The performances by actresses in the 1960s are so strong that there was a tie in 1968. What a thrilling group! This is perhaps the strongest list yet, and seeing some of the performances score low feels wrong somehow. If only there were more decades like this.
It behooves me to remind you that although I will comment on who should have won in each year, whether or not a prize was deserved cannot in and of itself impact the ranking.
11. Katharine Hepburn, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
In 1967, Hepburn was an icon who had only won a single Oscar (in 1933). She had been away from the screen for five years to take care of her ailing lover Spencer Tracy (he was married to someone else but audiences adored Hepburn and Tracy together). Both came back for one last movie together and Tracy died 17 days after shooting was completed. Sentiment pushed Hepburn, Tracy’s devoted not-quite-widow, to the podium on Oscar night instead of awarding him a posthumous prize. You can respect the legacy, but neither performance was worth an Oscar. In a movie that dilutes racism in America, Hepburn plays a mother who mostly stands on the sidelines giving earnest looks at her family.
Should have won in 1967: I’m iffy on whether or not Anne Bancroft’s sublime Mrs. Robinson is a leading performance or supporting in The Graduate, but I’d give it to her.
10. Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8 (1960)
In a fit of irony, Taylor won her first Oscar for a performance she didn’t care about in a movie she publicly hated. She was trying to get out of her contract with MGM but they forced her to do Butterfield in order to meet her obligations to them. She plays Gloria Wandrous, a destined-for-tragedy Manhattan call girl having an affair with a rich married man. She’s fine in the role, but she won because she had almost died of pneumonia and needed a tracheotomy. Shock at nearly losing one of their biggest stars caused Academy voters to rally around Taylor in spite of the very public scandal she had recently caused by getting involved with Eddie Fisher (her Butterfield costar) while he was still married to Debbie Reynolds.
Should have won in 1960: In fairness to Taylor, there wasn’t much competition. Shirley MacLaine is great in The Apartment but I guess I would still go with Taylor.
9. Patricia Neal, Hud (1963)
The fatal flaw of Neal’s performance as the weary, knowing housekeeper in Hud is that it’s a supporting role. Had she won in that category, she would have gone far. Yes, she’s the only female character of consequence, but she sits in the background far too much and her story is far too dependent on the men she serves. In a weaker decade Neal would still have made a strong showing, but as is I feel I can’t put her above ladies who did more work to carry their movies. Don’t believe me? At the Golden Globes that same year, Neal competed in the supporting category.
Should have won in 1963: Bump Neal to Supporting Actress and she handily defeats Margaret Rutherford for The V.I.P.s in a rematch of the contest at the Globes. With Neal out of the way, it’s a battle of the pregnant single girls: Natalie Wood in Love With the Proper Stranger and Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room. Caron won more awards but I feel like she mostly just reacts to other, more interesting characters. Wood gets it.
8. Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker (1962)
As Annie Sullivan, the teacher fighting to get through to blind and deaf Helen Keller, Bancroft captures the steely resolve and the hidden pain of her character so that you understand how hard-won her dedication is. The movie seems to be trying to tempt her into a sort of camp with its portrayal of the flashback sequences to Sullivan’s youth, but Bancroft wisely underplays the pathos–perfectly managing to convey the trauma without hitting the audience over the head with it.
Should have won in 1962: Bette Davis gave a bonkers, audacious performance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? but I would still go with Bancroft.
7. Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
Jean Brodie is a difficult character to manage: proud, haughty, proper, sensual, emotional, hypocritical, and in possession of a forceful disregard for rules. Portrayed by Smith, however, she comes to glorious life. Smith takes all of these conflicting characteristics and makes them sing. It is difficult to imagine any other actress taking on this part and executing it with such precision and flair.
Should have won in 1969: Jane Fonda is excellent in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but I would still go for Smith.
6. Julie Christie, Darling (1965)
I was primed to despise this performance for taking a second Oscar from Julie Andrews for The Sound of Music, so I was very surprised to enjoy it as much as I did. Christie plays Diana, a flighty British model in the swinging sixties with no real ideas or ambitions, using men on her way to newer and better opportunities and feeling empty all the way. It would be easy to dismiss her but for the care Christie takes bringing her to life. There is no judgment or condemnation: she presents Diana as neither good nor bad, asking you to understand but allowing you to decide for yourself whether to pity or condemn her. It’s a smart choice.
Should have won in 1965: I was all set to say Julie Andrews for the way she effortlessly carried The Sound of Music‘s epic format, but Christie surprised me with her delicate nuance. Christie.
5. Sophia Loren, Two Women (1961)
As an Italian mother who takes her teenage daughter to a village to escape the bombings in Rome during WWII, Loren became the first actor to win an Oscar without speaking any English. Loren was only 25 when she filmed this movie but she effortlessly captures a fierce maternal protectiveness and creates a multifaceted woman. She’s a mother and a widow who is also still a vibrant young woman in the world. And when tragedy strikes, Loren breaks your heart.
Should have won in 1961: Loren.
4. Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins (1964)
Considering that she was a novice on film in 1964 it is alarming just how skilled Andrews was at carrying a movie. As the world’s most perfect nanny, Andrews is charismatic, funny, and, well, practically perfect in every way. Mary Poppins may not seem like typical award-bait, but when played by Andrews it’s hard to deny her appeal.
Should have won in 1964: There was speculation that Andrews won in part because of backlash against how Audrey Hepburn was given the role Andrews originated onstage in My Fair Lady but Andrews deserved it anyway.
3. Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl (1968)
Streisand’s career has had a lot of big roles and movies but Fanny Brice will always be her most defining cinematic moment, and boy does she knock it out of the park. She’s so good that attempts to revive this musical have failed to come to fruition because it seems no one can live up to her in the title role. She’s big and brassy but she is equally good at moments of quiet frustration or heartbreak.
Should have won in 1968: Streisand tied with Katharine Hepburn, which is how it should have been. Both ladies were equally deserving.
2. Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter (1968)
I tend to think that Katharine Hepburn is overpraised but The Lion in Winter is nothing short of a tour de force. As Eleanor of Aquitaine, sprung from prison (where her husband the king has kept her for years for assisting her son Henry’s revolt against him) for the holidays, Hepburn is a dash of camp, a dose of heady drama, and a bracing clap of vigor energizing the movie and the other performances around her. In a movie where Peter O’Toole chews the scenery as the king, Hepburn proves to be his equal and more. It’s a delicious performance.
Should have won in 1968: As I said, Hepburn’s tie with Streisand was well-deserved. This was Hepburn’s third career Oscar and her second consecutively (even if I’m not sure her win in 1967 was merited).
1. Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Taylor was a surprising choice for Woolf‘s acid Martha, being far too young to play a middle-aged drunk. Director Mike Nichols decided to film in black and white in part to disguise the heavy makeup required to make Taylor look the part, and look the part she does–not just in appearance but in character. From her stance to her expressions, Taylor knows exactly what she’s doing. Many actresses have played this role and Taylor made herself the yardstick they are measured against.
Taylor is pitch-perfect in every scene, ensuring that a character who goes through an incredible range of emotion (often from moment to moment) feels effortlessly authentic.
Should have won in 1966: Taylor.
For more, check out my Academy Awards page. Up next, we’ll explore the Best Supporting Actress of the 1960s.
Now let’s see how the standings would look like with all the ladies who should have won:
11. Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8 (1960)
10. Natalie Wood, Love With the Proper Stranger (1963)
9. Julia Christie, Darling (1965)
8. Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker (1962)
7. Sophia Loren, Two Women (1961)
6. Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
5. Anne Bancroft, The Graduate (1967)
4. Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins (1964)
3. Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
2. Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl (1968)
1. Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter (1968)