Though the coronavirus-driven story of 2020 (and beyond) is still being written, one thing we know for sure is that we'll be able to look back at the ninety-second Academy Awards as one of the last annual traditions to be observed before the country shut down. It feels like a year has passed since February, but some of those films and victory speeches are still fresh in memory. Others, however, have faded, just like many celebrated movies and performances have drifted from memory over the last century. Some of these Oscar winners deserve to be forgotten. But there are many that have slipped away due to a variety of reasons, none of which have anything to do with their intrinsic quality. With that in mind, here are twenty-five dynamite Oscar-winning performances worthy of a second (or perhaps first) look today.
Skip the boringly classed-up Victor Fleming version, and stick with Rouben Mamoulian’s pre-code adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s terrifying tale. Frederic March richly deserved his Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a good doctor tempted to explore his darker nature. The transformation sequence (with the camera panning down from March’s face to his hands for skillfully concealed dissolves, then back up to his newly monstrous visage) was groundbreaking for its time, and still works today by virtue of the actor’s anguished performance. It’s the first great, non-Universal horror movie of the sound era.
This stagey adaptation of Zoë Akins’s play about a naïve young actress looking to make it big on Broadway is every bit as clichéd as it sounds, but it’s well worth watching if only to check out a twenty-six-year-old Katharine Hepburn blowing the established likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Adolphe Menjou off the screen. This was Hepburn’s first Best Actress nomination and win, kicking off a career that would find her nominated eleven more times with three additional wins. She’s still finding herself as a performer in this, her third big-screen role, but the knockout mix of smarts, beauty and sex appeal is abundant and utterly irresistible.
This grand Hollywood adventure from director Victor Fleming, based on Rudyard Kipling’s novel, gave Spencer Tracy his second Best Actor nomination and first win. He stars as a brave Portuguese fisherman who rescues the wealthy son (Freddie Bartholomew) of an American shipping tycoon (Melvyn Douglas). The film is top-shelf entertainment from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and while Tracy’s accent isn’t spot-on, the passion and sincerity of his portrayal carries the day. There was no one like him.
When David O. Selznick passed on Bette Davis for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind”, it’s said that Warner Bros. and director William Wyler offered her the lead in this adaptation of Owen Davis’s antebellum sudser as a consolation prize. “Jezebel” might not have set the world on fire like “Gone with the Wind”, but Davis’s scorching performance solidified her status as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and earned her a second Best Actress Oscar (after having won in 1935 for the ho-hum “Dangerous”).
George Cukor’s classic melodramatic thriller earned seven Academy Award nominations in 1944, and is suddenly back en vogue thanks to the film’s title becoming the go-to definition for a type of psychological manipulation that induces the victim to doubt not only the truth, but their own sanity. Ingrid Bergman won Best Actress for her hugely sympathetic portrayal as the manipulated party being preyed upon by her scheming husband (Charles Boyer). Now is the perfect time to revisit this suddenly relevant suspense flick.
This immensely entertaining melodrama from Vincente Minnelli and screenwriter Charles Schnee remains one of the most trenchant depictions of the cutthroat movie business. Kirk Douglas dominates as a Val Lewton-esque producer who rises to power via a series of B-movie hits, but Dick Powell resides at film’s tragic core as a screenwriter who skips town to become an English professor at a small college. When Douglas purchases the film rights to his novel, he returns to Hollywood with his starstruck wife (Gloria Grahame) in tow. Grahame won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar despite having under ten minutes of screen time (a record that wouldn’t be broken until Beatrice Straight clocked a little over five minutes in “Network”), but she makes the most of every second.
It was a coin flip between Donna Reed and Grace Kelly for Best Supporting Actress in 1953, and the former won out when “From Here to Eternity” went on an Oscar-night tear. But Kelly rebounded and then some the following year when she won Best Actress for her atypically unglamorous portrayal of a wife contending with a self-destructive alcoholic husband (Bing Crosby) in George Seaton’s adaptation of Clifford Odets’s play. Your choices are tragically limited with Princess Grace, and her great work tends to emphasize her inimitable style and beauty (along with her considerable acting talents). But if you’re curious as to what Kelly could do in deglamorized character work, this is the film to watch. We only got to see a sliver of her greatness.
The gorgeous and supremely talented Simone Signoret gave iconic performances in Max Ophüls’s “La Ronde”, Jacques Becker’s “Casque d’or” and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques”, but it took this portrayal of a discarded mistress in Jack Clayton’s adaptation of John Braine’s kitchen-sink drama to earn her the Oscar-winning validation of her peers. Though the film’s gritty location shooting gives the film a rough edge unusual from dramas of this period, it’s still a formulaic melodrama at heart. Even so, Lawrence Harvey and Allan Cuthbertson provide give a never-better Signoret plenty to work with.
When Richard Brooks got his hooks into a “problem picture”, he could give his filmmaking contemporary Stanley Kramer a run for his heavy-handed money. Sometimes the weighty moralizing worked. After defanging Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, Brooks moved on to this pared-down adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel about a pair of Bible-thumping charlatans (Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons) who part devout fools from their money. You can see horn-dog Lancaster’s fall coming down Broadway, but he earns ever last bit of his Best Actor Oscar for his fine, fulminatin’ portrayal of a duplicitous preacher-man. Shot by John Alton and scored by André Previn, there’s a lot to like here.
Sophia Loren has been a global superstar for almost seventy years, but if you asked a casual moviegoer to name the one film that defines her, you probably wouldn’t get an answer (though younger viewers might offer up “Grumpier Old Men”). Films like “The Gold of Naples” and “The Miller’s Beautiful Wife” (opposite Marcello Mastroianni) launched her career, but she gave a performance for the ages in Vittorio De Sica’s pulverizing World War II drama, “Two Women”. Her overpowering beauty is both a weapon and, in one horrifying scene, a weakness in this unforgettable drama. Eleonora Brown is equally wonderful as Loren’s young daughter, who brings out a maternal ferocity unique in the star’s oeuvre.
Jules Dassin’s sunny, silly caper film is best known today for its bravura trick-wire heist that inspired the Langley sequence in Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible”, but it holds up nicely as a breezy entertainment in the mold of “The Thomas Crown Affair”. Aside from the eye-catching Istanbul setting and some pleasing banter between Maximilian Schell and Melina Mercouri, the highlight is Ustinov, who more than earned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar as a tour guide who doesn’t initially realize he’s in on the job.
Julie Christie burst forth from the Swinging Sixties scene of 1960s London as one of the most profoundly gifted movie stars of her generation, and while her most interesting performances would arrive in the 1970s with “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”, “Don’t Look Now” and “Shampoo”, she was electric in the early films of John Schlesinger. “Billy Liar” launched her career, but “Darling”, for which she won Best Actress as an on-the-make, self-involved fashion model who aggressively charms her way into media stardom, is a supercharged one-woman show. The movie itself is most interesting as a cultural relic, but Christie pumps hot-blooded life into her every scene.
If you had to name the one performance that earned Walter Matthau his only Academy Award, you’d probably guess “The Odd Couple”, “A New Leaf” or maybe his two-hander triumph with George Burns in “The Sunshine Boys”. Nope. It was as the scheming ambulance chasing lawyer, William “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich (great last name!), Billy Wilder’s perennially underrated black comedy, “The Fortune Cookie”. Willie convinces his good-hearted brother-in-law (Jack Lemmon) to file a personal injury lawsuit against the star running back of the Cleveland Browns (Ron Rich) when the player accidentally plows into him on the sidelines of a game. You’ve seen Matthau do the likable lout bit before, but this is one of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s meanest and funniest concoctions. They should’ve set aside an Oscar for Matthau ever year just for being Walter Matthau, but we’ll settle for this richly deserved Best Supporting Actor trophy.
Nominated for eleven Oscars in 1977, Fred Zinnemann’s approximation of Lillian Hellman’s dubious remembrance of a heroic friend who fought against the Nazis is a classic example of a prestige film more interested in winning awards than being at all authentic as a piece of storytelling. Jane Fonda is atrocious as Hellmann, but the film occasionally stirs to life when it focuses on Vanessa Redgrave as the title heroine. Redgrave relishes the role of the rebel, and imbues the film with a righteous passion it cannot sustain.
Dame Maggie Smith had already taken home a Best Actress Oscar for her stellar work in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, so it’s understandable that her lovely turn in Neil Simon’s tonally schizophrenic ensemble comedy, “California Suite”, for which she won Best Supporting Actress in 1978, would linger less vividly in memory. But her portrayal of an aging British actress desperate to ride her first Academy Award nomination to a career revival is deeply poignant. Smith’s scenes with Michael Caine, who plays her on-his-way-out-of-the-closet gay husband, are particularly moving.
There’s so much to love in Warren Beatty’s sprawling drama about journalist John Reed’s coverage of and involvement in the Communist Party of America during the 1910s, but the only performer to take home an Oscar for this underseen-by-subsequent-generations classic was Maureen Stapleton for her portrayal of the indomitable anarchist Emma Goldman. If your first thought of Stapleton is as the kindly grandmother in “Cocoon”, you need to throw on Beatty’s “Reds” posthaste and watch this woman dominate her every scene.
A box office hit nominated for six Academy Awards in 1982, Taylor Hackford’s “An Officer and a Gentleman” has not benefitted from the Gen X-fired ‘80s nostalgia that tends to favor escapist films or teen comedies. That’s a shame because not only is it an incredibly engrossing adult drama featuring two scorching star turns from Richard Gere and Debra Winger, it’s also got the great Louis Gossett Jr. running roughshod over pretty boy Gere as a hard-case drill sergeant. It’s an onslaught of brilliant bluster until the film’s penultimate scene, in which Gossett’s stony demeanor cracks just a little.
His fourth Academy Award nomination proved to be the charm for Robert Duvall, who earned the 1984 Best Actor Oscar for his deep-in-the-pocket portrayal of a washed-up country music singer looking to put his life back together now that he’s kicked the bottle. While it’s often the case that great actors win their first Oscar as get-back for a previous snub (think Al Pacino for “Scent of a Woman” or Denzel Washington for “Training Day”), the Academy got it just right by passing over Duvall’s fine work in “The Godfather Part II”, “Apocalypse Now” and “The Great Santini” for this achingly soulful portrait of a sinner making amends as best he can.
The political dramas of the early-to-mid-‘80s were often big players at the Academy Awards, but most of them barely made a ripple at the box office. Though Peter Weir’s “The Year of Living Dangerously” went a long way toward cementing Mel Gibson’s leading man appeal, it wasn’t a hit at the time and doesn’t get nearly enough love nowadays. Gibson and Sigourney Weaver are smoldering as a journalist and government official caught up in the Indonesian upheaval, but the heart of the movie is Linda Hunt, who won Best Supporting Actress for her gender-swapped turn as the politically involved facilitator, Billy Kwan. This is no stunt performance. It’s a fiery portrayal of a man repulsed by the corruption of the Sukarno regime.
One of the great stage actors of the twentieth century, Peggy Ashcroft received a big-screen curtain call – and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar – in 1984 with this lovely portrayal of an elderly, kind-hearted English woman eager for adventure in “the real India”. This was David Lean’s final feature (his first since the disaster of 1970’s “Ryan’s Daughter”), and he’s far more focused on the characters situated amidst the landscape than visual sweep (though the latter is there when it matters). As a result, Ashcroft serves as our spiritual guide through this intimate journey of personal discovery.
Terry Gilliam’s madly romantic Manhattan fantasy is best remembered for giving us one of the late Robin Williams’s most impassioned and heartbreaking performances, but Mercedes Ruehl won the film’s sole Oscar as Jeff Bridges’s video store-owner girlfriend who’s had enough of the former shock jock’s self-pitying alcoholism. She isn’t thrilled when Bridges brings Williams’s deluded, dangerously depressed vagrant into their lives, but she draws on the same deep reservoir of compassion that’s helped her cope with her drunk of a boyfriend to give this wounded stranger a second chance at something close to happiness. Everyone loves a great makeover scene, and this film features one of the best with a patient Ruehl tending to the inner and outer beauty of a painfully shy Amanda Plummer.
Shelved by cash-strapped Orion Pictures in 1991, this drama about a nuclear engineer (Tommy Lee Jones) struggling with work pressures and his free-spirit wife (Jessica Lange) didn’t see the light of a projector until 1994, at which point the Academy discovered Lange had delivered the performance of a lifetime and finally honored her with a Best Actress Oscar. Director Tony Richardson is as disinterested in the nuclear testing intrigue as we are, and plays up the marital discord for all its worth. This means burrowing into the wild psyche of Lange’s military wife, a four-alarm fire of sexual liberation forever teetering on the brink of adultery. Lange’s playing a well-established type, but the team of writers (Rama Laurie Stagner, Arlene Sarner and Jerry Leichtling) give her an atypical arc that never stoops to judgment.
Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Russell Banks’s “Affliction” is as brutal a take on alcoholism and toxic father-son relationships as you’ll ever see – so when you finally decide to give this one a whirl, make sure you’re in a good place psychologically. Nick Nolte is superb as a hard-drinking small-town cop whose investigation of a hunting accident leads him to suspect foul play. The mystery is secondary to the caustic bond shared by Nolte and his abusive-since-childhood father played with growling viciousness by James Coburn. We so often think of Coburn as the knife-hurling Britt in “The Magnificent Seven” or the star of zany late-‘60s comedies that it’s a slap to the face to see him exude such wanton cruelty. He more than earned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but this is not one you’ll be in a hurry to revisit.
This is a Miramax prestige-pic smash-and-grab right down to the Harvey Scissorhands -dictated ninety-minute run time, but while this Richard Eyre-directed drama about novelist Iris Murdoch and her literary-critic husband John Bayley is a standard issue portrait of young romance, the creative temperament and the inevitable sickness and pain that awaits all married couples late in life, it’s performed with tremendous conviction by a knockout cast led by Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville. All four performers are dynamite, but Best Supporting Actor-winner Broadbent is the film’s heart and soul as a loving husband overwhelmed by the rigors of caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife.
Spike Jonze’s brilliant filming of Charlie Kaufman’s all-caps META adaptation of Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” is a wonderland of oddities and inspirations, but the human element that holds it together is the tale of John LaRoche a near-toothless genius with exotic interests (tropical fish, Dutch mirrors and the rare Ghost Orchid) who, despite having experienced horrible tragedy (most notably, a car accident that killed mother and uncle, and left his wife in a coma), is defined by his magnificent obsessions. LaRoche is an absolute original, and he is brought to startlingly mad life by the great Chris Cooper (whose Best Supporting Actor win was the film’s sole Oscar triumph).
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer, and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2020.
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