The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1980

1980 is the beginning of what I consider the single worst decade in the history of the Academy Awards (not to mention the beginning of what would lead to our current state of events in the industry). The 80s, to me, are a decade that not only has the weakest Oscar years, but also the single worst decisions. Of 10 Best Picture choices, I think only two of the 80s decisions are strong, with two okay ones (from weak categories), two obvious ones, and the rest, terrible.

As for 1980, Ordinary People wins Best Picture, Best Director for Robert Redford (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actor for Timothy Hutton (talked about here). The Hutton decision is a good one (even though he’s really the lead of the film), but the other two — they beat Raging Bull. I think we all agree they were terrible. Then, Best Actor was Robert De Niro for Raging Bull, which is clearly one of the best decisions of all time in the category, and Best Supporting Actress was Mary Steenburgen for Melvin and Howard (talked about here), which — meh.

So that’s 1980. Fortunately, this category makes up for the rest of the stuff. I know some people would have went another way, but historically, I think this was a terrific decision.


And the nominees were…

Ellen Burstyn, Resurrection

Goldie Hawn, Private Benjamin

Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People

Gena Rowlands, Gloria

Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter

Burstyn — Resurrection is a film about a woman who gets in a car accident, and miraculously ends up with magical healing powers. And she heals some people, and it’s about her dealing with these newfound powers, and how it drives everyone away from her. It’s a pretty boring film, and looks like a TV movie. The concept is interesting, but it’s pretty much a bore to watch.

Burstyn plays the woman. The performance is — it’s there. Honestly, it’s nothing close to any of the other performances she was nominated for. She’s easily a #5 here.

Hawn — Private Benjamin is the quintessential Goldie Hawn vehicle. She plays, basically the same character she always plays — the ditzy, naive woman — whose husband (Albert Brooks, in a nice cameo) dies on their wedding night (at what you can imagine to be the most comedic moment for him to die on his wedding night), and she, in her grief, is conned by a recruiting sergeant (Harry Dean Stanton, another great cameo) into joining the army. And the rest of the film is about her treating it as a joke, but then growing up and taking it seriously — it’s quite a funny film.

Hawn is great, since it’s right up her alley. She made a career on these characters. This is probably her greatest one, hence the nomination. (Her other great one is in Cactus Flower, which she actually won for.) She shouldn’t have won for this at all, but it’s a great performance. It definitely helps the rest of this list, outside of the two obvious contenders, but she had no shot here.

Moore — Ordinary People, as I always say, is a film whose only flaw is that it won. It’s about a middle class family, dealing with a tragedy. The oldest son died during a freak boating accident, and the youngest son, unable to cope with it, tries to kill himself. And we start with him going to see a psychiatrist, and over the course of the film, we see him talk to the shrink and start to understand why he is the way he is. Basically, he’s filled with not only guilt for having survived, but also we find out how his mother (played by Moore) has turned cold toward everyone. She puts up a facade for the neighbors, but inside, she has completely shut herself off to her husband and son. And her husband (Donald Sutherland), tries to forge a connection with his son, but isn’t assertive enough to do anything about his wife. It’s a great film.

Moore is terrific here, and a lot of people would consider her performance to be the best in the category. I understand this. I think she might actually have given the best performance in the category. It comes down to her and Sissy Spacek. I’ve been avoiding a decision as to who I’m voting for as long as possible.

Rowlands — Gloria is a film that, for true John Cassavetes fans, they’ll look at and shake their heads. It’s kind of like if some indie darling like David Gordon Green went and started making nothing but mainstream stoner comed… oh.

Gena Rowlands plays a hooker who ends up in care of her neighbor’s son. Her neighbor was an accountant for the mob who double-crossed them. And the film opens with him in his apartment, knowing men are coming to kill him, and him trying to send his son and daughter off so they don’t have to be killed too (since they’re coming to kill everyone). It’s actually a really great sequence, and it’s a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t live up to it. And what happens is, only the son survives, and he ends up with Rowlands, who decides to protect him from the mob.

It’s — not that great, honestly. A lot of what’s wrong with the film is how bad the boy’s performance is. I bet if you looked up a list of worst performances by child actors, this kid would be on that list. (Also, to note, Sofia Coppola was 20 for Godfather III. I’m talking, under 12.) The other thing that’s not great about it is how it feels like a 70s movie going through 80s filmmaking. There’s no sense of that grittiness. Here it’s like  — when you watch the action scenes, it’s like you’re watching Lethal Weapon action scenes with a Klute plot or something. Not that either of these films narratively have anything to do with these films, but I’m talking aesthetically. You have the slow 70s type plot, and then the 80s action scenes with the music and the car chases — it just feels studio manufactured.

Rowlands if okay, but — after performances like A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night — this is laughable that she was nominated for this. She’s my #5, but since Ellen Burstyn actually had an Oscar already, that might actually bump her to #4. Either way, I’d vote for Goldie Hawn over her in this category. That’s how much I don’t like this movie (as an Oscar nominee. And also kind of in general.) So no vote. Can’t do it.

Spacek — And, Sissy. Coal Miner’s Daughter is a classic musical biopic. It document’s Loretta Lynn’s life, from age 13, where she got married, to her success as a country music star, to the requisite nervous breakdown, to her return to success. It’s great.

Sissy Spacek is amazing here. One might say it’s the same type of role she always seems to play, and I can understand that. But there’s no denying that this was a terrific performance. The category really does come down to her and Mary Tyler Moore. And now I’m gonna have to decide which to vote for. Envy me, people.

My Thoughts: This category easily comes down to Spacek and Moore. Burstyn had one, and I think she only got nominated because of who she is (and because the year was weak). Hawn was nice, but that nomination wasn’t going anywhere. And Rowlands — I honestly don’t even understand why she was nominated. Of all the performances she gave, this is what they nominated? (I’m pretty sure that Spanish kid’s performance immediately disqualifies her from winning here. Or, on the other hand, might mean she has to win, since she gave a performance in spite of that kid.)

So it’s Spacek and Moore. Both were terrific. Every time I watch the performances, I fluctuate between which I want to vote for. And since Sissy Spacek is more of a film actress, and has had lots of nominations — I think that makes her the vote here. I understand if someone would vote for Moore instead, but to me, Spacek is the vote. All things considered (which has to be the case, since I honestly can’t decide between the performances), I vote Spacek.

My Vote: Spacek

Should Have Won: Spacek, Moore

Is the result acceptable?: Oh hell yeah. She was gonna get one at some point. This prevented it from being one of her lesser roles. Terrific decision.

Performances I suggest you see: Ordinary People is a terrific film whose only flaw is that it won Best Picture over Raging Bull. Otherwise, it’s really well done and a really strong piece of cinema. Definitely worth checking out, and is a Best Picture winner, which gives it an added element of “must see.”

Coal Miner’s Daughter is another classic. Spacek and Jones are terrific, and it’s a great film. Highly recommended, and also kind of a must-see.

Private Benjamin is a lot of fun, and is definitely one of the better films to see from all the Oscar nominees, simply because it’s so light. Usually you have to sit through this heavy stuff when watching Oscar movies, and it weighs on you after a while. This is a nice breath of fresh air because you can just sit and enjoy it. It’s also one of the better comedies of the 80s, so that also makes it worth checking out. Highly recommended.

Resurrection looks like a TV movie, and won’t be for about 90% of the people who embark on this Quest. It’s slow, and not much happens. Maybe you’ll enjoy it, but it’s definitely not one for me to recommend. And Gloria — don’t bother. Seriously. Unless you love Cassavetes. Or want to see a generic “hooker with a heart of gold protects young boy from the mob” movies with a laughable performance by the boy, and generic 80s action. In a way, it’s perfect it came out in 1980, because it’s a film that might have worked if it were made in 1973, but here, it has all the hallmarks of an 80s film, and just feels like a sour version of the 1970s. Not worth it unless you want to see how bad it is.


5) Burstyn

4) Rowlands

3) Hawn

2) Moore

1) Spacek

One response

  1. D.O.

    really…I think you arent capturing the “feel” of the time in your break down. I guess standing the test of time is a measure of great films; however, you have to take into account context more strongly then you do.

    March 7, 2012 at 1:18 am

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