(the 13th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)
MARSHA MASON IN CHAPTER TWO (1979)
The competition (Cliff: 6 for 6!)
Sally Field in Norma Rae
Jill Clayburgh in Starting Over
Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome
Bette Midler in The Rose
Marsha does one thing in each of her nominated performances very well: she plays a New Yorker. For the lead in a Neil Simon script, that’s job number one, and she serves in Chapter Two as an able spout for his clever quips and snappy rejoinders, as a wry stage actress (we never see her perform, only crack wise about her career). As a divorcee to a widower played by James Caan (her costar in her first nominated film, Cinderella Liberty), both reluctantly returning to the mating game, she can handle the first half of the story quite effectively: mostly she plays defense, parrying James’ charming advances, steadfastly resisting his attempts to disarm her over multiple phone calls before finally succumbing to a whirlwind romance when they finally meet face to face. They get married in rapid fashion, but their honeymoon wears thin, so does ours. Just when it seemed that Simon’s play might sidestep the heavy issue of Caan’s dead wife, her figurative ghost comes back to disrupt their bliss, and Marsha cannot convey the absence of happiness as well as she can glide along wrapped in its presence. Indeed, it’s hard to tell a genuine emotional plea from the hysterics that she usually employs for comic effect, as she goes through almost all the same motions. She simply seems out of her element in heavy drama, but again I’ll go back to those witty phone conversations any time.
If Marsha ever had an outstanding performance, it was probably for her second nomination in The Goodbye Girl, combining the salient features of her first nominated role in Cinderella Liberty (a feisty single mother) and Chapter Two, her third (Neil Simon’s savory dialogue). Of course, she didn’t stand a snowball’s chance against Diane Keaton in 1977, nor can she stand in the way in 1979 of the Academy’s and my choice, Sally Field in Norma Rae, a role that the actress seems to have been born to play. I’ll be curious to conclude Marsha’s Best Actress career with Only When I Laugh, a heavy emotional biopic, but for now I’ll give her a merit for the comedy, a demerit for the drama, and call it a wash.