Project: Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS OSCAR WINNERS
Gale Sondergaard, Anthony Adverse (1936, Mervyn LeRoy) [cap]
Alice Brady, In Old Chicago (1937, Henry King) [cap]
Fay Bainter, Jezebel (1938, William Wyler) [cap]
Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)
Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
Mary Astor, The Great Lie (1941, Edmund Goulding) [cap]
Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler)
Katina Paxinou, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Sam Wood) [cap]
Ethel Barrymore, None But the Lonely Heart (1944, Clifford Odets) [cap]
Anne Revere, National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown) [cap]
Anne Baxter, The Razor’s Edge (1946, Edmund Goulding) [cap]
Celeste Holm, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan)
Claire Trevor, Key Largo (1948, John Huston) [cap]
Mercedes McCambridge, All the King’s Men (1949, Robert Rossen)
Josephine Hull, Harvey (1950, Henry Koster) [cap]
Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli)
Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)
Eva Marie Saint, On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
Jo Van Fleet, East of Eden (1955, Elia Kazan) [cap]
Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind (1956, Douglas Sirk) [cap]
Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara (1957, Joshua Logan) [cap]
Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann) [cap]
Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, George Stevens) [cap]
Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry (1960, Richard Brooks)
Rita Moreno, West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker (1962, Arthur Penn) [cap]
Margaret Rutherford, The V.I.P.s (1963, Anthony Asquith) [cap]
Lila Kedrova, Zorba the Greek (1964, Michael Cacoyannis) [cap]
Shelley Winters, A Patch of Blue (1965, Guy Green) [cap]
Sandy Dennis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)
Estelle Parsons, Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)
Ruth Gordon, Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski) [cap]
Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower (1969, Gene Saks) [cap]
Helen Hayes, Airport (1970, George Seaton) [cap]
Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich)
Eileen Heckart, Butterflies Are Free (1972, Milton Katselas) [cap]
Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)
Ingrid Bergman, Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet) [cap]
Lee Grant, Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby) [cap]
Beatrice Straight, Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
Vanessa Redgrave, Julia (1977, Fred Zinnemann)
Maggie Smith, California Suite (1978, Herbert Ross) [cap]
Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)
Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard (1980, Jonathan Demme)
Maureen Stapleton, Reds (1981, Warren Beatty)
Jessica Lange, Tootsie (1982, Sydney Pollack)
Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Peter Weir) [cap]
Peggy Ashcroft, A Passage to India (1984, David Lean) [cap]
Anjelica Huston, Prizzi’s Honor (1985, John Huston) [cap]
Dianne Wiest, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen)
Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison) [cap]
Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist (1988, Lawrence Kasdan) [cap]
Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot (1989, Jim Sheridan) [cap]
Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker) [cap]
Mercedes Ruehl, The Fisher King (1991, Terry Gilliam) [cap]
Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny (1992, Jonathan Lynn) [cap]
Anna Paquin, The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen)
Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Woody Allen) [cap]
Juliette Binoche, The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)
Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)
Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden)
Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted (1999, James Mangold) [cap]
Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock (2000, Ed Harris) [cap]
Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard)
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago (2002, Rob Marshall)
Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain (2003, Anthony Minghella) [cap]
Cate Blanchett, The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese) [cap]
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener (2005, Fernando Meirelles)
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls (2006, Bill Condon) [cap]
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton (2007, Tony Gilroy) [cap]
Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)
Mo’Nique, Precious (2009, Lee Daniels) [cap]
Melissa Leo, The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell) [cap]
Octavia Spencer, The Help (2011, Tate Taylor) [cap]
Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables (2012, Tom Hooper) [cap]
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper) [cap]
Viola Davis, Fences (2016, Denzel Washington) [cap]
Best Supporting Actress is, for now, the last Academy Awards category whose winners I plan to exhaustively evaluate. Because it’s the last, any film that came under the microscope received no awards in any of the previous five categories I worked through — and not that I’m advocating any sort of unquestioning faith in the Academy’s taste, but I assume that’s one reason this proved the biggest slog to date despite the relatively small number of movies I needed to see. The only movie I saw for the first time by doing this that’s going to enter my personal collection is Key Largo, and because of its cast and director, it’s one I would inevitably have seen anyway. The rest, well, wow. What went wrong here! By the end, I was openly dragging my feet, especially when the last two films I needed to check off were both recent prestige pictures directed by Tom Hooper. They sat in my bag for two weeks before I motivated myself to screen them, and then mostly with the knowledge that I will mostly be concentrating on movies that excite me a lot more for the forseeable future.
Still, I’m glad to have taken this on and filled the gaps in the Movie Guide, which is really the idea anyway, and I’ve experienced so many surprise hits from going through Oscar winners that I can’t complain too much when one of the categories finally drums up exactly the response I feared from all of them. For the record, I began this project by revisiting Rosemary’s Baby on February 11, 2017 and finished with a protracted, tortuous viewing of Hooper’s Les Misérables on July 6, 2017. Out of 81 films rewarded in this category, 41 had not been previously reviewed here. (That number includes Fences, which won while I was working on this, but not any future winners that will be added below.)
Notes on Availability: All 81 of the films containing performances that have received the Best Supporting Actress Oscar are (at this writing) either in print on DVD or available to rent online except for: Sayonara (out of print DVD is affordable), Prizzi’s Honor (expected to be re-pressed on disc later in 2017), Bullets Over Broadway (out of print and increasingly difficult to find) and Mighty Aphrodite (out of print but relatively easy to find). Public and university libraries are very likely to have all four available; I have owned a copy of Bullets for years but was easily able to get hold of the others for this project. Additionally, both Anthony Adverse and None But the Lonely Heart are strictly available through the Warner Archive burn-on-demand service.
FIRST-TIME VIEWINGS RANKED
And here you find why I was less enthused with the results of this venture than with probably any other thus far.
01 Key Largo
02 None But the Lonely Heart
03 My Cousin Vinny
04 East of Eden
05 A Patch of Blue
06 Michael Clayton
07 Written on the Wind
08 For Whom the Bell Tolls
09 The Aviator
10 Murder on the Orient Express
12 National Velvet
13 Cactus Flower
14 In Old Chicago
15 Anthony Adverse
16 The Great Lie
18 A Passage to India
19 The Year of Living Dangerously
22 Butterflies Are Free
23 The Diary of Anne Frank
24 Cold Mountain
25 Zorba the Greek
26 The Razor’s Edge
27 Les Miserables
28 The Accidental Tourist
30 The V.I.P.s
31 Prizzi’s Honor
32 California Suite
33 The Danish Girl
THE PERFORMANCES, RANKED
I have to admit — I know how much you’ve put your faith in me over the last five years, but at the moment I quite simply don’t have the energy to type out much commentary. So I hope you will forgive the indulgence here, as I’ve frequently invoked my own previously written words in tracking my subjective views of each of these performances. Many thanks.
1. Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich)
A common denominator with my favorite performances to win in this category (besides that I was already familiar with them before this project) is that they tend to be the highlights of their respective films; my older writings about them serve as an illustration. “The central and most consuming story in a very multilayered and intricate movie is that of Cloris Leachman’s terminally sad Ruth Popper, her mildly terrifying marraige, her unapologetic happiness with an illicit teenage lover, and the lifetime of contours on her face. More than the quest to lose virginity, the restlessness of rural life and adolescence, the shouldering of responsibility, the insane inevitability of both losing and repeating the past, all handled delicately, The Last Picture Show is about that face. Leachman is saintly.” – from my review
2. Mary Steenburgen as Lynda Dummar in Melvin and Howard (1980, Jonathan Demme)
“Mary Steenburgen plays Melvin’s long-suffering wife, who escapes more than once but returns out of love for Melvin and, more importantly, their young daughter; she finally gives up when her last-ditch effort to get the family into the black is squandered by her husband. Steenburgen’s performance is the highlight of the picture; she is seemingly the recepient of constant aggression, but she emerges as a strong-willed person and the source of some of the most knowing comedy in the film.” – from my review
3. Anna Paquin as Flora in The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
“Anna Paquin as Flora does just as much with an equally complicated role. You find yourself disappointed with her at several points before reminding yourself that she is a little girl; most films of this nature wouldn’t explore her misplaced morals and duplicity so well, and few actors could sell it like Paquin. Nearly everything she does fits right in with the film’s woozy romanticism and black humor alike; given what we hear of Ada’s personality, the fanciful and coy Flora is very much her mother’s daughter. The camera loves her: dancing, singing, proclaiming that her mom’s destiny is Hell, undermining and scheming and enterprising, constantly intense with the selfishness but budding humanity and compassion of a real child her age.” – from my review
4. Kim Hunter as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
“If not for Kim Hunter, brilliant as the carnal sister Stella, the movie would fall apart within ten minutes of its opening. Hunter is naturalistic, believable, emotionally resonant, everything Brando isn’t and everything Leigh gets only halfway to managing. The movie’s one and only genuinely brilliant sequence involves Stella and Stanley’s erotic rekindling after a massive argument. It is the famous scene in which he calls for her at the bottom of the stairwell. Resistant at first, she is drawn back down to meet him. Everything in the scene is perfect: The shadowy visuals, the passionately intense cutting, Hunter’s raw and knowing sexuality, and Brando’s brutish yelling. That alone may justify the film’s reputation.” – from my review
5. Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)
“There’s no doubt it’s as difficult and terrible as it should be […] and occasionally as adventurous as you might hope, [with] one [long take] agonizingly documenting the for-no-reason whipping by drunken plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender), in a jealous rage, of his slave and mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, haunting and brilliant). These are raw moments of cinematic near-miracle — as admirable as they are technically, their emotional utility of communicating fear and violence raw and unbroken is what resonates and renders them unforgettable.” – from my review
6. Tatum O’Neal as Addie in Paper Moon (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)
Two child actors in the top ten seems weird, unless you’ve seen these two films. “We say ‘two heroes’ but really there’s just one: Tatum O’Neal as Addie Loggins, a chain-smoking ten year-old girl tagging along with a con man selling faux-classy Bibles to the widows of the recently deceased. […] [A]s terrific as both O’Neals’ performances in the film are, Tatum’s is extraordinary — indeed, transcendent in its understatement. She was destined to become the youngest winner of a competitive Academy Award (winning against Kahn, as well as another exceptional juvenile performance, Linda Blair in The Exorcist), and the accolade was well deserved.” – from my review
7. Patricia Arquette as Olivia in Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
“All of the performances are sublime. […] And best of all is Patricia Arquette, whose warmth, intelligence and sadness as long-suffering, intelligent, repeatedly broken mom Olivia are the most haunting element of the film.” – from my review
8. Dianne Wiest as Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen)
“Wiest provides outsize personality in her brilliantly witty, mildly tragic turn as a lonely baker, partier and aspiring writer. […] [M]aterial like Allen’s disastrous date with [her] makes for simultaneous high comedy and heartbreak that pays off wonderfully an hour or so later.” – from my review
9. Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski)
I’ve not yet written at length about this film, but one of the reasons it’s a cut above most horror is that it’s so well-cast, and while Mia Farrow completely dominates it, Gordon’s brilliantly modulated comic performance as the combination annoying neighbor and local Satanist is what makes the entire production tick, a human dividing line between the rational and irrational worlds Polanski explores here.
10. Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)
“Scarlett’s wet nurse Mammy might be a racial caricature, but she’s also a three-dimensional character, and McDaniel deserved her Oscar completely, especially because of the deftly intelligent way she introduces and defines Mammy and Scarlett’s deeply-rooted but volatile relationship and for the way she handles all of the marble-mouthed exposition the script saddles her with. In one scene, she trails de Havilland up the stairs for what seems like an eternity describing the events of the last few weeks in relentless detail, things that we should by all rights have seen happening, but she relates them so well it doesn’t matter.” – from my review
11. Teresa Wright as Carol in Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler)
This is the first placement here that may result from some degree of bias, because I think Wright is so magical in other films that I may be elevating this slightly lesser performance, but it’s still truly wonderful. It’s difficult to speak further about her work without spoiling the film, but let’s simply state that she’s the essence of its narrative.
12. Estelle Parsons as Blanche in Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)
At this point in the ranking we start to find performances that make their mark because they are distinctive in a sense separate from the qualities of a given film itself. I referred to Parsons as “brilliantly irritating” in my review; she’s one of the most distinctive elements of a film that sometimes suffers from how iconic it’s become.
13. Mary Astor as Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie (1941, Edmund Goulding)
Speaking of brilliantly irritating: Astor’s of the greatest, most versatile actresses in classic Hollywood, and she makes her bizarre role in this soap opera unforgettable. I wrote on Letterboxd: “Astor, looking fab, rises above the fray by having fun with her callous and aloof character who hates the smell of food (!?), but even she can’t maneuver past a script that wants her to deliver a tearful monologue about how much she misses eating pickles.” Then again, if you can live in the memory so strongly despite the pickles, you must have done something right.
14. Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker (1962, Arthur Penn)
Preferred winner: Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate, but only by a hair — Duke is incalculably energetic, “full of detail and nuance even if the film never gets to the point at which the brilliant Keller gains the agency she so richly deserves” (from my Letterboxd writeup), as is Anne Bancroft, in this ultimate two-hander.
15. Katina Paxinou as Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Sam Wood)
Older, sophisticated women in more interesting, less showy parts tend to get thrown into this category, where you’ll find far more actresses who look like real people winning Oscars, though as we’ll see this sometimes extends to a fault when it comes to rewarding caricatured “matronly” or “batty” parts. Not in Paxinou’s case: as I wrote on Letterboxd, “[A]s unforgettable guerilla lifer Pilar, [h]er performance serves as a direct rebuke of studio-system reduction and ignorance of atypical female roles and it’s a pretty terrific thing to see in a 1943 film.”
16. Mira Sorvino as Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Woody Allen)
Possibly the funniest performance ever to receive an Academy Award, its only competitors being Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda and Diane Keaton in another Allen film. From my Letterboxd writeup: “Sorvino is the star and practically the author of this film. In her very first scene she is so relentlessly funny that it almost doesn’t matter what Allen has written for her to say, and she juggles kindness and awkwardness with impeccable skill, wonderfully reading the character’s cycle of being intrigued and then repelled by her new client.”
17. Penélope Cruz as Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)
“Penélope Cruz’s performance as Maria Elena quickly comes to dominate […] and the film is far better for her presence; she lifts it up immeasurably, lends it resonance and honesty. […] Cruz’s performance is theatrical, galvanizing, scene-stealing, maybe even over the top, but when she’s paired with Bardem it works tremendously well, their chemistry much more obvious and effective than that Bardem shares with Johansson or Hall.” – from my review
18. Shirley Jones as Lulu in Elmer Gantry (1960, Richard Brooks)
Preferred winner: Janet Leigh, Psycho, because it’s a staggering, humane, iconic performance, but Jones in her limited capacity of influence here is terrific as well. “All the same, when the film is powerful, it’s really powerful, and for all of its exhausting and huge crowd scenes and bold moments of polished evangelism, the peak moment is a speech the inimitable Shirley Jones gives when she talks semi-privately about the first time Gantry seduced her. It is a moment of raw, powerful sensuality and humor and even, somehow, terror, almost all because of Jones’ performance, which seems to bubble above everything and operate as a direct communication with the viewer — mocking laughter at all the trumped-up Tower of Power surrounding her scene. She, not Arthur Kennedy’s tiresome reporter, is the true audience vessel here.” – from my review
19. Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny (1992, Jonathan Lynn)
Preferred winner: Judy Davis, Husbands and Wives; my mea culpa is that I loved Tomei so much in this film that ever since I saw it I’ve gone around proclaiming how richly she deserved the Academy Award that she’s rumored ever since to have received by mistake, a ridiculous accusation that still makes no sense if you’ve seen the film, but I neglected to remember that the great Davis was nominated the same year for one of Woody Allen’s greatest films, and the continual snubbing of Davis is as shameful as that of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Still, as I argued on Letterboxd: “After winning an Oscar for portraying Vinny’s warm but outspoken wife-to-be, Marisa Tomei became the poster child of the inexplicable Academy Award, to the point that theories widely circulated that she’d been given the statue by mistake; this is completely incomprehensible to me, as I’ve now seen all but about a dozen of the performances that have received Oscars and can tell you that Tomei’s hilarious, charismatic turn is not just one of the stronger performances to win for Supporting Actress but easily in the top half of winners in any of the categories.”
20. Dianne Wiest as Helen Sinclair in Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen)
Preferred winner: Jennifer Tilly, for the same film, but Wiest is wonderful too. She’s over the top (intentionally) and her scenes can feel like they repeatedly belabor the same basic joke, but her interactions with John Cusack are hilarious, and she knows exactly how to fully embody her character.
21. Jo Ann Fleet as Cathy Ames in East of Eden (1955, Elia Kazan)
Fleet figures in one of the most realistic dialogue scenes in classic Hollywood cinema. From my Letterboxd writeup: “Kazan’s CinemaScope presentation of all this turmoil is a stirringly beautiful sight, and while Dean sometimes falls down melodramatic Method actorly rabbit holes, there are a few magnificently riveting two-person scenes, the best of all single-handedly and deservedly winning Jo Ann Fleet as the boy’s estranged mother.”
22. Anne Revere as Mrs. Brown in National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown)
Another archetypal role for this category, of the tough-minded but caring mom, but Revere’s one of the best actors at this type of part, and she’s remarkably expressive and believable here.
23. Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in Dreamgirls (2006, Bill Condon)
Hudson’s dazzling in this extremely disappointing film that requires her to upstage Beyoncé, of all people; when the credits roll and Hudson gets an entire fireworks display when her name pops up, you get the impression Condon knew what the strongest card in his deck was.
24. Juliette Binoche as Hana in The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)
Binoche is in the “present day” scenes of this odd romantic drama, their connection to the main narrative thread tenuous at best, but as I said in my review, “I don’t ever mind spending lots and lots of time with Binoche.” She’s wonderful as always, and it’s great that this mainstream hit brought her to the attentions of so many.
25. Beatrice Straight as Louise in Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
Another scene that has little to do with the body of its film, but it scarcely matters. “[M]ost wrenching of all is the strong but challenged marriage of Max and his wife, brilliantly served in another meaty cameo by Beatrice Straight. Their scene together is among the most compassionate, poetic, beautiful scenes of a souring (perhaps temporarily) love affair in cinema — because it’s so unusual for Hollywood to confront the existence of lengthy and well-founded adult relationships, Chayefsky’s approach here to actually dealing with the ambiguities, the pain, and even the understanding of a wronged wife and a good man who knows he’s wronging her comes from such a place of deep empathy it nearly overshadows the rest of the film… and has nearly nothing to do with its thesis, but is utterly necessary.” – from my review
26. Mercedes McCambridge as Sadie Burke in All the King’s Men (1949, Robert Rossen)
Rossen’s film’s legacy is that it netted Oscars for what we’d tend to think of as two character actors in the peak years of Hollywood glamour. “Mercedes McCambridge is the standout as an enthused political adviser who achieves as much chemistry as she can wth those around her in her limited screen time; regardless, she makes a major impression and seems legitimately to live inside the world of this character, for whom everything is professional yet everything is personal.” – from my review
27. Anne Baxter as Sophie in The Razor’s Edge (1946, Edmund Goulding)
Baxter is a favorite — All About Eve, I Confess, hell, Batman — but she won her Oscar for this interminable film as a result of one scene and one scene only, her drunken confrontation with her former circle in Paris, in which her portrayal of a promiscuous, grieving alcoholic is as compelling as her icily manipulative Eve Harrington a few years later. As you can tell by the ranking, it’s a hell of a moment.
28. Ethel Barrymore as Ma in None But the Lonely Heart (1944, Clifford Odets)
Seeing Barrymore and Cary Grant tackle a script with such realistic dialogue makes you wonder (much like All Quiet on the Western Front does): if the studio system had been different, less restrictive, could its finest fruits have been more amazing yet?
29. Dorothy Malone as Marylee in Written on the Wind (1956, Douglas Sirk)
Preferred winner: Mercedes McCambridge, Giant. This soaper predicted the rush of shlocky 1980s prime time soap operas, and Malone’s sought-after sexpot is compassionately presented by her if not by the film itself.
30. Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese)
Preferred winners: Laura Linney, Kinsey; Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda; Natalie Portman, Closer… but still, Blanchett is a great choice (it was just an unusually strong year for this category), and her Hepburn is quite believable and the film could have used more of her in lieu of the DiCaprio one-man show as Howard Hughes.
31. Viola Davis as Rose in Fences (2016, Denzel Washington)
Preferred winner: Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea; she’s probably my favorite actor these days, so that doesn’t mean I don’t think Davis deserved an Oscar; she upstages Denzel Washington here as a far more sympathetic character and gets many moments to demonstrate her prowess in this often sensitive adaptation of the August Wilson play.
32. Donna Reed as Lorene Burke in From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)
The two greatest performances in this film that exists primarily as a showcase for actors are those by its leading women: Deborah Kerr as a sexually frustrated military wife, and best of all Reed, defying the sitcom-derived stereotypical memories of her with an earthy performance as (essentially) a sex worker.
33. Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
Preferred winner: Judith Anderson, Rebecca, and it’s enough of an injustice that I’m slightly reluctant to admit that Darwell is quite strong in one of this category’s highly traditional roles, as the aging mother of the “hero.” From my review: “The only performance remotely worthy of [Henry Fonda’s] is that of Jane Darwell as his mother, a lovely-to-the-core woman unfortunately saddled with far too many mouthfuls of silly dialogue and a dull emptiness in emotional range.”
34. Brenda Fricker as Mrs. Brown in My Left Foot (1989, Jim Sheridan)
Almost a win by default given how physically arduous the role looks, perhaps more so than Daniel Day-Lewis’. I’ve seen Fricker in exactly two other films, both from the Hollywood trash heap (Home Alone 2 and A Time to Kill, the latter enjoyable in a hollow basic-cable sense) and can’t help thinking she’s deserved more respectful treatment than that since her win. She’s now retired from acting.
35. Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Peter Weir)
The only instance to date of a woman winning in this category for playing a male role; in the film it isn’t gimmicky or novel, it’s just a physical leap of faith that makes perfect sense, and such things in my view should happen more often. Hunt is the best part of the film, as I argued in my Letterboxd writeup: “The story feels shapeless and lacks clarity, attaining momentum only when Linda Hunt’s unconventional characterization of the photographer Billy Kwan takes the reins of the narrative.”
36. Celeste Holm as Anne Dettrey in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan)
“[H]er work here is miles beyond her straight-man presence in a far superior film, All About Eve; she mocks the haters, cackles with good humor and bawdy jokes, holds her own and runs through life with levity, and is in general a strong and feminist portrait of a modern woman. She seems a good match for [Gregory Peck’s character], too — everything each of them starts to say turns into a batshit screenwriterly speech, except Holm makes hers count for a good deal more.” – my review
37. Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman in Reds (1981, Warren Beatty)
As I put it in my review, Stapleton is the only actor in this film who “does anything interesting” with her part, while Beatty and Diane Keaton gawk around insufferably. A pity her part is so limited.
38. Sandy Dennis as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)
“Three of the four players therefore rise to the occasion, with George Segal’s staid stuffed-shirt Nick the weak link compensated for beautifully by Sandy Dennis, stealing the film (yes, really) as his wife, whose flights of fancy and drunken jolts are the funniest and most directly heartbreaking element cast into this brew — an exuberant, naive sideshow of a life just at the beginning of being potentially stunted.” – my review
39. Rita Moreno as Anita in West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
From my review: “At first I was uncomfortable with the way that even the attack of Anita (Rita Moreno, giving the film’s best performance) is enacted and emphashized through dance, as though assault or rape are something with such levity; the same goes for fight scenes, scenes of murder and death and other things close in varying degrees, but that places West Side Story in a firm tradition of dance as narrative, not just as a celebratory force but as an evocation and flight of liberating expression of bleak and terrible realities.” Much of that feeling is down to Moreno specifically.
40. Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn in Key Largo (1948, John Huston)
Trevor has the benefit of playing the only fully developed character in this enjoyable noir, the only one who seems an occupant of the real world; her drunken song sequence — she plays a former nightclub singer — clearly won her the Academy Award all by itself, which is all good and well though I do quietly wish Irene Dunne had long ago been afforded the same recognition for her much lighter version of a similar moment in The Awful Truth.
41. Lee Grant as Felicia in Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby)
Preferred winners: Ronee Blakley or Lily Tomlin, both from Nashville. All three of the women with major roles in this film do tremendous work, Goldie Hawn being the strongest, Grant the most soulful. I just wish it was a better, less intellectually lazy film. I have many issues with Nashville as well, but in that film fellow nominee Tomlin gives the most moving performance, and Blakley has one of the best musical scenes ever shot, sadly diluted by Robert Altman’s childish refusal to let a single song play without interruption.
42. Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner in Pollock (2000, Ed Harris)
Preferred winners: Frances McDormand or Kate Hudson, both from Almost Famous, with McDormand clearly the better choice. Both Harden and Harris are good in this film, but it’s just the same biopic shit as ever — another standby trait seen frequently in the rest of this list.
43. Octavia Spencer as Minnie in The Help (2011, Tate Taylor)
Preferred winner: Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids; although Spencer is a better (and funnier) actress generally, The Help is such an easy, lazy film that despite the many problems with Bridesmaids I just hate to see it encouraged in any way. Still, Spencer’s worth rooting for in any context.
44. Goldie Hawn as Toni in Cactus Flower (1969, Gene Saks)
Preferred winners: Sylvia Miles, Midnight Cowboy; Susannah York, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?… Disregarding a one-season sitcom and a regular spot on Laugh-In, this was Hawn’s introduction to the public, and her persona is immediately in place as she enlivens the part of an impatient mistress to Walter Matthau’s dentist character; Hawn’s incredibly charismatic and her performance style is distinctive and undeniably charming, immediately put to similar use in There’s a Girl in My Soup and Butterflies Are Free, and she would periodically get to explore deeper parts, as in Shampoo and The Sugarland Express… but essentially, like Audrey Hepburn before her, the part she played in her first major film would be the part she played in virtually every film thereafter. And Hepburn won an Oscar the first time out, too.
45. Wendy Hiller as Pat Cooper in Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann)
Hiller does phenomenal work here but she’s on the sidelines of one of several subplots in this film, and the one in question is easily the least compelling; as I stated on Letterboxd, it’s “window dressing, aside from the opportunity it gives a staggering Wendy Hiller to break everyone’s heart.”
46. Rachel Weisz as Tessa in The Constant Gardener (2005, Fernando Meirelles)
Preferred winner: Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain. Always Michelle Williams. This somewhat strained Le Carre adaptation does feature strong performances, and Weisz’s is the best of these. As I put it in my review, she captures “a hell of a lot in the mere wisps of character she’s given.”
47. Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken in L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)
Preferred winner: if we define this category as being perfect for performances that save the movies they’re in, Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting is a better choice than Basinger, who’s probably the weak link in this film, tasked with a necessarily over-familiar femme fatale role. She performs it capably, but doesn’t feel especially distinctive in the part.
48. Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Miserables (2012, Tom Hooper)
Preferred winners: Amy Adams, The Master (which I was rooting for very loudly on the night); Sally Field, Lincoln. Still, despite a cornucopia of rather off-putting facial expresses that Hooper’s intrusive camera shoots practically close enough to reach up the actress’ nose, Hathaway does well with her one literal show-stopper here, intentionally evoking Falconetti.
49. Angelina Jolie as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted (1999, James Mangold)
Perferred winners: Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense; Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich; Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don’t Cry — all would have ranked toward the top of this list. Jolie is fine here, but it’s a showy performance that hasn’t aged particularly well, and outpaced in my view by the less deliberately manic members of the cast.
50. Shelley Winters as Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, George Stevens)
Winters is an all-time favorite of mine — though she certainly suffered from typecasting born of her very earliest roles — but I don’t feel strongly about either of her Oscars. The first time out, she won for an average performance in a strange, alienating movie whose existence is difficult to justify. My conclusion on Letterboxd was that “this is hardly the best place to see her talent on display, and her intensity threatens at times to overtake the film.”
51. Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle in On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
This film’s status remains a sore point around here for many reasons, this being one of them, and again, I love Saint. From my review: “Equally problematic is the renowned performance of Eva Marie Saint, or rather the character she portrays. She is wonderful, beautiful, articulate, understated, and all the rest. But her character has no serious function in the film, except perhaps to provide Brando with a few extra hangups — that scene amid the tires is nice, and you could probably write a good non-threadbare romantic subplot — and her standing-and-crying presence here is a jarring distraction from the rest of the story.”
52. Lila Kedrova as Madame Hortense in Zorba the Greek (1964, Michael Cacoyannis)
Kedrova at a sort of halfway point between two of the Academy’s favorite female archetypes, the nutty old lady and the fallen mother-figure, whom you’ll remember from Anna Magnani’s work in The Rose Tattoo, with the film providing the same touch of condescending exotica to boot. She’s fine, but she deserves better surroundings.
53. Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker)
Goldberg really is wonderful in this part, but not only is this a dreadful film, it explicitly denies her the chance to move her work beyond the stereotypical.
54. Renée Zellweger as Ruby in Cold Mountain (2003, Anthony Minghella)
Preferred winner: Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog, but Zellweger does at least give the only really memorable performance in Minghella’s film.
55. Gale Sondergaard as Faith Paleologus in Anthony Adverse (1936, Mervyn LeRoy)
Preferred winner: Maria Ouspenskaya, Dodsworth, mostly because I want Dodsworth to win everything. The first winner of the Supporting Actress Oscar really does fit the award’s name: Sondergaard only appears in the first half-hour of the film, as the mother of the title character, but she’s the first thing you remember when you think of it forever afterward.
56. Jessica Lange as Julie in Tootsie (1982, Sydney Pollack)
Preferred winners: Teri Garr, Tootsie; Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria. I hate the obnoxious,
unfunny Tootsie so much but both Lange and particularly Garr are fantastic in it, really the film’s only saving graces. Victor/Victoria is the real movie about gender-bending from 1982.
57. Geena Davis as Muriel in The Accidental Tourist (1988, Lawrence Kasdan)
Davis is this low entirely because of bad writing. She begins as a ridiculous proto-MPDG who runs a pet kennel, persuades the divorcee William Hurt to come live with her and her kid, then goes on some sort of impossible rampage apropos of nothing and becomes exceedingly annoying, thus less annoying than the zombielike Hurt, another great actor forced to struggle through this claptrap. But the actress herself does her best throughout the ordeal.
58. Miyoshi Yumeki as Katsumi in Sayonara (1957, Joshua Logan)
Preferred winner: Elsa Lanchester in Witness for the Prosecution. Yumeki isn’t bad, but it’s a weak part and she brings nothing to it to make it any less so.
59. Fay Bainter as Belle in Jezebel (1938, William Wyler)
Bainter’s eyes really burn into you, but Bette Davis so dominates this production that I’m surprised the Academy remembered her name.
60. Vanessa Redgrave as Julia in Julia (1977, Fred Zinnemann)
Preferred winners: Quinn Cummings, The Goodbye Girl; Melinda Dillon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind… although frankly it’s Teri Garr who should’ve been nominated for that film. A loss for Redgrave would deny us one of the most berserk and uncomfortable moments in Oscar history, but the part she plays isn’t much of a challenge — it only requires her to be enigmatically urgent, really. She’s far better than Jane Fonda, at least.
61. Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma in Chicago (2002, Rob Marshall)
Preferred winners: Kathy Bates, About Schmidt; Meryl Streep, Adaptation. The controversy over Zeta-Jones was that she won for this film and star Renée Zellweger did not, but come on, who doesn’t think this should’ve been Bates’? (Streep has enough and was really more of a lead in Adaptation, though this is my favorite performance of hers.)
62. Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard)
Nothing objectionable about this except the movie it’s in. She’d retroactively deserve the Oscar for House of Sand and Fog anyway.
63. Mo’Nique as Mary in Precious (2009, Lee Daniels)
Preferred winner: Vera Farmiga for Up in the Air. Mo’Nique’s part — dominated by one monologue late in the film — is quite compelling, and she performs it like a star, but it seems to come from a different and more theatrical universe than the rest of this rather dismal suffering narrative and essentially renders the rest of it flat and colorless by comparison.
64. Ingrid Bergman as Greta in Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet)
Preferred winners: Madeline Kahn, Blazing Saddles; Valentina Cortese, Day for Night. Bergman’s probably my favorite actress of all time but she’s snoring all the way through this one — which is what she’s supposed to, because it’s a cameo! Not Oscar material.
65. Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India (1984, David Lean)
It should’ve been Judy Davis, but anyway, you may not be aware that a much younger Ashcroft was the overly sheltered farmer’s wife in one of the most beautiful scenes of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, so let’s pretend she was getting a lifetime achievement award for that.
66. Olympia Dukakis as Rose in Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison)
I just saw this in 2014 and have already forgotten pretty much everything about it, but I did say this performance was “enjoyable” when I reviewed the film (which I hated) on Letterboxd. I do vaguely remember it after looking at the trailer, but not enough to investigate more or to rank this higher.
67. Alice Brady as Mrs. O’Leary in In Old Chicago (1938, Henry King)
Mother figure, check. Doddering old person, check. “Historical figure,” check. Perfect Oscar formula. Brady’s OK but this is all pretty silly.
68. Meryl Streep as Joanna in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)
Preferred winner: Mariel Hemingway for Manhattan — one of the most perfectly modulated and emotionally disarmingly performances in film. Streep can’t figure out how to play a character who makes no sense and speaks in ’70s psychobabble in this MRA child custody fantasy disguised as something more progressive. (I actually like this movie, but you can’t deny that’s what it is!)
69. Gloria Grahame as Rosemary in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli)
Preferred winner: Jean Hagen, Singin’ in the Rain. Ever since I reviewed The Bad and the Beautiful it’s the film I’ve probably been told the most often (in recent years, that is) that I got totally wrong, and I was especially hard on Grahame, calling her “sensual but ridiculous” and her Oscar “inexplicable” in my review. But come on, that’s Lina Lamont we’re talking about!!
70. Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper)
Preferred winners: Rooney Mara, Carol, or even Rachel McAdams in Spotlight, even though that wouldn’t make much sense when every member of that ensemble pulls equal weight. Carol is an extraordinary film about LGBT issues. The Danish Girl is one of the most hateful, empty-minded explorations of LGBT issues ever produced in mainstream American film. Vikander isn’t terrible in a traditional long-suffering wife role, but it’s difficult not to be thrown by its complete lack of a relationship with history or with the real-life Wegener. And when everything else about a film is so indefensible, it’s hard to view its performances with real objectivity. By the way, I cannot fathom how this was not considered a leading performance.
71. Eileen Heckart as Mrs. Baker in Butterflies Are Free (1972, Milton Katselas)
Out of all the performances on this list, for me this was the most oddly uncomfortable to watch. On Letterboxd I tried to explain why: “Heckart is freakishly believable as a meddling parent, but her hard work is let down by the crude, facile screenplay, which puts its three central characters through changes over the course of 24 hours that make no sense whatsoever.” Maybe it’s that I felt like she was upset with me, which is really more of a compliment I guess, but it’s hard for me to look past such an oppressive feeling.
72. Melissa Leo as Alice Ward in The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)
Preferred winners: Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech; Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit. Abrasive matriarch role, hardly offensive but just the Academy doing its thing. It should’ve been Steinfeld. It so should’ve been Steinfeld. Does anyone deny it!?
73. Maggie Smith as Diana Barrie in California Suite (1978, Herbert Ross)
Preferred winner: Penelope Milford, who nearly steals Coming Home in one scene; or Maureen Stapleton in Interiors. I didn’t even really mention Smith in my capsule of California Suite, which is actually probably a good sign for her work’s veracity, as there’s so much there far more worthy of hatred. But the extremely calculated Neil Simon notion of having her play an actress who loses an Oscar and all the half-baked “business” about her personal life — make no mistake, if there wasn’t so much else wrong with this, this would be a whopper.
74. Mercedes Ruehl as Anne in The Fisher King (1991, Terry Gilliam)
I still think they thought Ruehl was Amanda Plummer when they handed this one out.
75. Anjelica Huston as Maerose Prizzi in Prizzi’s Honor (1985, John Huston)
Huston, so brilliant in so many films, won an Oscar for talking on a telephone and smirking, repeatedly, in her father’s weirdest, most stilted effort.
76. Shelley Winters as Rose-Ann in A Patch of Blue (1965, Guy Green)
Winters’ second win is in a better film than The Diary of Anne Frank — actually, a film that might have been a genuine treasure if the scenes she’s in were modulated differently. Winters goes for broke with the wild abusive mom shtick and it’s painful, especially when you think of how powerful she could so often be.
77. Helen Hayes as Ada Quonsett in Airport (1970, George Seaton)
Preferred winner: Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces. Wait, no, not preferred winner — more like, what in the actual fuck is wrong with you if you think Hayes deserved this more than Black? Hayes’ comic relief kooky senior citizen part in Airport, wherein she has a habit of squatting on planes and using her age as a shield from rebuke, merits a mild chuckle at best, certainly not an Academy Award that is so very richly deserved by another performer.
78. Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton (2007, Tony Gilroy)
Preferred winner: Ruby Dee, American Gangster, though I’m being a bit hypocritical. I want Dee to be rewarded for her career while I’m simultaneously objecting to Swinton winning for her career, which is exactly what happened because she sure as hell didn’t win for Michael Clayton.
79. Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden)
Preferred winner: Lynn Redgrave, Gods and Monsters. I complained frequently about the leading actor and actress Oscars going to roles that weren’t really leading parts. Now I’m going to complain about Dench being rewarded for what amounts to a walk-on, though don’t tell my mom; I still remember her cheering when this was announced.
80. Margaret Rutherford as the Duchess in The V.I.P.s (1963, Anthony Asquith)
Preferred winner: well, every one of the other nominees was probably a better choice. Rutherford’s even worse than Hayes above, playing the exact same role in what amounts to the same film, because she doesn’t even have an opportunity to do anything besides pop pills and complain about her finances. I’m not slamming Rutherford as an actress or her skill set, I’m questioning why this was even nominated as a significant performance in the first place.
81. Josephine Hull as Mrs. Simmons in Harvey (1950, Henry Koster)
Preferred winners: Thelma Ritter or Celeste Holm in All About Eve; Nancy Olson in Sunset Blvd., but obviously it should’ve been Ritter. Because The Way of All Flesh is a lost film I cannot say with absolute certainty that Hull’s is the worst performance to receive an Academy Award. But that’s the only reason. Every moment she’s on screen is like a screwdriver delving into your skull. Why!? Why???
So that’s that. In 2012 I set out to watch all of the winners in seven Academy Award categories — I can’t decide what to call them collectively. It’s not the “Big Five” anymore because I added the supporting performance categories. It’s not “above the line” or “the creative awards” because of course cinematography, editing, foreign films are all “creative” too. So for my purposes I’ll just call them the Big Seven. And now, five years later, I’ve gone through every one of them and seen all the corresponding films apart from the two that are missing and impossible to see. Someday I may or may not explore further categories, but I expect diminish returns if I decide to tackle something like that. For now, my next task will be to run through all of the Best Picture nominees. Those who check my Twitter know that I’ve kept track for some time now of which slates I happen to have seen thus far in their entirety, and now my intention is to follow through with all of the rest, beginning immediately after I post this! This, however, is a huge list of films and it will take some time… so this is the last Oscars Project roundup for some time. Until then!