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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best 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

Jill Clayburgh, Starting Over

Sally Field, Norma Rae

Jane Fonda, The China Syndrome

Marsha Mason, Chapter Two

Bette Midler, The Rose

Analysis:

Starting Over is a romantic comedy. That’s really all this is. I guess because it’s the 70s they seemed of more substance?

Burt Reynolds and Candice Bergen are married, until she decides she wants to go off and become a singer and leaves him. So now he’s divorced and living near his brother and sister-in-law. They set him up with Jill Clayburgh, and the rest of the film is about that relationship growing… until Bergen shows up again at the inopportune moment and wants to rekindle the marriage.

Clayburgh is fine. This performance pales in comparison to the Unmarried Woman performance. I think this is a holdover nomination to that, with them knowing how good she was and feeling like she should have gotten more for it. You see that happen a bunch over the years. For me, she’s fourth, if not fifth in the category. Her and Mason are the two that are doing basically the same thing we’ve seen them do before and feel pretty stale in this category.

Norma Rae is a really famous film with a really famous lead character.

Sally Field is a textile mill worker who starts to stand up against the oppression of her bosses and join a union. And she encourages others to do the same. It’s your standard progression of — person who wants to keep their head down, sees a friend of theirs become affected, and slowly becomes radicalized. This goes as far back as Casablanca. It works.

Field plays an iconic character, and she’s tremendous in the part. If this weren’t here, Bette Midler would have walked away with the category. But here, not only does she provide a good alternative, she might provide a better one. This is one of those performances that is not only great, but it holds up. That might be the tiebreaker between the two.

The China Syndrome is one of the great thrillers of all time.

Jack Lemmon works at a power plant and sees how hard the bosses are working the reactor and how dangerously close to meltdown it is. And the bosses, when confronted with this, cover it up. They don’t care about safety regulations or their staff, they worry about output and maximizing profits. So Lemmon, with no other choice, goes to the press. He meets Jane Fonda, a reporter, and is gonna tell her about it. And eventually it ends up with him taking hostages inside the reactor to try to get anybody to listen to him. It’s fantastic.

Fonda, as the reporter, is fine. She plays a strong, independent woman who does what she thinks is right and defies her male bosses to cover the story. I get it. Don’t think this would have held up at all as a winner, but I get why she was nominated. Now, this seems like a fairly middle of the road nomination. Nowhere near the heights she reaches in her earlier work. But adequate. Here, she could be considered as high as third, but I doubt anyone actually votes for her.

Chapter Two is Neil Simon. But later Neil Simon. The kind that  is less remembered than the good stuff (which also doesn’t seem to be remembered anymore).

James Caan is a writer who meets an actress and starts dating her. It’s your standard rom com progression.

Mason plays a mercurial actress who isn’t sure if she should be dating so soon after her divorce. That’s the film. Both people aren’t sure if they should be dating, and whoops, they’re dating. The weird thing is that Mason was Simon’s wife at the time and he based it on how they got together. So in essence, she’s playing herself. Which is kind of weird. I don’t think this performance holds up and at best she seems like a fourth choice. I’d probably have her fifth, because I thought the film was so mediocre I barely registered a performance out of it. At least with Clayburgh, while she has little to do, at least there I registered something with her.

The Rose is basically a Janis Joplin biopic. But heavily fictionalized.

Bette Midler plays a rock star who is strung out on booze and pills. She’s exhausted and wants to take a break from her world tour, but her manager won’t let her. So eventually, she runs off and meets a limo driver, with whom she starts a relationship. And the film is about the self-destruction of a shooting star, basically.

Midler is very, very good here. This is almost a force of nature performance. She nearly gets there. Something makes me hold back from going the full nine on that declaration. I think maybe it’s because the film doesn’t quite hold up around her. Or maybe that the performance isn’t as focused as those other ones are. I’m not sure. But what would normally be a surefire “I’m voting for this” type of performance here becomes one that is locked in a 50/50 battle with Sally Field. She’s definitely top two, but I’m not 100% that I take her. There’s a decision to be had here.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is a two-person category. Always has been, always will be. Same for the year after this. There are only two choices.

Jill Clayburgh gets a holdover nomination after a snub when she should have won the year before this. She could have been nominated for practically anything this year. Marsha Mason gets nominated for just about any Neil Simon movie she does. And Fonda had just won, and delivers a great performance. But it’s more mainstream than normal and she had no real chance past the nomination.

This is either Bette Midler or Sally Field. That’s it. Both deliver great performances. And here’s the tiebreaker —

Midler’s film doesn’t do her any justice. Field’s movie is an iconic classic. There it is.

Midler is great, but she’s great in a mediocre film. Field is great in a classic. That puts her over the top. Midler is a close second, but she feels like unfocused electricity. Field is a well calibrated laser. Ultimately I need to go with the finished product in this one, as much as part of me would love to take Bette Midler.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Sally Field, Norma Rae
  2. Bette Midler, The Rose
  3. Jane Fonda, The China Syndrome
  4. Marsha Mason, Chapter Two
  5. Jill Clayburgh, Starting Over

Rankings (films):

  1. The China Syndrome
  2. Norma Rae
  3. The Rose
  4. Starting Over
  5. Chapter Two

My Vote: Sally Field, Norma Rae

Recommendations:

Norma Rae is an all-time classic. Essential for all film buffs.

The China Syndrome is a great film. Must see. Not wholly essential, but really great and very highly recommended. I’d consider it essential as a film buff, but it’s not top tier essential. Should be seen though because it’s awesome.

The Rose is a good film featuring a great performance. Solid recommend but mostly for the performance. Deep queue kind of film.

Starting Over is a fair rom com. Of its era, but funny. Enjoyable because of the cast, but can easily be skipped. Very light recommend and really something that doesn’t need to be watched unless it sounds appealing to you. Mostly the only people who see this now are people looking at the Oscars or people who happen to catch it on TCM.

Chapter Two is forgettable Neil Simon. Not great. But it has James Caan and Marsha Mason. I’d say unless you love Neil Simon or are really interested in rom coms of the late 70s, you can skip this movie and be more than fine without it.

The Last Word: Field holds up as one of the better winners of all time. She was the only right choice in this category. No one else here holds up half as well as she has.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1980

Ellen Burstyn, Resurrection

Goldie Hawn, Private Benjamin

Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People

Gena Rowlands, Gloria

Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter

Analysis:

Resurrection is a film that, I’d wager is in the bottom 5% of all films on this Quest in terms of people remembering them today. It’s also super Lifetime, the way it’s shot.

Ellen Burstyn plays a woman who survives a car accident and magically gets the power to heal others. Seriously, that’s the film. It’s VERY made-for-TV. Before that was a thing.

I’d wager this was an “Ellen Burstyn” nomination more than anything. She rates a cool fifth in this category for me and I’m not particularly fond of the film or the performance. This is the weakest I’ve seen her be nominated for.

Private Benjamin is a great comedy, featuring an A-list actress getting some recognition. This happens in this category.

Goldie Hawn’s husband dies on her wedding night, and in her grieving state, she is coerced into joining the army. And you know, it’s that standard progression of spoiled girl who is a terrible soldier, but eventually learns how to be more of a capable human being and becomes a better soldier. The film is basically everything you’ve seen out of army comedies, but it is funny.

Hawn is winning in the role, and does just about everything she’s ever done in these movies. I’m somewhat surprised she got nominated, but I’m cool with it. It injects some life into an otherwise boring category outside of the top two choices.

Ordinary People is a great drama who’s biggest crime is having won Best Picture over Raging Bull.

A family’s oldest son dies in a boating accident, and the film is how the rest of them grieve over his death. The younger brother (who was on the boat), attempts suicide and is institutionalized. And the mother, played by Mary Tyler Moore, refuses to accept the death of the boy, pretends everything is perfectly normal and shuns everything that reminds her of her dead son, including her other son.

She’s great here. She’s really great. If she went Supporting (which could be an argument to be made in this category. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I do remember long stretches where she wasn’t in the film), she’d have won hands down. As it is, she definitely rates top two here, and the question is only whether or not you take her over Sissy Spacek.

Gloria is one of those films… John Cassavetes made some great movies before this. And this is the one that Gena Rowlands gets nominated for. I mean, sure, Woman Under the Influence too. But then this?

She’s a gangster’s moll who protects the child of a man murdered by her boyfriend’s mob. It’s like The Professional meets Married to the Mob. Because the way she gets the kid is exactly the same as Natalie Portman’s family being murdered.

The film is okay. Rowlands is okay. But this is a great actress being nominated for what is essentially a mainstream kind of role. Like — let me think of appropriate comparisons — Jane Fonda in The Morning After. Susan Sarandon for The Client. Doesn’t feel like something she should be nominated for. She’d be a fifth in this category if it weren’t for Ellen Burstyn. No chance here. She’s already given much better performances than this.

Coal Miner’s Daughter is a biopic of Loretta Lynn. And it’s quietly a great film.

Sissy Spacek plays Loretta Lynn, and she’s perfect here. She really is. The category will always come down to her vs. Mary Tyler Moore, and you can go either way there. But watching this performance, there’s no denying she’s good enough to win and is easily top two in the category.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This category is always between Sissy Spacek and Mary Tyler Moore. Burstyn is filler, Rowlands is a lesser performance and Hawn only makes third because she’s amusing. None of them stand any chance.

Between the two choices — it’s tough. But Spacek gives the more impressive performance to me, and she’s unquestionably a lead, whereas Moore might be a strong supporting role. But she’s still good enough to just about rate a vote. I just think Spacek is better, so I go for her. That breakdown scene on stage is a thing of beauty. She’s the vote. Shame about Mary Tyler Moore, but I gotta take Sissy.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter
  2. Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People
  3. Goldie Hawn, Private Benjamin
  4. Gena Rowlands, Gloria
  5. Ellen Burstyn, Resurrection

Rankings (films):

  1. Ordinary People
  2. Private Benjamin
  3. Coal Miner’s Daughter
  4. Gloria
  5. Resurrection

My Vote: Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter

Recommendations:

Ordinary People is a classic and a great film. It needs to be considered essential for those reasons, for the Best Picture win, and because if you want to talk about how Raging Bull should have won Best Picture, you need to see what beat it. So just see it and you’ll never have any problems.

Coal Miner’s Daughter is a great film. One of the great musical biopics. Essential for Oscar buffs, high recommend for all film buffs, and something that should probably be seen just because it’s a great film. Sissy Spacek is wonderful here, and Tommy Lee Jones is quietly Oscar-worthy in a relatively thankless role.

Private Benjamin is a fun comedy that’s worth a watch. Not essential but fun. Kind of a female Stripes. Good stuff. Solid recommend.

Gloria is okay. This is the kind of movie you watch now and can be entertained my mindlessly. Light recommend. Not something anyone really needs to see, but if it happens to be on, you can enjoy it.

Resurrection is not something I recommend. Not a great film and really only necessary for people into the Oscars deep enough to analyze this category. Otherwise not something anyone really needs to see.

The Last Word: Spacek was the choice here. Moore is great and is a beloved actress, but she’s more TV. Between her and Spacek, Spacek deserved an Oscar more over her career. And even so, Spacek gives, in my mind, the better performance anyway. So all around Spacek was the best choice here. Moore would have been fine and held up decently, but not as good as Sissy Spacek has. They made the right decision here.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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