By Robert Pius
For quite a while there, Cate Blanchett was attached to take to the screen as America’s beloved queen of comedy, Lucille Ball, in Aaron Sorkin’s “Being The Ricardos.” Some doubted the casting of an Australian actress not usually known for comedy playing the woman responsible for some of TV’s greatest pratfalls. For whatever reason, Blanchett dropped out of the film, and the role went to another Australian actress known chiefly for drama, Nicole Kidman. Kidman faced even more backlash for the casting. Despite explanations from various people, including Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz, that the film depicts the often troubled relationship of Lucy and Desi and not the lighthearted antics of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, people seemed to want a comedian in the role. In the last twenty years, Kidman has quietly moved away from her image as a porcelain beauty on Tom Cruise’s arm and into that of an unusually daring actress, stood firm, and took on the role despite her online critics. Early screenings have proved quite positive about the film, especially Kidman’s performance (although actual reviews have been more mixed). She went from an internet punching bag to Oscar contender in the time it took for the film to play to its first audience. The criticism Kidman faced and apparently triumphed over has worked in her favor since it has given her that all-important thing called “a narrative.” It has been a solid year for women in film, and the Best Actress category, which sometimes has to search for worthy inclusions, is just about bursting with possibilities. While many of the other women have rave reviews, few really have that all-important reason to win.
Kidman overcoming doubters looks to be one of the biggest smackdowns to skeptics since Renee Zellweger’s performance in “Bridget Jones’ Diary.” Zellweger was the scorn of the entire United Kingdom when it was announced the Texan from “Jerry McGuire” would play one of Britain’s most beloved characters. She did it, though. She learned the accent, gained the weight, and gave a smashing comic performance that even snobbish UK critics embraced and drove the film to become one of the biggest hits of the time at the UK box office. Kidman seems to have mounted similar odds. In Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” Maggie Smith plays an Oscar nominee who laments that she lacks the sympathy factor it takes to win an Oscar (Although in real life, Smith did win Best Supporting Actress for the role). She ponders that she needs an illness or a sick husband to clinch the award. In other words, Oscar likes its winners to have suffered (Look at Elizabeth Taylor’s win in 1960 for “Butterfield 8”. People theorized she probably wouldn’t have won if she had not endured a tracheotomy and almost died shortly before the ceremony). Kidman has endured her own cyber tracheotomy as people seemed to delight in predicting her failure in this role. Kidman, who often appears shy and insecure in real life, seems to enjoy a challenge in her acting roles. Controversial films like “Birth and “Eyes Wide Shut” all brought her fine notices. Who’d have thought playing Lucy would be her greatest challenge, and the challenge would come before she ever stepped in front of a camera? That’s the kind of suffering and triumphing over it that Kidman seems to have accomplished, and an Oscar nomination seems secure and a win a distinct possibility. But where does that leave Cate Blanchett? Did the two-time Oscar winner unknowingly hand a Best Actress caliber role to her countrymate? It looks like that is the case. Blanchett, though, should take heart since she’s not the first woman to pass up a role that would bring another actress a golden Oscar. In fact, back in the late eighties/early nineties, it was almost the norm as five actresses in a row won the Best Actress trophy for roles that they only had because other people turned them down.
There probably isn’t much reason to cry for Blanchett. She already has two Oscars: a Best Supporting Actress award for 2004’s “The Aviator” (where interestingly she played another American icon, Katharine Hepburn) and a Best Actress Oscar for 2013’s “Blue Jasmine.” This year she’s also still in the Oscar mix with two supporting roles in “Don’t Look Up” and her juicer part in Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley.” Kidman, on the other hand, only has one Oscar to date (for 2002’s “The Hours”). In theory, Kidman would probably have an easier time gaining a second award than Blanchett would have gained a third one since the Academy used to be quite stingy in giving out those third acting Oscars. Frances McDormand threw that whole idea out the window last year with her surprise third Best Actress Oscar so who knows what Blanchett’s chances are for her supporting roles. But you have to wonder if it hurts to turn down a Best Actress contending performance only to see another actress take it and run with it. People have declined Oscar roles throughout awards history, but I find it especially interesting that from 1989 to 1993, none of the lauded Best Actresses was the first choice for their role.
Jessica Tandy was a highly regarded stage actress whose credits include originating the role of Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It must have hurt when she was the only one of the four leads of that play not to get to be in the film (Vivian Leigh took the part and the Best Actress Oscar). Tandy’s film career never really took flight. Her most famous film appearance was (pardon the pun from the last sentence) in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” as the lead character’s mother. Hollywood just didn’t seem to want her, so it was a bit of a surprise when she landed the lead role in “Driving Miss Daisy,” a film adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning off-Broadway play. The part of an elderly southern woman whose son insists she hires a driver after a car accident depicts the friendship that develops between the woman and her chauffeur, a black man (Morgan Freeman) in the days when racial relations were still very uneasy in the lower half of the U.S. names like Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis were thrown around when the play premiered, but they were not in good health at the time, and despite the character’s age the role is quite demanding. So prior to Tandy being offered the role, the producers offered it to a fifty-something Shirley MacLaine. In one of her many books, MacLaine discusses how other roles didn’t really come her way despite the incredible success of “Terms of Endearment” and winning an Oscar for it on her fifth nomination. Hollywood is notorious for throwing away women of a certain age. MacLaine still struggled to find another good part despite “Terms Of Endearment” being almost a national sensation at the end of 1983. She eventually found the film “Madame Sousatzka,” where she aged herself, looked frumpy and played a demanding piano teacher. Her book details that the film though not really a hit, did what “Terms Of Endearment” didn’t. It got her other parts. She had suddenly crossed over into playing “older women,” and she followed Sousatzka up with two iconic roles in “Steel Magnolias” and “Postcards from the Edge” in quick succession, both to great acclaim. In between those films came the offer for “Driving Miss Daisy.” MacLaine jokes in her book that while she was quickly giving up any youthful vanity that remained, she wasn’t quite ready to play a woman as old as Miss Daisy, and despite the appeal of the character, she couldn’t bring herself to say yes thus handing an Oscar over to Jessica Tandy who gladly took the role.
The following year Kathy Bates won the Best Actress Oscar for “Misery.” This film had a tough time finding a cast. Both the male and female lead seemed hard to spark interest in actors. Supposedly, many men turned down the role of the writer who is nursed back to health after a car accident by what turns out to be an obsessed and murderous fan because the character spends much of his time in bed and held hostage by a woman, which wasn’t seen as manly enough for the current crop of leading men at the time (Practically everyone who was a star seemed to turn down this role and James Caan whose career was in a slump finally took it). The female lead proved equally hard to cast. Adaptations of Stephen King novels had fallen out of favor after their auspicious debut with “Carrie” and “The Shining.” After many flops, it didn’t seem like a smart career move to sign up for a King film, especially if you were looking for Oscar-caliber roles. People like Jessica Lange, Debra Winger (who turned down almost everything in the eighties, it seems), and Barbra Streisand were rumored to have passed on the part. Mary Tyler Moore, America’s sweetheart, interestingly actively pursued the role. One person who confirmed she turned down the role was Bette Midler. She later kicked herself for the decision, but at the time, she felt the role wasn’t something her fans would want to see her in. It proved to be a big mistake for Midler, who always was hungry for an Oscar. She complained for years half-jokingly half-seriously about losing for “The Rose” to Sally Field in “Norma Rae,” so this might have been a great opportunity for her to take to the podium. However, it is a bit hard to imagine her bringing the ferocity to the role that Bates did. One person who did consider the part was Angelica Huston. She ended up not having to decide, though, since filming would have coincided with “The Grifters,” to which she had already committed. Ironically Huston would be Bates’ chief rival for the Oscar, but I doubt Huston regretted her film choice. She already had an Oscar, and “The Grifters” gave her a real kick-ass role, arguably the best work she ever did.
In 1991, once again, the first choice for a Best Actress role didn’t go home with the statue since she didn’t sign on to the film. Jodie Foster won the award as FBI trainee Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Foster knew she wasn’t the first choice but was so enamored of the role she flew to New York on her own dime and told Jonathan Demme that she knew she wasn’t his first choice, but if the deal with his first choice doesn’t go through, she’d love to take the part. Having just won her first Oscar for 1988’s “The Accused,” she said she had a bit of clout. When Michelle Pfeiffer finally decided she just couldn’t do the film because of the incredibly dark subject matter of the material, Foster got her shot. It was a difficult decision for Pfeffer to let go of the role. She had been directed by Demme in a pivotal film in her career called “Married to the Mob.” Pfeiffer had been making movies pretty steadily for about six years at this point but had trouble being taken seriously as more than just a pretty face. “Married to the Mob” followed later that year by “Dangerous Liaisons” changed all that, and she was suddenly considered a talent and not just this year’s blonde. Demme played a big part in that transition, so she really felt like she was hurting his feelings by declining a plum part like Clarice. The material is quite dark with its plot of a serial killer trying to skin women to make a suit out of their body parts, so, understandably, Pfeiffer was squeamish where the somewhat tougher seeming Foster wanted to dive into the role. Foster easily earned a second Best Actress Oscar for the film, making that two wins in 4 years due to the film sweeping all five major categories as well as her chief competition coming in the form of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in “Thelma and Louise.” Davis and Sarandon were a pair, so it was hard to break them up and award one and not the other, so Foster was once again anointed Best Actress while Pfeiffer would remain Oscar-less till this day (Foster was also pretty spectacular in what became a groundbreaking female role, so it wasn’t just the competition that got her the prize).
Emma Thompson burst onto the scene in 1992 with the Oscar win for Best Actress in “Howards End.” Thompson was a bit of a newcomer to leading roles. Still, her work in her then-husband’s film “Dead Again” got her some notice, and Merchant/Ivory entrusted the plum lead role of Margaret Schlegel in their adaptation of the E.M. Forster’s novel. Thompson received superlative reviews and had an easy walk to the Oscar stage. Sitting at home, though, was Natasha Richardson. This is one of the most difficult Oscar role passes to understand and find info on. Richardson did speak later in her short life about turning down one role that went on to win an Oscar for someone but was very vague about what happened. “Howard’s End” seemed to be the only film of this time that could have been a possibility, according to speculation on the long-gone and sorely missed IMDb message boards. It is bizarre since Richardson’s mother appeared in the film earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Speculation was that the money offered wasn’t what she wanted, but Richardson missed her chance at an Oscar, something both her parents had won, and something she seemed to think she was destined for also having once said that she had never even attended a ceremony since she wanted her first time there to be as a nominee. She had to let go of that dream a year later when her husband Liam Neeson was nominated for “Schindler’s List,” and she escorted him to the show. A tragic ski accident ended her life at age 45, but even before her death, she never seemed to come close to obtaining a role as good as the one in “Howards End.” Hers was a career that started with such promise with “Patty Hearst” being heralded at Cannes, but she never fulfilled that promise on film, although she did triumph on the stage.
So now we come to 1993, and you guessed it, Holly Hunter was not the first choice to star in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” You can kind of see why since Hunter had a very contemporary vibe about her and her heavy southern accent limited her film offers. But this was the role of a woman who chose not to speak, so the accent wasn’t a problem. Hunter swept the awards, including the Oscar, quite easily that year. The role, though, was initially intended for Sigourney Weaver, who turned it down since she wasn’t interested in working at that time. Weaver had made dubious Oscar history in 1988 when she became the first person to be nominated for lead and supporting acting awards in the same year and not win either of them. Weaver, along with Michelle Pfeiffer (and Glenn Close, but that’s a whole separate article), remain three of those multi-nominated actresses from the 80s who just seem like they should have won an Oscar at some point but never did. There is still time, and what a joy it would be to see any of these women finally take to the Oscar stage.
That run of five years of second (or third choices) winning Oscars may not be that unique. Actors often turn down roles that we never hear about. There have been some notable other cases not coinciding with this time frame. Shirley MacLaine passed on Ellen Burstyn’s role in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Barbra Streisand gave Jane Fonda her first win when she turned down “Klute.”
The coolest incident where someone took a role no one wanted and ran with it in the Best Actress race has to be in 1979 when Sally Field won her first Oscar for “Norma Rae.” For various reasons, three of Field’s competitors for that award had passed on the role when they were given a chance at it. This was kind of a big deal since Field’s win wasn’t your average win. She won everything from the Cannes Film Festival through the critics’ awards right up to the Oscar stage. It was a career-altering moment for the former flying nun, and it made her a respected movie star. Jane Fonda was nominated that year for “The China Syndrome,” having just won her second Oscar the year before for “Coming Home.” I couldn’t find a reason why she passed on the film, but it might have been the low budget, low pay, or that she was busy producing her own vehicles at the time. Faye Dunaway and Diane Keaton also passed up the chance to hold the “union” sign up while standing on a factory table, which became an iconic film moment. They both already had Oscars so that the sting might have been less, but for Marsha Mason and Jill Clayburgh, both had to sit there and watch Field hold a statue that could have been theirs. Neither had ever won an Oscar or would in the future. Mason recently explained that she had just married Neil Simon (whose chronicle of their courtship and marriage called “Chapter Two” she was nominated for) and was raising the two daughters Simon had with his late first wife with him. The shoot would have taken her away from her newly formed family for too long, so she passed. Why Clayburgh passed is a mystery since although the film she is nominated this year for (“Starting Over”) is a nice film with funny moments, it isn’t exactly of the caliber of “Norma Rae” and was a bit of an odd choice to follow up her star-making role from the year before in “An Unmarried Woman” (especially since co-star Candace Bergen gets the film’s most memorable moments). Clayburgh had odd taste in movies. “Luna” was also released this year, and while she probably thought her role in the Bernardo Bertolucci film was daring at the time, it just seems like a rather sickening film nowadays. Thus would be her pattern with choosing roles and why her moment on the A-List was so brief. It must have made Field’s victory even sweeter looking out into the audience and thinking those three women and others were sought after prior to me, but I’m the one on the Oscar stage.
So with good reviews coming in for Nicole Kidman’s performance in “Being The Ricardos,” she might just be joining this list of second choices who won Oscars. As for Cate Blanchett, well, maybe a supporting win for “Nightmare Alley” will make a nice consolation prize for dropping out of playing Lucy. It’s a really competitive year, especially for Best Actress. So many women have given good performances that you could fill the category with ten nominees. None of the other contenders (except Lady Gaga perhaps) really have the narrative, though, and narratives often sweep you to the stage. The cyber abuse Kidman endured about the film adds an extra bit of emotion when voters are looking to cast their ballots. Should Academy voters take to the film, Kidman may just get that title of frontrunner (and that too will probably bring a bunch of cyberbullying, but she withstood it all year while making the film, so she’s likely going to be able to take it all in stride). This may all lead to another walk down the aisle and up to the Oscar stage once again.
Have you seen “Being The Ricardos” yet? If so, what did you think? Who are you currently predicting will be nominated or win Best Actress? Check out the Next Best Picture team’s predictions here and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or our Twitter account.
You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @robertpius_