The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1981

Oh, 1981. Chariots of Fire. I think we can leave that decision to speak for itself. Best Director this year was Warren Beatty (which I talked about here), which was better than the alternative of Hugh Hudson winning for Chariots of Fire. Best Actor this year was Henry Fonda, finally winning his long overdue Oscar for On Golden Pond (which I talked about here). Best Supporting Actor was John Gielgud, winning for his wonderful turn as Hobson in Arthur. And Best Supporting Actress was Maureen Stapleton, also winning for Reds.

So, in all — a good year for the acting decisions, but a terrible, terrible year for Best Picture. That’s really all there is to say about the year. As for this category — you know, I have to say, even though she had three of them already, this wasn’t a bad decision. There really wasn’t any other choice. Not really, anyway.


And the nominees were…

Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond

Diane Keaton, Reds

Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh

Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City

Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Hepburn — On Golden Pond is a great movie, and at least 60% of that has to do with the poignant performances of its stars. Henry Fonda finally gets an Oscar for a great performance, and Kate Hepburn wins this as well because — well, she’s Kate Hepburn. Poignancy counts for a lot.

The film is about an old couple, a math professor and his wife, who go out, every summer, to their cabin on Golden Pond. And they go there — are welcomed by the loons — and they go around, reacquainting themselves with the place. The first fifteen minutes has to do with Fonda’s reflections on getting older and how he gets lost in the woods, not remembering how to get into town like he used to, and how he can’t deal with technology and stuff. It’s very poignant. Then, out of nowhere, their daughter shows up — played by Jane Fonda, which adds a whole other level of poignancy to the proceedings — and she’s met a man and has fallen in love. She leaves his son with them while she goes off on a honeymoon, and they get stuck with the kid. And then the rest of the film is them bonding with the kid and all that — fuck it, just watch the movie. It’s great, and it’s one of those movies you need to see if only so you can reference it. You’re probably gonna like it a lot, but, if you don’t, see it so you can really be able to reference, “Norman, the loons!”

Hepburn’s performance is good, but, on its own its not really win-worthy. But, in a category like this, it makes sense. Honestly, I’d be voting for it if it weren’t for the fact that Marsha Mason never won an Oscar (and she had three).

Keaton — Reds is a very good film and a very engaging film — it’s only real flaw is that it’s so fucking long. Really, insanely long. 3 hours 14 minutes to be exact. And the whole film is shot Band of Brothers style. That is, interspersed with the story are these interviews where the people talk about the characters of the film. It plays very much like a History Channe special. They’re like, “He really wanted to accomplish something big, ever since he was a kid,” or something like that, and then they cut back to the story of the film. That sort of stuff.

The film is about John Reed, the man who wrote “Ten Days that Shook the World.” He’s played by Warren Beatty. The beginning of the film is him meeting Diane Keaton, a socialite, and them starting a romance. They get together, she becomes infected by his idealism, and she gets involved with him and his communist beliefs. And they have this little group or whatever that meets and organizes shit (you know how radicals are), and then he starts getting involved with labor strikes — which she doesn’t like — and then he goes away to some convention. Then she starts sleeping with Eugene O’Neill, played by Jack Nicholson, and then Beatty comes back, and then she leaves for Europe, and he follows her, and they reunite and it’s big. And that’s the first half of the film. It’s pretty much romance.

Then the second half — this is the half that gets tough to watch — it’s after the Russian revolution and Beatty is trying to bring Communism to the US, because he doesn’t like the turn it’s taking in Russia. And then he dies because he has a kidney disorder and refuses to slow down his travel to get better. That’s pretty much it. It’s a romance set against communism.

It’s a really good film. Not one I plan on watching very often, but still, very good. And Keaton, actually, was really fucking good in it. Honestly, the only thing keeping her from getting a vote is the fact that she won already. But, if she hadn’t have won in 1977, she’d have been a shoo-in winner here. Really, she was that good. In terms of performance, she might have actually given the best performance on this list. It’s really good. But, no vote, because Hepburn was more poignant, and because Marsha Mason never won one and deserved one, so she immediately gets higher priority. But, great job by Keaton here.

Mason — I couldn’t find this film for the longest time. It was the last film with three nominations I had left. I finally found it in June when I saw it was available for download on iTunes. The film was never released on DVD because of some rights issues, but I was able to download and watch it, which made me very happy. (I also found three or four others that I was able to rent and watch, which also made me very happy.)

The film is a Neil Simon film, which — he and her were married, Simon and Mason, and I suspect many of the roles he wrote for her — The Goodbye Girl, Chapter Two and this (and later, Max Dugan Returns), all three (not the parenthetical one) earning her Oscar nominations. Her strongest two performances came in The Goodbye Girl and here. If Diane Keaton didn’t have such a great year in ’77, Mason was my vote all the way (if you remember, Keaton was in both Annie Hall and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, winning for the former and really earning the Oscar for the latter). Here, though, she gives a performance that’s legit good enough to win, and is right in the Oscar wheelhouse, so that makes me surprised she didn’t win. And, it also makes it perfect for me to vote for her, since I’d have hated voting for her for a performance I didn’t think was worth the salt.

The film is about Mason, an alcoholic actress, coming out of rehab. It begins with her leaving rehab, after eight months, and coming home. Greeting her are her two best friends, Joan Hackett — a woman tragically concerned with her looks and terrified that she’ll get old and ugly one day — and James Coco — a gay actor who is just positively delightful as the gay male friend character. Both of those two also received Oscar nominations in the Supporting categories, and both were actually good enough to contend for a vote. I haven’t written those categories up yet as of this posting, so it’s still possible. So she comes back home, sober, and gets her life back in order. She takes her daughter — who really doesn’t want to be with her father — in as her roommate of sorts, and she is reintroduced to her former boyfriend (who may or may not have been the cause of the rehab trip), who has written a play that is basically their lives on stage.

So she starts rehearsing the play, and dealing with all these other stresses in her life, and the whole time she’s constantly tempted to drink. And eventually she does, and there’s a great and tragic scene where she falls off the wagon. And the whole thing is played so realistically. They go from trying to help her to being angry at her to trying to stop her from hurting herself, and the whole scene, which must have been a good twenty page scene, has so many tonal changes it’s really incredible to watch. And then she goes out, gets drunk at a bar and is sexually assaulted. And the film ends with her trying to put her life back together again.

It’s actually a really, really great film. I was surprised at how much I loved it. And yet — it’s Neil Simon. I don’t know why I’m ever surprised that I love something Neil Simon did. I’d say, of the Simon films, I love Murder by Death above all. Then there’s The Goodbye Girl, and then The Sunshine Boys. And I think I’d put this fourth. Which, considering the company, is pretty good. Also, The Cheap Detective and Chapter Two are also good films.

But — Mason is incredible in the role. She really plays the hell out of it. I said this from the top, she’s my vote here all the way. Because she’d earned it with three nominations already, her only competition are people who have won before, and the performance is legit good enough to vote for. So she’s my winner here.

Sarandon — And we end with a whimper. These last two nominees, strangely, considering the actresses, are #4 and #5 on this year for me. Who’d’ve thunk it?

Atlantic City is a Louis Malle film. He’s the guy who directed Elevator to the Gallows and Au Revoir, Les Enfants. The film is about an aging mobster — Burt Lancaster, who is a low level mob guy. He plays numbers, takes care of a big mobster’s widow — shit like that. Never really moved up the ladder, and now he’s old. Susan Sarandon is a woman who works at the casinos, and out of nowhere, he no-good husband (whom she left) shows up, along with his sister (I believe that’s what it is. Or it’s her no-good brother and his wife). Either way, she doesn’t want to see him, and is sympathetic toward her. And he comes, trying to deal drugs, and she wants no part of it. And basically, over the course of the film — it’s very understated and very small-time too. All the drug deals are for pennies, considering the kind of shit the actual mob is moving — Lancaster gets involved with the guy, and they try to sell the stuff, but then a bigger drug dealer gets involved, and kills him, and Lancaster has to protect Sarandon, because he sees her as this redemptive woman, and there’s a big moment where Lancaster shoots a guy and is elated because he never shot a guy before, and for a while it seemed like Sarandon was ready to run away with him, but once he shoots somebody, she doesn’t want to be with him anymore because she’s afraid of him because he’s a killer — honestly, I lost track of the film. There didn’t seem to be much of a narrative. It was good, but, I really can’t remember at all what it was about.

Sarandon’s performance was fine. This was her first Oscar nomination, and, she was never going to win. I’d never really vote for her here, either. She’s a solid #4. But it’s a stepping stone. She’d get her Oscar eventually. Just not here.

Streep — And, Meryl. A lot of people say Meryl should have won for this performance. I actually went into the film, thinking, “Okay, I’ll finally have someone to vote for in this category,” since I saw this performance fourth out of the five. But, when I watched it — I didn’t see it.

The film is about the story of a woman — some 18th century story with lovers who can’t be together and all that — and then the actors who play them. So Streep and Jeremy Irons get to play both the characters in the film and the actors playing the characters. And we get to see them do both. Problem is — the film they’re shooting is really fucking boring. I was more interested in them as actors. And they’re having an affair as actors, even though they’re both married, and really the whole thing is about a doomed love affair in life and in fiction. Both actors do a good job, but, I’d never vote for Meryl here. She had the Kramer vs. Kramer Oscar, and, let’s not forget — she busted out Sophie’s Choice the year after this. So I think we can all agree she won for the right performance. I honestly put her as #5 here simply because I know she won the year after this. Plus I really didn’t like the film. I was bored to death the whole time.

My Thoughts: So, the three best performances are Hepburn, Keaton and Mason. Hepburn is the most poignant, Keaton, I felt, gave the strongest performance, and Mason was a solid #2 on all fronts. Great performance, good role, and she was overdue and had never won before while the other two had. So, really, that’s what’s dictating this vote. I wouldn’t have minded if either of the other two had won (more so Hepburn, which is why I’m ultimately okay with the result), but, Mason is my vote.

My Vote: Mason

Should Have Won: Hepburn, for performance and poignance. Mason, for performance, and for the sheer fact that she hadn’t won one. And Keaton for performance, to a lesser extent.

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. Shame about Marsha Mason not getting her Oscar, but, it’s understandable. It’s Kate Hepburn, and it’s that type of movie. I understand it. Probably the second best overall choice in the category. It’s fine.

Performances I suggest you see: I fucking love On Golden Pond. I think it’s a brilliant movie all around. Even if you think it might be a bit too — I don’t know, overly sentimental — it’s still Henry Fonda, Kate Hepburn and Jane Fonda. It’s really a wonderful film all around. If you have a heart of stone and aren’t into sentiment, then don’t watch it, ice queen (and, whatever the male term for that is — douchebag). But, it has something for literally almost everyone and is a near perfect film. See it. And Reds is a fantastic film. It’s long, sure, and overtly communist, but, hell, it’s directed well and acted really well. And it’s a classic. If you’re into film or history or both, I highly highly recommend it. Then, Only When I Laugh is just a really, really great film. I can’t do it justice. If you like any of the Neil Simon stuff, you’ll really like this one. And if you’re my age, chances are you haven’t seen it. So you’re really in for a treat. Trust me on this — it’s good. And Atlantic City is a good film, and I recommend it, because you get old Burt Lancaster and young Susan Sarandon, plus it’s sort of a classic — it’s worth checking out.


5) Streep

4) Sarandon

3) Keaton

2) Mason

1) Hepburn

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