Friday, May 22, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1979

The Contenders:

Marsha Mason: Chapter Two
Jane Fonda: The China Syndrome
Sally Field: Norma Rae (winner)
Bette Midler: The Rose
Jill Clayburgh: Starting Over

What’s Missing

The late ‘70s always feel so bland to me for some reason. I don’t think they really are, but I always feel like I’m just trying to get to the ‘80s when I’m in these years. There are some clear misses for 1979 that might make this race a lot more interesting to me. Mariel Hemingway would have been an interesting choice for Manhattan. Of a roughly similar age would be Diane Lane for A Little Romance. Oscar doesn’t do horror, or didn’t in 1979, which leaves out Samantha Eggar in The Brood and Carol Kane in When a Stranger Calls. Nastassja Kinski might be worth a mention for Tess, but it got its nominations for 1980. I’m genuinely surprised that Meryl Streep wasn’t nominated for Kramer vs. Kramer…except that she was nominated and won in a supporting role. Bernadette Peters would have been a fascinating choice for The Jerk, but she had no real chance of a nomination. Time After Time was probably too horror-adjacent for a nomination for Mary Steenburgen. Judy Davis feels like a real miss for My Brilliant Career. But really, we should be questioning why Sigourney Weaver isn’t here for Alien, horror movie or not.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. For as much as I might complain about the nominations, I don’t actually hate any of them that much. Chapter Two is probably the most I’ve ever liked Marsha Mason, but there’s so much about this movie that I dislike. Mason, for all of the fact that I tend to dislike her, is the best part of the film, a shock when you realize that her costar is James Caan, and I’m a huge fan of him. I might be punishing her for the movie and I might be punishing her because she’s Marsha Mason, but regardless of reason, I’m putting her in fifth.

4. Of the five movies that were nominated, The China Syndrome is probably my favorite of them. Jane Fonda is fine in this role, but I’m not 100% sold on the fact that she deserved the nomination. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a fine performance from her, and I don’t know that I hate the nomination, but in a lot of ways, this movie belongs to Michael Douglas, who is the most memorable person in the film for me. It’s hard for me to think that she should be here when she can’t always dominate the scenes she’s in, good performance or no.

3. There’s a lot to like about Norma Rae. Just as The China Syndrome is probably my favorite of these movies, Norma is probably my favorite of these characters. I don’t genuinely hate that Sally Field won this Oscar. It’s a good performance, even a very good performance, but the movie has a lot of problems that do affect how I see the role. This feels Field won because of who she is rather than the role that she was in. She’s awfully good here, but there are two performances I think are better.

2. Jill Clayburgh’s work in Starting Over is probably the best work of her career. In a lot of ways, this is a companion piece to An Unmarried Woman from the year before, but this is much more serious and less comical. Clayburgh is damaged here, and there’s a sense that everything that she says and does is coming from that place where she was damaged and is affected by it. So why isn’t she in first? Because opposite her is Burt Reynolds in a role that no one knew he had in him, and while Clayburgh is better, Reynolds is an incredible surprise.

My Choice

1. What this means is that I’m giving this to Bette Midler for The Rose. The truth is that I didn’t like The Rose at all and it’s a movie I will probably never rewatch, but Midler is absolutely amazing in this role. It feels like she is not specifically acting, but simply living in the persona that she’s being asked to play. There’s so much I don’t like about the role and the movie, but I can find no fault in Midler’s performance. I had no idea that she had this role in her, and while the nomination was probably all she could have expected, she really should have won.

Final Analysis


  1. I totally agree with you on Bette Midler for The Rose. She was incredible in that film. She should've won while I'm with you on Sigourney Weaver, Samantha Eggar, and Nastassja Kinski. I would've vouched for Diane Keaton for Manhattan and here's a big surprise, P.J. Soles for Rock N' Roll High School. It's a great film as I chatted briefly with its director Allan Arkush on his Letterboxd account as I forgave him for Caddyshack II stating that it wasn't his fault that it sucked and I praised the Elvis & Nixon TV movie he did in the 1990s and he replied back. To me, that is awesome.

    1. That's a better movie contact than I've made with anyone through social media. The best I can claim is a conversation with Mark Kermode on Twitter that was essentially us comparing Eddie Izzard quotes.

  2. For once, I have seen all the nominated movies plus the misses. I would actually give it to either Davis or Weaver.

    1. Hard to argue, honestly. I'd prefer that Weaver have an Oscar for Aliens, but you're not wrong here.

  3. When this actual awards race was happening it was pretty clear that the prize was going to go to Sally Field, she did a near total sweep of all the award bodies up to the event, and I can't say it's not earned. You have to factor in the one/two punch of Norma Rae and Sybil which had completely changed the perception of her as well. Though she deservedly won a ton of awards for Sybil she hadn't received the top honor yet and Hollywood seemed to be itching to do that and fortunately they did so with something worthy.

    With all that it was also clear that if any spoiler was going to swoop in and snag the prize it would be Bette. And again it would have been completely earned. My vote goes to Sally though I probably enjoyed The Rose more and in other years she'd be my easy winner.

    As far as the other three, I loved The China Syndrome, out of these five films it's by far my favorite and Jane is great in it but I think both Sally and Bette's characters were more complex ones to carry off.

    I like Marsha Mason a good deal and she was fine in Chapter Two but it was based on her courtship with Neil Simon. I'm sure there are difficulties in playing yourself but how many? She gave a much more intricate performance the same year in Promises in the Dark and I wouldn't have minded seeing her in the race with that but it is a pitch black downer that didn't have a chance of competing.

    Jill Clayburgh was a good actress and I guess she did as much as she could with her character in Starting Over but I didn't get much from the movie and all I remember from the entire thing is Candice Bergen.

    In an open field Sally would remain my winner and I'd keep Bette and Jane but as far as the other two slots I'd put Sigourney Weaver in one and the other would go to Lee Remick in The Europeans.

    1. I don't really object to Sally Field winning, even if I think Bette Midler's performance was the single-best of the year. I should also say that The China Syndrome is my favorite of these five movies, so I don't really hate Fonda's nomination, either.

      Turns out that for all my bitching at the top, this was a very good year.

  4. Ask any person under 45 today and they'd have no clue who "any" of these nominated and winning actresses are or the movies they starred in back in 1979 while I'm pretty sure that most would know of one Ellen Ripley and that little "Alien" that popped up and led to one mother of a franchise. It seems that at least Sigourney Weaver won where it counts, the public's wallets.

    1. True--and while I love her in Alien, the fact that she lost in 1986 for Aliens is literally the reason I started this project.