Cloris Leachman and Timothy Bottoms in The Last Picture Show
Newsflash: I can’t stop thinking about the Oscars. I’m writhing around in my bathrobe crying Irving Thalberg‘s name and opening every briefcase I can find, just in case Price Waterhouse hid the list of this year’s winners in my attic. (Still looking!) In the meantime, let’s take a moment to honor some occasions when The Academy Awards were worthy of this level of fanaticism. Here are the five greatest winners in my favorite category, Best Supporting Actress. You can’t beat a woman going for broke in a secondary role; there’s a nothing-to-lose gutsiness about these dames, and they make the most of their every fleeting moment onscreen.
5. Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire
Though Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) and Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) are compelling portraits on their own, the genius in Elia Kazan‘s adaptation of Tennessee Williams‘ play is the gaping chasm between Blanche’s mannered madness and Stanley’s animalistic tantrums. It’s like Scarlett O’Hara sharing apartment space with Jake LaMotta. (Coming soon to CBS!) And somewhere between those extremes is Stella Kowalski, played with both nervous bluster and unbridled carnality by the fabulous Kim Hunter. Though she acts as an intermediary between her nutty sister and violent husband, she’s just as frightening a character to watch, ultimately. I believe her when she’s tearfully urging houseguests to compliment fragile Blanche’s looks and when she’s clinging to Stanley’s sweat-drenched muscles in orgiastic glee. Hunter doggedly inhabits Stella’s quiet and enormous moments, and she’s the most constantly surprising actor in the picture.
4. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
Kramer vs. Kramer is an intensely personal, unpretentious film that remains one of the best Best Pictures. It’s both small and epic, sweet and searing. Though Dustin Hoffman dominates the movie as a voracious yuppie who finally takes responsibilty for his fatherly duties once his wife leaves him, Streep’s shocking emotionality gives the movie depth, even if she’s just on screen for 15 minutes altogether. Streep famously wrote the witness stand speech that her character Joanna Kramer gives after a harsh cross-examination in divorce court, and it’s hard to imagine what that scene would be like without her input. She transmits Joanna’s dilemma in balancing her own self-possession with having to compensate on behalf of her aloof husband’s laggard parenting. Streep goes both icy and deep, and frankly, I kind of miss that Meryl.
3. Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show
I’d say steering the best breakup scene in film history is an Oscar-worthy feat, wouldn’t you? The divine Cloris Leachman helps conclude The Last Picture Show with an unforeseen combination of histrionics and eerily placated calm. As the ignored housewife of the local high school football coach, Leachman strikes up an affair with Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and unwittingy embarks on a romance that only buttresses her alienation. Leachman’s physical transformation in the role can’t go undiscussed, and it has little to do with makeup or costuming. She simply emanates joy and sensuality at her most vibrant moments, and a bleak, grieving stare at her worst. With apologies to her fine, nominated costar Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman deserved the hell out of this.
2. Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker
I routinely catch The Miracle Worker on cable, and it’s impossible to turn off. Not only is Anne Bancroft a knockout as Anne Sullivan, but Patty Duke’s juvenile tantrums, manipulative behavior, and sly intelligence as the young Helen Keller comprise some of the most unself-conscious dimensionality I’ve ever seen in a character. You simply can’t argue with mesmerizing screen work (or those bracing fight scenes!), and Patty Duke’s Oscar-winning turn is one of the few “kid” performances I can’t call gimmicky or forced in any way, broad as it may be. Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, and Elle Fanning, take note: This is what no-nonsense teen acting looks like.
1. Sandy Dennis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
My favorite Oscar wins always combine two elements: inspired acting and inspired casting. The part of Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? isn’t especially compelling on paper. She’s a meek, naive plaything in George (Richard Burton) and Martha’s (Elizabeth Taylor) psychological warfare, a nervous and neurotic housewife with little to confess other than her hysterical pregnancy and inability to hold down liquor. Embarrassing, yes, but not necessarily scintillating. But when you add two-time Tony winner Sandy Dennis to the role, suddenly Honey becomes a twitching, batty blatherer who erupts in applause, questionable dance moves, and drunken non sequiturs. “Violence!” and “I dance like the wind!” are my two personal favorites. Sandy Dennis approaches the role of Honey with trance-like commitment, and every bit of dialogue and blocking becomes a chance to rattle the bats in Honey’s belfry. Sandy Dennis was a goddess on Earth, and I can’t imagine another Supporting Actress win feeling so deserving and, yet, bad-ass. Remember when she dated Eric Roberts in the ’80s? Could this woman be more weird and sublime?