My current Top 5

My current Top 5


YOUR Best Actress of 1982

Here are the results of the poll:

1. Meryl Streep - Sophie's Choice (54 votes)

2. Debra Winger - An Officer and a Gentleman (20 votes)

3. Jessica Lange - Frances (12 votes)

4. Julie Andrews - Victor/Victoria (7 votes)

5. Sissy Spacek - Missing (1 vote)

Thanks to everyone for voting!

Best Actress 1954: Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl"

“So the award for the best performance by an actress… Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.”
Cheers and applause from the audience.

And in just a few seconds, Oscar legend was born. Grace Kelly’s win for Best Actress is probably among the most discussed and, yes, most disliked Oscar wins ever. Few seem actually have seen her performance but the fact that the by now legendary work by Judy Garland in the musical A Star is Born did not win the gold is almost always called an outrage, a shock, a scandal – apparently by everybody. How many myths surround this win – Grace Kelly won by only 7 votes, she slept with every Academy member, Judy was too unpopular in Hollywood, her movie and her performance butchered in the editing room. A lot of scenarios try to be found to explain this shocking upset – but was this really an upset? Let’s have a quick look at the facts.
Grace Kelly – a beautiful, popular and new star at the peak of her career, shows her range by hiding her beauty and takes a challenging character role that wins raves from the critics, appears in no less than 4 movies in 1954, wins awards from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics and the Golden Globes, stars in a movie that is nominated in all the major categories and followed her Best Actress nomination with a nomination for Supporting Actress just the year before. Judy Garland, popular child actress, makes a triumphant comeback in a role that offers her the possibility to impress with drama and singing and that critics call the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history, wins the Golden Globe and the admiration of her peers but A Star is Born isn’t the financial success people thought it would be and fails to be nominated for any major awards except Actor and Actress at the Academy Awards.
So, even with her outstanding reviews – to call Judy Garland an overwhelming frontrunner is to rewrite history, something that is so often done whenever a past win, from today’s point of view, seems surprising. Judy Holliday was just as much a favorite for the Oscar as Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson in 1950, but today, her win has been changed into a ‘shocking upset’. Looking at the facts back in 1954, Grace Kelly certainly must have had the edge for the win in what was probably a close two-horse-race – and expectedly won in the end. As for all the legends surrounding this win – not even Hedda Hopper could have known the outcome of the race and the number of votes each nominee received. The re-editing of A Star is Born – this might actually have done some damage since apparently crucial dramatic scenes were cut out but the remaining two and a half hours surely had still enough screen time for Judy Garland, especially compared to Grace Kelly whose movie was considerably shorter and featured three equal leads. And whoever thinks that Grace Kelly slept her way to an Oscar can’t be taken seriously…
So, these were my two cents on the whole race. I’m sure that everybody looks at the circumstances differently but personally, I refuse to believe that Grace Kelly’s win came out of nowhere as the TV-movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows or countless internet sites would make us like to believe.
Interestingly enough both Grace Kelly and Judy Garland (and also Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Dandridge, Giulietta Masina, Julie Harris and Marilyn Monroe) lost the BAFTA for Best Foreign Actress that year to Betsy Blair in Marty. So, not everyone focused the race between these two…

Grace Kelly is often accused of Oscar-begging with her role but I doubt that she seriously had awards in mind when she lobbied for this part. For her it was clear that Georgie Elgin would help her to be finally taken seriously as an actress and to be recognized for more than just her gorgeous face. Looking back on her career, there was no actual need for Grace Kelly to prove herself with this unusual role – because she had already shown her talent with performances in Mogambo, Dial M for Murder or Rear Window. But it’s still a testament to her determination as a serious artist that she tried to expand herself to new territories. The role of Georgie Elgin is often mentioned for not primarily focusing on Grace Kelly’s loveliness – it’s certainly true that her appearances in Rear Window or To Catch a Thief may be mostly remembered today for her almost unfathomable beauty but if there is one thing that Grace Kelly cannot be accused of as an actress is that she ever relied on her looks in her work. Instead, she always did her best to expand her role beyond the written word and, yes, her glamorous face and used her strong screen presence always with great effect even in parts that benefited from her beauty. But what made Grace Kelly such a fascinating screen presence? She didn’t possess the same angel-like quality as Audrey Hepburn or the extraordinary exoticism of Greta Garbo but she projected her surreal beauty in a way that allowed her to make her characters surprisingly deep and mysterious – because this beauty prevented her from captivating the audience immediately as Audrey Hepburn did because she almost perfected the image of the ‘cold blond’ which means that she is fascinating too look at but one doesn’t fall in love with her immediately just because of that. Instead, there appears to be something mysterious and dangerous about her, sometimes even off-putting before she begins to build a connection to the viewer thanks to her creation of a character beyond the surface. Maybe that’s why her collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock are the most memorable of her career and her undeniable signature work. Her Lisa Fremont combines everything that Grace Kelly so exquisitely offered on the screen – beauty, class, elegance and a character that appears almost to be cryptic and distant at the beginning but has turned into a real three-dimensional person at the end. Few other actresses in Hollywood’s history displayed such a spellbinding beauty on the screen but Grace Kelly was always able to captivate with her play just as much as she did with her looks or her personality. She was not a perfect actress, certainly not, but she knew how to pick her roles and how to use this combination of talent, screen presence and personality to fill them.

In 1954, Grace Kelly stepped out of her comfort zone to portray Georgie Elgin, the suffering wife of an alcoholic Broadway actor, played by Bing Crosby who also tried to show the audience that he was capable of more than singing “Tura-lura-lural” to Barry Fitzgerald. It’s not hard to understand why Grace Kelly was so keen on playing this role – Georgie Elgin is a juicy role even though she may not have the same showy scenes as the character of Frank Elgin who suffers from self-hate, self-doubt and much more. But Georgie Elgin’s presence, almost the only female presence in this backstage-drama, so often changes and dominates the tone of the story and makes it easy for an actress to steal the show. After all, Uta Hagen won a Tony Award for her Broadway performance. And also Grace Kelly achieved to craft her version of Georgie Elgin in a way that provided the most interesting moments in The Country Girl. She is lingering above the proceedings like a ghost, William Holden’s character suspects her behind close doors and when she is not onscreen, she is mostly the topic of conversation. In this aspect, the characters of Georgie and Frank are very synonym – both characters are revealed step by step though the work of the actors and the conversations that are constantly held about them. Whatever the viewer learns about Georgie is through Grace Kelly’s work and what Frank and Bernie discuss about her. Georgie Elgin is also the only character who really seems to have more inside her than initially shown – there is a reason why the play and the movie are called The Country Girl even though her character doesn’t seem to be the central one at first. Only bit by bit it becomes clear how domineering her role really is, how she handles both her husband and his director and constantly communicates between them – so many words are spoken in this movie but still everyone seems constantly to beat about the bush when it comes to the truth. In this backstage-drama, Grace Kelly has even a more ‘backstage-role’ than anyone else – unlike Judy Garland in A Star is Born she doesn’t share her husband’s profession. The ‘suffering wife’ seems to be all that there is for her and she is almost trapped in the background of the background. But she never loses her influence over the proceedings and contact to the story.

The suffering wife is a role that seems impossible to play in a way that doesn’t please the Academy. Luise Rainer in The Good Earth, Shirley Booth, Jennifer Connelly, Marcia Gay Harden – all of them stood by their men even if they only caused them pain and trouble. It’s a noble view on troubled marriages that can only survive thanks to the strength and the courage of the wife. Grace Kelly’s portrayal also belongs into this group but what remains very fascinating about her is that a lot of times Georgie seems to make as much problems as she solves. She is her husband’s biggest fan but also his biggest critic, she supports him endlessly while showing that she comes to the point of not caring anymore, she is his wife, his mother, his grandmother all in one, a loving support and a prison guard. She is acting just as much as she is reacting – she is caught between being the power that influences her husband and being influenced by him herself. There are a lot of aspects hidden in the character of Georgie Elgin while she has to deal not only with her husband but also with Bernie Dodd, a theatre director who casts Frank in his newest play – and almost right from the start dislikes Georgie and sees her as the main reason for Frank’s poor condition.

Grace Kelly is often accused of being miscast in the role because of her age and her beauty. But these accusations are debatable. Yes, Grace Kelly was too young – at age 25, she is clearly not in the position to tell Bernie Dodd that she took care of ‘a cunning drunkard for ten years’. But this is strangely not a real problem – I know that women don’t like to hear that they look older than they really are but there was something incredibly mature in Grace Kelly’s looks and work that, even in her earliest performance, her young age was never visible. She surely didn’t look old but she didn’t look young and naïve either.
The complains about her beauty actually don’t make a lot of sense to me. Nothing in the movie suggests that Georgie is supposed to be unattractive – rather she is presented as a woman who once possessed a lot of style and grace but the years of taking care of her husband have made her stop caring about her looks. She lives in a small, cheap apartment and understandably sees no sense in dressing like a fashion model but at the same time, she doesn’t actively try to look unattractive. In this way, Grace Kelly’s looks work very well for her characterization which also builds a lot on the sexual tension between Georgie and Bernie Dodd and also makes it understandable why he is having such struggling feelings about her.

Grace Kelly displays her ability to capture the audience right from the first moment when she opens the door of her flat and appears for the first time. She effectively demonstrates that Georgie hates the superiority of Bernie Dodd who has his own ideas about what is going on, telling Georgie how to dress, acting as if he knows more about Frank than his wife does. Grace Kelly wonderfully shows how much she rejects him immediately for this presumptuousness since in reality he doesn’t know anything at all. When she tells him that she is just a girl from the country she immediately creates a distance between herself and him and perfectly anchors the tone of the story to follow in those moments. She also finds a great way to reject Bernie Dodd as a person and an admirer of her husband. The look on her face when she lets Bernie play a record of his idol which turns out to be a banal jingle shows how much Georgie is already caught in her own misery. She clearly wants Frank to be a success again but at the same time she knows what he can do and what he can’t – and she is not sure if Bernie is the right person to bring him back on the stage even though she later admits that he likes his statement about ‘no pity’ for Frank.

Georgie Elgin is a role that could be played and interpreted in many ways and Grace Kelly risked a lot by not going the easy route by showing Georgie as a helpless victim of her husband’s addiction – instead, she was not afraid to demonstrate how sick she seems to be of the man she shares a little flat with. She is surprisingly mean-spirited in a role that usually asks for the audience’s sympathy in every frame of the picture. She constantly does her best to help him, acting out of habit, but she very often does it with a noticeable annoyance and anger. If there is one word that can describe the character of Georgie best it’s exhausted. Exhausted of watching her husband like a little child, constantly trying to get him going while also having to suffer the accusations and suspicions of Bernie Dodd. Grace Kelly shows these sides of Georgie very convincingly – her hanging shoulders, her exhausted face, her depressed walk appear very natural and never seem like an attempt by Grace Kelly to demonstrate her skills. But besides these moments of exhaustion, there are also her constant fights with Frank. She clearly wants him to work again – for her own sake as much as for his. She wants him to get out of his depression and start his life anew which would also give her the possibility to star anew herself – maybe without him. It seems as if it is only a sense of duty that is causing Georgie to stay with Frank – but when she tells Bernie later that she has already left him twice and returned each time, it becomes clear that there is more connecting these two persons. There is still love underneath it all and Grace Kelly’s and Bing Crosby’s wonderful chemistry makes this very believable since it never appears illogical that these two spend their lives together. Grace Kelly never overdoes her feelings of dislike towards Frank and instead lets Georgie constantly shift in her own emotions. This way, she constantly keeps the viewer guessing about her character’s intentions. Because of that, she becomes a character that is fascinating to speculate about – which works well for and in Grace Kelly’s performance but at the same time a closer look at her work makes it clear that she also benefits a great deal from the writing which helps her performance often look better than it actually is. But at the same time it is Grace Kelly’s dedication to the role and her cold and mysterious screen personality which can so easily captivate the viewer’s attention that helps her to add a lot to the interpretation of the role. Just as Georgie Elgin helps Grace Kelly to appear better than she really is, Grace Kelly also helps Georgie Elgin to appear more interesting than she otherwise might be. There are so many aspects of Georgie Elgin that seem to be unspoken of or suppressed by herself. Even though the part is mostly (also by me) reduced to the suffering wife who has to live with her husband’s addiction, Grace Kelly shows more – she demonstrates how Georgie doesn’t only seem to suffer from her husband’s guilt, but also from her own grief. The whole story never mentions Georgie’s role as a mother – it completely focuses on Frank’s guilt but how did Georgie react to the death of her son? Did she ever get the chance to grief herself? It seems that she is caught in a situation where her own life is dominated by the problems of her husband and overshadows even her own role in this tragedy. She has to take care of the man who was in some way responsible – did she ever blame him for what happened? On the other side, Grace Kelly also works very well with William Holden – she uses the sexual tension between them to show how much Georgie has already suppressed every kind of sexual feeling inside her. When William Holden kisses her, it’s the second real contact between them – following another scene in which she slapped him. Up to this point, it seems as if Grace Kelly’s Georgie rejected her own feminity – it seems impossible that she and Frank ever made love since the accident of their child and when she tells Bernie that she didn’t inform him that Frank was away all night because he might have been with another woman, Grace Kelly delivers the line in such a matter-of-fact way that another one of her lines, that nobody ever looked at her as a woman, becomes much more memorable because this surely also includes her own husband.

As mentioned, the viewer learns only about Georgie by Grace Kelly’s performance and the conversations about her. And Grace Kelly’s performance works very well in harmony with this dialogue since the stories of Frank and the accusations of Bernie turn Georgie into an almost impossible woman and Grace Kelly’s Georgie adds to these speculations by never revealing her true character. She constantly tries to fight with Bernie about Frank but at the same time she doesn’t seem able to stand up for herself in these moments. She always has to take the blame for everything that Frank wants or does since he is so keen on being loved by everyone that he is even willing to let his wife be hated by everyone. Grace Kelly’s work with the dialogue of Georgie is very often thrilling in her moments of defeat, especially when she is reduced to tears in a dark alley and Frank tells her that all the others finally have respect for him. Georgie affirms his thoughts but Grace Kelly’s delivery of the line ‘Yes, they have respect for you’ magnificently also hints at the unspoken truth – that nobody has respect for her. She also finds the exact right tone for the question ‘When did you get these, Frank?’ after Georgie finds two empty bottles of Whisky – her voice is completely rid of any emotion or energy and Georgie’s exhaustion and inability to fight him anymore has never been more obvious.

What Grace Kelly did most effectively in her performance was not to work too much against her usual acting style. She obviously tries to do something different but at the same time Georgie is a woman who has more in common with her other movie characters than visible at the first moment. Because of that, Grace Kelly both hides and uses her usual acting style in this role. While she is usually a symbol of elegance and grace, there is also always something remarkably down-to-earth in all her performances – which works particularly well in The Country Girl. The flashback-scenes make clear that Georgie used to be a woman like the ones she usually plays – but her personal story didn’t go on the way she expected. In the movie version of The Country Girl, Georgie Elgin is like Lisa Fremont or Frances Stevens – if Lisa or Frances had married Frank Elgin. Grace Kelly always seems to play women who know either too much or too little – Georgie Elgin somehow falls in the middle of this spectrum. That’s why the casting of Grace Kelly makes actually much more sense than usually acknowledged. She doesn’t really play against type but combines her usual screen-technique with a new dimension of silent suffering.

So, as mentioned above, Georgie and Grace form a very strong connection in which they both help each other and achieve a higher level. But ultimately, it must be said that Grace Kelly benefits more from Georgie than the other way around. The character is difficult without being ‘too difficult’ (Georgie Elgin is certainly no Blanche DuBois) that many actresses, even average ones, could still score very high. Grace Kelly clearly understands the thoughts and feelings of Georgie but she sometimes seems to suffer from the writing which can’t always make up its mind about Georgie and the dialogue that is often very heavy-handed. Georgie often changes from being strangely distant and cold to helpless and worried in a few seconds and while it does seem to make sense that she is a prisoner of her own feelings of love and hate for Frank and of passion and hate for Bernie which makes her constantly shift her mood, sometimes Grace Kelly doesn’t seem able to fully express what she wants to express. Like Anne Baxter, she suffers from having great instincts for a part but lacking the necessary overall level of talent to convey them. Grace Kelly’s great instincts, her personality which she uses so wisely in this role, and her dedication to the part help her to achieve a lot – but her performance is not flawless.
While Grace Kelly acted surprisingly intense and unobtrusive at the same time, her performance still also finds various downs to go with her ups – often in one scene, often in just a few seconds. Grace Kelly can be brilliant and adequate in the same monologue and she can deliver her lines with a gripping determination or an almost amateurish undecidedness. Grace Kelly’s probably greatest achievement in this role is the fact that she remains captivating and intriguing even in her less satisfying moments thanks to her dedication, her use of her screen presence and her grip on the character of Georgie whom she clearly understands – but just like Grace Kelly was not a perfect actress, this is not a perfect performance. As mentioned, she sometimes lacks the ability to express herself in the right way – her performance mostly suffers from a lot of the usual melodramatic acting style that is so visible in performances from the 50s. But in a year when Marlon Brando won the Oscar for On the Waterfront, Grace Kelly’s acting feels rather dated very often – the way she constantly moves her hands, as if she doesn’t know what to do with them, stares into the open space or closes her eyes and speaks with an affected whisper. But these scenes are such a stark contrast to the flashback-scenes in which she is so natural that Grace Kelly may be praised for showing the change in Georgie’s body language – does she show a woman unable to fully communicate her own feelings and those of her husband, a woman who tries and tries and still achieves nothing? Her hands do seem to speak of a certain desperation. Is it brilliant acting or simply an actress not knowing how to handle a scene? Grace Kelly makes it hard to answer this question but she is somehow able to let her performance appear strong even when it is weak…but is this because of the strength of the part or because of her strength as an actress? It’s a performance that both seems like a logical Oscar choice because of its moments of brilliance but also appears to be right out of a high school drama club at the same time. Grace Kelly seems to explore her talents while she is acting, as if she isn’t sure herself how far she can go. She also often feels misdirected, especially in her more dramatic scenes. After the kiss between Georgie and Bernie she turns to the camera and talks into open space, with half-closed eyes and a voice that booms with melodrama – it’s one of her weakest moments that probably could have been done much better, even by Grace herself if she had been allowed to move more natural.
What does the most harm to an overall wonderful performance is unfortunately Grace Kelly herself – she has the right instincts for the part, she doesn’t try to change herself as an actress and is obviously dedicated to achieve high results. But sometimes, this dedication makes her go too far. Grace Kelly’s active downplaying of Georgie Elgin is unfortunately a slight exaggeration and often plays against her overall interpretation and the presentation of Georgie by the script. Grace Kelly often tries too hard in her efforts to be dramatic – she appears to put Georgie Elgin on a pedestal and worships her at her feet as the ultimate coronation of artistic creation. Grace Kelly doesn’t make the mistake of taking herself too seriously – but unfortunately she takes Georgie too seriously. That’s why her performance feels rather standard a lot of times because she seems to act her in the way that she thinks she is expected to. She tries to live up to the drama of the role and threatens to delivery every line with a milking for dramatic effect, always afraid to let Georgie down. That way she missed to insert more life into her, even a lighter touch could have been needed sometimes. Because of this, her work feels too unoriginal very often and her gestures too anticipated.
The arguments that Grace was either too young or too beautiful for this role may make no sense to me but I can understand another argument that is often used against her – her inexperience. Grace Kelly did attend acting school, she had worked with directors like Fred Zinnemann, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, had appeared on the stage and on television but this still cannot replace years of experience and learning-by-doing. She didn’t have time yet to fully develop as an actress, especially when she enters new territory. Grace Kelly did a lot remarkably right in her performance and exceeded all expectations but there’s no sense in denying that a more seasoned actress still could have done a lot more.

But these negative aspects shouldn’t distract from the overall very positive effect of Grace Kelly’s work. Her melodramatic style, even if dated, surprisingly doesn’t feel too out-of-places in the structure of The Country Girl and her instincts helped her overall to achieve a very impressive and unforgettable performance. Grace Kelly also managed to combine all the various Georgies she is playing – her frumpy Georgie, her elegant Georgie in the flashback and her combination of both at the end never feel disjointed but are always connected in Grace’s play.

I realize that I have written much more than I would usually do on a performance like this. Grace Kelly is neither among the best performances in this category which would make me praise her in detail nor is she among the worst performances which would make me explain my dislike in detail. It’s my urge to defend this performance because even though there are faults, Grace Kelly is still much more impressive than she is usually given credit for.
Grace Kelly was always a fascinating actress on the screen – in The Country Girl, she is also be fascinating but most of all, she is interesting. It’s a very strong performance that realized all of the part’s possibilities and successfully showed new facets of Grace Kelly’s talents and personality. Oscar has certainly done much worse than awarding this performance which gets


Best Actress 1954: Audrey Hepburn in "Sabrina"

One year after Audrey Hepburn won her Oscar for playing the pure and innocent Princess Ann who left her home to have some fun in the Eternal City in Roman Holiday, she received her second nomination for another light-hearted part that only she could turn into something much more lasting and interesting than it should be. In Billy Wilder’s comedy Sabrina, she played Sabrina Fairchild, a young woman far from being a princess; she may have the elegance and the almost royal face but she’s only the chauffeur’s daughter – and hopelessly in love with David, played by William Holden, the good-looking son of her father’s boss. Sabrina is not among Billy Wilder’s most memorable work – it’s an engaging but still rather average romantic comedy that doesn’t find the same kind of magic heart as William Wyler’s Roman Holiday did, but the performances of Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart added a good amount of charm, wit and sophistication. Especially and obviously the screen presence of Audrey Hepburn gave the most needed sparkle in this love-triangle.

Even though her performance in Roman Holiday was only one year old, Audrey Hepburn already found a way to use her own personality beyond the elegant and charming creature. In Sabrina, she doesn’t have the same overwhelming bubbling charm as she did in her Oscar-winning part – but instead, she crafted a character that was the result of a more balanced combination of charm and talent. Her work in Roman Holiday became instantly captivating thanks to Audrey Hepburn’s ability to lighten up the screen with every smile but she didn’t forget to go beyond her own features and used every opportunity the script gave her to invest a certain sense of sadness that would ultimately be replaced by her own sense of duty. Audrey Hepburn’s performances are always interesting to analyze by judging how much of their success is based on her winning screen presence and how much on her talent as an actress. There’s no doubt that this talent is always visible in her work but very often it seems overshadowed by her elfin delicacy. It is to her credit that she never seemed voluntarily to rest on this delicacy – even in her most charming roles, she always tried her best to develop a deeper truth in her characters. In Sabrina, she still used her charm and her sparkling personality but the script also demanded a more serious look at her character’s behavior than Roman Holiday did. Her Oscar-winning role was basically a plot-device that could only be turned into such an unforgettable portrayal thanks to Audrey Hepburn’s powerful presence – her part in Sabrina is a little more demanding and asked her to stretch herself more as an actress but at the same time she also elevates Sabrina as a character with her charms. Still, Audrey Hepburn does a very commendable job by trying to not let her charm be her most distinctive feature. She obviously worked very hard to let her performance appear so light – but she’s not completely able to overcome the problems of her part. She may have ‘acted less’ in Roman Holiday but the role of Princess Ann was simply the perfect vehicle for her – even if it didn’t present a real challenge to her as an actress. In Sabrina, she did the best she could with a part that didn’t feel tailor-made for her – but she never feels as irreplaceable as she did in Roman Holiday nor as wonderful as she did in The Nun’s Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sabrina is neither innocent entertainment like Roman Holiday nor a character study like The Nun’s Story, it’s a harmless movie that takes itself a little too seriously and Audrey Hepburn sometimes struggles to find the right balance. The reason is probably that, even though she had Billy Wilder behind her, the part of Sabrina feels to banal and one-dimensional to really impress – sure, Princess Ann had the same problems but Roman Holiday was constructed in a way that fit an empty character like this better than Sabrina. Sabrina is a woman who, just as Princess Ann, is trapped in a life that prevents her from getting what she wants. Sabrina sitting in a tree and watching a party of the rich and beautiful or Princess Ann standing in her bedroom and watching a party of the ‘common’ and happy – in both cases, Audrey Hepburn’s character wanted something else. But in Sabrina, she is still able to show a deeper pain. Princess Ann simply knew she wanted something different – Sabrina knows exactly what she wants. And that she can’t get it/him. This already makes clear that as a character, Sabrina only exists in her search for Mr. Right. This allows Audrey Hepburn to give her signature sparkle, wear beautiful dresses and show some tears but she’s not able to really leave the one-dimensionality that Sabrina represents behind.

The movie begins with a voice-over by Audrey Hepburn and it becomes quite clear that her usual sophistication and elegance, that even dominates her voice and way of speaking, is very noticeable in this moment – in fact, she rather sounds like a Queen instead of a chauffeur’s daughter. She’s a little too poised, seems a little too graceful which also feels like a problem in her first acting scenes. But Audrey Hepburn does something remarkable in these early scenes – she is able to somehow hide her natural poise without trying to look ugly or plain. The movie wants to tell that her beauty is suddenly discovered once she comes back from Paris and somehow this makes sense even without any make-up or large glasses – her stylish clothes and new haircut make a stark contrast to the plain dresses and the long hair that Audrey Hepburn displays earlier even though her beauty was visible from the first moment. This wonderfully demonstrates that Audrey Hepburn was in full awareness of her own personality and appearance and was able to make the viewers speculate about her character’s thoughts and intentions just as easily as she could make them smile with her own radiance.

In her scenes as a love-struck teenager, Audrey Hepburn is able to find a lot of subtle comedy in some rather dramatic situations. Her suicide attempt, so often unexplainably put into movies for laughs, feels just like what it is – a young girl thinking that life has no meaning when she can’t get the man she loves but this young girl is only inexperienced and shows the naivety of youth. And so Audrey Hepburn is somehow able to turn the whole event into a rather charming, almost innocent moment that makes it easy to sympathize with her character not because of her unanswered feelings but because of that naivety and inexperience that most viewers have already experienced themselves.

10 years before she would play a flower-girl turned into a lady, Audrey Hepburn already underwent a minor character transformation. But even though she changed her wardrobe and her haircut and became apparently more relaxed and secure of herself (Audrey Hepburn is completely winning when she lets Sabrina enjoy herself by making a fool out of David when he picks her up in his car), her main aspect of character development is her attempt to break her own tradition of loving David. She also doesn’t make her transformation too sudden – she is obviously still the ‘old’ Sabrina and her new-found self-confidence is clearly struggling with her old insecurities since her transformation seems to bring her just as much closer to David as it takes her further away from him. Before that, she already shows a surprising amount of honesty in Sabrina’s feelings – when she returns from Paris and finally gets the recognition she wanted for so long, she is perfectly aware of how David is trying to play the same games with her as he does with every other girl he wants to get to bed with. And Sabrina seems completely willing to play this game, knowing that she won’t get true love but willing to fulfill her countless dreams and hopes this way. Audrey Hepburn invests a lot more cleverness in Sabrina than seems visible at first – both in her scenes before and after she went to Paris. And later, she is very amusing in showing the confusion and guilt in Sabrina for maybe cheating on a man who isn’t even her boyfriend.
Overall, Audrey Hepburn clearly fulfills all the tasks that the script and Billy Wilder give to her – she finds subtle ways to let the comedy of the script shine and handles the romantic aspects with her usual elegance, even if there is a shocking lack of chemistry with Humphrey Bogart which seems to be more his fault since he loathed everything about his role but Audrey Hepburn isn’t able to overcome these problems. She does her best to invest the love story with plausibility and has a strong scene when she phones him from the lobby but the outcome of the story is neither romantic nor sentimental – instead, it’s what has been expected right from the beginning but doesn’t feel right either.

The part of Sabrina isn’t really more complex than that of Princess Ann the year before – both characters learn and both develop in a certain way but Roman Holiday gave Audrey Hepburn better possibilities to use her own charisma and talent in the most effective combination. In Sabrina, her role gives her more opportunities to ‘act’ but it prevents her from combining both her charisma and her talent to full extent. She’s her usual winning self and gives her part a strength and effectiveness other actress might have missed but the role still doesn’t allow her to explore her talents as other roles later in her career did. In the end, her charming, amusing and mostly satisfying performance gets


Best Actress 1954: Jane Wyman in "Magnificent Obsession"

The movies by Douglas Sirk and the performances in them mostly tend to evoke one of two reactions – they are either called among the worst or the best of all time. And even compliments are still rather malicious and often sound like ‚so bad it’s good’. His stylized, colorful, larger-than-life or over-the-top and melodramatic movies seem so unlike anything else on the screen – even other contemporary melodramas don’t seem to be able to appear so trashy and yet so fascinating at the same time. It takes a lot of love and also understanding for his style and the style of his performers to really appreciate his overall body of work – and while I don’t dislike his style, I am not too fond of it, either. Maybe that’s because the first movie I had seen of him was Written on the Wind which, even among Sirk’s work, is so incredibly over-the-top and melodramatic that it feels hard to take it seriously. The actors from his movies are a little different – Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone from Written on the Wind clearly understood Sirk’s style and gave performances that perfectly fit their movie and I respect their work tremendously (even though I am not sure if I would consider it award-worthy). Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall on the other hand tried to add some quiet dignity and subtlety but neither of them had the necessary talent to adapt themselves into Sirk’s world completely. Two years before this saga about a wealthy Oil-family, Sirk had already used the good looks of Rock Hudson in his, comparatively, quiet drama Magnificent Obsession. This movie is less-known than his classic All that Heaven Allows which would reunite Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson one year later. But it was in 1954 that Jane Wyman received her fourth and final Oscar nomination for her role as newly widow Helen Philips who not only loses her husband but shortly after that her vision – and unknowingly falls in love with the man who is indirectly responsible for both. Sounds corny? You bet!

The biggest credit Jane Wyman can receive is that she clearly understood Sirk’s style and found a way to craft the character of Helen that works in perfect harmony with Sirk’s direction – Magnificent Obsession doesn’t demand the same kind of performances as Written on the Wind since the style of the melodrama is so different. Instead of going over-the-top, Jane Wyman is allowed to be rather subtle and free of any hysterics and unlike Lauren Bacall, she’s rather effective at it. Overall, her performance is actually very natural – considering the role she’s playing and the movie she’s starring in. When she returns home from a ride in her car and asks her maid “Now, what’s the matter?” when the viewer already knows that her husband died, she pronounces the line very real and nonchalant, without any melodrama that could have accompanied this moment. Also in the later course of the story, Jane Wyman keeps her performances very grounded – she is an actress who has the ability to appear free of any attempt to win the audience’s sympathy while doing exactly that at the same time. In Johnny Belinda, she managed to appear both strong and tender and found a way to avoid too much sentiment while somehow gaining the sentiment and sympathy of the audience. In Magnificent Obsession, she again was able to play her role seemingly without any corniness but she also laid the foundation for the sentimentality of the story. That way she managed to make her later scenes with Rock Hudson, her little dance with him at night or her teary breakdown, very moving and occasionally heartbreaking – what started as often embarrassing and laughable somehow turned into a quiet and moving story of two people who shouldn’t be together even if it makes sense in the world of Douglas Sirk. With her performance, Jane Wyman became both the active and the passive force in the story. Jane Wyman herself is active in defining the style and sentiment of the story while her character is mostly reduced to reacting to the actions of other people.

But Jane Wyman does not only succeed in this part – she may be able to often lift her material but at the same time this material constantly brings her down, too. By focusing on the subtle and quiet parts of Helen Philips, Jane Wyman frequently underplayed her too much, especially in the beginning. As been said, she works in harmony with the style of the picture but this often doesn’t allow her to develop a more interesting side in her performance. Jane Wyman seemed to have concentrated herself on the more quiet and accepting parts of Helen – like Hilary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby, she is a woman who appears too saintly for her own good. But while Hilary Swank found the strength and the realism to make this work, Jane Wyman often feels both underused and over-directed in her never-ending dignity. She clearly does what Sirk intended for the character but he doesn’t do Jane Wyman any favors because the character of Helen Philips lacks too much life, shades and depth. Neither the death of her husband nor the loss of her vision evokes any noticeable change in Helen Philips – Jane Wyman is beautiful to look at in her subtlety but sometimes she could have tried to move deeper into her character and find more beneath this constant acceptance of her tragic fate. The way she thanks her doctors makes clear that everything is done in the story to make her look as likeable as possible and she’s a woman who doesn’t parade her emotions, constantly apologizing to everyone for everything, but this way the banality of the story becomes only more obvious. The loss of her vision, clearly a tragic moment, is staged rather awkward and almost laughable by Douglas Sirk and Jane Wyman’s earnest and straight-forwardness in all her scenes makes it hard to fully appreciate the fate of the character. Jane Wyman works well with Sirk’s style, as mentioned before, but at the same time he doesn’t really seem to know what to do with Helen Philips. Not even the love story with Rock Hudson, which contains so many taboos and possibilities, displays any real life or sparkle. While All that Heaven Allows focused more on the different backgrounds and ages of its two protagonists, Magnificent Obsession finds the biggest problem in the relationship in Bob’s guilt – this unfortunately too often makes their relationship even more puzzling. Jane Wyman is beautiful too look at but she also often looks confusing and her age could be anything between 30 and 50. She gets some extra bonus for delivering the name “Robbie Robinson” without any irony but neither her performance, nor her character nor her overall story ever become truly interesting or captivating. It’s only in the later moments that she changes the tone of the story and successfully evokes some heartbreaking images out of all the problems she had in the beginning.

Even though Helen Philips lacks too many nuances and possibilities, Jane Wyman never fails to bring honesty and, most importantly, plausibility to the role. The character can be uninteresting or moving, scared or happy but Jane Wyman is always believable. Like Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, Jane Wyman is doing the best she can with what she is given and what Douglas Sirk wants her to be – so it’s not really her fault that her performance never completely takes off. instead, she feels misguided too often. The only negative aspect of her work that feels to be her own fault can be found after Helen lost her vision. Jane Wyman is believable as a blind woman but she seems to lose her character in these moments. Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue and especially Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker also hid behind dark glasses in a lot of scenes but they were still able to communicate their characters. Jane Wyman on the other hand seems to disappear behind a wall whenever she puts on her glasses.

Like most performances in melodramas by Douglas Sirk, Jane Wyman’s work is hard to grade. She is believable in an almost unbelievable part and she thankfully avoided any over-the-top moments but at the same time the script and her character don’t allow her to give a performance that ever goes beyond the surface of Sirk’s kitschy images. The relationship between Helen and Bob may not work but her chemistry with Rock Hudson is still satisfying enough to overcome this obstacle. Actually, Jane Wyman overcomes a lot of obstacles in the role of Helen Philips – but she also becomes trapped by various others. She clearly knows what she is doing and avoids to get lost in Sirk’s own vision, but her role in the story is too thin and underdeveloped. The greater truth in Helen Philips is too often sacrificed for the sake of the melodrama. What remains overall is a performance that is both able to make you roll your eyes and break your heart. For this, Jane Wyman gets


Best Actress 1954: Dorothy Dandridge in "Carmen Jones"

I didn’t know what to expect when I watched Carmen Jones for the first time. I knew that the story was based on my favourite opera and that it was supposed to be a musical, but I was still caught by surprise when suddenly the famous overture from Carmen began to play and later a choir sang the well-known first melody – with English lyrics. At that moment, I realized with a feeling of pleasant anticipation what Carmen Jones would offer and I have to say that the combination of the modern presentation of the plot and Bizet’s timeless melodies turns Carmen Jones into a very interesting and engaging motion picture.

I have seen Carmen on the stage three times by now and what always surprised me during these three times was that, in my opinion, the least interesting aspect about the story was Carmen herself. The reason may be that the actresses who played her always seemed too old for the part and lacked the erotic and exotic fascination the character is supposed to have. It seems that the required experience in acting and singing often doesn’t accompany the supposed youthful and wild appearance (but of course I might only have had bad luck – I am sure that there are many actresses out there who can act and sing the part as well as look it). But in the end, the stage is a home of talent rather than looks – the audience in a theatre can always forgive if an actress doesn’t look like a wild and beautiful gypsy as long as her voice carries the right amount of passion and talent. The movie camera doesn’t forgive as easily and it’s clear that the title character in Carmen Jones demanded an actress who could offer all the visual qualities of the character as well as the inner desire, a convincing lust for live and love. The singing, on the other hand, is only of secondary importance in this case – lip-synching can solve any problem. Just ask Audrey Hepburn.

So it made sense that the movie makers laid the focus on the acting talent and the looks of the actress who would play Carmen Jones. And they did find the right amount of both in Dorothy Dandridge who took this paper-thin role and gave it the needed spark, wildness – and a great deal of sexuality. But at the same time she wasn’t able to overcome the obstacles that I see in the role of Carmen Jones. Call me a philistine but while I always admire the singing and music of an opera, I find myself often completely bored with the plot. When Aida and Radames are caged in a dark vault at the end of Aida and sing for what feels like 15 minutes only the same sentence “I will die now”, I get incredibly frustrated and begin to think “Oh, just die already!”. As I said, I like the music but a lot of operas I have seen so far have too filmy plots that mostly consist of two lovers who sing endless repetitions of the same sentences. Carmen always stood out among this because the plot seemed to involve a little bit more and actually made a worthy counterpart to Bizet’s catchy tunes. But even though – the character of Carmen is always more noteworthy for what she represents, for the way she affects the plot instead for her own personality. On a stage, all this doesn’t affect the admiration for the overall production, but in a movie that focuses on the character of Carmen Jones and Dorothy Dandridge’s performance, it all becomes painfully obvious various times.

Dorothy Dandridge has the famous and legendary honour of being the first African-American actress to receive a nomination for Best Actress. But like the other African-American nominees before her, this one nomination didn’t change the course of her career. The Academy is often blamed for their lack of nominations and wins for minority groups but the simply truth is that, especially back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, they rarely got parts that truly showed their diversity and talents. Apart from Porgy and Bess, Dorothy Dandridge never really got another noteworthy role. But even though, in 1954 she definitely broke some barriers but she also brought another novelty to this category – a high level of erotic, sex and seduction. Dorothy Dandridge’s Carmen Jones used her body and her looks with an honesty and unconcern that is a surprising change among the usual types of performances in this category.

Yes, there is no denying that she succeeded in a very important point – she brought the necessary smouldering eroticism to the part. She looks and acts the part – but the simple truth is that it isn’t too much of a part. She’s sexy, she’s flirty, she’s hungry for love and life and also possesses and aura of danger, of a wild unpredictability that makes her as threatening as she is magnetic. But at some point in Carmen Jones, the feeling emerges that too often she doesn’t need to be anything else apart from sexy. She is mostly trapped in the clichés that she is given by a clichéd part but she even adds her own clichés – she doesn’t try to overcome the obstacles of her part but rather emphasises them by reducing her own characterization too often to expected body movements, the obligatory flirting eyes or a dismissive laugh that only makes every man want her more. It’s a performance that is almost as contradictatory as the character she is playing. She’s a whirlwind of coquettish behaviour and confident seducement, but especially in the beginning the character of Carmen Jones could have used a little more mystery. Dorothy Dandridge makes sure that she is constantly adding some nice touches to her characterization but these touches often feel forced and never like true parts of Carmen Jones. All this works much better in the second half of the story when Dorothy Dandridge constantly keeps the intentions of Carmen in the dark and shows how unsure she seems to be of everything that she is doing or happens to her. There is something wild, gypsy-like about her but a lot of times Dorothy Dandridge struggles with the limitations of her character. She is mesmerizing whenever the script and the direction give her the possibility – the scenes in the car when she seduces Joe with the utmost ease or at the end are the best examples – but whenever she has to fill the emptiness of Carmen, she threatens to become too bland despite the juiciness of the character. Her role is a strong symbol of wild love and free spirit but this role also proves that a lot of characters and situations that work on the stage don’t necessarily also work in a movie. Dorothy Dandridge has problems to keep this spirit going for the entire running time – she never gets the chance to add a new dimension to Carmen Jones but constantly finds herself in similar situations. In close-ups, the character of Carmen simply looses some of her exotic wildness – but this is probably more the fault of the screenplay and the direction than that of Dorothy Dandridge who certainly does she best she can with what she is given.

The Carmens on the stage that I have seen so far weren’t necessarily sexy but they found the right voice for their roles. Dorothy Dandridge is unfortunately the other way around. I don’t blame actors for lip-synching – if they sing their parts, then I will give them some extra bonus depending on the quality of their work and if they don’t I don’t fault them in any way as long as they create the illusion that they might sing the part, just like Marion Cotillard in La Môme. But in the case of Dorothy Dandridge, it’s too obvious that she is not singing the songs – she always acts with the right amount of joy, sadness or erotic during the musical sequences but her acting and the voice don’t truly connect. In these scenes, it’s almost more exciting to watch her with the sound off since she sparkles with a vitality that the operatic voice doesn’t match.

Despite all the problems of the part, Dorothy Dandridge does leave a distinctive mark on the role and fills it with everything that is needed. She also adds a little more than that special poise – some hints at the soul behind the self-assured façade and the woman who so easily and carefree plays with love and life. Her own and that of others. She’s not only showing a woman enjoying her life but a woman who seems trapped in the only way of life she knows. She’s the only one not immediately running when Miller arrives at the bar – it seems natural for her to stand out from the crowd as she is always looking for something new to escape the boredom that comes with too high expectations for life. Carmen is a character that is going down a straight road to self-destruction and she seems to know it – but she is unable to find any escape from this because she is enjoying herself too much and probably prefers to live a short life full of love and fun instead of a long one full of conventions and obligations. Dorothy Dandridge finds a lot of honesty in showing how little Carmen actually cares about anything. Not even in her final scenes does she try to show some hidden feelings in Carmen but keeps her straight, shallow and self-interested character alive – to the last moment.

Carmen isn’t a complex character – but neither Bizet, nor Preminger nor Dandridge wanted her to be. She’s a femme fatale without the usual hidden qualities. Dorothy Dandridge sometimes may feel too forced in her attempts to appear un-forced but she also finds a lot of naturalism in everything she is doing. She lets Carmen be rather unpleasant and unlovable as both Dorothy Dandridge and Carmen Jones are secure in the affect of her good looks. She fulfils the purpose of the character with ease and more often than once burns up the screen with fiery passion. She’s not as fascinating as the story suggests she is but it’s still a remarkable and passionate performance of a remarkable and passionate character. For this, she gets


Best Actress 1954

The next year will be 1954 and the nominees were

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones

Judy Garland in A Star is Born

Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina

Grace Kelly in The Country Girl

Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession


Best Actress 1982 - The resolution

After having watched and reviewed all five nominated performances, it's time to pick the winner!

5. Debra Winger in An Officer and a Gentleman

Most of all, this nominations is a testament to Debra Winger’s warm and astonishingly natural screen presence and intuitive acting style that always makes her work look so completely natural and spontaneous. Debra Winger maybe could have never won the fight against the weakness of her material, but she beautifully realized that it was worth a shot.

Sissy Spacek does a lot with a character that could have been very little but at the same time she is not able to overcome its limitations. She takes the part of the guide through the story with an admirable combination of strength and weakness and her chemistry with Jack Lemmon is very captivating but she very often feels trapped in the role of Beth and her own interpretation which both don’t allow her to fully explore her own acting talents.

3. Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria

Julie Andrews gives a performance that combines everything she is famous for but at the same time she constantly finds new shades about herself and more than once rejects and parodies her own image and her magical screen presence helps her to achieve a memorable and captivating performance.

2. Jessica Lange in Frances

Jessica Lange gives one of the greatest tour-de-forces of the last century. She is an overpowering presence in a whole spectrum of human emotions that she empties the viewer’s heart and mind. She never turns Frances into a crazy woman, or, what would even be wore, stupid – instead, she understandably tells about her own indecisiveness that too often overpowers her life. It’s a performance that somehow doesn’t really draw attention to itself but still turns out to be a true miracle in physical and emotional perfection.

My heart wants to give the win to Jessica Lange, my mind says Meryl Streep. Despite the legendary reputation of Meryl Streep's performance, this decision is much closer than would be expected. But it simply can't be denied: Few actress have ever shown such emotional nakedness on the screen. It’s a performance that seems to escape rational analysing by becoming almost distilled until nothing but pure emotions remain.


Best Actress 1982: Jessica Lange in "Frances" and Meryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice"

Whenever I am finished watching a nominated performance for this blog, I write down my most important thoughts and also start to write a little bit of the review in my head. And after watching Frances and Sophie’s Choice, I realized that in my imaginary reviews I constantly compared these two performances because they are so alike and yet so different in so many aspects. And so I decided that it would be the most logical solution to simply write one review about these two shattering, hunting and emotionally exhausting pieces of work.

Before they faced each other at the Academy Awards 1982, Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange had a rather different background. Meryl Streep seemed to begin to collect awards and critical praise the moment she left acting school. She debuted opposite Jane Fonda in the award-winning Julia, she won an Emmy for her performance in the TV-Series Holocaust, she won an Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer and many more awards for her other performances in The Deer Hunter and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It was clear right from the start that Meryl Streep would be a force to reckon with but nothing seemed to have prepared critics and audiences for her turn as Holocaust survivor Sophie Zawistowska who suffers from the memories of the unimaginable tragedies that she had to endure during the times of the Nazi terror.
Jessica Lange didn’t have quite such a good start. It might have seemed like royal treatment when famous producer Dino de Laurentiis cast her as the blond woman in the remake of King Kong, but not even her Golden Globe for best new female star could change the devastating reviews – Jessica Lange’s debut turned into a disaster that kept her off the screen for another 3 years. Things didn’t seem to improve when she was cast as Angelique in All that Jazz but finally critics began to notice her unpredictable, wild and emotional acting style opposite Jack Nicholson in the remake of The Postman always rings twice. Editor Graeme Clifford later remembered Jessica Lange and cast her in the part of the rebellious and beautiful actress Frances Farmer whose unconventional behaviour and rebellious spirit led to her committal into a mental institution in the movie Frances. And suddenly, Jessica Lange became one of the most celebrated actresses in Hollywood.

If there is a dictionary entry for 'bad timing', a picture of Jessica Lange should be next to it. In countless other years, her work in Frances would have been the perfect candidate for an awards sweep but in 1982, Meryl Streep’s display of accents, tears and subtle suffering turned into a legend immediately and took home every award under the sun. The only consolation Jessica Lange had was the fact that the New York critics gave her the supporting award for her role in the comedy Tootsie – and other critics, the Golden Globes and ultimately the Oscars followed. It seemed that everyone agreed that Jessica Lange’s work in Frances was too outstanding to let her go empty-handed this season – even if it meant awarding her for another movie (if Jessica Lange was actually worthy of her supporting awards isn’t the topic here).

So, two actresses with two utmost difficult roles and two utmost outstanding results. But what makes the comparison between Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep so interesting at this point in their respective careers? For one, it’s rather fascinating that both actresses achieved the peak of their career in 1982 – even though they were both still relatively new to the business and would continue to deliver impressive performances. But in 1982, everything that is so fascinating about Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange came together like it never had before and would never again.

Meryl Streep is an actress that may constantly show the wheels turning in her head as she always seems to work from the outside where her performances turn into little miracles of technical brilliance. She knows how to speak her lines, how to move her hands, even how to drop a tear, all at the right moment in the right way. This could be terribly distracting in a performance but Meryl Streep never forgets to develops a true inner life for her characters – she works from the outside to create the inside and it allows her to constantly change her screen appearance and impression on the audience. It allows her to become an Australian murder suspect, an English actress, an Italian housewife – or a Polish Auschwitz survivor. A lot of actresses might work this way but Meryl Streep is one of the few who has the talent to turn her instincts and thoughts into reality. She seems to disappear in her work and in her characters while always being in full control over them. It’s a technique that could lose its authenticity and honesty with a little false step but Meryl Streep knows how to avoid every possible damage in her own work and constantly crafts characters that feel as genuine as they are captivating.
Jessica Lange’s performances seem to come from the different end of the acting spectrum. Everything she does, her constant nervousness, her body that moves all the time, her head tilted to one side when she speaks, her threatening eyes that indicate the emotional explosions that will follow – it all seems to come from the inside and fights its way outside. Her works feels very intuitive and ‘in-the-moment’, as if her characters take over her existence for the time of shooting and never let her go again until the final ‘Cut!’. She appears to live for the screen as if there is nothing else for her and she always seems to use her own personality and presence as the basis for her characters. Jessica Lange’s acting often doesn’t allow her to disappear in her characters the way Meryl Streep does – Jessica Lange almost always remains Jessica Lange but at the same time, she, too, possesses the rare gift to constantly create something different, something new or something unexpected.
And it’s their performances in Frances and Sophie’s Choice that shows that both these women could do anything in 1982 – both went further than almost any other actress before or after them to find the emotional and physical devastations that hunted the lives of Frances Farmer and Sophie Zawistowska.

If both Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange reached the peak of their talents then because they both found the exact right parts for them. Both actresses were faced with some of the most challenging tasks but at the same time theses tasks completely fit their personality and abilities. Jessica Lange had to dig deep into the feelings, the emotions and the mind of a woman who often escaped from the logic of her surroundings and she did it with her distinctive abilities of soft and tender moments mixed with sudden outbursts of despair and anger. Meryl Streep had to create a woman out of a modern horror story, a face to the countless tragedies of the Holocaust while never turning into any kind of symbol. She had to find a way to present the unthinkable and unimaginable and reach to a level of emotional devastation that hardly any other actresses might ever have. But unlike Frances Farmer, Sophie Zawistowska is a subtle victim of circumstances, a woman who mourns silently and in her own mind and heart which connects perfectly to Meryl Streep’s ability for subtle suffering. But in this case, she couldn’t just drop a tear or learn a accent, this part asked her to open her soul to the camera and create a moving and disturbing honesty in this personal yet epic tragedy.

Both Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange play women who become victims for different reasons and play parts that go far beyond the usual level of difficulty. Frances Farmer’s character and personality doesn’t fit into the time she lives and works in while Sophie Zawistowska lives in a time that basically denies her the right to live at all. Because of the tragic turns their lives take it’s very easy to sympathize with both the characters and the actresses portraying them but neither Jessica Lange nor Meryl Streep actively tried to gain any sympathy or pity. Jessica Lange’s portrayal is made of an disturbing quality and she never tries to let Frances Farmer appear as an unfortunate soul but constantly tries to explore her darker sides. Her performance is certainly among the most exhausting ever captured on the screen – for the actress and the viewer. Constantly moving her body, always playing with her hands, showing a nervous spirit inside Frances Farmer that is always ready to snap at any moment. She’s a true volcano, exploding with emotions and outbursts from any moment to the other. On the other hand, few performances have reached a status that is as untouchable as that of Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice – and the most shocking thing: this status is highly deserved. Sophie is not the most complex character that Meryl Streep has ever played nor the most complex character that has ever won an Oscar and probably not even the most complex one in this line-up – but Meryl Streep understood how extremely careful she must be to construct this woman without purely wallowing in her own misery. She clearly isn’t out to evoke the audience’s pity for this woman since she seems to know that the plot and the tragedy speak for themselves. Instead, she worked very hard to add the depth and dimension to the character that the script denied her, she is more interested in the inner life of Sophie, in the consequences the time in Auschwitz had on her life and on her character. This way she brings complexity to a woman who seems mostly designed to create a story around the central, deciding and most remembered moment of the story – Sophie’s choice.

Another astonishing aspect of these two performances is that both never seem to find a moment of ‘rest’. Apart from her climatic scene, Meryl Streep doesn’t really have any showy scenes in the traditional sense but she creates a stringent flow of tension and emotional torture. Even though Sophie appears mostly calm, often even happy, there is a constant state of unspoken horror that lingers above her and fills every frame of Sophie’s Choice. She shows a tormented soul that hopes to find salvation but for whom every day is another struggle to overcome her past. Both Sophie and Meryl Streep are caught in this never-ending cycle of desolation and can’t find an escape. Jessica Lange, too, doesn’t find any silent moments which would allow her to get a break from the tight grip of Frances Farmer – instead, she constantly remains on the edge of her own emotions and demonstrates a continuous nervousness and restlessness, anger and impatience. Frances Farmer and Sophie Zawistowska hold these two actresses and the viewers in their claws from start to finish.

It’s wonderful that Meryl Streep never allowed herself to rest on the sympathy that a character like hers would achieve. Instead, she disturbingly shows how Sophie’s life is destroyed forever by the events in Auschwitz and even before that. Few actress have ever shown such emotional nakedness on the screen. It’s a performance that seems to escape rational analysing by becoming almost distilled until nothing but pure emotions remain. The way she shows Sophie constantly touching or stroking her arms, as if she wants to escape her own skin, the way she lets her eyes becomes windows to her spirit and simply the way she is able to single-handedly craft the dark and gloomy tone of the story is flawless from every angle. The introduction of her character, a fight between her and her lover Nathan, is already a captivating moments but its her first real scene, her conversation with her new neighbour Stingo that truly shows the complete transformation of Meryl Streep. Her accent, her search for words, her nervous laugh, her unique and yet so familiar body language and her beautiful face that always seems to lie beneath its own shadow turn Sophie into a real human being that is much more than an sequence of long monologues and flashbacks. Sophie is a woman who is shaped by her past but Meryl Streep always plays her part with a sense for the present, too – but no future. A woman like Meryl Streep’s Sophie could not have found salvation in this life. There is no way to rationalize what happened to her, no way to comfort her or for her to excuse it. It’s the burden of her own past that has turned Sophie into a woman who is looking for comfort and rejection, hoping to find love and hate, a woman who wants to rest but who also doesn’t allow herself to be happy. That’s why the relationship to Nathan is maybe the only one that could make sense for her, a man who slowly loses his mind and bounces back from loving and caring to threatening and dangerous. Sophie is a woman waiting for death even though she has constructed a life for herself in which she pushed away all the bad memories and incidents of her life – but hiding the truths from others doesn’t allow her to hide the truth from herself. Her almost matter-of-fact delivery of the line ‘They cut his throat’ when she talks about a former love who worked for the Polish resistance demonstrates how far Sophie has tried to distance herself from her own past. And surprisingly she follows the scene of the choice not with teary eyes but instead with an almost anger as if she is daring Stingo to still love her. She told the story to make him see that she is not a good mother. Sophie’s self-loathing has never been more clear than here.
Meryl Streep never really surprises with her portrayal of Sophie – she doesn’t take her in any direction that doesn’t closely follow the script but what she does is surprise with her own talent that allowed her to create this character. The level of difficulty and the accuracy of Meryl Streep’s performance both rank among the most challenging that has ever been portrayed. And it’s thanks to Meryl Streep’s deep understanding that her performance never feels like a demonstration of talent but becomes a truly devastating piece of work that will haunt the viewer forever. Her inability to stand up from a chair and her little breakdown, her hopeless delivery of the line ‘I think I’m going to die’, her constant attempt to escape her past while allowing her memories to torture her is – it’s a performance that is much more than the choice scene and Meryl Streep’s transcendent portrayal will leave the viewer almost feeling empty inside as if every possible feeling had been felt, every tear had been cried.

It is easy to see why Jessica Lange’s own tour-de-force couldn’t compete with Meryl Streep’s performance – Meryl Streep seemed like a revelation while Jessica Lange appeared rather like an arrival. But actually it is much more – it’s a performance for the ages that, just like Sophie, should be remembered as one of the great tour-de-forces of the 20th century. Both women make it impossible not to be amazed by their ability to create all these images, these emotions and live with them day after day. A lot of actress have an inner fire – if that is the case, then Jessica Lange hides a magna chamber inside her body that can always erupt at any moment. She very often likes to go larger-than-life in her work, explodes with emotions that not only seem to drown herself but everyone around her, too. In her Oscar-winning role in Blue Sky she went further with her acting than anywhere else in her work since Frances but her tendency to go overboard does not mean that she is an expert at it. In Blue Sky she is too aware for her own good, it’s a calculating performance in which she always tries to hold her tight grip on the character. The results in an unfortunately strangely over-the-top and uncomfortable performance which never comes even close to reach the devastating effect of her work in Frances. It seemed that the fact that she was still relatively new to the business prevented her from thinking too much – it is a very intelligent piece of work, no question, but she thankfully used her intuitive and spontaneous acting-style and let it dominate her performance. From her years as a teenage girl to her interview on television, Jessica Lange gives one of the most devastating, exhausting, hunting, daring and memorable tour-de-forces ever captured on the screen. In her hands, Frances Farmer is a restless soul, a woman who never seems to be able to find any peace – in and around herself. Jessica Lange seems to drop her own character completely to slip into the skin of this woman and creates scenes that not only shake the viewer up but might even put them into a state of depression. A little girl and a grown-up woman are fighting each other in Frances’s head – and they also have to fight against their environment. Jessica Lange reaches deeper and deeper back into the mind and soul of her character until she reaches a place where it seems that nobody can help her anymore. She is such an overpowering presence in a whole spectrum of human emotions that she empties the viewer’s heart and mind. She never turns Frances into a crazy woman, or, what would even be worse, stupid – instead, she understandably tells about her own indecisiveness that too often overpowers her life. She’s a woman who seems to know exactly what she wants to do but at the same time she mostly ends up doing things she doesn’t care for. She’s emotionally devastating and keeps pushing the boundaries of what is bearable for her and the viewer. Like an animal surrounded by hunters, she constantly fights for her own life and freedom but faces a system and a mother that don’t allow her either of those. In her scenes opposite the director of the hospital, she is able to constantly be off-putting and appealing, teasing him, threatening him, begging him. Her delivery of the line ‘Who do you think you are? God?’ is one for the ages – anger and panic have never been expressed more shockingly. She shows the hopeless situation when everything you say or do is wrong, when you are not able to turn anywhere and the anger and frustration inside yourself overcomes your judgement. The sequence that always cuts back and forth between Frances talking to a committee that will decide about her future in the asylum and her mockery of the same situation with all the other locked-up woman is a thrilling moment and Jessica Lange again never holds anything back. But even though she is constantly asked to push herself and Frances further and further into depression and loud desperation, Jessica Lange doesn’t rest on the scenes. She is also overwhelmingly perfect in her more quiet scenes even though she never looses the tension of the story. The look on her face when she gets out of a car to walk to her domineering mother, a combination of love and hate, regret, despair and most of all, tiredness is simply one of the great moments in her career – or any career. So many scenes could have felt overdone, over-the-top or unbelievable – not only by other actresses even by Jessica Lange herself if she hadn’t found the perfect balance of completely letting go of herself and keeping an intellectual approach in this movie and this character. Her greatest achievement may be the fact that she didn’t really invite the viewer to share her suffering. Meryl Streep’s Sophie created a connection to the viewers from the first moment but Jessica Lange somehow keeps a distance to the viewer and, despite all the grand emotions, makes hers just as much an intellectual as an emotional journey. She lets the viewer keep a distance to the story until this distance isn’t possible anymore and collapses under the devastation of Frances Farmer’s life. When she is carried into the asylum again, raped by soldiers or simply enjoying a dance at a little bar, she has taken the viewer on such an exhausting journey that at one moment one can’t help but drop the distance and feel as exhausted as Frances Farmer herself. It’s a performance that somehow doesn’t really draw attention to itself but still turns out to be a true miracle in physical and emotional perfection.
Just like Meryl Streep’s Sophie lives with a character that seems to love her as much as he hates her, Jessica Lange’s Frances also her own ghost – Jessica Lange and Kim Stanley create one of the most fascinating, bizarre and disturbing on-screen chemistry between a mother and a daughter that can be found in a motion picture. Both determined to get their way, both different in their approaches.

What’s also interesting about Meryl Streep’s and Jessica Lange’s towering performances is that they both come from movies that don’t deserve them. Neither Frances nor Sophie’s Choice is recommendable for anything else than the leading ladies.

At the end, how can one compare the scenes of Jessica Lange fighting with a cop at the side of the road, screaming naked in her bathroom or telling a police officer her ‘profession’ with scenes of Meryl Streep talking about her father and her husband, trying to find a book in the library or dealing with Nathan’s mood swings? Both women have such an unique beauty that so completely seems to fit the 40s – Jessica Lange’s movie star personality and Meryl Streep’s simple yet remarkable features. How can one compare Jessica Lange’s demonstration of a constantly drifting mind with Meryl Streep’s display of a tortured existence? A double-feature of Frances and Sophie’s Choice would require a lot of drinks and cigarettes to get over it…

It’s certainly wonderful to have two performances like this that raise the quality of the whole Best Actress line-up that year but at the same time it’s one of the most unfortunate incidents in Oscar history that these two performances had to face each other in competition. Overall, it’s the strongest two-punch this category has ever seen and both actresses naturally receive


Best Actress 1982: Debra Winger in "An Officer and a Gentleman"

Debra Winger’s nomination for Best Actress for her performance as Richard Gere’s girlfriend in An Officer and a Gentleman is probably one of the prime examples on how the Oscar race has changed over the years. How likely would it be today that a stereotypical role as the supportive woman with a considerable lack of screen time would actually receive a Best Actress nomination? This shows that the influence of the media, the Internet and the almost countless pre-Oscar awards have noticeably changed the Oscar race – and the campaigns, of course, which today put almost everybody in the supporting category who isn’t onscreen for at least 95% of the running time. Today, Debra Winger’s nomination is one of those that seems to be either dismissed as lazy voting by Academy members or as an inspired choice which rewarded an actress for developing a memorable and touching character out of paper-thin writing.

I am somewhat torn between these two statements. Yes, Debra Winger’s combination of unique screen presence and natural acting style works wonders with every character she plays – she possesses the rare gift of always appearing completely ‘in the moment’, she has the ability to get lost in her characters and craft real living, breathing and feeling human beings while adding her own style and features, too. Few actresses have been able to mix the realities of life with a both light and dramatic acting style which never feels calculated or forced upon the audience like her. She constantly lives according to the script while taking her characters always much further. So yes, Debra Winger deserves credit for what she did in An Officer and a Gentleman – namely turning the character of Paula, who is only thrown into the proceedings for the obligatory love story, and filling her with her own personality and that way added dreams and hopes, pleasant and unpleasant truths and didn’t do anything less than doing more with this part than most other actresses might have dreamed of. In my review for Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner I called her performance easy to like but hard to admire. Debra Winger makes it easy to both like and admire her for all her hard efforts which look so effortless. But – yes, here comes the b-word – how far does all this really go? Yes, it’s commendable how she added so much spark and life to such a clichéd part but at the same time, even the most talented actress depends on the part she is given. Taking a role to a higher level than the script can happen in many ways. An actress can take a good part and make it great, she can take an invisible part and make it noticeable, she can take a bad part and make it good. What Debra Winger faces here is not only ‘invisible’, it’s basically ‘nothing’ – yes, the script makes sure that Paula gets her own back-story, an agenda of her own, a moral superiority and sharpness that separates her from the other characters but – oh, the b-word again – all this doesn’t change the fact that she always is and always will be a stock character which makes it easy for an actress to give a competent performance but always puts its claws into the performer and that way prevents her from escaping the limitations that arise. This means that a lot of actresses might have played Paula with satisfying results. Ah, Fritz, you little devil, didn’t you just write that Debra Winger did more with the part than most other actresses might have dreamed of? And, on top of that, isn’t it totally unimportant if another actress could have played a certain part? Yes and yes. First the second question: Yes, it doesn’t matter if actresses like Sigourney Weaver or Geena Davis, who also auditioned, could have given the same performance. This is not the way to judge an actress’s work. So, this aspect doesn’t influence me in my opinion about this performance but it is only meant to underline the low quality of the part. Now, the first question: Yes, I did write that Debra Winger did so much more with the part than other actresses might have done – and this means she turned her from invisible to visible. How many other actresses would have received their first Best Actress nomination for a role like this? How many other actresses would even have received any awards attention at all? Hardly any. So, Debra Winger’s achievement is that she took this underwritten, flat part and played it to a level of greatness that made it possible to connect it with an Oscar nomination. So, there is a grand achievement in the work of Debra Winger. But – I always come back to that little word – I can’t help but feel that, even though Debra Winger did a lot right in her part, an Oscar nomination is still a slight exaggeration of appreciation. Pleasant reviews with hopes for the future, maybe a Golden Globe nod, this all seems right – but Oscar and Paula Pokrifki just don’t seem right together. It’s a nomination I don’t want to complain about but I don’t want to praise it either. And that also sums up my feelings for her actual performance. All of Debra Winger’s qualities helped her to pull off an unforgettable performance one year later in Terms of Endearment. But in An Officer and a Gentleman, she suffers from the same problems that Sissy Spacek faced in Missing – the limitations of the character.

So, after a lot of complaining, explaining and complaining again – what exactly is there about Debra Winger’s performance that makes it so admirable and negligible at the same time? As mentioned again and again before, Debra Winger’s husky voice, her sharp intelligence and her ability to always show something going on behind her face, the feeling of undiscovered depth and emotions helps her immensely to overcome a lot of the obstacles in the role. She seems to realize how fake and careless her whole character is constructed but somehow her beguiling honesty and warmth make it believable. Paula seems to be just another girl who is hoping to find a guy to have a good time with after she is done working in a grim factory. But very soon it turns out that Paula may be looking for a guy, but she is looking for more – security, closeness and most of all, love. She doesn’t want to fake pregnancy to force a man to marry her and she also doesn’t want to end up like her mother, who was actually pregnant from a marine officer who consequently left her. The movie makers seemed to haven been very proud to not turn Paula into a man-hunting, immoral character like the other females but they somehow missed that they turned her into an almost empty vessel. So it’s Debra Winger’s greatest accomplishment to craft a character that, despite what the screenplay says, doesn’t only exist to find the right guy. In Debra Winger’s work, it’s always imaginable to see Paula as a woman of untold stories and secrets – they may not be told but Debra makes the viewer feel that they are there. There is something lonely about her, a lost soul who wouldn’t behave the way she does under different circumstances. Paula may seem more respectable and honest than other women at the factory but at the same time Debra Winger seems to know that a woman like Paula may not be lying to Richard Gere but in some ways she is lying to herself.

Debra Winger finds honesty and sympathy in a character that could lack both and she also invests a lot more emotions into this role than expected. Her breakdown in the hotel room, when her desperation becomes more visible than ever, and the simplicity she lets shine in every moment of her onscreen appearance are very impressive and beautiful to watch.When Lynette tells Paula that she is not different from all the other girls, Paula simply answers that she is – and it’s not hard to believe her.

Debra Winger suffers mostly from the fact that everything in the movie is working against her. She and Richard Gere unfortunately lack the necessary chemistry to make their love-story truly interesting. As it is, her character and her story are always overshadowed by the main storyline of the movie, she too often disappears behind Richard Gere and Louis Gossett, Jr. Her own touches, insights and interpretations of Paula work well but they don’t increase her influence or importance in the movie structure. It’s a very simple performance that captures a complex essence. Debra Winger doesn’t make it look like she is fishing for opportunities, trying to appear grander than she or Paula really are, instead she naturally seems to inhabit everything the script offers her and filling the empty spaces with her own sparkle. Paula Pokrifki could have been a Norma-Rae-like character if the movie had only focused on her – and Debra Winger would have been up to every task laid before her. In this thankless part, Debra Winger succeeded constantly but these successes are so easy to overrate – yes, they are successes but they are still on a very low level.

Debra Winger’s performance is very hard to judge because she puts a new aspect to the eternal question about what is an Oscar-worthy performance. Debra Winger doesn’t get a part that is challenging in any way but what she does is take a throwaway role and fill it with clarity and life. Just like a lot of actresses might have played this part, a lot of actresses also can play challenging roles and impress because of the obligatory showy scenes. Debra Winger impresses because of the lack of them. It’s a more than competent performance but it feels a bit like Audrey Hepburn – because of her unique screen presence and her ability to lift underwritten material it is very easy to give her more praise than needed. And also Debra Winger’s intelligent work makes it easy to praise her performance more than necessary. Yes, she did a lot – but coming from nothing, this ‘lot’ is still ‘little’.

It is an admirable effort that already hints at the greatness Debra Winger would achieve one year later. Most of all, this nominations is a testament to Debra Winger’s warm and astonishingly natural screen presence and intuitive acting style that always makes her work look so completely natural and spontaneous. Debra Winger maybe could have never won the fight against the weakness of her material, but she beautifully realized that it was worth a shot. And for her strong dedication she gets