The Best Actress Quest

Quest Actress - 1950s

The Quest for Best Actress

All right.  In the summer of 2009, borne out of a combination of free time and access to an excellent public library DVD collection, I began a quest to finish watching every performance nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award.  Starting with a checklist of 240, I’ve whittled it down to a final 25.  I’d always said I would finish it off by seeing either Bonnie and Clyde or The African Queen on the big screen for the first time, and on Friday, April 26 and Sunday, April 28, courtesy of the Turner Classic Movies Festival, I plan to do exactly that in the most epic possible venues: Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian Theatres in Hollywood!  That means I’ve got 23 films to watch in the next two weeks: wish me luck!

Now that I’m in the home stretch, I feel like documenting it largely for my own sake, so my plan on this blog is to do a post on each of the remaining films that I watch, factoring in the quality of the performance and the film overall, and judging the race from that year.  You can also think of this as a flirtation with perhaps having a dedicated film blog in the future (because yeah, the world needs more).  I’ll strive to keep each post relatively brief, and intersperse them with occasional observations on the Best Actress award and the group of 400 films as a whole.

Once I’m done, I’ll humbly try to ascertain the best of my discoveries, formulating my own personal set of winners and special achievements (I’m calling it right now that Norma Shearer and Joan Fontaine will be getting Most Embarrassingly Old for the Part honors, and Eleanor Parker and Angela Bassett will be among those mentioned for Best Lip Syncing), and possibly a few posts dedicated to my absolute favorite performances across all nine decades of the award’s existence.  If I’m really still up for it after that, I’ll go year by year through the category, scraping together everything I can remember about all of the nominees and perhaps arriving at some epiphany about acting, stardom, the Oscars, women, and life itself.  I think that would be a fair justification for the four years I’ve just spent, so here’s hoping I get there!


But why?

Why did I do this?  I’ll probably try to rationalize my use of the last four years more fully in a subsequent post (and for the rest of my life thereafter), but for now I’ll just say that it started as a way to take a break from relentlessly consuming the mainstream of Hollywood and world cinema and instead take a genuinely alternative approach to film history: watching a wildly diverse assemblage of movies drawn together by a single distinction (one completely external to the films themselves), many of which would never have happened my way if I didn’t explicitly set out to see them.

Along the way it became many other things: a celebration of women in Hollywood, a scavenger hunt/Indiana Jones-style archaeological dig (at least in my imagination), a decent conversation starter with a very specific type of person, a fetishization of Deborah Kerr and Meryl Streep, and occasionally a troubling metaphor for my plans for a career of watching and talking about films.  Ultimately, though, it’s become an end in itself, a because-it’s-there.  I’m looking forward to finishing it, briefly having no idea what to do next, and then finding another insane mission.  That’s what I do.


My Findings (to date)

This awards category is a blend of classics (The Apartment, The Silence of the Lambs), once-celebrated but now-faded films (Pygmalion, A Woman Under the Influence), and the eternally obscure (Escape Me Never, Anna).  It mixes the routine & clichéd (With a Song in My Heart, One True Thing) with the experimental & artsy (Face to Face, Breaking the Waves) and the downright bizarre (Tommy, The Constant Nymph).  It’s a chronicle—and critique—of perennial female-dominated tropes (the sacrificing mother, the manic pixie dream girl) and genres (the musical biopic, the costume drama).

Most of all, it’s the story of the actresses themselves: whether graced with only a single nomination (Celia Johnson, Fernanda Montenegro) or bunches of them (Jane Fonda, Bette Davis), iconic performances (Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall), unjustly forgotten ones (Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild, Patricia Neal in The Subject Was Roses) or risible ones (Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8, Norma Shearer in The Divorcee).  For me, this was a chance to discover actresses I knew nothing about (Geraldine Page, Glenda Jackson) and put the ones I’d always heard about to the test (Vanessa Redgrave, Greta Garbo), and to pay tribute to them all as inhabitants of the most hallowed pantheon of performers.

In my scrutiny of this pantheon, I’ve uncovered a handful of works of genius, a few dozen gems, and perhaps ten or fifteen pieces of sheer garbage, with the space in between filled with curiosities, mediocrities, solid work, and films I’ve already almost completely forgotten.  One thing I’ve learned is that any group of films is made up of pretty much the same spectrum, from teen sex comedies to Woody Allen movies (surprisingly underrepresented in this quest, I must say) to the French New Wave.

Overall, the quest has definitely solidified a few facts about the Oscars, and the idea of trying to put a label on “good” art.  As regards the latter, I personally do not think that this is a futile task; for as imperfect as it must be, it anoints a few unimpeachable classics, makes a few undeniable omissions, and sparks a conversation about all the rest.  As far as the former is concerned, I’ve long held that the Academy Awards are all about the nominees, and not the winners.  That’s when you see the group that honored Beauty and the Beast, Grand Illusion, and A Clockwork Orange as the best films of the year; Bicycle Thieves, North by Northwest, and Brazil as the best screenplays; David Lynch for Blue Velvet, Federico Fellini for , and Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho as the best directors; and countless performances from Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver to Claude Rains in Casablanca and Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street as the best acting.  Perhaps one day I’ll write a book about this, but meanwhile I’d better quickly go over the numbers and polish this post off.


The Numbers

Since it’s hard to know off the top of your head what exactly this quest entails, here it is by the numbers:

  • 404 nominated performances (at the time; it’s grown to 424 between ’09 and ’13)
  • 399 films (now 419)
  • 202 individual actresses (now 213)

Now, those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I keep various checklists of movies I ought to watch: the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies list, the user-generated IMDb Top 250 Movies, the truly epic They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They 1,000 Greatest Films of All Time, among others, and of course the Academy Awards.  Yes, it’s part of the case they’ll eventually make to put me away, but it’s also part of how I got into film: scrambling to catch up the masterpieces that I thought everyone else had seen and I hadn’t (note: I now know that not everyone has seen Raise the Red Lantern or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, though they should).  I’ve been using these lists as recommendation generators ever since.  Thus, I had handy a snapshot of just how much progress I’d already made when I set out on this quest:


I started in mid-2009 with a total of 159 performances/155 films already checked off (including 51 out of 83 winners), thanks to my drive to see everything that comes out these days, combined with my pursuit of other lists of great films and my adoration of classic Hollywood actresses (hence the anomaly of having already completed the 1940 Best Actress race).  I should note that I’ve revisited a number of the ones I’ve already seen, but I did NOT make rewatching them a part of my mission.  That left the task before me at:

  • 240 performances in 239 films
  • approximately 480 hours or three solid weeks of watching for 24 hours a day

It’s certainly a challenge just to see these films, but there’s an extra layer of difficulty, in that a great many of these films, including some surprisingly recent titles, are NOT easy to see.  This actually helped me break the quest up into easy stages, since at first I only watched movies I could check out in public libraries, then ones I could access at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, then ones I could get on Netflix, and finally those I’d have to rent at the greatest video stores that LA has to offer: Cinefile, Vidiots, and the hallowed Eddie Brant’s Saturday Matinee.  It’s really rather a miracle that I’ve been able to track down a copy of every film, though in some cases it was really halfway between straining at a snowy image & tinny soundtrack and making up what’s really going on in my head.

Anyway, now I’m down to 50, and the list looks like this:


It’s an interesting scattering of movies across decades and performers (the latter omitted for space reasons, but I’ll post them below), but the point is that I’m almost there!  Tune in over the following days and weeks to see me turn this grid into a solid sea of gold.

Still to Go:

Ann Harding – Holiday, 1931

Marie Dressler – Emma, 1932

Diana Wynyard – Cavalcade, 1933

Grace Moore – One Night of Love, 1934

Claudette Colbert – Private Worlds, 1935

Merle Oberon – The Dark Angel, 1935

Fay Bainter – White Banners, 1938

Ingrid Bergman – Joan of Arc, 1948

Katharine Hepburn – The African Queen, 1951

Maggie McNamara – The Moon Is Blue, 1953

Anne Bancroft – The Pumpkin Eater, 1964

Faye Dunaway – Bonnie and Clyde, 1967

Liv Ullmann – The Emigrants, 1972

Joanne Woodward – Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, 1973

Marie-Christine Barrault – Cousin, cousine; 1976

Marsha Mason – Chapter Two, 1979

Gena Rowlands – Gloria, 1980

Marsha Mason – Only When I Laugh, 1981

Jane Alexander – Testament, 1983

Sissy Spacek – Country, 1984

Anne Bancroft – Agnes of God, 1985


Julie Christie – Afterglow, 1997


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