(the 417th of the 424 Best Actress nominees!)
MARSHA MASON IN ONLY WHEN I LAUGH (1981)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond
Diane Keaton in Reds
Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City
Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman
I’m not sure, but I think Marsha Mason is playing Marsha Mason playing Marsha Mason. The role is that of a Broadway actress—for the second time—is that of a recovering alcoholic reluctantly starring in her playwright ex-boyfriend’s new play Only When I Laugh, which features a character modeled loosely on her. It’s certainly a flawed and unsure work in places; both writer and actress seem to be stepping outside of their comfort zones for each other’s sake. For Marsha, the wife of screenwriter Neil Simon, who authored three of her four Best Actress-nominated parts and got a divorce from her the year of this film was released, this film is a devilish mise-en-abyme to close out her Oscar career.
Between the two, I believe that Marsha turns in the stronger work, digging deep into her character’s frustrations and producing a mortified sense of humor that’s a notch darker than in her previous roles. She maintains this throughout an hour of maudlin scenes with her lunch friends (fellow nominees Joan Hackett and James Coco) and daughter (Kristy McNichol), her tinge of desperation nicely foreshadowing the plunge her character will soon take. Unfortunately, the film then takes a long, painful turn following her character’s backslide over a single night, in which she does not play the dissolving drunk quite as convincingly (her life-of-the-party scene is particularly overdone). Along the way comes a disturbing physical assault, with the possibility of unacknowledged sexual assault as well, and Marsha re-emerges with a heavier dose of self-loathing than ever before, but still held aloft by her own humor.
One Best Actress side note: Marsha’s character, an alcoholic since her teenage years, at one point confides that growing up she always wanted to be Susan Hayward—a remarkable choice for a role model! Altogether, this film in spite of its flaws raised my regard for Marsha as an actress, however much she owes her place in this quest to Neil Simon. For 1981, I’ll go with Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman for another actress-playing-an-actress role, over he Academy’s (and my) sentimental temptation Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond.