Cicely Tyson recently received her third Emmy nomination as Best Drama Guest Actress for “How to Get Away with Murder.” This marks Tyson’s 14th nomination from the Television Academy. She won for “The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All” in 1994, and 20 years earlier won two Emmys in the same year for “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
Tyson has worked steadily in film and television since the 1960s. Her Emmy nominations have come in a variety of categories and for some highly acclaimed television shows such as “Roots” and “King” (a miniseries about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. in which she played Coretta Scott King).
Tyson has also had an acclaimed career on the Broadway stage. She appeared in a number of productions both on and off-Broadway throughout her life. In 2013 and at age 88, Tyson won the Tony as Best Actress in a Play for a revival of the Horton Foote play “The Trip to Bountiful.” (That was the same role that won Geraldine Page the Best Actress Oscar in 1985.)
But its her film career that is the focus of our photo gallery above. We rank her 10 greatest movie performances from worst to best, including her Oscar-nominated work in “Sounder,” plus “The Help,” “Bustin’ Loose” and more.
10. MADEA’S FAMILY REUNION (2006)
Tyson was among the cast in this segment of the popular series of films which grew out of a series of stage plays that Tyler Perry wrote and in which he appears in drag as the title character Madea.
9. IDLEWILD (2006)
Tyson had a small role in this acclaimed but little seen musical set in the American south during prohibition. It tells the story of a musical performer and club owner and their struggle to save their nightclub from gangsters.
8. THE COMEDIANS (1967)
Elizabeth Taylor and husband Richard Burton were perhaps the biggest film and tabloid stars of the 1960s. This collaboration followed their highly successful “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” and an adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” all done within two years. The story is a romance set in the volatile country of Haiti. Tyson has a supporting role as a prostitute.
7. THE RIVER NIGER (1976)
Tyson starred in the film version of this 1973 Tony Award winner for Best Play. The play and film tell the story of house painter who also writes poetry. Tyson plays his wife who is suffering from cancer. She received the NAACP Image Award for Best Actress for her performance.
6. BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE (2005)
This film tells the story of a lonely preacher’s daughter whose life is changed by a dog she finds in a Winn-Dixie supermarket. Tyson plays a blind former alcoholic who hangs bottles from a tree in her back yard to represent the mistakes she has made in her life because of her alcoholism.
5. BUSTIN’ LOOSE (1981)
Richard Pryor wrote and stars in this film about an ex-con trying to adjust to life outside of prison. Tyson plays a school teacher who enlists Pryor’s help to relocate some special needs children whose school has been shut down.
4. THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (1968)
One of Tyson’s first prominent film roles came in this highly acclaimed story of a blind man and his friendship with a teenage girl. Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke both received Supporting Acting nominations for those roles. Tyson plays an educated woman whose father is a doctor but has in her father’s mind settled for a life beneath her potential as a maid and marriage to a field hand.
3. FRIED GREEN TOMATOES (1991)
This popular film earned two Oscar nominations one for its screenplay and a second for supporting actress Jessica Tandy. The film tells the story of an awkward present-day housewife who gains strength and self-assurance through hearing the stories the elderly woman (Tandy) tells her. Tyson has a key role as a cook in the flashback segments of the film.
2. THE HELP (2011)
Four Oscar nominations went to this story of a young woman (Emma Stone) who decides to investigate the lives of the African-American women who worked as maids to white families in the south. Tyson plays the childhood maid of Stone who she feels her mother heartlessly fired.
1. SOUNDER (1972)
Based on an acclaimed award-winning children’s book, “Sounder” tells the story of a sharecropper family facing poverty and hunger during the Great Depression. Tyson won two prominent awards (National Board of Review and National Society of Film Critics) and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress for her role as the mother of the family. Tyson’s role is rather small in the film and many Oscar fans suggest if she had been placed in the Supporting Actress category rather than the leading category she may have won the Oscar.