The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1981-1982)
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.
Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
Diane Keaton, Reds
Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant’s Woman
On Golden Pond is the best Lifetime movie ever made.
It’s not Lifetime, but fuck if it doesn’t feel like one, 35 years later.
Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn are an older couple who go to a lake house every summer. Fonda has just retired and is old and cranky. And the film is sort of about accepting aging and mortality, all while they deal with their daughter showing up, freshly married and leaving her new husband’s son with them while they go on their honeymoon. It’s a really entertaining film, but probably just because it’s Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. Doesn’t hold up particularly well, and if you showed this blind to someone who had no idea about it or the stars, they’d probably be entertained.
Hepburn is her usual self here. She’s really entertaining. The performance is not close to being worthy of a win. She has ultimately little to do in the film, as Fonda is the real star. But in a category like this, I get how she won. Still, I’d only take this if I really needed to. And honestly, I might really need to. I don’t think I will, but I might.
Reds is an epic about communism. Just like Space Jam.
Warren Beatty plays John Reed, who wrote the book “Ten Days That Shook the World.” And we watch as he gets involved in communism and becomes a radical.
Diane Keaton plays a married woman who becomes inspired by Beatty to leave her husband. And pretty soon she and Beatty are together. And then when Beatty goes off to Russia, Keaton gets involved with Jack Nicholson (playing Eugene O’Neill). Though eventually Beatty comes back and they marry.
This is a role — there’s not a real arc of the character here. She changes early on, and the rest of the film, she’s defined by Beatty’s character (and communism and radical feminism). The performance is really good, though. I thought she was really solid. Not sure I put her any higher than third here, but I think you can definitely consider her someone worth taking in this category. I think my thing with her is that I was never fully convinced by her performance that she was this woman. It just felt like Diane Keaton putting on a good performance.
Only When I Laugh is Neil Simon. Neil Simon going dramatic.
Marsha Mason is an actress coming out of rehab. And we follow her as she tries to stay sober as well as her two friends, a gay actor unable to find work, and a woman terrified of aging.
Mason is good here. I voted for her last time. I had liked her in all her other nominations and this was the first time I was able to “vote” for her. Which basically meant everyone else either had won or would win later and she hadn’t, so… vote.
I don’t think the film holds up particularly well, and I know for a fact I overrated the performance just to vote for it. This time — ehh. She’s probably fourth or fifth on performance, but I like her as high as third. I guess I could take her again, but in this category, you can take anyone.
Atlantic City is a completely forgotten film. It’s not bad, but it also feels very strange all around. The genre, the time period, the actors — it’s all a mishmosh of stuff that feels incongruous. But I still kinda like it.
Burt Lancaster is an aging gangster who is small time. He ends up involved in a drug scheme that gets Susan Sarandon (his neighbor)’s husband killed. So he takes it upon himself to look after her, and in doing so, develops a crush on her. She makes him feel young again. So it’s a weird movie where he’s protecting her from drug dealers and using her to feel young, thinking she’ll end up with him, and in the end — well, I won’t spoil it. But it’s definitely an odd little movie.
Sarandon is good here. Very charming. You can see why she’d become a beloved actress from this. Not sure I vote for her or consider her any higher than fifth. This looks like a starter nomination more than anything. Not something I want to take.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a weird movie. I never quite made it to the level of finding it interesting.
It’s about two separate stories — a story of a Victorian man and his relationship with a woman, and a story of that story being filmed and the two actors starring in it having an affair while filming.
Meryl plays the actress and the woman in the story. In the film, she’s an outcast who has a brief but passionate affair with Jeremy Irons’ character and then disappears from his life. He finds her again some years later. Meanwhile, the other story — she and Irons are married actors having an affair on set. He wants it to get serious, but she doesn’t.
The setup and everything are interesting, but I don’t love the film all that much. I can’t say I felt the performance was overrated, since, while many people do say Streep should have won this category — they say that about just about every Meryl Streep performance. So that didn’t affect my opinion all that much. I just watch this and feel that it seems like Meryl doing work. I like it better when she’s more fluid and doesn’t feel affected in the performance. I know that’s sacrilege to say about Meryl, but that’s how I’ve always felt. Maybe in five years I’ll appreciate the performance more, but now — ehh. She’s just fine.
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The Reconsideration: The more I go back to this, the more this is one of my least favorite categories. I’m not sure it’s weak, but it certainly feels weak.
Diane Keaton is spirited, but I never felt convinced at all by what she did. So taking her feels like a compromise.
Katharine Hepburn is stuck in a one-note, limited role. So her always being good only goes so far. More on her in a minute.
Marsha Mason was really good five years ago. Now, I like the performance well enough, but I also don’t like the film as much and see it as much more dated and false than I did then. I get why that is, but that’s a discussion for another day. I took Mason last time because this was the only performance I liked and basically convinced myself it was amazing.
Susan Sarandon is good, but I don’t love the performance. The film doesn’t do her any favors, but she definitely is solid in it.
Meryl is a great actress who has established herself in such a way (kind of like Katharine Hepburn) as someone who really needs to have an exemplary performance to really consider worth taking. Or at least something you enjoy more than the others. Here, I don’t love the film and I think the performance is fine, but I don’t find myself in love with it, and honestly would take at least two other performances over it.
I don’t know what to do here. They’re all #2s and #3s with no #1.
I don’t like the Streep film and the performance is just fine to me. So I wouldn’t take her. And I definitely wouldn’t take Sarandon. So that leaves the other three.
Mason has the weakest film, but might be my favorite performance. Keaton gives, in my mind, the best performance, and has the best film. And then Hepburn has little to do but is awesome and I really like the film a lot. So I don’t know.
My gut says just take Hepburn and be done with it, since she’s amusing in a film I really like. And that’s exactly how she won this. Plus she’s a national treasure. I expect Meryl to get one of these Oscars in the next 12-15 years, just because she’s Meryl and is charming.
But since this one is all about taking the best performance, and while this wouldn’t be my vote most of the time, Diane Keaton, to me, gives the best performance in the category, so I’ll take her. Though honestly, were I left to my own devices, I’d probably just take Katharine Hepburn.
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- Diane Keaton, Reds
- Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
- Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
- Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant’s Woman
- Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
- On Golden Pond
- Only When I Laugh
- Atlantic City
- The French Lieutenant’s Woman
My Vote: Diane Keaton, Reds
Reds is an essential movie. Must see for all film buffs.
On Golden Pond is probably an essential movie. Because what film buff doesn’t want to see Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda in the same movie? Plus it’s awesome. The loons!
Atlantic City is a solid recommend. Not for everyone, but definitely worth a watch. Check it out.
Only When I Laugh is Neil Simon. He seems to be a pretty divisive person in cinema. The more “serious” minded film people will probably hate his stuff. I really enjoy a lot of it, but I also find some of it intolerable. This one I like. Solid recommend, but if Neil Simon bores you, then definitely don’t bother. Because this is one that can be ingratiating to people who don’t like Neil Simon.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a film that a lot of people love that I don’t have much love for. It’s fine. I’ll give it a light recommend. It’s definitely worth seeing, but it’s not something you absolutely need to see. So I’ll leave this one to you. I’m assuredly not the only person you get your film recommendations from, and I’d wager that the other sources you use will call this a film you should see.
The Last Word: Hepburn is fine because the category is such that the result doesn’t really matter. She is a nice pairing with Henry Fonda, and since everyone else, save Marsha Mason, who didn’t really need one, had Oscars or would later win them (Meryl won three, Sarandon one and Keaton one), it’s fine. On performance, it’s not great, but she’s charming in it and the category isn’t that strong that there was someone else who got snubbed, so ultimately this is fine. It’s hard to have a real problem with it.
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Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
Jessica Lange, Frances
Sissy Spacek, Missing
Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice
Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
Victor/Victoria is a great drag queen musical.
Julie Andrews is a singer who can’t find work, so she ends up dressing as a male female impersonator. That is a man who sings dressed as a woman. So she has to play a man pretending to be a woman. And she gets pretty famous for doing that, and a gangster falls in love with her. So it’s a musical and a bit of a screwball comedy and romance. Very broadway. Very theatrical. But fun.
Andrews is good here. She usually is. But I doubt anyone actually votes for her in this. Fourth choice at best.
Frances is a biopic of Frances Farmer (who will have her revenge on Seattle, for you Nirvana fans).
She was an actress of minor note in the 30s, who led a pretty fucked up life. She was very outspoken, and this got her in trouble. And we follow her on the way up, the way down, and through various breakdowns, some of which involve her overbearing stage mother.
Jessica Lange would have won this category if not for Meryl Streep. Her breakdown scenes are incredible. I honestly had to go back and watch both her and Meryl in this one just to see if I’d actually take her over Meryl. This is a closer category than you’d think, and the Supporting Oscar she won was clearly a consolation prize
Missing is one of those politically conscious films of the 80s that did very well at the Oscars but are basically forgotten now since now one remembers the conflicts.
Sissy Spacek and her husband are in Latin America. He’s got radical political views and greatly opposes the dictatorship of the country. One day, he goes (insert title here). And his father comes down to find his son. He’s very conservative and patriotic, and he believes his son’s views are what got him into trouble. Though he soon discovers that his own country might have known and/or been involved with the disappearance, as they are secretly funding the dictatorship. It’s one of those films designed to make you pissed off at the government. And it works.
Spacek is there all along, and she gets a few major moments, but otherwise doesn’t feel like she has a whole lot to do. But she’s quite good and rates a solid third in this category. No way I take her over the top two, but she definitely rates as solid and this is a very underrated and forgotten performance.
Sophie’s Choice is a film that everybody knows. The title has basically become a phrase in its own right.
The film is about a man who comes to Brooklyn and gets involved with two of his neighbors, one a Polish immigrant and the other her abusive boyfriend. And as he gets to know them more, he finds out more about the woman’s backstory. Her husband and children died at Auschwitz, and… well, I think everyone knows where the title comes from.
The interesting thing about the film is that it starts a lot like The Great Gatsby. Guy comes in and watches this seemingly unstable relationship. It has that vibe of Nick sitting in the hotel room as Tom Buchanan openly cheats on his wife and beats his mistress in public. And there is a lot of that. But the Holocaust scenes… shit, man.
Meryl wins this. I think we all know this. The only question is whether or not I prefer Jessica Lange over her. That can be a decision you make here. That’s not a wrong one. So I have to decide if that’s how I go. But there’s no denying she’s the winner of this category.
An Officer and a Gentleman is one of those movies that everyone sees and enjoys. It’s great. It feels too mainstream for the Oscars, but I love that it was nominated.
Richard Gere is the son of a naval officer and he’s basically got nothing going for him. So, without any direction, he enlists in officer training school. But he doesn’t take it seriously at all. And much of the film is about his relationship with his training officer, who is tough as nails and especially hard on him (everyone remembers the “I got no place else to go!” scene) and his relationship with Debra Winger, a factory worker he strikes up a romance with.
Winger is fine here. Mostly it’s a romantic interest role. But she is very charming in it. This is a starter nomination, and she’d be better after this, especially the year after this. I get why they nominated her though, but even without taking the future into account, she doesn’t rate any higher than fifth here for me. Maybe if I were in 1982, she might have ended up fourth or even third. But here, ehh.
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The Reconsideration: This is all Meryl, all day, and no one would ever argue that. You may prefer Jessica Lange, and that is a fine alternative choice. But outside of that, no one else is worth taking.
Lange is closer to Streep now for me than she ever was, but I still take Meryl here. She’s too good to not take. What she accomplishes is incredible. She’s the vote. Lange is a not so distant second who would be a winner in most other years, and everyone else is way in the back. This is a no contest.
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- Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice
- Jessica Lange, Frances
- Sissy Spacek, Missing
- Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
- Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
- An Officer and a Gentleman
- Sophie’s Choice
My Vote: Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice
An Officer and a Gentleman is an essential film. It’s so good and so quotable and such a classic all around. In every way. This is a film that everyone can enjoy and love and all film buffs need to see it.
Sophie’s Choice should be considered an essential because you know it by title. And Meryl is so good, and won for it — there’s no reason to not see this, really. It’s a high recommend, if not full stop essential.
Victor/Victoria is probably the “lesser” film of the category, but it’s amusing as shit and definitely worth seeing. High recommend. A lot of fun.
Frances is great. A really solid film and a great Jessica Lange performance. High recommend and the performance should be seen for Oscar buffs because Lange is good enough to have won for it.
Missing is very good, somewhat dated but all around very solid. Solid to high recommend and very much worth a watch.
The Last Word: Meryl. End of story. One of the best wins of all time and one that holds up as one of the best wins of all time. Lange also was good enough to win, but Meryl was and is the best choice. The end.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)