This article marks Part 2 of the 21-part Gold Derby series analyzing Meryl Streep at the Oscars. Join us as we look back at Meryl Streep’s nominations, the performances that competed with her, the results of each race and the overall rankings of the contenders.
In 1978, Meryl Streep, already renowned for her work on the New York stage, grabbed the attention of moviegoers across the country with her Oscar-nominated turn in the Best Picture champ “The Deer Hunter.” That year, however, would seem minor in comparison to what was on the horizon in 1979.
Streep was about to work with three of the decade’s hottest directors – Woody Allen, at his most in-demand after “Annie Hall” (1977) and “Interiors” (1978); Robert Benton, whose “The Late Show” (1977) was a big hit; and Jerry Schatzberg, who won critical acclaim with “The Panic in Needle Park” (1971) and “Scarecrow” (1973).
The resulting trio of Allen’s “Manhattan,” Benton’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Schatzberg’s “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” would draw glowing notices from critics, audiences and Academy Awards voters.
The 1979 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actress were:
Jane Alexander, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
Alexander portrays Margaret Phelps, neighbor and close friend of Ted and Joanna Kramer (Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep). Margaret encouraged the unhappy Joanna to leave Ted but, a single parent herself, grows quite close to Ted when Joanna indeed leaves her husband and son Billy (Justin Henry). This performance marked Alexander’s third Oscar nomination.
Barbara Barrie, “Breaking Away”
Barrie portrays Evelyn Stoller, mom of Dave (Dennis Christopher), the film’s protagonist. While father Ray (Paul Dooley) is bewildered by Dave’s infatuation with Italian cyclists and their culture, Evelyn proves a bit more supportive. This performance marked Barrie’s first Oscar nomination.
Candice Bergen, “Starting Over”
Bergen portrays Jessica Potter, a negligibly talented wannabe-singer/songwriter, recently divorced from Phil (Burt Reynolds), who discovered she’s been having an affair. Phil relocates from New York to Boston and strikes up a new romance with schoolteacher Marilyn (Jill Clayburgh) but complications arise when Jessica resurfaces, looking “better than ever” (as the film’s Marvin Hamlisch-composed original song goes) and an inexplicable success in the music industry. This performance marked Bergen’s first Oscar nomination.
Mariel Hemingway, “Manhattan”
Hemingway portrays Tracy, who, at 17 years old, is enamored with her 42-year-old boyfriend Isaac (Woody Allen), a neurotic New York TV comedy writer. Isaac spends most of their time together trying to break up with Tracy and strongly encourages her to go off to London on a scholarship. When he at last succeeds in driving her away, Tracy is devastated but it isn’t long before Isaac, who moves on to the erratic Mary (Diane Keaton), begins to have second thoughts. This performance marked Hemingway’s first Oscar nomination.
Meryl Streep, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
Streep portrays Joanna Kramer, a deeply unhappy wife and mother who decides to leave her husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and son Billy (Justin Henry). More than a year later, Joanna resurfaces in their lives and wages a contentious custody battle with Ted over their son. Streep won the Golden Globe, plus honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle for this performance, which marked her second Oscar nomination and first win.
Overlooked Contenders: Veronica Cartwright, “Alien”; Colleen Dewhurst, “When a Stranger Calls”; Valerie Harper, “Chapter Two”; Carol Kane, “When a Stranger Calls”; Ann Reinking, “All That Jazz”
Won: Meryl Streep, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
Should’ve won: Mariel Hemingway, “Manhattan”
Much like in the year prior, this Best Supporting Actress line-up is a strong affair overall, though I think there’s a clear first and second tier.
Bringing up the rear are Barrie and Bergen, both fabulous actress but neither at their best in these pictures.
Barrie, like Penelope Milford (“Coming Home”) in 1978, was clearly riding her film’s coattails here. “Breaking Away” is a marvelous coming-of-age film but it’s Paul Dooley’s funny performance, not Barrie’s, that leaves a greater impression. She does have some nice moments but Evelyn is an underwritten character and Barrie spends most of her scenes relegated to the background.
A bit more notable, though still saddled with a rather slight character, is Bergen. She has dynamite chemistry with leading man Reynolds (in a career-best turn) but the role is too often a distraction from the heart and soul and reason to sit through the film, that being the romance that blossoms between Reynolds and Clayburgh. Bergen has one side-splittingly funny scene in which she tries to seduce her ex with an awful disco track but still, it’s the third-best performance in a picture that’s largely carried on the shoulders of its two leads.
After Barrie and Bergen, the category offers a lot more to like.
Alexander’s Margaret, much like Barrie’s Evelyn and Bergen’s Jessica, isn’t the most fleshed-out of characters. This is an actress, however, with a history of making a lot out of a little – just look at her Oscar-nominated turn in “All the President’s Men” (1976), for instance, in which Alexander has very little screen time and nonetheless manages to deliver a haunting performance that lingers through the rest of that picture.
In “Kramer vs. Kramer,” Alexander, unlike Streep, is not provided a significant number of “Oscar scenes.” Instead, the actress makes the most out of her quieter moments opposite Hoffman. It’s a warm performance and Alexander’s screen presence is always a welcome one in the film, even with Hoffman and Streep dominating. She does get one showy scene toward the film’s end when Margaret, who counseled Streep’s Joanna to leave Hoffman’s Ted in the first place, pleads with Joanna to see what a great single dad Ted’s turned out to be. It’s a wonderful moment in a film full of them.
It’s a no-brainer how and why Streep prevailed in 1979. Not only was she the hot up-and-comer, already beloved by critics and audiences alike, but Streep had three terrific performances this year. Arguably, her work in “The Seduction of Joe Tynan, in which she portrays a brilliant attorney who starts hooking up with a married U.S. senator (Alan Alda), is even more compelling than her Oscar-winning one in “Kramer vs. Kramer” (which is no jab at that performance, a superb one too). Streep steamrolled through the precursors this season, her competition picking up nothing beyond runner-up notices at the critics’ awards. (Streep’s lone loss was at the 1980 BAFTA Awards, where she garnered a Lead nomination and lost to Judy Davis of “My Brilliant Career”).
Streep’s Joanna is a heartbreaker, even if you’re one who spends much the picture rooting for Hoffman’s Ted to prevail. She has a plethora of devastating scenes in the film, from her farewell to son Billy at the film’s start, to the film’s incredible ending, in which Joanna pays a visit to Ted following the end of the custody trial. Streep astounds in all of her scenes.
Then, there’s “Manhattan,” one of the greatest, if not the best Allen picture.
Critical to the film’s success, beyond the glorious Gordon Willis cinematography and Allen’s brilliant dialogue, is the witty and quietly moving performance of Hemingway, in only her second-ever feature film performance. Her Tracy may be half the age of everyone else in the film but she comes across as infinitely more rational, maybe even more sophisticated. In fact, Tracy often comes off as the only sane character around.
Hemingway has impeccable comic timing and nails Allen’s lines but it’s the dramatic moments that most hit home. Isaac’s long-awaited breakup with Tracy feels all too real and her reaction (“now I don’t feel so good”) leaves viewers feeling just as shattered as she does. Just as jolting, in a much different way, is the film’s ending, when Isaac runs back to Tracy as the 11-‘o-clock-hour, though it might be too late. Tracy, now taking Isaac’s prior advice to study abroad, tries to reassure the regretful Isaac – “not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.”
This, followed by one final round of George Gershwin music, concludes one of the finest films of the decade. Should most of the credit go to Allen himself? Sure. It also, however, seems unlikely that another actress could have captured Tracy in the unaffected, down-to-earth way Hemingway so miraculously does.
Choosing between Streep and Hemingway, with Alexander not far behind, is a legitimate “Sophie’s Choice.” If pressed, however, edge Hemingway.
The performances ranked (thus far):
1. Maureen Stapleton, “Interiors”
2. Mariel Hemingway, “Manhattan”
3. Meryl Streep, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
4. Meryl Streep, “The Deer Hunter”
5. Jane Alexander, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
6. Candice Bergen, “Starting Over”
7. Maggie Smith, “California Suite”
8. Dyan Cannon, “Heaven Can Wait”
9. Penelope Milford, “Coming Home”
10. Barbara Barrie, “Breaking Away”
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