By Alan Hurst
With each day and every new award precursor it’s looking like Glenn Close is becoming a sure thing for this year’s Oscar for Best Actress for her superb performance in The Wife. But with that, there are the ever-increasing whispers that it’s because she’s due for a win after six nominations and losses, that she’s this year’s sentimental favourite.
If Close does win – and I think she should – it will be because, at 71, she delivers a performance that is among to the two or three best she has ever given. It will be a deserved win, despite what Lady Gaga’s many supporters might say. If – and it is still if – she does win, it will be even sweeter because this is one of the most competitive Best Actress races in years. Each of the other four nominees – Lady Gaga for A Star Is Born, Melissa McCarthy for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Olivia Colman for The Favourite, and Yalitza Aparicio for Roma – deserve to be on the list.
At one point in time, the cry of too many sentimental Oscar choices was a valid criticism. Beginning with the fifties and well into the nineties you would see a film, TV or stage veteran nominated and sometimes ultimately win, and it wasn’t always deserved. These were awards for career achievement, sometimes at the expense of people who were delivering career best work. While it was great to see people like Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes and Melvyn Douglas add new hardware to their mantle, even they were sometimes uncomfortable with what they knew was a sentimental thank you.
Here are 10 of those wins:
Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951)
Marlon Brando took Hollywood by storm in 1951 with his searing work in the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. All of Brando’s co-stars won Oscars, but not Marlon. He lost to Humphrey Bogart, a beloved Hollywood veteran. I love The African Queen and I love Bogart’s performance, as well as that of co-star Katharine Hepburn. But it’s hard not to argue that Bogart’s win – as good as he is – was a sentimental acknowledgement from his peers for not having won on his previous nomination for Casablanca (1943), or for his excellent, non-nominated performances in The Maltese Falcon (1941), High Sierra (1941), The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), and In a Lonely Place (1950). Brando burned bright in the fifties and A Streetcar Named Desire, along with On the Waterfront (1954), are peaks for him as an actor.
Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
This was Hepburn’s first film in five years, her final with Spencer Tracy, and it resulted in her first Best Actress Oscar win in 34 years. Hepburn plays a San Francisco wife and mother whose daughter returns home for a visit with her new beau, Sidney Poitier. The script doesn’t ask much of Hepburn, other than to be the voice of reason and to look adoringly at Tracey. She does get one meaty scene where she gets to tell off a bigoted co-worker, but that’s about it. This Oscar was solely a respectful acknowledgement of the body of work that she and Tracey had compiled, not for this performance. Other nominees that year were much more deserving, particularly Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, and Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road.
Helen Hayes in Airport (1970)
Helen Hayes was one of Broadway’s great dramatic actresses of the 20th century. But she hadn’t made a theatrical film since Anastasia in 1956 and her film career was sporadic before that, although she had won a Best Actress Oscar in 1932 for The Sin of Madelon Claudet. With Airport – one of the biggest hits of 1970 – Hayes suddenly became America’s favourite little old lady. She plays a stowaway on a plane that also has a bomb on it, and her character becomes integral to helping foil the bomber. She provided the film what little comic relief there was, but this isn’t a performance that deserved Oscar attention. Her win represents Oscar voters wanting to honour a theatrical legend who had charmed them with a tried and true feisty old lady routine. Much more deserving was Maureen Stapleton, who played the wife of the bomber in Airport, or Karen Black as the aspiring country singer in Five Easy Pieces.
Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Ingrid Bergman won her third Oscar, this time for Best Supporting Actress, for her brief turn as a Swedish missionary and one of the many suspects in Sidney Lumet’s sumptuous adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel. Bergman didn’t deserve to win that year, in fact the nomination was a bit of a surprise. I guess it was Hollywood again offering an apology for the ostracizing she had experienced because of her affair with Roberto Rossellini in the 1950s. TV clips from the ceremony show she was not comfortable with the win. She even said as much when she took to the stage to accept the award, calling out fellow nominee Valentina Cortese for Day for Night (which also annoyed the other nominees in the category whom she did not acknowledge). My choice that year would have been Diane Ladd as the foul-mouthed, heart-of-gold waitress in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Art Carney in Harry and Tonto (1974)
Director Paul Mazursky had originally offered the role of the elderly widower to James Cagney, but Cagney wasn’t interested in coming out of retirement. Instead, he cast the much younger Art Carney. Carney, a veteran of TV’s The Honeymooners and Broadway’s The Odd Couple, delivers a beautiful performance as Harry, a widower who has been evicted from his soon-to-be demolished apartment and decides to visit family and friends on a cross country tour with his cat, Tonto. Carney was only in his late fifties at the time, but it felt like he’d been around forever and, despite major success in TV and on stage, film stardom was something new. His win was a surprise and a big “Welcome to Hollywood” from the industry. There’s really no other way to explain his victory over Jack Nicholson in Chinatown or Al Pacino in in The Godfather Part II, two iconic performances.
George Burns in The Sunshine Boys (1975)
Jack Benny was originally cast in Herbert Ross’ adaptation of the Neil Simon’s Broadway hit The Sunshine Boys as one half of a former vaudeville team who no longer get along or perform together. Benny passed away before filming began and the part went to his friend George Burns, who hadn’t made a film since Honolulu in 1939. Burns and co-star Walter Matthau struck sparks as the former comedy duo, but Burns was essentially playing what he had always played with his wife Gracie – the straight man to a more animated partner. Come Oscar time there was a bit of category fraud, with Matthau nominated for Best Actor and Burns as Best Supporting Actor. Both were leads, but the switch worked, and Burns found himself with a popular, if sentimental win, over the more deserving work of Brad Dourif on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Burgess Meredith in Day of the Locust (my choice), Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon, and Jack Warden in Shampoo.
Melvyn Douglas in Being There (1979)
Melvyn Douglas was already an Oscar winner when the Academy gave him a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in Being There. Douglas, one of the more dependable Hollywood leading men in the thirties and forties, emerged as an excellent character actor with Hud (1963) and won a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for that film. He followed that with strong work in The Americanization of Emily (1964) and I Never Sang for My Father (1970), among others. Being There was a terrific, esoteric comedy and Douglas was good as the dying business magnate who forms a friendship with Chauncey (Peter Sellers), but sentiment clearly came into play with this second Oscar win. Particularly when pitted against the charismatic work that Robert Duvall did in Apocalypse Now that year. A smarter sentimental choice would have been to acknowledge Mickey Rooney, nominated for his fine work in The Black Stallion.
Paul Newman in The Color of Money (1986)
Paul Newman should have already been an Oscar winner by the time The Color of Money was released in 1986. He had been in films since 1954, delivering excellent performances in numerous classics. The Color of Money was a sequel to The Hustler (1961) and Newman was low key and the epitome of cool in his return to the character of Eddie Felson, a now former pool hustler. Because Newman had lost the Oscar many times, despite nominations for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Absence of Malice (1981), and The Verdict (1982), you just knew he was going to get it for The Color of Money primarily because Hollywood wasn’t sure they’d have the opportunity to honor him again. I think Newman could have easily won for The Hustler, Hud and The Verdict. I would have also given him the prize for Nobody’s Fool in 1994. But in 1986 it should have been Bob Hoskins for Mona Lisa or the non-nominated Harrison Ford for The Mosquito Coast. Still, it was nice to see Newman finally at the podium.
Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Although her film work had been limited, during the eighties Jessica Tandy and husband Hume Cronyn seemed to be making up for lost time with several film and television appearances where they soon became household names and America’s favourite senior acting couple. Tandy captured the hearts of the public for a brief period and Driving Miss Daisy was the peak of her film career. She’s very good as the wealthy Jewish resident of a southern town, whose family forces her to use a driver (Morgan Freeman) now that she’s getting on in years. But I think the Best Actress Oscar she won that year – on her first nomination – was a sentimental embrace from Hollywood to one of the stage’s most esteemed actresses. And that, of course, meant that Michelle Pfeiffer didn’t get the acknowledgment she deserved for her early career success with The Fabulous Baker Boys.
Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (1992)
Al Pacino’s win for Scent of a Woman is like Paul Newman finally winning for a good, but not significant performance in The Color of Money (1986). Pacino had been nominated many times, but he had never won. In Scent of a Woman he plays a retired army vet who’s blind and impossible to get along with. The part – and director Martin Brest – allowed Pacino to default to his worst instincts as an actor. He shamelessly overacts, screaming his lines, and gives the role no subtlety or shading. It’s not a good performance. But it’s one the Academy felt they needed to recognize, since they had overlooked Pacino as a nominee during his spectacular 1970’s run with The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), any of which were deserving of the Oscar. Pacino’s win in 1992 meant that Denzel Washington in Malcom X had to make do with just a nomination.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.