Unfortunately, a lot of this decade is particularly weak for Supporting Actresses. I guess the law of balance felt it needed to account for the unusually strong Best Actress field. Oh well.
As usual, I will reference snubs when appropriate, but whether or not an actress deserved the win cannot impact the ranking in and of itself.
10. 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: Jane Fonda played against her father in On Golden Pond and turned their own relationship angst into a tender performance. I would go with her.
9. Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist (1988)
I stumbled on The Accidental Tourist on TV a few years ago. It didn’t last long because I thought the movie was kind of grating 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 evil boss in Working Girl was nothing short of sublime.
8. Jessica Lange, Tootsie (1982)
Jessica Lange is sweet as Dustin Hoffman’s romantic interest in Tootsie, but this is another role that feels slight. 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. Lange has done much more.
Should have won in 1982: The World According to Garp isn’t a great adaptation, but Glenn Close is great as the eccentric mother–a role that wouldn’t work with any other actress, I’d wager.
7. 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 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. Lynda could have easily been a cartoon character, but Steenburgen gives her humanity. When she gets fed up with Melvin and demands a divorce, you genuinely feel that she’s a woman at wit’s end.
Should have won in 1980: I could almost be swayed into believing that Cathy Moriarty deserved it for Raging Bull but I like the way Steenburgen manages to make you laugh and break your heart. She deserved it.
6. 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.
Should have won in 1984: I’m okay with Ashcroft’s win.
5. 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 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.
4. Dianne Wiest, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Hannah and Her Sisters is full of sterling performances. Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, and Mia Farrow were all superb. 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. Wiest deserves 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 Oscar 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.
3. 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. 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.
Should have won in 1983: There was serious competition from Glenn Close (The Big Chill), but Cher’s revelatory, nuanced performance in Silkwood should have won.
2. Anjelica Huston, Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
The 80s came down to two impeccable performances where actresses play hardcore eye-talian New Yawkas. 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.
Should have won in 1985: Huston.
1. Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck (1987)
In the battle of the Italian New Yorkers, a Greek woman reigns supreme. Go figure. I know countless women like Rose Castorini. I’ve witnessed men and women making every gesture and expression that Dukakis employs to bring this Italian mother to life. I have heard every sigh of exasperation. That’s how true her performance is. Rose is also imminently quotable. She’s funny, 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. Dukakis’ worn-out Italian matriarch is the central heart in a romantic comedy that simultaneously celebrates love and acts cynical about it.
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.
Now let’s see how this list would shake out with all the ladies who should have won:
10. Glenn Close, The World According to Garp (1982)
9. Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard (1980)
8. Jane Fonda, On Golden Pond (1981)
7. Peggy Ashcroft, A Passage to India (1984)
6. Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot (1989)
5. Dianne Wiest, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
4. Anjelica Huston, Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
3. Sigourney Weaver, Working Girl (1988)
2. Cher, Silkwood (1983)
1. Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck (1987)