The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1969

1969 is a year I’m undecided on as a whole. Parts of it I’m very okay with, but parts of it I’m just not sure. For example — Best Picture this year went to Midnight Cowboy, as did Best Director. Now, personally, I’d have voted for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid here. And my big question is how acceptable Midnight Cowboy is, having won. I’ve yet to fully make up my mind. I mean, it’s kind of okay, but is it really? That’s my question. Fortunately I don’t have to decide this just yet, so I can go on living on the fence.

Best Actor this year was John Wayne for True Grit, the career Oscar to end all career Oscars. I’m cool with it, since he deserved one, and Hoffman and Voight eventually got Oscars. Peter O’Toole was also nominated here, and he never got one, but, you know, he was never winning for for being in a remake of the same film that won another dude an Oscar 30 years earlier (Goodbye, Mr. Chips). And Richard Burton? Yeah he deserved an Oscar, and he was brilliant in Anne of the Thousand Days, but you know, there were two years earlier in the 60s where he could have gotten an Oscar and they didn’t give it to him. So I blame that on the Academy. So that’s cool, I feel.

Then Best Supporting Actor was Gig Young for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? That was cool, considering the category wasn’t terribly interesting. And Best Supporting Actress went to Goldie Hawn for Cactus Flower, which is cool, since she was hysterical in the film.

This category though, was fucking stacked. Great actresses and great parts. All great parts. Everyone in this category was really good in their role, and fittingly enough, 3 of the 5 went on to win Oscars (that’s even if we exclude the winner here). But really, any of these actresses could have won and it would have been okay. That’s how great this category was.  Definitely one of the better Best Actress races I’ve seen.

BEST ACTRESS – 1969

And the nominees were…

Geneviève Bujold, Anne of the Thousand Days

Jane Fonda, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Liza Minnelli, The Sterile Cuckoo

Jean Simmons, The Happy Ending

Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Bujold — Oh, I loved this movie very much. I’m not the biggest fan of the costume drama. They’re usually stuffy and British, and lots of manners and boring stories, because they’re historical. They’re usually just not my cup of tea. They usually have good performances, especially in this era, because the performance is really all that can stand out. Everyone knows the sets and costumes are gonna be good, but that’s so expected by this point that you just kind of block it out and focus on the actors. And that’s usually why I don’t like the films. Good performances, no good performances, to me they’re usually just squawking heads, never saying anything of value because I don’t find the stories interesting.

However, there’s a five year period in the laste 60s and early 70s where there are several costume dramas that I love dearly. A Man for All Seasons, which, in a way, is a first cousin to this film, as they both deal with the exact same situation, but from opposite ends, is the first of those films for me. Perhaps it’s because of that film that I love this one. And then there’s The Lion in Winter, which is just a fantastic film. And there’s this, and then there’s Nicholas and Alexandra, in 1971, which is the one about the Russian royal family (and the most surprising entry on the list of films I like). But, outside of those years, there are very few costume dramas I like. And most of them have come recently.

So it came as a surprise to me how quickly I got involved with this film. It’s about Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. It starts with him unhappy that his wife hasn’t given him a son, now sleeping with Anne’s sister as his mistress. Pretty soon he begins to turn his affections toward Anne. And this is perhaps why I ended up loving the film — when Henry goes to Anne to tell her, “You’re going to be my mistress now,” she doesn’t want anything to do with him. Normally in a film like this, the woman would just go along with it and be unhappy. But here she’s quite open about it. She even tells him she’s in love with another man and is quite willing to forsake all of the benefits her family has been bestowed with her sister as the king’s mistress because she wants nothing to do with him. That, to me, was fascinating.

The movie basically consists of Henry attempting to woo Anne and her clearly telling him she won’t give in to him, and him being so interested in her he plans on actually seducing her anyway. And then as the film progresses, she begins to be seduced by the king’s power instead of the king. She starts to use her status for power while also continuing to reject the king. And he really wants to sleep with her, and she tells him, “I won’t sleep with you until I know our children will be legitimate.” And the only way their children will be legitimate is if she is queen. So she’s like, “Make me queen and I’ll give you sons.” And this is where the divorce part comes in, which is basically the entire plot of A Man for All Seasons, since Sir Thomas More refuses to grant the divorce and is imprisoned by Henry and put on trial. But here, Anne is the one in the foreground. She starts to realize she actually loves the king and then jumps feet first into the role of his wife. Though at this point the people hate her because they look at her as a whore, and she’s also now becoming completely drunk with power. She tells Henry she wants Sir Thomas More killed and still says she’ll give him sons. Though when she gives birth, it’s to a daughter, and then the tables turn.

That’s what’s so great about this movie. There’s so many character developments. Anne goes from not wanting the king to not wanting the king and wanting power to wanting the king and loving the power. Then the king goes from wanting Anne to wanting the divorce so he can have Anne to not wanting Anne because she can’t give him a son. Then he moves on to Lady Jane Seymour, and tries to find a way to get rid of Anne. And the movie ends with Anne being put on trial under the most ridiculous charges just because the king wants her gone. It’s fucking fascinating.

What I love most about the movie is Bujold’s performance. She is fucking sublime as Anne Boleyn. I love how her character changes over the course of the film. Honestly I think that if she were a more well-known actress like most of the others in this category were, she’d have won this category hands down (she did, after all, win the Golden Globe Best Actress (Drama) Award for this film). She actually goes from defiant girl to power drunk mistress to woman in love to jilted queen to woman fighting for her life, all in the span of 2 1/2 hours. And through it all, she remains the same woman. That’s what’s so great about this performance. Even when Henry promises to free her as long as she agrees to make their daughter illegitimate so he can marry Jane Seymour, she stands by her morals, even though she knows it’ll mean her death. I really loved this movie and this performance. This is definitely on the shortlist for me.

Fonda — This film is nothing if not very interesting. I liked it a lot, but, it’s definitely one of the stranger films to come out of Hollywood.

The film is about a dance marathon. Basically, a bunch of people show up, pari off into teams, then start dancing. And if you stop dancing, you’re out. And then at certain intervals they have contests and shit to really tire you out. And the last couple standing is the winner. This is the 30s, don’t think it happens today. Because what happens in the film is as cruel as a Japanese game show, if not crueler. And it starts with a dude who comes to LA looking to be a director, and wanders into the place. And he’s recruited to be an alternate partner for a woman (Fonda) whose partner was disqualified for having a sickly cough.

So the film starts, and the two become partners. And they dance — looking to win $1,500 — talking to one another and such, and we meet a bunch of other contestants, like a young married couple about to have a baby soon (who are actually Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia, aka Holly McClane from Die Hard), and an old sailor. And the contest goes on for weeks. They dance, basically from nine to five every day. And then the emcee — Gig Young — decides to really put people through the ringer. He just fucks with them, and makes things really tough. He introduces roller derbies, where they have to skate while tied together, around the dance floor, and only a certain number of couples are able to advance. He really plays on the whole people being cutthroat in the right situation thing. And then during the movie, the dude and Fonda split up as partners, then get back together again, and then the real interesting part comes at the very end. Because the film makes you become interested in the dance marathon. You didn’t think you would, or could, and yet you are. You see people suffer nervous breakdowns and even die mid-skate, and you’re in this all the way.

And then, right toward the end, the emcee tells them that the whole thing isn’t really what it seems to be. After all the hidden expenses and tax and what not, they’re basically gonna end up with nothing and the whole thing is pretty much a stunt for the entertainment of others. So they drop out, and then the movie turns on a fucking dime. Fonda tells the dude that she wants to kill herself, but can’t pull the trigger. So the dude does it for her, and the film very suddenly becomes about assisted suicide. And then the last shot is the police asking him why he did it, to which he responds with the film’s title. Which is fucking brilliant because until that point you really don’t get why they had the title.

Anyway, Fonda is really fucking good in this role. However, the contest itself takes away a bit from the performance, I feel, plus it’s kind of her first real “Oscar” performance. It’s the kind of thing where, I don’t love the performance enough to vote for it, plus with the benefit of hindsight I know that she’d deliver much better performances a few years after this (and win twice for them as well), so I’m actually kind of glad, because I never really loved this performance enough to vote for it, even though I really like the film, and I’m glad I don’t have to, because, really, this year is really tough to call.

Minnelli — I knew nothing about this movie when I started watching it. Less than nothing. I found the film very randomly too, as it is largely unavailable. So I turned it on, knowing nothing about it except that Liza was nominated for an Oscar in it. And wow, was I blown away.

The film starts as a dude is at the bus stop, ready to go to college. And also at the bus stop is Liza Minnelli. She’s going to a different school in the same area. And he’s the kind of dude that keeps to himself and is sitting there, waiting patiently. And she’s the exact opposite. She’s so outgoing to the point of awkwardness. It’s the kind of thing where, she’ll start talking even if you tell her you don’t want to talk to her, and when you’re like, “I’d rather wait here in quiet, please,” she’d be like, “Oh, okay. You know, my uncle was like that. He never liked to talk…” and just keep going. And that’s what makes the character so charming to me.

And the rest of the film is very organic. They have a nice chat on the bus, and promise to keep in touch, and then she randomly shows up at his school, and they begin a relationship. And she comes up to visit on weekends, and then longer, on breaks and stuff, to the point where she becomes a burden, because she’s never really doing work and he needs to study. And she’s clearly ADD so she always wants to talk to him and he really wants to do his work. And you actually see the relationship develop and start to fail, but stay afloat, all because of the characters of these two people. And eventually he finds out that she dropped out of college and has been living in the boarding house across the street from his dorm, and eventually they break up and he sends her home, but, the rest of the movie is actually really great.

Now, Liza Minnelli’s performance here is probably going to be the most contentious of the nominees. I found her charming, but a lot of people, I suspect, will find the character annoying. And the character is supposed to be annoying, to some degree. But I found the way she plays it and the way she’s so naive to the way she acts charming. Plus, I seriously am unable to completely dislike any character, no matter how annoying, despicable or whatever. It comes from watching so many movies. I get into movies on the level of the story, and not, “Oh man, that character was an asshole, fuck that dude.” I just can’t do that. The more evil a character is, the more I enjoy the character itself. But I understand my view is different from the way a lot of people watch films, so, I can see where people would hate this movie and hate the performance. But I loved it. This type of character just appeals to me. I was with it all the way.

This performance was definitely my favorite of the bunch. Am I gonna vote for it? I’m not sure yet. It’s gonna come down to the wire. But, as my favorite this definitely gets shortlisted for a vote. I think it’s between two at this point. Maybe three. Let’s hope it’s two.

Simmons — Jean Simmons was always an interesting actress to me. It was like, if you took Vivien Leigh, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, somehow, each time, you’d manage to get Jean Simmons. That always fascinated me.

She always managed to make really good movies too. Interestingly one of her first film roles was in Caesar and Cleopatra with Vivien Leigh (in a minor part though). Her first big role was as a young Estella in Great Expectations. She also played Kanchi in Black Narcissus, which is interesting because they put her in brownface, but at the same time it’s still clearly her. (Note: Tell me that’s not a younger Vivien Leigh right there.) And then, her other big role, shortly after was as Ophelia in Hamlet (which is interesting because Olivier had planned the role for Vivien Leigh, but due to various marital and age issues, he didn’t cast her, and instead cast a girl who looked eerily similar). She was also in The Robe, Guys and Dolls, The Big Country, Elmer Gantry, Spartacus — all big films, right? Yet somehow during her career she never managed more than two Oscar nominations (and yet, the women she bears such striking resemblances to have a combined 5 Oscars).

The Happy Ending is an interesting film on many levels, though, I can’t help but think that the only reason she got the nomination was out of a “veteran” nomination. Or rather — not really a veteran nomination, but like — one of those deals where someone’s been around for a while and has been putting in good work, even though nothing was ever really nominated, save for Ophelia before this, and she did a good job here and people we like, “We really should recognize her more.” I’m trying to think of a comparison here. Maybe — Bill Murray in Lost in Translation? But, he was good enough to win there, but, the sentiment was similar. Where they were like, “Hey, this motherfucker has been solid for twenty years, and we never really acknowledged him.” That’s more what I’m going for.

The film is about a bored housewife, whose marriage has cooled after 16 years and now she’s turned to drink to keep herself going. Her husband is a boring businessman now, and her daughter is a teen and is always going out with friends and on the phone — teenager stuff — and she keeps thinking back to when she was in love (constantly comparing it to movies like Casablanca) and wondering what went wrong. So finally she can’t take it anymore and books a ticket to the Bahamas. And as she flies there we get flashbacks of her marriage — the time they had a party and her husband flirted with another woman, so she got drunk and watched Casablanca by herself to cope. Or the time where her daughter found her accidentally OD’d on the bed from, I think, pills and alcohol (the reason for which being, she caught wind of her husband having an affair). Things like that. And while she’s there she meets a friend she hadn’t seen since college, and is almost picked up by a con artist who is not revealed to be a con artist until after she turns down his advances. And she sees her friend get romanced and engaged, while also thinking back to her marriage. And eventually she flies back, moves into an apartment by herself, starts taking classes and works to better herself. And the last line of the film — I’m telling you the whole plot because I really don’t think that many people will actually see it. And even if you do, it’s not the kind of thing that matters whether or not you know what happens — the last line is, her husband runs into her one day on the street, and they get to talking, and he asks what went wrong, and she goes, “All our friends are married, and they’re happy.” That’s pretty much what this movie is about.

What’s great about the film is how — 60s/70s — it is. That is, it’s so down to earth. I mean, it might seem a bit exaggerated nowadays, but, this film is situated in an era where films are transitioning from studio sets, larger than life, you know FILMS (the old Hollywood films. The 60s had shit like Cleopatra and The Sound of Music. No one’s gonna mistake those for real life), to stuff like Easy Rider and The French Connection, these gritty films. But what makes the era really progressive are films like this, that deal directly with the lives of regular people in (then) modern day America. This film is about what it’s like to be a housewife in the 60s, having gone from the days of old Hollywood and the storybook romance, to the boring suburbs and solace in drugs and alcohol. This film is a fantastic microcosm of Hollywood itself, in a weird way. And the storytelling techniques are very reminiscent of films of the era — it’s really a fascinating film. I don’t know how much appeal it has outside of that, but, it really is fascinating.

As for Simmons’s performance — it’s good, but it was never going to win in this category. She actually, sadly, is #5 here, because the category is just so good. She is very good in the film, but it’s just, I can’t see myself voting for her. And that’s a shame. But the performance is good and the film is certainly interesting, so we’ll always have Paris, I guess.

Smith — Okay, now Maggie. This is the toughest performance to grade because of so many factors.

One, I love Maggie Smith. She’s been great in everything she’s ever done, right down to Harry Potter where she doesn’t have to do anything. But that’s what’s so great about it. Even in doing nothing, her mere presence conveys that maternal nature of hers that speaks volumes even though she’s basically just, there. It’s kind of like Michael Caine nowadays. Throw Michael Caine in a movie and give him nothing but exposition to speak, and his mere presence makes him come off as the wise man. (Note: You can thank Christopher Nolan for that.)

Two — the other reason I have trouble gauging this performance — I read the book. Normally in these situations I’ve either not read the book, or even if I have, it doesn’t change my opinion of the movie. But, after reading the book, it seemed as though the movie was almost exactly the same as the book. Of course, I’m sure they changed major details and removed characters and created one out of three or whatever, but, honestly, the movie just seemed to be exactly what the book was, and since the book was just — there — for me, I never really gave the movie much thought. But I’ll get back to this in a second.

The movie is about a teacher in a British school who’s — well, she’s kind of a fascist. That is to say, she teaches by her own curriculum. She goes about the class and teaches them the poems she wants to teach and tells them stories about the romances of her past, things like that. And she has her set of “Brodie girls,” that is, a small set of girls who are openly her favorite students. And those girls are taken under her wing. They go places with her, have picnics. She takes them to museums and concerts and stuff. And she basically uses teaching to advance the things she likes. She teaches them about art she likes, places she’s visited, and, yes, Mussolini. She actually is kind of a fascist. And she tries sleeping with one of the other teachers, while the rest of the staff wants her fired, but she has tenure, and there’s all that, but then there’s all this unrest amongst her girls as well. It’s — a weird little story.

Now, back to the movie. I didn’t much enjoy the movie. Or the book. However, I will say, Maggie Smith’s performance is really great. That is the high point of this movie by far. The rest of the movie I had zero interest in whatsoever. Maggie Smith elevates this movie with her performance. Now, do I think she should have won? Based on the performance, not really. Based on her as an actress? Yeah, probably. Will I be voting for her? No.

My Thoughts: For my money, the two best performances here are Bujold and Minnelli. Now, which one I vote for — is tough. So, having hindsight on my side, I’m gonna go Bujold, since I know that Minnelli won an Oscar three years after this, for a film and a performance that are much more widely known. I’m gonna stick with my gut and know that even if she’s the least well-known actress on this list, she did, in fact, give the best overall performance.

My Vote: Bujold

Should Have Won: Honestly, I think I don’t have a preference. They’re all really good. I mean, I’d prefer some over others, but really, they all should have won in their own way. If I had to pick the most deserving of the “should haves,” I’d go for Bujold first, and then, actually I’d go Smith second. Minnelli and Fonda got one, and Smith I felt was better than Simmons, so, these two were the two that were most deserving, taking into account everything else. I still vote Bujold, she was clearly the best.

Is the result acceptable?: Sure. Why not? I like Maggie Smith, and she was really good in the role, even if I didn’t love it enough to vote for it. Minnelli got her Oscar eventually, so her not winning is totally fine. Fonda got two Oscars. Bujold isn’t really an actress who did that much outside of this role, so, while she was incredible in it, I can see where this is okay in the historical sense. I just, have to vote my own way. But, it’s totally acceptable.

Performances I suggest you see:Honestly? All of them. I mean, you can probably skip all of them and not miss much, but, they were all really good. Movie-wise, the one I say the most people are gonna like is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It’s a really riveting film. I highly recommend that film. And Anne of the Thousand Days is a costume drama I really like. Which is saying something. Since I can probably count the number of costume dramas I really like on two hands. And I’m talking out and out costume dramas, like corsets and the 17th century. So take that for what you will. The performances are amazing and the story is a widely known one, so, I think there’s a chance a lot of people can enjoy it. Though I don’t know how tolerant others are when it comes to film like this. I assume the worst and hope for the best, so I’m gonna hope for the best. And, The Sterile Cuckoo, I loved the film, really loved it, but I can see why many wouldn’t. So, I don’t know what to say past, I give it my hearty seal of approval. And The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is interesting for the performance, but, the film was kind of boring. Maybe it’s because I read the book and the film was basically like reading the book again. It just had a dulling effect on me, I think. And The Happy Ending is definitely the one the least amount of people will enjoy, because it’s about housewife problems in the late 60s. What I like about it is that it’s a nice snapshot of the era and a great Jean Simmons performance. But I can see that it definitely won’t hold widespread appeal by any stretch of the imagination.

Rankings:

5) Simmons

4) Fonda

3) Smith

2) Bujold

1) Minnelli

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