Every year we hear from the Oscar cynics. “Marisa Tomei for My Cousin Vinny?” they clamor. “Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express?” they ask. “Ugh, Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain?” they huff, ending with a self-satisfied moan. Yes, the Oscars routinely reward the wrong people, but there’s a bigger problem at hand: We need to criticize bad Oscar decisions even when it means disagreeing with conventional wisdom and not looking cool. It’s a hard job, but I’d rather be right than a run-of-the-mill hater.
Since I already posted my list of the 5 All-Time Best Supporting Actress-winning performances, I thought I’d update my ranks with another Supporting Actress rundown. This time it’s a whinier mission: Let’s point out five winners who are never called out for their undeserving performances. Rest easy, Mira Sorvino. This time we’re going after the titans.
5. Melissa Leo in The Fighter
Melissa Leo was blistering on Homicide: Life on the Street and in the awesome Frozen River, but in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, she’s the broadest caricature of an overbearing momager I’ve probably ever seen. Is it really Oscar-worthy to squawk and mug like any of Jo Anne Worley’s characters on Laugh In? (No offense to the divine Ms. Worley!) Leo is simply ridiculous when she drags her coterie of daughters to tangle with Amy Adams, who — by the way — is the one who really deserved the Oscar. That was a human performance with tough moments. Leo is merely an angry facial contortionist here.
4. Lee Grant in Shampoo
Let me be clear: I am probably the top-ranked Lee Grant fan in existence. Her Oscar speech was sincere and cheeky, her hair is routinely fabulous, she rebounded from blacklisting like no one else, and she is Oscar-worthy in everything from Detective Story to Defending Your Life. Hell, I might’ve given it to her for Voyage of the Damned, too. But we have a problem: Shampoo sucks. It’s not funny, it’s not memorable, and mysteriously Lee Grant plays the least consequential character in the picture. It’s cute when she flashes a middle finger during one key scene and becomes an utterly horny wraith during another, but clearly the Academy wanted to reward for Grant for having a thriving career in the wake of her blacklisting, not for wowing us in a special role. I’m relieved that Grant has an Oscar, but she gave us so many other performances that warrant gold. ’75 should’ve been the year of our girl Lily Tomlin for her work in Nashville.
3. Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby
Yes, it’s a cute idea that Bewitched’s Gladys Kravitz could be a henchman of Satan, but it’s not an Oscar-worthy one. In the marvelous Rosemary’s Baby, the fabulous Ruth Gordon was rewarded for a neighborly role that’s hypothetically awesome, but just one-note and plain on film. Her character doesn’t even enjoy a true arc. She’s kind of funny, but she’s not an essential part of the drama at hand — and Christ, is there some drama going on here. Gordon is true Hollywood royalty who wrote the kickass movies Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike, but her Best Supporting Actress win is misplaced recognition both for Gordon and a film that succeeds so chillingly on many other levels.
2. Shelley Winters in A Patch of Blue
A Patch of Blue is a simple story of a blind white girl who falls for an upstanding black man and fears the wrath of her bigoted mother. Sidney Poitier dutifully plays the romantic Good Samaritan, the underrated Elizabeth Hartman is a heartstopping revelation as the meek, yet poignantly moral protagonist, and Shelley Winters is — well — just loud as her harridan mother character. How could the Academy reward a performance (and role) that is simply bland, ugly, comic book evil? Why is this woman so awful? Why is she constantly throwing tantrums? This is scene-chewing nonsense in an otherwise fascinating movie, and Shelley Winters is more compellingly dimensional in even The Poseidon Adventure.
1. Vanessa Redgrave in Julia
This makes me so mad. So mad!
Jane Fonda is fully realized, shrewd, conscientious, and alive as Lillian Hellman in Julia, the near-fictionalized account of The Children’s Hour author’s relationship with Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards, in an undeserving Oscar performance) and a distant childhood friend named Julia (Vanessa Redgrave). As Roger Ebert once put it, this movie wants to be about Julia, but it’s not at all. Redgrave appears for the most part in dimly lit flashbacks where she just smiles at the camera or strides through Oxford. Otherwise, she only has real dialogue in one scene where she instructs Julia to place a controversial package in a hat. That is it! There is nothing to this performance, and Redgrave won for her radiant good looks. The movie keeps wanting us to fall in love with her, but it doesn’t even bother to humanize her. Redgrave’s character amounts to the familiar Manic Pixy Dream Girl, except this time it’s a contemplative female playwright and not a boring heterosexual male who yearns for her. I just don’t get it. This is not to say Redgrave isn’t a phenomenal actress. See last year’s Coriolanus for a performance that was criminally overlooked by the Academy.
Which other Best Supporting Actresses deserve to be called out for their less-than-stellar wins?