Welcome to Part Three of my look at the Oscar winners who didn’t merit winning. We’ve discussed the Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories, and now it’s time to check out the Best Actress category. Here we go…
6. Faye Dunaway, Network (1976)
Network has to be one of the most over-hyped movies of all time. It’s supposed to be this wonderful fable of our times, and we’re told how every character and every line are just fraught with meaning. I watched it a few years ago just to see what the fuss was about. To me, the whole film came across as overacted, and I thought that the script dripped with awareness of its own importance. I get the parallels with our news culture today, but what I didn’t get is why it’s supposed to be such a great piece of cinema.
Faye Dunaway plays Diana Christensen, an amoral television executive, and she makes horrific programming choices when she’s not carrying on an affair with the president of the network (William Holden). Christensen is just one of the many completely unsympathetic characters in Network, and Dunaway plays her to the ultimate in ’70s excess.
Academy Awards voters fell for Dunaway’s performance hook, line, and sinker, and she walked away with one of Network‘s four Oscars for her hyperdramatic acting.
Who should’ve won? Talia Shire put on an incredible performance as Rocky’s girlfriend in Rocky, and Sissy Spacek terrified in the title role in Carrie. The Academy would’ve done well to give either actress the Oscar in Dunaway’s place.
5. Katharine Hepburn, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)
By 1967, Katharine Hepburn had become Hollywood royalty, more popular than ever. That year she starred with her frequent collaborator—and sometime lover—Spencer Tracy one last time in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? which co-starred Sidney Poitier, who was the hottest actor in the movies that year.
Hepburn’s performance in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? was actually quite electrifying, including one of the best kiss-off scenes in history:
But Hepburn became a front-runner largely because sentiment was on her side, and she knew it. She told an interviewer, “I think they’re beginning to think I’m not going to be around much longer. And what do you know: they’ll miss me like an old monument—like the Flatiron Building.” Of course, she would go on to win two more Oscars in 1968 and 1981.
Did Katharine Hepburn deserve to be nominated? Absolutely. Did she deserve to win? Based on merit, maybe, but not based solely on sentiment.
Who should’ve won? That other Hepburn—Audrey, no relation—gave a tremendous performance in Wait Until Dark, and Anne Bancroft was the only good thing about The Graduate. Oscar wouldn’t have gone wrong with either one of the two.
4. Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class (1973)
In the early ’70s, Glenda Jackson seemed to win every award under the sun. I mean, it was like organizations invented awards just to give them to Jackson. She picked up an Oscar for 1970’s Women in Love, and the Academy seemed to fall all over itself for another opportunity to give her another one.
Jackson appeared in 1973’s A Touch of Class, which is supposed to be some kind of romantic comedy about an adulterous American man having an affair with a British divorcee—and they happen to fall in love. Here’s a pretty typical scene.
Look, she’s not awful in this movie; in fact, she’s quite good, even though the picture itself is no great shakes. But when you look at the competition, it becomes clear that Jackson’s critical popularity and status as the flavor-of-the-half-decade were the reasons why she won.
Who should’ve won? Ellen Burstyn was tremendous in The Exorcist (though she would win an Oscar the next year), and even Barbra Streisand did an award-worthy job in The Way We Were. But Joanne Woodward deserved a second Academy Award for her powerful role in her passion project Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.
3. Elizabeth Taylor, BUtterfield 8 (1960)
Sometimes sentiment is the best path to an Oscar win. Elizabeth Taylor had a tremendous run of roles in the late ’50s, winning three Academy Award nominations in a row but losing every one of them. She reached the end of her contract with MGM, and the studio forced her to make BUtterfield 8, in which she portrayed a call girl named Gloria Wandrous.
It’s a downright terrible movie, and Taylor knew it. She referred to it as “the most pornographic script I have ever read,” and told anyone she could how much she hated the film. Even when it had become a success, she grumbled, “I still say it stinks.”
Taylor became ill for over a month at the tail end of Oscar voting period—a mysterious ailment, followed by the flu, followed by severe pneumonia—and she nearly died. By the ceremony, she was a sentimental favorite to win, which she did for a role she didn’t much care for herself.
Who should’ve won? With tight competition like Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr, the award could have been anybody’s game. But Shirley MacLaine gave a perfect comic-and-dramatic performance in The Apartment and should have walked away with the Oscar (interestingly enough, MacLaine had asked Taylor to accept an Oscar on her behalf in her absence).
2. Cher, Moonstruck (1987)
Let’s face it: Cher was a talented lady before she became an unhinged amateur political commentator. Remember her tremendous early work with Sonny Bono, the hilarious ’70s variety show, her rock phase, and her dance-music comeback? For decades, Cher demonstrated her talent in so many ways.
She was even a movie star. In the early ’80s, Cher went on a run of impressive film roles, including her heartbreaking turn in 1985’s Mask and her Oscar-nominated role as Karen Silkwood’s girlfriend in Silkwood two years before. And then came Moonstruck.
I’m not sure why anybody thought Moonstruck was an impressive piece of cinema. The accents are terrible all the way around, and the characters come across as the hoariest of stereotypes. The Academy fell for it, for some reason, and Cher wound up winning Best Actress—maybe voters thought they missed opportunities in 1983 and 1985 and felt they had to make up for lost time.
Who should’ve won? Holly Hunter was the discovery of the year for her work in Broadcast News, but Glenn Close scared the hell out of everybody in Fatal Attraction. She should have walked away with the Oscar, hands down.
1. Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday (1950)
Some actresses (and actors) make a career out of playing essentially the same character over and over. Like Victoria Jackson after her, Judy Holliday exploited a dumb blonde image in nearly every role she ever inhabited in her short career. Holliday’s stock part consisted of what one critic later noted as “[the] squeaky voice, the embarrassed giggle, the brassy naivete, the dimples, the teeter-totter walk.”
Somehow Holliday had awards voters eating out of her hand, winning a Golden Globe, a Tony, and, yes, even an Oscar for the same stock trope. Even though producers didn’t want to cast the unknown actress in 1950’s Born Yesterday, they took a gamble.
Needless to say, a scene like that wouldn’t fly today. Even though Holliday is at least serviceable in the part, somehow Oscar voters saw enough in her acting to vote for her over a packed category: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve, Eleanor Parker in Caged, and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
Who should’ve won? Are you kidding me? Although any of the nominees not named Judy Holliday deserved to win, none of them did better than Gloria Swanson in her triumphant comeback as Norma Desmond.
There you go. What are your choices? Let us know in the comments section below, and stay tuned for Best Actor and Best Picture.