For the love of entertainment
The 1970s was a surprisingly weak year for Best Supporting Actress winners but by the time we get into the top five we’ll have some real contenders for the title. And the decade’s big winner just might be the best Best Supporting Actress winner of all time.
As always, I am only considering the ladies who won an Oscar in each given year. Trying to weigh everyone else would make this a monumental task to undertake. I will comment on how I think each race should have panned out, but that cannot impact the outcome of this ranking.
Helen Hayes may be a legendary actress and one of the original Academy Award-winners (for The Sin of Madelon Claudet in 1932). She may have been adorably spunky as the elderly stowaway in the original disaster movie (simply meaning that she got in before the disaster movie trend of trotting out ‘faded’ celebrities for bit parts hadn’t worn out it’s welcome yet–and as disaster movies weren’t a trend yet, neither had disaster movies in general). There’s no denying this simple fact at the end of the day: if you watch Airport, then find out she won an Oscar for it, your exact reaction is to go “Wait, what? Really?”
Should have won in 1970: Airport actually had two nominees in this category if you can believe it, and Helen Hayes wouldn’t even be my top pick from those options. Maureen Stapleton would. It should have come down to Karen Black for Five Easy Pieces or Sally Kellerman for MASH. I’d go for Karen Black.
The Supporting Actress category has a proud tradition of honoring wives and mothers. In Butterflies Are Free Eileen Heckart plays a smothering mother who has been holding her blind son back from living his life. Is it Heckart’s fault the movie’s flower child vibe hasn’t aged well? No. To her credit, she commits to her role and does what she can with the material. There’s just no disguising that there isn’t much there. 1972 was a year of towering performances at the Oscars: Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in Cabaret, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, and… Eileen Heckart in Butterflies Are Free? One of these things is not like the others. You can see right there that no matter what Heckart did, it’s a performance that is hopelessly out of its depth.
Should have won in 1972: It was a weak field of nominees that year. Shelley Winters was iconic in The Poseidon Adventure but not Oscar-worthy. Of the nominees I’d go with Jeannie Berlin for The Heartbreak Kid. In the bigger picture, Diane Keaton’s performance is one of the most consistently underrated things about The Godfather. Keaton deserved it.
Lee Grant’s Oscar narrative subtly called upon the Oscars to atone for sins that were committed against some of its members by the House UnAmerican Activities Commission. In the 1950s, many members of Hollywood were blacklisted because of HUAC, spending years exiled from their careers–frequently to devastating consequences. That included Lee Grant, who was blacklisted after refusing to testify against her husband in 1952. She spent 12 years unable to act in what would have been the prime of her career, then could only get jobs on the stage and in television. 1967 saw her begin rebuilding her film career, and in 1975 she was rewarded for her suffering with an Oscar for a fluffy comedy about a dumb hairdresser who can’t keep his pants zipped. Grant seems to enjoy her role but can’t seem to make up her mind about her character’s motives either. Some of that is the script, some is Grant seeming to change her mind. She’s fun, but you can’t look too closely or think too hard because it will all fall apart if you do.
Grant deserves recognition for surviving the blacklist, but there’s no denying the performance she won for is uneven.
Should have won in 1975: Two performances from Nashville probably crowded each other out but either one would have been a better choice: Ronee Blakley or Lily Tomlin. Personally, I think Tomlin’s subtle layering better embodied both a full emotional life of her character as well as an arc within the movie. Tomlin should have won.
Murder On the Orient Express is remembered for its all-star cast. It was probably inevitable that someone would receive an Oscar as a stand-in for the collective, and perhaps it was then inevitable that it would be Ingrid Bergman. Albert Finney would have been the likely choice as the star and the person with the most screen time, except the Best Actor category was never going to allow that to happen. It had to be a supporting player. Ingrid Bergman was a Hollywood legend and a two-time Academy Award winner. Her role also allowed her to showcase the kind of big emotion that grabs a voter’s attention without being showy. Her crying scene might as well have a caption that says “Oscar clip.” But that’s all there is. In a movie densely packed with celebrities, no one is allowed a chance to really do much with their character. The entire film is a series of interviews that say “look at me!” “Now look at me!” “Now it’s my turn!” By the time the end credits roll you might remember the conclusion but not always the individuals who got you there. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but one of the parts somehow walked away with an Oscar.
Should have won in 1974: The true contenders were Madeline Kahn’s comedic turn in Blazing Saddles and Diane Ladd in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Ladd gave great depth to a role that didn’t really have it, but I’m a huge fan of what Kahn did. Just like in 1972, I think Diane Keaton’s contribution to The Godfather deserved more recognition (she wasn’t even nominated), but I would go for Kahn.
Like her costar Jason Robards, Redgrave doesn’t have much screentime in Julia. Unlike Robards, the screenplay gives Redgrave enough room to make her presence felt–even in a limited amount. The movie basically asks her to haunt Julia, even before her character is killed offscreen. Redgrave rises to the occasion. I read an article where someone rewatched this movie after nearly twenty years and was shocked by Redgrave’s short amount of screentime because they remembered her being such a significant part of the film. I can see that. She definitely gets help from the screenplay, which builds Julia up quite a bit, but it wouldn’t have worked if Redgrave didn’t stick the landing.
Should have won in 1977: Redgrave. Even if she caused controversy at the ceremony by thanking Academy members for resisting the threats of ‘zionist hoodlums’ in giving her the award (the Jewish Defense League was protesting that night in response to Redgrave’s outspoken stance on Palestine).
I actually love Beatrice Straight in Network. I watch her big scene all the time on YouTube. When her husband, played by William Holden, reveals his infidelity, Straight seizes her moment and burns the screen down. The problem is that big scene is really all she gets to do in Network. She shows up in the background of one or two other scenes, but this one moment is it for her. You can’t exactly fault her when she’s offering Acting with a capital ‘A,’ but when the competition is doing a lot more heavy lifting in their movies it’s tough not to give them more consideration. Still, when I think of Network, Straight’s scene is one of the first things I think of. I have heard people accuse her of being ‘stagey,’ but I think she was flawless. Network is in part about the complicated relationship to emotions people have now that television and movies have taken over the culture. Faye Dunaway, Straight’s romantic rival, is supposed to not know how to feel anything because she was raised on television. Straight was the antithesis of that.
Should have won in 1976: as much as I love Straight, Piper Laurie should have won for Carrie. Straight’s pure genius in a single scene can’t match Laurie’s mad genius in several iconic cinematic moments. Her mother is unlike anything else you’ll find onscreen.
Any time a child performance wins an award there’s a debate over how much is due to acting skill and how much is due to a director who knows how to get a child to give the director what they need. Given that Tatum O’Neal had both a director and her own father as a costar, there are plenty of people who tend to dismiss the work she did. There are even rumors that director Peter Bogdanovich made O’Neal do as many as fifty takes if he was unhappy with her performance. But O’Neal is in almost every scene of Paper Moon. She does just as much work to carry the movie as her father, and onscreen it comes across beautifully. In fact, O’Neal’s screentime ranks as the longest performance by a winner in the supporting category at the Oscars. There may have been turmoil behind the scenes, but O’Neal turned in a winning performance in the end.
Should have won in 1973: oddly, 1973 was a battle between two underage actresses: Tatum O’Neal and The Exorcist‘s Linda Blair. Blair is perhaps more iconic but gets a lot of help from a demonic voice she gets dubbed with. I’d still go O’Neal.
Smith has the distinction of being the only actor to ever win an Oscar playing someone who lost an Oscar. California Suite is about four groups of guests staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and the only story line I remember all these years later is the one involving Maggie Smith and Michael Caine. Smith plays an actress in a marriage of convenience to a gay man, and the film picks up as they both are preparing to attend the Academy Awards, where she is a nominee. Smith and Caine have an effortless, breezy comedic banter. These sequences alone would justify the Oscar. Smith masterfully shows that the marriage of convenience is no longer satisfactory to her anymore because she is in love with her husband, who is incapable of loving her romantically in return. So they joke to cover up how they feel. Then she loses the Oscar and they return to the hotel drunk, where Smith delivers a tear-stained breakdown about her career and, finally, her marriage that somehow still manages to be funny. She makes you cry and laugh at the same time. It’s brilliant.
Should have won in 1978: In case you can’t tell, Smith deserved it.
One of the greatest things about Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer is that it shows how well she understands her characters and the deep level of empathy she has for them. Writer/director Robert Benton and Dustin Hoffman (who functioned as a collaborator on the project) had a blindspot when it came to Kramer: they fundamentally couldn’t understand what would make a mother leave her husband and child, then come back. She was a mystery to them. Thankfully they knew the movie would be more interesting if it understood the mother, so they sought Streep’s advice. It turned out she had a lot of wisdom for them, and she essentially rewrote her character from scratch for them. And there it was: a woman who felt stifled by life because she wanted more. She wanted a career and a life, and society told her not to go after those things until she finally snapped. It would have been so easy to make her a villain or a flat character with no layers, but Meryl Streep made this wife and mother something beautiful and complicated.
Should have won in 1979: Streep.
I don’t think anyone familiar with Cloris Leachman through her comedy career will be prepared for how thoroughly she breaks your heart. Her depressed housewife rattles with rage and sadness and disappointment and heartbreaking hope–frequently all at once. It isn’t just the costuming or the hair or even Leachman’s use of her voice and expressions. Down to her every gesture, down to the look in her eyes, she embodies the broken heart and soul of Ruth Popper.
Should have won in 1971: Cloris Leachman gave one of the best supporting actress performances of all time. She deserved it.
For more, check out my Academy Awards page. Up next, Best Actor of the 70s.