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Who is the Best Supporting Actress of the 1980s?

Best Supporting Actress 1980s

We’ve come this far, and for the first time I had a difficult time piecing together a ranking for the ten performers in a decade. Why? Because to be honest, I haven’t seen a good portion of the movies these actresses won an Academy Award for. I had to refer to YouTube and a lot of movie reviews to piece together the details. I’m feeling pretty confident about the ranking, but I reserve the rights to make edits as I get around to seeing these movies. Unfortunately, a lot of this decade is particularly weak for Supporting Actresses. Thankfully, the top three more than makes up for it.

Once again, in deciding who was the best supporting actress of the 1980s I decided to limit myself to the actresses who won an Academy Award between the years of 1980 and 1989. I will reference snubs when appropriate, but whether or not an actress deserved the win cannot impact the ranking in and of itself.

ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, Geena Davis, 198810. Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist (1988)

I stumbled on The Accidental Tourist on TV a few years ago and thought I would tune in as a point of interest because I knew Geena Davis had won an Oscar for this movie. It didn’t last long because I thought the movie was kind of grating–especially every time Geena Davis was on screen. I think I lasted about a half hour. I may revisit it someday to give it a fair(er) shake, but I think that experience says a lot. Revisiting the role a bit on YouTube reveals that she’s a fiercely protective mother with much more of an iron will than you might expect from a woman whose defining characteristic is ‘kooky,’ but I still just don’t see much there. Geena Davis has done better (particularly in A League of Thier Own and Thelma and Louise).

Should have won in 1988: Sigourney Weaver’s comedically evil boss in Working Girl would have been a fine choice, but let’s not forget Michelle Pfeiffer was nominated for Dangerous Liaisons.

Jessica Lange-Tootsie9. Jessica Lange, Tootsie (1982)

Jessica Lange is sweet as Dustin Hoffman’s romantic interest in Tootsie, but this is another role that feels rather slight in the grand scheme of things. At least she isn’t annoying. She’s a tender, unlucky-in-love soap opera actress who just wants the best for her son. She befriends Dorothy Michaels not knowing that it’s Dustin Hoffman in disguise. And when the big reveal comes, Lange makes it believable that she would be willing to take a swing at love with this overbearing actor who seems to genuinely love her. But the fact that she sells it doesn’t mean there’s much depth. At the end of the day, she’s still just a pretty face in a romantic comedy. Nothing more and nothing less.

Should have won in 1982: Glenn Close for The World According to Garp.

Mary Steenburgen-Melvin and Howard8. Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard (1980)

Mary Steenburgen puts her natural gifts for comedy to work as Lynda, the frustrated wife of the titular sad-sack Melvin. Melvin is off chasing the American dream and missing it while Lynda holds down a job as a stripper because she loves to dance. She also desperately tries to keep their finances under control, but that proves to be an impossible undertaking since Melvin seems determined to screw things up just when they seem to be getting ahead. Lynda could have easily been a cartoon character, but Steenburgen gives her humanity behind the laughs. When she gets fed up with Melvin and demands a divorce, you feel that she’s a woman at wit’s end. It’s a mean balance.

Should have won in 1980: I could be swayed into believing that Cathy Moriarty deserved it for Raging Bull.

Brenda Fricker-My Left Foot7. Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot (1989)

As the determined, devoutly religious, and terribly impoverished mother of the disabled Christy Brown, Brenda Fricker lent My Left Foot an iron will that formed the movie’s backbone. Her strength in the face of difficulties really shows you where Christy found the resolve to make his way in a world stacked against him. And as tough as she is, there’s a core of fierce maternal love at work. It’s a very true representation of motherhood and the sacrifices a mother makes for her children. In this case many, many children. Did I mention she’s a devout Catholic? Think 19 Kids and Counting. Seriously.

Should have won in 1989: Julia Roberts was sweetly devastating in Steel Magnolias, but I’m okay with Fricker’s win.

Dianne Wiest-Hannah and Her Sisters6. Dianne Wiest, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Hannah and Her Sisters is actually full of sterling performances. Michael Caine won a Best Supporting Actor award for his role. Barbara Hershey and Mia Farrow were superb as Hannah and one of her sisters. Dianne Wiest’s Holly should have been easily forgettable. Of the three sisters she’s the least integral to the plot. But her sad sack black sheep somehow worms her way into your heart. It actually seems fitting that she’d be the least integral to the plot. Story of her life. Wiest deserves enormous credit for taking what should have been a stock character and making her sing. But then Wiest always seemed to shine brightest in Woody Allen movies. She won a second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1994 for Bullets Over Broadway. Of all Woody’s actresses, she’s the only one to win twice.

Should have won in 1986: Wiest.

Peggy Ashcroft-Passage to India5. Peggy Ashcroft, Passage to India (1984)

By all rights, Peggy Ashcroft’s Mrs. Moore should be nothing more than a fusty, proper old English lady in a period piece. A lesser actress would have made Mrs. Moore talk like she’s speaking in fortune cookies, but Ashcroft makes E.M. Forster’s sublime prose come to life, whether admonishing her son to be kind to the natives in India or wondering whether or not we live in a godless universe. She gives an old lady heart and nerve, providing something of a moral center for the story to revolve around. E.M. Forster’s gorgeous novels should be impossible to bring to life onscreen, and yet it has been done twice.

Should have won in 1984: I’m okay with Ashcroft’s win.

Maureen Stapleton-Reds4. Maureen Stapleton, Reds (1981)

Who else could have brought anarchist Emma Goldman to vivid life but veteran actress Maureen Stapleton? Stapleton is at her fiery best, yet also somehow understated. Her Goldman seems calm and rational at virtually all times, even when she’s fanning revolutionary flames. She makes Goldman a fiercely intelligent fast talker with drive and guts to spare. If I have one complaint, it’s that she sometimes feels as if she is performing on stage. That isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it does make Emma Goldman feel just a touch out of reach, if that makes sense. It just slightly damages the authenticity of each moment.

Should have won in 1981: Stapleton earned it.

Linda Hunt-The Year of Living Dangerously3. Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously (1983)

The funny thing about Linda Hunt’s performance in The Year of Living Dangerously is that she’s playing a man. Not a woman pretending to be a man, mind you. Linda Hunt is literally playing a male role in a movie. And she embodies the difficult role of Billy Kwan, a Eurasian dwarf photographer with seemingly endless political connections, so well that you never even pause for a moment to question her performance’s validity. Although he’s a supporting role, Billy is central to The Year of Living Dangerously. He’s also incredibly complex, possessing many seemingly contradictory personality traits. Hunt’s performance is nothing short of a magic transformation.

Should have won in 1983: there was serious competition from Glenn Close (The Big Chill), Alfre Woodard (Cross Creek), Cher (Silkwood), and Amy Irving (Yentl), but Hunt’s nervy and oddball performance was beguiling enough to grab the win.

Anjelica Huston-Prizzis Honor2. Anjelica Huston, Prizzi’s Honor (1985)

I have never wanted to end a list in a tie so badly. It’s funny how the entire decade of the 80s came down to two impeccable performances where actresses play hardcore eye-talian New Yawkas. The only one who came even remotely close to them was Linda Hunt. Full disclosure: my mother is a full-blooded Italian woman from the Bronx, and I was raised around her family on Long Island. Perhaps these performances speak to me so much because I understand them. They’re my people in some ways. I also happen to love Anjelica Huston. Here, she plays Maerose Prizzi, part of a mafia family who brought disgrace upon herself and began a self-imposed exile from the family. She neither forgets nor forgives, and she takes a devilish delight in being considered the family scandal considering what the family does for a living. Huston doesn’t hit a single false note, giving a thoroughly lived-in performance that towers above her competition. Except for one, that is…

Should have won in 1985: Huston.

Olympia Dukakis-Moonstruck1. Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck (1987)

In the battle of the Italian New Yorkers, a Greek woman reigns supreme. Go figure. Olympia Dukakis’ Rose Castorini is part of my very own heart, if I’m being honest. I said that both Rose and Maerose are my people, but the truth is that I don’t really know anyone like Maerose. Thankfully, my mom’s family doesn’t hang in those circles. But I do know countless women like Rose Castorini. I have witnessed men and women making every gesture and expression that Dukakis employs to bring this Italian mother to life. That’s how honest and true her performance is. I have heard every sigh of exasperation. Rose is also one of the most quotable movie characters in my repertoire (and there are a lot). She brings the comedy when she is awoken in the night and immediately asks “who’s dead?” She does it again when she notices a love bite on her engaged daughter’s neck and, knowing that the fiance is in Italy, she exclaims “you’re life’s going down the toilet!” But Dukakis also brings heartfelt emotion to quieter moments. Your heart breaks for her when she asks a strange man in a restaurant why men chase women, trying to get an answer for why her husband has begun cheating on her. And when she refuses to cheat herself, telling the man “I know who I am,” you want to stand up and cheer for her. Dukakis’ worn-out Italian matriarch provides the central heart in a romantic comedy that simultaneously celebrates love and acts cynical about it. There could be no other.

Should have won in 1987: you have to ask? Dukakis.

For more, check out my Academy Awards page. Up next: Best Supporting Actor of the 80s.

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This entry was posted on April 5, 2015 by in Academy Awards and tagged , , .
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