Takin’ It to the Streep!

15 Mar
84th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room

29 years after winning her second Oscar, for Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep (above) claimed the 2011 Best Actress prize for portraying former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, an uneven film that only works as well as it does, when it does, thanks to Streep’s no holds barred performance. I’m not sure she deserved the Oscar this go ’round, but it’s hard to deny her due as the most accomplished actress of her generation–or almost any other generation.

Between December 1978, when the The Deer Hunter was released for its Oscar qualifying run, and April 1983, when the Oscars for the 1982 film year were awarded, Meryl Streep earned 4 Academy Award nominations and actually won 2 of the coveted trophies. Perhaps more importantly, in doing so, Streep performed the never before achieved feat of moving from Oscar winning supporting actress (Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979) to Oscar winning leading lady (Sophie’s Choice, 1982). The only other actress to have made a similar leap is Jessica Lange, who, coincidentally, won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Tootsie the same year that Streep won for Sophie’s Choice. [1]

With two Oscars in such rapid succession, and at such an early age (a mere 33), Streep seemed poised for nothing but no end of better roles in bigger movies and more and more awards; to a degree, that is exactly what happened as evidenced by her record breaking 17 acting nominations, and, now, her 3 Oscars. The question is, what took so long? How could it take almost 30 years for this incredibly gifted actress to win her third Oscar when her first two came so quickly? Maybe the answer is in the question. Maybe not. Let’s take a look and unpack 12 of the 13 Oscar races Streep has competed in since winning for Sophie’s Choice. Are you ready? Here we go!

Silkwood (1983) –  A year after winning her second Oscar, and her first as a leading player, Streep was back in the race with a powerful performance as the real-life 70’s era Oklahoma nuclear industry whistle blower who died under mysterious circumstances. Blue collar Karen Silkwood  was worlds removed from the haunted Holocaust survivor Streep played in Sophie’s Choice, and  proved, if Sophie had left any doubts, that Streep was an actress of seemingly boundless range. The truth is, I’ve always found this performance to be more relaxed and emotionally accessible than the more ostentatiously bravura turn in Sophie’s Choice, and that’s my privilege. I would have easily given Streep the Oscar for this one, but, wait a second, consecutive Oscars are a rare bird–and third Oscars for performers are also rare.  Plus, Streep was competing against 4-time Academy bridesmaid Shirley MacLaine, savoring the role of a lifetime as domineering matron Aurora Greenway in the smash Best Picture frontrunner, Terms of Endearment.

Out of Africa (1985) – Here was Streep in an adaptation of a sweeping, real-life period love story opposite one of Hollywood’s most exquisite leading men, Robert Redford. The movie was up for 11 Oscars and ultimately claimed 7 of those awards including Best Picture and Best Director (Sydney Pollack). Streep was seemingly in the right picture at the time right time, with the right accent (Danish), so what gives? Not only was Streep competing against Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful), an acting legend who’d never won in 7 previous go-rounds, she was also in the running against Whoopi Goldberg, an exciting newcomer who’d landed an Oscar nomination for her motion picture debut, director Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer winner, The Color Purple. Compared to Goldberg, Streep was old hat; compared to Page, she needed to share the wealth.

Ironweed (1987) – Streep has some exceptional moments in the adaptation of William Kennedy’s Pulitzer winning novel about a pair of alcoholic Depression era  drifters. The movie is unrelentingly bleak and, as such, a hard sell for most moviegoers. In other words, it was far from a hit. Additionally, as good as Streep is, her role is clearly subordinate to the one played by Best Actor nominee Jack Nicholson, whose character (and/or his back story) serves as the catalyst for much of what happens as the film unfolds. All in all, there were simply better received performances by leading actresses that year, starting with Cher, who not only starred in the popular romantic comedy Moonstruck but also appeared in two other high profile pics: the star studded adaptation of John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick (along with Jack Nicholson), and the legal thriller Suspect; meanwhile, Holly Hunter won raves in the seriocomic Broadcast News, and Glenn Close’s box office blockbuster, Fatal Attraction,  courted controversy and sparked a media frenzy with its steamy cautionary of adultery in the big city. Streep’s film seemed like a curiosity piece compared to the trio of actresses in popular Best Picture contenders; meanwhile, the fifth nominee, Sally Kirkland orchestrated a much publicized campaign for her well reviewed character study Anna, which might have become a cult classic if anyone had ever seen it.

Besides being Oscar nominated for A Cry in the Dark, Meryl Streep was also up for the Golden Globe in the Best Actress in a Drama category. In one of the strangest Golden Globe twists ever, there was a three way tie for the Globe award between Jodie Foster (The Accused), Shirley MacLaine (Madame Madame Sousatzka), and Sigourney Weaver (Gorillas in the Mist). Streep and Christine Lahti (Running on Empty) were co-losers. Ultimately, Foster won the Oscar and competed for it against Streep, Weaver, Glenn Close (Dangerous Liaisons), and Melanie Griffith, who won that year’s Golden Globe for Comedy per her comeback vehicle, Working Girl (for which Sigourney Weaver also earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination). Good times.

A Cry in the Dark (1988) – For many years, this was my #1 favorite Streep performance: she just disappears inside the emotionally charged, fact-based story of an Australian woman, the wife of a Seventh Day Adventist minister, on trial for the murder of her infant daughter; however, the movie has long been regarded as bit of a pop-culture joke in some circles. Maybe it’s because Streep wears one (or more) of the most unflattering wigs in the history of movies, however accurate; maybe it spotlights one foreign accent too many (Danish in Out of Africa, and British in Plenty and The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Perhaps it was all those “A Dingo Ate My Baby!” jokes, or maybe it was the film’s connection to the Cannon Group. Though defunct now, Cannon was a 1980s industry juggernaut, famous for turning out dozens upon dozens of hugely promoted action/exploitation films and/or cheesy comedies, along with the occasional artsy prestige pic,  for worldwide audiences.  The studio heads, Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus (also known as the Go-Go Boys) were like the Bob and Harvey Weinstein of their day though they were, incredibly, even more crass. At any rate, A Cry in the Dark was not especially well-liked by the Academy, earning only a single nod (Streep)  even though its director was/is the great Fred Schepisi, and the male lead was played by the ever popular Aussie actor Sam Neil [2]. Instead, there was much ado about winner Jodie Foster, playing a much more obviously sympathetic character–a rape victim–in The Accused, a heavily fictionalized version of a story drawn from the headlines, along with Glenn Close in the well regarded, multi-nominated Best Picture contender Dangerous Liaisons, and Melanie Griffith enjoying an exhaustively fawned over comeback in Mike Nichols’s Working Girl, another Best Picture nominee.  Even so, A Cry in the Dark (filmed–and released overseas–as Evil Angels) actually fared better with audiences outside the U.S. Streep not only won the 1989 Cannes Best Actress prize, she also earned an Australian Film Institute (AFI) award; the movie won a total of  5 AFI prizes including Best Picture, Best Actor,  and Best Director.

Postcards from the Edge (1990) – After traveling all across the globe for most of the 1980s, Streep settled down for awhile in California, so she could work regularly and still spend time with the family. What followed was a series of films much lighter in nature than the period dramas for which she had become famous.  As she explained it, her motive wasn’t necessarily to start making comedies, but to take the jobs that were available and could be shot in one place.  Postcards from the Edge is a mild Hollywood satire inspired by actress-writer Carrie Fisher’s account of growing up as a second-generation showbiz brat and trying to lick a drug habit under the ever watchful, ever disapproving eye of a mother who’s a faded film star as well as a potential lush herself (Shirley MacLaine in a role clearly modeled on Fisher’s own mom, the one and only Debbie Reynolds).  Although the movie hits a few raw nerves as it mines prickly material, much of it is actually played for laughs.  In many ways, Streep was her own undoing in this particular Oscar race because as good as Postcards from the Edge is–and as fresh as it appeared at the time–it simply pales in comparison to all the earnest, high-minded work that precedes it. Plus, Academy voters were excited to see  Kathy Bates sink her teeth into the great big juicy role of Misery‘s  seriously deluded Annie Wilkes in the popular Stephen King adaptation. The reliable character actress had long been relegated to secondary roles onscreen while watching her stage triumphs (Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, and ‘night Mother) go to more conventional movie star types, such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Sissy Spacek, respectively.

The Bridges of Madison County (1995) – Streep is perfectly engaging as middle aged farm-wife and mother who has a a brief but profound affair with a National Geographic photographer (played by actor-director Clint Eastwood) during the early 1960s. At times, she’s more than engaging; she’s transcendent–and she gets to try out a new accent: Italian. The downside is that even though the movie version of Robert James Waller’s phenomenally best selling novel is a definite improvement over the slipshod source material, it’s still more sow’s ear than silk purse. Indeed, the film was shut-out of every other category–including Eastwood’s marvelous performance–which seems to indicate that Streep’s nomination was little more than an Academy knee-jerk reaction; meanwhile, Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) was in her fifth Best Actress race–and, more specifically, her fourth in five years. Her film, which earned four nods (including one for Sarandon’s then longtime love Tim Robbins as Best Director), is a hard-hitting look at the ongoing debate over the death penalty with Sarandon bringing passion and nuance to the role of anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean. It was the perfect role at the perfect time for the famously liberal leaning actress-activist.

One True Thing (1998) – Let the skeptics sneer if they must. I actually enjoyed this modern tearjerker, based on the novel by Ann Quindlen, about a young New York career gal (Renee Zellweger) who journeys back to the college town where she was raised in order to help take care of her dying mother (Streep). The latter works wonders in the role of a stay-at-home wife and mom who has always been undervalued by her daughter. Even so, Streep, Fernanda Montenegro (Central Station), and Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie) were simply along for the ride that year as all eyes were on the two  fresh-faced stars of dueling Elizabethan costume pictures: Gwyneth Paltrow, as William Shakespeare’s muse in the fictionalized Shakespeare in Love, and Cate Blanchett as the young “virgin” queen in Elizabeth. Paltrow won–probably by virtue of the Miramax publicity machine as well as the fact that hers was at times a female to male (to female) cross-dressing role.

Music of the Heart (1999) – This is one of three Streep nominations that strike me as being overly generous on the part of the Academy.  Onscreen, Streep plays Roberta Guaspari, a real-life violin teacher who, against incredible odds, launched a phenomenally successful music program at a public school in Harlem. Okay, good enough, but the the real key to the film’s success–and Streep’s nomination–is found in the backstory, which goes like this: the project was originally intended as a vehicle for Madonna, a follow-up to her well reviewed turn in Evita, but Madonna left the project over creative differences with director Wes Craven, best known for such horror fare as The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare of Elm Street, and Scream.  When Madonna left, Streep agreed to take the role in a pinch and learned to play violin in a mere two months [3], so the Academy rewarded her with an Oscar nomination for her dedication and professionalism during difficult circumstances. The truth is, the story of Guaspari had already been told in a 1995 Oscar nominated documentary, Small Wonders, so a feature film version so quickly on the heels of the original seems redundant. The real race was between brilliant newcomer Hilary Swank, as transgendered hate crime victim Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, and Annette Bening, chewing her way through Best Picture frontrunner American Beauty; Swank won. She and Bening would duke it out again a few years later–and Swank would win that round as well, but I digress.

During the same season that saw Streep (left) earn an Oscar nod for her supporting role in Adaptation, she also  shared the screen with Julianne Moore (center) and Nicole Kidman (right) in The Hours, which garnered 9 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Kidman), and Best Supporting Actress (Moore). Kidman, in the role of Virginia Woolf, the suicidal writer whose novel Mrs. Dalloway inspired Michael Cunningham to pen The Hours, triumphed in her category.

Adaptation (2002) – Streep was nominated for playing the supporting role of journalist Susan Orlean in the adaptation of Orlean’s non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief.  In the hands of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, the ensuing film has little to do with Orlean’s original text as it focuses on Kaufman’s struggle to create a workable screenplay based on the source material. Are you following me? Kaufman is played by Best Actor nominee Nicolas Cage, who also plays Kaufman’s twin brother Donald–even though Kaufman does not actually have a twin brother in real life. Yep, the movie is as bad as it sounds, save for Chris Cooper’s Oscar winning supporting turn as the titular orchid poacher John Laroche that Orlean wrote about in her book.  Oh sure, Streep shows that she’s as game as any actress in this wildly uneven film, but the nomination, again, is just a tad generous. There was no way Streep was ever going to win this Oscar: the film was simply not important enough to warrant giving her a third Oscar, a supporting one at that, when she was still capable of better work. Not only that, she was competing against vivacious scene stealer Catherine Zeta Jones in a star making performance in Chicago, the ginormously successful big screen version of the classic Broadway musical that, with 13 nominations, was poised to sweep the awards.

Some samples of The Devil Wears Prada’s quotable dialogue: “Tell Simone I’m not going to approve that girl that she sent me for the Brazilian layout. I asked for clean, athletic, smiling. She sent me dirty, tired and paunchy.”…”Tell Richard I saw the pictures that he sent for that feature on the female paratroopers and they’re all so deeply unattractive. Is it impossible to find a lovely, slender, female paratrooper? Am I reaching for the stars here? Not really.”…”Florals? For spring? Ground breaking.”…”By all means move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me.”…”That’s all.”  –  4

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) –  Streep has never been more overtly glamorous than she is as “Miranda Priestly,” the dynamic, charismatic fashion magazine editor who frustrates and fascinates a fresh from college underling (Anne Hathaway) who fancies herself a serious journalist and can’t quite figure out how to fit in at her  “frivolous” new job.  Taken from Lauren Weisberger’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, The Devil Wears Prada is by all reports a not-so-thinly veiled account of Weisberger’s stint at Vogue with Streep’s character allegedly based on the magazine’s extremely influential, if, how to say, icy and/or fickle, editor, Anna Wintour.  Whereas Priestly is pretty much a beast in the book, the filmmakers, bolstered largely by Streep’s persuasive performance, try to soften the portrayal in order to make the story something akin to an emotional tug-of war between Hathaway’s integrity/idealism and Streep’s alluring world of glitter and privilege.  Clearly, the audience is supposed to view Streep’s Priestly as the boss from hell–because her demands are often cruel if not downright impossible–but Streep is too smart of an actress to fall for all of that. Instead, her Miranda is always velvety smooth in her delivery and generally one-step ahead of everyone else, which makes her the most exciting character in the whole production (though we’re still supposed to be rooting for Hathaway’s whiny Andrea Sachs). The movie was a huge hit, and Streep earned the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, but the Oscar went to Helen Mirren–her third Oscar race–for playing Queen Elizabeth II, during the difficult aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, in The Queen.  Mirren’s victory seemed certain almost from the moment her movie was released. Don’t ask me why because I much preferred the work of Streep, Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal), and Kate Winslet (Little Children), all of whom were nominated, as well as Annette Bening (Running with Scissors), Toni Collete (Little Miss Sunshine), and even Beyoncé (Dreamgirls)  who were not nominated.  (I liked, but did not love, Penelope Cruz, nominated for Pedro Almodovar’s Volver, but I digress.) To me, Mirren’s work was perfunctory: nothing about it took me by surprise or made me want to watch her film again. On the other hand, The Queen, which was also up for Best Picture, obviously struck the right note with the Academy. Plus, as previously noted, Mirren was in her third Oscar race–and her first as a leading actress. My guess is that even with the considerable shading Streep brought to her role in The Devil Wears Prada, the character just didn’t seem sympathetic enough, or substantial enough, when compared to Mirren’s work, which, incredibly, turned out to be a solid box office hit despite its downbeat subject matter and seemingly limited appeal.

Doubt (2008) – In 2008, Streep scored in two completely different kinds of movies: over the summer, she enjoyed phenomenal success as a bohemian single mom–and former pop-star–in Mamma Mia!, the sunny big screen version of the hit Broadway show that pays tribute to the insanely catchy tunes of 70s era Swedish music titans, ABBA. During the holidays, she commanded the screen as the none-too-easily deterred Sister Aloysius in the adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer and Tony winning play, Doubt.  Again, Streep is simply magnificent as the iron-willed Mother Superior who sets out to outfox a potential pedophile at the school where she serves as principal while protecting the identity of a student who might have been violated–and without overstepping her bounds as a female in a male dominated hierarchy, circa 1964.  Streep was probably so close to victory with this one that she could taste it, so what happened?  Well, for starters, Streep was not the only nominated actress having an awfully good year.  British actress Kate Winslet delivered two astonishing performances in year end releases: a frustrated 50s era American housewife in Revolutionary Road, which reunited her with Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio (directed by Winslet’s then husband, American Beauty Oscar winner Sam Mendes; adapted from the novel by Richard Yates), and The Reader, with the actress in a complicated role as a former Auschwitz guard on trial for war crimes (directed by The Hours‘s Stephen Daldry; taken from the book by Bernhard Schlink). Winslet had been honored for both performances throughout the entire awards season, and there was an undeniable feeling that she was having her moment. Officially, she was nominated for her work in The Reader rather than Revolutionary Road, yet, perhaps more tellingly, she was actually in her sixth Oscar race in thirteen years. She was only 33 years old at the time, and no other individual (or at least no other performer) had ever earned as many Oscar nominations at the same age [5]–not even Meryl Streep–besides having already starred in the biggest box office hit of all time (1997’s aforementioned Titanic [6]). People just wanted to see her with an Oscar, and, as Streep well knows from her own experience with Sophie’s Choice, trying on different accents in movies about the Holocaust is particularly resonant with Oscar voters.

Julie and Julia (2009) – The last of the Academy’s overly generous nominations. Streep plays famed American born “French” chef  Julia Child in this tricky film based on Child’s own autobiography and the adventures of blogger Julie Powell (Streep’s Doubt co-star Amy Adams), who found fame by writing about what is was like to cook all of Child’s recipes in the span of a year. Something like that.  The movie cuts back and forth between the 1950s and modern times as Child and Powell deal with the various obstacles of learning to cook while navigating the ups and downs of everyday life. Child, of course, once starred on her own TV cooking show, and had a distinctively enthusiastic and robust vocal delivery that made her ripe for parody, most notably in an early Saturday Night Live skit with Dan Aykroyd, of all people, taking on the role with considerable relish. In contrast, many critics praised Streep’s characterization for transcending mere impersonation while others couldn’t see past the impersonation. In short: the performance might have been admired enough to warrant a nomination, but it was probably too divisive, and the film itself too lightweight (earning only a nomination for Streep), to garner a trophy; meanwhile, Sandra Bullock was earning rave reviews–easily the best of her career–for her performance in the fact-based The Blind Side, a movie which inspired audiences and quickly became not only a true blockbuster but also the highest grossing movie to ever feature an actress with unshared over-the-title billing [7].  People loved The Blind Side, and they loved Sandra Bullock’s richly shaded yet unfussy performance in it; at that point it was almost as if the Academy needed Bullock more than Bullock needed the Academy if that makes any sense.

With The Iron Lady, Streep not only had a meaty role, she was also fortunate to be affiliated with the Weisnteins,  studio personnel who still believe in old fashioned Hollywood ballyhoo when it comes to promoting their films and their stars for awards consideration.  Even so, many prognsticators were certain that this year’s Best Actress Oscar would go to Viola Davis in The Help. Of course, Davis’s film was extremely commercial, much more so than Streep’s, and it was a Best Picture nominee, but in the weeks since the Oscars, word has begun spreading that as much as voters loved Davis, they didn’t see that she dominated her film the same way that Streep dominated hers.  Plus, Streep was playing a real person, which often helps (though Streep has lost her share of Oscars for playing real-life roles); moreover, she aged significantly over the course of the film (even slipping into a state of confusion not unlike dementia), and she demonstrated yet again her skill with accents.

It’s also possible that many voters thought Streep might not ever be lucky enough again to play such a fascinatingly complex role. Additionally, maybe they thought,  as was the case with Streep for almost three decades, that Viola Davis would certainly have other chances. Of course, Streep will likely have another chance since it has just been announced that she’ll be playing the family matriarch in the big screen version of Tracey Letts’s  Tony and Pulitzer winner, August: Osage County.  Actress Deanna Dunagan won the Tony for Best Actress during the play’s original Broadway run–and Estelle Parsons [8] earned even greater reviews when she took over the role after Dunagan left to open the play in London.  It’s hard to imagine that Streep won’t soar in the role as well. Who knows what’s next for Viola Davis. The scuttlebutt is that she’s  considering developing a movie based on the life of Texas’s own barrier breaking congresswoman Barbara Jordan [9], and I will  pay good money to see that if it happens, believe me.

Maybe all this second guessing is unnecessary. Oh sure, there’s always that. Likewise, it’s entirely possible that people voted for other actresses all those other times because they just liked those actresses’ performances more than they liked Streep’s. Oh, absolutely. I always believe that Academy members vote for what they like, that they are not strategic in their thinking, but I also believe people’s likes and dislikes are informed by all kinds of factors, and that’s the part that interests me, and that’s why I’ve been writing about the Oscars for almost 30 years–which is about the same amount of time Streep waited for Oscar no. 3.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Actually, the same year that Lange won for Tootsie, she was also competing against Streep in the Best Actress race; Lange was up for Best Actress for her performance in the harrowing Frances. Btw: Jack Lemmon, Robert De Niro and Denzel Washington have likewise made the switch from Oscar winning supporting players to Best Actor winners. Furthermore, Jack Nicholson went from Best Actor to Best Supporting Actor and back to Best Actor. Lucky.

[2] Before A Cry in the Dark, Streep had worked with both Schepisi and Neill on 1985’s Plenty, taken from the play by David Hare.

[3] Read more about the casting of Streep in Music of the Heart in this Entertainment Weekly article:

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,84757,00.html

[4] Quotes for Miranda Priestly at the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0009660/quotes

[5] Kate Winslet’s stats as reported by People magazine:

http://www.people.com/people/kate_winslet/0,,,00.html

[6] Of course, in 2009, Titanic director James Cameron released Avatar, which soon displaced Titanic as the top grossing movie of all time.

[7] Per Variety, “Sandra Bullock makes history”:

http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118013301

[8] Parsons won the 1967 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Bonnie and Clyde.

[9] Variety article about Davis’s plans to play Barbara Jordan:

http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118051235

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