Ranking Every Best Actress Oscar Winner of the 1970s

Every Best Actress Oscar Winner of the 1970s, RankedThe Best Actor list for the 70s seemed difficult because it had several iconic performances packed in, but there were some lightweight roles on the list that made it easier. The top 8 here is intense. You’ll be hearing this a lot: in another decade, any one of them could have taken the top spot. The caliber of the performances is staggering.

My requisite note first: I will comment on who I think should have won the Oscar that year, but this is a point of interest and cannot impact the ranking in any way.

Glenda Jackson A Touch of Class10. Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class (1973)

Remember why Richard Dreyfuss was in the same position for The Goodbye Girl? Apply that logic here. Glenda Jackson is good in this dated, shrill romantic comedy–doing Katharine Hepburn proud with a much tougher take on the clichéd female romantic lead. But Oscar worthy? No sir.

Should have won in 1973: I’d go with a different female romantic lead from 73: Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were. She’s sharp, funny, vibrant, and vulnerable.

Glenda Jackson Women in Love9. Glenda Jackson, Women in Love (1970)

Yes, her again. Women in Love is essentially an ensemble of four, which really makes it a movie with four supporting performances. Furthermore, the two men get the most interesting arcs; however, it’s Jackson’s character that needs to hammer in the movies themes, and this she does with great skill. It’s a thankless job to carry a movie’s thematic weight but Jackson makes it look easy. She can be a bit impenetrable (but then, so is the movie).

Should have won in 1970: I go back and forth on whether or not Jackson is a supporting role or a lead. Given that her character is key to the plot and the most significant female role, I’ll allow her to compete (and win) here.

Jane Fonda Coming Home8. Jane Fonda, Coming Home (1978)

While her costar, Jon Voight, expertly weaves between anger, despair, and resilience, Fonda faces a more difficult internal journey. She starts out the idealistic wife of a soldier volunteering at the local VA hospital. There, she begins to get to know herself outside of the roles society has expected her to fill. She gets to know Voight’s wounded, angry soldier and discovers another side of the war. She begins an affair with him while somehow remaining loyal to her husband. It’s deft, nuanced work from an actress at the top of her game. If the movie undermines her by occasionally going big when less would have been more, Fonda ably comes out unscathed.

Should have won in 1978: Fonda.

Ellen Burstyn Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore7. Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

I actually really like Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, where she plays a widowed housewife on a series of unexpected adventures while trying to start her life over with her son in a new town. She goes through a range of emotions and you really feel that she comes out a different woman than she started. The entire movie depends on a great performance in its lead and Burstyn delivers. This is just a really tough decade for actresses.

Should have won in 1974: Burstyn earned it.

Faye Dunaway Network6. Faye Dunaway, Network (1976)

Dunaway’s TV executive, Diana, embodies not only the worst qualities of the first generation raised by television but the growing corporate greed behind it. At one point, William Holden describes her as “television incarnate,” meaning that she is “indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy,” and that “all of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” Dunaway captures all these qualities but also gives Diana a thrumming internal life and a confusion or fragility that occasionally threatens to peek out. If her performance is burdened with the weight of the movie’s most farcical plotlines, Dunaway keeps it grounded in the real world as much as she can. Diana could have been a blank mask, but Dunaway made her more.

Should have won in 1976: You could make a case for Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, but I’d go for Dunaway.

Jane Fonda Klute5. Jane Fonda, Klute (1971)

Yes, her again. Klute is an uneven movie with an outstanding performance from Jane Fonda (among other things, it’s named after the male detective when Fonda not only steals the movie but saves it from being just another genre mystery/thriller). It’s a fiercely intelligent turn that offers a preternatural understanding of her character, the kind of performance that elevates the material. I saw this movie years ago and while I don’t remember much of the thriller plot, I distinctly remember Fonda. She’s that good.

Should have won in 1971: Fonda had it locked.

Sally Field Norma Rae4. Sally Field, Norma Rae (1979)

The triumph of Sally Field’s performance as Norma, an uneducated factory worker who becomes a union leader, is that she gives Norma a comic, sentimental edge without losing sight of her underlying grit. It would have been easy for an actress to get sidetracked by the script’s more sentimental subplots, but Field gives Norma a stern moral fiber that relentlessly pushes her forward no matter the consequences. It’s an iconic, nervy performance.

Should have won in 1979: Oh, what a tough call between Sally Field and Bette Midler’s astonishing turn in The Rose. If you remember the races for 1993 and 1987, you know that this category has some races that are just too close to call. I don’t want to have to choose, so let’s go with a tie.

Louise Fletcher One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest3. Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Roger Ebert once said that it’s difficult to see the brilliance in Fletcher’s performance as Nurse Ratched since she so thoroughly disappears into the role. And since the role embodies sternness, authority, and inhumanity, we don’t see any of the traits we usually look for in a great performance. Fletcher is a pitch-perfect counterpoint to Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy and that comes down to small choices she makes: glances, frowns, studied blankness, calm gestures. Ebert is right–it’s difficult to fully appreciate what Fletcher does because she does it in such nuanced ways that you don’t notice the incredible work at play unless you watch closely.

Should have won in 1975: Fletcher.

Diane Keaton Annie Hall2. Diane Keaton, Annie Hall (1977)

I originally had this performance lower but a friend reached out to tell me I’m nuts and she actually made a really good case (thanks for the reality check, Jessica). I always felt like Keaton was essentially playing herself. That’s true in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t negate the performance. My friend got me to rewatch some clips that showed a lot more nuance to what Keaton does than I remembered. I guess it just goes to show how comedic performances are largely looked down on when it comes to acting. What else? Without Keaton, Annie Hall fundamentally does not work.

Should have won in 1977: Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft were terrific in The Turning Point, but Keaton was the true winner.

Liza Minnelli Cabaret1. Liza Minnelli, Cabaret (1972)

Full disclosure: Cabaret is one of my favorite movies, so I’m not exactly unbiased. But look closer at what Liza Minnelli does. She’s big and brassy and bubbly, but there’s a palpable underlying sadness to Sally Bowles. It’s as powerful as she is magnetic. As Minnelli peels away the layers, you realize Sally herself is an elaborate show designed to distract both you and her from a world of deep hurts she can’t deal with. When she lashes out, you feel the sting. And when she allows herself to momentarily hope “Maybe this time I’ll be lucky,” you hope along with her–even though you (and probably she) know better.

Should have won in 1972: Cicely Tyson was great in Sounder, but Minnelli all the way.

For more, check out my Academy Awards page. Next, we’ll take a dive into the Best Picture winners of the 1960s.

Now just for fun, let’s see what the list would look like with all the ladies who should have won:

10. Glenda Jackson, Women in Love (1970)

9. Jane Fonda, Coming Home (1978)

8. Barbra Streisand, The Way We Were (1973)

7. Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

6. Faye Dunaway, Network (1976)

5. Jane Fonda, Klute (1979)

4. Bette Midler, The Rose (1979)

3. Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

2. Diane Keaton, Annie Hall (1977)

1. Liza Minnelli, Cabaret (1972)


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