[Editor's Note: On Monday, the next Smackdown hits, Supporting Actresses of 1980. Here, as intro, is StinkyLulu to continue the festivities. If you missed the revival of the series last month we did 1952. In October we'll hit 1968. -Nathaniel R]
The 53rd Academy Awards were a life-changer for me. The ceremony for 1980 marked (held in March 1981) marked the first time I watched the broadcast and determined that it was my urgent task to see each of these nominated films. A precocious scheme, really, given that I was at the time thirteen years old and living in the middle east when I viewed (on betamax) the taped-from-tv recording of the ceremony months after its actual airing. Still, the 1980 Oscars were a clarion call to this wee little Stinky, a prompt to seek out films worth watching. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I started with the actressing, ultimately screening (mostly via similarly bootlegged betamax tapes that filled my expat community’s lending library) all but one of 1980’s nominated best- and supporting actresses as quick as I could.
Returning to these deeply-imprinted films after so many years in preparation for this weekend’s Supporting Actress Smackdown has been intriguing, to say the least. What’s perhaps most startling is just how clearly, in 1980, Oscar liked his Supporting Actresses to be catalyzing presences. We got three maddening beauties, one sage observer, and one crafty nemesis — each of whom compels the protagonist to and through their transformation pretty much just by being there. To their credit, these particular actresses do not just stand around being the battle-axe (Eileen Brennan, Private Benjamin), the crone (Eva Le Galliene, Resurrection), the moll (Cathy Moriarty, Raging Bull), the neighborhood gal (Diana Scarwid, Inside Moves), or the frustrated wife (Mary Steenburgen, Melvin & Howard). Still, being “that woman” is pretty much all that’s asked of them.
It’s a peculiar paradox really. These films are ripe with “liberated” depictions of the empowering potential of the female orgasm, of women deciding their own sexual partners and futures in defiance of masculine reprobation, of the gruesome brutalities of domestic violence, of the perilous degradations of sexwork, and so on. (Not to mention all Ellen Burstyn’s randy "I'm touching your penis" jokes). Even still, for the supporting actresses in these flicks, it remains presence first, and character second.
But sometimes that’s what actressing at the edges is all about — to shade contour and dimension within the broad strokes of a casually-scripted character, to make a presence into a person. And, for better and worse, 1980 gives us five memorably distinct approaches to this core burden/opportunity of supporting actressness. Notably, Oscar himself anointed a surprise winner, which makes me wonder if this weekend’s Smackdown might also do the same. (I know I have my clear favorite. Do you?)