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Worst Best Actress, & Best

This isn’t Oscar time. It’s Ed time. Edward Copeland, that is.

Born Yesterday
Photo: Columbia Pictures

This isn’t Oscar time. It’s Ed time. Edward Copeland, that is.

Last year, the film blogger, House contributor and compulsive list-checker and poll-taker asked readers to submit their choices for the Worst Best Picture winner of all time; then, for karmic balance, he followed up with a poll of the Best Best Picture winners.

This time, Ed’s running a dual poll of the Best Best Actress winners, and the Worst. He’s asking for just five candidates in each category—and to save you the trouble of Googling, he’s helpfully supplied chronological winners lists right there in each post.

Ed’s instructions: “Rank both your best best actress and your worst best actress choices from 1-5, with 1 being the best, 5 the worst. Each No. 1 vote will get 5 points, No. 2 votes will get 4 points, etc. I will unveil the results on the eve of Oscar nominations, which this year will be Tuesday, Jan. 23, so the deadline for ballots will be midnight Friday, Jan. 19., central time. Send your ballots to [email protected] Since I’ve heard some confusion, I want to clarify the ranking. Both the best and the worst lists’ rankings work the same: Give your best best No. 1, give your worst worst No. 1. Keep going down with the slightly less good and slightly less bad for your top 5 in each category.”

Here’s my ballot, which I’ve already sent to Ed.


1. Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). For degree of difficulty, Spacek’s performance as Appalachian child bride turned country music superstar Loretta Lynn already deserves superlatives. Though she was 29 during shooting, she’s equally credible as the skinny-legged girl who weds brusque good ole’ boy and future manager Doolittle ‘Mooney’ Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones) and as the late-30s/early ‘40s burnout who occupies the film’s final leg. She also did her own singing, and it’s more than a note-perfect impression; it’s a reinterpretation, infused with Spacek’s own unaffected enthusiasm. Over and above that, Spacek’s performance has that ineffable something that you want from a lead movie actress—that mix of availability and mystery that invites identification. She lets you see Lynn’s desperation and heartbreak without special pleading. She’s vulnerable as can be, yet never soppy. You sense what Lynn is feeling, but not always what she’s thinking; Spacek gives you the dots and lets you join them up, leaving space onscreen for your own experiences. There are no false notes.

2. Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind (1939). The opposite of naturalism, Leigh’s performance as Scarlett O’Hara is more like a stage performance writ huge. Everything is italicized, sometimes boldfaced. (When she exclaims, “Well, fiddle-dee-dee!”, it’s a knowing celebration of her own supreme entitlement—she’s daddy’s girl, and daddy is the South.) Leigh’s not just humping one note on a piano, though. Scarlett’s girlish brio in the first quarter gives way to shock and desperation as Atlanta burns; then, in the film’s underappreciated, much subtler second half, it hardens into masklike resolve. Leigh keeps the stubbornness but loses the vanity; the character grows up without losing her youthful fire. The performance is just right for this still-seductive, forever problematic antebellum fantasy.

3. Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday (1950). No, it’s not the deepest performance, and certainly not the richest lead female performance to be nominated that year (I prefer Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.) But within the more constricting parameters of screwball romance, Holliday’s ultimate “dumb blonde” performance is a thing of beauty. It’s hard to say what’s more impressive, her atomic clock timing or her emotional transparency. She’s like Betty Hutton plus Barbara Stanwyck, with a slow-burn self-awareness that’s uniquely Holliday. I also like this win because it’s a rare instance of the academy honoring a funny woman. Comedy is hard, too—especially when it’s made to look easy.

4. Jessica Lange, Blue Sky (1994). At the time, Lange’s win as mentally ill Army wife Carly Marshall in Tony Richardson’s long-shelved final movie prompted grumbling about the Academy’s tendency to give best actress statuettes to women who appeared in pictures nobody saw. But anyone who saw Blue Sky was hard-pressed to deny Lange’s excellence; with repeat viewings, her performance doesn’t just hold up, it deepens. Her depiction of the onset of mental illness is bold but precise, erring on the side of matter-of-factness. She doesn’t make Carly a martyr to disease; like Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, she makes sure you see the fixed, often flirty or combative personality beneath the disintegrating facade—in this case, an aging bombshell who clings to her still-potent sexuality in order to compensate for (or forget about) her incremental loss of self-awareness and self-control. (Side note: as Carly’s husband, Tommy Lee Jones is Lange’s technical and emotional equal. Jones should work opposite strong women with equal screen time more often. He’s less mannered and predictable with women than with men, and more life-sized; he brings out the best in them, and vice-versa.)

5. Frances McDormand, Fargo (1996). As pregnant policewoman Marge Gunderson, McDormand is a turtle with a badge and a Holden Caulfield hat, waddling around snowy vistas, calmly demanding that everyone she encounters—from scumbag criminals to lovelorn ex-classmates—be as honest, dignified and professional as she is. (“I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou.”) Yet McDormand’s so warm, so idiosyncratic, that Marge never comes across as a kooky scold; she makes the woman’s carved-from-marble personality traits seem an outgrowth of Marge’s worldview rather than a grab-bag of eccentricities. The character’s decency seems to have been self-constructed rather than inherited; that makes Marge’s final condemnation of Peter Stormare’s murderous felon less a moral-of-the-story monologue than a vindication of bourgeois values that modern Hollywood treats as slave chains. “There’s more to life than a little money, you know,” Marge says. “Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.” For Marge, goodness is freedom.


1. Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich (2000). Yes, I know: the Academy is normally too pretentious and self-loathing to honor popular actors whose personas make us feel good (and make the studios lots of money), so we’re supposed to put this one in the same “at long last” subcategory as John Wayne’s Oscar for True Grit. Sorry, but I just can’t. Except for a few marvelous small moments that play to director Steven Soderbergh’s documentary instincts—Erin eating pineapple out of a can late at night, hearing her baby stir, then waiting to see if the kid goes back to sleep before rushing to help—it’s the same Julia-versus-the-small-minded-world routine that we’ve seen over and over again. Yet again, Roberts’ character is spunkier, sexier, wittier, more stubborn and more resourceful than everyone else—more like a movie star, in other words—and while she overreaches or makes tactical mistakes, she’s never really wrong. She’s an insufferable character, really, and Roberts is insufferable playing her. If you look past Roberts’ veneer of faux-working class grit, and Soderbergh’s easygoing verite flourishes, you see the same princessy entitlement that’s also deployed, more honestly, in My Best Friend’s Wedding, where at least the sight of the heroine condescending to working stiffs was viewed with raised-eyebrow disapproval. Here, Roberts’ character insults co-workers who don’t say “how high” when she asks them to jump, and we’re supposed to cheer because she’s Julia. Yes, the scene in the car where Erin hears her son say his first word is a two-hanky deluxe, but picture almost any other actress in Roberts’ age group playing it; then name just one that wouldn’t have been as affecting as Roberts, and less obvious.

2. Helen Hunt, As Good as it Gets (1997). Maybe the most boring Best Actress performance of all time, it redefines competence as excellence. I get sleepy just thinking about it.

3. Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball (2001). A landmark win in a controversial movie, so yes, it’s significant no matter what you think of the film. But I think Berry’s wildly imprecise in it—always a bit bigger than even the biggest scenes, and prone to equate scowling with hardness and histrionics with openness.

4. Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8 (1960). As dress model and man-eater Gloria Wandrous, Taylor gets to sashay, preen, sneer, vamp, trash-talk and otherwise creatively work out her resentment over having been stunt-cast in this very broad soap—the studio’s attempt to capitalize on Taylor’s having run off with Debbie Reynolds’ husband, Eddie Fisher, in the Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt/Jennifer Aniston triangle of its day. Taylor came to play, no doubt; she commits and then some. But like every other performance in this shallow, obnoxious movie, it plays like a Carol Burnett Show parody. Six years later, Taylor won again for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which was just as big a performance, but more exquisitely detailed and humane, and occuring within a better written, better directed, far more memorable film.

5. Kathy Bates, Misery (1990). The movie’s cartoon demonization of “Number One fan” Annie Wilkes is a hateful compression of Stephen King’s already troublesome source novel, shorn of King’s few empathetic touches—and Bates, a character actor given a rare lead role, worked triple-overtime to sell it. Doughy 50-year old James Caan stifling a wince at the mere existence of a peppy fat chick is an inadvertent definition of the phrase “male privilege.” Bates amplifies director Rob Reiner’s straight-up misogyny by turning Annie’s moments of vulnerability into gargoylish jokes on Annie, denying this one-note character even the possibility of audience identification (which is what separates a mere bad guy from a great villain). Nobody can see themselves in Annie—not for one second—and that makes Misery, for all its violence, a very safe film. Norman Bates in Psycho, Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, hell, even Hannibal Lecter were granted more humanity. Yes, Bates was just giving her boss what he wanted—but since when is that a defense against complaints that you’ve abetted something despicable?

Okay, now it’s your turn. Post your picks in the comments section; names and movie titles will do, though of course remarks are welcome. But please do remember, this is for Ed, so be sure to email your picks directly to him at [email protected], otherwise they won’t be counted.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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