The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1969-1970)
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.
Genevieve Bujold, Anne of the Thousand Days
Jane Fonda, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Liza Minnelli, The Sterile Cuckoo
Jean Simmons, The Happy Ending
Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Anne of the Thousand Days is the last of the British costume dramas. They had a good run. Becket, Man for All Seasons, The Lion in Winter. All well done and respected. This was that tipping point where they started to get a bit lifeless and turgid. You can see Lion in Winter starting to creak a bit. This was the first time it really descended into a bit of lifelessness, even though I still really like the film.
It’s about Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. He gets his other marriage annulled so he can marry her, and it’s about her humble beginnings and rise to his wife, to her downfall when she can’t bear him a son.
Genevieve Bujold plays Anne, and she’s great here. I voted for her last time. I love watching the character change, and become more sure of herself and more manipulative. I think the performance suffers from the lifeless nature of the film and a lack of overall screen time. She disappears for long stretches.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
PLEASE DEAR GOD I NEED TO KNOW IF THEY SHOOT HORSES.
I wonder if these are the same “They” who may or may not be giants.
Should we be on the lookout for possible giants who probably shoot horses.
This is a movie I knew nothing about going into the Quest, and I saw it pretty early on because it had so many overall nominations. (At first I was doing Oscars and Golden Globes. And what I did was total up the number of nominations the films had, and the higher the overall number, the quicker I watched them. And this had ten total, which is pretty high for just the Picture, Director and acting categories.) And I loved it. It’s so weird and different and perfect in its own way.
It’s about a dance competition on the Santa Monica pier. People show up to this crappy gymnasium, and they have a competition where anyone can enter and the rules are — you and a partner have to keep dancing at all times. They give them breaks every few hours and they get breaks for sleep, but otherwise, it’s grueling. And we follow two people in particular, but there are a number of characters the film pays attention to.
Jane Fonda plays the co-lead of the film There’s Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda. She shows up alone and they won’t let her in without a partner (hers is thrown out pretty early on). So she grabs him and he joins her. And they form this weird kinship throughout. She’s this deeply cynical and unhappy person. But there’s clearly more going on under the surface. And in the end, it’s her that turns the movie completely on its head in the final fifteen minutes.
This is really the first time she didn’t do something overly comedic and really stretched herself as an actress. Everything before this is stuff like Barefoot in the Park. And it shows. She’d deliver some real great, great performances over the years, and this was the first step toward that.
I used to think this was a starter nomination and that she was just a decent fourth choice. But honestly, having seen this movie again at least twice over the past four years, she’s top two. She’s really, really good here. At worst I think she’s a third choice. This is a very impressive performance. And the problem is whether or not I take her over the other competition.
The Sterile Cuckoo is a film I knew zero about and fell in love with.
It’s a simple story of young love. A guy is about to get on a bus to go to college. Also getting on the bus is Liza Minnelli, also going to school nearby. He’s quiet and reserved and she’s — Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Complete with the haircut. and she basically stalks him into a relationship. And at first it’s great. But pretty soon, she’s around so much it’s preventing him from doing any school work. And we watch the rise and fall of two young people in love for the first time. This is a late 60s version of the movie Like Crazy. Similar in themes and all that.
This is always an interesting nominee for me, because I always want to hear how people responded to it. If they’ve seen it, which is no guarantee. Sure, this is a bit of a stereotype role. Or at least it’s become one. Given that it’s 1969, you only really saw this type of character in screwball comedies. So to see it in a romance, where you really get to flesh out the drama and inner emotional issues of the character, it was quite a standout to me.
I also loved the performance. It was my favorite performance five years ago. Didn’t vote for her, for whatever reason. But I loved it. I thought she was so endearing her and delivered a terrific performance. This was her second film, by the way. And here she is, worthy of an Oscar. Definitely top two for me, and I’m thinking I’m gonna take her this time.
The Happy Ending is what I order at the massage parlor.
It’s about Jean Simmons as a housewife who wants something more. She dropped out of college to marry her husband and now 15 years later, is miserable. She skips out on her husband and boards a flight to the Bahamas. And as she does, we see how she ended up her. Vignettes of her life, suicide attempts, drinking. The whole thing.
It’s a good performance. The film is a little uneven, but Simmons is good in it. This is one of those nominations where a respected, veteran actress delivers a really good performance and finally the Academy can reward them with a nomination. She had no chance here, and even for my purposes, the unevenness of the film ultimately hurts any chance she had at a vote. She falls to fifth in this category, which is particularly strong at that. One of the stronger categories of all time. A fifth here might be a fourth or third in another year.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is all about Maggie.
She plays a teacher at a school who basically revolves everything around her. She teaches history, and pretty much just does what she wants. She talks up people like Mussolini and tells stories about her life and all the things she’s done. An she has a group of girls who are openly her favorites, and she treats them better than the other students. And it’s about her relationship with the girls, and how one of them starts to hate her — it’s a weird story, actually.
Maggie Smith is great here. It’s a solid performance and perfectly solid as a winner. Thing is — I just think the performance is very good. I don’t look at it and want to vote for it. I don’t have the passion for it that I do some of the other nominees. Every time I go over this category, I’m left liking the Maggie Smith performance but never really wanting to vote for it.
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The Reconsideration: There’s one constant between my initial write up of this category five years ago and my reevaluation of it — Maggie Smith never factors into my vote. Not once.
Jean Simmons always feels like a filler nominee and one of those token nominations for good actresses. (See: Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Ava Gardner.) Easy fifth.
Genevieve Bujold, who was my #1 last time, falls to fourth for me this time. I love the performance, but watching it again, I’ve found others holding up better over time. They were all pretty bunched up for me last time, so it’s not as precipitous fall as the numbers might suggest. I think there’s not a whole lot for her to work with, and there are long stretches where she’s off screen, which hurts her in the end. Especially in such a tight category.
And Maggie — she’s great. If she gave this performance in 1968, I might have voted for it. She still won, so it doesn’t really matter But I just don’t love it enough over the remaining two to take it.
So we have Jane Fonda and Liza Minnelli. Last time, Jane Fonda I thought was solid but never really considered her for a vote because she’d be better later and win two later. But I am way more impressed by this performance now than I was five years ago. But while I really respect it and think she’s great, I don’t love it.
Liza Minnelli’s performance, however, I love. And I loved it last time. And she narrowly missed being my vote last time because last time I was hung up on the logistics. She’d win one later. Here, it’s all about the performance. And on performance alone, I take Liza Minnelli.
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- Liza Minnelli, The Sterile Cuckoo
- Jane Fonda, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
- Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
- Genevieve Bujold, Anne of the Thousand Days
- Jean Simmons, The Happy Ending
- They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
- The Sterile Cuckoo
- Anne of the Thousand Days
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
- The Happy Ending
My Vote: Liza Minnelli, The Sterile Cuckoo
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a great film. Close to essential, but probably not. Though I would tell most film buffs to consider it essential, because it should be seen. It won an Oscar was nominated for a bunch more (I feel like this has the distinction of being the film to garner the most overall nominations without a Best Picture nomination), and is just a great movie. Consider it essential, because it’s incredible.
Anne of the Thousand Days is a costume drama. Man for All Seasons, Lion in Winter, Becket. If you like those, you’ll like this. Simple as that. The least essential of the four, but still worth seeing. If you really hate the others, you can skip it, but otherwise it’s really good.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is essential for Oscar buffs, just a solid recommend for everyone else. It’s really about Maggie’s performance (though the lead girl is also very good). Worth seeing, but not something you need to rush out and find. Deep queue movie.
The Sterile Cuckoo is an incredible film that I love. Real hidden gem from the 60s that nobody remembers anymore. Highly recommended and you should check it out if you ever get the chance. Great stuff.
The Happy Ending is also worth seeing. Kind of a hidden gem. Very good, but not great. I call it a moderate to high recommend, overall. Good but not great, and definitely worth a watch.
The Last Word: Great category. Hard to have a problem with Maggie Smith winning. And she holds up just fine. Fonda would win two, Minnelli would win one, Bujold didn’t need one and Simmons shouldn’t have won for this. All things considered, this was probably the best choice in the category. Some might prefer another performance (as I do, with Minnelli), but it’s hard to take issue with the result.
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Jane Alexander, The Great White Hope
Glenda Jackson, Women in Love
Ali MacGraw, Love Story
Sarah Miles, Ryan’s Daughter
Carrie Snodgress, Diary of a Mad Housewife
The Great White Hope is one of my favorite discoveries on this Quest. James Earl Jones is a revelation here.
He plays Jack Johnson, a boxer from the early 1900s, who was the best boxer in the world. To most, he was a disgrace. A black world champion? Sacrilege. The press drums up a story of a “great white hope” who will defeat him and take the belt from him. Meanwhile, he’s loud, cocky and does not give a fuck. He openly has a white mistress and flaunts it in front of the white people, who aren’t happy. They’re looking for any reason to take him down. And that’s the film, about how his own hubris eventually harms him. It’s wonderful.
Jane Alexander plays the white mistress. She’s very good here. I can’t help but feel she’s somewhat supporting, but even so, she’s very strong in the role and does exactly what’s required of her in a very complicated role. I’d say, in this category she rates top three. Definitely would consider her for a vote here.
Women in Love is a film that I hated the last time I did this Quest. I so utterly discounted the Glenda Jackson win and basically spit nothing but vitriol on the performance and the film. Which made it of extreme importance that I 100% watch this film again for this category.
And, having watched it yet again — absolutely not. This movie bored the absolute shit out of me, and I still don’t get what the appeal is.
It’s about two sisters who go to a wedding and start hanging out with two of the members of the wedding. And the two of them sit around and discuss love and marriage and stuff, and
Every time I watch this movie, I cannot fathom what everyone saw in the Glenda Jackson performance. First, I’m not entirely sure she’s a lead. She disappears for long stretches and much of the film focuses on her sister. If she won Best Supporting Actress, I wouldn’t have been so upset about the whole thing. It’s also pretty incomprehensible as to what’s going on. There’s literally a scene where she dances in a field with some water buffalo (or something like that). Not to mention the naked wrestling scene between the guys.
I was looking for something, anything to not rank this performance as #5. And I couldn’t do it. This remains, in my mind, the single weakest Best Actress winning performance of all time. I do not understand it at all. And I ask, please, what am I missing? I see nothing here. This, at best, is a Best Supporting Actress winner, and even then I don’t see why it got nominated for anything. And she practically swept all the precursors and critics groups (because I had to look it up). Didn’t win the precursors, but was nominated. And swept a lot of the critics stuff like NBR. Don’t get it. Number five for me, and that almost never happens with a winner.
Love Story is one of those films — I love talking about it. People’s reactions to it are wildly varied. It ranges from “I love this movie” to “Yeah, it’s fine” to “This was a huge, contrived piece of shit.”
Most people know the movie. It was the biggest movie in the world in 1970 and 1971. Until The Godfather, I’m pretty sure this one of the highest grossing films of all time at the time. It might have been #1, but I forget the specifics. The point is — huge hit. Some people loved it, some people hated it. Then, now. Still the same.
The plot is simple — Ryan O’Neal is a Harvard kid and Ali MacGraw is — in some school nearby. They meet one day in the library and strike up a conversation. They date. They fall in love. They get married. He comes from money, she does not. He has a strained relationship with his father. She and her father are pals. And we watch them and their relationship until (spoiler alert), she gets terminally ill and dies. It’s one of the great film romances of all time.
I love it. I fell in love hard with this movie. Not everyone will. Harvard, I’m pretty sure, has screenings of this movie every year where people shit on it. To each his own. Most of this holds up. The “love means never having to say you’re sorry doesn’t so much. But the rest of it does.
Ali MaGraw is lovely here. It’s the kind of role that makes you fall in love with her and weep when she dies. She wasn’t an experienced actress and one could easily argue she doesn’t fully pull it off. Though I’m not sure just how much is really required of her anyway.
This is the kind of performance I (and many people) understand has its limitations, but it’s so charming that I don’t really care. Especially in a category like this, where she easily rises to the top. Last time, it wasn’t even a question that I was gonna take her. Now, I see an interesting scenario where there are three choices to be had, potentially.
Ryan’s Daughter is David Lean five years past the point of making great epics.
This movie is three and a half hours long, and boy, do you feel it.
Sarah Miles is an Irish girl who marries an older schoolteacher (Robert Mitchum, who doesn’t feel like he belongs in movies after 1965). Meanwhile, British soldiers are stationed nearby (not sure if you guys know this, but Britain and Ireland — big fans of one another), and she starts fucking one of the soldiers.
Three and a half hours.
Miles is good here. I always say that any actress who delivers a three and a half hour performance in a David Lean movie is worthy of a nomination. Haven’t seen the performance in five years. Don’t really need to. Wouldn’t take it. I knew enough about the performance last time. She’s just okay. Fourth, maybe fifth choice. Nothing here for me.
Diary of a Mad Housewife is a great movie. Frank Perry. His movies are so forgotten now and yet they’re all wonderful.
This is a complete subversive film. It’s entirely about the housewife, who is emotionally abused, put upon, ignored, unappreciated and unloved. And the idea is that everyone around her thinks she’s the problem. Eventually she starts an affair with another man, who treats her about as badly as her husband and kids do. Which then drives her into therapy, which doesn’t help. It’s one of those films that sort of meanders from moment to moment, and builds a wonderful picture of who this woman is and what her life is like.
Carrie Snodgress plays the housewife, and she is wonderful here. It’s a low key performance. Very passive, and so much of the film is everyone else dominating the scenes and putting her down. But that’s the character. And I love that not only did they recognize the performance, but also even saw the film! These movies seem to not get any appreciation throughout history. They’re not easy, either. There are no answers and they challenge an audience, which makes me like them more.
She’s pretty great here, and I consider her strongly for a vote. Not sure I take her in the end, but she definitely contends.
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The Reconsideration: I guess the place to start is how I immediately throw the winner out right off the top. That never happens. Usually I have an idea of what’s going to happen with the winner (since you can’t vote without knowing who win. So that’s gonna be somewhere on your mind). This is really the only time where I out and out threw out the winner. A lot of times, with the weaker ones, I’ll go, “Yeah, it’s weak, but it’s entertaining, and the category was weak” and all of that. Like with Loretta Young or something. But here — absolutely not. I have to be okay with the winner as a nominee before I can start being okay with it. And I can’t even get that far. I don’t hate the performance, it just seems unnecessary as a nominee.
So that’s Glenda Jackson off the top. And Sarah Miles is off too. She gets flat fourth with a pat on the back for a three and a half hour movie but otherwise the nomination is more than compensatory.
Then we have three choices, and I think we already know where this is going.
Jane Alexander and Carrie Snodgress are fantastic. Snodgress would normally be fourth and a “nomination is the reward” person, but here, she legitimately contends. Doesn’t make a lot of headway, but she definitely contends.
And Alexander, I think she did as great a job as she could, given a somewhat limited role. But it’s incredibly complex, and she does a fantastic job with it, especially in the latter stages of the film. That said… I don’t love the performance. And I love the Ali MacGraw performance.
It’s not that Ali MacGraw delivers some sort of powerhouse, tour de force of acting. She’s literally just beautiful and charming and given a script with a lot of witty banter, which is just my ambrosia. Most years, I’d be very realistic with the performance, and admit that I’d want to take her (or even take her) due to my love of the film and the performance than me actually thinking she was best in the category. But here, who’s to say she didn’t actually deserve to be the vote? Snodgress is reaching a bit at #3 though in five years I could maybe see promoting her to 2. And Alexander is great, but not something I would take unless I had to. Like in a 1952 type situation. But here — Ali MacGraw easily becomes the vote. And I can’t understand how she didn’t win. That must have been one of those situations where they were voting for Glenda Jackson no matter what. I cannot explain that at all.
In a category like this, I have no other alternative than to vote for the performance that is by far my favorite. Which is a nice situation to be in, fortunately.
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Rankings (category and films):
- Ali MacGraw, Love Story
- Jane Alexander, The Great White Hope
- Carrie Snodgress, Diary of a Mad Housewife
- Sarah Miles, Ryan’s Daughter
- Glenda Jackson, Women in Love
My Vote: Ali MacGraw, Love Story
Love Story is an essential film. You’re free to feel however you like about it, but you must see it. It’s too important a film for cinema history to be discarded.
The Great White Hope is a great movie. Not essential, but very highly recommended. James Earl Jones delivers the performance of his career in this one and honestly would have won an Oscar in almost any other year. This is a gem that’s gone ignored for years. And people ought to see this one, because it’s so good.
Diary of a Mad Housewife, as I say with all Frank Perry movies, should be seen be real film fans. Frank Perry is one of the great unheralded writers and directors of all time. I think of him as a better Paul Mazursky. These films are all such hidden gems. They’re not essential, but you’re doing yourself a disservice by not checking them out. But hey, that’s fine too. Because while I want these films to have more of an audience, I’d rather them be appreciated by people who will stumble on them and be happy they did rather than be forced onto them.
Ryan’s Daughter is David Lean five years past his prime. Technically eight, if Lawrence of Arabia is past his prime. But you know what I mean. Zhivago is great but a bit overlong and unwieldy. And this entire film is that. It’s even longer than Zhivago! I only recommend it because it won an Oscar, making it essential for Oscar buffs, and also because it’s David Lean. But even then, you’re fine either not seeing this, or waiting a long time before you do. It’s not that great.
Women in Love is a weird movie. Not sure how most people will feel about this. To put it bluntly — if your film tastes lean toward the pretentious (foreign, Godard, Woody Allen, art cinema in general), then you’re more likely to like this movie. I cross list in a number of those areas, but this just isn’t for me. Oscar buffs need consider it essential, especially to talk about this category, but otherwise I can’t imagine a lot of people thinking this would be an awesome film to check out. But hey, go for it if it sounds appealing to you.
The Last Word: It’s Ali MacGraw for me. And fortunately there’s no real competition for her to make me regret taking her. Glenda Jackson is to me the worst winner in Best Actress history. Performance wise. More than any of the others I’ve railed on and will rail on over the next few weeks. Do not understand this at all. There are three better choices than her. And Ali MacGraw has become the one people hold up, which makes me nervous, since the performance is not that good and the way it’s discussed I’m worried people will hate it on principle. But either way, it’s not like this category would have been particularly remembered no matter who won, so it’s really just a terrible decision because of the weakness of the performance. I’d have gone MacGraw. That just made the most sense.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)