Ranking the Best Actress Oscar Winners of the 1980s

Best Actress Oscar Winners of the 1980s

It finally happened: a decade of Best Actress performances is just as tough to call as the Best Actor race. Well done, ladies. 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 may comment on snubs when appropriate, but please note that whether or not someone should have won cannot impact the final ranking.

Katharine Hepburn On Golden Pond10. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond (1981)

Katharine Hepburn is adorable as half of an aging couple determined to have one last summer at the titular location. Her chemistry with Henry Fonda is sublime. But there isn’t much more to her performance than that. If we’re being honest, this was a legacy award. 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: Okay, I fully realize that I’m about to reward one of the most controversial performances of all time, but Faye Dunaway wasn’t even nominated for Mommie Dearest and it’s one of the most batshit iconic performances on film. Is she being brilliantly campy? Is she just bad? Was she really haunted by the ghost of Joan Collins during filming? No one can really tell, but we’re still talking about it all these years later–and we’re gonna keep right on talking about it.

Jessica Tandy Driving Miss Daisy9. Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Jessica Tandy also won an Oscar after a storied career, but in this case the award was her first. I have issues with the way Driving Miss Daisy won an Academy Award for Best Picture, but Tandy is a delight as 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: Comedic performances get little, respect at the Oscars, so let’s have some justice for Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.

Geraldine Page The Trip to Bountiful Movie8. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful (1985)

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 mean wife to get back to where she grew up before she dies: Bountiful. It’s a beautiful story about the passage of time, and Page deftly balances the thematic undertones of the script. Page had been nominated seven times prior to this without winning, making it tempting to call this a lifetime achievement award. It is to a certain degree, but the heart and soul Page showed makes it hard to argue.

Should have won in 1985: … Except that Whoopi Goldberg was astonishing in The Color Purple and deserved to win more. Her loss says a lot about the enduring difficulties actors of color have getting recognition.

Sally Field Places in the Heart7. Sally Field, Places in the Heart (1984)

Sally Field won her first Oscar for playing union leader Norma Rae. Places in the Heart finds her again playing to her strengths as 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. The movie is only so-so but Field has a way of elevating material. 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: Judy Davis put up a fight but Field dominated the competition. Besides, you liked her. You really liked her.

Marlee Matlin Children of a Lesser God6. Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God (1986)

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 mainstream. Both Matlin and her character, Sarah, are deaf. Sarah is angry and rebels against a world clearly built for people who can hear. The movie attempts to reduce Sarah to a romantic plot but Matlin shimmers with rage and shows the vulnerability that anger attempts to mask. It’s a beautiful performance from a woman who truly understood her character.

Should have won in 1986: Matlin deserved her win.

Cher Moonstruck5. Cher, Moonstruck (1987)

Loretta Castorini may seem low-key for this competition. She is, after all, just an approaching-middle-age Italian-American New Yorker in a romantic comedy. But she’s so much more than that under the surface. She’s a strong-willed woman who had given up on life and love–only now discovering that it might not be too late for her to be happy after all. She’s a woman waking up to a life she never knew she could live. Comedic performances get very little respect, but Cher deserves all the credit in the world for making Loretta a multi-faceted woman of substance.

Should have won in 1987: This is one of the most hotly debated Best Actress years among Oscar enthusiasts and gay men (the others being 1993 and 1950). On the one hand you have gay icon Cher making a romantic comedy role iconic. On the other, you have criminally overlooked Glenn Close giving one of the most memorable performances of all time in Fatal Attraction. These performances could not be more different from each other and both actresses are trying to achieve very different things. Close has theatrics on her side but Cher does something only Diane Keaton and Meg Ryan have done: she makes a leading role in a romantic comedy iconic. I mean, think of how quotable and memorable this performance is. I can’t choose. I’m calling it a tie.

Sissy Spacek Coal Miner's Daughter4. Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

1980 was a 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 Best Picture that year). Both ladies gave towering performances, 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, which Spacek knocked out of the park. Moore’s role was all about restraint, affording no such opportunity to break loose.

Should have won in 1980: Sorry Sissy, I will always go for Mary Tyler Moore.

Jodie Foster The Accused3. Jodie Foster, The Accused (1988)

In The Accused, Jodie Foster plays a woman who suffers a brutal gang rape only to find herself on the defense when authorities victim-blame her. Shell-shocked by what happened, 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 lifeIt’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: Most Glenn Close enthusiasts cite this as the year she should have won (for Dangerous Liaisons). I think they say this because it feels more palatable to take away Foster’s win since she picked up a second Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs a few years later than to strip Cher of her only statue. But in my world both Glenn Close and Cher would have Oscars already, and we can only judge on performances anyway. Foster still earned the title in my book.

Shirley MacLaine Terms of Endearment2. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment (1983)

Shirley MacLaine gave us one of the most iconic breakdowns of all time. The moment Aurora Greenway goes to the nurse’s station to ask for her dying daughter’s pain shot, freaking the fuck out when the nurse shrugs her off, was the moment audiences officially had their hearts ripped out. The final, knowing look she shares with her daughter still haunts me. MacLaine embodies a fierce maternal love and anguish, but her performance is more than that. MacLaine’s layered performance gives you a sense of Aurora’s history–who she is and how her life has led her to this point. MacLaine also doesn’t shy away from Aurora’s complicated sides, which only makes her more compelling and realistic. Aurora is a difficult woman. Self-involved. Proper. Sharp. Vulnerable. MacLaine navigates all those traits and makes Aurora sing.

Should have won in 1983: Meryl Streep gave another amazing performance in Silkwood, and MacLaine’s co-star, Debra Winger, was in the hunt, too. Winger deserves as much credit as MacLaine for making the mother-daughter chemistry work, but I’d stick with MacLaine.

Meryl Streep Sophie's Choice1. Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice (1982)

A decade full of great female performances also happens to include 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.

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

Now let’s see what the list would look like if all the ladies who should have won took home an Oscar instead:

11. Sally Field, Places in the Heart (1984)

10. Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest (1981)

9. Meg Ryan, When Harry Met Sally (1989)

8. Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God (1986)

7. Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People (1980)

6. Cher, Moonstruck (1987)

5. Jodie Foster, The Accused (1988)

4. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment (1983)

3. Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction (1987)

2. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple (1985)

1. Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice (1982)


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