The 1960s were certainly a good year for Best Actress thanks to a number of meaty roles delivered by the decade's top leading ladies. Both newcomers and old favorites won, as well as some actresses who hailed from other parts of the world, while in 1968 the Academy had its first-ever tie in the category. Whether playing prostitutes, unorthodox teachers or foul-mouthed drunks, the performances on display in the 1960s were unforgettable.
After being nominated for Best Actress in the previous three years, Elizabeth Taylor won in her fourth go-round as Gloria Wonderous, a wild and carefree prostitute in Daniel Mann’s Butterfield 8. Taylor reportedly hated the movie, allegedly on the grounds of her illicit affair with Eddie Fischer and being publicly branded a homewrecker, and only took on the role to fulfill her contractual obligations to MGM. She also benefited from an off year that featured nominated performances from Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment, Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners, Greer Garson in Sunrise at Campobello and Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday.
The first actress to win an Oscar for a non-English speaking performance since the silent era, Sophia Loren tapped into heretofore unseen emotional depths to play a mother struggling to survive war-torn Italy with her young daughter (Eleanora Brown). Delving into her own emotional turmoil suffered during the war, Loren was brilliant as a woman facing the horrific circumstances while trying to maintain the bond with her daughter. Loren dubbed her own dialogue in English and won Best Actress honors over Audrey Hepburn’s iconic turn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Piper Laurie’s heartbreaking performance in The Hustler, Geraldine Page’s portrayal of a spinsterish preacher’s daughter in Summer and Smoke, and Natalie Wood’s performance as a working class girl in love with a rich kid (Warren Beatty) in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass.
In her first career nomination, Anne Bancroft won her only Oscar for Best Actress for one of the greatest performances of the decade. Bancroft played Anne Sullivan, a partially blind teacher brought in by the helpless parents of Helen Keller (Patty Duke), a blind-deaf-mute girl prone to violent outbursts because of her inability to communicate. Bancroft’s triumphant performance easily beat out the competition which included Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth and Lee Remick in Days of Wine and Roses.
In a decidedly off year for Oscar, Patricia Neal won her career’s only Academy Award for her portrayal of Alma Brown, a warm-hearted housekeeper constantly insulted by Paul Newman’s titular Hud, a crass and amoral rancher with a taste for violence. Having been around crude men like Hud before, Alma keeps him at arm’s length despite his attraction to her and eventually suffers from his brutality. In any other year in the decade, it’s doubtful Neal would have won, but in 1963 she earned the Oscar over Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room, Shirley MacLaine in Irma La Douce, Rachel Roberts in This Sporting Life and Natalie Wood in Love with the Proper Stranger.
Making her screen debut in what became one of Disney’s most successful movies, Julie Andrews savored sweet revenge after being passed over by Jack Warner to star in George Cukor's classic musical My Fair Lady in favor of Audrey Hepburn and won the Oscar for her iconic performance as the nearly perfect nanny, Marry Poppins. Andrews shinned as the prime-and-proper Poppins, who’s both stern and gentle in helping to raise the unruly Banks children. Andrews’ rightly earned the Academy Award over Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater, Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style, Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Kim Stanley in Séance on a Wet Afternoon.
While not nearly as well remembered as fellow nominee Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, Julie Christie was stellar as an amoral fashion model in director John Schlesinger’s satirical indictment of 1960s hedonism. As the titular Darling, Christie delivered a great performance as a vapid home-wrecker who bounces from man to man on the swinging singles scene, though in hindsight it seemed strange she wasn’t nominated for playing Lara in David Lean’s epic romance, Doctor Zhivago. Still, Christie’s Darling won the day and earned the actress the Oscar over competition that included Andrews in The Sound of Music, Samantha Egger in The Collector, Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue and Simone Signoret in Ship of Fools.
While her win for Butterfield 8 was debatable, there was no doubt Elizabeth Taylor deserved the Oscar for her powerhouse performance in Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s acidic masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Taylor’s bombastic turn as the virulently besotted Martha opposite real-life husband Richard Burton’s flaccid George was the lavish starlet’s finest of her career, and she surprised many by gaining 30 pounds to play the frumpy Martha. Flashy, intense and ultimately sympathetic, Taylor’s Martha earned her a second Best Actress Academy Award over Anouk Aimee in A Man and a Woman, Ida Kaminska in The Shop on Main Street, Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl and Vanessa Redgrave in Morgan!
After 33 years and eight fruitless nominations, Katharine Hepburn finally won the second of her three career Academy Awards for Best Actress. Though she won in her first try for 1933’s Morning Glory, Hepburn spent the ensuing three decades losing Oscar with some of her finest performances, sometimes to lesser competition. But all was forgiven with her turn as a liberal-minded mother opposite Spencer Tracy whose daughter (Katharine Houghton) shocks both by bringing home her African-American fiancé (Sidney Poitier). While not her most dynamic, Hepburn’s conflicted performance broke ground in Hollywood’s portrayal of race as old world attitudes give way to new ones. She beat out two iconic performances, Anne Bancroft in The Graduate and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, as well as Dame Edith Evans in The Whisperers and Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark.
When Wallace Beery and Fredric March tied in 1931/32, March actually had one more vote than Beery; back then, three votes or less was considered a tie. But the Academy did away with that rule sometime in the 1940s, and in 1968 both Barbra Streisand and previous year’s winner Katharine Hepburn received exactly the same amount of votes for their performances, resulting in the only tie thus far for Best Actress in Oscar history. Streisand won for her reprising her Broadway role as comedienne Fanny Brice in William Wyler’s classic musical Funny Girl, while Hepburn earned the statuette for her performance Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite Peter O’Toole’s King Henry II in The Lion in Winter. While Hepburn was a no-show at the ceremony, Streisand was forced to share the podium with director Anthony Harvey, who accepted on Hepburn’s half. Rounding out the nominees were Patricia Neal in The Subject Was Roses, Vanessa Redgrave in Isadora and Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel.
Long before she was known as the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith earned a surprising win for Best Actress as a free-thinking schoolteacher who encourages her pupils to follow their hearts while extolling the virtues of fascism and detailing her sex life. Smith was mesmerizing as the unconventional and eccentric Brodie, delivering an emotionally impactful performance that at the same time was markedly reserved. Her only win as Best Actress came at the expense of fellow nominees Genevieve Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days, Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo and Jean Simmons in The Happy Ending.