Best Supporting Actress, 1982
• Academy Award: Jessica Lange, Tootsie
Only 11 times in Oscar history has an actor been nominated for two performances in the same year. (Bizarrely, in one of those cases—Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way—both nominations were for the same performance. AMPAS rules were subsequently changed to prevent that ever happening again.) Jessica Lange landed nods for both Actress and Supporting Actress in 1982, but there was virtually no chance that she could win in the lead category, as she was up against Meryl Streep doing a Polish accent in a wrenching Holocaust drama. Consequently, there’s always been a perception that Lange’s Oscar for Tootsie was in some sense a consolation prize—just a convenient way for voters to honor both women.
If that’s true, then history got lucky, because Lange’s performance is entirely worthy on its own merits, and would be even if Frances had never existed. Tootsie is a fairly broad comedy—with Dustin Hoffman in drag, that goes without saying—but its emotional core belongs almost entirely by Lange’s Julie Nichols, the soap actress with whom Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey falls in love while posing as Dorothy Michaels. As a character, Julie is somewhat idealized, functioning as a representation of traditional femininity so that she can serve as counterpoint to Michael’s goofy interpretation. As Lange plays her, however, there’s a strange sadness lurking beneath her smiles, creating the subtle but distinct impression of someone who feels trapped by the strictures imposed upon her by the body she inhabits. Talking about her relationship with asshole “daytime drama” director Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman), Julie admits that he’s just the latest in a long series of poor decisions she’s made. Rather than play up the defeatism, however, Lange shrewdly spins it much more rueful and sunny, as if Julie long ago accepted the world’s terms and no longer has the energy to even acknowledge that they might be less than fair. She’s playing the straight woman, to some extent—everyone in the movie is funny except her—but that arguably means that she had the greatest degree of difficulty in the cast, and she pulls it off with sublime, relaxed grace.
• New York Film Critics Circle: Jessica Lange, Tootsie
Almost everybody agreed on Lange this year—the sole exception was LAFCA, coming up next—so I’ll mostly be looking at the other Oscar nominees. One of them, as it happens, was Lange’s Tootsie castmate Teri Garr, who plays Michael’s extremely neurotic friend/lover, Sandy Lester. “Sublime, relaxed grace” would not be an apt phrase to describe Sandy, and Garr, whose presence in movies is sorely missed (she’s battling multiple sclerosis), was at her unhinged best in this role, digging fearlessly into some additional aspects of what a pain in the ass being a woman can be. “Don’t apologize to me because I’m three hours late,” Michael tells her at one point, as Sandy finds a way to blame herself for his thoughtlessness; Garr does a tremendous job, with relatively little screen time, demonstrating how someone (particularly a woman, for all kinds of reasons too complex to address here) can perceive every slight as evidence of a personal failing. At the same time, though, she’s often riotously funny, whether emerging from being trapped in a bathroom for half an hour at a party (“I’ll have to remember that if I ever do a scene where I’m trapped someplace, you know?”) or hurling contempt at “that cow” Dorothy Michaels to a deeply hurt Michael Dorsey (not knowing that they’re the same person). Her finest moment comes when Michael confesses he’s in love with another woman, causing Sandy to let out a bloodcurdling shriek, launch into an angry tirade about being responsible for her own orgasm, put a hilarious working-actress spin on certain lines (as if some part of Sandy is aware that she’s involved in a terrific dramatic scene), and then storm out with one of the all-time great exit lines. (“I don’t take this shit from friends, only from lovers.”) The whole performance is equal parts farce and tragedy, and suddenly I think it’s terribly undervalued.
• Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Glenn Close, The World According To Garp
Here was the only dissenting voice among the groups I survey for this column. In lieu of Lange, LAFCA plumped for Glenn Close’s portrayal of Jenny Fields, T.S. Garp’s feminist icon of a mother—a character who, as originally written in John Irving’s novel, would present any actress with a challenge. Close does her best to make her seem human while honoring Irving’s extremely literary conception of her as a sort of principled automaton who simultaneously nurtures and warps her child (even more than the average parent). Maintaining a steely composure softened by the hint of a smile, she embodies a woman with an absolute, unwavering belief in herself, along with a disinclination to soft-peddle life’s harsh realities for her son. It’s a blunt performance, by necessity, but Close brings more warmth to Jenny than is apparent on the page, along with an impish sense of humor at times. It’s not her fault she looks exactly the same as Garp grows from a little boy into Robin Williams (there isn’t even really an attempt to age her, oddly), and nor is she to blame for Irving’s troubling conception of a feminist as a woman with zero interest in sex except as a means for procreation. Still, citing it as the year’s best is pretty iffy, as Close is hobbled by the character’s sizable limitations. That she compensates for them is impressive (especially considering that this was her feature film debut, at age 35), but she can only do so much. Also, it’s a bit surprising that the award came from the L.A. critics rather than the New York critics, as Close had previously worked mostly in Broadway and off-Broadway plays and would theoretically have been more familiar to the Gotham crew. LAFCA has a long history of going its own way with actresses, though.
• National Society of Film Critics: Jessica Lange, Tootsie
ALL HAIL LANGE! (Almost.) To be honest, the competition this particular year wasn’t especially tough. The other two Oscar nominations went to Kim Stanley, playing Frances Farmer’s mother Lillian in Frances, and Lesley Ann Warren, as the ditzy moll of James Garner’s mobster in Victor/Victoria. Stanley was unquestionably a great actress (see Séance On A Wet Afternoon), but she was primarily a stage actress, and she didn’t always know how to tone it down for the big screen and its greater sense of intimacy. In Frances, she’s prone to contorting her face into gargoyle shapes, punching every moment for maximum impact, and she actually prods Lange into overacting as a result, with shaky results. (At times, her Lillian Farmer strongly resembles Livia Soprano, which would be fine if Frances Farmer were Tony Soprano. But she decidedly isn’t.) Warren, for her part, does a variation on Singin’ In The Rain’s Lina Lamont, complete with squeaky, high-pitched voice and dumb-blonde mannerisms. It’s not a bad performance, by any means, but it’s not even as strong as Jennifer Tilly’s take on the archetype in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, much less in the same league as Jean Hagen’s classic work. (Two years later, Warren would do fantastic work in Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, and it would be ignored. But that’s a subject for a future column.) Lange made a nearly clean sweep in part because the field was thin—apart from Garr, whose role was likely perceived as too trivial. But it’s dismaying that nobody singled out…
• Performance Review’s Most Overlooked: Ellen Barkin, Diner
Diner is a movie about guys, and specifically a movie about how guys behave when in the company of other guys. It’s called Diner because its characters feel most comfortable packed into a booth together, shooting the shit about nonsense like Frank Sinatra vs. Johnny Mathis or whether someone’s asking for a piece of a roast-beef sandwich in the correct manner. Women are largely alien creatures to them, even in the case of the one guy, Daniel Stern’s Shrevie, who’s already married. Ellen Barkin, in her first significant film role (she’d previously had one uncredited bit part and appeared in two TV movies), plays Shrevie’s put-upon wife, Beth, and manages to create an indelible portrait of someone who’s not being abused in any way but is aggressively misunderstood and taken for granted. The scene in which Shrevie yells at Beth for misfiling his precious records is as acute a synopsis of male-female dysfunction as the movies have ever produced, and while Stern’s anger is its primary engine, it’s Barkin’s combination of incredulousness, irritation, and wounded pride that makes it such a sad spectacle (even as it’s also kind of funny). The role is a small one, and it’s possible that my regard for Barkin’s performance is influenced by the fact this was the first movie I ever saw her in—she’s a striking screen presence, so she’s gonna grab your attention in a big way upon introduction, whatever the film. But the mere fact that she manages to make such a strong impression in this ode to testosterone (unlike, say, Kathryn Dowling or Colette Blonigan, who played other key female roles) explains why she became a star, despite somewhat unconventional looks. The movie needed a strong reminder that women are autonomous beings, not conquests, and she provided it while remaining true to writer-director Barry Levinson’s deliberately skewed vision. Not easy.