My current Top 5

My current Top 5

4/21/2017

Best Actress Ranking - Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

My 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. Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise (1991)
10. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)

11. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
12. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
13. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
14. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
15. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
16. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
17. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)
18. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)
19. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
20. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)

21. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
22. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
23. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
24. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
25. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
26. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
27. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
28. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
29. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
30. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)

31. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
32. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
33. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
34. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
35. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
36. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
37. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
38. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
39. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
40. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)

41. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
42. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
43. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
44. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Susan Sarandon as Louise Sawyer in Thelma & Louise


Ranking Susan Sarandon’s performance in Thelma & Louise has been both fun and exhausting. Fun because it had been ages since I had watched that movie and it’s always a thrill to take a closer look at one of the few truly iconic performances that the Oscars recognized over the years. Exhausting because this iconic status often makes it difficult to approach the performance with an open mind and fresh eyes. As always, it took me a while to decide but now I feel quite comfortable with the position.

Re-watching Thelma & Louise for the first time in God knows how many years, it surprised me how well the central plot of this friendship between two women held up and how amazingly both Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon sell this story, navigating the picture between buddy drama, road trip movie, adventure story, comedy and satire. The trailer for Thelma & Louise (officially one of the worst trailers I ever saw) tried to promote the movie as a feel-good comedy, jumping between Thelma’s criminal activities and her husband’s puzzled reactions – but as awful as the trailer may be, watching it made me realize how fantastic Thelma & Louise is when it simply focuses on Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis and how quickly it can fall apart when it doesn’t. The movie lives from its two leading ladies because they add the necessary realism to the proceedings that most of the male actors cannot. Don’t get me wrong, this is no “I am an angry male because Thelma & Louise represents men as bad people” rambling – I get that Thelma’s husband, the truck driver and Harlan are more noteworthy for what they stand instead of what they are but it’s still frustrating that they are played and presented in such easy-to-dislike ways (seriously, that angry rant of the truck driver after his truck is blown up is so over-the-top that it takes me out of the whole story for a couple of minutes). The characters are certainly necessary to show exactly why Thelma and Louise are doing what they are doing and why their friendship is so important – but they don’t improve the movie itself. But in the end, this does not matter because a) I only judge Susan’s performance and not the movie and b) I only watched the scenes between Susan and Geena anyway and always skip all the rest.

So, let’s come to Susan’s performance. The main reason why the story of Thelma and Louise is so iconic and popular today is most likely the famous ending shot but beyond that it’s because their names have become synonyms for an unbreakable bound between two women fighting against a world of men. But what I most appreciate about the work of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon is the fact that they do not play a broader theme but instead focus on what’s happening to these two specific women at this specific moment. Many of the male characters might represent a wider topic but Thelma and Louise do not. This helps both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis to play all the tasks they are given, the drama, the romance, the comedy, the adventure and the horror. And if Thelma & Louise is iconic for its presentation of a great friendship, this only comes down to both leading actresses (by the way, if the movie came out today – who would go supporting?): from the first moment on, they share such a genuine chemistry on the screen, their joking and laughing always natural, every discussion authentically in the moment. Both actresses display a believable affection towards each other without which the movie could not succeed.

It’s interesting to think about the timing of Thelma & Louise in both Geena Davis’ and Susan Sarandon’s career – for Susan Sarandon, it was an Oscar-comeback and the begin of her ‘four nominations in five years’ period that ended with a win for Dead Man Walking a couple of years later. For Geena Davis, it was a nod that showed that the Academy did the right thing by giving her an upset Oscar a few years earlier. So, in 1991, Geena Davis might have had the edge when it comes to ‘Oscar veteran’ but Susan Sarandon edged her out in the end as she is much more remembered as an Oscar caliber actress today while Geena Davis’ win is often forgotten nowadays.

So far, I have mostly focused on both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis and it truly seems to be impossible to talk about them separately. But I’ll try as I think, despite the importance of their relationship, there is still a lot that each actress contributes to the movie by herself. Geena Davis was given the bigger arc by the screenplay and also the wider variety of emotions – she goes from suppressed housewife to crime-loving runaway and also sometimes works a comic-relief. Susan Sarandon’s Louise is a more developed person right from the start and she also won’t change in the same way but Susan Sarandon’s work is responsible for successfully setting the tone and for balancing the personalities of both characters. Susan Sarandon possesses a very mature and responsible aura on the screen and she uses it so immediately establish Louise as the more grounded, earthy and leading personality – she can be as much fun as Louise but she is more experienced, has seen and endured more and is the one who is used to make the decisions. There is something flawless about Susan Sarandon’s way of establishing this personality, laughing at Thelma’s news that she didn’t ask her husband to go on vacation, being surprised by her behavior in the bar, enjoying a good time while still not letting herself go, always on guard and in control of the situation.

With her focus on Louise’s strong side, Susan Sarandon makes the relationship between Thelma and Louise work and she also becomes the driving force of the movie as well as the audience's point of reference in many moments. But beyond this, Susan Sarandon also expertly displays the different layers of Louise’s personality – the breakdown on the phone when she talks to Jimmy and begins to realize the proportions of her problems, her fury when she rescues Thelma from Harlan and already hints to the fact that Louise is not only outraged for Thelma’s sake but also due to her own experiences in the past, the tenderness in her scenes with Jimmy in the hotel and her calls with the police all deepen her portrayal in different direction and create a complete, authentic person. And if the friendship between Thelma and Louise feels so deep and true, Susan Sarandon can also be complimented here – there are many moments in the movie when you would expect Louise to hid Thelma over the head and go on alone due to her often careless behavior, but Susan Sarandon shows just how strong their connection is and always makes their ongoing journey believable.

So, while the story and the final shots of Thelma & Louise may have given the movie its iconic status, the performances of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are responsible for giving it life and creating the basis for its reputation. And as Louise, Susan Sarandon used her screen personality with wonderful results and crafted an unforgettable character that stays with you long after the final freeze frame.

And a hint to the next performance that will be ranked:


3/08/2017

Best Actress Ranking - Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

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. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
25. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
26. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
27. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
28. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
29. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
30. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)

31. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
32. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
33. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
34. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
35. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
36. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
37. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
38. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
39. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
40. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)

41. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
42. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
43. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary, Queen of Scots


Compared to my original review of Vanessa Redgrave more than six years ago (good God…), my opinion did not change too drastically but Vanessa slipped down a couple of spots nonetheless. I think the reason is mostly that the flaws in her work have become more apparent to me while her highlights do not excite me anymore the way they used to in the past.

It has to be said: while my opinion on Vanessa Redgrave altered only slightly, my opinion on Mary, Queen of Scots itself did change more drastically: while I previously considered it mostly a mess with some fun parts and strong moments, I can now only see the mess. Mary, Queen of Scots is almost an insult to the glorious costume dramas that came before and after it – fake sets, fake costumes and a largely unappealing supporting cast do their best to destroy any good-will right away and the script does its best to ruin anything else. The movie is pretty much a disaster from start to finish (and Ian Holm gives probably one of the worst death scenes of all time – I guess he needs to squeal like Florence Foster Jenkins because he is bisexual?) and only one person manages to leave it untouched: Glenda Jackson, reprising her work as Elizabeth I, is simply unable to be anything less than fascinating to watch and she gives grace, dignity and excitement to her performance when everything around her falls apart.

Vanessa Redgrave unfortunately achieves not the same effect. She starts her performance on a very over-the-top note, fearing for the life or her husband, shouting “I love him” with a high-pitched voice or dramatically screaming “Francois” into the night. All the usual qualities of Vanessa Redgrave, this mysterious aura, her visible intelligence and graceful personality, are lost in this performance. The problem mostly seems to be that Vanessa Redgrave is simply too intelligent to play Mary in her early years – she apparently wants to craft her as some sort of air-headed dreamer who knows no worries and has to learn of real life and politics but this is never achieved. Rather, we get to see an unconventional actress trying her best to give a save, conventional performance without any surprises or depth, appearing both bored and overwhelmed in the process. When Mary greets her new Lords in Scotland and dramatically spreads out her arms and declares “My Lords of the Congregation”, Vanessa Redgrave displays a wide smile on her face that makes me wonder if this is Mary, trying to be charming or if this is Vanessa, realizing how ridiculous the whole thing actually is. Additionally, Vanessa Redgrave has a constantly weird way of rushing her dialogue – she often speaks multiple sentences without a single pause between them, ranging from moments of anger to moments of joy - this might work at some moments of her performance, but becomes rather distracting in others very quickly. 

The screenplay of Mary, Queen of Scots certainly does not do Vanessa Redgrave any favors. Instead, it actually causes the biggest problem of this performance: the script rushes through the stages of Mary’s life, it asks her to be flirty and brave one second, stupid and dependent on others the next, loving her husband, then hating her husband, suddenly showing feelings towards another Lord, refusing to abdicate before naively meeting Elizabeth and finally suddenly wised-up and self-scarifying. The major fault of the movie is that if offers no sense of time – we follow Mary from about 18 to 45 but Mary, Queen of Scots never makes this clear and neither Glenda Jackson nor Vanessa Redgrave seem to visibly age at any point. And because Mary gets thrown into so many different situations without any logical connections, Vanessa Redgrave’s performance never finds a true character in her acting. Instead, she plays Mary different from scene to scene without any flow and at the end of the movie I never have the feeling that I had seen Mary, Queen of Scots but rather Vanessa Redgrave acting different little scenes. Glenda Jackson, on the other hand, managed to actually create a character and her Elizabeth appears like a complete creation. This also results in the probably most curious fact of the movie: the title might be Mary, Queen of Scots but for long stretches of screen time, Vanessa Redgrave almost feels disposable and only rarely does it truly appear to be her movie and the story of Mary Stuart. The character of Elizabeth might be of secondary importance but she easily dominates large parts of the story.

All this was now a lot of negativity and I do believe it is justified. But I will also say that there are positive aspects as well that need to be highlighted. Vanessa Redgrave might not find a character in her performance and focus on the single scenes but she does work well in many of them. Obviously, not all of them – it actually takes quite some time for Vanessa Redgrave to warm up. Most of her early scenes in France and the beginning in Scotland show her pale and uninteresting, trying hard but unsuccessfully to give emotional intelligence to her work. Despite her natural and charming screen presence, Mary’s lightness and coquettish behavior fail completely but she does become more impressive in her later dramatic scenes. Almost bursting with hate at the arrogance of her brother, scheming her way out of a trap by her husband or later drugging him and then comitting adultery right next to his sleeping body, Vanessa Redgrave becomes a much more dominant presence as the movie goes on even if she still might change too often from scene to scene. She most of all comes to live when the misery of her character increases. She is touching when she begs her love not to go out and fight, tense when she tells her brother she will die as Queen and almost heartbreaking when she lets Mary, despite her calm exterior, look with fear at the scaffold where she is about to die in a few moments.

Most of all, however, the highlight of Mary, Queen of Scots are the two moments that apparently never happened – the meetings between Elizabeth and Mary. What is most amazing about these scenes is that they are completely not what you expect. Considering the movie’s reputation as ‘royal camp’ or ‘royal bitch fight’, everyone would most likely assume that their scenes together are the highlight of this. But this is wrong – in the hands of Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, these scenes are surprisingly subtle and moving, full of character development instead of superficial insults and surprisingly quiet in tone despite the occasional emotional outburst. These scenes proof that neither Vanessa Redgrave nor Glenda Jackson are actually actively trying to come across as camp – if the movie can be accused of that, it is actually the men who are responsible for it. Both Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson are the calm centers of an over-the-top storm around them – and even if Vanessa Redgrave did not achieve to create a real character, she still has to be applauded for resisting (mostly) the chances to be as exaggerated as her surroundings (at least as the movie went on). Even more remarkable about these scenes between Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave is the fact that, despite having been constantly overshadowed while not sharing a scene with her, Vanessa Redgrave actually leaves the stronger impression when acting opposite her co-star. That is not to say that Vanessa Redgrave is the better actress or the bigger personality (I would say they are equal in both departments) – rather, she really benefits from the screenplay at these moments. In their first scene, Vanessa Redgrave, even if she again binds various sentences together without gasping for air once and rushes through her lines faster than needed, creates a spellbinding impression as she openly displays her hate for Elizabeth but the best moments of her performance come in their second meeting when Mary rejects all of Elizbeth’s attempts and offers and explains how she is willing to die now and that it is Elizabeth who has to kill her. Vanessa Redgrave delivers her lines in these moments quietly and calmly but with strong accusations and convictions nonetheless. These moments are not enough to completely erase the memory of the often clumsy performance that came before them but they are enough to look at her work as a whole with a certain satisfaction.

It’s a pity that after all these expensive and big costume Dramas of the 60s, a fascinating story such as that of Mary and Elizabeth was given such a poor vehicle. I guess it’s not wrong to see a strong level of sexism as movies about Kings or Kings and Queens are always given the truly royal treatment while a story about Queens and only Queens appears to have been filmed in some old warehouse between some old props. Mary, Queen of Scots might have been given two fascinating actresses – but as this ranking shows, that’s not always a guarantee for success.

And a hint to the next performance that will be ranked:

2/10/2017

Best Actress Ranking Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

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. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
25. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
26. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
27. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
28. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
29. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
30. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)

31. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
32. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
33. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
34. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
35. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
36. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
37. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
38. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
39. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
40. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)

41. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
42. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Judi Dench as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown

 

I realize right away that my positioning of Judi Dench might be a bit controversial. Her loss at the Oscars has caused outrageous reactions almost right away, leading to a so-called “make up Oscar” the next year and putting her forever into the usual “The biggest Oscar robberies of all time” lists. Helen Hunt’s victory over Judi Dench has almost reached a Judy Garland vs. Grace Kelly-level which is certainly astonishing since we are not talking about one of America’s most beloved musical legends in her greatest on-screen performance but an English character actress in a subtle performance as Queen Victoria in a little movie that was initially meant for TV instead of the big screen.

I cannot comment yet on the “robbed” argument as I need to see Helen Hunt’s performance again but as you can see from my ranking, I don’t consider her work some kind of undeniable masterpiece and I am honestly a bit perplexed by the extremely high reputation of this performance. Don’t get me wrong – if an unknown, English character actress can get her first plum leading role at the age of 63, receiving her first of (so far) seven Oscar nominations at an age where most actresses cannot get any work at all, winning a Tony for her stage work, getting a supporting role in the James Bond franchise and quite simply become a household name in the US, then I am surely the last to complain! Sudden international careers like that of Judi Dench are incredibly rare at this age and how wonderful is it to see this happen to an actress of such talent, grace and poise.

So, why don’t I position her work higher? When talking about Judi Dench’s performance, I think it is best to start with the parts I don’t regard that highly and then come to the positive aspects. First of all, my main problem of Mrs. Brown is quite simply the script – I admit that the movie itself is both entertaining and touching and presents a very strong ensemble but I don’t think that the central character of Queen Victoria is truly written in a challenging or long-lasting way. I read a lot of reviews that praised Judi Dench for bringing this complex woman to live and I do believe that Queen Victoria was a complex person (I’m sure most royals are) – but I don’t think that I see this complexity in Mrs. Brown. Here, the Queen’s only purpose seems to be to suffer the death of her husband and nothing about the way she is written truly suggests her royal background. When you get right down it, Mrs. Brown is the kind of TV movie where an old widow/widower falls in love with an unconventional man/woman and has to fight for this love against the will of his/her disapproving children. This does offer various moving moments to Judi Dench but unfortunately I never get the feeling that I am truly watching the Queen of England as the script never concerns itself with these matters. I do appreciate that the movie wanted to show another side of Queen Victoria but I think that very often she becomes almost a side character in her very own story (apparently, Billy Connolly was campaigned as a supporting actor which was category fraud of the highest level – I would estimate that he has a larger role than Judi Dench).

I think the major problem of the script is that Queen Victoria is presented as such a passive character. The title Mrs. Brown is not only true for the fact that Queen Victoria was mocked by her critics for her affection to Mr. Brown but also because she is very often reduced to her relationship to this character. This is also the reason why Mrs. Brown barely makes Queen Victoria seem truly royal – everything she does appears to be out of the intentions of other characters. She begins the movie as the grieving widow but it only takes a few moments opposite Mr. Brown before she starts riding out with him and then a few more moments before she enjoys life again. Queen Victoria appears to be totally dependent on Mr. Brown – I do appreciate that the movie presents him as the man who helped her overcome her grief but Mrs. Brown as a movie never presents any true character development. Years after Mr. Brown entered her life, she still begs him to not let any politicians or the members of her family send her back to London, the movie never gives a feeling about what happened in all these years as the basic situation always remains the same. And this affects Judi Dench’s performance – she does play every scene correctly but you never get the feeling that Queen Victoria is the master of her own life. And considering all the time the movie spent on creating this deep friendship, it again makes a misstep by letting the Queen drop Mr. Brown very quickly again when he demands her to do something she does not want. This might underline the own feeling of superiority in the Queen but the script is too undecided on her character, letting her be pushed around from one emotion to the other without every properly explaining reasons or giving the Queen an inner personality – and not even Judi Dench can overcome these obstacles.

So, I think that is was truly the script that held Judi Dench back from giving an outstanding performance because it kept her within a very limited range and did not allow her to create a three-dimensional human being. But now we come to the parts of her performance that I do appreciate: most of all, even if the script does not suggest a truly royal character at its center, Judi Dench’s performance certainly does. Everything that does succeed about Queen Victoria is due to her work. She inhabits a royal personality down to her toe – the way she eats her food and then stops, naturally expecting everyone else to stop as well, the way she walks around the palace with her ladies in waiting behind her or the way she holds out her hand to receive a letter feel completely authentic at every moment. I also appreciate that Judi Dench did not decide to go the easy route with her character and ‘sweetened her up’ – sure, there are moments when she drops her usually reserved façade to smile at John Brown but she always stays true to the superior character of the Queen. The way she treats her family and her servants always indicates that Queen Victoria knows her rank and her position and won’t ever let anyone forget it – except Mr. Brown. I especially like the scene when Queen Victoria plays the piano and makes her grandchildren sing with her – the whole scene reminds me of a horror movie where the killer invades the house of a family and makes them all act as if everything is as usual. Judi Dench also makes the great decision to never make it seem that the Queen is unaware of the disapproval around here – instead, she simply ignores it, showing that she understands everything she does as the right way and contrary opinions as wrong.

Besides the proper display of royal superiority, Judi Dench also plays the emotional sides of her character well – the script may limit her work but she does work beautifully within these limits. Her grief at the beginning of the movie feels very authentic, her eyes weak from private crying, her face rid of any joy and only a display of hidden pain. Her slow breakdown while she is talking to John Brown is done excellently by Judi Dench as well, just as her quiet plead to make him stay with her and her final scenes when she confesses that she has not always been the loyal friend that he deserved.

So, it’s an overall satisfying performance with many great moments but I just wish that a character with such endless possibilities as Queen Victoria had been given a more demanding and interesting script to really let its leading actress shine.

And a hint to the next performance that will be ranked:

1/02/2017

Best Actress Ranking - Update


Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

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. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)

31. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
32. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
33. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
34. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
35. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
36. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
37. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
38. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
39. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
40. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)

41. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Marsha Mason as Jennie MacLaine in Chapter Two
 
 
Marsha Mason is surely one of the strangest happenings in Oscar history. I say “Oscar history” and not “film history” because I don’t think that Marsha Mason truly qualifies to be a part of this larger aspect and because the only reason that she is even remembered at all is because of her close association to the Academy over a short period of time. If it wasn’t for these four Oscar nominations, her name would have disappeared even more than it already has despite the fact that her prime happened not that long ago. But even those Oscar nods did not prevent her from falling into obscurity and today it seems that only die-hard Oscar fans like me or Neil Simon-devotees actually remember her even if I am not sure if the second group actually exists. But there is no denying that Marsha Mason, despite being hardly remembered at all today, was a strong force with Oscar voters. Between 1973 and 1981, no other actress received more Best Actress nominations and her IMDB page only lists 7 movies from Cinderella Liberty to Only when I laugh – considering that some of those were released in the same year, Marsha Mason was basically Oscar-nominated every time she was eligible during these years. So, to Oscar voters she was certainly a force to be reckoned with – for everyone else, she apparently was not.
 
I don’t want to sound too cynical or deny Marsha Mason the necessary talent to become such an awards darling but I think the close connection to Neil Simon cannot be overlooked when it comes to her awards run. Sure, her first nomination came for a movie that was not written by her then-husband but she played a hard-bitten prostitute with a heart of gold, a role that is usually too irresistible for Academy members and I suppose her sudden marriage to Neil Simon provided the necessary extra buzz (I always come back to Neil Simon, don’t I?). So, she made her way to the top seemingly alone but after that? Would she have come back with three additional Oscar nominations after almost ending her movie career (she made no movie between 1973 and 1977, apparently working on the stage and enjoying married life) without the support of Neil Simon’s dialogue? Because, let’s face it, this man was an awards magnet during his prime – I am sure that actors were begging on their knees to be allowed to play in Neil Simon movies or plays as hardly a year passed where not one actor would thank Neil Simon in a Tony or Oscar acceptance speech. And so it seems that, more than anything, Academy members were not only voting for Marsha Mason but also for the showy dialogue that was provided by Neil Simon. After all, her nominations for The Goodbye Girl and Only when I laugh did not happen in a vacuum but two other actors were nominated for each of these movies as well, demonstrating just how strongly award voters were drawn to Neil Simon’s work. Chapter Two was different as only Marsha Mason was singled out by Oscar voters but it still had the potential to be a multiple nominee if an actor who was more at home with the light material than James Caan had been cast as George or if Valeria Harper had faced a weaker competition for Best Supporting Actress (after all, Ann Wedgeworth won a Tony for the role in the Broadway production). Of course, I don’t want to imply that Marsha Mason would not have found success as an actress without Neil Simon but one cannot deny that all her major successes came from his work – did she prefer to play in the movie versions of his plays or did she not receive any other interesting offers during that time? Of course I cannot comment on this but the fact that she stopped doing anything noteworthy after her divorce from Neil Simon shows that the offers were apparently not really pouring in…It seems that movie goers and Oscar voters were fine with Marsha Mason as long as she appeared in roles that would most likely have been a financial and awards success anyway – but had no problem dropping her the moment she stopped tossing out Neil Simon’s one-liners and zingers. Of course, I understand that she has many other interests besides acting so maybe Marsha Mason was more than happy to leave her movie career behind but it seems that the audience doesn't exactly miss her either.

Looking back at the relationship between Marsha Mason and Neil Simon, it is also interesting that they never became some kind of “golden couple”. Most of all, despite three Oscar nominations for his work, Marsha Mason was never seen as the “definite interpreter” of her husband’s work nor as his muse, probably because it never felt that she was “born” to play any of his roles or that they were written for her in the same way that Woody Allen wrote for Diane Keaton at the same time (many performers won awards for appearing in Neil Simon productions, from Maureen Stapleton to Kevin Spacey, and they never depended on specific types or personalities) – which brings us right to Chapter Two. Because in this case, there is actually a close connection between Marsha Mason and the material as the character of Jennie MacLaine is famously based on herself. Neil Simon and Marsha Mason got married in 1973 after a 22-day romance even though Neil Simon was a recent widower and still depressed about the death of his first wife. He later re-told this story in Chapter Two and while Marsha Mason did not feel ready to play this part in the stage version, she later took over in the movie version which would also reunite her with James Caan who had been her co-star in Cinderella Liberty six years earlier. So, after this first look at Marsha Mason’s career and Oscar nominations – what about this actual performance that won her the third recognition by the Academy?

Chapter Two is often referred to a “second tier” Neil Simon and I do agree that the story has various problems. The movie is called a romantic comedy but falls more strongly on the dramatic side and there was no reason for it to last more than two hours or to include a rather useless subplot regarding the affair between Jennie’s best friend Faye and George’s brother Leo. But the major problem is the tonality of the peace and the presentations of the two main characters which also brings me to the major problems with Marsha Mason’s performance. It might certainly be an honor to have a famous playwright base a character on yourself but if I were Marsha Mason, I would probably have slapped Neil Simon with the pages of his manuscript instead of giving him my blessings to publish the story as a play. As presented in the movie, Jennie MacLaine is a shockingly needy and flat character who often only seems to exist to bring George out of his depressions. She holds her own in the beginning of the relationship when both characters get to know each other but later becomes self-scarifying to the point of self-abandonment. During their honeymoon, George begins to realize that he has not gotten over the death of his first wife and he couples his grief and self-anger with open hatred for his new wife – this change of tone comes extremely sudden and maybe Neil Simon wanted to show that he behaved horribly to Marsha Mason at the beginning of their marriage but the balance in the relationship on the screen begins to feel off very soon. George basically comes to the point of mentally abusing his new wife as he tells her that he resents her for everything but Jennie is never allowed to fight back, constantly accepting his behavior, even telling him that she is willing to suffer his insults and insensitivities. The main problem in the plot is that it is understandable that George is still suffering from the death of his first wife but since this has never been truly brought up in the beginning of their relationship, George’s change of mood comes too sudden and the relationship comes to the point where you just want Jennie to slap George a couple of times and leave for good. Instead, we get a scene when Jennie runs down the streets to their house to hear what George has to say, hoping that he decided to give their marriage a chance. It’s not hard to admire Jennie for her devotion and dedication but I do find it hard to see any joy in her completely overlooking everything he did to her before. Of course, the writing is more to blame than Marsha Mason but actually, she adds to these problems as well – the script does leave room for interpretation and the arguments between George and Jennie could easily have been played with more anger by both sides but Marsha Mason plays Jennie with a constant display of tears and sorrow, always retreating and being cornered by George’s remarks. When George tells her that he resents her for everything, Jennie’s answer “Why?” could have been played in many sharp and angry ways but Marsha Mason only shouts it out in an agonized and teary way. And so, her big monologue also does not work in the way it should. First of all, there is again the problem of the writing – Jennie’s big statement of self-worth has the same problems that all of Neil Simon’s scripts have: that no human being would ever talk like that. Overall, the monologue feels more like a blueprint for auditions in acting schools as the student has to go through various emotions but nobody would ever expect it to resemble real life. Only in a Neil Simon Play could a character say “I have no statement to make” before lashing into a three minute monologue. But again, this could have been the chance for Marsha Mason to truly show her character’s (and in this case also her own) worth by telling George everything he will miss when he tosses her aside, that she is wonderful and that she wants it all. And again, I would have loved to see some anger but she turns all her statements into a combination of motherly understanding and desperate tears and leaves only the impression of begging for his love instead of presenting a moment when Jennie truly finds herself. Besides this, Marsha Mason's acting also provides various problems in this scene. On the one hand, I like that she allows changes in Jennie’s mood and behavior, standing up, sitting down, whispering or shouting as it helps to keep the viewer’s attention (something, the stagey direction cannot do) and even if I disagree with her approach, some of her line deliveries work very well and you cannot help but feel for Jennie in this moment. On the other hand, I have problems with the execution of the scene – most of all, it feels as if this might have been the 20th take of the monologue and Marsha Mason was all “dried up” as she constantly wipes away tears that don’t appear to be there and she always gasps for air to underline her sorrow and her exhaustion but she feels both too forced and too lifeless to really sell it and as a result it doesn’t truly feel real.

So, I think that there are many problems in the second half of Chapter Two, both in the writing and in Marsha Mason’s performance which is not able to really bring the dramatic tension to life. But on the plus side, she is perfection in many moments in the first half. The romance between George and Jennie starts over 5 telephone calls and Marsha Mason perfectly delivers the light tone necessary and she is both charming and interesting, creating a much better chemistry with James Caan than she would later in person and she is able to catch the viewer’s attention completely. She also does not overuse the dialogue, almost underplaying most her jokes instead of being visibly proud of them as James Caan. She also wins the contest “most interesting character” very easily, not only because George becomes almost insufferable later but also because she actually manages to appear like a human being and she has the right attitude for the romantic first half of the story even if the script is again working against her. Neil Simon clearly used the material more to display his own situation after the death of his wife instead of how Marsha Mason helped him with his grief as the script constantly focuses more strongly on the character of George and his backstory. The fact that Jennie is divorced plays no role at all – she is never reluctant to start a new relationship so soon, she never thinks back of the problems in her first marriage but instead rushes willingly into this new marriage and is prepared to fight for it even if it doesn’t seem worth it at certain points. But Marsha Mason still creates a lovely and lively person and also works very well with Valerie Harper and she overall creates the impression of a strong-minded and independent woman. She is certainly a joy to watch as she slowly begins to accept George's romantic advances and she is always the one to keep the movie going.

There was certainly a lot of potential in the role but unfortunately only the first half of it lived up to its promises. While James Caan and Marsha Mason created some lovely moments in the beginning of Chapter Two, I really did not want them to end up together anymore at the end. This is mostly the fault of the writing and of James Caan’s too insensitive portrayal and I applaud Marsha Mason for being the most praiseworthy aspect of the production but I also wish that she had shown more independence in the role and not just used tears in every dramatic situation while begging to be loved as it sometimes appears that Jennie from the beginning and Jennie from the end are two different persons. As it is, I don’t believe in the great love story I am supposed to see – and since Neil Simon and Marsha Mason got divorced a couple of years later, I think that my impression of George and Jennie as a far-from-perfect couple is probably correct…

 And a hint to the next performance that will be ranked: