The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1983

I like 1983. I don’t necessarily agree with the Best Picture choice, but it’s not terrible. Terms of Endearment wins Best Picture, and, while I’d have gone with The Right Stuff, I’m cool with it winning. Either way, it’s a pretty weak year for Best Picture (though, admittedly, amongst the other winners of the 80s, this is actually one of the better ones). James L. Brooks wins Best Director for the film, which is very acceptable, since for some reason Philip Kaufman wasn’t nominated for The Right Stuff. Jack Nicholson also won Best Supporting Actor for the film, which, as I said here, I don’t particularly like, since, Jack didn’t need it, and Sam Shepard was badass as Chuck Yeager.

Best Actor this year was Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies. I don’t particularly love the performance, but Duvall was terribly overdue by this point, and the category wasn’t that strong. So he was a good decision. And Best Supporting Actress was Linda Hunt for The Year of Living Dangerously (talked about here), which is a great decision, especially since she played a man in her film! And nobody noticed!

So in all, not a terrible year, 1983. In fact, really strong, in context. And this category — this is a stacked year for Best Actress. All five of these performances are really fucking good. It’s rare to have a year where all five performances were good enough to be at worst a #3 for most years.


And the nominees were…

Jane Alexander, Testament

Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment

Meryl Streep, Silkwood

Julie Walters, Educating Rita

Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment

Alexander — Testament is the film that’s all too likely to get swept under the rug from this category. It’s actually a really solid film.

The film is about Jane Alexander. Mother of two kids, lives in the suburbs outside San Francisco. One day, randomly, a nuclear attack occurs. Many of the U.S. cities are bombed out. And the neighborhood doesn’t know what to do, so they all sit tight. And the film is about them dealing with this, in the town, running out of food, no TV, no communication to anyone, no way to find out if everyone is all right, if things are going to be okay — just, immediacy of the situation at hand. And it’s nice. It’s a nice little film. A hidden gem of Oscar films.

Alexander is really solid here, but the film is so small, and Shirley MacLaine is so overdue, that she really never had a shot here. So I won’t pretend like she did. Film’s really good, though.

MacLaine — Terms of Enderment. And a double nomination. Bingo.

Terms of Endearment is a film about a mother/daughter relationship. Shirley MacLaine is an overbearing mother who loves her daughter a bit too much. Their relationship becomes strained because of it. Debra Winger is her daughter. And Winger goes and marries Jeff Daniels and has kids with him. And he’s a writer turned professor who is very unfaithful. And she has to deal with her choices. And then she has a brief affair with John Lithgow, but that ends, and she leaves Daniels, but then goes back to him, and there’s all that.

We’ll cut to Shirley MacLaine now. Shirley MacLaine is Winger’s mother, and her major arc in the film is, aside from being an overbearing mother, is that she meets her neighbor, Jack Nicholson. He’s a retired astronaut who parties and sleeps with women all the time. And she criticizes him for it, but eventually they become close and start dating and fall in love. And then, well — there’s this portion of the film.

Debra Winger finds out she’s got terminal cancer and will die. And she progressively gets sicker and then dies. And here’s where the film turns full on tearjerker. Shirley MacLaine has this great moment where Winger is in pain and flips out, telling the doctor to get some morphine for her daughter. Then Winger has this tearjerker moment when she says goodbye to her kids. It’s enough to make a grown man weep. This movie fucking destroyed me. And I knew it was coming.

MacLaine is really great in the film. To be perfectly honest, based solely on the film, I liked Winger’s performance better. But Shirley MacLaine — you have to understand — is an actress that deserves an Oscar. She should have won in 1960 so badly, and everyone knew about it. She needed to win this, the way Jack Lemmon needed to win in 1973, the way Henry Fonda needed to win in 1981, the way Paul Newman needed to win in 1986. It had to happen, and that’s that.

Streep — Silkwood is a really great film about Meryl Streep, a nuclear power plant worker. Her, her boyfriend (Kurt Russell), and their mutual friend (Cher, playing a lesbian) all work at the plant. And the big concern is accidentally being exposed to radiation. And the film is about Meryl becoming aware of the plant not taking certain safety precautions which leads to people being exposed to unnecessary radiation. And she meets with some people who are trying to unionize, and get the plant to follow some standards and practices. And pretty soon, her entire house becomes contaminated, and she thinks the plant did it on purpose to frame her. And she starts working to uncover the truth, and eventually is (maybe) killed for it. She died in a car crash, and there’s no evidence to suggest that it was or wasn’t a murder.

Streep is really good here (she always is). But she won the year before this for Sophie’s Choice. And if you think this performance compares to Sophie’s Choice, you are fucking high. Meryl is great, but not here. It’s like Brando and Daniel Day-Lewis, and Nicholson, either you need to vote for them all, or just the really exceptional ones, on the scale of their own performances. This category is too strong to be voting for Meryl for just anything.

Walters — Educating Rita is kind of like Pygmaion, in a way. Julie Walters is a lower class British woman who aspires to be cultured. She goes to Michael Caine, a professor who has stopped caring about his job (and his marriage to his cheating wife) and drinks all day. And he agrees to help Walters much the way Henry Higgins decides to help Eliza. It’s great fun to him, and he’s interested in this woman. And the film is about him teaching her to be more cultured.

It’s actually a very interesting film and features terrific performances by Walters and Caine. The kind of performances where I wouldn’t even think twice if someone said they were gonna vote for either of them. I actually said, after seeing the film, “Damn, I might still vote for Julie Walters here.” But, common sense prevailed, and I said Shirley MacLaine needed her Oscar.

Winger — Back to Terms. Debra Winger plays Shirley MacLaine’s daughter. Marital trouble, mommy issues, dies of cancer. Great performance. In a completely objective world, it would probably be between her and Julie Walters for a vote. But, Shirley needed to win, and that’s that.

My Thoughts: Oh, this sucks. And is great at the same time. Shirley MacLaine was owed an Oscar from 1960. She finally gets to get it here, and for a role that’s actually worth it. Debra Winger was also worth a win, as was Julie Walters, but, Shirley was long overdue and was good enough for a win, which means, she’s the vote, no matter what. No need to complicate things.

My Vote: MacLaine

Should Have Won: MacLaine

Is the result acceptable?: Great decision. Shirley had this coming for 23 years before this. She earned it. Granted, Debra Winger winning or Julie Walters winning would also have been great decisions, but since the Academy fucked up in 1960 and didn’t give it to Shirley MacLaine, her winning was the best possible decision here, and a good one for all time as well.

Performances I suggest you see: Terms of Endearment is a pretty essential film. And if you don’t want to watch it because you think it’s a chick flick, we’re not friends.

Educating Rita is a fantastic film, featuring two fantastic lead performances by Michael Caine and Julie Walters. It’s a really strong film, and worth checking out.

Silkwood is a great film. Great all around, and pretty famous too. Definitely worth checking out. Highly recommended.

And Testament — very interesting. Nice little hidden gem of a film. I recommend this one, because I think, while most people won’t see the good in this film, some people will really see it, and that’s why I’m recommending this. Some people will really see what’s so great about this film.


5) Alexander

4) Streep

3) Walters

2) Winger

1) MacLaine

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