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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1973-1974)

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.

1973

Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist

Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class

Marsha Mason, Cinderella Liberty

Barbra Streisand, The Way We Were

Joanne Woodward, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

Analysis:

The Exorcist is one of the most famous movies ever made. Everyone knows it.

Ellen Burstyn plays Mrs. MacNeil, Reagan’s mother.

I always thought this performance was amazing, but going back, mostly she just acts scared and shrieks a lot. Not a whole lot of real work required here. She’d be much better the year after this, not that it affects my voting. But on this performance alone, it’s not as good as I thought it was. There’s really nothing for her to do and no real change to be had. She does it well, but there’s really not enough there for me to take.

A Touch of Class is an interesting film. Almost doesn’t fit its era, and yet kind of does at the same time.

It’s very similar to (if not a complete ripoff of) The Facts of Life. Same director and all that. Though here, rather than a married couple having an affair, he’s married and she’s divorced. They meet and decide to schedule a trip abroad, which turns into a giant disaster. And that’s at least half the movie. And then they start to fall in love.

Jackson is good here. Mostly she’s there to underplay everything for comedy. She gets a couple of moments where she actually has to act, but mostly she’s doing comedic work. I’m fine with the nomination, but it’s not particularly strong, and the fact that she won for it says more about the category than anything else. In another year, this would be a #4, maybe a #3 on enjoyability.

Cinderella Liberty is a film you’ve never heard of that’s actually quite good.

James Caan is a sailor. He meets Marsha Mason, a prostitute, in a bar. He takes a liking to her and her son and spends a lot of time with them while he is stuck on leave after his papers are lost. It’s fun. Great supporting cast here.

Mason is really enjoyable and it’s clear she deserved the nomination. Only problem? She shows up early on, then disappears for long stretches of time. Happens twice. This is a borderline supporting performance that got bumped up to lead because Best Supporting Actress was a crazy strong category this year. (Also, I’d wager to say that were Tatum O’Neal rightly in this category, she might have been able to actually win it. But that’s the last I’ll say about that. Since that isn’t what we’re here for.)

The Way We Were is one of the most famous film romances of all time.

Robert Redford meets Barbra Streisand. They fall in love. They drift apart. That’s the film. No need to know more than that.

Streisand is good here. But she’s one of those actresses who is very calculated in how she comes across in screen (that’s why she ended up directing). The whole film feels designed to make her look good. It’s the same kind of performance she gave in Funny Girl, but without the “holy shit, who is this” and more, “Yeah, I’ve seen her do that before.” So she’s good and I support the nomination (especially in this year), but I don’t know if I take this. It’s just okay.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams is a film that I was so utterly bored by.

Joanne Woodward is a bored wife who’s unhappy with her life and thinks she made a mistake marrying her husband. She dreams about an alternate future where she married her childhood crush. And we follow her as she heads toward a breakdown. Did not like this movie at all.

Woodward is… here. I don’t care for the performance. Some might. Easy, easy fifth for me. Doubt she’d ever make fourth, but you know, miracles happen. Maybe in five years.

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The Reconsideration: Boy, do I not like this category.

I will never take Woodward, and actively dislike her film.

Streisand is just doing Streisand. I’m used to it by now. She’s good, but nah.

Mason is great, but is borderline supporting. She has nothing to do for the first half of the movie.

Jackson is fine, but it’s hardly an Oscar-worthy performance on its own.

And Burstyn has so little to do her role is basically looking concerned, frightened, horrified and screaming.

There’s no one I want to take. Reasoning it through, though… since I have to take someone…

Woodward is a definite no. Streisand is a no based on wanting to take everyone else above her. The other three are complicated.

If this is 1973, I may not take Jackson because she won three years earlier and I’m still bitter. I may take Burstyn not knowing what she’d do after this and that she’d win the year after this. I have no idea. So I have to just go based on what I’m seeing now.

Here — Burstyn I only like because of the film. The performance isn’t all there for me. Then again, given the other two, she still might rate #1 in the end. Jackson I enjoy, but she doesn’t have a whole lot of heavy lifting to do. A lot of it is being sardonic. Which she is good at, but I don’t really want to take it. And Mason — love the performance, I’m just concerned about the amount of screen time. But, favorite performance is favorite performance. That hasn’t stopped people like Patricia Neal from winning. So I’ll take Mason. She’s the one I like best in a mediocre category.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category and films):

  1. Marsha Mason, Cinderella Liberty
  2. Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class
  3. Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist
  4. Barbra Streisand, The Way We Were
  5. Joanne Woodward, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

My Vote: Marsha Mason, Cinderella Liberty

Recommendations:

The Exorcist is one of the most essential films of all time. You should know this.

The Way We Were certainly sounds essential, but it’s probably just a high recommend. But really only a high recommend because it sounds essential. In fact, if you’re a hardcore film buff, you should just consider it essential. Might as well. It has all the qualifications. So just see it.

A Touch of Class is very fun and really enjoyable. Solid to high recommend. Essential for Oscar buffs. Plus, if you really liked The Facts of Life, you’ll really like this. They’re both really good.

Cinderella Liberty is a good film. Very dated, but very enjoyable, with a great cast. Solid recommend. Definitely check it out.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams I cannot recommend. Do not like it. This one’s on you to decide.

The Last Word: Jackson holds up decently. Might have looked better if she hadn’t have won the first one, but that might just be sour grapes talking. Woodward would have been one of the worst winners of all time, had she won for this. Streisand would have been weak as a double winner, but likely would have held up as well as Jackson has. Mason — probably the same. Take it or leave it, much like this. Burstyn would have looked good because of the film, but the performance wouldn’t really have held up as a winner. This is a weak category with a forgettable outcome. So there were multiple forgettable outcomes that could have happened and have been just as okay.

– – – – – – – – – –

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1974

Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Diahann Carroll, Claudine

Faye Dunaway, Chinatown

Valerie Perrine, Lenny

Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence

Analysis:

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a Martin Scorsese movie. Which I love saying, because no one knows this one. Even if they know the movie, they probably don’t know it’s his. Which is great, because you wouldn’t be able to guess if you just put it on out of nowhere.

Ellen Burstyn plays a housewife whose husband is killed, so she takes her son and goes out on the road to become a singer, which she’s always wanted to do. She ends up in various (unhealthy) relationships and working as a waitress. And that’s kind of the movie. And it’s awesome.

Burstyn is fantastic here, and deserved the Oscar. I don’t know if she was the best performance in the category, but this is a performance good enough to win. I think the Exorcist loss plus this put her over the top. Totally get the win, and she’s top two for me in this one.

Claudine is a great movie that no one remembers. I want to say because it’s about black people, but that would be a really cynical view to take on the nature of cinema and how films are remembered.

Diahann Carroll is a single mother living on welfare…

Man, that does not start very positively at all.

Then again, a single black mother in NYC living on welfare is a topic movies normally wouldn’t broach and is more realistic than you might think. Still… not a great look, Hollywood.

She’s a single mother raising her kids who starts a relationship with the local garbage man, James Earl Jones. He’s awesome in this. It’s actually quite a good film.

I love that Carroll was nominated here. Not a chance in hell she was going to win, and also no chance I take her, given the category, but I love the nomination. Totally happy she’s here. (Still, an unfortunate fifth in the category.)

Chinatown is one of the most famous films of all time. Everyone’s seen it by the time you make it here.

Faye Dunaway plays Evelyn Mulwray. She’s fantastic here, she’s really memorable, and she has one of the most famous scenes of all time. The “my sister, my daughter” scene.

It’s definitely an iconic performance. I can’t say she really has a whole lot of heavy lifting to do. Though she is quite good. And she’s somewhat overdue by this point (though not really). I think this would have looked fine as a winner, but is not something I take. I take it because it’s Dunaway and because I love Chinatown, not necessarily because I think it’s the best performance. I think you can flip flop her and Burstyn for 2 and 3, but I think there’s a very clear #1 in this category and it’s not either of them.

Lenny is Bob Fosse’s biopic of Lenny Bruce. Dustin Hoffman plays Lenny Bruce. The film is fantastic, he’s fantastic.

Valerie Perrine plays Bruce’s wife. It’s a borderline supporting performance, but Perrine is absolutely wonderful in it. This is the role of her career. She’s perfect in it, and completely encapsulates this woman. I can probably put her as high as third maybe because it’s so well done, but I wouldn’t take her no matter how you slice this category. She ends up being fourth just because I take three people over her every time I think about it. It’s a shame, but them’s the breaks.

A Woman Under the Influence is John Cassavetes’ best movie. To me, anyway.

Peter Falk is a construction worker and Gena Rowlands is his wife. She’s a bit kooky. And we follow their marriage as he eventually becomes unable to stand her borderline insanity. It’s hard to explain, but man, is it an experience.

Gena Rowlands is absolutely jaw-dropping in this film. Peter Falk too. (Shocked he wasn’t also nominated for it.) She’s so good that within thirty minutes of this movie starting (and I saw this for the first time well after having seen Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore at least twice, Lenny twice and Chinatown at least half a dozen times) I said, “She’s the winner.” There’s no other choice. She’s astoundingly good here. The performance speaks for itself, and I will not make any bones about this being the best in the category.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Gena Rowlands. That performance is so great. How she came away without an Oscar (ever, even) is one of the great injustices. Not that Ellen Burstyn isn’t wholly deserving. Same for Faye Dunaway. They’d both have been great winners. But what Gena Rowlands does in that movie — she’s gotta be the vote. Every time.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence
  2. Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
  3. Faye Dunaway, Chinatown
  4. Valerie Perrine, Lenny
  5. Diahann Carroll, Claudine

Rankings (films):

  1. Chinatown
  2. Lenny
  3. A Woman Under the Influence
  4. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
  5. Claudine

My Vote: Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence

Recommendations:

Chinatown is one of the 50 most essential movies of all time. I’d say 100 like I usually do, but this is 50. It’s that big.

Lenny is essential. Bob Fosse, Dustin Hoffman, Lenny Bruce. Every film must see this.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is an essential movie. Oscar essential because of the win, and it’s a Martin Scorsese movie. Why would you not see a Scorsese movie? Granted, it’s a lesser essential of his, but when you factor this against everything else, you might as well just see it. Because why would you not want to?

A Woman Under the Influence is an essential movie. I’m just gonna call it essential. Everyone needs to see one Cassavetes movie, and I think this and Opening Night are the two that most people will gravitate toward. Especially actors. Especially female actors. Gena Rowlands should be an influence on actors because of the performances she gives in these movies. And this one is just so perfect, with her and Falk — trust me when I say you should see it.

Claudine is a solid recommend. Really like this one. And, for people very much in tune with this site and my sense of humor, there’s a great Youtube video where they took scenes from Star Wars and dubbed it over with dialogue from other James Earl Jones movies. And a lot of it comes from Coming to America, The Great White Hope, and this movie. So that should make it worth seeing, shouldn’t it?

The Last Word: Burstyn holds up great. It’s a good performance and she’s a good winner. I think Gena Rowlands gave a better performance and would have held up just as well because of that performance. I think Faye Dunaway would have also been a solid winner, though I still would say she didn’t give the best performance in the category even had she won. Perrine and Carroll were rewarded by being nominated. They had no chance and wouldn’t have held up at all as winners. There were three choices here, and I think they made the second best one in terms of performance, and maybe best or 1a in terms of everything else.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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