For the love of entertainment
Ladies and gentlemen, it finally happened: a decade of Best Actress performances is just as competitive and tough to call as the Best Actor race. Well done, ladies. Well done. Choosing the top five was painful. The top spot was never in doubt, if I’m being honest, but let’s give it up for a decade of great performances–many of them portraying tough, interesting women of substance. The timing couldn’t be better since the Best Supporting Actress category for the 80s was lame as hell.
As usual, I have limited myself to performances that actually won an Academy Award for Best Actress between 1980 and 1989. Trying to consider all of the might-have-beens would be overwhelming. Sadly, that means Glenn Close fans will have to leave Fatal Attraction out of this race. I may comment on snubs when appropriate, but please note that it cannot impact the final ranking.
Hate if you must. I’ll give you this: Katharine Hepburn is absolutely adorable as one half of an aging couple determined to have one last summer at the titular location. Her chemistry with Henry Fonda is sublime–and the movie would never have worked so well without that chemistry. But there isn’t much more to her performance than that. If we’re being totally honest, this was a legacy Oscar. Academy members probably knew this would be their last chance to send Hepburn home with an Oscar. Not that she needed one; this was her fourth career Academy Award, putting a cap on her legacy by making her the actor with the most Oscar wins of all time–an achievement that has yet to be matched.
Should have won in 1981: I might have gone with Meryl Streep’s revelatory turn in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Here we have another determined lady of a certain age. In this case, Geraldine Page plays a woman desperate to escape the stifling home she shares with her son and his wife to get back to Bountiful, the town where she grew up, before she dies. It’s a beautiful story about the passage of time, and Page deftly balances the thematic undertones of the script. But this was definitely a career-achievement Oscar. Page had been nominated seven times prior to this, and The Trip to Bountiful perfectly tied in with the twilight of her career, making it irresistible to finally give her the big prize. Anne Bancroft, Meryl Streep, and Jessica Lange all turned in equally worthy performances that year–and Whoopi Goldberg flat-out should have won for her astonishing work in The Color Purple. That’s not to discredit the quality of Page’s performance, mind you. I can’t take the fact that I don’t think she should have won into consideration. So here’s the final judgment on Geraldine Page in this ranking: there are three steely old ladies making up the bottom of this ranking. Page bests Hepburn, but Jessica Tandy wins.
Should have won in 1985: like I said, Whoopi Goldberg absolutely should have taken it for The Color Purple.
Jessica Tandy is the third consecutive actress on this list to win after a storied career in acting. I may have issues with the way Driving Miss Daisy won an Academy Award for Best Picture (it didn’t do very well when I ranked the Best Picture winners from this decade), but you can’t find much fault with the film’s acting. Tandy plays a feisty Jewish widow living in the south who, over the course of twenty years, comes to accept her black chauffeur as a friend and fellow human being. The movie is something of a gross over-simplification of race relations in America, but Tandy and costar Morgan Freeman are effortlessly charming together. There’s no denying that.
Should have won in 1989: with weak competition, Tandy deserved the win.
Sally Field won her first Oscar for playing union leader Norma Rae. Places in the Heart finds her once again playing to her strengths, playing a woman of enormous resolve trying to maintain her farm and her family after becoming a widow during the Great Depression. Field is an actress with extraordinary versatility, but she really comes to life when playing a gutsy woman. Her big problem here is that this is a very competitive decade for actresses, forcing her out of the spotlight. She really achieved Oscar immortality, however, for her oft-(mis)quoted acceptance speech–in which she exhorted “right now you like me!” to the audience.
Should have won in 1984: Field dominated the competition. Besides, you liked her. You really liked her.
There aren’t many performances like Marlee Matlin’s in Children of a Lesser God–probably because Hollywood doesn’t really know what to do with actors who aren’t exactly mainstream. Both Matlin and her character, Sarah, are deaf. Sarah is intensely angry and rebellious at a world that is clearly built around people who can hear. Matlin shimmers in that rage and shows the vulnerability it desperately attempts to mask. It’s a beautiful performance from a woman who truly understood her character. It says a lot about the incredible performances in the top 5 that this one got crowded out.
Should have won in 1986: Matlin deserved her win.
Loretta Castorini may seem low-key among her competitors here. She is, after all, just a middle-aged Italian-American New Yorker in a romantic comedy. But she’s so much more than that underneath the surface. She’s a strong-willed woman who had given up on life and love, who is only now discovering that it might not be too late for her to settle down and be happy after all. Her love story is comical, with a stellar supporting cast of characters to make you chuckle. Her love story is complicated, as she has gotten engaged to a dull man she doesn’t love only to begin falling for his estranged brother. Her love story is the story of a woman waking up to a life she never knew she could live. Comedic performances get a bum rap when it comes to respect, but Cher deserves all the credit in the world for making Loretta a multi-faceted woman of substance.
Should have won in 1987: Cher defeated Glenn Close’s iconic performance in Fatal Attraction. If there were any year that I might have ended in a tie, this would probably have been it. I just can’t bring myself to choose between Cher and Close. Luckily for me, I don’t have to.
1980 was another tough year for Best Actress. Spacek captivated audiences for playing (and singing) the part of Loretta Lynn, the young country music star who rocketed from poverty to fame. Meanwhile, sunny TV legend Mary Tyler Moore shocked audiences by playing against type as the frosty mother in Ordinary People (which won the Oscar for Best Picture that year). Both ladies gave towering performances in popular movies, but it was Spacek who ran away with all the big prizes during award season. The fact that she sang probably helped her, as did the fact that Coal Miner’s Daughter gave her a spectacular nervous breakdown scene to work with, and Spacek knocked it out of the park. Moore’s role was all about restraint, affording no such opportunity to break loose.
Should have won in 1980: Spacek is amazing–amazing–in this movie, but if I’m being honest I probably would have gone with Moore instead. Still, there’s no denying that Spacek gave a captivating performance here.
In The Accused, Jodie Foster embodies a woman who suffers a brutal gang rape only to find herself on the defense when authorities and the very legal system begin to judge her harshly for being a woman who likes to drink and party. Shell-shocked by what happened to her, she must also contend with cruel questions about her lifestyle and the anger she feels at a system that wants to let the men who did this to her go free. Foster vibrates with rage and fear as she tries to go about her life. It’s a courageous performance that feels honest and raw–which is just what the movie called for. Foster’s character is forever changed by what happens to her, and thanks to Foster’s performance so are you.
Should have won in 1988: with stiff competition from Meryl Streep (A Cry in the Dark), Glenn Close (Dangerous Liaisons), and Sigourney Weaver (Gorillas in the Mist), Foster still earned the title.
Speaking of movies with a breakdown scene, Shirley MacLaine gave us one of cinema’s most iconic (not to mention heartbreaking) breakdowns of all time. The moment her Aurora Greenway came to the nurse’s station to ask for her dying daughter’s pain shot, only to freak the fuck out when the nurse tried to shrug her off, was the moment audiences officially had their hearts ripped out. The final, knowing look she shares with her daughter as she slips away still haunts me to this day. In those moments MacLaine is a beacon of fierce maternal love and anguish. But her performance in this movie is more than that. MacLaine gives a layered, remarkably lived-in performance. Watching Aurora, you get the sense that she has history. You see who she is and how her life has led her to this point. MacLaine also doesn’t shy away from the more complicated sides of Aurora, which only makes her more compelling and realistic. Aurora is a difficult woman. A self-involved woman. A proper woman. A sharp woman. A terribly vulnerable woman. MacLaine navigates all of those facets and makes Aurora Greenway sing. In any other decade, this would be the best performance of all, hands down.
Should have won in 1983: Meryl Streep handed in yet another amazing performance in Silkwood, but MacLaine’s biggest competition was probably her costar Debra Winger. Winger deserves as much credit as MacLaine for making the mother-daughter chemistry sing, but I’d stick with MacLaine’s fierce matriarch.
A decade full of great female performances also happens to include Ms. Meryl Streep’s most revered, iconic performance in a career chock full of them. As Sophie, a Polish immigrant living in Brooklyn, Streep brought to life the lasting horrors of the Holocaust by effortlessly inhabiting a woman haunted by her past. When we get to the reveal, when we finally understand the horrifying choice Sophie had to make, Streep leaves you in stunned, horrified silence. Audiences have grown accustomed to Meryl utterly transforming for her roles, but perhaps never has she done so with such a devastating impact.
Should have won in 1982: Streep. Hands down.