Our recent post challenging some recipients of the Best Actor Oscar can be found here. While we didn’t have as many issues over the history of the Best Actress category, there’ve certainly been some wins over the years worth debating.
A highly fictionalized account of the life of show biz impresario Flo Ziegfeld (played by William Powell), The Great Ziegfeld remains an entertaining rags-to-riches-to-rags story, with Luise Rainer as French-Polish performer Anna Held, with whom Ziegfeld was smitten, made into a star and married. The fact is that Rainer—third-billed in the film, and absent from its second half—saw herself as an also-ran in the race, and was only convinced to attend the ceremony at the last minute. She would go on to a much-deserved win of the trophy the following year, for her dramatic powerhouse role opposite Paul Muni in The Good Earth. In ’36, though, the Austrian import faced two actresses turning in memorable performances in screwball classics: Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey and Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild. The remaining competition included Norma Shearer for George Cukor’s version of Romeo and Juliet, opposite Leslie Howard’s Romeo; and Gladys George in Valiant is the Word for Carrie, playing a prostitute trying to make a new life for herself after being run out of town.
Of course, Ginger Rogers is best known as one-half of the greatest dancing duo in film history, sharing the screen with Fred Astaire in Top Hat, Swing Time and other classic musicals. But Ms. Rogers had little trouble crossing over to dramatic and straight comedic roles, taking impressive turns in Roxie Hart (the precursor to Chicago), Primrose Path, Bachelor Mother and Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor. Her turn as Kitty Foyle, the blue-collar gal from Philly who must decide between a well-off married Main Line guy and a doctor in New York City, got her the Oscar recognition she desired. We don’t mean to discount Ginger’s often overlooked dramatic abilities, but the year she copped the Oscar, she had some heavy competition: Bette Davis for the noirish The Letter; Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (she would win the following year for Hitch’s Suspicion); Martha Scott, who made her film debut opposite William Holden in Our Town; and Katharine Hepburn, in a comeback performance as zany divorcee Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story.
Judy Holliday’s signature role as Emma “Billie” Dawn, the high-pitched and seemingly bubble-headed bombshell girlfriend of slovenly tycoon Broderick Crawford in Born Yesterday, is a gem. But Judy had some strong women to contend with this year. There were Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in the backstage theater classic All About Eve, which won Best Picture; Eleanor Parker in the prison drama Caged; and our preference, Gloria Swanson as the faded screen star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.
Judy Garland was the clear favorite to take home the gold for playing Esther Blodgett, aka Vicki Lester, aka Mrs. Norman Maine, in the remake of A Star Is Born. After Grace Kelly, playing dowdy and devoted spouse to alcoholic hubby actor Bing Crosby in The Country Girl, got the win, Groucho Marx sent Judy a letter declaring the choice “the biggest robbery since Brink’s,” or something to that effect. But Judy wasn’t the only woman who turned heads with her performance that year. Also-rans included Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, and Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession.
Elizabeth Taylor was penciled in by many for her part as “Maggie the Cat” in Richard Brooks’ 1958 screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She lost out to Susan Hayward in the melodrama I Want to Live! The following year, she was up again for another Williams opus, Suddenly, Last Summer. Co-star Katharine Hepburn split the vote, making room at the top for Simone Signoret in Room at the Top. She finally prevailed with 1960’s Butterfield 8, a racy drama neither she nor hubby/co-star Eddie Fisher liked at the time. With the Oscar, “La Liz” got the Hollywood nod of approval (and a long-awaited one-way ticket out of her long-term contract from MGM) for all of her angst—including a recent bout with pneumonia—and for her personal life, as she was generally seen then as someone who stole Fisher from ex Debbie Reynolds. Still, other goodies were left in the dust that year, especially Shirley MacLaine’s elevator operator in The Apartment (“I lost to a tracheotomy!”), Greer Garson’s Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello, Deborah Kerr’s Australian matriarch in The Sundowners, and Melina Mercouri’s prostitute in the international hit Never on Sunday.
It’s hard to argue that Katharine Hepburn—with a career ledger of twelve total Oscar nominations and four wins—was undeserving of any award, but Academy voters may have given her a pass on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, where she played an art gallery owner facing the fact that her daughter (real-life niece Katherine Houghton) wants to marry a black physician (Sidney Poitier). Hepburn’s husband was played by Spencer Tracy, her longtime off-screen companion, who was seriously ill at the time of production and died shortly after the Stanley Kramer film’s release. The depiction of interracial romance was considered groundbreaking for its time, but Tracy and Hepburn’s relationship—the film marked their ninth and final screen pairing—certainly played a part in her Oscar bounty. Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate is our choice for the win, but the other entrants should not have been ignored, either: Faye Dunaway in a career-making performance as Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde; Audrey Hepburn as the terrorized blind woman in the thriller Wait Until Dark; and the longshot, Dame Edith Evans as an elderly woman with a vivid imagination in The Whisperers.
Glenda Jackson had won the 1969 Best Actress Academy Award for Ken Russell’s Women in Love, so her subsequent nomination for A Touch of Class, a romantic comedy opposite George Segal, was not taken all that seriously. Even though The Exorcist dominated the box-office and even the headlines of the day, it was shut out in the major Oscar awards. Among those denied was Ellen Burstyn, and you could see her visible annoyance in the telecast when it was announced that the absent Jackson took home the prize (Touch of Class director Melvin Frank accepted on her behalf.) Also finishing out of the money were Barbra Streisand for The Way We Were, Joanne Woodward for Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, and Marsha Mason for Cinderella Liberty. But Ellen would get her due the following year, taking home the well-deserved statue for Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Her 1974 opponents were quite formidable: Diahann Carroll for Claudine, Faye Dunaway for Chinatown, Valerie Perrine for Lenny and Gena Rowlands for A Woman Under the Influence.
“America’s Sweetheart” Julia Roberts had a lot going into the award season, what with a couple of previous nominations and starring in Erin Brockovich, the true-life social drama that happened to be a box-office hit that happened to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, nominated twice that same year for Best Director (for Traffic as well). But Ellen Burstyn’s turn as a pill-popping Brooklyn widow in Darren Aronofsky’s downbeat, NC-17 rated, indie drug saga Requiem for a Dream may have been a little too much to overcome for the Academy members. The other nominees were solid as well, including Joan Allen in The Contender, previous Oscar winner Juliette Binoche in Chocolat and Laura Linney in You Can Count on Me.
Nicole Kidman lost the 2001 Oscar for her exuberant singing and dancing turn in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! So, fitted with a prosthetic nose, Kidman returned to the screen in The Hours, playing troubled writer Virginia Woolf in the 1920s-set sections of the time-skipping anthology based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. We would have preferred Julianne Moore for her perfectly realized turn in the retro ‘50s sudser Far from Heaven, but there would have been little argument from these quarters if the AMPAS had favored either Salma Hayek as artist Frida (Kahlo); Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart in the Best Picture-winning Chicago; or Diane Lane for acting Unfaithful to hubby Richard Gere.
Gallic actress Marion Cotillard won accolades and audience enthusiasm for her uncanny impersonation of singer Edith Piaf in the French production La Vie En Rose. In fact, Cotillard—up until then virtually unknown to American audiences—took home many other major awards for her performance, including the Golden Globe, the BAFTA (from England) and the Cesar (from France). Momentum was on her side, prevailing over some other impressive turns that year: Cate Blanchett, reprising her work as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age; Julie Christie in impressive comeback mode, playing a woman succumbing to Alzheimer’s in the Canadian film Away from Her; Laura Linney, as a daughter trying to decide what’s right for her elderly father in The Savages; and Ellen Page in a career-making performance as Juno, a Minnesota teenager dealing with her pregnancy.