The Best Actresses of 1977

(For a description of this project, see my about page.)

1977’s Best Actress Oscar win for Diane Keaton for her performance in Annie Hall seems like one of those pre-ordained victories–like Helen Mirren’s sweep of the 2006 awards season for The Queen. (A sweep in 2006 constitutes a lot more awards than even existed in 1977, as evidenced by The Queen‘s IMDb awards page.) Keaton steamrolled the 1977 awards season, taking home an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and awards from the New York Film Critics’ Circle, and their more highbrow rivals at the National Society of Film Critics. The National Board of Review was so eager to award Keaton that its voters shoved her into the supporting category. It’s not entirely a case of category fraud, given that Annie Hall is a solipsistic monument to Allen’s ego in which Keaton plays Zeppo as Allen tries to play Groucho, Harpo, and Chico at the same time. She even managed to snag a second Globe nomination for her performance in Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

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electric blue: win; baby blue: nomination; gray: mention/runner-up

The only major awards body that overlooked Keaton was the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Allen’s New York chauvinism had led to some bad feelings between L.A. and Allen, so Annie Hall managed only a screenplay win (I wish they were more troubled by his male chauvinism). For Best Actress, LAFCA went with Shelley Duvall’s bizarre performance as Millie Lammoreaux in Robert Altman’s 3 Women. Like Sally Hawkins for Happy Go Lucky in the 2008 awards season, Duvall in 1977 plays the role of the critical favorite who manages to win multiple awards–she also tied for Best Actress at Cannes–yet fails to make the roster on Oscar nomination morning (which is something like Christmas morning for extremely gay people such as myself but without the oppressive family aspects). Her costar Sissy Spacek had won her first nomination the year before for her iconic performance in Carrie but awards bodies placed her, erroneously, in the supporting category. Category fraud or not, she too came up empty on Oscar nomination morning.

After first-time nominee Keaton, 1971 winner Jane Fonda received the most support from awards bodies, though both of her wins came in races in which Keaton’s Annie Hall performance was ineligible: the Golden Globe roster for Best Actress in a Drama, and the BAFTA nominees for Best Actress of 1978–the year after Keaton won the same trophy. Still, awards bodies rallied for JuliaGod knows why, but they didand Fonda’s nomination was pretty secure, as was 1962 winner Anne Bancroft’s for The Turning Pointwhich managed to snag eleven nominations despite being objectively horrible in nearly every way. Marsha Mason actually managed to tie Keaton for the Golden Globe for her performance in The Goodbye Girl, and it seems she must have been relatively secure on nomination morning.

The person who knocked Duvall out of the running was the still-Oscarless superstar Shirley MacLaine for her performance as Bancroft’s old friend and rival in The Turning Point. MacLaine had the less showy role (she is the Sally Durant to Bancroft’s Phyllis Stone) and no precursor support, but the Academy’s love for The Turning Point–and to the star who famously “lost to a tracheotomy” in 1960gave MacLaine the fifth spot on the roster. She would have to wait six more years to finally get her statuette.

So, who deserved a seat at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for Oscar’s 50th birthday bash and who, well, didn’t? Find out after the jump.

For 1977, I looked at fifteen performances that were, or should have been, in the conversation for Best Actress. Here they are in reverse order of preference:

#15: Kathleen Quinlan in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

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This is the kind of bizarre choice the Golden Globes used to be famous for (ahem). This appalling mental hospital drama, made by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures during its valiant stab at respectability, managed to snag an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in perhaps the weakest year that category has ever seen (the winner was Alvin Sargent for Julia, which–ugh–we’ll get to). It’s a tenth-rate knockoff trying to capitalize on the successes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sybil. The whole tawdry affair is directed by Anthony Page, who had more luck with television than feature films.

As the blandly sympathetic doctor, Bergman collaborator Bibi Andersson gives the blandly sympathetic performance you’d expect from this kind of movie. The late 1970s were not kind to Andersson, who ended the decade with The Concorde… Airport ’79 and Robert Altman’s almost unwatchable Quintet, alongside a visibly checked-out Paul Newman. Here, she at least manages to give a competent performance in a film that otherwise wastes the fabulous Sylvia Sidney and allows Susan Tyrrell to give the most Susan Tyrrell-esque performance this side of Cry-Baby.

However, it was her second-billed costar Kathleen Quinlan who nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as a young woman with schizophrenia. As Father Noël once wrote, I “knew the excitement was bound to begin” when our first shot of Quinlan shows only her from the mouth up in her mommy and daddy’s car’s rear view mirror, her eyes wide and unsettling as Paul Chihara’s movie-of-the-week score sucks away at any ambiguity. Any hopes that this might be a sensitive take on mental illness dissipates when Quinlan looks down at the floor and a chorus of ominous voices fills the soundtrack. This sets the tone for the remaining eighty-five minutes of the movie.

Quinlan’s character, Deborah, escapes childhood trauma by spending time in some weird white settler colonial fantasy land in which Kenicke from Grease (the lovely Jeff Conaway) puts on American Indian garb and romances/menaces her. Cue the requisite shots of her running across desert-scapes draped in appropriative outfits, looking like the final girl of a horror film set at Coachella. It’s funny in that troubling “we really need to talk about camp’s relationship to colonialism” kind of way. As camp, Quinlan’s performance is too boring to really work. As good acting, Quinlan’s performance is too boring to really work. Quinlan gives good sullen teenager but the rest of the time, it seems like the screenplay is dragging her from one scene to the next without much beyond a path-to-recovery narrative to connect them.

(That same year, Quinlan appeared in a nothing role in the glorious Airport ’77 in which she is romanced by a blind lounge singer on a luxury 747, who sings to her in a very late-70s falsetto that “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.” He gets crushed to death by his piano when the plane goes down in the Bermuda Triangle. This has nothing to do with the film at hand, but if you ever find yourself wanting to watch I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, rent Airport ’77 and have a great time watching Lee Grant get drunk and mean and horny and rather perfunctorily sacrificed to Poseidon instead.)

#14: Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl

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Mason plays Paula McFadden, who finds herself sharing an apartment with egotistical actor Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss) when her egotistical actor boyfriend skips town and rents the apartment out from under her. As Paula attempts to resume her career as a Broadway dancer, she finds herself falling for the unwelcome tenant.

Really, what do you say when the sincerity of a child’s performance makes the actress playing her mother look amateurish? Quinn Cummings and Richard Dreyfuss give such lived-in performances that Mason’s Paula comes off as a wide-eyed cartoon. Though I’ve always been an agnostic where the talents of Neil Simon are concerned, it seems a bit too easy to blame his screenplay.

But God, Marsha Mason just grates on me. The dreadful insincerity and the painfully obvious performance choices are so grating that I can’t tell if Neil Simon’s writing and Herbert Ross’s direction are actually terrible or if I am responding only to the pain of having to watch Mason act in air-quotes and exclamation points for one-hour-and-fifty-minutes of grating. Doesn’t the above still just punch you right between the eyes?

Indeed, when Mason says “You get dumped on enough, you start to develop an edge,” I’m left wondering if the disconnect between the dialogue and her performance is meant to be a joke. If so, it’s the worst-executed joke in the film (Simon, Ross, and Dreyfuss at least get the hateful point across in those homophobic Richard III scenes). Still, there are flashes of an interesting actress beneath the Tex Avery mugging. Mason is actually fun to watch when Paula pretends to be a policeman’s wife in an attempt to ward off Elliott when he arrives at the apartment. But overall, her choices seem obvious and strained. It will be interesting as I look at Mason’s three other nominations (1973, 1979, and 1981) to see if this is a fluke or a running theme in her career.

#13: Jodie Foster in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

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I actually like the remaining thirteen performances on this year’s list, so there’s a big gulf in quality between Quinlan and Mason, and Foster’s good work here. Her performance in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane comes just after her 1976 breakthrough that included an Oscar-nominated performance in Taxi Driver, plus roles in Freaky Friday (opposite the goddess Barbara Harris) and Bugsy Malone, which–based on a capsule description–I will never, ever see. Her work here netted her a Saturn Award, but no major awards season attention.

This creepy little Canadian horror flick released by AIP casts Foster as Rynn Jacobs, who lives with her poet father in a home they rent from the WASPy-as-all-hell Mrs. Hallett, played by Alexis Smith. (We don’t have time to go into my Alexis Smith/Follies obsession, but she was just – just – yeah.) Mrs. Hallett, in her utterly WASP-y way, expresses concern over the fact that she never sees Rynn’s father about, and that the teenager seems to be left to her own devices. You see, Rynn has secrets.

In a sequence that wants so very badly to be Catherine Burns’s famous monologue from Last Summer, Rynn reveals these secrets to her only friend. SPOILERS Her father, dying of cancer and wanting to spare her being returned to the custody of her abusive mother, kills himself in such a manner that his body will not be found. But not before giving his daughter a vial of something special to give her mother if and when she showed up. Rynn’s mother is now… in the cellar, living her best Norma Bates afterlife. END SPOILERS 

What works in this scene and what doesn’t are representative of the performance as a whole. Foster’s maturity was always a central component of her star image as a youth performer. The film plays with this quality, giving her a strange hairdo that suggests a much younger child, and having Foster perform fits of anger and fear that bely her otherwise cool intelligence. Her demands that people respect her privacy and independence are a fabulous blend of the mature and immature qualities of Foster’s characterization. In the monologue, Foster emphasizes the writerly bits of the screenplay a bit too heavily, such as the gold-tipped cigarettes and her mother’s red nails. It comes off as too play-act-y, but the artifice of these moments adds an interesting layer to the performance. How many times has Rynn thought about cooly recounting these details? Though she falters a bit when the screenplay lets her down, it’s a strong performance.

#12: Sally Field in Smokey and the Bandit

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What we got here, as Sheriff Buford T. Justice might say, is a god-damn, standard-issue late-seventies Sally Field performance. It’s the same performance she gives in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure but in a better movie. She’s kooky, wide-eyed, and more-or-less game for anything. Here, Field is too reliant on the mannerisms that she would later use more sparingly, but to better effect (I weep during this scene). It doesn’t help that while the screenplay and direction recognize that Field’s Carrie is no damsel in distress, they occasionally require Field to do 180-degree turns from exhilaration to fear, and vice-versa.

Still, she’s fun and totally in-sync with the film’s delightfully off-the-cuff, B-movie rhythms. She pairs nicely with Reynolds, and doesn’t overplay the gratuitous, late-in-the-movie romantic interlude. This is exactly the kind of performance that shows up in the Golden Globes comedy category; you say “Oh, that’s nice,” and never expect it to carry over to the Oscar roster. Field’s best comedic work was ahead of her (if you don’t recognize that her performance in Soapdish is genius, then I don’t know what to say to you), but her turn here is fun and serves the movie well.

#11: Jane Fonda in Julia

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Fonda plays celebrated playwright Lillian Hellman in a film based on an episode from her memoir Pentimento. The film plays as hazy memories of an older Hellman, remembering her dearest friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), and centers on Hellman’s journey into Germany to smuggle funds to Julia, who has joined the anti-Nazi resistance.

Mary McCarthy famously told Dick Cavett that every word “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” I reserve comment. But Hellman’s tale of traveling through Nazi Germany to smuggle funds to the resistance reads like something out of a 1940s Warner Bros. melodrama. I half-expected Paul Lukas to show up and moralize at us.

I want to like this performance, but the film drags Fonda down into incoherence much more often that it gives her room to find nuance in Lillian Hellman. One major problem is that Vanessa Redgrave’s performance dominates Julia, even though she is only onscreen for a few scenes. It feels like we’re saddled with boring old Lillian writing plays about suicidal lesbians when we could be fighting Nazis with Julia. Fonda’s performance has some exciting moments but she never commits to an approach. The hard edge that makes Fonda so great in films like Klute–and on Grace & Frankie–is in evidence, especially in the scenes where Lillian struggles to write and fights with her lover Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards). But that edge gets dulled considerably in the scenes in which she tries to play the naïf in a melodrama.

Fonda’s indecisive approach is symptomatic Alvin Sargent’s scattershot screenplay and Fred Zinnemann’s leaden direction. A parade of supporting characters barely registers throughout the arid proceedings (including Dorothy Parker, for God’s sake!). So many questions remain unexplored in screenplay and performance. Chief among them: what is going through Hellman’s mind as a Jewish woman asked to endanger her life help her non-Jewish friend resist the Nazis? Fonda provides some compelling moments–and I think she plays the final scene with Julia extremely well–but she fails to overcome a film that refuses to decide on an approach to the material.

#10: Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point

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My notes from my most recent viewing of The Turning Point contain the following note: “Why isn’t the excess more fun?” That sums up my complaint about this turgid film that managed to pull eleven Oscar nominations while Opening Night and Providence couldn’t gather a single one between them. It got a Best Picture nod, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind did not. I’m not even a Spielberg fan, and that pisses me off.

I dislike The Turning Point‘s sickly late-seventies color scheme and its bland seriousness undercutting the effectiveness of its melodrama. Mostly, I dislike that I don’t get more enjoyment from a film that climaxes with a fight outside Lincoln Center in which purses are thrown and buttocks slapped.

Okay, I hate The Turning Point. I don’t want to, but I do. I want to revel in the ridiculous excess of Herbert Ross’ direction in which the film suddenly changes mode and turns into a PBS-style dance performance before switching back again. I want to revel in the pleasures of Leslie Browne’s performance, perhaps the worst ever nominated for an Academy Award. But the film is unsatisfying as drama and unsatisfying as camp. And those are really the only two ways I enjoy anything.

But I like Shirley MacLaine, and she does good work here, though it’s a performance that improves as the film goes on. MacLaine plays DeeDee Rogers, an Oklahoma City dance instructor who once performed with America’s premier ballet company before leaving to start a family with her dancer husband Wayne, played by the lovely Tom Skerritt. When the company does a two-night stop in Oklahoma City, Deedee is overjoyed but this encounter with the past unsettles her. When her daughter, Emilia (the apparently-sentient Leslie Browne), makes known her ambition to join the company, her long-standing resentments reach their climax.

The past and present relationship between DeeDee and Emma (Anne Bancroft) forms the center of the film. The film follows the points of conflict between their seemingly parallel lives, DeeDee as the one who sacrificed her career to have a family and Emma as the one who sacrificed having a family to have a career. MacLaine has the less showy role and she perhaps overcompensates with the slightly shrill suburban housewife routine she puts on in some of the early scenes, especially when she goes backstage after the performance to reunite with her old compatriots. It all feels a bit fake to me.

MacLaine’s performance is much more interesting when she digs into the resentments and doubts building within DeeDee. She nails an early scene in which she quietly challenges Emma’s self-serving view of the past. When the tug-of-war between DeeDee and Emma over Emilia kicks into high gear, MacLaine provides DeeDee with a great deal of strength, all the while using the wry humor that is so elemental to her screen persona. It’s good work in a bad movie that in a less strong year might make my top five.

#9: Diane Keaton in Annie Hall

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Annie Hall was a favorite film of mine growing up. I wanted to so badly to be the kind of shitty, egotistical elitist that Allen exemplifies (of course, those weren’t the words I’d have used to describe him then). It’s a hard film to return to and I’ve avoided watching it since I was an undergraduate. Watching Allen’s Alvy Singer hilariously condescend to and more-or-less browbeat a woman for an entire film is not exactly the laugh riot I recall from when I was a teenager.

Watching it again, I noticed something that I never did before: most of Diane Keaton’s performance is her quietly reacting to his behavior. People remember the la-di-da and the lobster scene, but for the first twenty minutes of the film–and many scenes thereafter–Allen gives Keaton little to do but react to his harangues. That is, when Allen deigns to point the camera at Keaton–the movie is such a monument to his bland neuroses that in at least one crucial argument, the camera follows him around while she is banished to offscreen space.

It occurred to me as I was watching that I was perhaps reading too much against the grain of the film in my analysis of Keaton’s performance. I accept that charge, but I also don’t really care. What is interesting to me about the performance is that it serves in many ways as a counter-text to Allen’s performance, subtly revealing the misogyny and gargantuan self-regard of both the character and his writer, director, and portrayer. In this viewing, Annie’s la-di-da and her nervousness come off as attempts to cope with a man who weaponizes pseudo-intellectual babble in order to position himself so that he never has to regard a woman as his equal. In the scene where they meet after Annie goes all California–in Allen’s view, a crime worse than murder–what the film seems to want us to read as superficiality comes across quite differently: in his absence, she’s erected barriers to keep him out.

Keaton’s most beautiful moments are the only ones when she doesn’t have to react to him–the scenes in which she’s performing onstage. The nervousness, the tics, the mannerisms of Annie Hall are all present, but there’s something less defensive about them. Her growing confidence as a performer parallels her movement away from Alvy. Alvy Singer is still the same asshole we started the movie with, but Keaton gives me hope that Annie will be all right.

It’s a troubling film–and perhaps I’m grasping at straws to redeem Keaton’s work in it. But her work indicates something deeper and disturbing–perhaps even a kind of counter-text–going on in this comedy about a garbage person’s oh-so-hilarious mistreatment of women.

#8: Shelley Duvall in 3 Women

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Duvall portrays Millie Lammoreaux, a Texan-born worker at a geriatric health spa in the California desert. Talkative but chronically ignored, Millie draws the attention of a timid young woman named Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) who gradually begins to take over her life as Millie looks on in growing fear.

We first see Millie through Pinky’s obsessive, searching gaze, a cunning move since Altman will later pull the rug out from under us and ask us to take on Millie’s gradually terrified view of Pinky. However, Duvall never allows the film to lapse into what a simple plot description would suggest: a thriller about obsession and identity theft. Duvall’s performance, though not as showy as Spacek’s, is key to setting the tone of the film, which is more unsettling than it is frightening. Despite Millie’s constant jabbering, most of Duvall’s best work in the film comes in reaction shots that convey confusion and dread.

Still, I’ve always felt that certain critics went gaga over Duvall because her performances are so bizarre, in the same way the certain folks adore the strangeness of Twin Peaks so much they overstate the case for its brilliance. However, this is my favorite of the Duvall performances I’ve seen, and Duvall and Altman seem totally in sync throughout the movie. Watching four decades later, Duvall’s eccentricities still fascinate rather than repel. What other actress could portray a woman who keeps a color-coded binder full of tuna-and-potato-chip casserole recipes and not come across as twee or pathetic? As we study Millie, her constant yammering and pursuit of uninterested, would-be lovers seem like they should oscillate our responses between annoyance and pity. Instead, Duvall never makes her would-be butterfly too sad or too annoying for uncomfortable audience identification. Millie’s often mortifying lapses of taste and judgment becomes something fascinating under the spell of Duvall’s idiosyncratic talent.

#7: Sissy Spacek in 3 Women

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If I find myself drawn to Spacek a tad more in 3 Women, I suppose that means the film is doing what it set out to do. In the early scenes, Pinky seems to have no past or present. Especially given Pinky’s timidity, my response to this blank slate was to project Spacek’s own recent past onto Pinky, noting the similarities between Carrie White and Pinky Rose. However, Carrie White has the understandable curiosity of the outcast for the rituals of those who belong; there is something deeply unsettling about Pinky Rose’s voyeuristic gaze. Spacek hits just the right note of eeriness in these scenes. As Millie does a haphazard job of training Pinky on her first day at work–Millie is too self-absorbed to care much–Spacek’s observation of Millie seems like a kind of predatory note-taking. Spacek adds a glint of potential malice to the performance that renders Pinky’s childlike qualities somewhat menacing rather than innocent.

Spacek never loses the childishness in Pinky, even as she transforms herself into Millie. Pinky’s imitation of Millie’s behavior comes off as a crass, petulant version of the original. Spacek is in tune with the perverse motherhood narrative at work here. Pinky, the newborn, imitates a mother figure, Millie, eventually threatening to subsume her. Pinky’s disregard for Millie in these later scenes seems like an even worse version of Millie’s own selfishness, a monstrous, degraded copy of the original. That Pinky’s appropriation of Millie’s personality is far more successful, albeit only briefly, at attracting the attention of those around her heightens the strangeness and the pathos of Duvall’s performance. Spacek, too, fits right in with Altman’s dreamlike direction and her transformation is mesmerizing to watch.

#6: Anne Bancroft in The Turning Point

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It would not seem to bode well for 1977 that no performance on the Academy’s Best Actress roster made my own list. However, 1977 has always been one of my favorite years to argue over. Every performance on the Academy’s list besides Mason’s excites me in some way and there are performances and moments of performances that I cherish on their list.

I cherish Bancroft’s performance in The Turning Point despite the film’s shortcomings. Bancroft has been a favorite of mine since childhood. She is simultaneously glamorous and vulgar. It’s a kind of winking piss-elegance that never devolves into irony because Bancroft refuses to take herself too seriously. It’s this quality that makes her Emma such a compelling character. Her strength belies her frailness. Her impishness belies her grace. Her determination belies her lessening abilities.

Bancroft’s performances are gritty, and this one is no exception.Whereas I have some trouble believing MacLaine as an Oklahoma City dance instructor, Bancroft is utterly convincing as a great dancer attempting to maintain her dignity as she is forced into an emrita role as teacher and coach. She conveys the pain of an aging body pushed to its limits. Emma’s steely facade, toughened through decades of intense labor as a premier ballerina, never crumbles, but doubts and pains gradually weather it.

I have a clear favorite among her scenes: the one in which Martha Scott’s head of the ballet company interrupts Emma’s post-performance celebration and asks her to quit performing and move into directing. Bancroft’s mix of humor and hurt is affecting without sacrificing the self-deprecating humor that is key to her persona. Her smile melts into something of a grimace. She rises, saying “Excuse me–I really must do something to my face.” Bancroft’s smile invites us to take pleasure in the ridiculousness of her trying to be polite in the face of such an obvious slight. Yet it remains thoroughly appropriate for the character, and the effect is devastating. It’s a fabulous performance in a film that doesn’t deserve it.

AND HERE ARE MY NOMINEES FOR BEST ACTRESS OF 1977

#5: Liza Minnelli in New York, New York

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Cocaine is a hell of a drug, kids. For every fabulous late-seventies auteur masterpiece it gave us, there were plenty of casualties. Somehow, Martin Scorsese got the idea that he had what it takes to direct musicals. Being Liza’s boyfriend at the time probably had something to do with that (cue Jinkx as Little Edie: “It was quite the scandal, actually!”). They made New York, New York and the Broadway musical The Act before parting ways. Critics suggested that Scorsese stick to Taxi Driver, but Liza received some acclaim for both, even winning a Tony for The Act before she lost the stamina to maintain an eight-performance-a-week schedule and the show closed in the red. The Golden Globes bestowed Liza and New York, New York four nominations, but the Oscars didn’t even nominate its iconic Kander and Ebb title song (“Everybody thinks they’re Frank Sinatra”).

New York, New York, like Fosse’s musicals of the same period, particularly All That Jazz, exhibits more than a little ambivalence towards the musical form. An early scene captures the film’s mood perfectly: Robert DeNiro (don’t worry, he barely sings) watches a sailor dance with a woman on V-J day, their performance seen from a voyeur’s distance and lit by the light of street lamp and the flickering of a passing train. The clashing of the theatrical mise-en-scène of the Hollywood musical and Scorsese’s New York realism is present throughout the film. What emerges is a dark and uncertain movie.

Liza’s casting is crucial to the mood of the film as well. Shot on some of the same soundstages as her mother’s MGM musicals, the ghost of Judy Garland haunts this movie. Garland’s hairdresser, Sydney Guilaroff, provides her daughter with some very Judy 1940s hairdos.

In the shadow of her mother’s ghost, Liza plays Francine Evans. In the days following World War Two, her career as a big band singer takes off. Along with her comes saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (DeNiro), who through harassment and bullying, manages to ride her coattails (Alvy Singer would probably worship Doyle and have all his vinyls). Of course, being an artist, Jimmy resents playing Rogers & Hart songs, and he especially hates being in the shadow of a woman entertainer–particularly after he marries Francine. Eventually, they separate and Francine goes Hollywood while Jimmy becomes renowned for his playing. DeNiro gives a thrilling performance in the Stanley Kowlaski mode and it’s not hard to see why Francine falls for him.

Indeed, Liza has to make us believe that someone who radiates as much intelligence and savvy as Francine would fall for this loutish prick. Liza nails her character from the first scene, when she sits alone at a nightclub table amidst the V-J day revelers. She tries to look available without looking vulnerable. When Jimmy sees his chance, she reacts with a mixture of disdain and wry humor until something starts to shift. She seems to be thrilled by the presence of this force of nature even as she is somewhat repulsed (very Stella/Stanley, that). As the film goes on, Liza’s manic energy adds to the growing sense of unease about their relationship. She seems constantly trying to assuage an unpredictable partner.

The centerpiece of the performance is the “But the World Goes Round” scene. The song is classic Kander and Ebb. It’s Liza at her best. And it’s the closest the film comes to openly embracing its status as a musical by relying on her ability to put over a song. Even though it is set in a recording studio and presented as Francine at work rather than singing spontaneously in the musical tradition, Minnelli weaves Francine’s personal and professional lives into the performance. The pathos is real. Like Annie Hall, performance provides a space where Francine Evans can explore possibilities that a narrative centered on her relationship with a man doesn’t provide. When Minnelli triumphantly tucks her hands in her pockets at she belts the final notes, she seems to be vindicating the showtune as a vehicle–and the film/Broadway diva as an artist. The film may be ambivalent about the musical as art, but Minnelli’s performance is not.

#4: Sophia Loren in A Special Day

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While her costar Marcello Mastroianni deservedly received an Oscar nomination for his performance, Sophia Loren received no awards attention outside of Italy. In A Special Day, Loren portrays Antonietta, a Rome housewife, who spends an afternoon in 1938 with disgraced radio announcer Gabriele (Mastroianni) when they are the only two tenants to remain in their apartment block during a rally to celebrate the public meeting of Mussolini and Hitler. Despite his homosexuality and antifascist politics, she finds herself drawn to him.

By 1977, Loren was the ultimate movie star, so her casting as a housewife living a life of dreary fascist monotony might seem as forced as the sepia-tone that desaturates the image. And yet, both of these elements work together powerfully. The shades of Italian neo-realism produce tension with the film’s polished look. Similarly, the domestic melodrama is infused with the dread of an ascendant fascism whose defeat is distant enough to trap the characters within a moment that we know will get far worse before the hope of a reprieve.

Loren may be guilty of overplaying Antonietta’s fatigue as if it were a facial paralysis, but hers is a mesmerizing visage. Her Antonietta is a traditional Italian Catholic housewife but she is no fool, as her early scenes interacting with her children make clear. As her husband and children vacate the apartment to salute the fascist leaders, Antonietta goes about her daily routine. Loren’s quiet and illuminating work is excellent in these early scenes.

Antonietta’s interactions with the educated and politically dissenting Gabriele give Loren the opportunity for some gorgeous acting. Conscious of her lack of education and her worldview shaped by Mussolini, the pope, and her husband, Antonietta regards her neighbor with suspicion but also wonder. It would be extremely easy for a performer to condescend to Antonietta, but Loren draws a complex portrait in these scenes. When Gabriele paws through Antonietta’s scrapbook of Mussolini clippings, assuming it is the work of one of her daughters, Loren does not oversell the embarrassment and hurt Gabriele inflicts on her. Her defensive posture rebuffs our pity, and to some extent our empathy.

Like Gena Rowlands’ powerful work in Opening Night–we’ll get to that below–some of Loren’s most powerful moments are deeply ambiguous ones. It’s not fully clear what draws Antonietta to Gabriele, and Loren registers a fascinating combination of confusion and passion. And in her final scene, as she watches the police take Gabriele away, Loren’s face resists a simple reading. We are left to wonder what, if anything, has changed. It’s a quiet but powerful performance and makes me hungry to see more from Loren as this project continues.

#3: Lily Tomlin in The Late Show

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Lily Tomlin was one of my queer icons before I even recognized that either of us were queer. The greatest thing about Lily Tomlin is that she makes us believe in the worlds she creates, no matter how absurd they may be. When Margo Sterling approaches grumpy private eye Ira Wells (a wonderful Art Carney) to find her missing cat, Tomlin plays it with absolute conviction. That she does so at the funeral of his former partner is hilariously gauche, but unlike Millie Lammoreaux, her lapses are adorable because Margo is aware of the world around her–she is just hilariously out-of-sync with it. In another performer’s hands, all of this might come off as mean-spirited but Tomlin is just the performer for such an absurd character.

Indeed, there is something deliciously queer in the relationship that develops between Margo and Ira. It’s not a romance, though the inability of many reviewers to think outside of compulsory Hollywood heterosexuality leads many of them to label it a May/December relationship. Margo struggles to articulate her connection to this old, crotchety man but Tomlin beautifully conveys her vulnerability and her sense that something lovely could happen between them if he’d let his damn guard down. Ira’s tentative acknowledgement of their friendship at the film’s end wouldn’t be so rewarding if it weren’t for Tomlin’s ability to bring warmth to a deeply ridiculous character.

The neo-noirs of the 1970s (Chinatown, Farewell, My Lovely, etc.) are not my thing. The poisonous masculinity, the highly-stylized ugliness–little of it appeals to me. But Robert Benton’s weird little comedy-noir is such a brilliant and unique entry that it transcends its subgenre. Carney’s gruffly anachronistic retired gumshoe and Tomlin’s scatterbrained hippie are magical together, and the biggest payoff of the film is watching two actors with extremely different styles mesh so satisfyingly. Tomlin was never going to be our conventional romantic heroine (apparently Moment by Moment is a truly horrifying testament to that fact). Nor does anyone really want to see her as such (again, Moment by Moment). In Margo, she found a role that perfectly fit her gloriously idiosyncratic queer comedic genius.

#2: Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar

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Keaton plays Theresa Dunn, who tries to balance her duties as a schoolteacher and the daughter of a strict Catholic family with her own desires. As she strives for independence and agency, her encounters with male violence become more disturbing.

This is probably my favorite Diane Keaton performance. Keaton’s resists the victim narrative that the screenplay and direction occasionally gesture toward, and that surrounds her real-life inspiration, Roseann Quinn. She animates Theresa Dunn’s multiple drives and makes her seem funny, real, and occasionally desperate. And it all comes marvelously together in a performance that plays up the messiness of her life without judgement or pity. Theresa Dunn is someone having to make it up as she goes because restrictive norms limit the options easily available to her. Keaton gives us the joy and fear of Theresa’s exploits, and most excitingly, she leans into the masochism that the screenplay tones down, especially in her relationship with her college professor early in the film.

Though I admire much in Richard Brooks’ screenplay and direction, the moments when the movie presents a “double life” narrative by juxtaposing scenes of her in the bars with scenes of her teaching piss me off. There’s a supposed incongruity here that the film wants us to see, as if a teacher of deaf children can’t also be horny. I realize that this is something that Theresa herself is struggling with, given her upbringing and the threat of male violence that polices her behavior, but it skirts the line of victim-blaming. Still, whereas Keaton seems hemmed-in by Allen’s misogynist conception of Annie Hall, here she is able to transcend the potentially problematic aspects of the screenplay to deliver a powerful performance that responds to, but isn’t defined by, the male violence surrounding her. Keaton centers the performance on Theresa’s pleasure and, in doing so, elevates the movie considerably.

#1: Gena Rowlands in Opening Night

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Rowlands plays Myrtle Gordon, an acclaimed stage actress haunted by the death of a young fan–and, it seems, the ghost of her young self. Myrtle begins to spiral out of control as she prepares for the opening night of her latest play.

Cassavetes and Rowlands refuse to give the audience answers about what ails Myrtle Gordon. She drinks, smokes, has trouble admitting her age, and clearly has a strong self-destructive streak. Whereas Looking for Mr. Goodbar revolves around a series of discoveries about Theresa that add another piece to the puzzle (her scoliosis scar, her strict father, etc.) we learn about Myrtle via gestures, attitudes, and actions that resist such interpretation. Scenes that would likely be the centerpiece of another performance, like the one in which she trashes a room in an attempt to exorcise herself of the ghost, don’t stand out as key scenes in Rowlands’ characterization.

Instead, Rowlands is most compelling in moments where she gets to be… well, weird. Like her first encounter with the ghost of the dead girl, where she is so tender and her eyes betray a mix of fear and desire. It’s such a strange moment, with no clear tone to guide the audience. Rowlands doesn’t provide clarification as to how we’re supposed to feel–but what she provides is bizarre and touching.

Rowlands’ enigmatic but warm performance is the lynchpin of the film–the fulcrum around which everything else in this bizarre not-quite-horror film pivots. Myrtle seems most alive on a dangerous precipice and the performance is a thrilling mix of horror, humor, and anger. Rowlands infuses the film with a humor that recalls Bancroft’s Emma Jacklin, but here the humor starts to ring absurd–on occasion it veers into gallows humor as Myrtle seems to lose her moorings.

In the end, Rowlands leaves us with a sense of Myrtle having achieved some kind of victory, but the nature of that victory is left undefined. But Rowlands’ bravura performance is one of the strangest, most thrilling, and daring I’ve ever seen.

Wanna fight? Is there a 1977 performance I’ve overlooked? Do you think I’m wonderful? Are you one of those awful people who find my tone too flippant? Put it in the comments.

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andsomeothers

Queer academic and vulgarian. Doctoral candidate in English at the University of Illinois @ Urbana-Champaign

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