It is criminal to think that Judy Garland’s lone Best Actress Oscar nomination was for 1954’s “A Star Is Born.” She was on the comeback trail at the time, having been released from her MGM contract four years before. Her embodiment of rising star Esther Blodgett opposite James Mason, nominated as washed-up actor Norman Maine, was considered the apex of her career. When the Oscar went to Grace Kelly in the mostly now-forgotten “The Country Girl,” no less than Groucho Marx called it, “the biggest robbery since Brink’s.”
Why did Garland lose? Tom O’Neil, the Jockey-in-Chief of Gold Derby, tipped me off. She didn’t have a cathartic final song that followed her declaration to the crowd, as she mourned her husband, that she was “Mrs. Norman Maine.” In contrast, Barbra Streisand, whose 1976 version is a pale imitation, at least knew to include a final ballad — “With One More Look at You”/”Watch Closely Now that brought closure to moviegoers, even if she went overboard with a seven-minute-plus weepy aria, done live and in one take, that morphs into a rock number. ”
Meanwhile, Lady Gaga’s final ode to her soulmate, Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine, is a happy medium. “Shallow” might be the song that sold the trailer. But the tune that could seal the deal on Gaga’s rise to Academy Award contention is the just-released finale, “I’ll Never Love Again.” After telling her audience that she is “Ally Maine,” she allows us to release all the feelings that have been welling up inside while watching the film while cleverly summing up with flashbacks what this couple meant to each other – and to us.
But it also does one thing more: In a movie filled with memorable tunes, “I’ll Never Love Again,” sung live just like Streisand, is probably the best showcase for Gaga’s vocal prowess and maturity as an artist as well as an actress. She becomes the star who has been reborn into a movie sensation. Yes, she has some stiff competition in her category — the ridiculously overdue Glenn Close in “The Wife” as well as the Olivia Colman as a cumbersome though sympathetic royal pain in “The Favourite.”
But Oscar history shows if an actress wants to win an Oscar for a musical, you must belt out an upbeat show-stopper mid-movie if possible or pour yourself into a tear-inducing ballad near the end. Here are the nine ladies who achieved this feat and took the gold. Click on the links within each photo caption for the gallery above.
Honorary Oscar: Judy Garland for “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
She was denied a statuette for “A Star Is Born,” but 16-year-old Judy was rewarded by her peers with a Juvenile Oscar for her performance as Dorothy Gale in what remains one of the most beloved films that Hollywood has ever produced. Yes, the timing of her signature song arrives a bit early. However, if her Kansas farm girl hadn’t sung “Over the Rainbow” at the start of the musical fantasy, a wistful Academy Award-winning tune that encapsulates the essence of adolescent yearning and wistfulness, would the rest of her portrayal carry as much weight?
Supporting Actress: Rita Moreno in “West Side Story” (1961)
Moreno, who is Puerto Rican, had much emotional investment in this modern-day musical take on “Romeo and Juliet” as pits rival gangs – one white, one Puerto Rican — on the streets of New York. That comes out in spades as her outspoken Anita challenges beau Bernardo (George Chakiris, her fellow supporting Oscar winner) in the bring-down-the-house dance-off number , “America.” This competitive EGOT honoree deserved an Oscar just for how she flips her full skirt with gusto as if it were a bullfighter’s cape.
Lead Actress: Julie Andrews in “Mary Poppins” (1964)
The soundtrack to this musical mélange of human and cartoon characters that was composed by the legendary Sherman brothers is pure joy. Both Andrews and Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep Burt warble several ear-pleasing tunes during the course of Walt Disney’s crowning live-action achievement during his lifetime. They include “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Feed the Birds” and the Oscar winner for Best Song, “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” But “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the breathless Cockney music-hall-themed romp, gives Andrews a real workout, especially when she pronounces the title backwards.
Lead Actress: Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” (1968)
This biographical musical about comedian Fanny Brice and her gambler husband Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif) featured a soundtrack with such roof-raisers as “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “People.” It allowed Streisand in her film debut to achieve a rare tie with fellow nominee Katharine Hepburn, who also received a trophy for her role as Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter.” But if anything sealed the deal for Babs, it was her moist-eyed delivery of a final sob song that Brice often performed, “My Man,” as she summons all of her heartache after her hubby departs and pours it straight back onto the screen.
Lead Actress: Liza Minnelli in “Cabaret” (1972)
The Broadway musical that was transferred to the big screen by Bob Fosse takes place in decadent Berlin during the Weimar Republic in 1831 as the Nazi Party is growing in power. Almost all of the songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb are performed at the Kit Kat Klub by Best Supporting Actor Joel Grey’s emcee or by Minnelli as Sally Bowles – singing for the first time in a movie. She did her mother Judy Garland proud with “Maybe This Time,” a ballad that shreds the heartstrings. But the number that echoed in the heads of moviegoers as they left was the titular tune, with its memorable opening line, “What good is sitting alone in your room, come hear the music play…” Minnelli propels her whole body into song, acting out each and every lyric before ending with a roar: “I LOVE A CAB-AR-ET!”
Supporting Actress: Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Chicago” (2002)
Wowzers! Sometimes it’s as important to make a first impression as it is to make a final one. I always thought Zeta-Jones as showgirl Velma Kelly, who oozes slinky sexiness from every pore while purring the suggestive lyrics of “All That Jazz,” guaranteed her Oscar triumph in these essential mood-setting opening minutes. That is on top of Velma having just murdered her husband and sister after finding them in bed together. The adaptation directed by Rob Marshall earned five other Academy Awards and became the first musical to win Best Picture since “Oliver!” in 1968. That on top of the success of jukebox musical “Moulin Rouge!“ the year before generated a revival of the mostly dormant genre.
Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson in “Dreamgirls” (2006)
“And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is the Mount Everest of Broadway torch songs and this musical lives and dies by how powerfully the first-act closer is performed. Hudson, ignoring any comparisons to the one and only Jennifer Holliday who originated the diva-esque Effie White on stage, to climb to the summit and stay there until the very last note. Director Bill Condon told me he decided during the final portion of the song to turn on the spotlights on the ceiling for dramatic effect even though it was unrealistic since, by that time, the audience wouldn’t even notice. I vividly recall attendees at my early screening actually clapping after she hit that final note. That is when I knew that this onetime “American Idol” contestant was well on her way to trophy-ville.
Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway in “Les Miserables” (2012)
Not only does a marvelously miserable Hathaway cry and sing live at the same time while managing to do more than justice to one of this enduring musical’s most famous songs, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Not only did the actress just sacrifice her own hair on screen so that her Fantine, a factory worker turned prostitute, can sell it and provide for her out-of-wedlock daughter. But she also manages to allow “Les Mis” devotees to hear this sob fest anew as she uses her voice to express sadness, anger, rage, revulsion and hopelessness. This is how you win an Oscar in a mere three-and-a-half minutes.
Lead Actress: Emma Stone in “La La Land” (2016)
Stone’s high point in Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood-centric musical is her on-the-spot tryout for a movie role as she sings “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” whose lyrics are mainly about her aunt and her lost loves. But her Mia also is clearly is fearful of what her own future holds and whether her relationship with Ryan Gosling’s jazz musician, Sebastian, will withstand their soon-to-be separation. The Academy must have been in a romantic mood as it bestowed a bouquet of 14 Oscar nominations upon this enchanting yet bittersweet romance, tying the record held by 1950’s “All About Eve” and 1997’s “Titanic.” Stone would win the film’s lone acting award and Chazelle got Best Director but it missed out on Best Picture, famously losing to “Moonlight.”