My current Top 5

My current Top 5


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:


Giuseppe Fadda said...

The next performance might be... Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown? I have no idea.

By the way, how is Valerie Harper in this?

Fritz said...

She's fine but nothing amazing. I can imagine this being a Scene-stealer on the stage though...