lynn by all but reaching into the past to recover the latter’s younger self. One of the best cinematic approximations of a real person, ever.

2. Simone Signoret as Alice in Room at the Top (1959, Jack Clayton)
I knew Signoret from her earthy, conniving role as one of the conspiratorial schoolteachers in Henri Georges-Clouzot’s unforgettable Diabolique; her work here is incomparable, a sullen and resigned lover to Laurence Harvey’s younger up-and-comer, whose cynicism about love and life is challenged — only to be let down and dejected yet again, devastatingly. Signoret tells the uncommonly sophisticated film’s whole story in her eyes.

3. Diane Keaton as Annie in Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)
The rare infallible characterization; Keaton’s playing someone who’s partially based on herself, but few actors could spin that around into something as iconic as this. Not only is Keaton human, funny and believable throughout the entire film — routinely keeping the audience on her side even though Allen’s Alvy Singer is the actual protagonist — but she also manages maybe the best reading of any monologue in film history, the story about George and the turkey. Keaton is extraordinary in several other films of Allen’s, but her performance in Annie Hall, wardrobe and all, has a legacy, and it’s well-deserved.

4. Olivia de Havilland as Jody in To Each His Own (1946, Mitchell Leisen)
One of the best actresses in classic Hollywood gets a rare chance to delve into a role that has just about everything, and she lands every aspect of it convincingly: acerbic middle-aged womanhood, wide-eyed youth, doting and deeply caring motherhood, resigned and secretive world-weariness. She’s a whirling dervish of sorts here, and contributes mightily to this grand tearjerker’s awesome impact on anyone who has a mom who’s gone to bat for them (or is one) (or wants one).

5. Julie Christie as Diana Scott in Darling (1965, John Schlesinger)
Christie’s one of the masters — from Fahrenheit 451 to Petulia to Don’t Look Now, you could place almost any of her great performances in this space and it would be well justified. But Darling was an excellent reason for the Academy to honor her; the completeness of her portrait of loneliness when surrounded by various kinds of superficial validation is overwhelming. Both times I’ve seen the film I’ve been emotionally plowed afterward. Accusations that the movie is dated don’t sit well with me but even if it doesn’t move you, Christie is undeniably brilliant — multilayered, sensitive, witty, hard to shake.

6. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990, Rob Reiner)
That all too scarce anchor for a thriller: a genuinely believable performance. King and William Goldman’s characterization of Annie, an obsessive superfan of James Caan’s bestselling romance author, is unfair and rather cruel, her neediness and mental illness a stark match to the unconscious (autobiographical?) arrogance of her captive. Bates is so miraculous that I find myself siding with her; she represents a thirst for the lower needs of validation and companionship that would be alien to Caan’s wealthy writer character even if he weren’t her kidnap victim. The opportunity for an examination of how even the most trite art can enrich lives and give them meaning is thrown away in favor for a simple series of suspense-scares, but Bates’ work is beyond critique.

7. Holly Hunter as Ada in The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
The great Hunter had lost ridiculously to Cher on her previous nomination, but her Oscar for this needs no guilt or goodwill to be justified. How do you define a character who can’t speak? How do you craft an entire love story for her, one more complex than we see in all but a precious few films? Campion’s remarkable story and direction are a big assist but Hunter manages it — and doesn’t take the easy way out by spinning this into a victimhood narrative. Her inquisitive features, emotional range and effortless sensuality make the world of this astounding movie spin all around her. That she plays all the piano pieces herself, impressive though it is, is nearly beside the point when you consider what a grand feat of fine acting this is.

8. Marie Dressler as Min in Min and Bill (1930, George W. Hill)
Dressler was a cultural phenomenon and a huge box office draw, albeit briefly, in the waning years of her life; she died just four years after this film’s release. This was her quintessential work. Her robust characterization here of the cantankerous owner of a capeside motel and scrappy eatery gives way slowly from a portrait of a sharply comedic firecracker who’s ready to get the hell out to, like de Havilland in To Each His Own, a mother figure who sets herself absolutely selflessly aside to improve a life. The sacrifice she makes in the course of this film could almost rip you up to contemplate — but she’s still funny and warm and real, all the way to the end.

9. Frances McDormand as Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)
In a film that’s always struck me as more than a little flippant toward the victim of the crime it documents and mocks, you can see the complete reversal of this classic Coen brothers sensibility in the obvious affection and respect they have for Chief Gunderson and her relaxed, loving marriage to an artist. It’s incidental to the narrative but amply demonstrates the film’s directly spoken thesis, that there’s more to life than money. It’s hard to imagine anyone but McDormand in this part, able to gently find the humor in Marge while always staying true to her spirit and demonstrating that she’s an ordinary, good person who works hard and does tremendously well at her work. You’d have to go back to Demme to find, in mainstream American cinema, a less condescending look at the everyday.

10. Ingrid Bergman as Paula Anton in Gaslight (1944, George Cukor)
Bergman gets an opportunity few actresses had in her time, and that’s been justified rarely in the last several decades of showy awards reel moments, when she gets to engage with Gaslight‘s audience in a glorious, cathartic moment of schadenfreude after she discovers the true movies of the husband who’s been attempting to drive her insane. As good as she nearly always was, as good as the rest of this performance is, that overshadows everything else in this fine film. Her sniping back at him with the truth and the law behind her is like the shark clamping down on Robert Shaw: it’s what you really came here for, and it stings marvelously.

11. Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
Does anyone not love this performance? It takes a great humanist director like Demme and a talent for psychological depth like Foster’s to turn what might have been a rote FBI / serial killer proto-Nancy Grace gawkfest into a masterpiece. Clarice is the rare Hollywood heroine whose plot is never diverted with a love interest, nor does the film ever really threaten to turn her into a victim. But that sociological victory aside, the stronger impression comes from how she occupies Clarice, and the intensity of the relationship she takes pains to form with the manipulative, terrifying Hannibal Lecter. Some iconic creations, characters and moments in film get that way for the simple reason that they are well-conceived, singularly memorable and simply excellent.

12. Janet Gaynor as The Wife in Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)
Hard to know what to say, even; everyone in Sunrise puts the rawest, truest kind of love and forgiveness on film. Its emotions would be too much for most performers to wrap themselves around without resorting to broad melodrama. Gaynor has all the capacity needed to cope, and she as so often is the perfect channel for us.

13. Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)
Another masterful example of de Havilland’s range, here from naive spinster to ice-cold, independent revenge fantasy in less than two hours. As in Gaslight, this also gives us as the audience a chance to revel in sweet vengeance at the conclusion, all too rare for these Best Actress-winning movies in which a woman gets dragged through the mud and then we’re all to move on with our lives.

14. Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker (1962, Arthur Penn)
Those gobsmacking two-hander scenes of Bancroft and Patty Duke, almost painfully realistic, feel like you’re enduring the teaching process yourself and should have prompted the creation of some kind of special award. Bancroft is a master regardless. Almost any of her performances — hell, even Silent Movie — would warrant placement near the top of this list.

15. Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999, Kimberly Peirce)
The sort of performance that edges toward undeniable territory. I suppose it could now be seen as a mistake to have a straight cis woman portray a (pre-op) trans man but in the smoke and mirrors of the camera I don’t see how one can object to the way Swank completely occupies Brandon, brings him out from expressions and body language to vocal tone into three real live dimensions. She’s totally believable here; like the film itself, the performance is tragic yet its core of all-encompassing goodness fills you with hope.

16. Greer Garson as Kay Miniver in Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler)
The quintessential Wyler leading woman: a strong and independent but flawed and human wife and mother figure who holds her own and has momentous events swirling all around her in her small England town in the midst of World War II. Despite some sentimental textures neither Garson nor the film ever cops to full-on syrup and its message of “life goes on” stoic solidarity still has a strong impact after all these years. (Also up: Katharine Hepburn at her best in Woman of the Year, but I still think this was the correct choice.)

17. Ellen Burstyn as Alice in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974, Martin Scorsese)
I recently learned this is Joanna Newsom’s favorite movie, which makes me want to watch it again (for those who don’t read my music stuff: Newsom is my hero and her last two albums are among the best works of art in modern American music). Regardless, Burstyn — one of the all-time best — is marvelous as a single mom running afoul of idiot dudes and doing the best she can for her daughter in this often moving dramedy, a welcome stretch for the typically machismo-seduced Scorsese.

18. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003, Patty Jenkins)
Want to make clear that I’m not citing this as a great performance because it’s, like Taylor just below, an example of a star “uglying” herself up. Take away the makeup and the ragged appearance and this is still a terrific performance, it just helps the completeness of the illusion, and Theron does better than almost any actor — the film better than almost any other film — at making a real-life killer sympathetic without condoning or excusing their actions. Still sort of wish Samantha Morton had gotten recognized for In America, but Theron’s unstoppable here.

19. Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)
On my first viewing I was so put off by the stilted, theatrical nature of Edward Albee’s dialogue I left truly disgusted by the film, a visceral reaction I often then had to play adaptations (The Philadelphia Story gave me similar trouble) — yet even then I admired Taylor’s performance. More than just the unrecognizable way she’s costumed and made up, the key to the performance is the way she locates the heart of such an acerbic, bitterly nasty character and makes her genuinely touching. Most people think Richard Burton’s is the superior performance here but I’m team Taylor.

20. Janet Gaynor as Diane in 7th Heaven (1927, Frank Borzage)
This episode of the Gaynor and Farrell saga is exceptionally intoxicating, its emotionally fraught love story seeming to emanate from the screen and reach out directly to the viewer, so direct is it in its largeness of feeling, the sort of impression that it would be hard to imagine a sound film making. The film’s intensity is consistently surprising, the lives it documents rocky and unpredictable, and Gaynor as always rises to every occasion it presents and once again her emotions become our own.

21. Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen in Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
It never gets credit for it but this is a genuinely comedic performance from an actual comedy, and probably the only time a Dr. Strangelove-style satire got this far on Oscar night. Dunaway plays it broad like George C. Scott, because she has to, as a person so dedicated to her career she’s entirely lost touch with her inner life (the National Lampoon version of the characters in the later Broadcast News). Dunaway was never a predictable actor — this has little to do with the wounded Femme Fatale of Chinatown, for example — and it’s a shame she’s been in the wilderness for the last few decades, a depressing trend for Hollywood actresses middle-aged and older.

22. Sophia Loren as Cesira in Two Women (1960, Vittorio De Sica)
The first acting award for a foreign language film, this fine, heartbreaking performance as a woman trying to escape bombing zones with her daughter in tow only to run into increasingly insurmountable misfortune unfortunately comes from a rather maudlin film with the same penchant for cyclical misery familiar from De Sica’s other Neorealist efforts. No real objections to the win, but Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass was possibly even better.

23. Meryl Streep as Sophie Zawistowska in Sophie’s Choice (1982, Alan J. Pakula)
I’ve never been a big Streep fan, for whatever reason (choice of material, maybe), but it’s pretty hard to deny the effective intensity she brings to this film, particularly in that long closeup monologue between flashbacks but also in even the more flamboyant moments that other actors might not have been able to sell. I think Julie Andrews also deserved recognition for Victor/Victoria but luckily…

24. Julie Andrews as mysterious nanny in Mary Poppins (1964, Robert Stevenson)
Did Andrews win this in an industry show of solidarity directed against that year’s Best Picture winner My Fair Lady, from which she was ousted in favor of a non-nominated Audrey Hepburn? Who cares? Andrews traverses through this wonderful movie with a constant look of amused distance, which is perfect, and what do you know, she can sing.

25. Shirley MacLaine as Aurora in Terms of Endearment (1983, James L. Brooks)
A controversial choice these days since it was officially decided that this movie was an irredeemably saccharine “chick flick” but nuts to that. Some of the most complex characterizations and, more importantly, character relationships in any American movie. With MacLaine playing older than she really was at the time, Aurora runs the gamut from a manipulative cad to blissfully lovelorn lost soul to grieving derailed mom and the film is easily as much hers as Debra Winger’s, though an award for Winger’s performance would have been just as welcome. The eerily realistic crux of the movie is the evolution of the tumultuous connection between Aurora and her daughter, and both actors rise to that occasion repeatedly. Bickering and all, they look and feel like a real mother and daughter.

26. Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)
It’s pretty tough to have much of an argument with the cultural behemoth that is this film, whether you’re typically okay with Leigh’s excesses or not. She obviously owns this moment and it’s pretty much inconceivable to picture anybody else playing Scarlett. Can you imagine a world in which she didn’t win for this?

27. Shirley Booth as Lola Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952, Daniel Mann)
A wordy, stagy script gets redeemed by Booth’s remarkably expressive face.

28. Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line (2005, James Mangold)
This is one of the few movies that trips me up on my anti-biopic leanings; the music is terrific (but so it is in lots of these movies), the performances are excellent, the story is wild and difficult to believe but almost wholly true (to such an extent that not making a movie about it would have been a terrible missed opportunity)… and Witherspoon is electric in this part, seemingly the role she was born for. We don’t just watch Johnny Cash fall in love with June Carter, we do the same simultaneously, and we see vividly the unconditional love and life-saving energy she represented for him.

29. Susan Hayward as Barbara Graham in I Want to Live! (1958, Robert Wise)
An interesting, weird, vaguely depressing quirk in this category: three of the winners feature graphic, minutely detailed execution scenes. However, only in this one is the person being put to death the lead actress. Hayward is brilliant in this remarkable story of how the justice system metes out its lopsided, misguided punishments. Even against Deborah Kerr, so delightful in the ensemble film Separate Tables, this was well-deserved.

30. Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday (1953, William Wyler)
One of those world-defining tornado performances. Hepburn establishes and runs with a persona that, for better or worse, would follow her for the rest of her career. But her work here remains incredibly fresh and vital, and how can anyone not get a kick out of this film?

31. Patricia Neal as Alma in Hud (1963, Martin Ritt)
Worse than seeing how many of the female characters in these movies get dragged through the mud of mawkish suffering is when they’re set up as strong, independent characters only to eventually endure horrible assaults while we watch. Neal is wonderful in this movie but it’s not fun to see her become victimized.

32. Janet Gaynor as Angela in Street Angel (1928, Frank Borzage)
Gaynor’s most “adult” performance; the nature of the cross she bears here (she always bore a cross) involves prostitution and imprisonment, not to say that abuse from sisters and husbands in her other Fox silents was a walk in the park. But for at least some portions of this film, Gaynor gets an opportunity to come off as a little hard-boiled, a welcome change. Obviously she’s a gem, as always.

33. Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce in Mildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz)
A noir heroine who’s really just a normal hard-working mom doing her best; it’s tough to reconcile what’s remembered as Crawford’s larger-than-life persona with the quiet, controlled easiness of her actual acting, which can’t be faulted here despite some character confusion wrought by the censorship of a much more risque novel.

34. Geraldine Page as Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful (1985, Peter Masterson)
We’ve seen this movie, of course, about an elderly person on the road — Harry and Tonto, The Straight Story, etc. — here to escape a tyrannical household. Several of Page’s monologues and sincere emotional appeals indicate something deeper in play here; I feel I could employ that outburst about dealing with her daughter-in-law’s constant pettiness in a few work situations. Page conquers the sometimes bothersome staginess of the story by faithfully putting across the character’s entire complicated history in her eyes and voice.

35. Jodie Foster as Sarah Tobias in The Accused (1988, Jonathan Kaplan)
Foster gives respect and integrity to the story of a rape victim fighting back against an uncaring, blind system, but I’d give a lot — even if it would be totally dishonest — to see her offer up the kind of validating, vengeful catharsis Bergman gets when she unloads on her abusive husband at the end of Gaslight. Instead you’re left with the sense that nothing can really make this right, which sadly is a lot more authentic.

36. Claudette Colbert as Ellie in It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)
A movie that changed everything for everyone involved and became the first five-way Oscar winner in all the major categories. Colbert’s infallible but in a film filled with such drunken bliss, how do you pick out the distinctive elements? It all just falls together into a wonderful mush, and it altered the way romance happens on cinema screens forever.

37. Marlee Matlin as Sarah in Children of a Lesser God (1986, Randa Haines)
A deaf actress playing a deaf character in a role that isn’t necessarily just about her deafness would seem like a victory, especially in a film with the doubly welcome distinction of being directed by a woman, but this movie’s quite the washed-out shitshow, and while Sarah never becomes a person who’s portrayed as a victim of her disability, she does become the victim of a tiresomely hackneyed love story that forces her to contend with William Hurt hitting on her in sign language and such.

38. Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking (1995, Tim Robbins)
Perfect example of an actress I’ve always liked despite not being able to name any movies of hers I really love. Rocky Horror, Thelma & Louise and The Client are pretty good, I reckon. This isn’t pretty good or good at all, but you get to see her unfurl her chops with good control and believable emotion as a young-ish nun (real-life activist Prejean) counseling a man on death row. She gives a stronger, more believable portrait of religious piety than Jennifer Jones below, I think, and despite the film’s pandering deficiencies I think I won’t ever forget the way she rests her head on the bars of that prison cell, an interesting contrast to Jodie Foster’s intensity in the “interrogation” scenes of The Silence of the Lambs. That Sarandon is forced to play all this against Sean Penn at his excessive worst is more impressive yet. Which reminds me, this is the second Best Actress-winning film with a gross procedural of an execution; because it’s a passionately anti-death penalty movie, it makes sense, but it’s still not something I needed in my life.

39. Elizabeth Taylor as Gloria Wandrous in BUtterfield 8 (1960, Daniel Mann)
I grew up thinking of Taylor as the stereotype of a closed-off, comically distant star figure more famous for being famous than for anything she actually did, conflating her I suppose with the tabloids that were obsessed with her. I believe the only feature I’d seen her in was Cleopatra, which surely can’t help with one’s perception of lavish tonedeafness. So it’s been interesting as I got seriously into Hollywood film to discover how skilled and charismatic Taylor actually was; think of A Place in the Sun and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for instance. She’s remarkably good in this film particularly, and the film’s not really worthy of her, distracting from its good points with a lot of dreadful detours and a dunderheaded ending. She seldom strikes a bad note herself, though. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that this victory came at the expense of Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment, and we all know how untouchable that film is.

40. Judy Holliday as Billie in Born Yesterday (1950, George Cukor)
It’s generally believed that Holliday won due to a three-way vote split between Bette Davis, Anne Baxter (both for All About Eve) and Gloria Swanson (for Sunset Blvd.), three of the greatest and most culturally iconic performances in Hollywood history from two movies with similar concepts about acting and aging that had the misfortune of premiering in the same year. Still, Holliday is singular and quite funny here. Worse things have happened at the Oscars.

41. Joan Fontaine as Lina in Suspicion (1941, Alfred Hitchcock)
A fine film, a fine performance, but I doubt anyone would pick it out as the best role in a Hitchcock film — and yet it’s the only time any actor won an Oscar for a part in one of his movies, quite the obscenity. Think of it. Anthony Perkins in Psycho. James Stewart in Vertigo and Rear Window. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. Grace Kelly in Rear Window and Dial M for Murder. Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train. Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt. Anne Baxter in I Confess. Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man. Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy in The Birds. Tippi Hedren in Marnie. How is it possible!? And maybe more than any of those there’s Fontaine in Rebecca, one of the best performances in any Hollywood film — and I have a suspicion (get it!?!?!) that this award was a consolation prize for losing that year to Ginger Rogers. Apparently this Oscar started the supposed lifelong rift between Fontaine and her sister, Olivia de Havilland, which the latter eventually won by still being alive now.

42. Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006, Stephen Frears)
Mirren is one of the good ones, and this was as good a time as any for her. This movie is one of the most popular checkouts at my workplace; people really love it, and Frears is so good at letting actors spin their wheels. (Good chance to mention I wish more people would watch his wonderful Roddy Doyle comedy The Snapper, though it probably warrants a trigger warning or two.)

43. Cate Blanchett as Jeanette Francis in Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)
A tour de force role; though the other actors do a fine job, it’s all but a one-woman show and Blanchett runs an emotional gamut here that’s often concealed in her other parts. Amy Adams and Sandra Bullock were excellent in their respective films this goround but I think Blanchett was indeed the best choice.

44. Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter (1968, Anthony Harvey)
No great shakes as a movie — I struggled to fill out a long review of it back when I was insisting on doing that for every feature I watched — but at least Hepburn gets to wring something interesting and enjoyably eccentric out of this part, the imprisoned queen. The kind of movie that Anglophile types of a Certain Age who watch a lot of PBS really dig. (My parents loved it.) Hepburn does get one of the best star entrances ever shot.

45. Luise Rainer as O-Lan in The Good Earth (1937, Sidney Franklin)
Dated, to state the obvious, but Rainer’s emotional portrayal of a Chinese farm worker left in the dust by her irrational husband has a lot more soul than you might expect. Still, I vote Irene Dunne for The Awful Truth — one of the most sublime performances in a comedy of the era. Janet Gaynor was up again too, but I’d rate her roughly equal to Rainer this time out.

46. Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
Leigh always nailed down her performances too fiercely and played way over the top. In her most famous role, as Scarlett O’Hara, this worked to her advantage because she was supposed to be larger than life, and because the other actors in that film were playing broadly as well, for the most part. But here she’s scarcely in the same film as her costars; there are sublime moments in her performance (I love her faux-Southern Belle mannerisms on lines like “it’s temperamental!” in reference to a cigarette lighter, and the way her emotions turn on a dime fits Blanche impeccably), and certainly Marlon Brando isn’t much less of a cartoon in his own way — but Kim Hunter and Karl Malden spend the film running circles around her simply by standing in place and relying on subtlety. It creates a weird, discordant effect that I don’t think should be blamed wholly on Leigh. Two beloved-to-me performances run off the road by this win: Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, and more importantly Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun, though how that merited consideration as a lead role I can’t fathom.

47. Bette Davis as Julie Marsden in Jezebel (1938, William Wyler)
The famous Warner Bros. preemptive strike on Gone with the Wind compares to that masterpiece only laughably, but Davis is credible as always, and Wyler certainly gives her an impressive stage on which to exercise.

48. Sally Field as Norma Rae Webster in Norma Rae (1979, Martin Ritt)
A movie about a woman organizing workers that defines her quite well as a character and remains earthy without growing condescending. It’s like something from a different planet, and despite its dramatic flaws it’s a breath of fresh air, and perhaps Field’s best performance aside from Lincoln.

49. Ginger Rogers as Kitty Foyle in Kitty Foyle (1940, Sam Wood)
A charming performance in one of those Hays-era films that’s so frustrating in the way it toys with progressive values and totally lets them down. The more melancholy moments from both Rogers and the movie are quite revealing. But it’s pretty hard to credit this win as remotely understandable in competition with Joan Fontaine in Rebecca; had she won, she’d probably rate #1 on this list.

50. Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
One of the nuttier recent winners has Portman dancing her way to a grim finish; it’s hard to challenge the prowess of a performance that’s predicated entirely on giving yourself over to a part that then engulfs you wholly, and Portman’s work here easily beats out, say, Ronald Colman refashioning himself as some sort of horror villain because Shakespeare in A Double Life. Everyone nominated in this category this year was very good in their respective films (including two duds, Blue Valentine and The Kids Are All Right) and it would be hard to object to any of them, though I suppose my personal retroactive choice would be Jennifer Lawrence.

51. Norma Shearer as Jerry in The Divorcee (1930, Robert Z. Leonard)
Completely unrelated to the project at hand, can I just take a moment to mention it really speaks to how weird the studio era was that this modest picture shares a director with the lavish The Great Ziegfeld? Can I also say it’s badass that this movie revolves around a woman named Jerry? Anyway, Shearer gets flack these days, and probably then, because it’s said that she got special treatment at MGM due to her marriage to Irving Thalberg. But whatever, she was a magic force and presence even when terribly miscast. I prefer her vivacious role in A Free Soul, but she was understandably blocked out that year by Marie Dressler. She’s clearly the best thing about this movie that starts out as a freewheeling comedy then loses its way and goes full-on moralistic — though it demonstrates how quickly the bigger studios mastered spoken dialogue, dating from 1930 but feeling pretty much indistinguishable from films made a number of years later — and her natural humor and easygoing, fast-talking charm resonate down through the decades more than a lot of the early winners.

52. Loretta Young as Katie Holstrom in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947, H.C. Potter)
Loved this political semi-comedy, one of the most progressive mainstream productions of the postwar years — who knew David O. Selznick had it in him? — so it may seem weird that I’m not placing Young higher. I don’t have a solid reason besides the fact that it’s a pretty straightforward role; the film’s triumphs are in its writing and direction and the actors do well to sort of stay out of the way, and on the assumption that acting awards actually mean something (not convinced…), this basically doesn’t seem “Oscar-worthy” to me. But that’s not a criticism of Young either. Does that seem fair?

53. Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook (2013, David O. Russell)
A perfect breezy, if sometimes emotionally thorny, date movie that somehow got blown out of proportion into an awards behemoth in the age when small studio movies had been essentially outlawed, Lawrence is a hurricane in this film. Without getting into Jeffrey Wells-style lechery, I think it’s acceptable to say that it’s an uncommonly sensual turn from a classically beautiful Hollywood performer. She’s had better roles, no doubt, namely her superlative lead in Winter’s Bone, but she owns this movie, and her win on this night was a really terrific moment.

54. Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007, Olivier Dahan)
Another by-the-numbers musical biopic, this one throwing in a bunch of baffling chronological jumps that make watching it an unnecessarily exhausting experience; Cotillard is of course credible, then (as is clearly intended by the film) blows you away in the last scene.

55. Bette Davis as Joyce Heath in Dangerous (1935, Alfred E. Green)
Davis could play this part — a conniving, down-on-luck actress — in her sleep. It would still somehow be a thrill to watch.

56. Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich (2000, Steven Soderbergh)
One easygoing, breezily entertaining movie considering the gravity of its subject matter; there’s little that seems special or unusual to me about Roberts’ performance but she has great chemistry with Albert Finney who plays her boss (not so much with love interest Aaron Eckhart, who shouldn’t be part of the movie in the first place, but that’s another topic) and is plenty engaging, though I tend to assume Laura Linney should have gotten this. (I somehow haven’t seen You Can Count on Me yet even though Margaret is one of my favorite recent films. Need to get to work.)

57. Katharine Hepburn as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory (1933, Lowell Sherman)
Very much a stagebound part (and film; the first scene occupies about a third of its total length), and it ain’t exactly Bringing Up Baby, but say this for it: if it’s your first exposure to Hepburn, as it was for a good number of people, you’re unlikely to ever forget who she is.

58. Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse)
She’s good. Boy, this movie slows down whenever the plot kicks in; the musical numbers are excellent. I’ve said this before but I sort of can’t believe my parents let me watch this when I was four or five years old, over and over again.

59. Grace Kelly as Georgie Elgin in The Country Girl (1954, George Seaton)
Some have suggested that Julie Christie’s Oscar for Darling was a surrogate win for the more popular Doctor Zhivago; one is amazing and one is just OK so I don’t really want to believe it, but maybe there’s something similar in play for this film versus Kelly’s two performances in Alfred Hitchcock pictures this same year. She’s actually quite good in The Country Girl (it beats High Noon), demonstrating believable frustration and resignation with a deadbeat cuckold husband who happens to be a singin’ sensation (it’s Bing)… but nothing in the same universe as what she does with Lisa Fremont in Rear Window. Even someone who adores Kelly could be forgiven for not remembering much about The Country Girl a few years down the line, but no one forgets Lisa Fremont.

60. Halle Berry as Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball (2001, Marc Forster)
Astonishingly, Berry is the only — not the first, the only — black actress to receive this award. This is one of many blights on the Academy’s record toward diversity, though I think the most telling snub is Paul Winfield for Sounder in 1972; you’d have to be on some sort of hallucinogen to really think Brando did better work as Don Corleone, but I digress. Unfortunately Berry’s work here isn’t much more than OK; you can’t blame the Academy for wanting to right this historical wrong of representation, though, and Berry is certainly a good choice even if this movie (and Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won in the same night, signaling a lot of hooey about how racism was over in Hollywood for that week) is the sort of lurid soap opera-like goofiness that would never get past the iron gate without a lot — a lot — of campaigning. Note: the last of the three painstakingly detailed, graphic play-by-play examinations of the death penalty in films that won in this category.

61. Helen Hayes as Madelon Claudet in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931, Edgar Selwyn)
Hayes picks up a statue for acting out some weird GOP fantasy of a woman suffering for not much any reason, demonstrating all the same self-sacrifice shown in To Each His Own but without either the societal critique or the self-sufficient wit. From what we can detect of Hayes underneath all the dross, she does a pretty good job.

62. Katharine Hepburn as Mrs. Drayton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967, Stanley Kramer)
Hepburn was in so many interesting, classic movies, none of which gleaned her any Academy recognition. But there’s always something to see when she’s on camera, and in this (horrible) film it’s the loving eyes she makes at a dying Spencer Tracy. She’s pretty terrific, but it’s sickening to think of this Kramer sludge getting her a superfluous honor (she won again, the very next year, and then again fourteen years hence) over two first-class, unforgettable performances: Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde and, for heaven’s sake, Anne Bancroft in The Graduate.

63. Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Forman)
Pros: A completely thankless role that Fletcher fills out brilliantly, inciting dread and fear even if it’s completely unfair. Also, the rare instance of the Oscar going to the person playing the “villain,” so often the most interesting part of a movie — especially in classic Hollywood — and so rarely given any kind of recognition. (What kind of universe do we live in where Robert Walker didn’t win something for Strangers on a Train?) Cons: I still loathe the way Nurse Ratched is treated by the film, the way we’re supposed to take pleasure in the attempted strangulation of her; apart from some inappropriately judgmental remarks she makes (which anyone might be guilty of in a moment of frustration), she literally is doing her job throughout the film, but because this interferes with the romanticized Robert Bly-like macho thesis of the film whereby women and minorities are destroying the ruggedly individual real men, this is Very Bad. It’s also not a leading performance; thank savvy campaigning for this one. And Fletcher won over one of the most galvanizing peformances in film history, by Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H.; though that too is a mediocre film, at least it would’ve kept this vastly overrated one from scoring a Big Fiver.

64. Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel in Howards End (1992, James Ivory)
I like Thompson quite a bit but these Merchant-Ivory movies really run together for me. Is this the one with all the penises or is it the one where a bookshelf falls on a guy? Feel sure there were more interesting opportunities to reward her, one strong example being the much livelier film she scripted, Sense and Sensibility.

65. Helen Hunt as Carol in As Good as It Gets (1997, James L. Brooks)
Did you know that community college students taking psych classes have to watch this movie now!? I always feel like I’m defending the indefensible when I talk about this film but I do really enjoy it even though it’s incomprehensibly long; it has pleasant echoes of Brooks’ other strong works even if it’s not a patch on Broadcast News or The Mary Tyler Moore Show with regard to his feel for complicated interpersonal relationships. I was overjoyed at Hunt’s win (and Nicholson’s) in 1998, both because as a diehard Simpsons fan I was excited to see Brooks back in the spotlight and because I was so, so sick of Titanic fever. But when I rewatched Titanic as an adult I realized that Winslet — even back then — was a hell of a treasure and deserved the Oscar. It’s funny that it was so popular to bemoan the two leads of Titanic back then and balk at their fame, when the next two decades were spent demanding to know why first Winslet and then DiCapiro kept being snubbed.

66. Anna Magnani as Serafine Delle Rose in The Rose Tattoo (1955, Daniel Mann)
Magnani is good here but very, very theatrical. One of a run of Mann stage adaptations that clearly demonstrates the possibilites and limitations of such transitions.

67. Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden)
There’s nothing earth-shaking about this corny, sporadically funny romance picture but it’s entertaining, and I generally like Paltrow, though a glance at her filmography reveals a whole run of strange, unflattering choices; this is actually one of the better films she’s been in.

68. Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002, Stephen Daldry)
Once again: right actress, wrong movie. I can name so many superb performances by Kidman, one of the most adventurous A-list actors ever — Eyes Wide Shut! Dogville! Margot at the Wedding! Rabbit Hole! Hell, Moulin Rouge!, which I don’t even like, but she’s terrific in it — but instead she got an Oscar for the one with the fake nose. Okay.

69. Ingrid Bergman as Anna Koreff in Anastasia (1956, Anatole Litvak)
Bergman’s second of three Oscars was a sort of Hollywood homecoming triumph, her “redemption” after she was stupidly cast aside for her extramarital affair with Roberto Rossellini. (I’d say “things were different then,” but that kind of weird public judgment still happens.) She’s fine as always in the part but the film is what it is, which is to say not much — it’s a pretty facile story, when you come down to it — and there’s just very little for her to work with.

70. Brie Larson as Joy in Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)
It’s sometimes hard for me to see the merit in a performance if I really, really hated a movie, and this turgid victimhood chronicle — it’s empty, gawking torture porn but it’s Better because it feels bad about it — probably does feature perfectly fine work from Larson in the lead. But the movie did not sit well with me, to say the least, and I can’t see myself connecting with anything about it. Perhaps that’s immature. Larson was competing against four actors I love: Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlotte Rampling and Saoirse Ronan. I’ve only seen Blanchett’s movie, though, and I can’t say for sure if Larson’s work here might deserve the award anyway despite the film.

71. Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz in The Reader (2008, Stephen Daldry)
Almost no one denies that Winslet is one of her generation’s best actors. She obviously shouldn’t be this low on this list, but blame the watchable and competent but incredibly silly movie she’s in. This is a typical move by the Academy of honoring someone who’s widely considered “overdue”; she really was, but that was their own fault, yeah? She is perfectly fine in this film, for what it’s worth, but at the risk of being middlebrow, I’ll take Titanic, thanks. (One of the other nominees this year was Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married; despite being really taken by the general spirit of that film, I differ with most in that I thought Hathaway’s misguided performance completely derailed it — I actually probably prefer Winslet, frankly.)

72. Jessica Lange as Carly in Blue Sky (1994, Tony Richardson)
Richardson died before this film was released — it got caught up in Orion’s catastrophic bankruptcy — so as far as I know he never really talked about it, but I’d love to know if the radically different, clashing performance styles exhibited by Lange and Tommy Lee Jones here came out of specific directions from his end. Jones is brilliant here and while Lange has her moments, she pulls a Vivien Leigh — her broad, over the top emotionalism looks strained and unreal next to everyone else’s naturalism, especially her leading man’s. By most accounts this win was a sentimental gesture toward a well-loved veteran, though this seems weird since she already had one (for Supporting), but okay.

73. Jennifer Jones as Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernadette (1943, Henry King)
So much purity and spiritual fervor in Jones’ wide-eyed performance here, you’d have to be some kind of hardened, bitter cynic to escape totally unmoved — but Jones simply doesn’t have much range as an actress, as demonstrated again and again in her films, and while the naivete fits this role quite well initially, the limits of such charm become apparent over the running time. Undoubtedly a credible film and part, all the same.

74. Emma Stone as Mia in La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle)
Stone has an engaging persona and is fun to watch, though she does look at her feet a lot when she’s tap dancing. The shortcomings of her performance are mostly down to a script that feels incomplete, and a lack of chemistry with her costar Ryan Gosling.

75. Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969, Ronald Neame)
One bizarre film and performance, and I must say that while I pretty quickly wrote it off as a bust after seeing it, it deserves credit for being very, very memorable. The film seems to set itself up as a feminine Goodbye Mr. Chips before it goes off the deep end with a treatise on sex, corruption, manipulation, the works. Smith’s line readings are just shy of incomprehensible, and I don’t think it’s the accent. If I look at this as an act of trolling, I kind of love it. Surely one of the strangest mainstream movies to win an Oscar, at any rate.

76. Jane Fonda as Sally in Coming Home (1978, Hal Ashby)
One of the better Fonda performances I’ve seen, which (for me) isn’t saying much. I could waste time in this space trying to understand if my big Fonda problem is down to me or to her, but I’d take this over Klute and Cat Ballou any old day; plus I have considerable respect for the film’s sociopolitical motives, and Fonda served as producer on it (a fact I know cause I read credits, you see). I think Geraldine Page in Interiors gave a better performance than this, but I think Coming Home deserved every award it got if only symbolically on The Night of the (Deer) Hunter.

77. Hilary Swank as Maggie in Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood)
Another performance — like De Niro’s in Raging Bull — honored for the physical arduousness of the role, not for anything to do with the acting involved. Swank’s honestly the weak link in a strongly acted if embarrassingly morose film; Eastwood himself provides one of the stronger self-directed performances I can remember, and Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman. Swank had already been rewarded for a much better movie, and this could’ve been Kate Winslet’s year, for one of her best performances in Eternal Sunshine.

78. Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968, William Wyler)
Streisand’s stratospheric rise after this performance is well-remembered. I think others are better equipped to judge the performance but suffice it to say it didn’t do it for me. It’s certainly one of the most iconic wins for a musical feature.

79. Jessica Tandy as Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss Daisy (1989, Bruce Beresford)
I can live with this if I pretend it’s for The Birds. Surprisingly, it’s only at this point in our ranking that I start to have serious problems with any of these performances; that’s a marked contrast to Actor.

80. Julianne Moore as Alice in Still Alice (2014, Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland)
In the lower reaches of this ranked list there aren’t that many surprises; I knew years before doing this that I didn’t really connect with Jane Fonda, Jane Wyman and Sandra Bullock’s performance style, long before seeing the films for which they were honored. But this is an example of one that really caught me off guard a bit, because I love Julianne Moore and in a way I completely support her receiving sentimental commemoration for a storied career. But yow, is this painfully straightforward document of an early-onset Alzheimer’s patient’s gradual demise the worst kind of maudlin awards bait, with Moore hitting all the obvious notes built on gimmicky “study” and little truly resonant emotion. Truthfully she’s one of the better things about this hollow film, but like Kate Winslet above, this is a master in what without the Oscar would be easily one of her most forgettable roles.

81. Katharine Hepburn as Ethel in On Golden Pond (1981, Mark Rydell)
See my entry in the Actors ranking on Henry Fonda's win for the exact same hollow, sentimental film.

82. Glenda Jackson as Gudrun Brangwen in Women in Love (1969, Ken Russell)
Jackson’s not much of a lead actor in this film, more one quarter of an ensemble, and while she’s probably a bit more memorably acidic than Jennie Linden (who plays her sister), ironically both the women in this film have less interesting characterizations than the men with whom they engage in relationships, though Eleanor Bron sort of owns them all.

83. Cher as Loretta in Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison)
Cher’s really neither here nor there — not memorable, not dreadful — in this oddly celebrated romantic comedy, but it may be the most irksome award choice on this list for the simple fact that she got it in lieu of Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, a romantic comedy-drama that renders Moonstruck as nothing more than a pointless, redundant trifle.

84. Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side (2009, John Lee Hancock)
Bullock’s often struck me as anonymous, and while I converted somewhat after Gravity I don’t believe this turgid white-savior football film stands as much of an exception. Her way of dealing with a poorly written script is to punch every moment with excessive force, something she also did in her campy part in Crash.

85. Sally Field as Edna Spalding in Places in the Heart (1984, Robert Benton)
Nothing against Field but as good as she sometimes is (see: Lincoln or Norma Rae), she certainly does blind right in when the pap is at its most middlebrow. Her acceptance speech upon receiving this Oscar was exponentially more entertaining than the movie.

86. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011, Phyllida Lloyd)
Neither biopic, performance, Oscar nor the real person being portrayed have much reason to exist. Despite the flaws of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was rooting for Rooney Mara.

87. Luise Rainer as Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard)
Rainer was capable of plenty of nuance; she herself lamented how the studio shoved her around in projects that didn’t let her play to her real abilities. Despite winning her the first of her two consecutive Oscars, this seems like an example of MGM engaged in degrading one of its stars. Rainer is forced to treat Held as a fragile, wafer-thin victim; her famous emotional phone call to Ziegfeld resonates, but she spends a lot of on-camera time mouthing through some really insipid songs and generally displaying herself as an inordinately annoying presence for who knows what reason. To my long-running shame I’ve not yet seen My Man Godfrey (coming up in the 1930s canon project late this year or early next) but I must assume that this should have been Carole Lombard’s Oscar.

88. Glenda Jackson as Vickie in A Touch of Class (1973, Melvin Frank)
It probably isn’t fair to blame Jackson for the many deficiencies of this bratty Neil Simon-like romantic comedy, an extremely dated enterprise; all this screaming and yelling for “comic effect” seldom does favors to any actor. Jackson, one of the few actor-turned-politicians who found success and fame in both areas, deserves credit for being a nearly unique figure, but even more than in Women in Love, she’s done in here by a script that puts too much impossible nonsense into her mouth. “My one chance to get raped and you can’t get your bloody trousers off”?!? Oh, when men were men and screenwriters were too. I can’t stand The Exorcist but I’m team Ellen Burstyn for this one.

89. Joanne Woodward as “Eve” in The Three Faces of Eve (1957, Nunnally Johnson)
Very dated, very icky psychodrama’s many issues are mostly not the fault of Woodward, whose sensitivity gets drowned out by the ridiculous, simple-minded interpretation of “multiple personalities” prompted by her triple Eve White / Eve Black / Jane persona. The entire movie is camp that won’t admit it’s camp, and this unfortunately extends to the acting.

90. Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels in Klute (1971, Alan J. Pakula)
Part of my aforementioned aversion to Fonda, though helped along considerably in its intensity by Julia, probably dates from this film, a beautifully shot but empty detective thriller, in which she plays a hyper-controlled prostitute and actress whose tightly wound nature and dealings with an apparent stalker lead us into a lurid setup and an extremely ludicrous love story co-starring Donald Sutherland. Fonda’s characterization is all very carefully enunciated in the most irritatingly artificial way possible; she’s dealing with a dumb script that requires her to recite every thought she has for the duration, which can be no help to any actor’s performance, but rewarding such lackluster work seems counterproductive. Wasn’t a much bigger fan of the even more celebrated McCabe & Mrs. Miller either, but I’m all for another statue going to Julie Christie.

91. Jane Wyman as Belinda McDonald in Johnny Belinda (1948, Jean Negulesco)
Have never found Wyman to have much charisma, though I do sort of enjoy her in The Lost Weekend, and this surreal bit of lurid small-town terror finds her well beyond a range of emotions that seems credible coming out of her.

92. Mary Pickford as Norma in Coquette (1929, Sam Taylor)
Nothing against Pickford, half of Hollywood’s scene-setting Power Couple of yore, but neither she nor anyone else in this film was ready for the transition to talkies. That includes those who decided the play on which it’s based would be a worthwhile thing to film. Of the other nominees I’ve seen, I actually prefer Bessie Love in The Broadway Melody to this.

***

I sensed during this project that the bulk of the winning performances in this category had a similar drift, almost a pre-ordained series of features. The vast majority have one or more of the following attributes:
– Character played by lead actress is violently assaulted.
– Character played by lead actress is raped. (I mention this separately from the above because it’s ridiculously common: twelve films in which it happens or nearly happens, and remember this does not count films in which another female character is similarly attacked.)
– Character played by lead actress is otherwise victimized (economic strife, verbally abusive relationship, etc.).
– Character played by lead actress has some sort of affliction or disability.
– Character played by lead actress is based directly on a real person.

That last one also applies to the Best Actor winners; affliction and disability show up sometimes there too, the others not so much. At any rate, I made a chart and determined that the only performances to win the Oscar for Best Actress that don’t fall into one of these categories are these:
– Norma Shearer in The Divorcee
– Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (borderline case — she’s a wealthy woman but doesn’t have control over her day-to-day life, which I’m close to counting as victimhood)
– Bette Davis in Dangerous
– Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver
– Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter
– Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday
– Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (borderline case — see Colbert above)
– Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins
– Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
– Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
– Faye Dunaway in Network
– Diane Keaton in Annie Hall
– Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond
– Cher in Moonstruck
– Emma Thompson in Howards End
– Frances McDormand in Fargo
– Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love

So, 15 out of 91. I included Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs above until I remembered that a prisoner throws semen on her. With that in mind, feel free to correct me if I’ve made a mistake in compiling this, which I did strictly from memory. I want to be clear that this is not a value judgment on the movies themselves, or on the performances contained therein; there are times when violence and victimhood are an integral part of a story that bears being told; and many of the films mentioned in this sub-list are bland and indistinct for separate reasons. (It would obviously be absurd to expect a film like The Accused not to fall into one or more of the above distinctions, and it’s an important story.) I only bring it up because of the numbers game; I believe that it does say something that the number of female characters not faced with such adversity is so low. It’s similar to the Bechdel test problem. You and I can name hundreds of great films, including great films by or about women, that don’t stand up to the test, but what’s telling about it is just how rare it is for movies to pass it, especially to pass it meaningfully (with a conversation that lasts more than two sentences, say).

I think there are two narratives here. One is about the way women are treated in the film industry and by popular culture in general. Look at the astounding number of young actresses in the big list above whose careers stalled out as they reached middle age. It’s true that it’s not uncommon for women in any business to choose of their own volition to take time away to raise families and also true that leaving any workforce makes it more difficult to return, but these conditions don’t help explain the difficulty someone like Faye Dunaway has in getting good roles. That brings us to the other story, which is one that’s been bubbling underneath every Oscar project we’ve ever done: the Academy by and large only rewards a very specific kind of movie. There are very good Prestige Pictures and even great ones that fit the mold of a kind of middlebrow distance. But there’s no mistaking that an actor, male or female, is a lot more likely to get an Oscar for playing a well-known historical figure, or someone carrying a cross, or a role requiring them to physically distort themselves, than for employing the craft of acting as a normal, believable person or — god forbid — in a comedic role. The standard is inexplicable; would anyone argue that these two kinds of performances are more difficult to craft and put across, would therefore really warrant being called the “best actor” in a given year?

Visual storytelling is a big part of what I love about cinema; running through this category gets you a chance to enjoy a few of the auteurs, like Michael Curtiz and Jane Campion (four films directed by women here, by the way, four more than in Best Actor) and a whole lot of William Wyler, but these films awarded for the performances of their leading women seem very frequently to be considered by the actors’ peers quite distinctly from the films’ value as art. Something else that I care most about in the movies I love, though, is that at their best they are stories about ordinary people. All this is why I included the “historical figure” or real person distinction as a debit here; in some ways, it seems like an easy way out. I want more movies like Broadcast News and Mrs. Miniver and 7th Heaven and Min and Bill and Darling, films that enrich life because they are about life, and the Academy doesn’t seem nearly so attached to that notion as I am. The same goes for comedic parts. What do they think will happen if they acknowledge comedy as an important element of the best cinema? Has anyone ever expressed an iota of dissastisfaction with Diane Keaton winning for Annie Hall, or Frances McDormand for Fargo? Admittedly neither of those are pure comedies… but the most cursory of glances reveals what outliers they are among not just Oscar winners in this category but Oscar winners, period.

You might reasonably ask, if I have such a big problem with the Academy Awards why do I keep doing this? The simplest answer is I collect opinions and I want to have them on all the movies I can, and the Oscars in some ways just represent another list for me to add. The more emotional (and in a weird way, practical) one is that if I weren’t doing this, I would never have seen To Each His Own and Min and Bill and don’t know what might have prompted me ever to do so. That’s reason enough for me. Besides, bite me, it’s fun.

***

THE BIG FIVE (sometimes 6, 7 or even 8)
The “Big Five” Oscars are Picture, Director, Writing (Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay and in the old days, Story), Actor and Actress. Starting in 2012 I made it my mission to see or rewatch every movie that won in these categories from 1927 to the present. With the exception of Writing winner The Patriot and Actor co-winner The Way of All Flesh, both considered lost films, I’ve now seen the whole lot of them. And here they are, listed by ceremony; no commentary for this, but I’ve put a star by those that I strongly recommend.

In answer to a common question, the best films I “discovered” as a result of all this were The Private Life of Henry VIII and Bad Girl; the worst things I happened upon were Midnight Express and Wilson. If we’re counting movies I’d already seen, the best film to get any of these awards is Sunrise followed closely by, well, sorry to be controversial, but Citizen Kane. Worst, without any hesitation, is Paul Haggis’ still-deplorable Crash.

1. Wings / Two Arabian Nights / *7th Heaven / *Underworld / *The Last Command / [The Way of All Flesh] / *Sunrise / *Street Angel
2. The Broadway Melody / The Divine Lady / [The Patriot] / In Old Arizona / Coquette
3. *All Quiet on the Western Front / *The Big House / Disraeli / The Divorcee
4. Cimarron / Skippy / *The Dawn Patrol / *A Free Soul / *Min and Bill
5. Grand Hotel / *Bad Girl / The Champ / *Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde / The Sin of Madelon Claudet
6. Cavalcade / *One Way Passage / Little Women / *The Private Life of Henry VIII / Morning Glory
7. *It Happened One Night / *Manhattan Melodrama
8. Mutiny on the Bounty / The Informer / *The Scoundrel / Dangerous
9. The Great Ziegfeld / Mr. Deeds Goes to Town / The Story of Louis Pasteur
10. The Life of Emile Zola / *The Awful Truth / A Star Is Born / Captains Courageous / The Good Earth
11. You Can’t Take It with You / Boys Town / Pygmalion / Jezebel
12. *Gone with the Wind / *Mr. Smith Goes to Washington / Goodbye Mr. Chips
13. *Rebecca / The Grapes of Wrath / The Great McGinty / The Philadelphia Story / Arise, My Love / Kitty Foyle
14. How Green Was My Valley / *Citizen Kane / Here Comes Mr. Jodan / Sergeant York / *Suspicion
15. *Mrs. Miniver / Woman of the Year / *49th Parallel / Yankee Doodle Dandy
16. *Casablanca / *Princess O’Rourke / The Human Comedy / Watch on the Rhine / The Song of Bernadette
17. Going My Way / Wilson / *Gaslight
18. The Lost Weekend / Marie-Louise / *The House on 92nd Street / *Mildred Pierce
19. *The Best Years of Our Lives / The Seventh Veil / *Vacation from Marriage / *To Each His Own
20. Gentleman’s Agreement / The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer / Miracle on 34th Street / A Double Life / *The Farmer’s Daughter
21. Hamlet / *The Treasure of the Sierra Madre / The Search / Johnny Belinda
22. All the King’s Men / A Letter to Three Wives / Battleground / The Stratton Story / *The Heiress
23. *All About Eve / *Sunset Blvd. / *Panic in the Streets / Cyrano de Bergerac / Born Yesterday
24. An American in Paris / *A Place in the Sun / *Seven Days to Noon / *The African Queen / A Streetcar Named Desire
25. The Greatest Show on Earth / The Quiet Man / The Bad and the Beautiful / *The Lavender Hill Mob / High Noon / Come Back, Little Sheba
26. From Here to Eternity / Titanic / *Roman Holiday / *Stalag 17
27. On the Waterfront / The Country Girl / Broken Lance
28. Marty / Interrupted Melody / *Love Me or Leave Me / The Rose Tattoo
29. Around the World in 80 Days / Giant / *{The Red Balloon} / The Brave One / The King and I / Anastasia
30. *The Bridge on the River Kwai / Designing Woman / The Three Faces of Eve
31. Gigi / The Defiant Ones / *Separate Tables / *I Want to Live!
32. Ben-Hur / Pillow Talk / *Room at the Top
33. *The Apartment / Elmer Gantry / BUtterfield 8
34. West Side Story / *Splendor in the Grass / Judgment at Nuremberg / Two Women
35. Lawrence of Arabia / Divorce, Italian Style / To Kill a Mockingbird / The Miracle Worker
36. Tom Jones / How the West Was Won / Lilies of the Field / Hud
37. My Fair Lady / Father Goose / Becket / *Mary Poppins
38. The Sound of Music / *Darling / Doctor Zhivago / Cat Ballou
39. A Man for All Seasons / A Man and a Woman / Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
40. In the Heat of the Night / *The Graduate / Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
41. Oliver! / *The Producers / The Lion in Winter / Charly / Funny Girl
42. *Midnight Cowboy / Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid / True Grit / The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
43. Patton / MASH / Women in Love
44. *The French Connection / The Hospital / Klute
45. The Godfather / Cabaret / The Candidate
46. The Sting / The Exorcist / *Save the Tiger / A Touch of Class
47. The Godfather Part II / *Chinatown / Harry and Tonto / Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
48. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest / *Dog Day Afternoon
49. Rocky / *Network / *All the President’s Men
50. *Annie Hall / Julia / The Goodbye Girl
51. The Deer Hunter / Coming Home / Midnight Express
52. Kramer vs. Kramer / Breaking Away / Norma Rae
53. Ordinary People / *Melvin and Howard / Raging Bull / Coal Miner’s Daughter
54. Chariots of Fire / Reds / On Golden Pond
55. Gandhi / Missing / Sophie’s Choice
56. *Terms of Endearment / *Tender Mercies
57. *Amadeus / Places in the Heart
58. Out of Africa / Witness / Kiss of the Spider Woman / The Trip to Bountiful
59. Platoon / *Hannah and Her Sisters / A Room with a View / The Color of Money / Children of a Lesser God
60. The Last Emperor / Moonstruck / Wall Street
61. Rain Man / Dangerous Liaisons / The Accused
62. Driving Miss Daisy / Dead Poets Society / My Left Foot
63. Dances with Wolves / Ghost / Reversal of Fortune / Misery
64. *The Silence of the Lambs / Thelma & Louise
65. Unforgiven / *The Crying Game / Howards End / Scent of a Woman
66. *Schindler’s List / *The Piano / Philadelphia
67. Forrest Gump / Pulp Fiction / Blue Sky
68. Braveheart / *The Usual Suspects / Sense and Sensibility / Leaving Las Vegas / Dead Man Walking
69. The English Patient / *Fargo / Sling Blade / Shine
70. *Titanic / Good Will Hunting / *L.A. Confidential / *As Good as It Gets
71. Shakespeare in Love / Saving Private Ryan / Gods and Monsters / Life Is Beautiful
72. *American Beauty / The Cider House Rules / *Boys Don’t Cry
73. Gladiator / Traffic / *Almost Famous / Erin Brockovich
74. A Beautiful Mind / Gosford Park / Training Day / Monster’s Ball
75. Chicago / *The Pianist / Talk to Her / The Hours
76. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King / *Lost in Translation / Mystic River / Monster
77. Million Dollar Baby / *Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind / Sideways / Ray
78. Crash / *Brokeback Mountain / *Capote / *Walk the Line
79. The Departed / *Little Miss Sunshine / The Last King of Scotland / The Queen
80. *No Country for Old Men / Juno / *There Will Be Blood / La Vie en Rose
81. Slumdog Millionaire / *Milk / The Reader
82. The Hurt Locker / Precious / Crazy Heart / The Blind Side
83. The King’s Speech / *The Social Network / Black Swan
84. The Artist / *Midnight in Paris / *The Descendants / The Iron Lady
85. *Argo / Django Unchained / Lincoln / Silver Linings Playbook
86. 12 Years a Slave / *Gravity / Her / Dallas Buyers Club / *Blue Jasmine
87. Birdman / The Imitation Game / The Theory of Everything / Still Alice
88. *Spotlight / The Revenant / *The Big Short / Room
89. *Moonlight / La La Land / *Manchester by the Sea

***

Onward! To the Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars, then to the gargantuan task of seeing enough movies to be able to say with definitive authority what should have won in every damn one of these categories. Thank you all for reading!

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