Shelley Winters for The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The Supporting Actress category in 1972 was the battle of the acting veterans, yet this category was overshadowed by Cabaret sweeping the majority of awards, The Godfather sneaking in a well-deserved win, and Marlon Brandon’s odd and controversial Best Actor “acceptance speech.” In the supporting category, Shelley Winters was nominated for her turn as a grandmother struggling to survive a shipwreck in The Poseidon Adventure against Eileen Heckart in the small comedy Butterflies are Free as an overbearing mother. Winters was the favorite to win, having won the Golden Globe earlier in the year. Yet the Academy Awards did something unusual in this year. Winters lost to Heckart, whose performance received no preliminary Oscar nominations and had practically no award traction. Contemporary pundits have speculated the reason for Winters’ loss in this year was for one simple reason: The Academy Awards didn’t want to give Winters a third Oscar.

The Poseidon Adventure continues to be a film from classic Hollywood that defined and propelled a genre in the 1970s: The disaster genre. What this genre typically consisted of was an all-star cast (usually featuring big name Oscar winners) who are thrust together to survive a natural disaster. The 1970s saw disaster films, such as, Earthquake, The Swarm, and The Towering Inferno. This genre was exceedingly popular despite the fact that most of these films were poorly scripted, resulting in many big-name stars giving some of the worst performances of their careers. By today’s standards, the disaster genre is now watched as unintentional comedies. However, only one disaster film has managed to survive the stigma of the genre; that being The Poseidon Adventure.

The Poseidon Adventure is the story of a cruise liner that is struck by a rogue tidal wave on New years Eve, causing the ship to flip upside down. Only a handful of survivors make it out of the ballroom, where the ship’s only survivors are, and struggle to make it to the hull of the ship to be rescued. Their path is a treacherous one, as the rising ocean water continually poses as an obstacle, and their survival is a race against time for them to meet their destination before the ship sinks completely.

What makes Shelley Winter’s performance worthy of an Oscar win was firstly due to her truly becoming the character. She gained 35 pounds for the role and trained with an swimming Olympic trainer for her underwater scenes. Beyond that, Winters’ performance has the distinction of standing out above the other talent in the film. Winters is able to do this by providing a familiarity to her character by making her identifiable to audiences as the caring grandmother. Once the disaster occurs, her performance shifts to the most human of reactions in comparison to the remainder of the cast, where she becomes selfless and is continually worried for all those around her. As a result, Winters becomes the heart of the movie and is the character audiences care the most for. Most importantly, her character functions as the most tender of the characters as well, with her scenes with her on-screen husband (Jack Albertson). Her scenes with him tug at one’s heart strings and trigger the hope that she will make it out of this disaster alive.

Lost to: Eileen Heckart for Butterflies are Free (1972)

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