1981 Supporting Actress Smackdown

Click here to watch Maureen Stapleton’s acceptance speech, which starts at about the five-minute mark but has a fun explainer of how Academy voting works preceding it

I’ve always loved playing alongside the Smackdown. I’m incredibly excited for the busy schedule that’s been announced for this summer, shooting for six films of the next few months. I’m even happier that Film Experience helmer Nathaniel Rogers has allowed me to write a weekly companion piece for every year of the month, focusing on one actress who didn’t make the final cut. The performances I wrote about as part of 1981’s excellent vintage were Jessica Harper in Pennies From Heaven, Marília Pêra in Pixote, and Kathryn Harrold in Modern Romance, any of whom would’ve been welcome relief in the actual Supporting Actress lineup, which has its merits but still speaks to how few films Oscar really considered that year.

The Nominees

KCFCC winner, LAFCA runner-up for Best Supporting Actress

Melinda Dillon, Absence of Malice – There are some things I appreciate about Dillon’s performance. I like how she’s able to convey a heavy sense of despair without throwing the film off tonally. Her last scene, wearing only a trenchcoat as she walks through her neighbors yards to steal their newspapers, as though the weight of her shame is stopping her from moving any faster, is a startling goodbye, one that would likely be more affecting without that awful score underneath it. But she, like her film, has a tougher time than she should in regards to decision-making and overall coherence. She has fine chemistry with Newman but does nothing to suggest their history together, one that clearly spans the context of Absence and the events being discussed but isn’t evident in how either actor relates to each other. How many actresses would decide to put up no fight against Sally Field, of all people, and crumple so easily against so little pressure? What does Dillon add to this character on a script level that’s distinctly hers? I feel largely the same here as I did watching her in Close Encounters, interested in her vibes but dismayed at her vagueness. Hard not to wish Hannah or Her Sisters took the part instead.

Golden Globe, BAFTA nominee for Best Supporting Actress

Jane Fonda, On Golden Pond – Who knows what to expect before Fonda’s Chelsea arrives, given her father’s dismissiveness and the conversation her parents have about her long history of boyfriends, usually a lazy shorthand for troublesome daughters. There’s also the fear that the sheer fact of her playing opposite her real father might be all she needs to coast by in such a gilded, sun-dappled, over-adoring film. Fonda and the filmmakers quickly dismiss the idea of portraying Chelsea as a problem child, not just in her visibly upper-middle class stylings but in her exuberant greeting of her mother and her easy, comfortable rapport with new beau Dabney Coleman and his 12 year old son. But they also don’t alleviate the tension in her father’s disinterest at her letters, one Chelsea is keenly aware of. Fonda is able to show a child still seeking her father’s approval without forgetting to show what an accomplished, self-possessed woman she is to the rest of the world. Her anxiety also pulls something more complicated, even unpleasant from Katharine Hepburn, too quick to bat down or push aside questions on her husband’s faults. Best of all is the slightly confused way Chelsea reacts once her dad starts treating her like a friend and giving her the validation she’s needed, finding herself on unsure footing now that she’s finally earned his acceptance.

Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actress

Joan Hackett, Only When I Laugh – To a considerable degree, I’m impressed with the ensemble of Only When I Laugh for being able to exist so convincingly and so casually on the screen, seeming like total naturals with the actively overworked dialogue they have to speak. But it works, especially when said by Marsha Mason, who easily gives the strongest, most layered performance in the film. I liked what Hackett, McNicol, and Coco are doing fine, but next to Mason they get a bit blurry. Granted, I cottoned to Hackett’s more luminous, relaxed approach than to Coco’s gay flamboyance, but she maybe misses some chances to poke fun at Toby’s vanity. No one really specifies what makes their relationship with Georgia distinct from each other. Nor do Mason’s co-stars share her willingness to play emotions in a scene or even a line of dialogue that aren’t already written in, diffusing their big yelling scenes by providing so little buildup. More than that, I think the whole scenario is made weaker by refusing to make any of these people burdensome or abrasive or enabling to Georgia, having them actively need her as much as she needs them. Instead, Only When I Laugh is just one wreck surrounded by her functional, messy, overgenerous colleagues, and it’s less interesting for it.

Golden Globe nominee for New Star of the Year

Elizabeth McGovern, Ragtime – The very nicest things I can say about Elizabeth McGovern is that she does not waste as many opportunities as Howard E. Rollins Jr., nor is she as disastrously inert as Mary Steenburgen (who will not be getting her own entry, for fuck’s sake). In a couple instances you can see her sparking to some of the more intense stimuli Evelyn Nesbitt encounters, like her then-husband killing a man at a party, or Brad Dourif. But by and large McGovern doesn’t seem to have any ideas about this woman. Nor does she seem to act in any meaningful way, giving a placid stare that reveals no signs of activity underneath. Maybe, like Cristina Ricci in Monster, her idea of greenness and bad decision-making is looking inert and uncomfortable onscreen? Evelyn is often cornered into making very important decisions with little time to consider them carefully: testify for her husband at trial in exchange for money and for a divorce, have an affair, accept a lesser deal than was agreed for said testimony. We can easily guess the economic, social, sexual, filial, etc. etc., on-the-spot reasons why she might’ve gone the way she did – sometimes Evelyn even says them out loud! But McGovern does nothing to clarify or even hint at which of the myriad of very valid, very tempting motivations are behind any of the choices this character makes.

LAFCA, NSFC, and BAFTA winner, Golden Globe nominee, NYFCC runner-up for Best Suppoting Actress

Maureen Stapleton, RedsReds benefits from a startlingly deep ensemble of gifted actors to bring its material to life. Beyond the casting of its two leads, the film is right to single out Eugune O’Neill and Emma Goldman for such relible pros. Stapleton is immediately able to project a politically charged intellect working from decades of real-world experience, someone who is deeply collaborative with the community around her and a charismatic figure in her own right. There’s no narcissim to Emma’s crusade or to Stapleton’s acting, yet for all she blends into the ensemble you’d never call her work self-effacing, able to import an astonishing amount of information in the breakneck pace of her line readings. I love how dismissive she is of Louise Bryant, in a way that’s funny without simply making Emma a source for withering comedy. Stapleton makes a big impression in the early going but doesn’t return in a prominent capacity until roughly the last hour of the film, where she emerges as a measured advisor to Jack as well as a potent indicator of how successfully Communism has taken hold in Russia. Especially once she meets Louise again in Russia, it’s amazing to realize jut how many connective threads Stapleton has kept in play between each of her scenes, ensuring that one of Reds’ most effectively yet disparately used characters is just as fascinating as its leading players.

No question Stapleton’s my winner of this group, both on her own considerable merit and because no one else is quite on her level, though I certainly would’ve been happy if Fonda won. Perhaps I’d be even higher on my alternate choices if I hadn’t already seen several of the best of them before now – or if some of the best work in this category had actually gotten a real US release. As it is, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of noteworthy supporting actresses poking out from 1981, but the actresses below are more than worth writing about. Some of them are among the best performances of the year, even if the group as whole speaks to limited opportunities for actressing on the edges.

Other Possibilities

Individual Performances

Saturn Award winner for Best Actress

Karen Allen, Raiders of the Lost Ark – What a great fucking entrance Marion Ravenwood gets. Allen immediately establishes Marion as a clever, intimidating swashbuckler in her own right, and the clear sense that she’s having a ball playing this character is infectious to watch. From the drinking game to her battle with the Nazis, Marion is presented as a completely capable figure who’s still outmatched by this level of conspiracy, though she’s certainly scrappy and adaptable in the face of danger. It really feels as though she’s giving it her all even in battles that are more focused on Indy than her. I love how exuberant Allen’s performance is, reflecting every emotion Marion is feeling with her face and body so expressively even in shots that aren’t explicitly focused on her. And damn does she have great romantic chemistry with Harrison Ford. Still, it’s frustrating how badly the script fails to meet her declaration that she’s Indy’s goddamn partner, sticking her in a damsel-in-distress arc that palpably feels like Raiders is limiting itself for the sake of generic convention. And yet, even if the role is less than I’d like, Allen never plays Marion as anything but a intelligent, determined hero in her own right. She plays every beat for real, and damn if that doesn’t make a world of difference.

Nancy Allen, Blow Out – I don’t necessarily like Allen’s approach to her character, turning Sally into a guileless innocent caught in larger, nefarious machinations she doesn’t have the capacity to be complicit in. Part of what made Vanessa Redgrave’s corresponding role in Blow-Up so compelling is the haunted sense she knows exactly how high the stakes are. Making Sally the only one out of the loop is not just limiting of how much Allen can play but a little annoying, considering she’s the only woman. And yet, even if it is a bit stock, her playing grew on me. Particularly by the end, where her bubbly goodness is trapped opposite John Lithgow’s heartlessly efficient mercenary, she’s completely affecting to watch, in a way one must certainly credit to De Palma’s direction but still feels like a solid conclusion to the choices Allen made. Even if I’m not wild about them, she certainly makes them work.

Jessica Harper, Pennies From Heaven – From my write-up (here): “Still, there’s a yawning chasm between Joan and Arthur, one Harper expertly shades with mundane annoyance, general disgust, and personal humiliation. As alien as Arthur’s outlook is, she’s rarely surprised or deceived by her husband, though she hasn’t become jaded towards his behavior or blunted her own feelings to cope. When Joan makes herself up to suit one of his sexual fantasies in a last-ditch effort to win him back, shame palpably registers on her face and body as he excitedly embraces her. I further appreciate the questions Harper leaves open here, like whether Joan has played out this scenario with Arthur before, what emotion exactly is making her cry before she accuses him of having an affair, or if her even mentioning another woman is a serious inquiry or something she’s only saying to make him stop nuzzling her. Sympathetic without courting self-pity, emotionally reactive yet never completely transparent, playing arguably the most debased of a humiliated lot and certainly the most grounded role of a dreamily provocative film, Harper meets the already demanding formal challenges of her film and enriches them with an ease onscreen that belies how rare and creative her choices are, supporting Pennies in every way imaginable while achieving heights that are utterly her own.”

Kathryn Harrold, Modern Romance – From my write-up (here): “Rather than pointedly specifying her character in the face of so much discourse, Harrold’s performance is characterized by an ease with mood and a level of opacity that, to my mind, invaluably reconfigures Modern Romance. Harrold may not have the raw material from Brooks’ writing or direction to construct an all-timer performance, but through the priorities embedded in her characterization she’s able to fully connect with his approach to the material while making the whole enterprise work on a slightly stronger level. Modern Romance ends with Mary having to decide her future with Robert. It’s not immediately clear whether she’ll stay or leave, and the fact that either choice would make equal sense given the little we know about her is a stark, impressive culmination of Harrold’s appealingly implacable playing. (If you’re not sure she made the right choice, the closing credits certainly show what a long road they still have ahead of them). She’s unquestionably the best part of Modern Romance and invaluable to making it work as successfully as it does. Who knows where Mary’s decision-making will lead her, but thankfully, Harrold knows exactly what she’s doing.”

Mara Hobel, Mommie Dearest – Makes a strong impression, and arguably the only performer able to match Dunaway’s intensity without seeming to over-exterting herself. Even if the degree of Joan’s monstrosity towards her daughter is only gradually revealed to the audience, Hobel is able to convey a sense of which offenses are frighteningly new to Christina and which ones are common order in her home. She’s not an escalating face of terror but one conditioned to a certain level of mistreatment who still isn’t prepared for everything being thrown at her. Hobel is also able to subtly delineate when Christina is rebelling against her mother or trying to prod her on purpose versus when she’s harmlessly repeating a behavior or mannerism she’s copied from how Joan treats her or acts in front of others. By the time we see the Crawfords posing for Christmas portrait, it’s astonishing how much change Hobel is able to suggest through a slightly more downcast exterior. Her skill at implying so much compartmentalization and trauma over an unspecified span of time is made even more apparent by how much Diane Scarwid falters in the same role. She’s the secret weapon of Mommie Dearest, and the most memorable of Joan’s many allies and punching bags.

Saturn Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress

Helen Mirren, Excalibur – Fun fact: Mirren’s Saturn Award nomination for this film was her first nomination for anything ever in her film career. Compared to other takes on Morgana, Mirren already wins points for not heavily foreshadowing her treachery. She initially seems like an eager, somewhat power-hungry student of magic rather than a viper waiting to strike. She also stands out in Excalibur for being able to communicate clear, understated character beats across years-long gaps, especially compared to everyone else’s throbbing masculinity. When she finally makes her move, she’s palpably resentful and still appealingly restrained. What a goddamn shame she has almost nothing to do after this, poignantly frightened of Merlin in her last scene but given little to do until then besides evil posing. Would’ve been fun to see her go nuts, especially since she earned it. (For more in the “Man, this started promising, I wish the movie cared about you” league this year, see Sandy Dennis in The Four Seasons and Lisa Eichhorn in Cutter’s Way.)

NSFC and BSFC winner for Best Actress, NYFCC runner-up for Best Supporting Actress

Marília Pêra, Pixote – From my write-up (here): “Pêra goes a step farther than even the strongest performances we’ve seen up to this point. She seizes on the complexities already present in her character rather than coarsening the material for the sake of crude misery, giving Sueli a full arc where one wasn’t explicitly asked for. Pêra shows an uncanny knack for visibly externalizing Sueli’s thoughts and emotions without disrupting Pixote’s naturalism, often conveying multiple tones simultaneously. This is all the more impressive given the many hyperbolic elements to the character a lesser actress might mistake for the part itself – her occupation, her age, her alcoholism, her sadness, her relationships with the kids, her recent traumas with her previous pimp and past abuses from years of sex work. None of the actors waste time making obvious markers of when Sueli starts bonding with Pixote and Dito, while Lilica begins to withdraw. After finishing their first job together, Sueli is already leaning towards Pixote to ask about their companions like old friends catching up on hot gossip. Another job goes without a hitch and she’s dancing with Dito under the headlights of a car they stole. Unlike the tense, unforgiving control exhibited by the other adults who’ve looked after them, Sueli’s rapport resembles the sincerity and openness the kids show each other. She feels like part of the gang, rather than their boss.”

Genie Award winner for Best Supporting Actress

Kate Reid, Atlantic City – How did she not get nominated for this? Reid is instantly entertaining as the imperious, batty, bedridden neighbor/employer of Burt Lancaster’s retired hood but adds more layers than just stock humor. There’s real bite to her line readings and glares, hinting at a long history between the two. If the part intially reads as an easy assignment for an old pro to handle, Reid quickly proves herself to be in sync with Louis Malle’s ability to reveal different faces underneath ideally cast archetypes. As unabashedly big as Reid’s performance is, she makes considerate choices in modulating her comedic and dramatic instincts from scene to scene, often managing to be both at once without taking the obvious road to do so. Her companionship with Hollis McLaren is genuinely touching, in no small part because of how sincerely Grace responds to this young hippie and her worldview, taking this character who’s largely been used for comic relief as seriously as she does Lancaster. Without ever being subtle, Reid is able to play a unexpectedly moving arc to a character with more to her than we first realize, using her business and hammy impulses to gift Atlantic City with its best, most indelible supporting figure, and the best acting in the film after Lancaster.

Beatrice Straight, Endless Love – I would not say Franco Zeffirelli’s direction shows an interest in guiding performance. Some fare better than others – I think Brooke Shields convincingly plays the intensity of her first love from a serene, beguiling exterior, even if she falters with her big outbursts. Perhaps Straight is a little too brisk with her line readings, having already made her acting choices independent of what her screen partner is doing (and given the dire Martin Hewitt she’s playing opposite, I suppose that’s fair). She’s quick to lob their scenes back to him when she might expand a bit more on Mrs. Axelrod. But Straight also reveals new sides to this initially distant woman, showing us just how much she cares for her son without betraying her sense of upper-class propriety. She’s the only adult actor who actually tells us something new about their character after we meet them, rather than embodying a broad, vague concept to be picked apart. The cutaway to the Axelrods after Hewitt runs away is more moving than a man getting killed in the street, entirely because of Straight’s unobtrusive but concise playing.

BSFC, NYFCC, and NBR winner for Best Supporting Actress in 1981. LAFCA winner, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominee for Best Supporting Actress in 1978

Mona Washbourne, Stevie – Yes, Stevie got a weird US release pattern. No, I’m not sure why she and Glenda Jackson were allowed to win so many critics prizes in 1981, deserving as they are. But since 1978 is off the Smackdown docket, I’m happy to champion her here. Washbourne contributes a lovely, understated performance to Stevie, buoying the whole film without ever begging for attention. Her camaraderie with Jackson is suggestive of two beloved family members enjoying each other’s company and of two professionals who’ve acted in these roles together a hundred times onstage. The material certainly feels fresh and alive through their playing, scaled for the unabashedly stagelike yet still film-appropriate rendering of the piece. Washbourne’s work is smartly and affectingly judged for the screen while serving Stevie’s theatrical conceits, adding an unexpected tension just by reading the newspaper because she refuses to clarify whether Aunt can actually hear Stevie’s direct-to-audience monologues or not. The simple conviction of her acting is a surprisingly sturdy ballast to Jackson’s mannerisms, particularly in the rare moments when the two disagree. Even in her last scenes, Washbourne is poignantly restrained in the face of easy sentiment. That none of Jackson’s costars rival her performance, and that Stevie is so conspiciously empty when Aunt isn’t there, only highlights what a quietly captivating perfomance Washbourne has given.


Polyester – The very best thing about Polyester is the myriad of folks circling Divine’s Francine Fishpaw, mostly trying to bully her into a breakdown before their own bad habits send them straight to hell. Waters’ broadened, less disgusting Sirkian pastiche allows his actors to go on their own weird limbs, still lacking any real modulation but appealingly different in themselves while cohering as a portrait of bastards. Closest to home is Mary Garlington as Francine’s hard-partying, promiscuous daughter Lulu (great name), whose high-energy trampiness surprisingly doesn’t get stale. There’s also Joni Ruth White as La Rue, Francine’s abusive mother, whose one, high-volume note is sometimes manipulatively subdued but is mainly varied through getting to do a different monstrous thing each scene, like killing some shitty teen boys who break into daughter’s her home, or tricking Francine into drinking gasoline by pretending its alcohol. Mink Stole, whose skimpy black outfits and braided cornrows look exactly like if Lady Gaga was a Nazi, gives my favorite rendering of bitchy villainy as the secretary having an affair with Francine’s husband (MVP David Samson). All of these women suffer a bit in the last third, either given too little to do or having their characters “reformed” by the state. Suddenly Edith Massey’s awkward charisma, which never seemed fully suited to Polyester, ends up providing the film’s most consistently engaging performance as Francine’s only friend Cuddles. And hell, the extras memorably give it their all, from two kidnapping nuns, a gaggle of abortion picketers, the pushy AA folks, and the many victims of the Philadelphia Foot Stomper. Certainly it’s not the most successful film, but it’s a delicious curio, and one I can imagine other people liking even more.

My Lineup

Karen Allen, Raiders of the Lost Ark
Jessica Harper, Pennies From Heaven
Marilia Pera, Pixote
Maureen Stapleton, Reds
Kate Reid, Atlantic City

Not many Runners-Up to speak of, especially if the great Mona Washbourne in Stevie is relegated to 1978. Kathryn Harrold in Modern Romance came very close to that last slot, and could easily switch in after further consideration. Another great actress whose film didn’t get a US release is Judy Davis in Hoodwink, who would certainly make this lineup for her turn as a priest’s wife who becomes aroused by the strapping, blind inmate recently transferred to the prison her husband visits. Jane Fonda in On Golden Pond, Mara Hobel in Mommie Dearest, and Beatrice Straight in Endless Love make strong impressions where many other actresses would’ve faltered, but I wouldn’t put them on this list. And while their roles don’t really give the chance for great acting, I’ll end this with a shout-out to Rutanya Alda’s complicit maid in Mommie Dearest and Nancy Stephen’s blazing cameo in Escape From New York, two eye-catching turns that mak the most of their very limited assignments. But who would you have nominated? What are your favorite movies from 1981? And hey, where should I go to for great supporting actresses in 1947?

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Alex Dounce says:

    Hi Nick – Alejandro here (from Twitter), re-found your blog thanks to the smackdown. Largely agree on your lovely, eloquent write-ups. I particularly enjoyed your ability to distill why Dillon’s performance doesn’t fully work. Needless to say, I was VERY surprised to see McGovern tie for the win in the smackdown even though I appreciated seeing the different perspectives on those performances.

    Quite a few here I personally haven’t seen, so will do my best to rectify and check them out soon enough. Hope you’re well!


    1. Nick Taylor says:

      Hey! It’s good to hear from you Alejandro! How’ve you been? I’ve been doing alright lately, all things considered. Having this on the regular has been very fun, and it’s really helped me keep track of things like the passage of time better.

      I’m glad you like my write-ups! Completely agree on how weird McGovern tying is, though at least Stapleton pulled it out too. Which ones have you seen already? I’d definitely push you towards Pennies From Heaven first, but there’s a lot of fun choices there. Are you gonna play along for 1947?


  2. Alex Dounce says:

    I’ve been good thanks! All things considered. Glad to hear you’re doing well too. At least I’ve been using the extra time to catch up on a few other things. I was able to follow along (finally got to OWIL, and rewatched 3 of the other nominees). I probably would’ve been far less okay with McGovern’s win if Stapleton hadn’t tied at least. Still wrapping my head around that one (maybe up there with Page as one of the oddest results, but at least I like Page).

    I actually saw Pennies from Heaven a few months ago thanks to your recommendation. You spoke so highly of it online I had to check it out and I was DAZZLED. Swoon worthy movie.

    I’m hoping to follow along for 47 as well! Into smackdowns with less than stellar lineups since the field is so open for the winner.


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