The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1979

I love 1979 and hate 1979 at the same time. One of the greatest films ever made, Apocalypse Now, is nominated for Best Picture, as is one of my five favorite films of all time, All That Jazz. And neither wins Best Picture. Now, Kramer vs. Kramer — I think it’s a good film. I think it’s a great film, even. But I do not think this film should have won Best Picture at all. I think that was a terrible decision. And I might have been able to live with it had they not also given Best Director to Robert Benton. Did they see the directorial efforts of those other two films?

And then, Best Actor this year was Dustin Hoffman for Kramer, which is absolutely perfect. He was way overdue by this point, and gave the best performance of his career. It’s a shame he beat Roy Scheider and Peter Sellers, but it’s fine. Then Meryl Streep wins Best Supporting Actress as the other Kramer, which is one of the best decisions ever made in that category (whenever Meryl wins an Oscar, it’s pretty much automatically one of the best decisions in that category). Then, Best Supporting Actor was Melvyn Douglas for Being There, which, if you didn’t know, was the WORST DECISION OF ALL TIME IN THAT CATEGORY. Worst. Ever. Know why? He beat Robert Duvall for Apocalypse Now. I’ll ask you, dear reader — which performance do you remember? Charlie don’t surf, but it seems he votes in the Academy.

So that’s 1979. I love it, because great films are involved, and because, while I know they made the wrong decision, Kramer vs. Kramer is a better film than a lot of other films that have won Best Picture (looking at you, Ordinary People). And yet — I really only agree with three of the six decisions this year, and two of them I consider to be two of the worst all time. So this year is a big sore spot for me.


And the nominees were…

Jill Clayburgh, Starting Over

Sally Field, Norma Rae

Jane Fonda, The China Syndrome

Marsha Mason, Chapter Two

Bette Midler, The Rose

Clayburgh — I believe in my heart of hearts that this nomination was because Jill Clayburgh was so royally fucked over the year before this. She should have won Best Actress, and her not winning was such a terrible decision. And I think the Academy realized this and gave her this one as sort of a makeup nomination. Because, she’s kind of a supporting character in this movie. I mean, she’s the female lead, but her screen time is so limited.

The film is about Burt Reynolds getting divorced from his wife (Candice Bergen), who wants to go be a singer. He takes it hard. The beginning of the film, the first twenty minutes, are him dealing with it, going to visit his parents, and stuff like that. They tell him he should date. He says he’s not ready. They say they set him up on a blind date with a teacher. He goes to their house to meet the woman. On the way, he scares a woman who is walking, because she thinks he’s going to attack her (it’s actually well-done. They make it so he realizes he might be creepy, then goes to apologize, but in doing so, walks faster to follow her, and then she screams at him and calls him a pervert or something). And then he goes to his parent’s house and realizes that the woman is the woman he’s supposed to be on a date with. That’s Jill Clayburgh.

And, she has a date with him, and there’s scenes like that, but then, out of nowhere, she disappears from the movie. Because Candice Bergen comes back and wants to get back with Reynolds. So she gets a lot of scenes, and Clayburgh gets pushed to the side until Reynolds decides to get back with her. In all, Clayburgh has what amounts to a strong supporting performance. The only real scene where I saw anything from her that would warrant a nomination is the one at the dunk tank where she screams and curses at him in front of children. That’s really the only scene that seemed to warrant any attention. Otherwise, this is seriously a #5, and seems to be a makeup nomination for them fucking her over the year before this.

Field — Yeah, not gonna lie, this is automatically #1 for a vote. It’s hers to lose. Though, I will also say that there is another nominee that can possibly beat her. It’s close. But, come on, everybody knows about Norma Rae. You know this is Sally Field’s big role.

The movie is about a woman who works at a textile factory, with a lot of people in town. And the place is corrupt, as always. The workers get treated like shit, and anyone who talks up gets fired. Of course. And it’s about unions and shit, which, I can guess, was probably a big issue for the country during this era. But Field ends up agreeing to work for a union and gets the workers together, and it’s about her struggle to unionize. That’s the film. It’s amazing. Watch it.

Field is seriously amazing here. And, while the role might not be as flashy as the other potential winner in the category, it makes up for it in how iconic it is. This is an iconic performance, and that’s really why she won. And I think I might agree with that.

Fonda — Yeah, Jane Fonda won two Oscars this decade, and beat Jill Clayburgh the year before this. She was never winning here. But, it is a good film. So that’s what we’re gonna focus on with this nomination.

The film is amazing. It’s about Jane Fonda (and her cameraman, played by Michael Douglas), who is a local reporter, visiting a local nuclear power plant, and happens to witness an emergency shutdown. Not really dangerous. One of those happenstance things that’s good for news. However, one of the plant workers — Jack Lemmon — notices that something really is wrong. He notices that levels are off, and there was a vibration. And Douglas films the whole thing, despite being told to turn the camer off. And they realize that the plant came very close to a meltdown, which would have been — bad. Like, Chernobyl. It would have contaminated the entire area, water, radiation — really, really bad.

And then, Lemmon, trying to help the plant, uncovers all these discrepancies in reports and realizes the plant is very unsafe. If another shutdown occurs, everyone is fucked. He tries to tell people about this, but they try to shut him up. And he goes into the plant and sees that they’re running at full power (which will likely cause the shutdown, and eventual meltdown to happen), so  what he does is hold people hostage in the control room, which leads to a SWAT situation. And, since he talked to Fonda, and her and Douglas have figured this out too, they go to the plant to film the thing and also because Lemmon demanded a live interview.

So they’re there, and just as Lemmon is about to tell the public about this, the executives at the plant cause a shutdown (which very likely could have killed everyone) and have SWAT come in and kill him. However, the shutdown causes a lot of damage to the plant, of which we never really find out the outcome. And the film ends with Fonda interviewing the executives, who naturally say Lemmon was “disturbed” and all that other bullshit. And then they interview his friend (Wilford Brimley — of course, Wilford Brimley), who says he wouldn’t have done that if something wasn’t really wrong. And in the middle of the interview, the camera just cuts out and goes to color bars, which means that either there was a meltdown, or, more likely, the executives at the station don’t want the public to see all this and find out the truth.

It’s an amazing, amazing film. This film produces tension like no other. It’s amazing how it manages to really build up a tense fucking situation. And then, when you get to the end, and you’re like, “They have to tell people about this!”, because you believe that this shit could happen to you. You know the government would lie about shit like this. And then they cut to bars, and you’re so fucking outraged. It’s an amazing film. They really made a hell of a picture here.

Fonda is great in the movie, and definitely deserved the nomination. But, even if she might have been a bit worthy of a vote, her having two Oscars really keeps her out of the running. Which is a shame. But the movie shouldn’t need the Oscar win. It’s strong enough on its own. Seriously, you need to see this movie if you haven’t. It’s amazing. I don’t normally get into overly political movies, but this one does such a good job with building tension that that alone warrants a watch. Very rarely am I tense and on the edge of my seat during a film. I felt that here.

Mason — Another Neil Simon movie. One of his weaker ones, but, they can’t all be perfect.

This is about James Caan as a writer who gets divorced. And his friend tries to set him up with a woman (who might be a hooker), and then he accidentally calls Marsha Mason, who herself is going through a divorce. And they have a disastrous conversation on the telephone. She just doesn’t like him. And he calls back to apologize, and makes things even more awkward. And then he calls again, and again, and again, and eventually starts charming her. Eventually he wears her down. Kind of like Walter Matthau in Pete ‘n’ Tillie, only, whereas there, Matthau wasn’t really the nicest guy (he meant well, but was just a dick most of the time), here Caan really is a good guy. And eventually they agree to have a five minute date, where they can see each other and make up their minds, and the rest of the film is them getting over their divorces and falling in love. It’s pretty good.

Definitely a weaker Neil Simon work, but, enjoyable. He’s an amazing writer, so anything he’s done is gonna be good. As for Mason, she’s good here, but this is really a romantic comedy. It’s nothing of real substance as compared to Field’s, Midler’s and Fonda’s performances. Those are all clearly stronger than this. But, I will put her third for a vote, since Fonda had two and Mason really should have won for The Goodbye Girl in 1977 (though not really. It’s the kind of thing where — well, if you want to know, just read my thoughts on it here).

Midler — Yeah. This, is a fucking amazing performance. Holy shit.

The movie is about — basically Janis Joplin. But not really. But also, you can tell. They took the Janis Joplin model — singer, lots of booze, lots of drugs, clearly on the path to self-destruction before her time. But then they made a movie about it. So it wasn’t Janis. It was a character that Midler could use.

Basically, we get her, already famous, being flown from gig to gig, drunk off her ass, not having slept for days, trying to take a year off. But her manager doesn’t let her — because there’s money to be made. And then we see her meet Frederic Forrest (aka Chef from Apocalypse Now), a limo driver, whom she falls in love with. And then we see her, basically do her thing. I don’t really want to go over exactly what happens, because it’s about the character and not the plot. You see this woman basically have the choice of going straight and getting married, or continuing down the path that will eventually lead to her death, and — well, you can guess which one happens.

It’s an amazing performance. Midler is so fucking good here. Honestly, even though it’s Field’s Oscar to lose, Midler is making a decision between the two really fucking tough.

My Thoughts: The only two worth a vote here are Sally Field and Bette Midler. They are clearly the two best in the category. I’ve already explained why the other three are out. Read it up there if you really care. For now — we have to decide between these two great performances.

We have Field. Her movie is better. But Midler’s performance is more raw. But, Field’s performance is iconic. And she’s more of an actress than Bette Midler. Midler is primarily a singer. It would kind of be like Beyoncé winning for Dreamgirls. You played what you do. That’s not that much of a stretch. Not that Midler wasn’t divine (get it?) in this role. She really was. But — I don’t know. I think I have to take Field here. The iconic nature of the performance is really what seals it. It’s a powerful performance, and empowering in a lot of ways. I think we need to appreciate that.

My Vote: Field

Should Have Won: Field, Midler

Is the result acceptable?: Absolutely. Great, great decision. Her winning again in 1984 was a bit unnecessary, but here, absolutely she deserved it. Bette Midler would also have been just as good a decision, but I think Sally was the better decision.

Performances I suggest you see: Norma Rae. You must see it. It’s a film they should show you in high school. It’s essential to just being a person, it feels. You learn so many valuable lessons from this, and, for women especially. There aren’t enough female role models in films, and Norma Rae is definitely one of them. So, young girls (even older girls) should be shown this movie. And then Aliens. Show them they can do things politically and then kick some ass. Either way, see this movie. It’s amazing.

The China Syndrome. Holy shit, see this movie. I’m not kidding when I say — edge of your seat. It’s that good. That, and, if you’re politically-natured, watch this if you want to get upset at your government. For anything. It does rile you up (especially if you’re liberal-leaning). I’m not putting an opinion one way or the other on whether that’s a good thing, but it does stir feelings. As a movie person, that’s what matters to me. Plus, it’s so fucking good. Jack Lemmon is amazing. Jane Fonda is amazing. Michael Douglas. This is a movie that grabs you and makes you sweat a little more ever minute. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

The Rose is a good film, and you should see it for Midler’s performance. If you want a touchstone movie about singers, this is one of them. She’s so fucking good in this. This is the performance almost all others like this are measured by. Definitely check it out. She’s so amazing in it.

Then, Chapter Two is a Neil Simon movie. That alone should necessitate a watch. It’s also great. You get to see James Caan do a rom com and Marsha Mason be great like she always is. The writing on this is just phenomenal too. I really recommend this one.

And Startin Over — meh. It’s enjoyable. Take it or leave it. I don’t really feel one way or another about this one. Of all the films in this category to see, this is definitely the last one.


5) Clayburgh

4) Mason

3) Fonda

2) Midler

1) Field

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