Wednesday, June 16, 2021

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Oscar '85: Anjelica Huston and Best Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actress saw competition between five performers from four films: Best Picture nominees The Color Purple, in which Celie Johnson experiences heartache after heartache in the rural South at the turn-of-the-century, and Prizzi's Honor, in which mob hitman Charley Partanna falls in love with a freelance hitwoman; Twice in a Lifetime, a grounded, wonderful drama in which a family man ends his 30-year marriage after falling for a barmaid and the fallout from it; and the curiously dull melodrama Agnes of God, in which a court-appointed psychiatrist investigates the state of mind of a novitiate accused of murdering her newborn child. Much as Supporting Actor went to a long-beloved veteran, this one went to a legacy:

Unfair to characterize the win as such? Let's talk performances:

Margaret Avery as Shug Avery
The Color Purple
first and only nomination

Shug Aaaaaaavery (ever since I heard the Church Ladies say it in the musical adaptation, it's the only way I can hear it) is the mistress of Mister, a scandalous showgirl, and the woman who helps Celie find her own strength. Avery has the trickiest character, I think: she's coarse and mean when we first meet her, makes a journey from potential adversary to greatest ally, and must exude magnetism (everyone loves her) and empathy (she really seems to listen to and understand everyone). Avery nails it, so that the movie, like Celie, comes alive in her presence. She knows just when to make those turns that even seem to surprise Shug, making Celie just as effective in her own evolution as she is in Celie's. And while much has been written about the muted queerness of the film, you wouldn't know it to watch Avery and Goldberg together in the "beautiful smile" and "Miss Celie's Blues" scenes.

Anjelica Huston as Maerose Prizzi
Prizzi's Honor
first of three nominations; LAFCA Awards winner for Best Supporting Actress, National Board of Review's Best Supporting Actress of 1985, NYFCC Awards winner for Best Supporting Actress; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress, Golden Globe nominee for Best Supporting Actress

Maerose is the estranged daughter of the Prizzi clan, former lover of their chief assassin Charley Partanna, whose jealousy and eagerness to return to the fold shape the violent climax of the film. Huston's constantly playing something underneath the surface - regret, passion, sorrow, calculation - but that surface is often so monotone you're not sure if it's the markings of a great performance or the projection of a willing audience. A bizarrely uninvolving performance...boring, one might say.

Amy Madigan as Sunny
Twice in a Lifetime
first and only nomination; Golden Globe nominee for Best Supporting Actress

Sunny is the eldest daughter of Kate and Harry, dealing with her own immediate family's financial woes while also contending with her parents' sudden split. Madigan, I know, is here for that outburst in the bar, when she faces the barmaid who stole her father away and lays into both of them for being irresponsible and heartless. It's a dynamite moment, the groundwork laid by Madigan throughout the film, establishing Sunny as pushy when it comes to the people she leaves ("at ease," her husband pleads at one point), with her tongue-biting and set jaw in certain social situations speaks to someone prone to outbursts who's curbed the habit. There's also more than just a little projection: does she not fear that maybe her unemployed husband will see her dad's example and leave her and the kids behind? Real fear and anger and heartbreak here. Not a false moment in this performance - or, indeed, in this whole film.

Meg Tilly as Agnes
Agnes of God
first and only nomination; Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actress

Agnes is a novitiate accused of murdering her baby; she believes there was no baby but that God did "reveal" Himself to her. Tilly is effective as the naive Agnes, a victim of longtime parental abuse whose forced naivete leaves her confused and vulnerable. She pulls it off convincingly enough - thank God, because otherwise, this character is just a mechanism, an excuse to talk about faith and miracles in the modern world. She gives Agnes life.

Oprah Winfrey as Sofia
The Color Purple
first and only nomination for acting; Golden Globe nominee for Best Supporting Actress, LAFCA Awards runner-up for Best Supporting Actress

Sofia is the wife of Harpo, a bold woman who speaks her mind no matter who you are...until the wrong person finds a way to break her. A heartbreaking arc for Winfrey to play, and she does it well, especially in silences; it's the look on her face that devastates and humors. That said, she is one of the worst victims of Spielberg's broad strokes approach to the material, forced to play a lot of comedy that don't always feel necessarily...funny. Not her fault.


Tough call on the winner. I know most people consider this a Huston vs. Winfrey fight, but as you can see, I'm more of an Avery vs. Madigan guy. And my vote goes to:


Next time: the nominees for Best Actress: Anne Bancroft in Agnes of God, Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, Jessica Lange in Sweet Dreams, Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful, and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa.

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