Oscar History

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StinkyLulu's Preliminary Thoughts on The Supporting Actresses of 1980

[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.

Diana Ross & Donald Sutherland presented the 1980 Best Supporting Actress Oscar

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?)

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Reader Comments (12)

I love Brennan in Pvt. Benjamin. It's one of my earliest movie memories how much her performance made my parents laugh.

BTW, Thanks for the screen shot of the nominees and announcers! Love those.

September 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

But Steenburgen wasn't a surprise winner. Didn't she sweep every award under the sun that year?

September 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone

someone -- yes, steenburgen did. Although "every award under the sun" was much fewer awards back then ;) but yes she did take the holy trinity of critics prizes: NYFCC, LAFCA, and NSFC as well as the Golden Globe.

travis -- what a sweet memory!

September 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thanks for catching that, Someone. May not have been the best way to say it but I did look at a few contemporary newspaper reports which framed her win as a surprise. just underscores Nathaniel's point about how differently precursors worked back in the day.

September 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStinkyLulu

I do have a clear favorite too.

This is such a strange gathering of actresses... I guess Brennan was seen as the favorite considering the movie's repercussion.

September 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I've seen all these, but it's been a while. I suspect Brennan's going to do well in the Smackdown, and she's great, but I've always loved Steenburgen. Whenever I see her, I always think of Kate Bush. Not that I'd ever want a Bush biopic, but she'd be the woman to play her!

The other perfs are hazier in my memory, so am looking forward to be reminded of their quirks, charms and shortcomings. I've seen all the major nominees from 1980, but TCM in Australia kindly screened Brubaker and The Formula (!), two 1980 nominees (Original Screenplay, Cinematography) I'd barely heard of, so I'm happy to be joining in the 1980 celebrations this month.

September 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Each of these women were on their first nomination, and they all were never nominated again. How often does THAT happen?

(I'm going to assume the Steenburgen/Scarwid/Moriarty resurgences won't ever occur.)

September 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJason

1980 is a milestone year for me as it was the first year where my parents taped the Oscars on their brand new VCR that my mom bought my dad for Christmas! I still have the tape (it's 33 years old! well technically 32 since it was early 1981) and I watch it here and there over the years.

Funny thing is, I was born in 1990, so 1980 at the Oscars is a history lesson for me. But I've seen every nominee and winner in each major category plus Editing and Cinematography, so I'd like to think I could teach that history lesson. ;-)

Anyway, yay for Mary Steenburgen!

September 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSean Troutman

Jason-that's an awesome bit of trivia! Being an Oscar trivia hound, I had to go out and research which acting categories everyone enjoyed their only nomination.

It has NEVER happened in Best Actress.

It's arguable whether it's ever happened in Best Actor. 1927's Emil Jannings and Richard Barthelmess never were nominated again, but I can never quite tell if their nominations for multiple films constituted one nomination or two. If it was two, then it's never happened in Best Actor either.

It's happened four times in the supporting races, but all of those races have at least one nominee still living, so that could theoretically change:

1962 Best Supporting Actor (Omar Sharif and Terrence Stamp are still alive)
1980 Best Supporting Actress (Mary Steenburgen, Cathy Moriarty, and Diana Scarwid are still alive)
1985 Best Supporting Actor (Klaus Maria Brandeur, Robert Loggia, and Eric Roberts are still alive)
1987 Best Supporting Actress (Olympia Dukakis, Norma Aleandro, and Anne Archer are still alive)

September 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Thanks for saving me he footwork John T. :D

Wouldn't it be crazy to see another nomination for any of those people? Seems conceivable for some, such as Steenburgen and Stamp.

September 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

John T. and Jason, those are amazing statistics. Who won in the 1962 and 1985 races?

September 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Dave, Ed Begley won in 62 for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Don Ameche won in 85 for Cocoon.

September 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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