Friday, September 20, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1969

The Contenders:

Genevieve Bujold: Anne of the Thousand Days
Jean Simmons: The Happy Ending
Maggie Smith: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (winner)
Liza Minnelli: The Sterile Cuckoo
Jane Fonda: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

What’s Missing

There are some very interesting choices for 1969 and some places I’d rather go. Big surprise, right? Ali McGraw in Goodbye, Columbus would have been a very interesting choice here. Just as potentially interesting are Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden in Women in Love. I’d love to see Katherine Ross here in Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid here as well, but she’s almost certainly more supporting than lead. The sexual content of Venus in Furs probably disqualified Barbara McNair and Maria Rohm. Foreign language performances were still pretty rare in the late ‘60s, which leaves out Francoise Fabian in My Night at Maud’s. The biggest shock for me is a miss on Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly!, but her co-win the previous year might explain that.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I hated The Happy Ending about as much as I hated anything from 1969. This is a depressing film about a woman who claims to want to find herself out of her life of dull sameness but instead seems to want nothing more than to lose herself in vodka, pills, and shopping sprees. Everyone in this film is stupid, angry, bitter, and venal. This is cynicism put on film, where the only pleasure is a brief surcease of pain. This was a hateful experience, and while Jean Simmons might well have been fine in the role, she’s either the source or the target of all the film’s problems.

4. There’s a lot to say about Anne of the Thousand Days and about Genevieve Bujold in the title role. One thing that could be said is that her accent has to be explained away in the film as her having lived in Paris. Another thing that could be said is that Anthony Quayle is the best part of the film. I like Bujold’s performance here and I like the film well enough, but in a year that had much more interesting and intense performances in many places, I’m not entirely convinced that she should have been nominated in the first place.

3. Liza Minnelli is hard to cast and harder to cast well. The Sterile Cuckoo is one of the better jobs of casting her. Much like with Cabaret a couple of years later, Minnelli plays a character who is both infuriating and pitiable, someone who you desperately want to shake to get her to shut up while simultaneously hoping that nothing in her life hurts her too badly. It’s a wonderful performance in a film that doesn’t quite have everything else about it working on all cylinders. She’s the best thing here; sadly, that doesn’t say a great deal.

2. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is such an odd film in so many ways. It’s not a film that I’m desperate to see again any time soon. It’s also a film that is slow for the first two acts and then drops the hammer in the third. The fact that it works at all is in large part to the brilliant work of Maggie Smith, who is better than the rest of the film and bigger than the rest of the film. I understand her win for this even if I don’t particularly agree with it. In a year without another, more towering performance, Smith would be an easy choice for me.

My Choice

1. I don’t want this to be a thing, especially because I love Maggie Smith, but to not give this to Jane Fonda is nearly criminal. Fonda has always been capable of being compelling given good material, and there is no better example than They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. On its own, this is a staggering achievement for an actor. That it came the year after the puffy sex romp of Barbarella shows just how great Fonda’s range could be. Side by side, they don’t look like the same actress in any way. It’s brutal and powerful, and it’s just as strong now as it was when it was made. This should have been hers.

Final Analysis


  1. I haven't seen any of those performances at all. I probably would've had some consideration for Francoise Fabian for My Night at Maud's, Liv Ullmann for The Passion of Anna, Catherine Deneuve for Mississippi Mermaid, and Shirley MacLaine for Sweet Charity.

    1. Track down They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at your earliest convenience. It's not a pleasant sit, but holy hell, you'll wonder how you've lived this long without it.

  2. I love Jean Simmons and think she was terribly undervalued for most of her career but while I liked The Happy Ending more than you I find it hard to grasp why she was nominated for this rather than any number of more notable performances. I know Richard Brooks wrote the film especially for her in hopes that she would recognize her troubles in the character, she was a chronic alcoholic for many years both before and after the film though eventually she was able to get sober, so maybe that was known at the time and played into her inclusion.

    I also love Maggie Smith and her work in Jean Brodie is interesting but rather studied, she's been better many other times.

    I found Bujold fascinating and her work complex in Anne of the Thousand Days but the film is the sort I have a weakness for. As good as she is though she’s be towards the bottom of my nomination list.

    Liza was tough to cast, that everywoman relatability her mother had did not pass down to her, but Pookie Adams was a near perfect fit. She is so exposed and raw, even if it doesn't use her musical gifts, I think it's the best acting she done including Cabaret. But while I’d nominate her she wouldn’t be my winner.

    I’m with you, no one should have won this year but Jane Fonda. She’s very, very good in Klute but she’s next level here. No matter how well directed it is Horses is a hard film to watch and is almost completely reliant on the actors making you care about the broken, desperate people they portray whether you like them or not. Jane’s Gloria is the toughest to make that happen but she achieves it admirably.

    While I think the lineup by and large is pretty strong this was an excellent year for lead actresses and there are several that could have easily replaced some that did make it in.

    But first I’m not surprised by Streisand’s exclusion. She’s big and brassy enough for Dolly Levi and that she handles the songs well goes without saying but she’s eons too young for the role and there was a lot of resentment that the part was given to her and not Carol Channing. All that and her recent win no doubt shut her out.

    I can’t agree about Ali MacGraw, I thought she was ghastly in Goodbye, Columbus. Glenda Jackson competed and won the next year for Women in Love. Katharine Ross is very enjoyable in Butch & Sundance but supporting. That supporting statue should have gone to Susannah York for Horses as well.

    Aside from those you mentioned I’d add Shirley Knight who is flat out brilliant in The Rain People, Patty Duke in Me, Natalie and perhaps Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West. Anouk Aimee was also very good in Justine but the movie is such a mess it’s no surprise she didn’t garner any traction.

    1. You are right about Glenda Jackson, of course, and Ross is absolutely supporting in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and while this is about Best Actress and not supporting, Ross was robbed of a deserved nomination.

      I wasn't aware of the controversy surrounding Streisand, but that does add additional weight to her lack of nomination.

      All of this is talking about second place, though. I can't understand how Jane Fonda didn't walk away with this almost unanimously.

    2. I think it's a question of perception of where Jane and Maggie were at this moment in their respective careers.

      Maggie was a highly praised stage actress with a nomination already behind her for Othello and her previous film to Jean Brodie was the very successful Hot Millions.

      Jane had won good reviews for her comedic work in Cat Ballou, Barefoot in the Park and several others but was still seen as the blonde sex kitten of a famous father and as you mentioned this came on the heels of Barbarella. Horses did a great amount to dispelling all that but with Maggie in the position she was I suppose it's not surprising they made Jane wait until Klute, which was her next film, provided that undeniable one two punch that she couldn't be denied. That win is actually quite surprising since it came at the height of her being villainized as Hanoi Jane.

    3. That makes sense, and it's another reason to be angry with the way Oscar does business. Awards like Best Actress in this case aren't about the best performance in a year but about someone who gave a good performance who deserves it based on their career in many cases.

      I mean, I know that's always been the case, but it's kind of depressing to see how often that is clearly spelled out.

  3. Haven't seen "Horses", so Maggie is an easy choice for me. Just the way she says "little girls" fills me with delight!

    1. As I said above, I cannot stress enough how much you should track down Horses. It's a very hard sit, but it's unbelievably worth it.