By Alan Hurst

Welcome to another round of some harmless second guessing of choices for the Academy Awards, this time focusing on the Best Actress selections from 1960 to 1969, a decade of major change in the output from Hollywood and Europe. The restrictions of the production code fell to the wayside by the latter part of the decade, allowing significantly more adult fare for mainstream audiences and providing actresses with even greater opportunity and challenges. I’m thinking specifically of films like Repulsion (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969) – great roles and great performances with subject matter that would have been considerably whitewashed only a decade earlier.

My very subjective choices for Best Actress allow me to gift some imaginary gold hardware to Natalie Wood, honour Katharine Hepburn for an often-overlooked film, and give Audrey Hepburn a second Oscar.

1960: Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment

This was a tough year for Oscar voters. Elizabeth Taylor had become the evil other woman in the breakup of the marriage of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, she was garnering headlines with the start of the filming of Cleopatra, and during the voting for the awards that year she almost died from a virulent bout of pneumonia. She was also coming off three consecutive years of Best Actress Oscar nominations for her worthy performances in Raintree County (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Suddenly Last Summer (1959). But her 1960 film release was a bit of a comedown, a trashy (but entertaining) adaptation of John O’Hara’s BUtterfield 8. Taylor played a high-class prostitute who wants to go legit for a new guy. Taylor is as good as the material allows her to be, but it’s not one of her best. Still, she was nominated and, thanks to groundswell of sympathy because of her illness, she emerged the winner. Fellow nominee Shirley MacLaine once said she was beaten by a tracheotomy. MacLaine should have been the winner that year for her bruised and abused Fran in The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s comedy about big business, the climb to the top, and adultery. MacLaine was the heart of Wilder’s cynical and successful look at the workplace straight out of Mad Men – in the era when it was actually happening. MacLaine and co-star Jack Lemmon had two of their best roles here. He is the young guy on his way up the corporate ladder, allowing his apartment to be used by key company executives for extra-marital assignations. MacLaine also works at the company and is having an affair with her married boss (Fred MacMurray) and one night ends up in Lemmon’s apartment. All very adult stuff and with just the right amount of cynicism, humor and heart. Other nominees that year included Greer Garson as Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello, Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners, and Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday. I would like to have seen Lucille Ball in The Facts of Life and Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry on the list, probably in place of Garson and Taylor.

1961: Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass

Natalie Wood could be very good in the right part and with the right director – intuitive, intense, vulnerable and beautiful. She could also be incredibly wooden, over emotional and almost amateurish if she didn’t have the right support or if the role was beyond her range. I think Wood was an actress who needed help in finding her footing and she needed to feel safe. She lucked out in a big way in 1961 with two excellent and popular films. West Side Story saw Wood play Maria, the Puerto Rican heroine in the classic film adaptation of the acclaimed Broadway musical. Maria is not the strongest role in the film and the Russian born Wood had to stretch to be believable as a Puerto Rican immigrant, but she pulled it off thanks to Robert Wise’s strong direction. Yes, her voice was dubbed but Wood was still able to pull heartstrings as the film wound its way to its tragic conclusion. Her other 1961 success ensured that Wood could and would be taken seriously as an actress: Elia Kazan’s adaptation of William Inge’s Splendor in the Grass. I would have given Wood a slight edge over winner Sophia Loren’s superb work in Two Women because Wood is so completely believable conveying the angst of transitioning into an adult. Wood and Warren Beatty are high school sweethearts in 1920’s Kansas. She’s pressured by her parents to do one thing, by her peers to do something else and the jumble of emotions eventually overwhelms Wood’s character. Kazan’s guides her safely to a fully rounded performance that could very easily have veered to histrionics. Instead, Wood’s passion and emotion are almost lyrical. Other nominees included Audrey Hepburn’s delightful Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Piper Laurie in The Hustler, and Geraldine Page in Summer and Smoke. I would have included Deborah Kerr’s governess in The Innocents instead of Laurie.

1962: Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey into Night
Bette Davis
Katharine Hepburn

In the history of the Oscars there was only one tie for Best Actress (in 1968) so I’m leveraging that here because both Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn deserved recognition for their work in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Long Day’s Journey into Night respectively. 1962’s Best Actress award went to Anne Bancroft for the recreation of her stage success in The Miracle Worker. It’s an intense and moving film, and Bancroft’s intelligent and focused interpretation of Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan is excellent. But for me both Davis and Hepburn reach just that much further into themselves with these mid-career successes. Despite the big-budgeted A Pocketful of Miracles the year before, Davis hadn’t had a major critical success in films since The Star (1952). She held nothing back  in her depiction of former child star Baby Jane Hudson, now a delusional alcoholic, trapped in a viscous game of cat and mouse with her wheelchair bound sister Blanche, a former movie star played by Joan Crawford. The implication from the start is that Blanche is in a wheelchair because of Jane. Where Crawford is all restraint and vulnerability, Davis is a cackling cyclone of fury, humour and desperation as she tries to resurrect her career. Is it over the top? Yes. But it works. This is a legendary performance. At the other end of spectrum from the camp fest of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is Sidney Lumet’s well filmed adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the autobiographical story of a day in the life of a family where we learn the mother (Hepburn) is addicted to morphine, and the father and sons (Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell) are all alcoholics. The film is a subtle and then blatant fury of regret, resentment, and accusations interspersed with half-hearted attempts at reconciliation. Hepburn is phenomenal as Mary, probably the most tragic of the quartet. This is one of the most challenging roles in American theatre, and Hepburn’s work here is a definitive interpretation: her fluttery behaviour at the beginning of the film and her slow descent over the course of the day into a drug induced haze is fascinating to watch. In addition to Bancroft, Davis and Hepburn, the other nominees that year were Lee Remick as the alcoholic wife in Days of Wine and Roses and Geraldine Page as the faded, alcoholic movie star in Sweet Bird of Youth.

1963: Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room

1963 was a particularly weak year for films and for great roles for actresses, probably the weakest of the decade. That may explain why Patricia Neal’s excellent performance in a supporting role in Hud ended up being named the year’s best performance by an actress. Neal is terrific as the housekeeper who ignites sparks with Paul Newman’s Hud. But it really is a supporting role. My choice that year would have been Leslie Caron’s moving work in the adult drama The L Shaped Room. Here she plays a young French girl in England, pregnant from a brief affair. She doesn’t want to marry the father, nor does she want an abortion. She finds solace – and romance – at a boarding house populated with an interesting but odd group of characters. Caron was a spectacular dancer who made her film debut in An American in Paris (1951), but she was also a very good actress. Caron’s challenge was that it took her about 10 years to get films that allowed her to play more than a young ingenue after her success in An American in ParisLili (1953) and Gigi (1958) among others. Fanny (1961) was a bit of transition, but The L Shaped Room was finally the major shift. It’s a fully realized, adult and very moving performance in a realistic, if slight drama from England. This was probably the last really good film chance that Caron had. The rest of decade was filled with silly comedies, where she also excelled, but not with this kind of impact. Other nominess that year included Shirley MacLaine in Irma la Douce, Rachel Roberts in This Sporting Life (another strong supporting performance), and Natalie Wood in Love With the Proper Stranger. If nominators had shifted Neal and Roberts to their rightful place in the Supporting Actress race, there would have been room for both Sophia Loren in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Julie Harris in The Haunting.

1964: Sophia Loren in Marriage, Italian Style

The Best Actress category in 1964 was one of the most competitive in Oscar history. Just look at the list of actresses who were not nominated: Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner in The Night of the Iguana. Those five would have made a perfectly acceptable and exciting slate of nominees. The eventual winner was Julie Andrews for her spectacular film debut in Mary Poppins. It’s an iconic performance but I think she’s just that much better in The Sound of Music, her big release the following year. I would have awarded the 1964 Oscar to Sophia Loren in Vittoria de Sica’s moving and funny Marriage, Italian Style. Loren was always a commanding screen presence, and she had proven herself to be a gifted dramatic actress with her Oscar winning work in Two Women (1961), El Cid (1961) among others. She had also shown considerable flair as a comedienne with Houseboat (1958), It Started in Naples (1960), and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963). Marriage, Italian Style is the first time we get to see her combine both drama and comedy in a beautifully layered performance that sees her age from a sexy young Neapolitan woman during World War II, content with being the mistress of the handsome Domenico (Marcello Mastroianni) to a strong woman who will stop at nothing to prevent him from marrying another woman. This film captures everything that made Loren such a world-wide sensation in the 1960’s – she’s gorgeous, emotional, very funny, and full of passion. De Sica has her do a combination walk/dance down the street in one scene where she suddenly becomes the most desirable woman in the world – that scene alone would have justified an Oscar win. In addition to Andrews and Loren, the other nominees that year were Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater, Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Kim Stanley in Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Quite the list.

1965: Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews stardom was launched with her descent from the sky via umbrella to a house in London in Mary Poppins. It was sent into the stratosphere with her run up a hill in the opening scene of The Sound of Music. There are a lot of wonderful things that contributed to making The Sound of Music the most successful motion picture of the decade, but first and foremost among them is the performance of Julie Andrews. With every viewing both the film and Andrews have me from the opening scene. Director Robert Wise moves from the mountain tops of Austria, to its lakes, rivers, castles before finally zeroing in on a figure running up a hill to the swelling orchestration of the title tune. It’s one of the great opening scenes in movies and a bit of a valentine to Julie Andrews. How many actresses get to enter a film like that? You can debate the merits of the film (I think it’s terrific), the story, the songs but there is one thing that most can agree on: Julie Andrews is absolute perfection as Maria. You really can’t imagine anyone else in the part (Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Jones were considered). Her Maria is sincere, practical, fun, and when it’s clear Christopher Plummer’s Captain von Trapp is as smitten with her as his children, she is sweetly romantic. For me it’s the sense of fun that Andrews gives the character that drives the film – as well as her stunning vocals in the film’s many well staged musical numbers, particularly the spectacular “Do Re Mi”. Andrews lost the Oscar that year to Julie Christie who, with the double whammy of Darling and Doctor Zhivago, very quickly became the next big thing in movies. Christie is excellent in Darling as the model who’s sudden fame and jet set lifestyle withers quickly with her ultimately amoral and selfish behaviour. At the time of it’s release Darling was viewed as both daring and very au courant, but it hasn’t aged well. Christie definitely deserved her nomination, but its not a performance for the ages. Other nominees that year included Samantha Eggar in The Collector, Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue, and Simone Signoret in Ship of Fools. I would have included Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion and Jane Fonda in Cat Ballou in place of Eggar and Signoret.

1966: Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Elizabeth Taylor shocked a lot of people with her successful performance in Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s Broadway success, one of the best and most ground-breaking plays of the decade. Taylor plays Martha, the loud, sexually aggressive and antagonistic wife of history professor George (Richard Burton) whose childless marriage seems to thrive on booze, humiliation, and lacerating verbal battles. Nothing Taylor had done previously indicated that she had the depth to play that on screen, but Nichols was convinced she could do it. Taylor was in her early thirties at the time, so she was aged to look mid to late forties, she gained weight and just let loose. This is Taylor’s peak as an actress, winning her a second Oscar and this time it was unquestionably deserved. It’s probably the most dysfunctional marriage ever portrayed in a film and Taylor is near perfect – blowsy but still sexy, loud, vulgar and ultimately quite moving. Burton is equally good – initially beaten down but discovering his slow building anger throughout the film. Taylor’s closest competition that year was Lynn Redgrave for her very funny work in Georgy Girl. Like Darling, Georgy Girl is another look at mid-sixties “mod” London, but this one still feels fresh and relevant. Other nominees in a relatively weak year included Vanessa Redgrave in Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, Anouk Aimee in A Man and A Woman, and Ida Kaminska in The Shop on Main Street. I would have included Julie Andrews on the list for her missionary wife in George Roy Hill’s epic Hawaii, probably in place of Kaminska.

1967: Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road

With Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – her first film in five years – Katharine Hepburn received her second Oscar from the Academy 34 years after her first win for Morning Glory (1933). The award was immediately acknowledged (even by Hepburn) as a sentimental gesture for a good performance, but in a role that didn’t require much of the great actress. Her co-star in the film and long-time screen partner Spencer Tracy had died soon after filming, and I think the Academy wanted to acknowledge that screen partnership in some way. I would definitely have included Hepburn in the final five, despite the fact that 1967 was another very competitive year for Best Actress. Among the worthy non-nominated performances that year were Elizabeth Taylor successfully tackling Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew, Jane Fonda’s hyper and adorable newlywed in Barefoot in the Park, Catherine Deneuve’s discontented wife in Belle du Jour, Julie Christie in Far from the Madding Crowd, and Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road. Audrey Hepburn was nominated that year for her excellent work as the blind heroine in the thriller Wait Until Dark but she’s even better as the wife in Stanley Donen’s bittersweet look at the disintegration of a marriage over the course of about 10 years. Two for the Road really shows Audrey Hepburn’s range as an actress and she’s able to portray a woman who moves from naïvely optimistic to cynical and jaded during the course of her marriage to Albert Finney. Hepburn brings a lot of humour to the character but also an undercurrent of resignation that is very moving. She also looks spectacular. Selecting Hepburn as the winner from the final slate of nominees was tough. In addition to Katharine Hepburn, other nominees included Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, and Dame Edith Evans in The Whisperers, all classic performances.

1968: Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn won her second consecutive Oscar for her magnificent work in The Lion in Winter, tying with screen newcomer Barbra Streisand for her smashing recreation of her stage success Funny Girl. It’s almost impossible to pick between the two but I’m going with Hepburn. If her award the previous year was a sentimental gesture, her win this time was all about what she did on screen in this riveting adapation of the Broadway play. It’s the story of Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) who have gathered at Henry’s residence in Chinon ostensibly to celebrate Christmas, but also to battle over the announcement of Henry’s successor to the throne of England. Henry and Eleanor have three sons – all jockeying for position as the heir apparent – while their parents take sides, manipulate, lie, cajole and continually plot against each other and anyone who happens to be in their way. This is a family that defines dysfunction, but it’s also a wildly entertaining group. What a perfect role for Hepburn. She was an actress who could play both comedy and tragedy with equal success and she gets to do both here. She’s very funny with some of Eleanor’s more sarcastic and cutting dialogue, but her performance has a tinge of sadness that underscores every scene. Eleanor is being kept a prisoner by Henry for many reasons, the primary one being he doesn’t want her plotting against him and putting the wrong son on the throne. Hepburn was at the peak of her powers as an actress here – it’s a performance with no vanity but she never looked more regal or commanded the screen with this kind of authority. The other nominees that year were the equally worthy Patricia Neal in The Subject Was Roses, Vanessa Redgrave for Isadora, and Joanne Woodward for Rachel, Rachel. Because there are only five nominess that meant that Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby was overlooked (although she definitely would have made my final five).

1969: Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Yet another year with a very strong slate of performances making the final five nominees: Genveive Bujold as the doomed Anne Boleyn in Anne of the Thousand Days, Liza Minnelli as the quirky Pookie in The Sterile Cuckoo, Jean Simmons in the divorce drama The Happy Ending, and Maggie Smith as the charismatic Scottish teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Smith was the winner for her tour-de-force work in the comedy-drama that shows the evolution of a woman from seemingly free spirted to pseudo fascit. It’s a flamboyant, fascinating performance. But for me, it’s Jane Fonda’s work as Gloria, the impoverished, desperate marathon dance participant in Sydney Pollack’s devestating They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? that gets my vote. Set during the great depression, the film tells the story of the gruelling, exploitve dance marathons and the disparate group of characters the marathons attract. Fonda’s peformance was a surprise. She had made some interesting drama’s in France in the mid 1960’s, and she was wonderful in the comedies Cat Ballou (1965) and Barefoot in the Park (1967), but at this point in her career she was just coming of the campy sex space comedy Barbarella. The leap from Barbarella to Gloria was huge. Fonda’s performance is astounding – life hasn’t been kind to Gloria and you feel that with every glance, every word, every movement that Fonda makes. It’s almost like the desperation of the character has freed the actress. It’s a painful, raw performance but just try turning your eyes away.

Best Actress: 1940-49

Best Actress: 1950-59

Best Actor: 1940-49

Best Actor: 1950-59

Leave a comment