Best Supporting Actress 1973: Nominees and Outside Possibilties
This is a picture of me sitting on a hilltop in a fetching blonde bowl cut, while Nathaniel, not unusually dressed as Madeline Kahn, warily approaches. Despite my years of conscientious service, he's actually asking me to bow out from this month's installment of the Supporting Actress Smackdown, dedicated to the roster of 1973, and to let five interlopers sit up front with their big tits.
I guess when the new passengers are extraordinary film critics Bill Chambers and Karina Longworth, peerless popular film historian Mark Harris, sickeningly young movie smarty-smart Kyle Turner, and multiple-Emmy-winning actress Dana Delany, I might see the logic of moving to the back seat. Hell, for that crowd, I'd ride in the trunk. Just like you, I cannot wait for this episode of the Smackdown and its associated podcast, both because I so admire all the panelists and because—in a major reversal from last month—I think the Academy did an absolutely splendid job filling out this field. If there'd been room for me on this varsity squad, I'd have said the following... and in 73 words apiece, because you know I don't play:
Linda Blair, The Exorcist
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I get it: Blair’s performance encompasses major assists from makeup, effects, and a pissed-off Mercedes McCambridge. Awarding her may not be the appropriate channel for recognizing the impact of the characterization. But when the impact is that astounding… Plus, I like her muted, underplayed chipperness and frightening fatigue in the opening acts. You feel that an already-recessive personality is being further endangered, which is more interesting than a precocious dynamo coming under attack.
Candy Clark, American Graffiti
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Nobody's bad in Graffiti but many are boring. Dreyfuss begs to get noticed; others could stand being more noticeable. Oscar's singling out of Clark makes sense: she famously campaigned, but she's also got a peculiar, genuinely comic presence. From the start, foggily contemplating which celebrity she most resembles, she looks perpetually like she's entertaining other, weirder thoughts than the script's, without detaching from scene partners, getting too broad, or leaning into kooky-blonde caricature.
Madeline Kahn, Paper Moon
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Kahn can unmask Trixie's core and animate a whole scene simply by belting "Son of a bitch!" with impressive vulgarity. She gets aroused just hearing about hotel rooms, daddy. Silencing her seditious, over-sharing traveling companion with one look, she gets her laugh while disclosing how terrified Trixie is of blowing even this shoddy chance for—money? companionship? adulation? Still, she sometimes settles for surface. Often more involved in her performances than her films.
Tatum O'Neal, Paper Moon
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Yes, she's a lead, from first shot to last. More caveats: like Blair, she benefits as much from savvy typecasting as from inspired technique; huge swaths of her performance unfold in isolated close-ups, enlivened as much by editing as by anything Tatum is doing. But? She's sweet, sad, conniving, funny, and ill-tempered without being insufferable. She radiates constantly how unhappy she'd be living in some nice lady's house. She makes the movie work.
Sylvia Sidney, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
It's one thing to establish a lasting impression in the first 20 minutes. It's another to convey such steely self-absorption within that narrow window that we believe you'd inspire the biggest chip Joanne Woodward ever had on her shoulder... and she's had a lot of big ones. And to be funny, but not comic, while doing it! And to render a memorably upsetting death scene. Extra points for eye-rolling at that baby’s picture.
Clearly no complaints this time around, even though I'm still not sure whom I'd have voted for—probably Sidney, since hers is the most obvious display of proficiency without editing or effects boosting her along in any way. But really, this category couldn't have gone too wrong.
That said, I always love seizing Nathaniel's monthly focus on a given year to (re)visit as many movies as I can. This month I watched over two dozen releases from 1973 I'd never seen before and re-watched several others, plus some slightly older films that qualified for Oscar in 1973. For the purposes of today, here's what I learned about 18 eligible members of the competitive field from which Oscar culled Blair, Clark, Kahn, O'Neal, and Sidney. Many of these performances, including those nominated for other major awards, might have given those gals a run for their spots (though honestly, consensus seemed pretty strong that these would be The Five). No longer promising 73 words a piece, though. Take what you can get...
Penelope Allen, Scarecrow
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A short part, and a dry-run for Allen's more indelible teaming with Pacino when she played the head bank teller in Dog Day Afternoon. Still, she's galvanizing here in a late, single sequence as the mother of Pacino's child, astonished and then outraged and maybe other things, too, upon realizing who's at long last on the other end of the phone. She sort of has the Swinton part in Broken Flowers: the last in a long line of vivid women in the film (Ann Wedgeworth got the most attention at the time) and the one who finally tells the self-pitying male lead where to fucking park it.
Harriet Andersson, Cries and Whispers
NYFC: Second runner-up (Best Actress)
NSFC: Runner-up (Best Actress); Fourth runner-up (Best Supporting Actress)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I'd probably call all four women in Cries and Whispers leads, but even critics' groups had trouble deciding, which I'd wager played a substantial role in Andersson getting blanked at Oscar time despite the remarkable support for the film. Is it fair to say she remains the cinema's paragon figure of deathbed dwindling? Beyond finding infinitesimal gradations of wordlessly conveyed discomfort, Andersson also shows us the sweet sister who was probably cowed for years by one sibling's imperiousness and the other's narcissism. From tremulous delicacy (so happy to be read to and washed, such simple things) to despondent fury (bolting upright in bed, howling, "Can nobody help me?"), this is a performance for the ages.
Lili Darvas, Love
NSFC: Second runner-up (Best Actress)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
More category confusion, and another feat of deathbed acting. Darvas has the smaller of two co-lead parts in this deservedly celebrated Hungarian drama about a convict's wife who nurses her mother-in-law through a long, slow illness, writing fake letters and passing false stories to assure her that her jailed son is in fact thriving in a new career in far-off America. As the mother-in-law, Darvas not only has to fade in and out of lucidity, she also has to shuttle between belief and disbelief in her daughter-in-law's tales. Sometimes she distinguishes these distinct oscillations: clarity and dementia, credulity and suspicion. Sometimes she artfully blends them. All the while she offers a poignant portrait of old age, impending mortality, and conflicting allegiances to truth and comfort.
Catherine Gaffigan, Sisters
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A single-scene performer, and thus a strange fit for even an imaginary Oscar ballot, but in a gonzo film that doesn't always know what to do with its actors or its characters, Gaffigan electrifies and terrifies as an initially sympathetic presence hovering near a phone. Not only does she reveal the grimmer truth of the character in memorable outbursts, but her behavior signals to the protagonist just how much she has risked in entering this unfamiliar environment. Hard to imagine hitting the "horror" beat of this scene better than Gaffigan does, but her energy is different and weirder than the stock residents of most movie asylums. What a cameo.
P.J. Johnson, Paper Moon
NSFC: Third runner-up (Best Supporting Actress)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
As with O'Neal, Johnson profits enormously from Bogdanovich's resourceful and compassionate handling of the character. She gets a charming entrance, she's the subject of a very poignant backward track into long shot in her final appearance, and her physical awkwardness—ambiguously the character's or the performer's—invites a warm hug from this big-hearted movie. All of that means that Imogene makes a big impression on audiences of Paper Moon, though it's even less clear than with Kahn or O'Neal how skillful the actress herself has been in fostering that impression. Sometimes she's quite funny; at others, her line readings or physical carriage just signal unease. A welcome character but technically an iffy performance.
Diane Keaton, Sleeper
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
You can't say Keaton's working too hard within the broadly comic parameters of Sleeper, but she does find funny ways to interact with her costumes, her props, and her silly-but-not-stupid character. Best of all, and in ways she would only perfect over time, Keaton stands virtually alone in her ability to play Allen's sidekick and love interest without seeming like a second banana. She furnishes her own sprightly energy to her scenes and projects her own sure grasp of the project and its tenor, without just gawking at Woody and trying her best to keep up with his cues.
Viveca Lindfors, The Way We Were
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
On paper this looks like a gimme nomination: a distinctive character actress who'd been around for a while but never quite broke out, playing the charismatic confidant of the female lead without being overly soft. Because of her, you don't need to have read the novel to suss what the screenplay implies more tacitly: Paula's history as a refugee and her particular vulnerability to the anti-Red forces in Hollywood. Lindfors seems like the right actress for the job. She has real presence (Melina Mercouri without as much self-regard) and a quickly established rapport with Streisand, whose hold on the camera often obliterates supporting players. If the part had been enlarged and the film had really dug into these storylines as more than something for Katie and Hubbell to fight about, we could really have had something here. I wonder what other scenes she might have filmed; The Way We Were's second half always implies some not-entirely-elegant surgeries have taken place.
Marsha Mason, Blume in Love
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Mason scored a leading nod and a Golden Globe for her Cinderella Liberty performance in 1973, but seeing Blume in Love suggests to me that awards bodies were rewarding an overall good year for her. As is often true of Paul Mazursky movies, everyone in the large-ish cast looks relaxed and fully versed in their characters (Kris Kristofferson is another standout), but Mason really distinguishes herself in this area. As the longtime friend who jumps into a relationship with George Segal's character almost immediately after he separates from his wife, Mason is sexy and funny in ways that would suit a Rohmer film, projecting an active inner life. You see her mulling over her bond to Segal, her motives for pursuing him, and their prospects together, but she externalizes those thoughts visibly and comically, and she's good with a zinger. Still refreshing to see her outside the controlling cadences of Neil Simon, with whom she made her most lasting mark.
Vivien Merchant, The Homecoming
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Am I hallucinating, or was Merchant well-known as a distinguished interpreter of Pinter? I feel like I know that, but I don't know why, and I've never observed her in this context outside this American Film Theatre staging of the famous, Tony-winning, West End-then-Broadway production. She certainly seems comfortable maintaining that pensive silent clench that Pinter often requires of his performers, and she tilts plausibly from outsider to insider without showing us how she's doing it. Often if not always rewarding in close-up; if there's some stiffness in the performance, it's hard to know how much is Pinter, how much is American Film Theatre, and how much is Merchant still acclimating to the screen, seven years after her Oscar nod for Alfie. Certainly my eye kept going to her. But then, it would.
Kate Reid, A Delicate Balance
Golden Globe Nomination
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Whereas the AFT Homecoming takes a more-than-reasonable stab at how stage plays could unfold on screen, even intransigently stage-specific plays, everything about the AFT Delicate Balance suggests a coarse understanding of the text, of Albee, of how theater might be translated to film, and maybe even of human behavior. Just look at that shot of Kate Reid and marvel at how everything about it broadcasts Eccentric, Embittered Alcoholic. I doubt she picked her makeup or her costumes but she adopts expression after expression, line reading after line reading, that flattens everything elliptical about the character and the play. The performance feels misjudged for the camera, treated too obviously as a showcase part but with none of the wit or modulation that other interpreters have brought to it. Credit to the Academy for not following in the HFPA's footsteps on this one.
Lee Remick, A Delicate Balance
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Remick is the only breath of fresh air in that same Delicate Balance, where Hepburn falls back on too many all-purpose gestures and mannerisms, and Paul Scofield projects rigidity rather than gravitas. Certainly Remick ventures into some histrionic territory, forced to hold some bug-eyed close-ups with mascara running down her face, but she doesn't get lured into constant overemphasis. She knows the difference between playing a burdensome character and acting abrasive at all times on screen, and she furnishes the best evidence anywhere in the ensemble of actually listening and reacting spontaneously to her co-stars. She'd have made a great Honey early in her career and an interesting Martha later on, had things gone differently.
Delphine Seyrig, The Day of the Jackal
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
That voice, those eyes, those cheekbones: Seyrig is magnetic in any configuration, and both she and her movie know it. Hers is a small part, as a woman that the elusive assassin meets, beds, exploits as an alibi, pursues as protection, and is forced to get rid of, all in 20 minutes or so of screen time. It's hardly Jeanne Dielman but compare the impact Seyrig makes to that of other actors playing similarly scaled roles in Jackal and you see her craft at work—particularly her chilly but palpable way of communicating a wealthy woman who's aroused by the notion of getting away with something but probably too rarefied to follow through. She conveys the character's intelligence within nanoseconds, but also her total failure to grasp how over her head she is with this new acquaintance. You can tell the film laments letting her go: Zinnemann and his editor allow the discovery of her body to unfold in almost as many shots as she had while she was alive.
Kari Sylwan, Cries and Whispers
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Sylwan may or may not have the least screen time in Cries and Whispers, but she spends a lot of it in the backgrounds of shots more obviously devoted to the three sisters, only occasionally attaining the camera's full attention. The script's clichéd notion of the buxom, devoted, maternal servant limits how much she can accomplish but she doesn't over-dramatize the way Thulin often does, and doesn't oversell the backstory of Anna's own earlier loss. She's at her best in the spooky scene of Ullmann's and Thulin's characters negotiating how much generosity is proper to thank a longtime domestic for her service without straying into something as vulgar as actual generosity. She stands back, listening but not listening to her fate being decided, either stunned afresh at her employers' stinginess or fully conditioned to it. She is also chagrined, if not entirely amazed, at how fully one sister's actual death has entailed, in social and material respects, her own.
Ingrid Thulin, Cries and Whispers
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
BAFTA considered Thulin a supporting player in Cries and Whispers, which seems even harder to square in her case than in Andersson's or Sylwan's. (Nobody ever pretended that Ullmann was anything other than a lead, if only for reasons of relative name-recognition.) I've always found hers to be the least rewarding turn in the central quartet, prone to some hackneyed and too-intense demonstrations of a severely suppressed personality going haywire. The overall conception of Cries and Whispers, from plot to palette, is so blunt that the actors serve it best by reinjecting mystery and nuance; Thulin is too angular and forceful a presence to do that, though she arguably gets saddled with the most unplayable dialogue ("I can't take it any more - all that guilt!") and the most luridly conceived behaviors (the wine glass). She is, at her best, a full partner with Ullmann in telegraphing the highly fraught story of two sisters who dislike each other trying to take comfort in each other or reach out to each other only to once again rebuff each other. Both actresses convey that story even better through gesture, carriage, and expression than through dialogue.
Mari Törőcsik, Love
NSFC: Runner-up (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The last in a long line of category confusions on this list; how Törőcsik wound up so high on the Supporting Actress ballot for the National Society of Film Critics is a mystery, since she so clearly has the largest part. More important, though, is the NSFC's discernment in recognizing this Hungarian national treasure doing some of her best work, trying to assuage one woman's fears and loneliness about her missing son while harboring her own fears and loneliness about the same man. The baseline of the performance is a serene, catlike grin that holds a visible sadness barely in reserve while also seeming right on the edge of a chuckle. Törőcsik's sophisticated grasp of mood imports a welcome sense of humor into a film that otherwise might feel bloodless or morose. She's smart not to parse the script into scenes where Luca's acting and others where she drops the mask. We're never quite sure when she's disclosing her most genuine feelings, and thanks to Törőcsik's restrained but suggestive performance, it's fascinating at every moment to keep scrutinizing and guessing.
Nina van Pallandt, The Long Goodbye
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A supporting player in a real-life tabloid story (the one dramatized in the Richard Gere film The Hoax, where Julie Delpy played her), van Pallandt offers further evidence of Altman's wizardly ability to cast interesting types in unexpected roles. So much of the film is about holding the breezy banality of contemporary Southern California in productive tension with the profound, viselike venality of midcentury noir. Van Pallandt, so aloofly beautiful, conjures the world of sensual, salty-aired idleness seemingly without much effort, but it is a performance. Especially on second viewing, she carefully the negotiates the moments when Marlowe seems to be guessing her truth, sometimes allowing herself to look anxious, at other times playing into her mirage of relaxed tranquility. Every aspect of Sterling Hayden's final scene on the beach is a marvel, to include how van Pallandt processes those events. I still don't know exactly what she's thinking, and in this case, that's a compliment.
Cindy Williams, American Graffiti
NSFC: Fourth runner-up (Best Supporting Actress)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Williams has some funny moments in Graffiti: my favorite is how angry she gets when her boyfriend mentions a story she once shared about her fascination with her own brother, which he'd promised never to bring up again. She has some good beats, too, hanging tight in Harrison Ford's passenger seat, trying to make an impression while debating internally whether she really wants to be there. Too often, though, she's a bit too hard and a bit too shrill, without the gleeful charge you sometimes get from hard, shrill girls on screen. I think it's because her Laurie isn't any more interesting when she's mad or besotted or scared or contented. The character's going through motions she knows she'll understand differently when time has passed and she's looking back on them; meanwhile, she's trying on a few different moods. Perhaps the actress is trying not to editorialize too much on these incidents but, without seeming at all delicate, she just doesn't make much mark on her scenes, or give much weight to the feelings involved.
Shelley Winters, Cleopatra Jones
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Bless Shelley Winters for taking parts like this, wearing nape-to-toe leather and being overtly lascivious with the daisy chain of ingénues who bring her martinis and rub her feet. The character is tastelessly conceived, but Winters knows that making her more "tasteful" wouldn't help anything, and besides, she'd proved a few years prior in Roger Corman's Bloody Mama that she could be mesmerizing as a rifle-packing, bank-robbing hillbilly with an incestuous brood of sons and lovers. So the problem isn't with Winters or with tacky material in general, just with Winters in this particular tacky role. She goes along with it without seeming fully comfortable in it, awkward in her physicality and erring on the side of bellicose hysteria when something slinkier and stiller might occasionally have suited her scenes. Maybe she resented that the script keeps adding more villains when all it should really need is this one. And in that respect, I see her point.