my name is mayukh sen and i'm a student at stanford university studying film, history, and creative writing (or something like that). i happen to like jane fonda. a lot. CONTACT: email@example.com
BEST ACTRESS 1982: Sissy Spacek in Missing
Tuesday, December 28, 2010 11:26 PM
With Badlands, Sissy Spacek personified the remnants of sixties counterculture. She was very much a “hip”, transgressive child of the Warhol era. Yet after Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sissy Spacek began to embody a much more all-American, down-home aesthetic, with that unmistakable country twang, strawberry blonde tresses, alabaster freckles. It is this combination of pseudo-liberalism and earthiness that makes Spacek’s Beth Horman, in Costa-Gavras' Missing, a more fascinating character than she should be. She is a perplexing study of a certain kind of American: someone whose political convictions run deep, yet occupy a time and space in which they cannot be expressed. Her commitments are too big for her body.
Ms. Spacek’s Beth is a flower child whose soul lived on through the seventies. Dressed like a hippy librarian, she wades through the film with her long, sinewy hair and raggedy, messy clothes. Gradually, people like her became artifacts of their time, possessing ways of thinking that became wildly anachronistic and out of touch with Reagan-era politics. Beth has lost her footing. She has courage, but she cannot express herself with civility. Her viewpoints come only in the form of tiny explosions: during conversation, she wells up with anger and spouts her tenets of progressivism, frustrated that no one else understands her. She is a collection of ideas that can never find true, articulate form.
With the disappearance of her husband, Beth’s worldview is eclipsed by a new sort of consciousness. Her life, which she had previously lived as a sort of political firebrand’s dream, becomes dangerously moment-to-moment. Ms. Spacek conveys this shift with the exact sort of nervous, fast-paced tension the role needs. It’s in the way that her leg jitters uncontrollably when other people mutter non-truths about her husband during conversation. The brilliance of Spacek's performance reveals itself in these small, detailed pockets – characteristics that are needed when the writing works against her.
Many critics argue that, unlike Lemmon’s politically-awakened father, Spacek’s Beth does not change. This is perhaps due to the nature of the character, who often takes a backseat to Lemmon’s. I will admit that the role is very much that of “the girlfriend”, and it is painfully underwritten. Ms. Spacek, as brilliant an actress as she is, cannot escape the limitations of this role. Yet only now do I realize that the underplaying she employs merely attests to Ms. Spacek’s talents. She is the film’s emotional backbone.
Beth does indeed undergo a much more subtle change, I think. She must learn how to understand people whose worldviews are very different from her own. Gradually, she changes. This manifests itself most prominently in the warmth Spacek radiates, almost effortlessly, in the later scenes when she interacts with the Lemmon character. The once-fiery, fierce arguments that tempered this father-daughter-in-law relationship have turned into quiet moments of mutual understanding. Perhaps she sees inside him traces of the man with whom she fell in love. Beth has discovered inside herself a sort of unexpected humanity, a ability to communicate her own ideals in ways she had never found possible before if only due to her own bullheadedness. For the first time in her life, she has found herself in a position to craft her own opinions, independent of her now-deceased husband. Spacek’s performance is a rhythmic, low-key portrait of a woman who is forced to reconsider her own ideals. It is a fascinating, refreshing look at a certain type of American citizen – politically passionate but without the tact to express those beliefs – and how she, so quietly, overcomes these limitations.
BEST ACTRESS 1982: Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice
Meryl Streep is an actress of incredible beauty, and this quality alone gives her Sophie a sort of grand, tragic luminosity. Who would want to see such a pure soul decay? Streep seems to find some secret joy in taking us through her voyeuristic trip through hell, as if she wants us to simultaneously revel in her skill and be moved, and therein lies the problem with her performance. Her Sophie is not the complex character Mr. Styron wrote of. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice is a gross oversimplification, and at the heart of this oversimplification is Ms. Streep’s turgid, mechanically-polished demolition of William Styron’s tragic heroine.
Perhaps I should divorce my deep-seated love for William Styron’s novel – one of my all-time favorites – from its film adaptation, for they are entirely different creations. It is impossible to encompass the universality and complexity of Styron’s story on film. His Sophie is a rich, humanized creation, not simply a victim of her own circumstances. Some argue that a character this complex and daunting requires an actress of a vast, wide set of technical skills to fill its space. From the moment she appears on the screen, Streep tells us we are in the presence of a monument. Her performance is, in many respects, one of our finest living artists realizing she is at the apex of her craft, continually discovering something new about her art as she moves forward.
However, the casting of Streep in this role is something I find problematic in and of itself. Though Streep is, as I said, a woman of incredible beauty, it is a kind of beauty that is non-traditional, at times a bit jarring. Streep – made to look pallid, wearing torture on her face so readily – is nothing like the buxom, slightly hypersexualized nymph Styron wrote of (he imagined Ursula Andress in this role). This eliminates one of Styron's Sophie’s most interesting traits – that she is the seductress, whose unspeakable tragedy folds itself into tempestuous allure. Furthermore, Streep's approach to acting seems to rely on externalization of a role – she works from the outside in. As many of her detractors point out, Streep is often disconnected, cold, and overly-technical. Yet Sophie is not merely an accent, nor is she a collection of faux-plaintive looks and gazes that are supposed to communicate lifelong emotional torture. Streep reduces her to these elements. Her performance becomes, in many ways, a cop-out to what could have been a tremendously affecting characterization.
So many of the subtleties in Styron’s text are lost in translation. There is something mildly absurd, even sensationalistic, about Streep’s performance. She has bastardized this uncommonly complex woman to a series of tics, mannerisms, and face-touches – as if the film is a masterclass in acting. I find that her performance has very little of the finer subtext Styron’s Sophie had – the constant struggle for redemption, the deadened morality that resides within her, the psychosexual ambiguities that shroud Sophie in even more mystery. Rather, Streep interprets Sophie in an almost academic, rote-like sense, giving the film a sickening sense of historical exploitation.
There are occasional moments of brilliance in Streep’s performance. But they are few. Just one glacial close-up of Streep carries hints of the dark, psychosexual recesses hidden within Sophie; the parts of her own identity she is unwilling to face herself, no less to show to others; her compulsive need for joy, whether through sex or companionship, that allows her to escape the numbness that colors her life and, for a moment, live through someone else.
BEST ACTRESS 1982
Monday, December 27, 2010 7:15 PM
Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
Jessica Lange, Frances
Sissy Spacek, Missing
Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
I can tell you right now my thoughts on this year diverge far from that of public opinion. To say the least. Haha.
BEST ACTRESS 1976: The Resolution
Sunday, December 26, 2010 9:12 PM
Faye Dunaway in Network
Dunaway’s serpentine, career-driven gorgon is a remarkable creation – at once fearless, sexual, unforgiving, and vulnerable. She has removed herself so totally from the world of human emotion that she has forgotten how to love, to feel. Her whole life orbits around her understanding of what will entertain the masses. Because we are surely not meant to sympathize with Diana until the very end, Dunaway's performance relies, appropriately, more on technical skill than appeal to emotion. This is perhaps why I have ranked her so low – something about her seems more serviceable to the film than genuinely memorable. Still, with amazing dexterity, she crafts Diana into a post-apocalyptic vision of new American media.
Talia Shire in Rocky
There is something incredibly endearing about the image of Talia Shire mousily peeking at us from behind her thick glasses, as if she traps herself in this world yet begs us to come inside. Yet Shire does not relax on this appeal to easy pathos – through her rather unorthodox screen presence, she crafts Adrian into a woman who is in some respects tortured, tragic, and, more than anything, warm. She remains the most moving part of a film that practically requires us to be moved by this man’s cheapened rags-to-riches trajectory.
Liv Ullmann in Face to Face
(Thanks to imagenes y palabras for the screengrab)
Like few performances ever have, Ullmann’s work here captures emotional shatter while bringing tremendous audience empathy to the situation. Ullmann has the ability to communicate lifelong emotional torture with the blink of an eye. Even if the cyclical drear of Bergman’s overdirection works against her, Ullmann never lets down, constantly keeping our sympathies in line with Jenny. In some respects, it is even a life-affirming performance – Ullmann shows us this woman’s subtle, gradual realization that we, as humans, must keep trudging through our lives even when we feel we cannot go any further.
It is not often that this category sees portrayals of “normal”, everyday people. Yet there is something about Barrault that is so rapturous, so low-key, that I want to root for her candidacy even more. Her performance is one unfettered by the conventional trappings of “screen acting” and its need to aggrandize every emotion. So many critics talk about actresses and their ability to layer characters, yet I have never seen it done with such charismatic effortlessness as with Barrault. Under no pretense whatsoever, she keys us into Marthe's low-key sadness, her fear that domesticity will be all that life will offer her. Yet Marthe's quiet rebellion allows her to find beauty in her life. It is a performance equal parts sadness, quite possibly the most beautifully depressing performance I have ever seen, and uplifting, joyous lyricism.
Sissy Spacek in Carrie
Something is to be said for a performance that is iconic. Yet Spacek’s performance is part of cinematic history. It represents the bridging between horror – a genre built upon gimmickry and manipulation of the human psyche – and genuine, true human emotion. Never mind that Spacek was nearly thirty when she got in touch with these post-adolescent emotions – she captures so beautifully the horror and grief of trying to come of age, both as a woman in America and in a world where certain expectations are held of you. Her restructuring of the female body is a transcendent piece of work in itself. It is an incredible performance, full of deep, aching pathos. Who can forget the image of Carrie staring nervously at her mother’s Christ-like corpse, her eyes wandering like banshees as she contemplates her actions? I certainly cannot. To my mind, Spacek’s performance is the best performance nominated in this category that did not go on to snag the trophy.
The fact that AMPAS had room to squeeze in two (amazing) foreign-language performances probably indicates that domestic pickings were slim. That said, I haven't seen, nor am I too interested in seeing, Barbra Streisand in her remake of A Star is Born, which practically swept the Globes that year; the oft-mentioned Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian; the perplexingly vapid Sarah Miles in The Sailor Who Fell with Grace from the Sea; Glenda Jackson in The Incredible Sarah; the brilliant Goldie Hawn in The Duchess and Dirtwater Fox; Maggie Smith in Murder by Death; Ingrid Bergman in A Matter of Time; Rita Moreno in The Ritz; or Lauren Bacall in The Shootist.
Looking further, I am more intrigued by Margaux Hemingway in Lipstick; my love Karen Black in either Family Plot or Burnt Offerings; Jessica Harper for Inserts; Best Supporting Actress nominee Jodie Foster in either Freaky Friday or The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane; Barbara Harris in either of her Globe-nominated performances in Hitchcock's Family Plot or Freaky Friday; the always fascinating Genevieve Bujold in de Palma's other 1976 film, Obsession; and Isabelle Adjani in The Tenant.
Still, I'm pretty in love with the ladies in my lineup:
Marie-Christine Barrault, Cousin, cousine
Sonia Braga, Dona Flor e seus maridos
Geraldine Chaplin, Cria Cuervos...
Sissy Spacek, Carrie
Liv Ullmann, Ansikte mot Ansikte
BEST ACTRESS 1976: Talia Shire in Rocky
If there is one family in Hollywood derided for riding on the nepotistic coattails of its patriarch, it is the Coppolas. Practically every claim of Sofia Coppola’s perceived ‘talentlessness’ has struck me as downright lazy, and my feelings toward Talia Shire are, by effect, similar. She has always seemed to me an actress who possesses an incredibly intriguing screen presence, capable of at once being forceful, steely, vulnerable, and sympathetic. Her lead actress nomination for Rocky (1976), a fantastic film that nonetheless probably shouldn't have won Best Picture over the likes of Taxi Driver, is often perceived as a fluke. Not only is Shire’s role essentially a supporting one, but it is, on the written page, a rather thankless fulfillment of “the girlfriend” archetype.
I must have a weakness for this archetype, then. Every Sarah Packard or Paula Pokrifki or Margaret Hammond, all similar typifications that nonetheless brought their actresses well-deserved nominations, has struck me as a performance of intense beauty. Each of the actresses who filled the aforementioned roles was able to bring a sense of vibrant, emotional tragedy to the “girlfriend” stock. In this vein, Talia Shire’s Adrian is a fascinating, remarkable creation. Shire’s approach to screen acting, peculiarly studied and premeditated, is perfectly suited to this role. A woman who internalizes every emotion with careful, meticulous precision, Adrian is the perfect match to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, a gorilla of a man who feels everything on the most visceral, guttal level possible.
Adrian is worn down, and you can read it on the wrinkles of Shire's face, pregnant with tire. It seems she has no purpose, no function in her life but to nurture. All she does is nurture – her pets, her brother, and, eventually, Rocky. She has lived her whole life nurturing only by circumstance. This colors her with a sort of world-weariness tempered only by Rocky, this man who cares for her so genuinely that her nurturing is given a new sort of energy. “She fills gaps,” Rocky says of her in one scene. What gaps does she fill? There is something vaguely maternalistic about Adrian’s passivity. One can easily misinterpret Rocky and Adrian’s relationship as the coming together of two lost, tortured souls who find solace in each other; when together, they bloom.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Shire’s characterization, however, is that we cannot so easily label Adrian a “late bloomer”. She never really blooms. Although her sexual awakening comes at the hands of Rocky (a scene that Shire handles with beauty and precision), Adrian never wholly escapes this mousy, reserved shell. I think Shire uses this to make Adrian into a character of complex intrigue. That she never makes the conscious decision to define Adrian’s trajectory as so clearly-delineated as Rocky's is incredibly brave. Hers is a performance full of risks, some of which may seem overwhelmingly heavy-handed or even embarrassing to some. Yet I find these risks hold a fantastic emotional payoff. Shire brings tremendous empathy to this role, the most genuinely moving element of this film. Her child-woman trapped in spinsterhood is a compelling, confusing creation – at once funny, melancholy, and strangely uplifting.
BEST ACTRESS 1976: Sissy Spacek in Carrie
Thursday, December 23, 2010 1:19 AM
As Carrie White, the eponymous hero-villain of Brian de Palma’s masterful Carrie, Sissy Spacek typifies a pocket of the human – or, more specifically, the post-pubescent female – experience. Here, the bullied, victimized female becomes the spectacle. After enduring poison, she, in literally assuming a stage, becomes the object of the gaze, taking on a sort of grand, feminized power. Ms. Spacek's characterization has solidified its place in pop culture, and with good reason. Through the deer-whimper of a voice that turns into a silent stare of death, she gives a face to every tortured adolescent sufferer, capturing what is so difficult about coming into the skin of a woman in a space so governed by traditionalist constructs.
Even if she isn’t the dumpy, pimple-faced demon Stephen King wrote about, Ms. Spacek, doe eyes peering through her mousy blonde hair, is the quintessential wallflower. Her gangly, contorted wire-frame, almost romanticized in the film’s brilliant opening scene, communicates her inability to fit into a world that is so manufactured that it is hostile. Carrie White oscillates between two settings, both of which are governed by rather constricting narratives – the school and the home. The home, in particular, is a place that serves as King's post-apocalyptic vision of institutionalized religion's capacity to corrupt Middle American suburbia. Ms. Spacek's scenes against Piper Laurie are, appropriately, operatic in their intensity. The actresses are two Neapolitan figures who seem to emerge from a painting, grounded at once in both theatrical histrionics and in humanistic realism. Ms. Spacek walks a remarkably fine line between too much and too little throughout this whole performance, by turns over-the-top and subtle.
She strikes a perfect balance, seeming at once both calculated and fluid. Devoid of any Bergmanesque pretense whatsoever, Ms. Spacek slips between different personae from one scene to the next. She morphs sinuously from sullen, spritely mink to enraged, wild-eyed ferret to pious soul in search of forgiveness, washing away her sins in a final gesture of atonement. Amazingly, she interprets the female body politic as capable of reaching near-catatonia in its ultimate state of power.
Though hers is an incredibly brave performance, Ms. Spacek never makes us acutely aware of the painstaking, meticulous craft she has put in to her characterization (unlike, say, Natalie Portman in this year's Black Swan). Instead, with harmonious ease, she takes us into the mind of every young, tortured victim and makes us realize, so deeply, the reasons why one would just need to lash out against the world. There is nothing she feels that we do not feel. As De Palma’s camera spins around her endlessly, Ms. Spacek, merely through the power of her gaze, reminds us how, on occasion, real time expands to an eternity.
BEST ACTRESS 1976: Liv Ullmann in Face to Face
Thursday, December 16, 2010 2:46 AM
Liv Ullmann has a face built for emotional fracture, and it has never been more naked than in Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face. Bergman strips her bare of her characteristic luminosity and coats her with shapelessness. She must give form to an abstract process – that of the human soul becoming soulless, a woman's societally-constructed self-perception collapsing on itself. As Dr. Jenny Isaakson, the psychiatrist who carries as much baggage as do her patients, Ullmann bares herself with such abandon that her unending, cyclical trauma becomes a merry-go-round through hell.
Some actresses work through material so steadfastly that they transcend it. Face to Face is one of Bergman’s more earnest, and therefore more overwrought, efforts. With its laughably literal symbolism and overwrought trips through hokey subconscious dreamland, it lacks the clarity of the director's better works. On paper, Ullmann’s role is the kind of tour-de-force stamped with the seal of the Academy, replete with emotional breakdowns of every sort. There is a point in the film, I think, at which Bergman almost singlehandedly numbs us. After the twentieth or so Freudian acid trip through Jenny's psyche, we almost stop feeling for her.
Yet it is Ullmann who commands us to never stop feeling. She carries the film on her back with such bravery, such strength, that it is difficult to imagine what a much lesser actress would have done with this histrionic-laden material. If not Ullmann – whom I feel is the greatest living actress, next to Jane Fonda – then who?
Perhaps a great performance should not be measured by its level of commitment. What Ullmann does here is, indeed, something of intense personal commitment, and her rather deft handling of Bergman’s sensationalisms is reason enough to label this one of the great performances of cinema. It is as if Bergman summoned all of Ullmann’s resources, as a performer, and tried to pack them into one film. But Ullmann's performance is not a slaphappy collection of individually well-acted, exhaustive scenes. It is the trajectory of a woman’s death and the slow, painful pregnancy of her soul, all the way to its eventual rebirth.
I agree that Ullmann's is truly one of the best performances ever captured on film, but not for the reason that Ullmann provides a masterclass in technicality. She does so while bringing to this role an incredible amount of empathy, such poetic but wholly honest feeling. Ullmann plays this rather unbelievable role with disarming believability. Her performance is, I should add, one of immense beauty. Ullmann's vocal intonations have such a gentle, lulling fascination to them, and her face itself is an incomparable work of craftsmanship. Jenny's malaise takes on a form of artistry – she has gracefully come to accept the fact that we must trudge forward, even when what we have repressed comes floating back to the surface. Ullmann's mere ability to capture a dozen human feelings within a simple stare, even, allows us to feel Jenny’s pain. We grudgingly, but understandingly, accept it as our own.
BEST ACTRESS 1976: Faye Dunaway in Network
Monday, December 13, 2010 2:03 AM
To call Diana Christensen a careerist is to put it lightly. The wicked, villainous television incarnate of Sidney Lumet’s flawed masterstroke, Network, Diana is Paddy Chayefsky’s prophetic vision of American broadcast landscape. Spewing her media-soaked rhetoric even when she beds someone, Diana, played with moribund deftness by Faye Dunaway, has no capacity for human feeling. The only pleasure she finds in life comes through human exploitation. She has traveled so far down this road of gorgonian degeneration that she no longer seems human. Very much like the goddess of hunt she was named after, Diana speaks as if her words are venom, always on the cusp of verbal overflow. Her mind, constantly awash with thoughts of ratings-consciousness, has overtaken her. She is a body living without a soul.
Dunaway’s physicality seems perfect for a role like this. Her physique falls somewhere in between being shapely and skeletal. The contours of her face at once both strikingly beautiful and harsh; her eyes are simultaneously full of energy and dulled. These assets, as they did with her Evelyn Mulwray, evoke a sort of inherent duality to Dunaway’s character. Even when Diana is repulsive, we are drawn to her. Diana, like the medium of television itself, manipulates us. She can make the world – any world, whether it is the world of television, Max’s (William Holden) world, or even our very own – revolve around her.
Inevitably, in fulfilling Chayefsky’s prophecy, this world collapses in on itself. Only after Max breaks off his affair with Diana do we receive some suggestion of greater, deeper inner emotional life within her. Dunaway communicates this complete surrender of self-identity to human feeling with hilarious, tragic devastation. A woman who once prided herself in her ability to manipulate the human soul, Diana’s self-conception has now been thrown into total flux. In realizing her capacity for human emotion, she becomes like these exact people she has exerted power over for so long.
Dunaway’s straightforward, no-nonsense approach to this character is solid – at times even brilliant – but there is something slightly serviceable about the performance. Perhaps this boils down to the rather unsympathetic nature of the character itself. Diana is by no means a relatable person (something a similar media-drenched career woman, Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig, seems to be, albeit in a much more pathos-laden film), but a humanoid. Though I cannot hold this against her, Dunaway is such a caricature – what else should she be in a film like this? – that it becomes hard to generate genuine enthusiasm for the actual performance. One can, as I do, admire Dunaway’s rather impressive, technically accomplished work rather than be excited by it.
BEST ACTRESS 1976: Marie-Christine Barrault in Cousin, Cousine
Sunday, December 12, 2010 7:47 PM
There is a scene in Jean-Charles Tacchella’s Cousin, Cousine in which Marie-Christine Barrault mutters, “A year ago I wanted to die. All I thought about was suicide.” In this moment alone, Barrault, a performer of transcendent charisma (that was, sadly, never capitalized upon further than Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories), manages to map out one woman’s whole life in a matter of words. If there is anything extraordinary about her characterization of Marthe – this docile, slightly cheeky housewife whose life finds purpose again when she falls in love – it is that Barrault manages to find beauty in what is so ordinary, something poetic in what we deem mundane. With her flushed cheeks, watchful gaze, and hushed way of speaking, she illuminates what is so joyous about the act of living in itself, giving form to something so shapeless as everyday life.
Ms. Barrault is a woman of exceptional beauty, but what is beautiful about her performance is how deeply-rooted it is in normalcy. Even against Tacchella’s distanced, objective camera, a sort of inherent luminosity seems to burst from within her relaxed, unassuming screen presence. Wafting through each scene, she holds a certain glow that takes on its own form of quiet, placid music. It is a performance not unlike Cher’s brilliant turn years later in Moonstruck – Marthe, like Loretta, is a woman who is slowly discovering her own self-worth, her own capacity to share in this greater human experience of love she had previously written off. She is, in essence, a woman who has taken on a completely different way of looking at the world, absorbed a more all-encompassing outlook on life. Barrault communicates this shift with such soft, graceful sensitivity that this performance can – and has too often been – very lazily be written off as a sort of non-challenge. Instead, though, Barrault takes the banality of this cyclical, routine life Marthe leads and exalts it, lifting it to a higher and symphonious plane.
If there is not one, sole moment that serves as the highlight of Barrault’s performance, it is because every moment is stellar. Barrault is so emotionally enveloping, so fresh and rapturous in her charisma, that what she does here transcends the act of the performance. It is a walk through someone else’s life.
(So I'm basically going to try out this whole "express yourself in as few words as possible" thing, which is why I'll be aiming for much shorter lengths for my next mini-reviews.)
BEST ACTRESS 1976
BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE, 1976
Marie-Christine Barrault, Cousin Cousine
Faye Dunaway, Network
Talia Shire, Rocky
Sissy Spacek, Carrie
Liv Ullmann, Face to Face
Now that I'm off for three weeks, back to blogging! There's a chance I'll continue with 1979 after this.
BEST ACTRESS 1986Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue Got Married
Sigourney Weaver, Aliens
Sissy Spacek, Crimes of the Heart
Jane Fonda, The Morning After
Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God
(SOME OF) MY FAVORITE BEST ACTRESS LOSERS, POST-1970Julie Christie, McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judy Davis, A Passage to India
Jane Fonda, Julia
Valerie Perrine, Lenny
Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
Liv Ullmann, The Emigrants
Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
CreditsLayout by daphne/cadmium.
Banner/Icons by collapsingnight.
Winona drawing from Fanpop.