The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1968

History was made here. You hear that? History, I tellz ya! But before we get into that, let’s recap the year.

Oliver! wins Best Picture, the best choice among a weak set of films. Almost all of them are good films, but none is really a “Best Picture.” Carol Reed won Best Director for the film, which, is a good decision based on the fact that him not winning for The Third Man is the worst Best Director snub of all time, according to me. Which, humorously enough, makes this the second biggest Best Director snub. Reed winning his well-deserved Oscar deprived Stanley Kubrick of his well-deserved Oscar for 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s oddly poetic.

Cliff Robertson wins Best Actor for Charly, which is a good film and a decent performance, but not one that should have won, especially with Peter O’Toole never having won an Oscar (for amazing work in Lawrence of Arabia and Becket before this) and being so fucking great in The Lion in Winter. The choice is baffling. Then Best Supporting Actor was Jack Albertson for The Subject was Roses (which I talked about here), and Best Supporting Actress (which I talked about here) was Ruth Gordon for Rosemary’s Baby.

As for this category, it’s the only exact tie in Academy history. (The other acting tie was within 3 votes.) And since the two that tied were the #1 and #2 in the category, the only side effect was an extra Best Actress winner and Katharine Hepburn eventually having four Oscars. Which, as I’ve discovered, isn’t so bad. None of her wins is egregious. Even here, she managed to tie with the person who should have won.


And the nominees were…

Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter

Patricia Neal, The Subject Was Roses

Vanessa Redgrave, Isadora

Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl

Joanne Woodward, Rachel, Rachel

Hepburn — Ah, the costume drama. There were so many of these this decade. It’s incredible how they all managed to get shitloads of Oscar nominations. This is basically the path Miramax used in the 90s. Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love such. Of course, it’s not exactly the same, but, you can see direct parallels.

Anyway, The Lion in Winter basically continues the same line that exists between all the other costume dramas of the 60s. A Man for All Seasons and Anne of the Thousand Days are both about the same incident — Henry VIII wanting to divorce and all that. One is about Sir Thomas More, and the other is about Henry and Anne. Here, Peter O’Toole is playing Henry II again after having played him in Becket four years earlier. Perhaps this is why they didn’t vote for him. Role reprisal. But, while the first film deals with Henry appointing his friend as an archbishop and the problems that arise from that, this one is about Henry (older) dealing with the matter of his heir. It’s interesting to see all these dramas so closely related. It really only adds to their interest for me, because it’s like seeing a whole interconnected universe (real or not. It’s still interesting to see things on screen carry over between films).

So the film begins with Henry trying to decide which of his sons will become his heir. He wants one son to ascend to the throne, while his wife, Eleanor (played by Hepburn), wants another. And she’s been locked away in a tower for years (he keeps her there), and comes back occasionally to be asked for advice. This alone is just fascinating, because he can’t bring himself to have his wife killed (probably because of the whole Becket thing), and he keeps going back to her for advice on what to do. And she basically just speaks her mind to him and their relationship is so biting and sarcastic, and also based on a certain amount of mutual respect (even though he still keeps her locked in the tower).

Anyway, he wants one son, John, to ascend to the throne, while she wants Richard (the Lionheart, played by Anthony Hopkins, in his first film role. Tell me that’s not something you really want to check out). And the whole film is basically all of them concocting schemes behind each other’s backs, and making deals one way to try to influence the outcome another way, and it’s all dirty business, especially since they’re all in close proximity and all know the others are doing the same thing they are. It’s just fascinating. And then you add to that a whole business of Timothy Dalton (in his first film role) as the scheming King of France — it’s just an amazing film. The dialogue in this film is just incredible. What’s great about it is that, while all the players are real people, the whole film is just not factual at all. They basically just took the past of these characters, and their eventual destinies, and just invented what happened in between. That’s just incredible. I love that.

Anyway, Hepburn is really great. Her character is just perfect. You first see her coming in on a boat — O’Toole ordered them to take her out of the tower and bring her to him — and she’s just standing there as this figurehead, standing on the boat as it comes toward you — it’s a great entrance by her. And then she has all these great scenes where she goes toe to toe with Peter O’Toole (there’s this one great scene as they’re walking up the hall at a gathering or the court or at an engagement or wedding or something, and they’re just arguing amongst each other as all these people are standing around them. It’s just wonderful), and is scheming with her sons (whom she loves, Hopkins above all). She really was fantastic and I can see why she won here. Or rather, tied. She’d be my second choice, but, knowing she tied — that’s pretty great.

Neal — The Subject was Roses is about as literal as you can get to having a play on screen. But, you know, that does work. The movie won’t be very cinematic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. This is a good film. It’s just, a bunch of people in a room, talking the whole time.

The film is about Martin Sheen as a young man who went to Vietnam, and is now coming back to live with his parents. Only now, things are different. He’s grown. He now freely speaks his mind (because he’s seen some shit). His liberal views conflict with his father’s conservative ones. He brings up topics the family never discussed before. His father has openly been having affairs for years. His mother just sits and takes it. And Sheen asks her why she does it. And there are lots of arguments between the three of them, and they basically decide that it’s best that Sheen move out. He decides he’s moving out, but his father was staunchly opposed to that (being a very conservative man), and eventually he comes around.

Anyway, the movie’s pretty good. All the leads are great, especially Albertson. Which is why he won the Oscar. He’s kind of the lead of the film, but I guess it’s kind of acceptable that he be considered supporting. Anyway, Patricia Neal plays the mother/wife. And she’s basically, at the beginning of the film, just shy and doesn’t say anything. Suffering silently, kind of deal. And then gradually we start to see her more, and she has a couple of good scenes, but, it’s not really the type of performance I can vote for. I did note her as being good in the film, it’s just — she won in 1963, and I didn’t agree with that decision, and here, there are other performances I’d vote for over this. So she’s like a number three or four at best. Still, she’s good in the film and the film is good as well. So that’s something.

Redgrave — Isadora only works as a film because Vanessa Redgrave is so good in it. It’s a biopic, but it’s just kind of boring. Not much happens. The film is her going through life, being lively, having many lovers, living life the way she wants to live it, and basically living with premonition of her own death. Not like in a morose way, just, “Bad things will happen,” kind of way. It’s weird, how they do it. There’s really no plot to the film. You don’t watch this film for a plot, you watch it for Redgrave’s performance. And to that end — it’s worth checking out. She’s great. So much so that, if Streisand’s performance weren’t just as good (I give Streisand the edge because her film was better and because she’s charming in her own idiosyncratic way), I’d probably be voting for her here over Hepburn. That’s how good she is in the role.

Streisand — Gotta tell you, this film blew me away. I knew the songs from it, and knew the famous line from it (which is actually the most ridiculous part of the movie. It’s literally the first line of the film. She enters a dressing room, looks in a mirror, gets this big soft focus close up with lights and shit and says, “Hello, Gorgeous” to her own reflection. Now, its place in the movie aside, it makes perfect sense. She’s an unknown, and this is her first big close up, and it’s helping make her a star. I get that. It’s perfect for that, and is a clip they’re gonna use forever. That’s her big clip. Like De Niro in the mirror and Brando in the cab. Gloria Swanson on the stairs. That’s her moment. But, when you watch the movie, it just seems so manufactured and forced, it really takes you out of it for a second. Fortunately it’s at the beginning, so you forget about it), but other than that, I really didn’t know much about this other than the fact that she won for it.

I was really surprised at both the film and the performance. And the fact that William Wyler directed it. But, it’s really great. It’s a biopic of sorts (not really, but I guess it could pass as one. I prefer dramatization. Much more liberties were taken back then. We didn’t all have the information at our fingertips like we do now) of Fanny Brice, the vaudeville era comedian. Who, actually, plays herself in The Great Ziegfeld. Watch this clip and tell me that Barbra Streisand wasn’t born to play this woman:

Of course, watching this version, it’s clear they softened her (no “viskey!” references), but you can accept that. Anyway, it chronicles her as a poor Jewish girl from Brooklyn as she gets on a show (fights to get on a show), and manages to stand out because she’s just so odd-looking and funny. This is actually the second film this year that has that scene in it. This and Star! both have a scene where the main character tries to get on a chorus line, and fucks up the act, but, it’s a hit, because as they screw up, they trip up all the other dancers, and get noticed that way. So, she gets noticed and becomes a star comedian, then falls in love with Omar Sharif, who loves her, but causes her problems (he’s a degenerate gambler), and that’s pretty much the rest of the film.

Now, the film is a bit overly long, but — it’s amazing. You have to watch it for Streisand’s performance. When I tell you she is a force of nature in this movie, I mean it. You watch her in this and are like, “Holy shit.” It’s seriously the kind of film that will instantly make a person a star. This is like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and Carey Mulligan in An Education. Here you are, watching this movie, and then, “Holy shit! Who is that?” Trust me. You watch her here, and instantly — I’m not even talking about after the thole thing, I’m talking, by the first song — you immediately understand why she won. It’s just incredible. This was the role she was born to play. And everything about it says she should have won. The only downside to this year is the fact that, one vote in another direction, and she might not have won. And that would have been a travesty.

Woodward — Yeah, I can’t really gripe against this nomination, but I can say, this is kind of weak.

So, Paul Newman directs his first movie. It’s about a shy schoolteacher who is a virgin at 35. She lives with her mother, and is pretty unhappy. So much so that, when the summer comes, she hates it because she has nothing to do. At least the monotony of school gives her something to do. So, she has nothing to do. And she hangs out with another teacher, also unmarried, though a closeted lesbian who is in love with her, and has a boring life. Then a friend from school comes to visit, and she sleeps with him. Then, she falls in love with the guy, and thinks she’s gonna get married to him and stuff, but he leaves. Then, she thinks she’s pregnant. And at that point, she realizes she can do stuff. She stands up to her mother, says she’s leaving town, and becomes more assertive. Then she finds out the pregnancy is actually a cyst. But after it’s removed, she still decides she should do those things, so she decides to move anyway. That’s the film.

So Paul Newman directs that film. Nothing happens, and it’s literally about a schoolteacher learning to come out of her shell. And it gets nominated for Best Picture. Now — do you think that’s because the film is good or because Paul Newman directed it? (He also won the Golden Globe for Best Director. As did Barbra Streisand for her first directorial effort, Yentl.) I think you can see where I side on this issue.

So, Woodward, Newman’s wife, gets nominated for Best Actress. I, personally, don’t see why she’s nominated. I’m not against it, per se (it’s an easy #5 for me), but I just don’t understand how the Academy could see so much in this performance that they didn’t see in Mia Farrow’s performance in Rosemary’s Baby. That’s all I’m saying.

My Thoughts: This is pretty cut and dry. Streisand and Hepburn are the two clear best in the category. Having them both win solves any problem one could have. But, since we’re treating this as any other category, I have to vote for one person. And that’s clearly Streisand. She’s just a force of nature in this movie. She’s so good. She electrifies the screen. Without her, this movie would suck. That definitely deserves an Oscar. But, Hepburn winning too is just extra cherries on top.

My Vote: Streisand

Should Have Won: Streisand

Is the result acceptable?: How can it not be? We get two for the price of one, and they are literally the person who should have won (Streisand) and the second choice (Hepburn). That works out about as perfectly as one can hope for. The only real part of this that’s unacceptable is the fact that, one vote in the wrong direction, and Streisand might not have won this Oscar she so clearly deserved. But, since it worked out, it’s great.

Performances I suggest you see: The Lion in Winter is just a great film. Like a lot of these costume dramas of the 60s, the dialogue is just incredible. This, Anne of the Thousand Days, A Man for All SeasonsBecket — the dialogue and performances are just astounding. While this is my third favorite among those films (ahead of Becket), it’s still an amazing film, and O’Toole and Hepburn are just incredible. It’s really a film you should check out. It’s pretty great.

Funny Girl is also a great film because of the Streisand performance. You just watch her here and immediately fall in love with her. That’s how great she is. Plus you get a couple of great musical numbers, and Omar Sharif as her husband. It’s a great film. A bit on the long side, but Streisand’s performance really carries the whole thing. I’m not overstating it when I say — without her performance, this film would crumble. Check it out. It’s one of the better musicals of the 60s.

The Subject was Roses is a decent film to check out. The performances are great. It’s a chamber drama, though. It all pretty much happens in one location, and is just about people arguing a bunch. So, if you can deal with films that are basically plays, look into this one. Albertson, Neal and Martin Sheen are all pretty great in this.

Then, Isadora — not really that great a film, but if you’re into Isadora Duncan or Vanessa Redgrave, check it out. Redgrave is just as lively as Streisand in this movie, but, since her movie isn’t as good or entertaining, she never really had a shot at winning. But she’s pretty great though. Plus, it’s a movie where you already know the ending, since Duncan’s death is really one of the most interesting deaths of all time. Check it out if you don’t already know. (Hint: It includes a very long scarf and a tire.)


5) Woodward

4) Neal

3) Redgrave

2) Hepburn

1) Streisand

One response

  1. Jez

    I have this theory that the only reason Katherine Hepburn and Barbara Striesand tied for Best Actress was that Shani Wallis (Nancy from Oliver!) wasn’t nominated to rain on their parade. Imagine the reation of the pundits if Shani was nominated and won ahead of Kate and Babs “Nancy rains on the parade of Fanny Brice and Eleanor of Aquitine.

    September 21, 2014 at 12:12 pm

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