Sunday, June 7, 2015

Best Supporting Actress Smackdown 1979: My Ballot

Over at The Film Experience there's a monthly feature called The Best Supporting Actress Smackdown. It was originally started by Stinkylulu at their website and I strongly encourage you to visit past years there. The concept is simple: a year is chosen and a selected panel re-examinzes all 5 nominees with a grade of 1 to 5 hearts depending on how effective/good the performance is. Also for that month, there are even articles based on other films that year to give the nominated films context. May was 1979. I personally contributed a post looking at that year: Bette Midler's Best Actress nominated film debut in The Rose. There's also a reader's write-in ballot for the Smackdown that is taken into consideration for the eventual outcome. Below is my ballot of the 5 women nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1979. I almost feel bad for the other ladies going up against the inevitable winner, Meryl Streep, because not only is it one of her best performance in a career packed with memorable turns, but her character is far and away the best written and developed. Let's take a look:

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Jane Alexander Kramer Vs. Kramer

The Role: Alexander plays Margaret Phelps, the Kramer's neighbor that has previously been through a divorce and the support system for Dustin Hoffman's Ted Kramer

My Take: At a time when people quote the divorce rate at 50% (everyone knows someone who's divorced), it's almost quaint now to think about how this film was tackling a subject that hadn't been really discussed before. And while the story might center on Kramer Vs. Kramer, it's Alexander's single divorced mother that becomes the face of the issue. Talking honestly about how she feels, stating that she'll never remarry, and confessing that taking the vow "till death do us part" means something, Alexander's "liberated" woman feels just as alone in her new life as she did in her marriage. She's the person Hoffman's character can talk openly about how he's feeling and what Alexander does beautifully in all her scenes with him is actively listen. With a lesser actress, the role could very easily feel like a stock friend or a stand-in for the film's topics, but Alexander manages to make Margaret feel like a woman that has a life outside of the film's narrative, making her feel like a real person.  ♥♥♥

Barbara Barrie Breaking Away

The Role: Billed as "Mom", veteran actress Barrie plays Evelyn Stoller the mother of a young man in Indiana that dreams of bigger things as a competitive cyclist.

My Take: Sometimes the goodwill for a Best Picture nominee in a crowd-pleasing film allows actors to ride the momentum and score nominations. Such is the case for Barrie, a perfectly lovely actress that is given next to nothing to do in this film. In the Academy's wheelhouse of Supporting Actress types, Barrie's supportive mother is all heart and motherly encouragement to her Italian-loving cyclist son. Barrie brings an easy warmth to her scenes with Dennis Christopher as her son. And delivers her lines in that off-handed actressy way meant to convey natural realism, but always kinda seems too calculated in its execution to ever feel completely genuine. Especially her "business" with her passport in the only scene close to allowing us any insight to her character's life. But the film isn't really interested in allowing her to be anything other than mother and wife, unwavering in her devotion. 

Candice Bergen Starting Over

The Role: Jessica Potter, an aspiring singer/songwriter recently separated from her husband (Burt Reynolds).

My Take: Anyone that grew up with Bergen as Murphy Brown knows that she has a gift for comedy (with 5 Emmys for the role to prove it). But at the time Bergen scored her sole Oscar nomination for this romantic comedy, she had been known mostly for dramatic roles. It seems the Academy wanted to reward her for showing versatility, but in this strained performance Bergen still seems to be trying to find her comedic rhythm without succeeding as hard as she's trying. And boy is she trying. It doesn't help that her character is written as a clueless basket case with absolutely no self-awareness. And Bergen, with her air of sophistication and intelligence, is too smart an actress to believably play such an oblivious woman. Particularly in the scenes where she talks about her budding music career. Bergen, the actress, knows how bad a singer she is and seems to be silently laughing at the ridiculousness of Jessica's delusional aspirations. The role calls for light and ditzy. But Bergen plays everything unnecessarily serious and her comedic skills set tends to play better with witty and dry banter. 

Mariel Hemingway Manhattan

The Role: The young actress plays the 17-year-old lover to Woody Allen's 42-year-old television writer, Isaac Davis.

My Take: The character of Tracy, as written, is supposed to convey to the audience how sophisticated for her age she is and how, unlike the supposed adults of the film, she has it all figured out. (And in case you didn't get it, Woody actually says as much at the end of the film.) But nothing about Hemingway, with her baby doll voice and wide-eyed innocence never feels like she's more than the child she is. When she speaks about things like sex and love, she's just reciting lines without any weight, history, or subtext to make it seem believable. She's the weak link in a great movie and seems to have scored a nomination on the strength of the film surrounding her. Her nod more a celebration of her her youth and beauty than for any skill as an actress. 

Meryl Streep Kramer Vs. Kramer

The Role: The second of back-to-back supporting actress nominations (out of a career total of 19 acting nominations and counting), Streep won for playing Joanna Kramer, a mother and wife unhappy in her marriage, seeking a divorce.

My Take: Streep has become synonymous with acting greatness with nearly every performance she creates nominated for an Oscar (whether it deserves to be or not) that it can be easy to take her for granted. But even in her early work the craft and brilliance are there - fully formed, waiting for the world to catch-up. In the past, Streep has been criticized for relying too heavily on craft and technique, finding a character through accent work, vocal change, and wardrobe. But stripped of any artifice, as she is in this film, playing just a regular, everyday woman, she skillfully manages to plunge the depths of Joanna's conflicting emotions while making the actions of what could be seen as an unsympathetic character understandable. Haunting, troubled, and completely compelling, Streep often steals scenes with nothing more than quietness and the pained look in her eyes. The Academy doesn't always recognize genius immediately, but with this performance they completely got it right. ♥♥♥

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Just like the Academy, I couldn't resist Streep's performance. A worthy winner that blows the competition out of the water. Be sure to read the panel's choice (I think you know who) here!


  1. I'm SO GLAD I'm not the only one who thinks Mariel Hemingway is just not good in Manhattan. It's easily the worst performance in the film, nearly completely blank and almost monotone in delivery. She seemingly got the nomination for what a great crier she is (as evidenced by the last scene), because otherwise it's just a reward for being young and beautiful and cast in a great Woody Allen film. But it's a dull performance that offers absolutely no substantiation for the wonderful things about her that Woody's character keeps telling the audience.

    1. yeah, i don't remember disliking it so much when i first saw it. but re-watchng for this i was just so baffled how she received a nomination - and she received them across the board: oscar, golden globe, BAFTA. i don't get it.

  2. Daniel -- on the other hand Isaac does warn us that he romanticizes things all out of proportion so perhaps we aren't meant to believe these things entirely.

    i remembered this performance as being much better than it is, though but one star seems mean. HASN'T SHE BEEN THROUGH ENOUGH! ;)

    1. listen, i'm from philadelphia - we just call them as we see them.

  3. I haven't seen Bergen, but I'm with you 100% on the rest. Hemingway was awful in Manhattan, and a big reason why I don't love that film as much as many others. Streep, who was in it for like 10 seconds, was much better. I'm also glad you're a defender of Streep's beautiful turn. So many balk at this win as being unworthy, but she was remarkable...especially that elevator scene...UGH!!!

    1. there are people who don't like meryl's win for kramer vs. kramer?!? who ARE these people? i can understanding not necessarily liking her character, but you simply can't deny how amazing she is in the role.