Winning performances are higlighted in red.
1. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)
2. Jessica Lange in Frances (1982)
3. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
5. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
6. Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927-1928)
7. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
8. Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
9. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)
10. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
11. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
12. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
13. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
14. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
15. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
16. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)
17. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)
18. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
19. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)
20. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
21. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
22. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
23. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
24. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
25. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
26. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
27. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
28. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
29. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
30. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
31. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
32. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
33. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
34. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
35. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)
36. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
37. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
38. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
39. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
40. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)
Jane Fonda as Sally Hyde in Coming Home
What the heck just happened? Did I really just upgrade a performance by Jane Fonda? After spending so many years on this blog criticizing her performances and declaring her win for Coming Home one of the worst Oscar decision ever (when I did this ranking the first time, she was among the Bottom 10 of about 350 performances). Yes, times have certainly changed. Who knows what happened? Maybe the fact that I have now seen all nominees in this category (except one…where are you, Betty Compson???) helps me to judge performances better in comparison to all the others. Maybe it’s the fact that I have now spent quite a good deal of time with Jane (I probably started ranking Oscar winners more than 10 years ago). Maybe my taste has just shifted…who knows…
Of course, it’s not like I now suddenly consider her performance my favorite of all time but her position has definitely improved as my appreciation of her work has grown over time. In the end it probably comes down to the fact that I am trying to be more objective than I have been in the past when it comes to judging these performances, helping me to have a more unbiased look. I was also actually expecting to upgrade Jane Fonda in my ranking when I started to re-watch Coming Home as I began to see a more relaxed and spontaneous screen presence than I did in the past and also still think very highly of Coming Home as a movie (despite some flaws that I will talk about soon) – in the past, I mainly credited the cast around Jane Fonda for the film’s success but I now admit that she is an important ingredient, too.
But why live in the past? Let’s just look at the performance from today’s point of view. Obviously, as you can see from the position in the ranking, I still have some problems with the performance but there are other aspects that I began to appreciate. I suggest we start with the parts that I don’t like so much here. First of all, I think I have to begin by saying that, in my humble opinion, Jane Fonda is actually miscast in this role. She is such a strong screen presence that I have a hard time believing her to be a shy and devoted housewife and I also think that she appears too old for this role. Apparently, after having worked with her on Julia the year before and sensing that she was going to be a very big deal, Jane Fonda wanted Meryl Streep in the part of Vi which would eventually be played by Penelope Milford. But I actually have a much easier time imaging the young Meryl Streep of 1978 in the part of Sally. There is something both plain and unique about Meryl Streep and I can easily see her going through Sally’s transformation process in a more believable manner.
The other major problem I have with Jane Fonda’s work is how she reacts to the cast around her. First, there is her friendship with Vi. Again, the casting of a dominant actress like Jane Fonda makes their friendship appear rather unbalanced. It’s just hard for me to believe that 40 year old Jane Fonda would accept 30 year old Penelope Milford as her guidance and kind of role model and if the friendship works, I mostly applaud Penelope Milford for it. She is maybe not truly outstanding in her role but her ‘who gives a s**t attitude’ on the screen makes the whole thing work.
The bigger problem is the fact that Jane Fonda has absolutely no chemistry with Bruce Dern and this is also the most harming aspect of the whole movie. I don’t put all the blame for this on Jane Fonda. I think the casting of Bruce Dern, who is just too unconventional a screen presence to be the kind of ‘normal, American soldier’ he is supposed to play, does not work at all and he and Jane Fonda appear to be uncomfortable together right from the start. This also makes the whole story that follows often extremely unsatisfying. When it comes to Sally’s affair with Luke, Coming Home makes it just too easy to sympathize with Sally – after all, even a crippled Luke can bring more sexual pleasure to Sally than her husband and it’s also not very difficult to find more sex-appeal in Join Voight than in Bruce Dern. I wish the script and the casting of Bob had made this love triangle more balanced and even. But I also wish that Jane Fonda had invested more doubt and guilt in Sally. I don’t think that she misses her husband for his sake but rather for what he represents – security and comfort. Maybe this is even true but it’s nowhere to be found in Jane Fonda’s performance. I also don’t see any true guilt about her affair – she openly interacts with Luke, sitting on his lap on the beach, bringing him to her house, letting him pick her up at the hospital. Even their affair only begins after she actively suggests it to Luke – but this also just poses new questions as she did not even plan to meet Luke that night. Furthermore, her later arguments that she was ‘lonely’ are also not convincing as she begins the affair on the first night after her return from meeting her husband in Hong Kong and experiencing his pain first-hand. All of this also makes her final scenes feel too untrue – I just don’t believe Jane Fonda when she tells Bruce Dern “I love you” and the script again is working against her, letting Sally say “I’m not gonna make excuses for what happened BUUUUUUT…” (okay, not precisely with those words but still…).
So, the character of Sally Hyde certainly poses various problems that Jane Fonda is also not fighting, apparently hoping the audience of 1978 will sympathize with a woman who experiences her sexual liberation and who chooses the man who opposes the war instead of the one who fights it. But even beyond that, the character of Sally is not perfect. My major problem with this role in the past used to be that she feels so secondary even in her own story, watching how the men around her choose between different ideals and ideas while she only chooses between these men. And I still stand by this opinion. Sally is a very passive character, only acquiring ideas or ambitions when others show her the way and often remaining very pale.
But – now we come to what I began to appreciate by now. Despite the fact that Sally is such an uninteresting part, there is something fascinating about seeing a strong personality such as Jane Fonda attack this role and give it her own spin. She clearly tried to inject her own acting style that is so often praised for its spontaneity into Sally and so creates something that somehow now feels very satisfying in specific moments. Mostly, I enjoy her ‘small’ moments on the screen because that is when she truly feels to live her character and where I get the feeling that I am watching a real person saying things that are coming into her head just now. Scenes like the one at night in the hospital, when she sits on Jon Voight’s lap, feels a bit lost about the tension between them, laughs nervously and wants to leave. Or later again sitting on Jon Voight’s lap at the beach, unsure about the future and how they can go on with their affair or her shocked ‘Oh my God’ when Luke’s urine bag leaks on her dress. These are moments that get all their special appeal from Jane Fonda because she tries to add an unconventional acting style to a conventional part. Often, these moments are unfortunately connected to other scenes that don’t work as well. I truly dislike the way she reacts to the telegram that might or might not bring the news that her husband died as she seems to be only half-interested in its content, somehow forcing a concerned emotion that never rings true. As mentioned earlier, I also don’t care for her big scene at the end opposite her angry husband as her tears just don’t feel true but I absolutely love the way she reacts to Luke’s knocking at the door, showing confusion and honesty in a small, throw-away moment. And so my favorite moment of her performance is also one of these scenes – the way she talks to the soldiers on a bus about the women at the Officer’s Club and that they would not want to do an article about the situation at the hospital. She feels completely authentic at this moment and it also perfectly underlines how she has changed by now compared to her first day at the hospital when she could only react with a shamed silence to the ways the men talked (but I again do not care so much for the scene that showed the confrontation between Sally and the women at the club – Jane Fonda’s anger actually works well but I have a hard time to believe that Sally would ever have been friends with these women in the first place because Jane Fonda is just too different from all the other actresses around her).
So, there is “good” and “bad” in this performance but more “good” than I had been willing to admit in the past. Again, it is mostly Jane Fonda’s often very modern approach to a rather old-fashioned role that creates some thrilling and unforgettable moments. And most of all I appreciate that Jane Fonda never tried to bring more to the part than necessary – her outburst opposite Luke when she asks him why he has to be such a bastard could have done with much more fireworks but it makes sense that a shy woman such as Sally would stay rather calm and quiet, even in a moment like this. And while I also used to complain that the change in Sally was non-existent in Jane Fonda’s acting, I now appreciate the subtle approach to this change. Her Sally never becomes a new person, she still stays true to her core identity but there is still something new about her. The woman who awkwardly met Luke at the hospital for the first time, who had drinks at the Officer’s Club is not the same woman who lives at the beach or visits her husband in Hong King – the changes are small and affected her character without changing her personality but they are there and achieve an overall satisfying character journey.
So, I now conclude that Jane Fonda gives a sometimes thrilling but also often disappointing performance that lives from her personality but could have used more depth and consideration to be truly outstanding. Still, there is more to enjoy here than I used to see in the past and it makes me look forward to re-rank her other performances in the future.
And a hint to the next performance that will be ranked: