The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1981

1981 is considered the worst year in Academy history. It’s not. In fact, the only part about it that’s so bad was Best Picture. Chariots of Fire is a terrible film. In fact, it’s the only bad film to ever win Best Picture (it should have even been nominated). Every other film that has won Best Picture were (taking into consideration their era) was of a certain quality. (Though, maybe Cavalcade is the other film that could be considered on the level of Chariots of Fire.) Otherwise, all the other choices were films that were good films overall — they just might have been bad choices for Best Picture. This was a film that shouldn’t have even been nominated. That’s why people consider this year so bad.

The rest of the year is actually pretty solid. Henry Fonda (finally!) wins Best Actor for On Golden Pond (talked about here). It had to happen, and was a great decision. Katharine Hepburn also wins Best Actress for the film (talked about here), which, while I’d have gone another way, is a fine decision. The category wasn’t that strong. John Gielgud wins Best Supporting Actor for Arthur (talked about here), which I absolutely love. Everything about that decision appeals to me (it’s one of my favorite films of all time, Gielgud was such a respected actor, and he was awesome in the role). And Best Director was Warren Beatty for Reds (talked about here), which is a fine decision, since Chariots of Fire could have won that too. I personally would have went with Spielberg (Raiders is awesome), but he won two later and Beatty is great.

Which brings us to this category. Supporting Actress is typically the weakest category in a given year, and this is no exception. There really isn’t a choice here, so the veteran win actually works out.


And the nominees were…

Melinda Dillon, Absence of Malice

Jane Fonda, On Golden Pond

Joan Hackett, Only When I Laugh

Elizabeth McGovern, Ragtime

Maureen Stapleton, Reds

Dillon — Absence of Malice sounded like it would be a good movie. It had all the pieces. But it never really materialized for me.

Paul Newman is the son of a dead mafia boss. One day he wakes up and finds an article in the appear that says he’s being investigated in the murder of a union boss. He’s tried really hard to distance himself from the crime, he’s very upset. He goes and contacts the writer, Sally Field, who found his name sitting in a file on a prosecutor’s desk, who, it turns out, left it there on purpose to find out what Newman knows. And the news basically fucks up Newman’s life, and he tries to tell the real story to Field, and ends up in a relationship with her, and then there’s that, and then he needs to clear his name — it’s that kind of story. It’s weird. It’s not a thriller, and it’s not really a — I don’t know what it is. The tone just felt flat to me.

Melinda Dillon plays Newman’s friend, who is his alibi. He’d been keeping quiet to protect her, but she comes to Sally Field and tells her that Newman couldn’t have killed the dude because he was with her at the time, helping her get an abortion. And Field wants to use that to clear him, but she doesn’t want that Field to say it publicly because she’s very catholic. And Field does this anyway, and Dillon ends up killing herself. That’s basically the performance. She’s only in the film for one, maybe two scenes. Next to nothing. I’m shocked they nominated her here. She’s clearly a #5. She is barely in this movie.

Fonda — I love On Golden Pond. The loons!

The film is about Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn returning to their summer home on Golden Pond, which they’ve been doing for over forty years. They go there, and Fonda is older, and he’s coming to terms with being old, and out of nowhere, their daughter (played by Jane, in a nice meta role) comes and tells them she’s engaged (or married. Either way). She brings her fiancé, and his son, and asks them to watch the son while they go on their honeymoons. And the next part of the film is Fonda and Hepburn bonding with the son — he’s kind of a dick at first, but they soften him up and all that — them going fishing, and all that. Then there’s the requisite emotional moments — just watch the movie. It’s amazing.

Fonda is really strong here. I really liked her moments with her father, since the relationship in the film really does mirror their real life relationship. I think that really added to the role. Plus this category was so weak, I think her performance automatically jumps to the top of the list. I thought she was terrific. The only snag is the fact that she won twice. I don’t know if I want to give her the third one.

Hackett — Only When I Laugh is about Marsha Mason, an alcoholic actress who comes out of rehab and is dealing with being sober. And all these stresses are put upon her, and she has to try really hard not to drink again. It’s an insanely good movie. Neil Simon films tend to be really good.

Joan Hackett plays Mason’s friend, who is way too concerned with her looks and is deathly afraid of getting old. That’s the bare basis of the character. There really isn’t all that much to say, since that’s basically all she does. But when you watch the film, she is a strong character. Hackett does a really good job with the role. Thing is, though, I don’t think she was worth any more than a nomination. She was really good, but not good enough for a vote. Even in this category.

McGovern — Ragtime is a film based on the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name. It’s big, it’s epic, and it’s about how bad white people were to black people at the turn of the century. The book, I mean. The movie isn’t that big and epic. It actually tries to be and just isn’t. Milos Forman is a director that makes big stories smaller.

This is also James Cagney’s final film. So that’s something.

The film is split between two stories, two of which converge, the other one (the one we’re talking about, conveniently) has really nothing to do with anything. The first two are a family that takes on a child, and — it’s really boring, doesn’t matter. The other two are a black pianist who, over a minor traffic incident, ends up becoming a radical terrorist, and this story. Evelyn Nesbit.

For those not familiar with Evelyn Nesbit, she was a vaudeville dancer who was very — lively. She had lots of affairs, and, after one of them, her husband shot her lover. And then she ha da high profile divorce from him, and became really famous for it. Big tabloid affair.

Elizabeth McGovern plays Evelyn Nesbit, and does a great job at characterizing this woman. I really liked the character. I wish she was in the film more. It would have made things a lot more interesting. I really liked the performance a lot. She has a scene where she argues with two lawyers while completely naked. She plays the scene completely naked and arguing trial points with lawyers. That alone earns her at least third here.

Stapleton — Reds is a big film about John Reed, the author of Ten Days that Shook the World. He’s played by Warren Beatty. The film is told in an interesting fashion. Have you seen Band of Brothers? It’s told like that. Historians, and actors playing people they knew (or actual people they knew) talk about them, documentary style, and then they intercut the events of the film. It’s exactly like Band of Brothers.

Beatty is an American socialist and is trying to advocate communism. And the first half of the film is him getting together with Diane Keaton, and then him leaving her, and her being with Eugene O’Neill for a while, and then him returning. Then the second half of the film is the Russian Revolution, and him and her going there to check it out, and him dying. That’s the barebones of the story. There’s a lot more to it than that. Obviously. It’s a three and a half hour movie.

Maureen Stapleton plays the leader of Beatty’s communist group, only she’s a lot more radical than she is. She’s into the bombings and shit. And Beatty’s not that extreme, so she questions his resolve. Now — I haven’t seen this film in a while (like I’m gonna watch this movie again just for this performance), but, when I watched it, I could swear to you that Maureen Stapleton is only in like two scenes of this film. She has nothing to do with the film and is barely on screen. I’m convinced she only won this because she’s Maureen Stapleton.

Now, I am not 100% convinced I’m remembering this correctly. It’s the kind of thing where — I don’t remember, and I’m not watching a 3 1/2 hour movie again just to quibble over screen time. But, when I watched the film, I did watch specifically to gauge whether I thought the performance was okay to have won. And, I started watching the film, and I got into it. So I wasn’t watching with an eye for screen time. But, when the film was over, I stopped and said, “Wait, Maureen Stapleton hasn’t done anything! She hasn’t been here for like two hours!” So I’m convinced she was only in like two scenes. Even in those two scenes, I remember specifically thinking that she wasn’t good enough to win. There was nothing exceptional here. She won because the category’s week and because she’s Maureen Stapleton.

My Thoughts: This is tough. I didn’t like Dillon’s performance or Stapleton’s, and Hackett to me was nomination but no win (she’s awesome in the film, though). So it’s between McGovern, who was awesome as Evelyn Nesbit, and Jane Fonda, who gave a great performance opposite her father.

For me, Fonda gave the strongest performance. But, she had two Oscars already, so she didn’t need this. I want to not vote for her, but I really don’t have anyone else to vote for. McGovern isn’t really in the film for all that much (even though I’d have liked for her to be). This is though.

Fuck it. I have to vote for Fonda. She gave the best performance. My rationalization is that McGovern didn’t have that big a role, and I only voted for Fonda for one of her two Oscars. So, to me, that makes it more acceptable. Ask me tomorrow, I might switch my vote to McGovern, for here, I’ll stick with Fonda. It’s not the strongest opinion. More of a, “I’m voting for her, but if someone else wins, I’m cool.” But I’ll stick with it.

My Vote: Fonda

Should Have Won: Fonda, McGovern. (They gave the best performances.) And Stapleton. (For her veteran status.)

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. I didn’t like it as much at first, since I didn’t think there was much of a performance there, but, really, this category was wide open. Like 1992, when Nicholson had two already and was clearly the best performance. Fonda didn’t need this, so whoever won would have been okay, to varying degrees. Maureen Stapleton was well respected and was the classiest decision they could have made. Of the rest of the performances that weren’t Fonda, I’d have voted McGovern, but, this decision was fine. I’m cool with it. Not flashy, but classy.

Performances I suggest you see: On Golden Pond. Why wouldn’t you see it? It’s awesome, it has Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. Don’t hate on old people. See this movie. It’s amazing.

Reds is really awesome. Way too long, but as a film, it’s really strong, and very interestingly done. It’s unlike any other film of its kind. The Band of Brothers of films. You should see it once, just to have seen it. Do it once, and then you don’t have to feel bad about not having seen it. Don’t let the run time stop you.

Only When I Laugh is a great film. Put it this way — The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl, Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective — Neil Simon is a great writer and produces good stuff. I don’t know why you wouldn’t watch this based solely on who wrote it. It’s great. Marsha Mason gave an Oscar-worthy performance, and everyone in the cast is fantastic. This is definitely one of my favorite films I discovered because of this Oscar Quest.

Ragtime is pretty good. Didn’t love it, but it has its moments. Check it out if you like the book, want to see Jimmy Cagney in his last performance, or want to see Elizabeth McGovern totally naked and arguing with lawyers. It takes a special performance to pull that one off.


5) Dillon

4) Stapleton

3) McGovern

2) Hackett

1) Fonda


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