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Happy birthday on November 8 to the great Alfre Woodard, one of the most esteemed actresses of her generation. Woodard first made her mark in theater as a breakthrough performer in the classic “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” in 1977. From there, it was a quick transition to films and television, winning an Emmy in 1983 for her role in the NBC series “Hill Street Blues.” The same year, she earned her only Academy Award nomination (so far) for her touching performance in Martin Ritt’s “Cross Creek.” As her film career grew, Woodard earned a Golden Globe nomination and was nominated twice for her big-screen work by the Screen Actors Guild.
But it was in television that Woodard make her greatest mark, being nominated for 18 Emmy Awards, winning four (“Hill Street,” “L.A. Law,” “Miss Evers’ Boys,” and “The Practice”). Woodard has also won a Golden Globe Award for television (“Miss Evers’ Boys”) from two nominations, and she has also been nominated for five Screen Actors Guild Awards for her television work, winning three (“The Piano Lesson,” “Miss Evers’ Boys” and “Desperate Housewives”).
As is typical for Woodard, her two-pronged emphasis on both film and television is leading to a busy 2019. With the release of “Clemency,” she can also currently be seen co-starring with Jason Momoa in the new Apple TV+ series “See.” Tour our photo gallery above celebrating her film career. It features her 12 greatest movie performances, ranked from best to worst, including “Passion Fish,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Grand Canyon.”
12. HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT (1995)
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse. Writer: Jane Anderson. Starring Winona Ryder, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Nelligan, Alfre Woodard, Maya Angelou.
In Jane Anderson’s ensemble piece, Woodard takes a key role as Marianna, a woman who has been around the block a few times, and though she loves the freedom of her promiscuity, she reconsiders her position when she meets a man in France with whom she shares a special night. Marianna soon becomes convinced that he is the one, but it turns out that he is married. Worst of all, he doesn’t even know his name. It’s a wonderfully vulnerable performance by Woodard, and, as a part of the film’s ensemble, Woodard earned her first Screen Actors Guild nomination.
11. MISS FIRECRACKER (1989)
Director: Thomas Schlamme. Writer: Beth Henley, based on her play. Starring Holly Hunter, Scott Glenn, Mary Steenburgen, Tim Robbins, Alfre Woodard.
Woodard has specialized in playing straight-forward characters, but every once in a while she steps out of that comfort zone, and so it is with Beth Henley’s script to “Miss Firecracker,” based on her off-Broadway play. Woodward plays Popeye Jackson, an odd duck who is half blind and works as a seamstress. Popeye worships her friend Carnelle (Holly Hunter) who hopes to be named Miss Firecracker at this year’s town pageant. Woodard is at heart a character actress, and here she is given a character unlike any she has portrayed before, and the chemistry between Woodard and Hunter is really what makes the film work.
10. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)
Director: Gregory Hoblit. Writers: Steve Shagan, Ann Biderman. Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Edward Norton, Alfre Woodard, Frances McDormand, John Mahoney.
Based on the novel by William Diehl, “Primal Fear” focuses on a Chicago trial in which slick lawyer Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is defending an altar boy (Edward Norton) who is charged with murdering a popular Catholic archbishop who may have been molesting the boy. In the novel, the judge in the case was a white male, but director Gregory Hoblit, who had directed Woodard to an Emmy for the pilot of “L.A. Law,” decided to cast her as the judge. As Woodard plays the judge, she subtly makes no effort to hide her disdain of Vail, which complicates the defense attorney’s strategy. The role of a trial judge can often be very limited, but Woodard is given a doozie of a scene in chambers that she simply knocks out of the park.
Although “Crooklyn” is the only movie to date that Woodard has made with Spike Lee, she fits very snugly into the Lee world. “Crooklyn” is in fact taken from incidents from his own childhood, set in the summer of 1973 in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The focus is on 9 year-old Troy Carmichael (Zelda Harris) who is growing up with four brothers, her schoolteacher mother Carolyn (Woodard) and her aimless musician father Woody (Delroy Lindo). Carolyn is a strict but loving mother, who must not only tend to her family’s needs but work to keep it afloat. Lee draws out a lovely performance from Woodard that’s both warm yet complex.
8. BOPHA! (1993)
Director: Morgan Freeman. Writers: Brian Bird, John Weirick. Starring Danny Glover, Malcolm McDowell, Alfre Woodard, Maynard Eliashi, Marius Weyers.
Woodard co-stars with Danny Glover once again in this South Africa-based film, which marked the directing debut of Morgan Freeman. Set in the waning days of apartheid, Glover’s Micha Mangena is a police officer training new recruits who are mostly black as well. Micha would like his son Zweli (Maynard Eliashi) to follow his footsteps into the force, but the young man is resistant, citing the increasing political polarization growing in their town, a feeling that is shared by Micha’s wife Rosie (Woodard). Even in a story concerned with social and political issues, Glover and Woodard never fail to bring the motion, making this family come alive.
7. CROSS CREEK (1983)
Director: Martin Ritt. Writer: Dalene Young, based on the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Starring Mary Steenburgen, Rip Torn, Peter Coyote, Alfre Woodard, Dana Hill.
Woodard earned her solo Oscar nomination (so far) in Martin Ritt’s film of the beloved Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings memoir. Based on the author’s move from New York to the backwoods of Florida, the story follows the struggles of Rawlings (Mary Steenburgen) in facing the obstacles that her rundown cabin and property force her to confront. To help, she hires a local, Geechee (Woodard) who may be an employee, but the bond that the two women forge is undeniable, and together the work to make Cross Creek the home of which Rawlings has always dreamed. This is top notch work by both women, and Woodard is especially effective in capturing the challenges that a poor black woman faced in the rural South in the 1920s.
6. STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996)
Director: Jonathan Frakes. Writers: Brannon Braga, Ronald D. Moore. Starring Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Alfre Woodard.
It’s Alfre Woodard in space! She joined the legion of memorable “Star Trek” characters in Jonathan Frakes’ debut feature, the eighth in the series of “Star Trek” films. Woodard became close friends with Frakes when they were both starting out as actors, and when she learned that he never had a godmother, Woodard offered to become his, which she is still to this day. So when Frakes needed an actor powerful enough go to toe-to-toe in a major confrontation scene (the best in the film) with Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart), there was no other choice in his mind. Of all the roles she has played, Woodard has been quoted as saying that “First Contact’s” Lily Sloane is the one that is most like herself.
5. LOVE AND BASKETBALL (2000)
Writer/Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood. Starring Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert.
Woodard segued into a number of “mom” roles in the 1990s, and one of her very best is in this Gina Price-Blythewood film in which she played Camille Wright, mother of aspiring basketball star Monica (Sanaa Lathan) who feels that Camille has not been as supportive of her dream as she might have been. In a kitchen confrontation scene that is in many ways the heart and soul of “Love & Basketball,” Camille and Monica talk about their dreams. Camille looks back on her goal of becoming a caterer which got put on permanent hold when she met her husband Nathan and had Monica and her sister. In this one scene, Woodard evokes a sense of frustration, disappointment and finally contentment as she looks back at what has become her adult life. It’s a beautiful piece of acting.
4. GRAND CANYON (1991)
Director: Lawrence Kasdan. Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, Meg Kasdan. Starring Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Steve Martin, Alfre Woodard, Mary McDonnell, Mary-Louise Parker.
Woodard reunites with her “Mandela” co-star Danny Glover (she played Winnie and he portrayed Nelson in the 1987 TV movie) in Lawrence Kasdan’s romantic roundelay set in Los Angeles. Jane (Woodard) is best friends with Dee (Mary-Louise Parker), who works as a secretary for immigration lawyer Mack (Kevin Kline). Mack was recently rescued from a group of muggers by tow-truck driver Simon (Glover), so as a way to thank him, he sets Simon up with Jane. (Simon wonders aloud to Jane, “Maybe we’re the only two black people he ever met,” but the pair nonetheless click.) It’s a rare and welcome onscreen romantic outing for Woodard, whose chemistry with Glover is palpable.
3. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
Director: Steve McQueen. Writer: John Ridley. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano.
Woodard has a key supporting role in Steve McQueen’s film, winner of the 2013 Oscar as Best Picture, as Mistress Harriet Shaw, a freed black woman who lives on a Southern plantation in the mid-1800s. In order to survive, Harriet became the mistress to her white master and manages to eke out some kind of a life in what was otherwise a hellish existence for slaves at that time. Determined to teach what she learned to others, Woodard’s Harriet takes under her wing the naive slave Patsey (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) to help the young woman survive. As a part of the film’s ensemble, Woodard earned her second Screen Actors Guild nomination.
Woodard earned some of the best reviews of her career in this Chinonye Chukwu drama focusing on prison warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard), a woman who brings a stoic sense of pride and control to what is clearly a job that can be emotionally draining. That control is tested when she finds herself drawn to the story of one of the prisoners whom she will soon be forced to put to death. And what Bernadine sees as as control is sometimes seen as lack of empathy, a possibility that she begins to come to realize. At the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere, critics raved about Woodard’s mastery of the character, allowing the audience to see just so much before the nature of her character is revealed.
1. PASSION FISH (1992)
Writer/Director: John Sayles. Starring Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, Leo Burmester, Vondie Curtis-Hall.
Woodard finally got the opportunity to work with the great filmmaker John Sayles in “Passion Fish,” one of his best films (and one that decades later is still 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell) is a TV soap opera star who is paralyzed in an accident and must return home to Louisiana to recuperate. The spoiled May-Alice runs through a series of caretakers until she hires Chantelle, a young woman whose desperate need to keep this job never gets in the way of her calling out May-Alice’s selfish behavior. Their employer/employee relationship soon becomes a dramatic test of wills between these two women, and both actors could not be better. For her performance as Chantelle, Woodard earned her first Golden Globe film nomination.