The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1978

1978 was the year of The Deer Hunter. I think we’ve established that it was a good year. Won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken,  one of the best decisions the Academy has ever made. Perhaps top three in Vietnam war films. A great year. Best Actor and Best Actress this year were Jon Voight and Jane Fonda for Coming Home, another Vietnam film.

The only real downside to 1978 is that it kept Apocalypse Now from winning Best Picture in 1979. At least, I assume that’s what it was. If not, they fucked up without reason. And that’s not good. Though — typical.


And the nominees were…

Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait

Penelope Milford, Coming Home

Maggie Smith, California Suite

Maureen Stapleton, Interiors

Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter

Cannon — Heaven Can Wait is a classic story. Even if you haven’t seen this version, you’ve seen it. A man gets into an accident and dies. The only problem is, he wasn’t supposed to die. The angel from heaven sent to pull him out of the accident did so too early, trying to give him a painless death, not realizing he was meant to live another forty to fifty years. And during all the confusion about the mistake up in heaven, the body is cremated and he can’t be transported back into it. So they decide to place him in a temporary body until they can find him a new one. The temporary body just happens to be that of a millionaire about to be killed b his wife and her lover. He becomes that guy, falls in love with a woman, but then his time is up with the body, and all his effort was for naught. Seemingly. You know the story. I guarantee you know the story.

So, in this version, Dyan Cannon plays the millionaire’s wife. Her and her lover — the millionaire’s personal secretary — drug him and leave him to drown in his bathtub. At this moment, Warren Beatty, the dead protagonist, and James Mason, the head angel, show up and discuss placing him inside the body of the man. He agrees, and Beatty becomes the millionaire. Problem is, when he shows up alive, Dyan Cannon freaks. She knows he’s supposed to be dead, so, seeing him alive, and knowing that he knows she tried to have him killed, causes her to go nuts. Not so much insane as much as — crazy fucking paranoid. In the most hilarious way possible.

This is basically the crux of the performance. This scene. It’s right after Beatty comes downstairs in the body and is presumed dead by the wife. (And, also, meets the love interest, played by the lovely Julie Christie.) She spends the whole movie being frightened that he’s toying with her, then starts plotting again to have him re-killed. It’s a fun performance. I wouldn’t vote for it, but it’s hysterical. I’m glad she was nominated.

Milford — Coming Home is about Jon Voight as a man who lost his legs in Vietnam. He comes home — get it? — and learns to live life as a paraplegic. Jane Fonda is his nurse at the hospital, who is married to Bruce Dern, who is off fighting still. And the two begin an affair, which goes on until Bruce Dern comes home. Then he comes home and is all fucked up, so the affair still kind of happens, but — well, it’s not so much about the affair as much as its about the mental affects that Vietnam had on the soldiers, and how the government didn’t give a shit about them. It’s a great film.

Penelope Milford plays a fellow nurse in the hospital who is a friend of Jane Fonda’s. She is also taking care of her brother, who returns home from the war really distraught. He’s got a slew of mental problems. And she has to deal with the strain of trying to care for him, even though she doesn’t and can’t really understand what’s wrong with him. All she knows is that she isn’t able to help him. And the whole thing comes to a head when the brother kills himself. It’s a strong performance. I can’t vote for it, because of two reasons that are coming up, but, it is strong and it should be here. It’s an essential piece of a film stockpiled with great performances.

Smith — California Suite is a mixed bag of a movie. Parts of it are good, parts of it suck. The whole thing is basically set around four different stories, all taking place at the same hotel.

One story is of Jane Fonda and Alan Alda, a couple who’ve been divorced for ten years who are now getting together to talk about their daughter, who ran away from her mother to be with her father. This section is pretty good. Then there’s the section with Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. The two are friends who, with their wives, are vacationing together. And it’s kind of the, “comedy of errors” portion of the story. The car breaks down, they have to walk. They start to get on each other’s nerves real quick. Only one of their rooms is reserved, so one couple gets a suite while the other is stuck in the boiler room. And the whole thing revolves around their doubles tennis match, which is a big thing for them, and each has a lot of money riding on it. This is the really weak section of the movie. It really brings the film down. The third story is about Walter Matthau, who is out to go to a bar mitzvah, and wakes up the next morning to find a prostitute unconscious in his bed (she was a gift from his brother). He has to scramble to hide the prostitute when his wife — flying out the next day — unexpectedly shows up early. So it’s a screwball comedy of errors as he tries to prevent his wife from finding the prostitute, who remains in the bed pretty much the entire time. This part of the movie is great.

Now, the final part of the movie is the one we’re most interested in. Maggie Smith plays an actress nominated for an Academy Award. She’s flying out to go to the Oscars with her husband, played by Michael Caine. The two aren’t really husband and wife, as he is gay and they married out of convenience. Now, they do nothing but bicker and he openly sleeps with other men. And the whole story basically starts with her anxious about winning the award, in the hopes that it could get her career going again, and then, after the ceremony, not winning, panicking about her place in life and what will happen to her in the future. It’s a fucking phenomenal performance. At first I was like, “It’s good, but I don’t see why she won aside from the fact that she’s Maggie Smith.” But by the end I saw it. She definitely did deserve this award. It was kind of a coin flip, here. Her and Meryl. She had the more — shall we say — likable role. That is, the film was much more upbeat and those tend to do better with the Academy. Plus, they like to spread the wealth, so, having Deer Hunter win Picture, Director and Supporting Actor already certainly hurt its chances in both this category and in the Best Actor category. But even so, Maggie Smith definitely was deserving of the award, whether you’d vote for her or not. So that’s always nice to see, even if the person I’d vote for didn’t win.

Stapleton — It’s a Woody Allen film. Eventually all I’ll need to say is just that and everyone will get the picture. (Note: I don’t like them.) This is Woody Allen trying to do an Ingmar Bergman film, so, if you don’t normally like Woody Allen movies (or even if you do), I promise you probably won’t like this one.

It’s a chamber drama. The movie is about three daughters whose father suddenly leaves their mother for another woman. And they’re worried about what the mother’s reaction to the situation might be. And they talk about Woody Allen shit like Tolstoy and opera and shit. I wanted to claw out my own eyes while watching this. I am not joking in the least.

Maureen Stapleton plays the husband’s new mistress, who is a loud and unmannered woman who is very course compared to their mother. So they wonder why the father is even with her at all. That’s it, really. That’s the part. I’m never gonna vote for and though it conveyed what it was supposed to convey, but, when I hate the movie, there really isn’t gonna be much praise I can heap onto it past — it was what it was.

Streep — And now, for Meryl. I think it’s generally accepted by now that a Meryl performance is by default great. I think there’s only one of her nominated performances I didn’t care for and like two more that I thought she was only nominated for because she’s Meryl Streep, but, 75-80% of her nominated performances are amazing. At worst they’re very good. I think this one falls somewhere between amazing and very good. She’s young, and it’s her first nomination. Plus she said herself the only reason she did the film was to be with John Cazale, who was her fiance at the time and was dying of a bone disease. So the fact that she turned in this good a performance, considering, is more than enough.

She plays the girlfriend of Christopher Walken (I know, it’s humorous to think of), who is constantly abused (beaten, not, molested) by her alcoholic father. And then once the war is over, De Niro comes back (Walken stays in country) and starts a relationship with her. And the two have a relationship. That’s pretty much the part. Meryl is really good in it, but, the combination of lack of screen time and lack of character development (at least compared to Maggie Smith’s performance), I feel is what prevents me from voting for her. It hurts, because every time I come back to this category, my gut instinct is “Vote Meryl.” But, I think she was close, but not quite there yet on a vote. (Note: She won this category the year after this, so it goes to show you just how close she came.)

My Thoughts: It’s between Maggie and Meryl, and I feel like Meryl’s character just wasn’t fully developed enough to warrant a vote. Plus her winning the next year allows me to vote Maggie without any guilt. So, it’s Maggie.

My Vote: Smith

Should Have Won: Streep, Smith

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah, all things considered. While my heart keeps telling me Meryl Streep should have won this, I can’t fault the decision. And I know voting for Maggie was the right thing to do. She was amazing in that movie. Plus, Meryl went on to win this same award the next year for a performance that’s leaps and bounds above this one. Which isn’t to say this one is bad, it’s just — the performance is that much more amazing. Put it this way — a typical Meryl Oscar performance is enough to be in consideration for top two. A winning Meryl performance is by far the best on the board. This one is somewhere in between, it’s definitely in consideration for a vote, but, I can understand why she lost. Which is why this is okay.

Performances I suggest you see: The Deer Hunter is an essential movie for all to see. It’s just brilliant all around. And Meryl is fantastic in it as, essentially, the only female in the movie. Coming Home is a great movie and a nice flip side to the coin of Deer Hunter. All the performances are top notch in it. While Milford isn’t the best performance in the film (for me, that’s Bruce Dern), the film itself is definitely worth it. Also, California Suite. The film itself is so-so, but Maggie Smith’s portion is fucking incredible. I recommend the movie just for that part. Her and Caine put on a performance clinic. Also, Heaven Can Wait is a funny movie. Dyan Cannon is one of the funniest parts. She’s so fucking — insane. As a whole you should see some iteration of that story at least once, be it Down to Earth, Here Comes Mr. Jordan or this one. This one is the best of the bunch, but, as long as you know the story, you can probably get away without seeing the others. (Though, this one was nominated for all the Oscars. So was Mr. Jordan. Just sayin’.)


5) Stapleton

4) Milford

3) Cannon

2) Smith

1) Streep

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