The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1974

1974. The Godfather Part II wins Best Picture. Francis Ford Coppola wins Best Director for it after not winning for the first one (which I talked about here). And Robert De Niro wins Best Supporting Actor for the film as well (talked about here). Art Carney wins Best Actor for Harry and Tonto, a decision I consider the single worst Best Actor decision of all time (which I bemoaned here). And Ingrid Bergman wins Best Supporting Actress for Murder on the Orient Express (talked about here). Which means two things. One, aside from one terrible decision and one poor one, this was a rather stellar year. And two, this is actually the last category from this year I’ve yet to discuss. This might be a first for me.

Anyway, this particular category is the most interesting of the bunch (even more so than the abortion that was Best Actor this year), mostly because there were three legit competitors this year. Like, legit contenders. You have Faye Dunaway, who pretty much cemented her overdue status with this performance. In a way, she was building toward her Network performance that eventually won her the award. But still, she was good enough to win here. Then there was Gena Rowlands, who delivered a tour de force performance in A Woman Under the Influence, which, even though she wasn’t due, she did deliver the strongest performance in the category. And then there was Ellen Burstyn, who delivers a very good performance and was overdue. You see, the year before this (talked about here), she probably should have won Best Actress for The Exorcist (it wouldn’t have been a sexy decision, but it was the right one, I feel). Her not winning there basically assured she’d win here. But for me — I have to choose between these three performances. I have my work cut out for me, don’t I?


And the nominees were…

Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Diahann Carroll, Claudine

Faye Dunaway, Chinatown

Valerie Perrine, Lenny

Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence

Burstyn — Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a Martin Scorsese film. Just wanted to point that out from the start in case people don’t want to give it the time of day. It’s Scorsese’s first real big studio gig. He made Mean Streets, and then he made this right afterward. It’s his “woman’s picture.” The film starts with a blatant homage to The Wizard of Oz, and then turns into a standard woman’s film.

Ellen Burstyn is married to her childhood sweetheart. They have a son. She’s unhappy. He’s lazy, inconsiderate, and has turned into a real dick since they’ve gotten married. This tends to happen a lot to women in the movies. Which is funny, because the guy is perfect before they get married, and then after they get married, the guy becomes lazy and doesn’t care about her anymore and just wants his dinner and a beer in front of the TV. They never really explain how that transition happens, do they? Anyway, she’s unhappy. She considers leaving him. Then he dies in a car crash. Say what you will about Scorsese, he knows how to make contrived plot points interesting. Rather than do the cliche, he overdoes it. He makes it so over the top that you just go with it.

So the husband is dead, and Alice and her son drive off to go out west. Basically, she doesn’t know how to be anything but a housewife, so she figures she’s gonna go be a singer like she used to be before she got married — almost fifteen years prior. So she goes, isn’t very good, but tries. And a lot of the film is her and her son having surprisingly sarcastic and witty conversations in the car. I really enjoyed it. And then she stops and gets in a relationship with Harvey Keitel, who, at first is really charming, then turns into an abusive asshole. And then, to top it off, she finds out he’s married. So, she leaves and tries another place. Then she gives up on her singing idea and becomes a waitress. And the rest of the film is her being a waitress, doing that, and getting into a relationship with Kris Kristofferson, who is actually a pretty nice guy. And it’s a nice little film. I really enjoyed it.

Burstyn, despite the simple-ish plot of the film, is actually really good in the role. I’d rank her top two on this list in terms of performance. Probably third in terms of my favorite, but top two in terms of quality of performance, vote-wise. Which, adding to the fact that she probably should have won the year before this, makes it completely understandable and acceptable that she won for it, whether I vote for her or not.

Carroll — I knew nothing about this film until I put it on. Didn’t even know it was a black film. I don’t mean that in the derogatory sense, but that — Hollywood has made it such (through silent racism and whitewashing over the years) that any film with an all black cast is considered a “black film.” I refuse to call it an urban film. That’s just some bullshit white people made up. This is a black person’s film. About black people problems. And I, as a white person, loved it.

Claudine is a single black mother in Harlem living on welfare. A lot of the film deals with them trying to fool the welfare lady and hiding all their possessions so they can continue getting the checks. The film mostly deals with what it’s like to be a single black mother who can’t get good work and has to live on welfare. I’d imagine, because this is Hollywood, that this is a relatively realistic portrayal, but also has its own exaggerations for story purposes. For example, the hiding of the nice things — I know for a fact that’s grounded in complete realism. And that kind of detail is the kind of thing I really enjoy. It really helps me get into the film. Other things seemed embellished, but still, there is a large element of truth here, which is what I liked about it. It felt honest. And it was fun.

The film is about Claudine, who works as a housekeeper for a white family, who meets a garbageman, played by James Earl Jones. And the film is mostly a romance with them getting together, and getting married, and all that — but it’s really about the struggle of black people in the 70s, white America. I actually really liked the film a lot.

Carroll is really good in the role. She did a really great job. Unfortunately, the year is so stacked, I can’t even begin to consider her for a vote. And that’s simply because of the truth that — above all, she’s in a romance. And really, I just don’t vote romances in past a certain year. Post-1960, straight romance (romantic comedies, not tragedies) films really shouldn’t be getting acting awards. So that’s why I can’t vote for her. And she’s also ranked #5 because I loved the other four films. This one I like a lot, and, really, in another year, she’d probably be ranked 3rd. But here, it’s 5. But, I would probably place her fourth for a vote. Either way — the film is really good, and I recommend it highly. Check it out. It’s a lot better than a Tyler Perry movie.

Dunaway — What a decade Faye Dunaway had, between 1967 and 1977. Check this out: Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Little Big Man, Chinatown, The Towering Inferno, Three Days of the Condor, and Network. Right? She’d totally earned that Oscar by the time Network came around. Then she went and did Mommie Dearest and kind of derailed things. Still, we’ll always have these films.

Chinatown, I feel, is a film everybody knows about. And if you don’t, I refuse to tell you what it’s about. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, directed by Roman Polanski, legit one of the top 50 best films made of all time. It’s a perfect film all around. Not a single wasted frame.

Dunaway does a great job in the film, although I can’t help but feel as though she isn’t really a lead role. I mean, she has screen time, and she has those really great big scenes at the end, but, in terms of voting for her for Best Actress — I don’t know if I’d do it for this film. It’s really Nicholson’s film. I mean she’s great, and she totally deserved the nomination, but I feel as though this is better served as the nomination that filled in the extra 5% that could have kept her from winning for Network. That was really her Oscar performance. This feels much better suited as, “Oh yeah, she needs to get one of these soon.” So, great performance, ranked #1, but not voting for it. I have two other great performances to choose from.

Perrine — Oh, man. Bob Fosse knew how to make great films. This is my second favorite of his films, after All That Jazz, naturally, which is in my top five favorite films of all time.

Lenny is a biopic of Lenny Bruce, and it’s basically a film that shows you who Lenny Bruce was. It’s pretty unflinching. You get scenes of him being who he is intercut with his standup act intercut with him at the end of his life, high as hell and in constant legal trouble. And it’s a brilliant, brilliant portrait of the man. Just watch it. Watching it will be better than any explanation that I could give.

Valerie Perrine plays Bruce’s wife. She’s a stripper named Honey, and is a non-Jew. And she meets him, falls in love and they get married. And she’s his wife. I know that’s not much of a description, but if you watch the film — she’s really fucking great. It’s the kind of performance where you’re like, “This is someone who’s barely been in movies and hasn’t really done much of anything since. Where did this performance come from?” She’s so good it’s insane. I don’t think I’d put her as good enough to win, but definitely good enough for the nomination. She’s really that good here. I think that’s a testament to Fosse, who managed to get great performances out of everyone. But, the film is really great and Perrine is really great in it. But I think we can all agree — she’s not someone to vote for here. She just isn’t. Fantastic performance, though. You should definitely check this film out.

Rowlands — Oh man, this film shocked the hell out of me. I watched it, having a vague sense of what Cassavetes’s style was like. Lots of improv, handheld camera — like an indie film. Which made me just dread watching it. Indie film — oh no. I can’t stand indie films. Most of them, anyway. I mean real indie films. The ones that have no plots and are a series of scenes of people just talking inane dialogue that’s meant to evoke real life. I hate that shit. Can’t stand it. Mumblecore — shoot me now. Just can’t do it. So, I was naturally dreading this. But then, when I put it in, within ten minutes I was hooked. This is a brilliant fucking movie.

The film is about Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk. They’re married with three kids. And the film opens with her getting the kids out of the house to go to her mother’s for the night so she can have a night with her husband. And you can tell, by the way she talks and acts, that she’s a little — off. Not crazy, but — off. She’s eccentric. She has certain mannerisms that are just strange for a person to have. But you can tell she cares a lot and loves her children. So she sends them off and gets ready for her husband. Then he calls to say he’s stuck at work and has to work overtime. He promises he’ll call in sick and they’ll spend the entire next day together. She gets upset. In her state, she impulsively goes out to a bar and picks up a random stranger. The next morning, she is very upset. She is very upset at what she did and throws him out of the house. Then Falk comes home with a bunch of guys from work and she makes spaghetti for them. And then there’s the great scene at the table — which is really where I fell in love with this movie.

It’s a really great scene. It really shows you just how great the performances in this film are. Then there are a bunch more scenes of her exhibiting just strange behavior. And eventually, Falk thinks she’s a threat to his kids and to herself, so he puts her in an institution. And then there’s a whole chunk of the film where Falk has the kids by himself, and you really get a sense of how different the two of them are. It’s almost totally silent, and Falk is clearly not fully equipped to care for the children. And you also start to see that, in his way, Falk isn’t really any better than Rowlands is. It’s actually a really, really great film.

The performances here are astounding. I thought Gena Rowlands gave the best performance this year. However, given the type of film it was, it’s pretty clear the Academy was never going to vote it in as Best Actress. But I don’t care. That shit ain’t stopping me. This is my vote all the way. This was clearly the best of the bunch. Although I can see why Ellen Burstyn won.

My Thoughts: Tough call. All very good, but three actresses were good enough to win — Dunaway, Burstyn and Rowlands. Off the top, I take off Dunaway. It just doesn’t feel like an Oscar-winning role. Network, however, does, and that’s why she won for it.

Now, between Burstyn and Rowlands — I think Rowlands was better. I prefer her performance. Even though, I can see exactly why Burstyn won. First, she probably should have won the year before this. Second, she was good enough to win, and third, her movie was just more likable. The performance was more likable. Not the character, just the performance. It was more upbeat. The other was a more “actorly” performance. It was a makeup Oscar that made sense because she was top two this year as well. It all worked out. Shame about Gena Rowlands, but it does make sense. Still, though, I liked Rowlands’s performance better, so I vote for her.

My Vote: Rowlands

Should Have Won: Burstyn, Rowlands

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. The Academy fucked up by not giving it to Burstyn the year before this in a year weak enough where that was a legitimate possibility. This year, they almost had to give it to her. She was top two. Back to back like that — they had to. So it is acceptable.

Performances I suggest you see: Chinatown is probably one of the top ten or twenty most essential films ever nominated for an Oscar. If you haven’t seen it, you don’t really like movies. It should have been seen before you even started reading this blog.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a Martin Scorsese film, and that alone makes it must-see. Trust me, Scorsese hasn’t really ever made a bad film, and of his films, there are only like three that are difficult to watch. Or can be. This isn’t one of them. This is a really great film and everyone should see it. Just because you’ve seen the hits doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see the back catalogue as well. See this movie.

A Woman Under the Influence is a brilliant film with brilliant performances. It could be difficult for those who don’t have the patience to sit through something like this. but if you like movies, you should see this one. Everyone should see a few things they don’t necessarily like, and I feel like this is a film everyone needs to see. The performances are just so good, I think they’ll probably carry about 80% of the film for even those people who like their films mindless. But if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably not that type of person, so I don’t see why you wouldn’t watch this film if I’m telling you it’s brilliant. See it.

Lenny is a great film, and, in a way, is almost a film that exists between A Woman Under the Influence and a standard film. It’s very, very unorthodox, in the traditional sense of a narrative film. And yet — it’s perfect. It’s the perfect way to make a film about Lenny Bruce. Seriously, Dustin Hoffman was good enough to win an Oscar here. It’s so fucking good. You need to see this one. You will be blown away by how good the performance is.

And, Claudine. Don’t be a racist, see this movie. I feel like I need to make threats, otherwise people will go, “It’s a black film,” and not see it. This is a really good movie. Plus you get young James Earl Jones, and that’s always a plus. It’s a really good movie, and is the type of movie that’ll make you entertained, while also being like, “Wow, this country continues to shit on black people.” Because that’s what the film is supposed to do. And it succeeds admirably on both fronts. I highly recommend it.


5) Carroll

4) Perrine

3) Burstyn

2) Dunaway

1) Rowlands

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