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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actress, 1979-1980)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1979

Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer

Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away

Candice Bergen, Starting Over

Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan

Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer

Analysis:

Kramer vs. Kramer is one of the most honest films about divorce that there’s ever been.

The opening scene is Meryl Streep telling her son she has to go away, as she proceeds to leave her husband, Dustin Hoffman. To find herself. Then for much of the film, Hoffman is forced to both work (he’s a workaholic) and take care of his son on his own. So we watch him struggle at first, but then learn how to become a father. And then, Meryl comes back, realizes she fucked up, and wants to see her son again. And Hoffman doesn’t want to let her. So she takes him to court. And the rest of the film is a brutal custody battle. It’s so good. I honestly don’t think there’s a false note in this movie.

Jane Alexander plays a single parent who, at the outset, is friends with Meryl. She’s confided in her all these things about her relationship. So, having heard the one side, she thinks Meryl was right to do what she did and was being brave. And then, as Hoffman becomes more of a father, she becomes good friends with him. She gets a good moment on the stand at the end where she says that yes, she did tell Meryl to leave Hoffman, but Hoffman isn’t the same man he was when she said that.

Alexander’s really good in the film, because she gets to be the person who speaks frankly about divorce and what it’s like to be a single parent. And you get the sense that this is a real person and not just someone there for Hoffman to talk to. It’s an impressive performance. The only negative is that she had to go up against Meryl in the same film.

Meryl, as I said, plays the mother. And she is so good in this movie. Just watching the courtroom scene, and even the final scene… it speaks for itself. There’s nothing I can say about this performance that hasn’t already been said. There’s no denying that she’s tops in the category. It’s not worth trying to hide the fact that she’s gonna be the vote. Of all the Best Supporting Actress categories, this is one of the most open and shut ones.

Breaking Away is this crazy awesome film that people don’t even really know anymore. It’s so great.

A kid in a small town is really into cycling. Specifically the Italian cycling team. And there’s a lot of small town politics — the rich kids and the poor kids whose parents work in the quarries — and the kid and his friends get into cycling and end up competing against the rich kids. Trust me, it’s great. It’s really great. It draws you in with a bunch of likable scenes, and the final bike race is so good. I loved this movie.

Barbara Barrie plays the main character’s mother. Who mostly exists to support her son. It’s a standard mother role. A lot of her scenes are to be the supportive mother to the father who is against what the son is doing. You’ve seen this a bunch in these kinds of movies (actually, you see the exact same sort of performance in Eddie the Eagle this year). She came along for the ride with the film. A nice veteran nomination. She’s amusing, but you can’t vote for her. Though I will say, this is a sneaky good performance. Better than you’d think.

Starting Over is a fun little comedy. Burt Reynolds divorces his wife, who wants to go off and be a singer. He then meets a schoolteacher and starts a relationship with her. He puts his life back together. Oh, but then the wife comes back, threatening to end it all when she decides she wants to be back in his life.

Candice Bergen plays the wife. She’s funny in the film. It’s a broad performance. The joke is that she wants to be a singer, but she’s terrible. So she sings these songs with complete and utter conviction, but she’s awful. She’s totally committed to the role, and that really helps her fit as a nominee. This isn’t just some idle nomination. She earns it. That said, I wouldn’t take her. Maybe she’s a third choice at best, though I’m thinking fourth.

Manhattan is a Woody Allen movie that’s one of his most famous. And also one of the ones I despise. Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain it. But I hate this movie. And he doesn’t love it either. Which I like to point out.

The film admittedly begins with one of the most famous openings of all time. It’s about Woody Allen starting to date a 17 year old girl. And deal with all the women in his life, and his career, and all of that. That’s pretty much it.

Mariel Hemingway plays the 17 year old girl. And, maybe some people love the performance, but to me, this is the most unrealistic 17 year old girl there’s ever been. I know that’s the point, and the movie even says as much, but come on. I don’t think she accomplishes all that much, and it may be prejudice against the film. You may feel differently. That’s fine. This wasn’t for me. Doesn’t matter, since there’s an unimpeachable winner in this category.

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The Reconsideration: Pretty much no matter how you slice it, this is Meryl’s category all the way. The only question is how you rank the other four. I don’t even think I need to say all that much about this one. Would anyone really take someone other than Meryl here? I’d be really interested to hear the rationale behind that. (And no, she’s not a lead. Don’t even try that argument.)

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Rankings (category):

  1. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  2. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  3. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  4. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  5. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan

Rankings (films):

  1. Kramer vs. Kramer
  2. Breaking Away
  3. Starting Over
  4. Manhattan

My Vote: Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer

Recommendations:

Kramer vs. Kramer is an essential film, and is actually one of the all time greats. Must see for all film fans. It’s absolutely lovely and perfect in its own way.

Breaking Away is so awesome. I love it. It’s not essential, and I don’t even want to oversell it, because it’s not that great. But it’s charming as hell, has a bunch of recognizable faces in it from forty years ago, and it’s just so enjoyable. Highly recommended little gem that’s been forgotten.

Manhattan is probably essential. I don’t love it, but I’m objective enough to realize that it’s one of Woody Allen’s five most essential films, which makes it an essential film for any movie buff. So there.

Starting Over is a fun comedy/romantic comedy. Not overly great or essential, but worth a watch. It’s fun. And it got two major Oscar nominations, which means Oscar buffs would want to check it out. Otherwise, see it if you think you’ll like it. It’s pretty good.

The Last Word: It’s Meryl. Not a whole bunch more to say about it. Watch the performance. It wins this category.

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1980

Eileen Brennan, Private Benjamin

Eva La Gallienne, Resurrection

Cathy Moriarty, Raging Bull

Diana Scarwid, Inside Moves

Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard

Analysis:

Private Benjamin is basically female Stripes. You’ve seen the basic plot before this and after this. It’s funny, but it’s not original.

Goldie Hawn plays Judy Benjamin, whose husband dies on their wedding night (during sex). She’s duped into joining the army, and of course she has no idea what it’s really like. And a lot of the film is her comically not having any fucking clue what the army is and facing the harsh realities of having to actually be a soldier. Comedy ensues, and of course she grows up and becomes a real soldier.

Eileen Brennan plays the hard as nails captain who can’t stand Judy. She’s the comic foil. At first she takes glee in punishing her, but then after a while, wants her to just go, because she’s a disgrace to the army. And of course by that point, Hawn wants to stay, so Brennan does everything she can to try to sabotage her. And then she’s the target of pranks and things like that. If you’ve seen any army comedy, you know exactly what this role is.

Brennan was a vet by this point, and this was a nice way to pair her with Hawn and get her a nomination. She’s good. Very much a solid comic performance. Not sure I can put her any higher than third in the category. It feels a bit overdone at times. It gets close to being over the top, but doesn’t ever fully go there. Like a lot of nominees that I seem to bump up against this go-round, her character has no arc. She’s just a foil. So she’s great within the confines of the performance, but it doesn’t feel like a role designed to do anything more than get laughs. And I think the lack of a real framework for the character is what keeps me from wanting to vote for this.

Resurrection is a weird movie that’s all but forgotten now.

Ellen Burstyn is a woman who gets in a car crash, and when she wakes up, she realizes she has the power to heal people. Not everyone, but most people. So naturally she becomes a bit of a celebrity, and people wonder where the power comes from, etc. etc.

Eva Le Gallienne plays the main character’s grandmother. She was a stage actress from the 20s, and I think the nomination was a, “Oh, you’re a veteran we didn’t know about, but you’re in a high profile movie, so here’s a nomination.” It’s like Gloria Stuart and Titanic. No one knew who Gloria Stuart was or remembered her before that movie. Same deal.

She’s fine. It’s a very actorly performance. A lot of slow, southern drawl monologues. There to support the main character when everyone else is trying to use her for her powers or proclaim her some kind of messiah or whatever. It’s a grandmother performance by a veteran, nothing more. And she gets a death scene.

Wouldn’t take her here, nor would most people, I’d imagine. Maybe you make a case she’s fourth and not fifth, but I don’t know if I’d even go that far.

Raging Bull is one of the most famous films of all time. I’m not telling you what it’s about. This movie’s a prerequisite for even getting into movies.

Cathy Moriarty plays Vikki, who when we first see her is the hot 15-year-old of the neighborhood. All the mobsters want to sleep with her. Jake goes after her even though he’s married, and pretty soon the first wife is gone and he’s with her. He starts to get possessive, thinking she’s interested in and sleeping with other men. Eventually they divorce.

There’s not a real character arc to the character, and it’s actually one that could be very one dimensional. But she adds a certain depth to it. I can’t say it’s a perfect performance, and a lot of my love for it stems from my love for the film. I think that while she’s definitely a weaker actress than De Niro, whom she is paired with for almost all her scenes, she makes up for it by making what could be a nothing character into a memorable one. The lack of a real arc might hurt her in the end, though.

Inside Moves is an interesting 80s drama that no one remembers. I liked it.

John Savage (the third lead from Deer Hunter) tries to kill himself in the opening scene. It doesn’t work, so now he’s crippled. He becomes a barfly. In the bar, he meets the other outcasts (blind guy, guy with no hands, etc) and they become friends. Meanwhile, the bartender, is this nice guy who also has a bad leg. Only he’s also a really great basketball player, who could be playing professionally if he didn’t have a bad leg. So, one day, he ends up actually playing an NBA player one-on-one, and holding his own. The player thinks he can be good, so he puts up the money for the guy’s operation and gets him a tryout with the team, leading to him becoming a complete phenom. And the rest of the film is about him ignoring his old friends, feeling ashamed of where he came from. You know, that sort of thing. I really enjoyed it. I like films that start one place and go somewhere completely different by the end.

Diana Scarwid plays a waitress at the bar who starts a relationship with Savage. Her character doesn’t really serve a purpose other than to be a love interest or help the plot move along in certain places. She does a good job. It’s low-key, and the character feels like a real person. There are a couple of line deliveries that other actresses just wouldn’t go for, and that is what elevates the performance for me. I’m not sure she needed to be nominated, but it’s a solid performance that I’m very okay with. Wouldn’t take her at all, because there’s not enough to the performance to really make me want to do so, but I am okay with the nomination.

Melvin and Howard is a film based on an urban legend. Which are the best ones, really. It’s a bizarre little oddity directed by Jonathan Demme, of all people.

A regular guy picks up a stranger in the desert. The stranger crashed his motorcycle and is stuck on the side of the highway. The two ride back to Vegas, the stranger refusing any kind of medical help. They have a bizarre car ride back, singing songs and bonding. Eventually the man is dropped off outside a major hotel, and we realize the man is actually Howard Hughes.

We then follow the guy who picked him up for the rest of the film. He’s got a weird life. His wife leaves him to become a stripper, but then she comes back, pregnant, and ends up on a game show where she wins a bunch of money. They’re both basically white trash. Bad decisions, constantly splitting up, that sort of thing.

Eventually the guy discovers a letter that says Howard Hughs left him a bunch of money in his will, which of course no one believes, and he goes to court to say that he really did meet Hughes in the desert and became friends with him.

A guy really did claim this, and no one believed it and they said he forged the document, but it became a really interesting movie.

Mary Steenburgen plays the main character’s wife. She’s the one who leaves him to become a stripper. She’s not particularly bright. It’s actually the same kind of character Steenburgen’s played a lot throughout the years.

Mary Steenburgen winning this award is like Goldie Hawn winning in 1969. It’s charming, but now that she’s won, you realize she basically ended up playing the same part over and over. So when you go back to it, it seems unremarkable. It’s tough, trying to consider this objectively, because I’ve seen her do it so much.

I feel like this was much more of a fresh and likable performance in 1980. Though there’s no denying that tap dance number. That might seal the deal for her in this one. She’s got the right amount of energy and naiveté that works for the role. Sometimes it’s just a case of being in the right category in the right year, and that might be the case for her.

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The Reconsideration: Yeah… I took Moriarty last time because I love Raging Bull. And even though the performance is always solid for me, I only take it if the category is really weak. And this one is kinda weak. She almost made it through again for me. Because I can’t see taking anyone else. I like Scarwid’s performance more than the average viewer (mostly because the average viewer either hasn’t seen Inside Moves or wouldn’t consider her seriously as a nominee). I enjoy Brennan’s performance for what it’s worth, and Le Gallieenne I’d never vote for. Can’t convince myself to vote for any of these. So that leaves Steenburgen, who, while she’s done this a bunch after this (and that doesn’t matter so much), is really charming and adds a lot to what could be a very flimsy character. She has an innocence and charm that helps keep a pretty unlikable character afloat. And honestly I’ll take that. Maybe on another day I’ll go back to Moriarty, but today I’m feeling Steenburgen.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard
  2. Cathy Moriarty, Raging Bull
  3. Eileen Brennan, Private Benjamin
  4. Diana Scarwid, Inside Moves
  5. Eva La Gallienne, Resurrection

Rankings (films):

  1. Raging Bull
  2. Private Benjamin
  3. Inside Moves
  4. Melvin and Howard
  5. Resurrection

My Vote: Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard

Recommendations:

Raging Bull is non-negotiable. You see it.

Private Benjamin is one of the great comedies. Not really essential, but fun. Plus, you’ve basically seen it if you’ve seen army comedies. Even if you haven’t, you put it on and can see every beat coming, for the most part. It’s good, but you don’t need to see it.

Inside Moves is a movie most people would never ever see. And I think it’s worth a watch. I think it’s underrated and is a nice little gem. Is it great? No. But it’s good enough to warrant a watch for how little everyone knows about it. It deserves more of an audience, and the only way it’s gonna get that is if more people give it a shot. So, for that end, give it a shot. I really like it as a movie you know nothing about that you like more than you expect to.

Melvin and Howard is essential for Oscar buffs because of the win, and worth it because of the weird story at its center and because of the first twenty minutes, which are awesome. Not essential all time, but worth a watch for reasons already stated and because it’s just an entertaining movie. Overall worth it.

Resurrection — ehh. Don’t love it, wasn’t particularly engaged by it, can’t really recommend it all that much. Oscar buffs might look to it because of two acting nominations. Outside of that, can’t see too many people really wanting to check this out unless they have a really specific reason to do so (which only you’d know, if you do).

The Last Word: You might make a case for all five. I feel Le Gallienne is least likely to get votes. Brennan probably wouldn’t get many either. Scarwid I know won’t get votes because no one will see the film. It’s pretty much always gonna be between Steenburgen and Moriarty for most people. A lot of people would take Moriarty on film alone, and I can’t completely disagree with that (though I might disagree with the methods, unless you made an actual case for taking her based on performance). Steenburgen makes the most sense as one people would take. I think both are solid choices. Depending on the day, I’d take either of them. So they’re both worthy.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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