Friday, June 10, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1981

The Contenders:

Susan Sarandon: Atlantic City
Meryl Streep: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Katharine Hepburn: On Golden Pond (winner)
Marsha Mason: Only When I Laugh
Diane Keaton: Reds

What’s Missing

I have to say that when I look at the nominees for Best Actress in 1981, I don’t see any that excite me that much. When I look at other movies I know from 1981, I don’t see a lot more, although there are a couple of people who I think belong here more. First of these is Kathleen Turner’s work in Body Heat, which is a movie that is sadly forgotten and should get a hell of a lot more love. There was a time when Kathleen Turner was sex on two legs, and Body Heat falls right in the middle of that time. Also snubbed in my opinion was Sally Field for Absence of Malice. In my own little world I might bring up Dee Wallace from The Howling…but probably not. My absolute favorite female character from 1981 is Frances Sternhagen's portrayal of Dr. Lazarus in Outland, but even in a perfect world, that's a supporting role.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: The real problem I have with this award is that when I look at the five nominees, it feels like all of them belong in the third position. Someone has to come last, though, and so I’m putting Marsha Mason there. It’s probably not entirely her fault that she comes in last because a great deal of the reason for that is the overly-snappy dialogue that is clearly not based on the way people actually talk. Another part of it is that no matter how much I struggle with this, I just can’t find a way to like Marsha Mason.

4. When I first looked at this award, it felt like one of those situations where an older actor at the end of his or her career gets an Oscar as a sort of career award. Of course, Hepburn already had a few Oscars so she didn’t really need this one, and I can’t really make a case for her winning. Sure, it’s a good performance. When did Hepburn not give a good performance? This is a case, though, where it seems like she won based on nostalgia rather than based on the strength of what she did on screen. The nomination should’ve been enough. There’s no way she should have won.

3. I love me some Susan Sarandon, but there’s a lot about Atlantic City that bothered me. I think she’s the most compelling thing in the movie, but when it’s a movie that I don’t love, I’m not sure how much that says. I find Sarandon compelling on screen in most cases, but what we have here is a film I think has some real problems and a role that, while interesting, is far less interesting than it should be. That’s not entirely her fault, since she can only work with what she is given. Still, there are two who did better work this year.

2. Diane Keaton is my favorite part of Reds. With a movie that runs as long as this one does, having that person who is worth seeing in the screenplay is always a good thing, and it’s Keaton who, to me at least, ties the entire film together and is worth watching every time she is on screen. Had the film focused on her portrayal of Louise Bryant rather than Warren Beatty’s portrayal of Jack Reed I would have liked the film a lot more and might well argue for Keaton in the top position. I wouldn’t complain too hard had she won, but she’s only the second best performance in this list.

My Choice

1: In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Meryl Streep plays two roles. In the first, real-world role, she basically plays herself and she’s good. In the film within the film, she is absolutely magnificent. For me, the entire film is about these moments of Streep playing a character playing a role and everything else in the film works as a backdrop to this performance. I know it’s strange to take an Oscar away from someone who has a bunch and give it to someone else who has a bunch, but of all her performances, this is one Meryl Streep should have won. In a perfect world, Sally Field and Kathleen Turner would be on the list, but I think I’d still give it to Streep, although Kathleen Turner would give her a good run for her money.

Final Analysis


  1. I went to my IMDB Favorite Movie Year-by-Year List to see if I had something listed with an alternate choice. My favorite movie of 1981 was ... Polyester!
    Aside from being a longshot because of the film's genre, Divine is a man, so not eligible.
    So ... Edith Massey? No, you're right. It's more of a supporting role.

    1. I freely admit that I am terrified of Edith Massey. I am not ashamed of this.

  2. I like all these actresses, yes even Marsha Mason, but this year is very thin. When I read your first couple of lines I realized I felt the exact same way about the category. Of these actual nominees I'd go with Diane Keaton, though I wasn't that crazy about Reds and I've liked her more elsewhere.

    Streep is excellent in the film with a film portion of FLW but I thought she was curiously flat in the rest, she recently commented on the Graham Norton Show that she wasn't that fond of this performance herself feeling that she didn't have a firm grasp on the duality of the characters.

    Kate Hepburn I think got carried along on the sentimental wave of love for Henry Fonda, who everybody knew that it was then or never to award him the prize. I don't hate her performance but it's not award worthy. How I wish that Barbara Stanwyck had been successful in her lobbying for the role. With her long shared history both personally and cinematically with Fonda it would have added another layer to their interaction and perhaps she could have won that long deserved Oscar but the studio felt that Hepburn was more sure at the box office.

    As to who is missing the most glaring omission is Kathleen Turner, if she was in the race I wouldn't hesitate for an instant in saying the prize should have been hers. I don't even care that much for the overall movie but she's riveting from beginning to end, what Fritz Lang could have done with her!

    Otherwise I adore Sally Field and she gives a customary good performance in Absence of Malice but it never stayed with me plus I found her character irresponsible, a little stupid and poorly defined. The standout performance in that film for me was Melinda Dillon which was a supporting one. The name I'd put into the mix is Barbara Sukowa in Lola, an excellent piece of work. Then there's the wildly divisive work by Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. It's widely reviled but I've spoken to people who think it's great, a sort of kabuki performance piece. She never stood a prayer of being in the running since the film more or less demolished her starring career.

    By the way, I'm right there with you on Frances Sternhagen in Outland. She is so badass, taking neither gruff nor any prisoners. That is an underappreciated little gem of a film with terrific work by Sean Connery and Peter Boyle along with Frances.

    1. I think Streep is good in the real-world sequences of The French Lieutenant's Woman but is absolutely transcendent in the film-within-a-film parts. I think it's some of her best work.

      I'm with you on Hepburn. It's not a bad performance, but this was more or less a coat-tail on Fonda. Barbara Stanwyck would've killed this role.

      If I had my absolute way with this category, Kathleen Turner would have been nominated without question, and I wouldn't argue too hard against her winning. I actually like Body Heat quite a bit, and she's clearly the best thing in it. Transport her in time back to the '40s and she'd have an unbelievable career in film noir. Can you imagine circa 1981 Kathleen Turner in Out of the Past or Laura? Holy shit, she would've been good. Fritz Lang, sure. What would Siodmak or Welles have done with her?

      Frances Sternhagen in Outland is kind of the template for Marge Gunderson. It wouldn't shock me if Frances McDormand cribbed a couple of notes.

  3. The only nominated performance I've seen is Keaton's and honestly, I don't remember very much of it other than the movie was so damn long. I do love Turner in Body Heat, though. Based on that alone, I would also give her a nom. She was fantastic!

    1. She was a sexy beast in 1981, and a near-perfect version of a femme fatale in Body Heat. It's such a convincing performance all the way through that the ending comes as such a shock on a first viewing. The French Lieutenant's Woman is good, but slow. It's not a movie I feel the need to watch again.

      If you haven't seen Outland, though, it basically High Noon on a space station. Loads of fun.

  4. Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice deserved consideration...

    1. That's one I haven't seen. I've just seen the original and the Italian version.

  5. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is on both my movies I still need to see and books I still need to read list. I've seen of the rest of the nominees, and Sarandon is my clear choice. Did Marsha Mason really get a nomination for Only When I Laugh over Kathleen Turner in Body Heat? Yikes...

    1. She did, and I really don't get it. Turner would come no lower than second place for me, and might well win, depending on my mood.