It must be a gay thing, this obsession I have with actresses, female singers, charts, the Oscars, The Golden Girls and lists. And here I go again. This time, I'm counting down (in chronological order) my 10 favorite Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role Oscar winners. Drumroll? Envelope? Whatever. Just read on...
- Olivia de Havilland The Heiress (1949) Not only does she utter one of my all-time favorite movie lines ("I can be very cruel. I've been taught by masters"), but the closing scene of de Havilland ascending the stairs as Montgomery Clift's gold-digging scoundrel pounds on the door outside in the pouring rain is priceless. Payback's a bitch indeed.
- Judy Holliday Born Yesterday (1950) She has her detractors who say All About Eve's Bette Davis and Anne Baxter as well as Sunset Boulevard's Gloria Swanson were more worthy. (I suspect that in the end, they all cancelled each other out.) To them I say, revisit the film. Judy does an admirable, unmatched balancing act of comedienne and drama queen, victim and victor.
- Simone Signoret Room at the Top (1959) Another woman done wrong, this time by Laurence Harvey's gold-digging scoundrel. Has anyone ever done resigned and world-weary better than the late great French star? This is a film for the ages, an exacting commentary on the sweet smell of success and its sour side effects.
- Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of the Virginia Woolf (1966) It's not her best performance (that would be Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), and the story itself is dated as hell, but what a force of nature! One could say she--if not Grace Kelly in The Country Girl (see below)--invented the ongoing trend of actresses deglamming to turn Oscar's head.
- Maggie Smith The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) Nobody, not even Helen Mirren as The Queen, does British repression better than Maggie. When she finally comes undone and screams, "Assassin! ASSASSIN!!!" over the staircase at the student who has done her in, it's all the more chilling because of the remarkable display of restraint that's preceded it.
- Glenda Jackson A Touch of Class (1973) Now I'm not condoning adultery, but Jackson manages to make her homewrecker sympathetic. A rare comedic triumph in the Oscar category made more impressive because Ms. Jackson already had taken the prize a few years earlier forWomen in Love. As for the film itself, it's the perfect example of why it never pays to be the other woman.
- Diane Keaton Annie Hall (1977) Here's the thing about Miss Keaton and why no actress does comedy better: She makes you laugh without even trying. Cameron, Sandra and Jennifer (Aniston), take note. There is not a moment in this film where her intention seems to be to elicit guffaws, but I swear I'm laughing right now just thinking about one of her awkward encounters with Woody Allen on the streets of New York City.
- Meryl Streep Sophie's Choice (1982) What can I say that hasn't been said? So I won't bother. Instead I'd like to address the Academy: Go ahead and give the woman another Best Actress Oscar, will you? You've had several perfect opportunities (A Cry in the Dark, One True Thing). Sure it's an honor just to be nominated, but don't think for one second that Meryl isn't itching to take home a third statue (she won best supporting in 1979 for Kramer Vs. Kramer), this one for Best Actress. Hillary Swank has two. Sally Field has two. Glenda Jackson has two. Jodie Foster has two. Are you trying to tell me that Meryl Streep isn't in their league?
- Julia Roberts Erin Brokovich (2000) Go ahead and laugh. I know you want to. But I'm standing my ground. A guy I used to know went to a screening of the movie several weeks before its release. Afterwards, he said to me, "She earned every penny of that $20 million." I still agree.
- Nicole Kidman The Hours (2002) Yeah, yeah, I've heard it all before: Technically, it was a supporting performance. But with or without the nose, Nicole deserved her props for so completely disappearing into the role and making me forget I was watching one of Hollywood's biggest stars.
Five more goodies...
Shirley Booth Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) (left) Crime of the century (the 20th)? That for Shirley, it was so far downhill (to TV's Hazel) from here.
Joanne Woodward The Three Faces of Eve (1957) No doubt Eve Black, the wild and crazy man-eating alter, sealed the deal.
Susan Hayward I Want To Live! (1958) More devastating than Charlize Theron in Monster because Susan's executed character was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Kathy Bates Misery (1990) One of celluloid's greatest wig outs.
And five head-scratchers...
Grace Kelly The Country Girl (1954) (left) In a year in which she starred in Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, I find it unfathomable that the Academy would reward her for one of the few non-classics of her short acting career.
Cher Moonstruck (1987) And the Oscar should have gone to... Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? People are still talking about that rabbit.
Frances McDormand Fargo (1996) Sorry. Way overrated. And no less supporting than William H. Macy. Secrets & Lies Brenda Blethyn and Breaking the Waves' Emily Watson should have demanded a recount.
Helen Hunt As Good As It Gets (1997) Better than Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove? Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown? Julie Christie in Afterglow? Kate Winslet in Titanic? The second of Oscar's trio of mid-to-late-'90s blunders.
Gwyneth Paltrow Shakespeare in Love (1998) I never got the film. I never got Gwyneth. As was probably the case with Helen Hunt, the mostly foreign competition must have cancelled each other out. Oscar should have chosen Central Station's Fernanda Montenegro, but he's not the first guy to go home with the wrong woman.