The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1983-1984)
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.
Jane Alexander, Testament
Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
Meryl Streep, Silkwood
Julie Walters, Educating Rita
Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
Testament is an interesting movie that’s been totally forgotten.
It’s about an ordinary family living in the suburbs about an hour outside of a major city. One day, they hear on the news that a nuclear device has gone off, before losing all communications. And we watch as they deal with the initial confusion and chaos, and then the immediate aftermath of, essentially, nuclear holocaust.
Jane Alexander plays the mother, and we watch as she tries to survive and keep her family together. She has a couple of strong moments (like when she has to bury her own child or when she decides it might be better to commit suicide than die by radiation poisoning), but overall the performance doesn’t do a whole lot for me. She feels like an easy #5 in this category. Which is not bad, since the category is very strong. This would be a #4 most years and is overall a somewhat unheralded performance.
Terms of Endearment is one of the great films of all time. I can’t really explain why it’s great, but it just is. It captures you, pulls you in, and then rips your heart out.
It’s about a mother-daughter relationship. Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. MacLaine is an mother who really cares about her daughter. And it’s about the two of them looking for love as they grow up and have a difficult relationship. Winger marries Jeff Daniels, a professor who cheats on her with his students. And MacLaine, widowed, starts sleeping with her next door neighbor, Jack Nicholson, a retired astronaut. What most people remember is the last act of the film, which I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it, but that’s the main reason why both these actresses were nominated.
This is a tough one to rate, since both performances are leading roles and both are terrific.
Debra Winger dominates the first two acts of the film but takes a back seat to MacLaine in the final act. Even though the third act is theoretically the one where she should be front and center. And MacLaine is great all around, but pretty much is in romantic comedy mode for a lot of the middle portions of the film, before turning it on in the end with some great moments.
Between the two, some might think Winger gave the better performance. And you might not be wrong. I think they’re both 1 and 2 here and it’s a toss up as to which you take.
Silkwood is a great movie that I remember how much I love every time I go back and watch.
Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher all work at a nuclear power plant. And Meryl eventually comes to realize how the plant is cutting corners and exposing everyone to lethal doses of radiation. And she comes to try to fight it, which eventually results in some problems with her. As you can imagine. It’s like Norma Rae meets The China Syndrome. It’s really good.
Meryl is incredible here, but coming off the Sophie’s Choice win, this isn’t something I feel I want to take. The performance alone is good, and had she not won I feel like I might have wanted to push her higher. But in a vacuum, she feels like a #3 who could be a #2 if I really did deep analysis of all the performances. Solid, but I don’t think I’d take her.
Educating Rita is basically Pygmalion. That’s the best way to describe it.
Michael Caine is a slovenly, drunken literary professor who takes on Julie Walters as his student. She wants to be more cultured and pays for lessons from him. And it’s the basic Pygmalion thing — he takes an uncouth woman and makes her more refined, and in doing so gets his own life back in order.
Both leads are terrific and the film is quite entertaining. I can’t say it’s openly great, but it’s definitely very entertaining, and if you love Pygmalion then you’ll like this.
Julie Walters is really charming and really great in a role that’s essentially been done before. And maybe even done to death. I completely support the nomination, but wouldn’t vote for her, because voting for this type of role is like voting for one of those stock roles that you see all the time. Or like Shakespeare. It’s too easy and doesn’t hold up as a winner. Though Walters does make a fairly convincing argument for herself and would be top two in a lot of years (though probably third). Here, she’s a distant fourth, but through no fault of her own. The category is just really, really strong.
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The Reconsideration: It’s a strong category. I could make a case for three separate winners, with a fourth potentially getting sentimental/passion votes.
Alexander unfortunately ends up fifth here. Which is a shame. Because she’s solid. But it happens.
Walters ends up fourth for me, but she’s such a spark plug that some might have her higher and consider her for a vote. That I can understand.
Streep is very solid but only ends up third because she unfortunately had one of the all-time great winning performances the year before this, and this, while great, doesn’t hold up to that one. So she falls to third because I’d want to take the other two over her. Though she could be considered a #2 or even #1 for this.
To me, this is between Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine. And I feel like, for much of Terms of Endearment, I prefer the Debra Winger performance. But, MacLaine, getting her big scenes at the end (and I admit the “GIVE MY DAUGHTER THE SHOT” scene is overstated as far as Oscar clips go), and being so horrendously overdue — I get why she’s the vote and even agree with that. It’s a toss up between the two, but I’ll again take the veteran. Because Shirley MacLaine was so overdue at this point and delivers a win-worthy performance.
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Rankings (category and films):
- Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
- Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
- Meryl Streep, Silkwood
- Julie Walters, Educating Rita
- Jane Alexander, Testament
My Vote: Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
Terms of Endearment is essential. Best Picture winner, great movie, all time famous tearjerker, great performances. Must see. One of the 150-200 most essential American movies ever made.
Silkwood is an essential film. One of the 200 great American movies that all film buffs need to see.
Educating Rita is Pygmalion. So if you like that story, and want to see Michael Caine play a drunken Henry Higgins of sorts, then see this movie. He and Julie Walters are great. Solid recommend even though the film is not remotely essential.
Testament is a solid and forgotten film. Solid recommend but not something you need to rush to seek out. It’s good, but see it when you can.
The Last Word: MacLaine holds up great. The performance is good and she as actress more than holds up. Winger would also have been good but may not have held up as well as MacLaine has. Walters and Alexander wouldn’t have held up at all. And Streep — she actually would have held up here as a back-to-back winner and the beneficiary of a vote split between the other two. I think there were three good decisions to be had, and MacLaine was ultimately the best one. I’m a fan of this decision.
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Judy Davis, A Passage to India
Sally Field, Places in the Heart
Jessica Lange, Country
Vanessa Redgrave, The Bostonians
Sissy Spacek, The River
A Passage to India is a David Lean movie. And one that’s actually not that bad, all things considered, but one I find extremely tedious.
The novel is one of the most famous of all time. It’s about a woman and her (grandmother? Aunt? I forget. Peggy Ashcroft) who go to India. And they befriend a doctor, and one day they go visit some caves, and Davis goes missing for a while, then runs out, claiming the doctor raped her. And then a trial happens. It’s mostly all about class relations between the British and India.
This performance, to me, feels like Helena Bonham Carter’s performance in A Room with a View — fine, but she’s young and I know she’d give better performances later. On this alone, it doesn’t really rate as something I would want to take.
Here’s the problem with Davis’s performance — she’s not the lead of the movie for much of it. Peggy Ashcroft is the lead for much of it, and then after her character dies, then Davis is the only one left.
I voted for her last time, but that was for purely for logistics reasons. Spacek had one, Lange had one (and would get another), Redgrave had one, and Field had one. But honestly, I don’t think she has a whole lot to do here to really require a vote. I’m not the biggest fan of these kinds of films, and this performance is only just okay to me. But in this category, only just okay is good enough to be considered for a vote.
Places in the Heart is the least shitty film in this category. So there’s that. But it is one of three films with pretty much exactly the same narrative: save the family farm.
Field’s husband is the town marshal who gets shot in a freak accident. So now she’s got to plant a season’s worth of cotton and sell it for fair value or else the bank is gonna take her farm. And she ends up doing so with a ragtag group of people, including a runaway slave and a blind man.
I’m not gonna say I don’t like this movie, because I do. But I also think that it’s very straightforward, and part of it is there and isn’t interesting at all. There’s a whole subplot that takes up like 30 minutes of the film that I just don’t give a shit about at all. The only interesting part is the Sally Field part.
That said, Field doesn’t have a whole lot of acting to do. But there is stuff that happens, that she gets to respond to, which makes this feel like a performance you want to take. She’s scrappy and the role is something that fits this category. But ultimately, the only reason this won is because she’s likable in a relatively likable movie compared to the others. This is basically how Katharine Hepburn won three years before this. I get it. But I also am not jumping at taking her because — ehh.
Country is the second of the “save the farm” films of 1984.
The plot is pretty much the same as the others — crop prices are dropping, bad weather and tornadoes are lowering yields and the banks are looking to foreclose and the family has to struggle to not lose their farm.
Jessica Lange plays the wife. Unfortunately for her, the film seems to not care about her a whole lot. It focuses mainly on Sam Shepard. I went into this wanting to sneak in a vote for her, but the film so utterly marginalizes her that it feels like they only nominated her because, “Oh thank god, Jessica Lange. At least we can nominate someone we know and feel better about this category.” Of course that’s not how they think, but that’s sure what it looked like.
The Bostonians is Merchant Ivory. And one of the most boring Merchant Ivory films I’ve ever seen.
It’s about — honestly it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. I don’t even remember what it’s about.
“A Boston feminist and a conservative Southern lawyer contend for the heart and mind of a beautiful and bright girl unsure of her future.”
I’m sure Redgrave is fine, but I actively disliked this film and would never vote for a performance of this type unless there was 100% no other recourse. But here, there is, so she’s out for me. Some might like this performance, but I can’t get past how boring the film is to consider her. To me all she does is sit in drawing rooms and talk in a mannered way the whole time. Not for me at all.
The River is the third of the “save the farm” films.
You know what the plot is. This one is different because it’s more about a local steel mill hiring all the farmers who can’t make ends meet, forcing the father to end up working at both the mill and the farm.
Sissy Spacek plays the wife, who also doesn’t have a whole lot to do. She has a subplot where a guy at the steel mill used to date her before she married her husband, and that tension is hanging over it. As sort of a “don’t go down with your husband” sort of thing, and there’s a chance she might leave him for a minute, but in the end she ends up putting in with him and saving the farm and the family.
Spacek is fine, but of the three “farm” performances, it’s my least favorite. She’s a #4 here, and would be fifth most other years. This is a year where a #4 most years pretty much is a #2 this year. So that’s not saying much. She’s fine, but she’s been much better and this is a forgettable nomination for her.
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The Reconsideration: This is, without a doubt in my mind, the single weakest Best Actress category of all time. I don’t love any of these performances.
Between the three “farm” performances — Spacek is the weakest, so she’s out. I’d consider Lange and Field, so we’ll keep them in.
Davis — she’s fine, but doesn’t have a whole lot to do for a lot of the film and I think she’s good, and she rates highly, but I wouldn’t want to take her for a lot of reasons. So she probably ends up second or third, and I honestly wouldn’t vote for her. Though you easily could. This category is so bad you can make a case for anyone if you were passionate enough about it.
Redgrave is in the type of movie that is my least favorite at the Oscars. I just don’t like these performances for awards and I never take them. So she rates fifth for me even though I’m sure the performance rates at least third in this category. But because of personal preference I can just never take something like this unless I really had to. And even then I’d have to had liked the film at least a little bit. And I really don’t like this film. So she’s automatically out for me.
Which basically means I’m taking either Sally Field or Jessica Lange. And I don’t love either performance. Lange could be a #3 on a weak year, and Field is a 3 most years. And I’m looking for just about any reason in the world to take Jessica Lange here, but her film really doesn’t give her anything to do, to the point where I’m even starting to question the nomination. So I have to take Sally Field. She’s the lesser of five evils for me. I don’t love it, but I see how it happened. And here we are.
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- Sally Field, Places in the Heart
- Judy Davis, A Passage to India
- Jessica Lange, Country
- Sissy Spacek, The River
- Vanessa Redgrave, The Bostonians
- Places in the Heart
- The River
- A Passage to India
- The Bostonians
My Vote: Sally Field, Places in the Heart
Places in the Heart is solid. A solid recommend. Essential for Oscar buffs, something a fair amount of film buffs should see, but not something I’d say is required of everyone. If you want to talk Oscars, then yes, absolutely. But otherwise, it’s fine if you don’t see this.
A Passage to India is David Lean and it won an Oscar. So a certain amount of people should consider this essential. Otherwise just a moderate recommend and not something that is objectively essential.
Country is okay. Good performance by Sam Shephard and Jessica Lange is good in a limited role. Light to moderate recommend. Just okay. Not essential at all.
The River isn’t a great movie, but does have a cool flood sequence in the end. And it’s Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek. Other than that though, not something anyone ever needs to see. Very light recommend
The Bostonians is a film I actively do not like and is not something I recommend. It’s Merchant Ivory though, so at least I can point to that and say, if that’s something you like, go for it. Otherwise, one of the least essential films of the Oscar Quest.
The Last Word: Sally Field holds up because the category is so terrible. Everyone else save Judy Davis would have been a horrible winner. And I honestly don’t think Judy Davis would have held up any better than Sally Field has. So, taking into account how bad this category is, I think they made the best decision they could have made, and the only one that would have held up decently enough. It’s not their fault, it’s just the category they had. So I’m fine with this. A lot of people would prefer Davis, which is acceptable. But I think Sally Field ends up as the best choice in this one, all things considered.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)