Oscars: Top 12 Best Actress nominees in films about addiction
By Ronald Meyer, Denton Davidson
February 24, 2023
Mister D’s Ramblings: Problems With This List
Mister D: First, I confess, that I actually have seen all these movies and liked them all, performances included, and I saw what the topic was and the first actress to come to mind was Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolff? The writing, the claustropbia in being trapped in a house with this harridan lead actress along with her husband and their couples guests, who were all drunk, was almost to tense to bear. Taylor’s performance was so over the top, mean, humorous, sarcastic, campy, and tragic. It just became my reference point for all alcoholics. I had known people like that. So this one was a no-brainer.
Of course, the next actress to come to mind was Bette Midler in The Rose, but that was not the primary focus of the movie, but very important in the grand scheme. It is by far the movie I’ve seen countless times. Bette Midler really transformed herself and her performance was as raw as you can get. It was a scenery chewing part. She even had to go to a vocal coach to learn how to sing Rock, which was not her forte, but she brought it home with her formiddable energy and her perfectionistic work ethic. I remember word going around that she was considered so good that Hollywood didn’t know what to with her.
The only other one that came to minf was Diana Ross in Lady Sings The Blues. Ross brought such a quiet beauty to the downfall of Billie Holiday and it was much more understated than Midler’s and Taylor’s but still conveyed the ugly tragedy of what drugs and alcohol can do.
My main problem was in the rankings. Bette at #10! Puh-Leeze. It took me awhile to get through that. No respect from these critics, but I got furious about Meryl Streep in this ranking, yet it is one of my all time favorite movies. I just feel like she didn’t belong in this category. It was like they thought we have to get Meryl in here somewhere. And yes, I know who wrote the script, and all the interplay between mother and daughter. Her alcoholism seemed to take second place to mother/daughter rivalries in the entertainment business. Plus it was pretty much a comedy. And second, Shirley McClaine just walked away with movie. The “I’m Still Here” performance and that scene where she said her dressed twirled up made me see this movie several times. I’m just saying I wouldn’t have put this performance in this group of actresses. But still one of my favorites.
And Angela Bassett I had no problem with, but I see her as being brutally effected by someone with alcoholic and addiction problems. I don’t remember her (Tina Turner) as an alcoholic nor addict. Or am I being too anal?
I will always think Bette Midler gave the performance of a lifetime in The Rose. She knows it. That’s why she never auctioned off any of the outfits and is donating them to a museum. I hope it’s the Smithsonian. But I don’t mind anyone picking Liz Taylor as the top pick in this category. But, Bette at #10!!!!! Puh-leeze!!!
Oscars: Top 12 Best Actress nominees in films about addiction
Hangovers and regret make many an Oscar-winning cocktail, giving new meaning to the expression “breakfast of champions.” Andrea Riseborough’s successful 25th-hour campaign in 2023 adds the British actress to a long line of performers recognized by the academy for playing characters with substance abuse issues (or on the receiving end of someone else’s). Her role in the microbudget “To Leslie” exemplifies all the hallmarks of a classic movie drunk: She is charismatic but volatile, tender yet selfish.
Inspired by a true story, the film is about a single West Texas mom who wins the lottery but finds herself homeless six years later. The Guardian’s Adrian Horton describes Riseborough’s performance as the kind of “intense, full-immersion transformation that would draw the respect of other actors.” Film critic Emanuel Levy once hypothesized, “Actors love to play dipsomaniacs because these roles allow them to have ‘big’ attention-grabbing scenes, and to display a wide gamut of emotions and behaviors.”
Given the gobsmacked reactions from Riseborough’s peers – Kate Winslet said, in no uncertain terms, that the actress gives “the greatest female performance” she has ever seen–the accuracy of Horton and Levy’s combined assessment is tough to deny. The underdog is fourth in Gold Derby’s combined odds for Best Actress. Read ahead for our ranking of the best 12 Oscar-nominated turns by a lead actress in dramas about alcoholism and/or drug abuse. Where would you rank Riseborough?
Anne Hathaway received her first Oscar nomination for playing an addict on leave from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding in Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” (written by Jenny Lumet). Both big-hearted and cringe-inducingly egotistic, the character is a livewire set of contradictions, giving Hathaway a chance to range the “wide gamut of emotions and behaviors” Emanuel Levy argued makes these roles so appealing to actors. A calamitous rehearsal dinner serves audiences the juicy, cathartic confrontation that never fails to bait Oscar voters. In addition to her Academy Award bid, Hathaway received a Golden Globe nomination and won a Critics Choice Award. She lost the Oscar to Kate Winslet (“The Reader”).
“Blue Sky” earned Jessica Lange her sixth Oscar nomination, first win for a leading role, and second victory overall (she already had a Best Supporting Actress statue for 1982’s “Tootsie”). Lange plays Carly Marshall, a nuclear engineer’s (Tommy Lee Jones) mercurial wife who laments her dashed dreams of fame with booze and extramarital flings. She is both a professional liability to her husband and his saving grace, as it ultimately takes someone as reckless as Carly to reveal the dangers posed by the military’s atomic energy research. Amazingly enough, this is Lange’s third notice for playing an alcohol-dependent character, the other two being for 1982’s “Frances” and 1985’s “Sweet Dreams.” The role also nabbed Lange a Golden Globe. (Mister D Trivia: When Mark Rydell finally got his first choice, Bette Midler, to say ‘yes’ to The Rose, the studio heads wanted him to hire Jessica Lange for the role. Rydell said he would walk if that happened. Therefore a star was born)
The first of Bette Midler’s two Oscar nominations came for “The Rose,” a lightly fictionalized biopic about Janis Joplin. Because the late singer’s family refused to grant rights to her story and catalog, the filmmakers renamed the lead character Mary Foster and commissioned an original soundtrack that would give Midler one of her biggest singles. The movie’s depiction of drug and alcohol abuse in the entertainment industry may not land as hard as it did in 1979, but Midler’s committed performance absolutely does. She received a BAFTA nomination and won the Golden Globe for Actress in a Musical/Comedy. Midler lost the Oscar to Sally Field (“Norma Rae”).
Sidney Lumet’s “The Morning After” opens on a barfly with fading prospects of stardom waking up inside an unfamiliar apartment next to a dead man. Without any recollection of how she got there and desperate to prove her innocence, she flees the scene and receives aid from an ex-cop (Jeff Bridges)–but not before pouring herself a drink, of course. Jane Fonda’s performance in the 1986 neo-noir is one of the few on this list to not service the kind of addiction melodrama that would earn her co-star his first win 23 years later (“Crazy Heart”). Fonda lost the Oscar to Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”).
8. Marsha Mason, “Only When I Laugh” (1981)
Marsha Mason received her fourth Oscar nomination for playing an actress and recovering alcoholic in “Only When I Laugh,” an adaptation of Neil Simon’s 1970 play, “The Gingerbread Lady.” The mother-daughter relationship at the film’s center is typical of cautionary tales about alcoholism, especially ones that follow a redemption arc. Mason lost Best Actress to Katharine Hepburn (“On Golden Pond”), who makes an appearance later on this list for a different film.
7. Vivien Leigh, “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)
Before playing Blanche DuBois, the disgraced and tragic heroine of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for Elia Kazan on film, screen and theater legend Vivien Leigh personalized the role across 326 performances in Laurence Olivier’s West End adaptation. Kazan, however, was reportedly unhappy with how she and Olivier had conceived the character on stage–a criticism the academy, which awarded the actress her second Oscar, apparently did not share. Leigh was nominated for a Golden Globe and won Best British Actress at the BAFTAs.
6. Diana Ross, “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972)
Diana Ross received her one and only Oscar notice for playing Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues” (Andra Day would get a nomination five decades later for playing the embattled jazz singer in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”). Holiday’s biography, marred by poverty, sexual exploitation, politically motivated investigations and drug abuse, is fertile ground for harrowing cinema. The Supremes’ beloved lead singer, who was also nominated for a Golden Globe and BAFTA, lost the Oscar to another musical icon–Liza Minnelli (“Cabaret”). Roger Ebert called Ross’ performance in the film one of 1972’s greatest.
5. Katharine Hepburn, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962)
Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” delivered Katharine Hepburn her ninth Best Actress nomination (she ended up losing to “The Miracle Worker’s” Anne Bancroft). Hepburn repurposed the playful, comedic persona she was known for thanks to “Desk Set” and “Bringing Up Baby” to play the delusional and infantile Mary Tyrone, whose marriage is poisoned in equal parts by her morphine addiction and a dissatisfaction born of a nostalgic yearning for roads not taken. Though she didn’t end up with the Academy Award, Hepburn won an acting prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
4. Meryl Streep, “Postcards From the Edge” (1990)
Meryl Streep’s received her seventh career nomination for Mike Nichols’ showbiz satire, “Postcard From the Edge,” in which she plays an actress attempting to get her career back on track after her issues with alcohol are put on public display. The film is based on Carrie Fisher’s highly fictionalized account of her career in Hollywood and relationship with her screen legend mother, Debbie Reynolds, a version of whom is played in the film by Shirley MacLaine. It seems as though the only thing more likely to get an actor a nomination than playing an alcoholic is playing an alcoholic actor. A scene of Streep’s character being lectured about the insurance premiums on a picture starring scandal-tarnished names is probably personally familiar to many of the Dolby Theater’s annual attendees. “What am I supposed to do?” she cynically asks, “Go to a halfway house for wayward SAG members, or something?” Streep lost the Oscar to Kathy Bates (“Misery”).
3. Angela Bassett, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (1993)
Until 2023, Angela Bassett’s only Oscar nomination was for her portrayal of Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” which Rotten Tomatoes ranks as the best music biopic of all time. It’s also, along with another entry on this list, one of cinema’s most disquieting autopsies of a toxic marriage. Her soul-baring work sparring with Laurence Fishburne’s monstrous embodiment of Ike Turner details what life can be like for the spouse of a violent addict. Gold Derby’s Joyce Eng recently argued that Bassett would likely have an Oscar by now if “What’s Love Got to Do With It” had been released in 1994 and avoided competition with Jane Campion’s “The Piano” and its lead, Holly Hunter (Bassett took home the Musical/Comedy Globe while Hunter won Drama on her way to the Oscar). The proposed shift would’ve instead given us a showdown between Bassett and Jessica Lange (“Blue Sky”).
2. Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine” (2013)
Anita from “West Side Story,” the Joker, and Blanche DuBois don’t have much in common, but all three characters have gained multiple actors an Academy Award. Though “Blue Jasmine” isn’t a direct adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” there’s no doubting its manifold narrative and thematic connections to the classic Tennessee Williams play–the 1951 adaptation of which got Vivien Leigh her second Academy Award. Cate Blanchett, nominated in 2023 for playing a tyrannical orchestra conductor in “Tár,” also won her second (in addition to a Golden Globe and BAFTA) for playing the destitute Southern belle, albeit in an updated take that recasts her as a New York socialite fallen from grace. The performance calls to mind Katharine Hepburn’s in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which is appropriate, considering that Blanchett won her first Academy Award for playing the Golden Age star in 2004’s “The Aviator.”
1. Elizabeth Taylor, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s Tony-winning play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” is the classic bad-marriage movie–a subgenre containing plenty of drunken rows and uninhibited, spirit-greased confessions, as well as more than one Oscar-nominated performance. Elizabeth Taylor’s tart rendition of the wrathful and bitter-as-brandy Martha, frequently cited as the icon’s greatest performance, ranks among cinema’s least sympathetic portrayals of alcoholism. Though an awful person to be around, the character is compulsively watchable on both the screen and stage. She and her husband, George (Richard Burton), tear each other apart in front of unwitting dinner guests in a display that one could argue is an apt metaphor for the public view in which Taylor and Burton’s real-life marital woes unfolded. Taylor won her second Oscar for the performance.