Imitation of Life

A journal about film, music, literature and any other form of imitation of life. Seeing through a glass darkly…

Oscar Becomes Her: why Meryl Streep should win her third Academy Award

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association will announce its nominations tomorrow and, unless the plot of the appalling 2012 proves true two years in advance and LA is literally engulfed by the ocean, Meryl Streep will receive her staggering 24th Golden Globe nomination for her perfectly delicious portrayal of American cuisine guru Julia Child in the film Julie & Julia.

The peculiar segregation of players in drama and comedy acting categories prevents any possible upset. In fact, unless An Education crosses the sometimes blurred line between drama and comedy and Carey Mulligan ends up in the group of the funny girls, a win à la Devil wears Prada should not be ruled out.

What remains to be seen is whether Meryl Streep will be able , later in the award season, to win her third Oscar for a comedy which was released in the summer, and hence out of immediate award attention, which has received mixed reviews and which, on top of everything, she has to share with another actress. She should because to say that Streep is overdue for a third Academy Award is really an understatement.

All through its history the Academy and its Awards have often been criticized for bypassing worthy achievements. Admittedly, the fact that Hitchcock, Lubitsch or Altman among the directors, Cary Grant or Charles Chaplin  among the male players and Deborah Kerr, Irene Dunne or Barbara Stanwyck among the ladies never won competitive Oscars cast a shadow of doubt on the credibility of the award.

The choice of a winner, however, should only be determined by the quality of a single performance in a given year and not by the achievements of a whole career. Honorary Oscars were invented precisely to correct those wrongs and many of the extraordinary helmers and thesps mentioned before were compensated with this award later in their careers. There is another factor which highly influences the decision of a winner and which is usually forgotten when pointing out at past mistakes: the level of competition in  a category in a given year.

Due to the Oscar’s inherently vicious logic, in a year of very strong competition in a category, the winning performance is not necessarily the most accomplished. My favorite example to prove this theory is the Best Actress category in 1950. Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson competed against each other for their roles in All about Eve and Sunset Boulevard, respectively, which still today rank among the best performances in cinema history. Votes were probably split between them and some Academy members, at a loss before two such powerful performances, gave their vote to the surprising winner, Judy Holliday, who on the other hand is simply unforgettable in a comic turn as the dumb blonde of Born Yesterday. The record that remains for the collective memory, however, is that Bette Davis, one of the greatest cinema players ever, was snubbed at the Oscars for the role of her life.

Meryl Streep is not a pure case of wronged actor, since the Academy recognized her work twice early in her career, first in the supporting category as Dustin Hoffman’s wife eager for independence in 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer and three years later as a leading actress for her breathtaking performance as a Polish Nazi camp survivor in Sophie’s Choice. However, she got her last Academy Award 27 years ago and it is difficult not to be taken aback by the fact that ex-Beverly Hills 90210 Hillary Swank has more Best Actress Oscars than her.

After her win in 1982 Streep was ubiquitous in the nominations all along the 80s, together with a bunch of other solid actresses like Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek. It was during this period, in which she was nominated for films like Silkwood, Out of Africa, Ironweed or A cry in the Dark, that the legend that Streep would get an Oscar nomination for reading out the telephone book was born. Her career somehow declined at the beginning of the 90s as she explored unknown territory in the fantasy comedy Death Becomes Her or the physically demanding thriller The River Wild. In 1995 she bounced back to form and to Oscar limelight with a performance that, in my humble opinion, is a career pinnacle: as the unfaithful wife of an Iowa farmer in Clint Eatswood’s The Bridges of Madison County. The final scenes in the van rank among the best that she, or any other actor for that matter, has ever done to express an unfulfilled life. Ever since then, she’s been in Oscar’s final shortlist almost every other year.

So why hasn’t Meryl Streep won a third Oscar yet?

Firstly, and maybe most importantly, it is due to the early recognition that the Academy bestowed upon her at the beginning of her career. That, together with the fact that she is meanwhile universally acknowledged as the finest actress alive, has created among the voters the feeling that a win in the Oscars is not something Meryl Streep needs. And then again, she’s already won, so they don’t owe her. That might explain why in some years she was passed over in favor of eternal nominees like Shirley MacLaine in 1983, Susan Sarandon in 1995 or film legend and 7 times loser Geraldine Page in 1985.

Secondly, since her win in 1982 and with the exception of Out of Africa, Streep has always been nominated for films which were absent in the other big categories. Players of films nominated in the Best Picture category are automatically favored over the  others and there are cases of default winners for weaker performances, like Gladiator‘s Russel Crowe over Ed Harris for Pollock in 2000 or Shakespeare in Love’s Gwyneth Paltrow over Cate Blanchett for Elisabeth in 1998.

Admittedly, sometimes she has lost to simply better or at least similarly good performances, like those by Shirley MacLaine in 1983, Kathy Bates in 1990 or, despite my previous comment, Hillary Swank for Boys don’t cry in 1999. Nevertheless, she has also been bypassed in favor of blatantly weaker achievements. In 2002 Michael Douglas used his fame, money and influence to campaign for his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and, in one of the most short-sighted decisions of recent years, the Academy gave her the best supporting actress accolade over Streep’s wondrous comic turn in Adaptation. Last year Streep should have won again for her fiercely portrayal of a nun with a lot of certainties and a big final doubt, but the Academy compensated 5 time loser and generally liked Kate Winslet for possibly her worst performance ever in the poor adaptation of Bernard Schlink’s novel The Reader, although I might be alone here, since Winslet received on Saturday the European Film Award for the same film.

So what does the Oscar race for Best Actress look like right now?

Three actresses seem to be a lock for a final spot in the list. Carey Mulligan for her coming-of-age role in An Education, Gabby Sibide for Precious and Streep for Julie & Julia. The two remaining spots will have to be filled by a bunch of actresses including Helen Mirren, Abbie Cornish, young Saoirse Ronan or Sandra Bullock, who is making quite a splash in America with a rugby fairy tale based on true facts and who could get a career turning nomination à la Anne Haithway in Rachel Getting Married. Longer shots for a nomination are category hopper Marion Cotillard for Nine or actresses in  less distributed or  less positively reviewed films like Emily Blunt, Shohreh Aghdashloo or even Penélope Cruz for Los Abrazos rotos.

Ever since the release of An Education earlier in the year Mulligan’s performance has been hailed as the one to beat and still now she is the front runner of the race. Gabby Sibide has also received recognition from some award groups, but usually as the breakthrough performance of the year, so it is hard to predict what would happen in a direct confrontation between them in other awards, like the Oscars, that do not reserve a specific category for newcomers. Mulligan seems to be taking some advantage, since she has already received the first important award of the year, the National Board of Review accolade. In fact, I have the impression that she is going to be the critics’ darling in all the precursors, but things may be quite different at Oscar time.

Mulligan is a very young actress with a short career. Her most important screen part until An Education was as one of the silly Bennett sisters in the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. That can be a pitfall difficult to overcome for her and Sibide in the Oscars. Academy members display a clear bias in favor of more experienced players in the leading categories and they are much more likely to bestow the Oscar for a debut or in an early stage of their careers on the female supporting actresses. Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino, Angelina Jolie or, more recently, Jennifer Hudson all won for supporting roles in their early 20s, while Tatum O’Neal and Anna Paquin were too young to even watch the films they were recognized for. In contrast to that, the youngest player to get an Oscar in the leading category was Janet Gaynor at 22. It happened in 1927, the first year the Oscars were bestowed.

The Golden Globes will probably cast no light on the dilemma, since Mulligan (or maybe Sibide) most likely will win for drama, and Streep for comedy, leaving the last word before the Oscars to the increasingly influential Screen Actors Guild, which last year already honored Streep. The SAG, made up entirely of actor peers, are more likely to give the support to their lifelong colleague than to Mulligan, whose role in An Education, however, will undoubtedly place her at the first rank of young screen actors.

So now, after this lesson of Oscar maths and facts, the big question is if Streep’s performance in Julie & Julia is good enough to deserve an Oscar. Well, to cut a long story short, yes, it is.

I have to admit that I had never heard of old good Julia Child until rumors about the film and the possible participation of Meryl Streep in it started to spread, and I must confess that I don’t know now if I watched the clips of her old TV shows in Facebook before or after I saw J&J, which proves the amazing work Streep does in nailing not only the physical characterization but, most importantly in this case, the voice timbre and intonation. Her performance is a true comic tour de force, but she is able to convey as well the pain and anguish over her marriage’s childlessness in a single scene. In J&J she is at her best when she shares the screen with the great Stanley Tucci over food and laughs. There’s no scene stealing here, but a memorable  supportive work of comic timing by two acting genius.

True, the film is only partly satisfying, mostly because Amy Adams’ New York story line does not live up to the deliciously captured Parisian atmosphere where Child’s story in the film starts. Director Nora Ephron loves to interweave story lines in her scripts. It perfectly worked when she used the classic An Affair to Remember as a plot vehicle for her Sleepless in Seattle but, unfortunately, Julie & Julia should have been Julia & Julia. Adams has here her least gratifying part to date, but that’s the consequence of messing up with Mrs. Streep, even if she is 4 decades away and doesn’t share a single scene with you. A comedy nod in the Globes for Adams (and why not for the amazing Emily Blunt) for the highly undervalued Sunshine Cleaning would be a good way to recover from this blow.

There’s no doubt that Streep would have more chances to win the Oscar had the film turned a more conventional biopic focusing entirely on Child’s fascinating life, but her half of the show is so funny, moving and convincing that she deserves the recognition of a win from her fellow peers. Give the lady her damn Oscar and I promise to shut up for the next 27 years.

Here’s the scene with Tucci where, while stuffing herself, she declares her plans of enrolling in a cook course. Bon appétit!

Filed under: Awards, In the cinemas, OSCAR BUZZ 2010, , , , , , ,

6 Responses

  1. Uncle Walt says:

    Hi!
    Just wanted to congratulate you on your finest post to date, a real tour de force.
    I think you’re absolutely right when stating that maybe Streep has not received an oscar for nearly three decades due to the fact that Academy members do not think that an actress of her status and career cares very much about receiving award or not, having achieved already so much recognition over time. I sincerely hope they are proven wrong next March, for Meryl’s and, more importantly, your sake :)

  2. John-Paul says:

    I think you are right, Streep can consistently turn out solid performances but rarely exceptional ones whereas someone like Swank is the very opposite. Shirley MacClaine was hysterical in Terms of Endearment- a truly terrible performance!!!! You really didnt like Kate Winslet in The Reader did you!!! It was a good performance….. You have to mention that Saoirse Ronan is Irish and what about 15 and will have back to back Oscar nominations for sure- has anyone so young done this before?

  3. John-Paul says:

    Also, do you know Roger Ebert’s website of all his film reviews for the Chicago Sun Times? Its great I can spend ages reading it, I am sure you know it…

  4. Take note of Roger Ebert’s website, didn’t know it.
    It’s true, i forgot to say that Saoirse Ronan is Irish. I read somewhere that she had to work hard to get rid of her accent for Atonement. She was among the best in that movie. The “first act”, where she plays, is by far the best, together with the short epilogue with Vanessa Redgrave. The second part was maybe too slo-mo.
    I’ve only seen a trailer of The Lovely Bones and it didn’t look impressive at all, but I might be wrong. In any case, Ronan is out of the Golden Globes nominations, even with the comedy/drama split, so I’m afraid she won’t be nominated. She seems in good track for a fine career, though.

  5. I forgot that. The youngest actress ever to be nominated in the leading category was Keisha Castle-Hughes for Whale Rider. She was 13, I think.
    It’s funny because the production company campaigned for a supporting nomination thinking that it would be easier to get, but the voters put her in the leading one. I think she lost against Charlize Theron, but I haven’t checked it, so I’m not sure.

  6. John-Paul says:

    Yes, I noticed The Lovely Bones was completely ignored; was it released in time to qualify for the GG? Sandra Bullock has two best actress nominations….I think the whole thing of making the awards shows more populist is beginning to take shape!

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