You would have thought coming up with the best actress of the 1980s would be a no-brainer. It’s Meryl Streep all the way, right? Not so fast. In the first place, I think Streep is a bit overrated; her 80s performances lacked the heart that she has found in recent years. In the second place, the 80s were a veritable cornucopia of talent: Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton, Sally Field, Mary Steenburgen, Debra Winger…the list goes on. But for my money the actress with the strongest resume in the 1980s is Mia Farrow. The knock against her may be that all her work was done for Woody Allen-her best work anyway-but that doesn’t seem to work against Diane Keaton in her claim to be the best of the 70s. (She nearly had it, but I just felt that Liv Ullmann’s dramatic roles were a bit stronger.)
If you have any doubt as to Mia Farrow’s acting abilities-and you are forgiven if you only know her from The Great Gatsby-then just watch Broadway Danny Rose. It is easily her best performance and an indication of her versatility. Her lower class New York character in that movie is unlike anything she has ever done. And it just goes to show that she wasn’t merely the watered-down Diane Keaton that she was accused of being. Yes, some of her work for Woody Allen has a definite Annie Hall feel-A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy especially-but watch Mia Farrow’s work for Woody one after another and you see an actress who is very different in each outing. The same cannot necessarily be said for Diane Keaton.
For instance, compare Mia Farrow’s character in Zelig to her character in Purple Rose of Cairo. One is a serious, confident psychiatrist who carries herself with a dignified air and the other is a put-upon dreamer who only comes alive after meeting the movie character who steps down out of the movie screen. These two women couldn’t be less alike and Farrow imbues them a solid emotional difference that is expressed through her physicality. And while Hannah is far less interesting than her sisters, it is Mia Farrow who is the emotional center of that movie; she is supposed to be a bedrock of normalcy but we can clearly see there are ragged edges to that rock.
Likewise, she is somewhat flustered in Radio Days as she looks out upon the madness that surrounds her, whereas she is once again totally confident in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Once you begin to take part Mia Farrow’s canon of the 1980s you begin to see that she was capable of stretching the gamut without resorting to the accents and stretches of her range that Meryl Streep engaged in. Streep, fortunately, has found her middle range and no longer has to dip into her bag of actor’s tricks; Mia Farrow accomplished that during her long 1980s run of brilliant performances for Woody Allen.
One may well ask why, if she was such a great actress, she didn’t flourish under other directors. It’s a valid question, considering that her work since breaking up with Allen has hardly been memorable. Sometimes, alas, it takes a great director bring out a great actor. Surely no one would question that Robert DeNiro’s five best performances are all in Martin Scorsese’s movies. (Well, some might, but certainly I wouldn’t.) It would be nice to think that Mia Farrow could be just as terrific again. And it is our loss and not hers if she can’t.