Ellen Burstyn: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (winner)
Faye Dunaway: Chinatown
Diahann Carroll: Claudine
Valerie Perrine: Lenny
Gena Rowlands: A Woman Under the Influence
1974 is a hell of a strong year for Best Actress nominations. It’s also a year where I haven’t seen a ton of movies. Most of those that I’d want to mention either don’t have prominent women’s roles or have great women’s roles that are clearly supporting. I’ll mention a couple, though. The first is Brigitte Mira for her heartfelt and rather sweet work in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The others I’d bring up are the duo from Celine and Julie Go Boating: Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. I should start by saying that I think all five of the nominations are good ones. It wasn’t easy to decide where to put anyone, because it genuinely feels like everyone here deserves to be no further down than third place. The reason I’m putting Valerie Perrine last here is simply that, for as good as she is in Lenny, this is Dustin Hoffman’s movie. Hoffman is such a force of nature in Lenny that it’s really hard to remember anyone else in any aspect of the film. I like the nomination well enough, but I don’t love it.
4. I could say virtually the same thing about Diahann Carroll in Claudine. She brings real gravitas to the role here and she’s completely believable. The problem in terms of a nomination for her is that the truly amazing performance here is that of Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. It’s easy to write him off as a character actor from a television sitcom, and based on what he does here, that’s unfair. Carroll is tremendous here, but she’s not always the most compelling thing on the screen, and that works against her when it comes to handing out gold statues.
3. Ellen Burstyn has six Oscar nominations and only this win. I don’t feel guilty for taking this one from her, though, because she should have won in 2000. I like this role in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and I like her in it quite a bit. I remember the television show that was based on this film, and it was a pleasant if silly and lightweight sitcom. I wasn’t prepared for the film to be as serious in places as it turned out to be. Burstyn has always been one of the most talented actresses of her generation. I simply like two other performances from this year more, but I understand her win completely.
2. I think if you put a gun to my head, Chinatown is the most impressive and “best” film from 1974 on a lot of metrics. Faye Dunaway is a big part of that. This is a great role for her, one that stands out in her filmography. When that filmography includes Bonnie and Clyde and Network, that’s impressive. I could see Dunaway winning this Oscar for a wonderful performance that digs deep into some horrible psychological pain. I think she’s great in this, but she’s not got the killer performance of the year. Close, but not quite.
1. It would be a lie for me to say that I genuinely enjoyed A Woman Under the Influence because it’s not the sort of film that one enjoys. Gena Rowlands, though, gives the sort of performance here that makes careers. There is no way to watch the film and not come out the other side wondering how she didn’t win. Her work covers the gamut of possible emotions, and does so so seamlessly and effortlessly that it doesn’t feel like acting. It’s possibly the greatest acting performance of the 1970s, and almost certainly the best of its year.