When it comes to accolades, actors in horror films are usually given short shrift. The genre is dismissed as juvenile and unworthy of attention, despite the fact that many actors have been nominated (and several have won) Academy Awards for them. Still, many of these performances go sadly unpraised. Uuntil now. Part I of this two-part entry is about the Best Performances by an Actress in a Horror Movie. Full disclosure: some of the images embedded below may be disturbing, but are certainly worth watching for the terrific performances.
And the nominees are:
Kathy Bates for Misery:
Bates won an Oscar for her performance as Annie Wilkes, crazed "Number One Fan" of novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) in one of the few actually good adaptations of a Stephen King novel. As a King fan, I am always happy when a movie gets one of his works right, and this Rob Reiner (Stand By Me) directed thriller is one of the best. Bates' performance is both terrifying and fascinating at the same time. A consumate stage actress, Bates went on to build a film career based almost on this performance alone. Scary stuff.
Piper Laurie for Carrie:
Laurie made a name for herself in the late 50's on live TV shows like "Westinghouse Theatre" and "Playhouse 90." Her go-for-broke performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Brian DePalma's 1976 adaptation of King's first novel. Tthe film remains one of the best King movies, and Piper Laurie's Margaret White is a character indelibly and iconically etched into the American psyche. A magnificent performance.
Beatrice Straight for Poltergeist:
Steven Spielberg produced (his hands are all over it, in fact) this thriller from director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), about a suburban family's brush with the supernatural. When daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rouke) disappears into the netherworld, her parents (Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams*) contact a team of parapsychologists led by Dr. Lesh (Straight). An already accomplished actress with an Oscar nomination for Network under her belt, one might wonder what Straight is doing in a horror movie (albeit a very good horror movie). Good actors can move smoothly between and among genres almost effortlessly. Staright's performance here is strong, committed and genuine. In other hands, the role would have been silly. In hers, it's like 'buttah.' And truth be told, her performance in Poltergeist even had an influence on a stage performance of my own, as the psychiatrist in a college production of Equus.
*More about Willams, later.
Geena Davis for The Fly:
Wow! Talk about powerful! The above scene never fails to make me cry. Davis plays Veronica "Ronnie" Quiafe, a reporter for the Canadian version of (now defunct) science "Omni." While attending an inventors' convention, she meets Dr. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum in another amazing performance to be discussed in Part II). a brilliant physicist who suffers from motion sickness and has invented a teleportation machineo he never has to ride in a car again. The two quickly bond and a romance is about to bloom when Brundle makes a critical error: sending himself between the "telepods" along with an univited housefly. Confused, the machine splices Brundle's genes with the fly's, creating a monster. Davis' emotional investment in the role is simply astounding and her omission from Oscar nomination is further proof of the Academy's prejudice against horror movies.
Naomi Watts for King Kong:
Previously known as Nicole Kidman's BFF and "that chick from The Ring," Watts is astounding in Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of the classic monster movie. Her almost silent performance, done mostly in front of a green-screen, is nothing short of a marvel. Every thought and every emotion is writ wide on her face. I can't imagine another modern actress so perfectly cast as the apple of the big ape's eye. Another Oscar oversight.
Sadie Frost for Bram Stoker's Dracula:
Barely glimpsed in the above trailer, Ms. Frost gives the single best performance in Francis Ford Coppola's over-the-top version of the gothic horror classic. Her interpretation of Mina's best friend Lucy, flirtatious and tortured, is the best in any of the story's many film versions. Forget Keanu Reeve's ridiculous miscasting as Jonathan Harker (not to mention accent) and Anthony Hopkins' scenery chewing as Van Helsing. Sadie Frost is without a doubt the best thing in the whole movie.
Jobeth Williams for Poltergeist:
As housewife Diane Freeling, JoBeth Williams personifies the early-80's mom. She smokes pot with her balding realtor hubby (Craig T. Nelson) and keeps her family on schedule; oversees the contractors installing the family swimming pool; officiates at pet funerals gets excited by self-stacking chairs and mysterious cold spots. But when her children are in danger, Diane will go literally anywhere to save and protect them. Williams, a fine actress in any genre, embues Diane with the kind of strength every mother hopes she has when it comes to protecting her family, even if it means tavelling to hell and back.
Julie Harris for The Haunting (1963):
My pick for the scariest movie ever, Robert Wise's adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House is absolutely terrifying, all without the use of blood, dismemberment or cannibalism. Harris plays the personally haunted Nell, a psychic who was psychologically tortured by an over-bearing invalid mother. Nell finds a strange affinity for the tormented spirits trapped in the mansion she has been invited to invesigate along as a member of a team assemled by a noted parapsychologist. In a performance that never fails to give chills, Harris manages to be both sympathetic and pathetic, and we understand her need to belong to someone, anyone, even if that someone is only the ghost of a charismatic monster.
And my pick for the Best Performance by an Actress in a Horror Movie is:
Geena Davis in The Fly. No other actress on this list evinces the visceral response in me that Davis does in The Fly. One of cinema's great, underrated performances of all time. The Fly is a movie I can see again and again and never grow tired of. Cronenberg, Davis, Goldblum and company are at the top of their games here. I'm not ashamed to admit that there are quite a few movies that can make me cry. The Fly is the only horror movie that can and that is entirely the fault of Davis' amazing acting. There really is such a thing as a good horror movie, and The Fly proves it.