By John H. Foote
The first time we saw them, they took our breath away with their artistic genius. Maybe we could not shake them for weeks after seeing the film, the work has always been prowling in the landscape of our mind, waiting to be found. The advent of home entertainment, first VHS now Blu Ray and streaming has allowed many of these performances to be found and re-discovered to be celebrated for the fine works they are.
How were they ever forgotten?
How is it a great performance is overlooked, you might be asking? No one really knows but it has been happening since the silent era. Perhaps the film is released at a bad time, the market flooded with bigger movies, perhaps audiences were not interested in seeing that actor in that role, and on and on we go. What is important is that they are being found, and young people are discovering John Wayne, James Stewart, Eric Roberts, Bruce Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh for the first time.
So many of these performances SHOULD have been Oscar nominated, so many were not. On the list are six Oscar nominated performances that are rarely discussed when talking about the artists work, which I find shameful. I suppose it is no longer important how they are forgotten, but that they are being remembered, at last.
The saddest part of a film failing, either with audiences at the box office or with critics, the fine performance within suffer, and are often ignored. That is the case with so many listed below.
In no particular order.
KATHERINE HEPBURN IN LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962)
Though The Great Kate was nominated for an Oscar for her tragic, stunning Mary Tyrone in this superb film of O’Neill’s greatest work, it is rarely discussed when talks of her best work comes up. Her Mary Tyrone is the definitive take on the character. Hepburn was never better as the drug addled matriarch struggling to hold together her family and sanity both at the same time. The actress was never more vulnerable or quite as weak, yet in that weakness she soared. A remarkable piece of acting from one of the greats.
JOHN WAYNE IN THE SHOOTIST (1976)
In the last, and one of his finest performances, Wayne portrays a gunslinger dying of cancer, ironic because he too was suffering from the disease. As JB Books, the Duke gives a haunting powerful performance in a beautifully acted and directed film tinged with autumnal melancholy. Rather than die to the ravages of cancer, even worse in 1901, he figures a way to go. Wayne deserved to be nominated for an Oscar for this, and was deeply disappointed he was not.
DEBRA WINGER IN THE SHELTERING SKY (1990)
There was a time Winger was the most exciting young actress in movies, and the most difficult. Her performance here is a towering piece of work, brilliantly portraying a woman whose husband dies leaving her alone in the desert. She enters into a wild sexual affair with dark eyed leader of a caravan and makes way back to civilization, never the same, believing she was truly alive when in the desert. Fearless acting.
ERIC ROBERTS IN STAR 80 (1983)
This was a case of a great actor giving a truly great performance as a repellant character that no one watching the film could bear to watch. As killer Paul Snider, who murdered his wife, Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten before raping and sodomizing her, is a heartbreaking story. Roberts stalks the film like a trapped panther, ready to lash out when cornered or insulted. One of the mot dislikable characters in film history, and the courage it took to give this performance is remarkable.
EDDIE MURPHY IN THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1996)
Say what you will about some of his career choices, no one has ever denied Murphy his talent. Never was it on greater display than it is in this remake of the Jerry Lewis classic in which Murphy portrays several roles, and sends up his own image. He won the National Society of Film Critics Awards for Best Actor for this performance, but that too seems forgotten. A great, great, truly remarkable series of performances.
DIANNE WIEST IN INDEPENDENCE DAY (1983)
the future two-time Oscar winner was first known to audiences, (those who saw the film), in her brilliant, haunting performance as a battered wife who patiently waits for the right time to exact her revenge. Oscar should have been watching because Weist was superb, kicking off a tremendous career. Her look of triumph before killing herself and her tormentor is extraordinary.
BEN KINGSLEY IN SEXY BEAST (2001)
As the vicious, violent, alarmingly intense Don Logan, actor Ben Kingsley displayed a range we had not ever seen before. Seething, his very name provoking terror, he is evil incarnate as a mobster sent to convince another former mob guy to help out with a heist. Light years from Gandhi (1982), this is the film for which Kingsley should have won his Oscar. Staring into those black eyes is staring into the pit of hell. He all but breathes fire.
ANJELICA HUSTON IN THE GRIFTERS (1990)
As the bleach blonde numbers runner for the mob, guarding her secrets, Huston gave the performance of her career, easily the best of the year. When is it ever discussed? Sad really because she took the term tough brassy broad to a whole new level, able to give as good as she gets. Her road is a terribly tragic one, yet somehow, inevitable.
ROY SCHEIDER IN SORCERER (1977)
The film was a huge flop with audiences and critics, but Scheider gave a dark and powerful performance as a man running from the mob who takes a job driving nitroglycerin across South America for a huge pay day, and new start. His eyes filled with paranoia, terrified of every bump in the road, he is a bag of jittery nerves. The actor was never better.
JENNIFER JASON LEIGH IN WASHINGTON SQUARE (1997)
Likely the most under appreciated of the great American actresses, Leigh gave an array of superb performances through the nineties, but this was her finest. A remake of The Heiress (1949), she is a wealthy spinster who falls in love, only to realize she has been duped. The hurt and pain is portrayed with aching realism, and we mourn for the loss of the life she wanted. Brilliant.
RICHARD BURTON IN EQUUS (1977)
As the tortured psychiatrist treating a young boy who has committed a horribly violent crime, blinding six horses with a hoof pick. The more he learns about the boy, the more he envies him his passion. Burtons beautifully deep and melodious voice brings magic to the screenplay; it is like the voice of God. The work is stronger on stage, but Burton cannot be denied his glory.
LON CHANEY IN THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923)
the greatest actor of the silent era was Chaney, the man of a thousand faces. Applying his own make up in the days before the studio unions, Chaney would get work on four or five films a day as an extra before ascending it the top of the heap of great actors. His Quasimodo was a horrifying creature, yet equally heartbreaking, his face and body twisted like a living gargoyle. An extraordinary achievement from a nearly forgotten actor.
DUSTIN HOFFMAN IN STRAIGHT TIME (1978)
Hoffman is always at his best when portraying characters with a mean streak, characters willing to do anything to achieve their goal. Here as petty thief Max Dembo just released from prison, he tries to make a go of entering the real world, but is drawn back to crime, deeper than ever. He lies not because he must, but to stay in practice, to remain sharp. Hoffman gives one of his best and blackest performances that so few audiences have seen, among his finest.
LIZA MINNELLI IN NEW YORK NEW YORK (1977)
Hollywood never really knew what to with Minnelli. After her Oscar win for Cabaret (1972), she made a couple of dreadful movies until cast in Scorsese’s revisionist musical set in the immediate days after the end of WWII. She dominates the film, blowing Robert De Niro off the screen with her sensitive and real performance. And that voice…man the girl could sing. Had the film not flopped she would have been an Oscar nominee.
JESSICA LANGE IN THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1981)
Lange is sex incarnate in this splendid adaptation of the Cain novel and remake of the 1946 film. As Cora, the unhappily married waitress who finds in Frank a like minded partner, and draws him into her web, or is he he pulling her into his? She uses her body and sex like a weapon, yet can be broken and vulnerable as well, never to be trusted. This was her breakthrough, this was the film that marked out Lange as a major talent. Not nominated? She should have won.
BRUCE DERN IN BLACK SUNDAY (1977)
Dern should have won the Oscar for Best Actor for his sublime performance as a former POW programmed by a terrorist group to help them attack the Super Bowl and slaughter eighty thousand people in ne fell swoop. Dangerous, vulnerable, focused, and heartbreaking, Dern is simply astounding in the film, electrifying from the first moments we see him.
DIANE KEATON IN LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977)
Lost only because the brilliant film is so rarely seen or discussed, and incredibly not yet available on region one Blu Ray! How is it one of the most scalding films and performances of the seventies is not available? Keaton is stunning, among her best performances as a kindergarten teacher who leads a double life as a promiscuous bar cruiser by night. It will lead to her murder in one of the darkest sequences of the decade.
JILL CLAYBURGH IN LUNA (1979)
In this bold film from Bertolucci, the actress portrays a famous opera singer trying to raise her troubled son alone after the death of her husband. Their relationship crosses a dangerous line into incest and they must slowly come to terms with what has happened. It is a brave piece of acting, and yes, you are supposed to be uncomfortable, but her great talent is that we feel for her.
GENE HACKMAN IN FRENCH CONNECTION II (1975)
Though he won a well-deserved Oscar for the first film, Hackman actually surpasses his performance in the film with his work here, once again portraying tough as nails New York narcotics detective Popeye Doyle. Brought to France to help the French police find the drug lord, Popeye is kidnapped by the dealers and savagely addicted to heroin before being tossed back to the police like garbage. Hackman is shattering in the powerful withdrawal scenes, going deeper than he did in the first film.
STEVE MARTIN IN ALL OF ME (1984)
The New York Film Critics awarded Martin their Best Actor award for his sensational, hysterical work in this outstanding, all but forgotten comedy. When the spirit of a bitchy, rich woman invades his body, he controls one half, she the other, which makes for some astounding physical comedy. But Martin goes beyond, convincing us there are two people at war to operate the single body. A brilliant performance. A few years later the Academy snubbed him again for his acrobatic, lighter than air performance in Roxanne (1987) a modern-day Cyrano De Bergerac.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.