Last week, when I selected my ten nominees for the greatest supporting actor performance of all-time, I immediately got complaints from virtually everyone I know, as well as a lot of people I didn't know. Everyone was very polite about it. And they all had defensible selections of their own. Looking back, I do regret leaving two names off my list: Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show and Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

But enough looking back. It's time to talk about the ladies.

Well, actually, I'll be doing even more looking back today. Seven of my ten choices come from the golden age of Hollywood. All seven come from a 14-year-period between 1939 and 1953. Two others are from the '60s. I have one performance from the last 45 years, and I already know from past arguments that few people will agree with that choice.

Simply put, Hollywood has not done a very good job of creating great roles for women. Maybe that's why Beatrice Straight and Judi Dench have won Oscars for playing characters who were on screen for well under ten minutes. Back in the '40s, when film noir was at its peak, there were lots of strong roles for women, which is reflected in my list.

Joan Bennett (Scarlet Street, 1945): Bennett is the classic noir femme fatale in this Fritz Lang movie. She made two potent films with Lang and co-star Edward G. Robinson in 1945 (The Woman in the Window is the other).

Beulah Bondi (The Southerner, 1945): Probably best known as George Bailey's mother in It's a Wonderful Life, Biondi plays the definitive grumpy, but loveable frontier grandmother in one of Jean Renoir's best American movies.

Jean Brooks (The Seventh Victim, 1943): All horror fans have their favorite Val Lewton movie. This is not my favorite, but I can't think of any performance that captured any auteur's artistic sensibility better than Jean Brooks' longing for death as the mysterious Jacqueline Gibson. I went back and forth between Brooks and Ruth Gordon in Rosemary's Baby here. Very different performances, very similar movies.

Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat, 1953): Another Lang. Another noir. It does not get better in American film than Gloria Grahame playing a tough girl. Lee Marvin throws scalding coffee in her face. Later on, she returns the favor.

Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz, 1939): I probably don't have to debate this one. The witch by which all witches are judged. Scary and funny at the same time. Virtually every line a classic. And as my brother pointed out to me, she had to play two roles.

Catherine Keener (Lovely & Amazing, 2001): Apparently, a lot of audiences think this is simply a movie about whining women. I will continue to argue that Nicole Holofcener's best movie is as good a portrait of American women at the turn of the millennium as anyone has produced, and that Keener is the best actress we have today at giving depth and dimension to "regular" women.

Agnes Moorehead (The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942): Aunt Fanny's role is more pronounced in the second half of Orson Welles' adaptation of Booth Tarkington. And that's the part that RKO butchered in post-production. So we probably will never know just how great she was. But what we do have is the most poignant portrait of spinsterhood in American film.

Thelma Ritter (Pickup on South Street, 1953): Ritter was nominated for the Oscar six times and never won. She could wise-crack with the best of them, but here she reveals a sadness beneath that gruff exterior that remains with you long after you've left the theater.

Ingrid Thulin (Winter Light, 1963): This might be a leading role, so forgive me for sneaking it in here. Thulin's tortured schoolteacher Marta has a six minute close-up in addition to a number of other indelible moments in what is likely Ingmar Bergman's most austere film. That's saying something.

Ann-Margret (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965): Like Thulin, she is Swedish. That's where the similarity ends. Melba is introduced lounging in bed using a scissors to snip off pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in order to get them to fit. She captures the amoral sexuality implicit in that visual metaphor to a tee.

I'm sure I left lots of worthy contenders out. So let me know. Next week, I think we'll look at screenplays.
categories Movies