This article marks Part 3 of the 21-part Gold Derby series 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.
After a remarkable year in film in 1979, including her Academy Awards win for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” Meryl Streep took 1980 off from the big screen, instead focusing her energies on a stage musical of “Alice in Wonderland” that premiered at New York’s Public Theater in December 1980. While the production garnered middling notices, Streep received raves.
The following year, Streep not only returned to the screen but took on her first leading role in a screen adaptation of John Fowles‘ acclaimed 1969 novel “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Playwright Harold Pinter adapted the book for the screen and British filmmaker Karel Reisz, who worked wonders with Vanessa Redgrave on “Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment” (1966) and “Isadora” (1968), signed on to direct. Moreover, another hot up-and-comer would star opposite Streep – the dashing future Oscar/Emmy/Tony-winner Jeremy Irons.
The result then simply had to be an incredible motion picture, right? Well, Oscar voters, to some extent at least, evidently thought so. For others, however, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” proved less than satisfactory.
The 1981 Oscar nominees for Best Actress were:
Katharine Hepburn, “On Golden Pond”
Hepburn portrays Ethel Thayer, who, alongside husband Norman (Henry Fonda, at last taking home an Oscar), makes the annual summer trip up to New England and her beloved cottage that overlooks Golden Pond. Norman may be the ultimate curmudgeon but Ethel’s love for him is unconditional and particularly critical at a time when, on the heels of his 80th birthday, Norman finds his memory fading and physical health declining. This performance, which also won Hepburn her second BAFTA Award, marked her 12th and final Oscar nomination and fourth victory.
Diane Keaton, “Reds”
Keaton portrays Louise Bryant, the famed American journalist known for her sympathetic coverage of the Bolsheviks throughout the Russian Revolution. Initially a bored, married socialite, Louise ultimately leaves her husband for journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty, who picked up an Oscar here for his directing) and from there, it’s a roller coaster ride of a life as Louise emerges a proud radical, has an affair with playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and goes off to Europe to write as a war correspondent. This performance marked Keaton’s second Oscar nomination.
Marsha Mason, “Only When I Laugh”
Mason portrays Georgia Hines, a boozy Broadway actress who emerges from rehab hell-bent on staying sober and revitalizing her career. Such sobriety is tested, however, by the drama of her two best friends (James Coco and Joan Hackett, also Oscar-nominated) and the entrance of estranged daughter Polly (Kristy McNichol) who moves in with her recovering mother. This performance marked Mason’s fourth Oscar nomination.
Susan Sarandon, “Atlantic City”
Sarandon portrays Sally Matthews, an Atlantic City waitress with big dreams of one day working in Monte Carlo. She becomes involved with has-been gangster Lou (the brilliant Burt Lancaster, in his final Oscar-nominated turn) after Sally’s estranged husband, in town to sell cocaine with Lou, is killed by mobsters. Sally and Lou are left with heaps of cocaine to sell but it isn’t long before they too are in danger. This performance marked Sarandon’s first Oscar nomination.
Meryl Streep, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”
Streep portrays contemporary actress Anna, who in turn plays Sarah Woodruff in a film set during the Victorian Era. During the filming of their picture, Anna carries on an affair with British actor Mike (Jeremy Irons) but loses interest in the romance after production wraps. Meanwhile, in the film within the film, Sarah is a mysterious outcast who becomes the apple of biologist Charles’ (Irons again) eye. This performance, which won her a BAFTA Award, Golden Globe and Best Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., marked Streep’s third overall Oscar nomination and first nomination in Best Actress.
Overlooked Contenders: Nancy Allen, “Blow Out”; Jill Clayburgh, “First Monday in October”; Faye Dunaway, “Mommie Dearest”; Sally Field, “Absence of Malice”; Audrey Hepburn, “They All Laughed”; Sissy Spacek, “Raggedy Man”; Kathleen Turner, “Body Heat”; Sigourney Weaver, “Eyewitness”
Won: Katharine Hepburn, “On Golden Pond”
Should’ve won: Marsha Mason, “Only When I Laugh”
1981, the year “Chariots of Fire” scored a jaw-dropper of an upset over “Reds” for the Best Picture Oscar, was an embarrassment of riches for leading ladies on the big screen. You wouldn’t necessarily know that, however, based on the Oscar selections in Best Actress.
The least compelling of the nominees is, by a country mile, Streep. It’s not entirely her fault, however – the picture she’s in is in a drab one, a dreary romance that’s devoid of any real romantic feeling and may run only two hours but feels like at least three. Even the usually reliable Freddie Francis’ photography is oddly lackluster. Streep has said she was miscast in the roles of Anna and Sarah. While she may be right, she also understates the fault Pinter and Reisz deserve for such a sleepy adaptation.
Then, there’s Hepburn and Sarandon, both in fine films but ultimately playing second banana to superior, more notable late-career turns from Fonda and Lancaster respectively.
Hepburn’s a delight to watch – then again, Hepburn reading from a thesaurus would be awe-inspiring – but, beyond that amazing “you are my knight in shining armor” scene late in the film, there’s nothing Hepburn does in “On Golden Pond” that could be placed among the all-time great Hepburn moments in film. It’s too bad she didn’t win an Oscar instead for superior early work in “Summertime” (1955) or “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962). That said, Hepburn having the all-time record for acting Oscar victories is quite splendid, even if the trophies weren’t for career-best work.
Like Hepburn with Fonda, Sarandon is largely upstaged by leading man Lancaster in “Atlantic City,” even if it’s a thoroughly credible performance. Sarandon is sumptuously photographed here, much like she was three years prior in director Louis Malle‘s “Pretty Baby” (1978). It’s a very sensual turn, like so many Sarandon performances, and she has a fine grasp on the wonderful playwright John Guare‘s dialogue. Alas, “Atlantic City” is a Lancaster showcase, through and through.
While Streep and Hepburn earned most of the awards recognition this year, it really should have been Keaton and Mason reaping the honors.
Keaton is an astoundingly underappreciated dramatic talent. Her turns in “Annie Hall” (1977), “Baby Boom” (1987) and “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), among others, are packed with comic brilliance but it’s her more somber work in pictures like “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” (1977) and especially “Shoot the Moon” (1982) that most astounds. Keaton is excellent in “Reds” too, even if she doesn’t quite command the screen in the way she does in those two aforementioned dramas.
There’s so much to like in the picture but its sprawling nature and meticulous attention to detail ultimately overshadow much of the acting. So, while Beatty, Keaton, Nicholson and Oscar winner Maureen Stapleton are all terrific, it’s easy to be more awe-struck by the scenery around them, and that incredible Vittorio Storaro photography too.
Mason might well be the least-remembered performer to garner four or more Best Actress Oscar nominations.
After a handful of small roles on stage and both the big and small screens, Mason floored critics with her turn as a hooker with a heart of gold, opposite James Caan, in “Cinderella Liberty” (1973). There, she garnered her first Oscar nomination and it was also in 1973 that Mason married the much-celebrated screenwriter and playwright Neil Simon. Mason took four years off from the big screen and returned in 1977 with the most prominent role of her career, Paula McFadden in “The Goodbye Girl,” written by her husband. She quickly followed that one up with a third Best Actress Oscar nomination, again in a Simon-penned picture, for “Chapter Two” (1979).
The best of the four Oscar-nominated Mason performances is, by far, her final one, as on-edge recovering alcoholic actress Georgia in “Only When I Laugh.” The film itself, while no “Atlantic City,” “On Golden Pond” or “Reds,” is still one of the better Simon pictures, adapted from his play “The Gingerbread Lady,” which won a Tony Award for Maureen Stapleton in the Mason role.
Mason is dead-on convincing as a woman desperate to maintain her sobriety and sanity, if only she weren’t surrounded by such self-absorbed and needy people. The Mason-McNichol relationship has shades of “Terms of Endearment” (1983) and “Postcards from the Edge” (1990) and, like those superior pictures, “Only When I Laugh” goes for equal parts laughter and tears.
Mason may not be an actress on the level of the other four nominees here but in Georgia Hines she found the pitch-perfect role of her career.
The performances ranked (thus far):
1. Maureen Stapleton, “Interiors”
2. Mariel Hemingway, “Manhattan”
3. Marsha Mason, “Only When I Laugh”
4. Diane Keaton, “Reds”
5. Meryl Streep, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
6. Meryl Streep, “The Deer Hunter”
7. Jane Alexander, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
8. Susan Sarandon, “Atlantic City”
9. Candice Bergen, “Starting Over”
10. Maggie Smith, “California Suite”
11. Katharine Hepburn, “On Golden Pond”
12. Meryl Streep, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”
13. Dyan Cannon, “Heaven Can Wait”
14. Penelope Milford, “Coming Home”
15. Barbara Barrie, “Breaking Away”
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