Friday, February 23, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1974

The Contenders:

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

What’s Missing

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.

My Choices

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.

Final Analysis


  1. I can't quibble with any of this.

    Chinatown is the best film of the year and Dunaway is a tremendous part of that but....her role could almost be considered supporting but either way she is outstanding and I wouldn't have carped had she won.

    Speaking of supporting work that truly is where Valerie Perrine should have been placed and had she been I think she could have won. She's great and the role and performance are flashy so in a year where the nominees weren't terribly strong-though Valentina Cortese is excellent in Day for Night-it's a shame she was nominated in lead where she didn't have a prayer.

    I didn't like Claudine much but Diahann Carroll was very affecting especially when you consider she took the role with minimal time to prepare since she stepped in when original star Diana Sands die suddenly. She deserved her nom but she's be towards the bottom of my list.

    Agreed that Ellen Burstyn is one of the great actresses of her generation and she has given many award worthy performances and Alice is deserving of her nomination but if Faye was lead than Ellen would come in third.

    Which leaves the woman who I think it is now universally agreed should have won this year. Woman Under the Influence isn't designed to be liked on an entertainment level, it's an agonizing study of a tumbledown person and I squirmed in discomfort and sadness frequently while watching but I couldn't turn away because Gena Rowlands was just too riveting to take your eyes off of her. As you said it doesn't feel like acting she just IS Mabel. She's been deserving of a win other years but this year there just was no other option. The only reason I can think of that she didn't take the prize is because the voters were unsettled by her work. I saw an interview with Ellen Burstyn a few years ago and she was talking about the frustration of awards and how deserving work goes unrewarded and specifically mentioned this film and performance. She said something along the lines of "Look at Gena Rowlands in Women Under the Influence! That's an Oscar winning performance!! Not MY Oscar you understand...but it deserved to win one." The humor of the statement made me like her even more but she's so right.

    As to who is missing I don't really have anyone, for once the awards committee picked wisely. I've heard Charlotte Rampling mentioned for The Night Porter and while I love her I detested the film and wasn't overly bowled over by the performances. The women in Young Frankenstein were all brilliant but supporting and I haven't seen the ones you mention.

    1. I think I can make a strong case for Brigitte Mira, perhaps to replace Valerine Perrine who, as you say, was much more suited for being nominated in a supporting role.

      This was the hardest one of these I've done in a long time. While I don't like all of these movies, I genuinely like all five of the performances and think all five deserved to be nominated in some respect. I think I can make a case for the top three if I had to. I went back and forth a lot here. Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway, and Gena Rowlands all spent time in first, second, and third place in my head. Admittedly, Rowlands didn't spend a great deal of time in third or much in second, either.

      It's a cliche, but these are the kinds of problems you like to have. It's so frustrating to have years where it feels like none of the nominations belong. To have a year where you can talk about how good all of the nominations are (even if they're not all in the right place) is such a treat.

  2. Another performance that belongs in the conversation is Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express. She literally drives that film's madness.

    1. It's not one I've seen. 1974 is an off year for me in that respect.

  3. The Academy usually love portrayals of disabled, disturbed or otherwise troubled characters. Rowlands is right down that lane. Huge surprise she did not win