Following my take on the rather dull 2016 Best Actress race, there was a real need to sink my teeth into a juicier Best Actress lineup, so I went for one that tends to be considered among the all-time best, with some urban legends and colorful roles.
Anne Bancroft won for recreating her Tony-winning stage role. Bette Davis later claimed that Joan Crawford sabotaged her potential win, but I suspect the race was closer than imagined with any of the 5 ladies having a decent shot.
Here is how I would have voted:
The role: Katharine plays Mary Tyrone, a drug addicted matriarch who over the course of a day relives the dark moments of her life.
The film: Eugene O'Neill’s semi-autobiographical (and most acclaimed) play is adapted in a very stagey fashion. It works at times; at other times it really needs some editing. Mostly excellent acting.
The performance: I went into this race having already seen this performance many years ago, but I was surprised to discover I didn’t remember this level of excellence. As far as I can say, this is a career best for Hepburn, which means a lot, and one of the best performances to ever grace the screen. It’s to be seen to be believed – the role offers a lot, but Kate surprised me with her complete dedication to the character’s vulnerability and mental state. The grandeur Kate sometimes carries to her performances is completely gone here – she perfectly captures the tragedy of the character, the struggle with addiction, the frustration of her clinical depression, in such a manner that completely dominates the screen without it feeling intentional. It’s acting magic and Top 5 best performances I’ve ever reviewed here. The camera is fascinated with her.
The role: Bette plays Baby Jane Hudson, a former child star with deep emotional issues, who now takes care of (and tortures) her invalid sister.
The film: For the first half it feels like a juicy B-movie, but Bette’s acting just keeps getting better and the film makes some bold choices. Hard not to like.
The performance: Just like Kate’s performance, this one’s also about dropping the vanity. This performance goes beyond the crazy makeup and the loud line-readings. As the last chapter of the film proves, Bette digs deep into finding the character and providing humanity beyond the big laughter and the cruelty. Sure, the superficial stuff is delicious and very few American actresses of that age and from that era would’ve had such fun with the role, without any intention of taking themselves seriously. But the fact that she also brings emotion and vulnerability and sells the backstory is a wonderful bonus and takes the performance to the next level. They’ll be talking about I’ve written a letter to daddy even 50 years from now.
The role: Anne plays Annie Sullivan, the real-life miracle worker who teaches a girl who is deaf and blind to communicate.
The film: It was the first time I saw this film and I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s aged well and there’s something really special about the direction. Patty Duke rules. The ending made me cry.
The performance: There are a couple of key elements that make this a great performance. The emotion, the empathy and the passion are there, as you’d expect. But there is also wonderful charisma and Anne brings plenty of likeability to a character that can sometimes act a bit edgy. It’s easy to cheer for her and her journey, because Anne makes it believable and you do get caught in the character’s life and mission. It’s an intelligent performance, but subtly so, and also very energetic. Which takes me to the final but essential element of success: the physicality of the role. I was more than impressed with the interaction of the two leads, and there is a lot of sign communication, but also fighting, pushing, attacking that must’ve required a special choreography that both actresses perfectly deliver. It’s a dynamic and convincing performance.
The role: Geraldine plays Alexandra Del Lago, a movie star whose career is on the rocks who ends up entangled in the personal and career ambitions of a young hustler.
The film: I am not its biggest fan because it doesn’t always land as interesting. Some performances are good, some ideas too familiar.
The performance: How does such a delicious, playful performance end up only as my #4?! Speaks a lot about the level of this field. In a way, I have an instinctive unjustified love for this performance. Just listen to that name: Alexandra Del Lago. What could be cooler? And she’s drunk and smokes pot and acts like a horny cat. And she’s theatrical and excellent at it. The personal struggles of the character fade by comparison to the others’, but there are two aspects to look out for: the movie star worried about ageing – and Geraldine nails this so-called worry – and the fun she is having with the performance. Nobody plays hysteria the way Geraldine does: the big reveal towards the end and the amused, vulnerable, playful reactions over the phone are played with great precision and even a comedic timing. It’s a juicy diva role done really well.
5. Lee Remick, in Days of Wine and Roses
The role: Lee plays Kirsten, a woman who marries an alcoholic and who starts losing control of her life as he pressures her to join his drinking habits.
The film: It’s a real drama, hard to enjoy because I found Lemmon’s character to be kind of disgusting, so sitting through the film was not a pleasant experience.
The performance: I feel like I am being somewhat unjust with this rating, but I guess it’s impossible not to compare it a bit with what the actresses ranked higher here got. Lee is good, but not distinctively good, meaning the potential stands in the role and the scenes (the big drunk scene in the hotel, the character’s last scene, etc), with opportunities coming from the page - and that she delivers. Her acting in such important scenes is good to great – especially the hotel scene, which is the Oscar one, but you don’t necessarily feel it’s something that another good actress from her generation couldn’t have delivered. It’s a solid, dependable performance that wins a lot even through its silent scenes. She brings some likeability to the film, but I feel there could’ve been even more. A very strong 3.
Conclusion: My #1 was easy to choose, also my #2. Anne and Geraldine feel on the same level to me, with Anne getting the edge for the difficulty factor of the role.
How the voting went: Maybe the 1st time I am avoiding to assume a ranking here. I really do think it was close, and that even Remick was a contender. There are arguments both for and against each one’s chances of winning. So I have no idea, anyone’s game.