Friday, March 3, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1972

The Contenders:

Liza Minnelli: Cabaret (winner)
Liv Ullmann: The Emigrants
Diana Ross: Lady Sings the Blues
Cicely Tyson: Sounder
Maggie Smith: Travels with My Aunt

What’s Missing

There are up years and down years in movies as there are in everything else. In the case of Best Actress for 1972, we’ve got a down year. I don’t love all of the nominations, but I also don’t have a lot of replacements I’d like to suggest. This may simply be a lack of familiarity with the year I turned 5. Hanna Schygulla for The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant seems like a likely nomination, though. Ingrid Thulin in Cries and Whispers seems like a bigger miss. I’m sure I’m missing something, but that’s what the comments are for.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I like Cicely Tyson in almost everything I’ve seen her in, and I liked her in Sounder. So why am I putting her last? Simply because she doesn’t belong in this category. Tyson should have been nominated as a Supporting Actress, and I’d completely agree with her nomination there. Oddly, Paul Winfield was also nominated for Sounder, and was also nominated in the wrong category. This seems like one of those political nominations where the nomination was the prize itself. In essence, it’s the reverse of a lead role being nominated as a supporting one. Why the hell does this happe?

4. I may be penalizing Maggie Smith for being in a film that I found disappointing, but Travels with My Aunt fell very flat for me. I didn’t hate the film, but I also didn’t like it much in large part because it didn’t seem to go anywhere. If there was a nomination to be had here, it was for Lou Gossett Jr. Smith is extremely good in this role, which is hardly a surprise, since Maggie Smith is pretty awesome in general. I don’t like the character, though, and I don’t like the movie that much, which makes it a much harder sell for me.

3. In a different year, Liv Ullmann would have a much better shot. She’s really good in The Emigrants, and it’s another case where it’s not that surprising. Ullmann is a talented actress, and here she’s been given a pretty meaty part with a lot to sink her teeth into. I like her, I like the role. Ullmann’s biggest problem, and the reason she can’t get above third place, is that there are two performances from this year that are among the best of their decade. That’s not Ullmann’s problem; it’s just her bad luck.

My Choices

2. This is a case where we have a virtual tie in my opinion, so the tie goes to the Academy. I went into Lady Sings the Blues expected to check a box and walked out the other side with a deep respect for the talent of Diana Ross. It’s true that she doesn’t sound like Billie Holiday, but I don’t really care, and you shouldn’t, either. There’s an old story about how to really sing with passion, you need to have experienced love and loss and pain. I don’t know Diana Ross’s life, but if she hasn’t had those experiences, she’s a better actress than I’m giving her credit for being. She is a revelation here, and she’d win outright in pretty much any other year this decade.

1. But, as I said, tie goes to the Academy, and that means the winner is Liza Minnelli for Cabaret. I’m not a huge Minnelli fan. In fact, I frequently find her annoying, but in Cabaret she manages to do something that is nigh-impossible. She has given life to a character in Sally Bowles who I dislike intently and yet feel an overwhelming sense of pity for. Sally is a tragic person in so many ways, and Minnelli captures her perfectly, making her terrible and awful and pitiable and tragic all at once. That’s not easy to do, and I don’t know that it’s been done better.

Final Analysis


  1. The only one of these films that I've seen is Cabaret, but DANG do I love Cabaret! My parents listened to the soundtrack all the time when I was a kid and I practically had it memorized when I was nine or ten years old. I didn't actually see the movie until I was well into my teens and I watch it every so often, probably more often than any other movie from the 1970s aside from Chinatown and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

    So I'll just quietly agree and keep my eyes open for Lady Sings the Blues (which I've been meaning to watch for years) and Travels with My Aunt (because ... Maggie Smith!).

    1. If Lady Sings the Blues had happened the year before or the year after, Diana Ross would be my winner without much question.

  2. Of these actual nominees my ranking would be similar to yours except while I agree Cicely Tyson is in the incorrect category I’d still place her work about Maggie Smith’s. Normally I love Maggie Smith but I hated her in Travels with My Aunt almost as much as I hated the film. It was supposed to be Kate Hepburn, who bowed out at the last minute, she would have been much more suitable-though I’m not sure the film would have turned out better. Maggie is arch, mannered and false. I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen her do.

    Liv’s work is lovely in Emigrants but this just wasn’t her year.

    I’m torn about the top two choices, not because I’m not sure who should get the award-Liza was the rightful winner, but because I didn’t like either of these two films much at all. Ross was never better than here but the film was interminable and there were times where I thought her grasp of the role wasn’t as sure handed as it should have been.

    This is Liza’s crowning moment and she is exceptional but…and this is surely my own thing, I think that’s what’s wrong with the performance. The root of the problem is she's too talented to be Sally Bowles, a second-rate talent at best playing in a lowdown dive. Her musical numbers are awesome, to me they actually weaken her interpretation of the role. She's compelling but I think it's a major flaw.

    I’d toss everybody but Liza and Diana and have my ballot run like this:

    Liza Minnelli-Cabaret
    Diana Ross-Lady Sings the Blues
    Barbra Streisand-What's Up, Doc?
    Tuesday Weld-Play It As It Lays-Winner
    Susannah York-Images

    Streisand is the most delightful she's ever been on screen in Doc, loose, daffy and a total hoot. Both Images and Play It As It Lays are scrambled, hard to like films but contain work by their lead actresses among the best either ever offered. Susannah makes the often disorienting narrative of Images worth staying with. But the prize would go to Tuesday Weld for making the fractured Maria Wyeth in the often obtuse Play It As It Lays so layered. It's the sort of work rarely acknowledged but wonderful to find.

    1. As usual, you've mentioned a bunch of movies that I don't know and haven't seen, which leaves me unable to comment. I get what you're saying about Liza Minnelli, though. She is pretty much too good to be Sally for what Sally is supposed to be. And yet, it's one of the great performances of its decade, and that's hard to ignore for me. Funny to realize that while The Godfather won the big award, Cabaret went 8-for-10. I guess when it comes to Miss Liza, how do you ask someone to not be great?

      I support Joel Grey winning as well. Another of my favorite performances.