Presenting the Supporting Actresses of '79. Three divorcées trying to find themselves or build new lives (a white hot character type / movie theme in the late 70s) battled for the statue with a simple suburban mom and a precocious student at the 52nd Annual Academy Awards.
Candice Bergen and Mariel Hemingway were first-time Oscar players in 1979, but they shared the interesting distinction of being previous Globe nominees in the long since cancelled category of "Promising Newcomer/Acting Debut" in 1966 (The Sand Pebbles) and 1976 (Lipstick) respectively. Barbara Barrie , the eldest nominee, was no stranger to good reviews having previously won Cannes Best Actress (for the little seen interracial romance One Potato Two Potato in 1964) but was largely considered a TV actress. She returned to the small screen immediately after her most beloved film role -- in a TV series based on that film no less making her the rare performer (the only one?) to have received both an Emmy nomination and Oscar nomination for the same exact role! But the Kramer vs Kramer ladies were the marquee draws in 1979 and not just because the public response to their divorce drama was so seismic: Jane Alexander and Meryl Streep had been nominated before and would be again. Especially La Streep. No one could have then predicted that she'd continually obliterate Oscar records over the next thirty plus years but everyone knew she was the Next Big Thing. 1979 was the year of her true ascendance, a third consecutive year co-starring in a Best Picture contender (Julia, The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs Kramer) and the small matter of two other much-raved about performances in the same year (Manhattan and The Seduction of Joe Tynan).
Here to talk about these five turns are author KM Soehnlein ("The World of Normal Boys") and film bloggers Kristen Sales (Sales on Film), Bill Chambers (Film Freak Central), Brian Herrera (StinkyLulu), and your host Nathaniel R (The Film Experience). There's also a must-listen Podcast companion conversation to the Smackdown where we flesh out some of these thoughts and expound on the movies themselves.
Without further ado, the Smackdown...
SUPPORTING ACTRESS SMACKDOWN
An in-depth discussion after the jump...
JANE ALEXANDER as "Margaret Phelps" in Kramer vs. Kramer
Synopsis: A divorced neighbor watches two friends marriage crumble and her allegiance begin to shift when she sees the wreckage
Stats: Then 40 yrs old, 6th film, 3rd nomination. 10 minutes of screen time (or 9% of running time).
K.M. Soehnlein: Points for all that conviction in her eyes! She sells every scene even though the script rewrites her character every time she appears. She’s the measuring stick by which we judge the change in Hoffman’s protagonist: she begins with righteous judgment and ends up as his character witness. But even Ms. Alexander’s talents couldn’t sell the plot-point that she was still in love with her (off-screen) ex-husband. Margaret has fallen for Ted, am I right? ♥♥♥
Kristen Sales: Alexander cradling the knocked-out, asleep Billy, child of Ted (Hoffman) and Joanna (Streep) while talking to Ted about her own divorce is the key to the entire movie. Alexander radiates maternal warmth, the safety and security of “home,” the absence of which the film takes as its central theme. In the divorce court scenes, Margaret, caught between two friends and racked with guilt over her complicity in their break-up, becomes the substitute for Billy: she is the broken home. ♥♥♥
Bill Chambers: A demanding role in that Alexander must evidence and track a somewhat turbulent personal life that exists entirely offscreen, plus convey neutrality in the titular battle while being firmly allied with Hoffman's character--with whom she must establish chemistry that can never, for reasons of taste, become romantic. Wisely, if perhaps inevitably, she strikes a note of constant fatigue, and her breakdown while washing dishes feels suitably cathartic and not simply tied to the harrowing events of the day. ♥♥♥
Brian Herrera: As scripted, Margaret reads as an omnipresent meddling menace, as that impossible friend whose every action seems to always make an already awful situation somehow terribly worse, as if Gladys Kravitz was Medea’s next door neighbor. But in Jane Alexander’s deft rendering, these many moments of nattering flibbertigibbitiness are layered intricately as idiosyncrasies in Alexander’s complex portrait of Margaret’s deeply felt ambivalence. Alexander embodies Margaret’s constantly wavering uncertainty with humanity, clarity and power — no easy task, expertly accomplished here. ♥♥♥
Nathaniel R: Though Alexander is a capable actress, the limits of this meek character prevent any formidable or consistent interpretation. It's difficult to get a read on Margaret from scene-to-scene often feeling as if we've missed a key one on the cutting room floor. She's best when she's flummoxed by events beyond her control or emotions as in the courtroom scene in which she doesn't want to be misinterpreted or post-playground accident when she blames herself. ♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "Unfairly forgotten due to Streep's tour-de-force. Her courtroom scene is good and her platonic relationship with Hoffman is quite nicely acted" - Brad M. (Reader average: ♥♥♥)
Actress earns 17 ❤s
BARBARA BARRIE as "Evelyn Stoller" in Breaking Away
Synopsis: An overworked housewife tries to keep the peace between her grumpy husband and her cycling-fanatic son who is going through an "I-talian" phase.
Stats: Then 48 yrs old, 5th film, first and only nomination. 15 minutes of screen time (or 7% of running time).
K.M. Soehnlein: She must have decided early on that since her scene partners were shameless hams, she needed to downplay everything for balance. What a light touch she has! She’s like a sad/wise silent movie clown (e.g. that mostly-dialogue free sequence when she puts flowers in her hair and fails to seduce her husband with a fancy meal and opera music). When she finally lets loose a momentary cheer for her son mid-race, it’s some well-earned joy. ♥♥♥
Kristen Sales: Barbara Barrie’s role in Breaking Away, ostensibly as Wife and Mother, begins so much in the background, you barely notice as she steals the movie. It’s a movie about a cycling race and Barrie’s is a thrilling, come from behind victory. While her role is as an archetypal mother, Barrie finds the nuances within; even the deliberate way she dusts the furniture or cooks breakfast is imbued with a kind of self-possessed, All-American small town poetry. ♥♥♥
Bill Chambers: A sitcom actress approaching a sitcom archetype--the homemaker who keeps the peace between her hardheaded husband and quixotic son--with professionalism and a surplus of warmth. Love when she shows son Dave her unused passport and her comic seduction of Paul Dooley, both of which strike the same conspiratorial note: she has these two wrapped around her little finger. But she's near enough to tears in the former scene to hint at disappointments masked by her dotty energy ♥♥♥♥
Brian Herrera: Barbara Barrie (as “Mom”) delivers a heaping, calorie-conscious helping of mother-love circa 1979. Mom’s scripted to be a loving, patient witness as the two men she loves most — her husband and her son — must wrestle and parry to find their way back to each other. Barrie develops extraordinary texture, nuance and specificity every frickin’ second the camera glances her way (powerful proof of that “no small parts” maxim) but remains tethered by the limits of the material. ♥♥
Nathaniel R: That way she holds her “Valley of the Dolls” paperback while half-talking to her fussing husband is endearing perfection - a snapshot of years of boredom, love, and minor invisible escapisms as part of the furniture… excuse me, family. Barrie has virtually nothing to do but “mom around" in the background but she aces her key scene (the passport) by underplaying the self-reflection; any trace of self-pity would sink it by drawing attention to how much the movie has reduced her to cook and maid. ♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "In keeping with the staid tradition of the obligatory single acting nod afforded a Best Picture nominee. But Barrie is ineffably likeable here, and that’s a lovely intangible." -Brookesboy (Reader average: ♥♥½)
Actress earns 17½ ❤s
CANDICE BERGEN as "Jessica Potter" in Starting Over
Synopsis: An aspiring "singer"/songwriter dumps her husband to pursue her dreams but soon wants him back after he's begun another relationship
Stats: Then 33 years old, 18th Film, first and only nomination though she'd later become an Emmy queen. 27 minutes of screen time (or 26% of running time).
K.M. Soehnlein: As the temptress who must be overcome so that love can prevail, Candice sorta rises above stereotype by comically selling the character’s belief in her terrible singing. Crying to her ex, she manages to convey real emotion—the little modulations in her throat—while never forgetting she’s in a comedy. But her best line (“The thing about love is you can really make an ass of yourself”) happens off screen, with the camera on Burt. The film robs her of her redemption, and she offers little more. ♥♥
Kristen Sales: Bergen’s Full Comedy performance in Starting Over strikes the kind of fearless, confident, slightly “This girl’s nuts!” chord that must have attracted her ex-husband (Burt Reynolds) in the first place. Jessica (Bergen) gives the film an uptick of humor and shot of energy in her few short scenes, usually singing (poorly). But far from a caricature, nightmarish ex-wife, Bergen is even better in lowkey scenes, like when she surprises Jill Clayburgh by matter-of-factly stating she has a Master’s Degree. ♥♥♥
Bill Chambers: The golden mane, the sultry voice, that, ahem, blouse: Bergen's glamorousness is wielded such that she becomes a bracingly vulgar presence here--the de facto American in a movie that feints at being European, and a definite respite from Jill Clayburgh's Jill Clayburgh-ness--even before she serenades Burt Reynolds with that arch, Ethel Merman-meets-Laura Branigan singing voice. All this leaves her oddly exposed, though, and the award I'm most inclined to give her is for being a good sport. ♥♥
Brian Herrera: That vulnerability and bravado, that glamour and goofiness, all remixed into a character by turns intimidating and endearing — seems mightily familiar post-Murphy Brown but what a revelation Candice Bergen’s Jessica must have been in 1979. You can sense the tight-wire experiment here, though, and it’s a delight to witness Bergen pushing herself to discover ever greater heights of her own absurdity (especially in that brilliant seduction serenade). A deserving nomination from an endearing, peculiar mess of a movie. ♥♥♥♥
Nathaniel R: What a bizarre role! I don’t quite know whether to follow that with “what a performance!”. Is Bergen mercilessly lampooning this awful woman or merely amping up the comedy (which the movie needs) with sadistically good aim? Her terrible singing is the biggest running joke but her best double-sided trick, that tips me a smidge closer towards “what a performance!”, is that devastasting open-bloused sexiness (“how do I look?”) chased by an antiseptic sex scene. Her hit single “Better Than Ever” sure is a lie!. ♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "Beautiful woman. Good line reader. Stiff actress." - Rob B. (Reader average: ♥♥½)
Actress earns 16½ ❤s
MARIEL HEMINGWAY as "Tracy" in Manhattan
Synopsis: A precocious student is torn between studying in London and moving in with her much-older boyfriend in Manhattan.
Stats: Then 18 years old, 2nd film, first and only nomination. 24 minutes of screen time (or 25% of the running time).
K.M. Soehnlein: Woody’s masterpiece begins in voiceover, telling us he’s “romanticized New York all out of proportion.” The same could be said of Tracy, the most emotionally well-adjusted 17-year-old ever. That doesn’t stop Hemingway from conveying the core truth of her character: she’s the only grown-up among all these stunted adults. I found myself wanting another film running parallel to this one, following Tracy through her days, a testament to how much life Hemingway breathed into this enchanting young woman. ♥♥♥♥
Kristen Sales: Woody Allen announces Manhattan as a deeply romantic fantasy from the opening scene and the film largely succeeds or fails on the strength--the relatability, the believability--of Allen’s romantic fantasy object: Mariel Hemingway. Witness the justly famous final scene, when an 18-year old Hemingway talks Allen down from his “romanticized all out of proportion” heroism with the clear-eyed optimism and open-faced honesty that can only come from a girl who’s never been to Europe. ♥♥♥♥
Bill Chambers: Hemingway's lack of stylization compared to her co-stars only looks more refreshing, even shocking, in the rearview, now that there's a prescribed methodology for acting in a Woody Allen film. Unfortunately, she can be so unaffected as to frequently seem as "cow-like and dim" as Peter Bogdanovich described her characterization of Dorothy Stratten, no matter how precocious her dialogue. I reckon Hemingway's performance is given too much credit based on the protective feelings a girl in Tracy's shoes inspires. ♥♥
Brian Herrera: Viewed today, Manhattan seems a grimly prescient Woody Allen opus — an aesthetically stunning yet strikingly charmless film. Only Mariel Hemingway’s characterization of the guileless and forthright Tracy seems to somehow float above the creepy muck, glib acidity and addled over-sophistication that propels the film. When Allen’s character breaks Tracy’s heart, Hemingway’s vivid vulnerability ruptures the film’s peculiar, cruel detachment. Still, we trust that Tracy will be okay; it’s Allen we’re not so sure about. Like I said. Prescient. ♥♥♥
Nathaniel R: In Manhattan’s most heartbreaking scene, Tracy whispers “leave me alone” as her older lover Isaac, who has just dumped her, tries to console her about the dumping. Mixed messages! And boy does Tracy get them and give them. Sort of. Hemingway doesn’t quite sell the teenage contradictions embedded in this masterpiece’s text but she more than perfectly captures (or embodies) that thrilling dangerous moment when youthful confidence peers down at messy adulthood… and promptly throws itself off the cliff in a hurry to get there. ♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "It would be too easy to turn the 17 year old woman in Isaac's life into either a bimbo or a naive waif. In fact, for a good portion of the movie, it seems as if Tracey will tip towards being the naive waif. However, Hemingway imbues her with a silent conviction that pays off in spades with the finale. " - Christopher (Reader average: ♥♥♥)
Actress earns 19 ❤s
MERYL STREEP as "Joanna Kramer" in Kramer vs. Kramer
Synopsis: A deeply unhappy mother leaves her only child to find herself. 18 Months later she seeks custody but finds her ex-husband a changed man.
Stats: Then 30 yrs old, 5th film, 2nd nomination/1st win. 27½ minutes of screen time (or 26% of running time).
K.M. Soehnlein: From her iconic first close-up to her final tear-stained surrender, YOU CAN’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF HER. I loved rediscovering pre-mannered Meryl: her sharp focus, careful physicality, and containment of emotions. Her testimony on the stand is a marvel of complexity: Joanna is rehearsed and strategic but also full of desperate feeling. We believe her even as we are forced by the film to root for her husband. Without Meryl, this battle of the sexes would have been a lopsided fight. ♥♥♥♥♥
Kristen Sales: The opening shot of Meryl Streep looks like a Renaissance painting of the Madonna and child; Streep’s re-entrance in the film is a total horror movie cue: pressed up against a glass window, borderline stalker pose, eyes red-rimmed with angry tears like Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus. Streep balances Joanna’s crazed impulses with the steely conviction of a woman assured of her decision to leave but still desirous of the love she left behind. ♥♥♥♥♥
Bill Chambers: Streep is often powerless, at this stage in her career, against narrative and camera strategies that would frame her character as the boogeyman, but much like her homophonic namesake Mariel, she is fortunate to have a final scene that leaves an endearing, indelible afterimage. Joanna's instantaneous thaw in the penultimate shot is magical, not the least for how Streep seems to startle herself with that gasp; she makes clear, in that moment, just how starved Joanna's been for kindness. ♥♥♥♥
Brian Herrera: It’s a rare supporting actress turn that notches Oscar’s nomination (and win) in its first minutes, not its last. Meryl Streep’s work as Joanna (the wife and mother who decides to step away from those sacred roles and toward her independence) is revelatory, not simply of Streep’s formidable gift but of Joanna’s frailties. With every wordless wince, Streep conveys her character’s unscripted complexity, always reminding us that Joanna’s much more than that monster watching from the coffee shop window. ♥♥♥♥♥
Nathaniel R: In a story full of uncommonly vivid emotional duels (ice cream / custody / deadlines) that are difficult to shake, one single image remains the stickiest - Joanna staring through a window watching her son, a ghost mother haunting the entire film after willful (figurative) suicide. It's the legend's first genius characterization and still one of her gutsiest, so forcefully claimed as to demand our sympathies, whatever the collateral damage, but never asking for the audiences love. Bonus points: those bookend scenes are an astonishing illustration of how to complete a character arc. ♥♥♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "Streep has been criticized for relying too heavily on craft and technique, but stripped of any artifice, as she is in this film, she skillfully manages to plumb the depths of Joanna's conflicting emotions making the actions of an unsympathetic character understandable. The Academy doesn't always recognize genius immediately, but with this performance they completely got it right." - Andrew (Reader average: ♥♥♥♥½)
Actress earns 28½ ❤s
The Oscar Went To... Meryl Streep
AND THE SMACKDOWN AGREES IN A LANDSLIDE
Would you have chosen similarly?
Want more? Listen to the companion podcast - 45 minutes of conversation about the movies of 1979 (these ones and others) and the bridge it was to the 1980s cinema and the snapshot of gender politics of the era
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Please do share it on facebook or twitter. Previous Smackdowns ICYMI: 1941, 1952, 1964, 1968, 1973, 1980, 1989, and 2003. Before that 30+ Smackdowns were hosted @ StinkyLulu's old site.
Further Reading? 1970s themed articles are here