20 Years of Streep: 2011 ("The Iron Lady")

In 1979, while Meryl Streep was kicking ass with an exemplary trio of motion pictures (Kramer vs. Kramer, Manhattan and The Seduction of Joe Tynan), a glass ceiling was shattered across the pond with the election of Margaret Thatcher to the position of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

The first woman to hold this office, Thatcher, leader of the country's Conservative Party, would go on to serve three terms as Prime Minister. Her polarizing tenure was marked by the deregulation of the nation's financial sector; reduction in the power and influence of unions; and victory in the Falklands War, waged in 1982 (the year of Sophie's Choice!) between the United Kingdom and Argentina. With Thatcherism fatigue setting in by the decade's end, Thatcher resigned from her post in 1990.

Over the span of the Thatcher administration, Streep racked up seven of her Oscar nominations, including two wins. Odds are, not in her wildest dreams could she have imagined what role would land the actress her 17th career Oscar nod and that elusive third victory...

The 2011 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs

Close portrays Albert Nobbs, a timid butler in 19th century Ireland who hides a remarkable secret - he is in fact a she. Albert has long maintained a low profile but the entrance of Hubert (Oscar-nominee Janet McTeer), also a woman masquerading as a man, inspires her to open up. Hubert lives with a partner who is supportive of her lifestyle and Albert believes, with devastating consequences, that co-worker Helen (Mia Wasikowska) may be able to provide the same comfort. This performance marked Close's sixth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Viola Davis, The Help

Davis portrays Aibileen Clark, a hardworking, worn-out African-American housekeeper in 1960s Mississippi. Aibileen is approached by society girl and aspiring author Skeeter (Emma Stone), who wishes to profile the black women who have dedicated their lives to serving white southern families. At first reluctant to participate, Aibileen, who for years has put up with her employers' shit, eventually relents and also inspires other maids to share their stories. This performance, which won her a Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Davis' second Oscar nomination.

Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Mara portrays Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant but scarred computer hacker, the survivor of extreme emotional and sexual abuse. Salander aides disgraced journalist Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) in investigating the disappearance of business magnate Vanger (Christopher Plummer)'s niece, lost for four decades. Salander and Blomkvist grow close as they uncover a series of corruption, abuse and murder that leaves the duo stunned. This performance marked Mara's first Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Streep portrays Margaret Thatcher who, battling dementia in her final years, reflects on her storied life, from a middle-class upbringing, working in her father's grocery store, through her lengthy and controversial tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. This performance, which won her honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, a BAFTA Award and a Golden Globe, marked Streep's 17th Oscar nomination and third victory.

Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Williams portrays Marilyn Monroe who, over the summer of 1956, films The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Sir Laurence Olivier (Oscar-nominee Kenneth Branagh) in England. Exhausted by work, Monroe, though married at this time to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), takes up production assistant Colin (Eddie Redmayne)'s offer to spend a relaxing week in the quaint British countryside. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Williams' third Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin; Charlize Theron, Young Adult; Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids

Won: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Should've won: Viola Davis, The Help

Look, I get it. After a dozen consecutive losses, there was a plenty palpable sense of Streep being way due for Oscar #3. If only the Academy could've gotten the job done two years prior, or the year before that, instead of awarding her on one of her worst nominations. For my money, giving Streep an Oscar for The Iron Lady is not much worse than providing her the win for Music of the Heart.

Not that Streep's impersonation of Lady Thatcher isn't a spot-on one - per usual, she nails the dialect and looks the part to boot - but, unusual for her, she never really convinces in the role. The entire time, it feels like Streep is playing mere dress-up and it hardly helps that the rest of the picture, directed by Mamma Mia!'s Phyllida Lloyd, is a flat-out catastrophe.

The Iron Lady is so tedious and haphazardly structured, it nearly brings down Streep's performance with it. On occasion, she is able to transcend the proceedings but is never quite strong enough to lift the film into something truly compelling. Besides Lloyd, credit screenwriter Abi Morgan for somehow crafting a screenplay on Margaret Thatcher that is never the least bit engrossing or enlightening. If you're interested in learning about Thatcher's life and career, and not just aiming to watch every single nominated Streep performance, check out BBC's four-part documentary series instead.

No offense to Streep but beyond her winning performance, this is actually a pretty fantastic category.

Like Streep, Williams graces a picture that is quite a bit inferior to her performance. Unlike The Iron Lady, however, My Week with Marilyn is at least a watchable piece of cinema.

There's really only one problem with Marilyn but it's a big one and, if not for the rest of the talent gracing the screen, could've been a fatal flaw. Redmayne, marvelous as he is in his Oscar-winning The Theory of Everything turn, is stunningly boring here - and just as much, if not more of a lead than Williams. Thankfully, he's surrounded by a game and entertaining cast, including Branagh, Julia Ormond and Judi Dench, all having a blast portraying a host of acting legends. The film looks fabulous too.

As for Williams, she makes for a completely credible Monroe and, in a way, acting opposite the nothingness that is Redmayne makes her performance all the more stand out. It's a sensitive portrayal that beautifully captures the star's yearnings and vulnerabilities and Williams has a screen presence just bright enough to compete with Monroe's. This isn't exactly a Frances-level Oscar vehicle but Williams is still a pleasure to spend an hour and a half with, even if her leading man has the allure of an extra on The Walking Dead.

Headlining the only great picture among the five nominees is the chameleon-like Mara, dead-on believable in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Like Marilyn, this is a film that just wouldn't have worked without a successful casting of its leading lady. Mara proves a perfect fit for Salander - it's gritty, absorbing and ultimately heartbreaking performance, nicely matched by Craig, in one of his more underrated turns. I think the picture itself is at least half an hour too long and the real MVP is Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography but still, it's fabulous, gripping work by Mara that never strikes a false note. (Also, for what it's worth, I do think Mara should've prevailed for Carol.)

Albert Nobbs is fascinating to me. I know many are not so keen on the film, nor Close's performance for that matter. There are stretches in the picture that are downright lethargic and there is something aloof-feeling about it all but Close's work still grabs me in a significant way (and McTeer is stunning too). It's an assured, lived-in portrayal of one awfully tricky character that, even if the film itself is plagued with problems, very much lingers with me.

Close's Albert Nobbs has the resemblance of a mannequin, lifeless, devoid of emotion, and her temperament is stilted and awkward. I can see why this performance doesn't grab everyone, and in fact leaves many feeling entirely disconnected, but I for one see immense nuance in the work Close is doing here.

Through the most subtle of expressions, Close paints a truly tortured and tragic figure, desperate to at last let her guard down and find emotional fulfillment to go along with professional success. This is in ingenious performance, by one of the most brilliant actresses to ever grace the silver screen, that sure could have used a better film.

Much as I love Close, I'm still mad Davis didn't prevail here.

The Help is hardly a perfect film - it's for sure among the safest, most sanitized portrayals of the 1960s civil rights movement captured in a motion picture. Of the five films here, I would rank it just above The Iron Lady, which is a terrible piece of cinema. That said, director Tate Taylor luckily has one hell of an acting ensemble to lean on, and boy do they deliver the goods, even if their filmmaker is a hack. Beyond Davis, you have Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek, among others, turning in fabulous work.

That said, Davis is the heart and soul of The Help. It's a heartrending, unforgettable leading turn from an actress who's proven she can steal entire films with just ten minutes of screen time. On paper, the "you is smart, you is kind, you is important" line reads as more banal than anything but Davis manages to deliver it (multiple times) in a way that is downright devastating.

Davis is marvelous in all of her endeavors, even briefly managing to make Suicide Squad tolerable, but I'm not sure she'll ever be in finer form than she is here. It's among the best performances of the past decade.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jessica Lange, Frances
  2. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
  3. Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
  4. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
  5. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
  6. Meryl Streep, Silkwood
  7. Jane Alexander, Testament
  8. Sally Kirkland, Anna
  9. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  10. Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
  11. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
  12. Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
  13. Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist
  14. Cher, Moonstruck
  15. Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
  16. Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
  17. Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
  18. Kathy Bates, Misery
  19. Anjelica Huston, The Grifters
  20. Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair
  21. Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
  22. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
  23. Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie
  24. Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
  25. Sharon Stone, Casino
  26. Melissa Leo, Frozen River
  27. Viola Davis, The Help
  28. Diane Keaton, Reds
  29. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  30. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  31. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  32. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
  33. Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
  34. Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
  35. Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
  36. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  37. Helen Mirren, The Queen
  38. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  39. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
  40. Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
  41. Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
  42. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
  43. Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  44. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  45. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  46. Meryl Streep, Adaptation
  47. Penelope Cruz, Volver
  48. Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
  49. Meryl Streep, Doubt
  50. Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
  51. Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
  52. Meryl Streep, One True Thing
  53. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  54. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  55. Helen Mirren, The Last Station
  56. Annette Bening, American Beauty
  57. Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
  58. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  59. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  60. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  61. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  62. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  63. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
  64. Julianne Moore, The Hours
  65. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  66. Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
  67. Angelina Jolie, Changeling
  68. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
  69. Kate Winslet, Little Children
  70. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  71. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  72. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  73. Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
  74. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  75. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  76. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  77. Carey Mulligan, An Education
  78. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
  79. Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
  80. Kate Winslet, The Reader
  81. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  82. Queen Latifah, Chicago
  83. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  84. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
  85. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love

 

20 Years of Streep: 2009 ("Julie & Julia")

In 1977, the year Meryl Streep made her feature film debut in Julia, Nora Ephron was working full-time as a columnist for Esquire, penning memorable pieces on the likes of controversial Boston University President John Silber and the series finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

By the time, six years later, Ephron made her own big screen debut as screenwriter of the Streep-headlined Silkwood, Streep had two Oscar victories under her belt. The success of Silkwood in 1983 set expectations supremely high for their collaboration on 1986's Heartburn, based on the acclaimed Ephron semi-autobiographical novel - anticipation that would make that picture's ultimate lukewarm response all the more disappointing.

Not that Heartburn proved catastrophic for Ephron or Streep, of course. Ephron's grand success on the screenplay of romcom mega hit When Harry Met Sally...(Oscar nomination #2) in 1989 largely eclipsed the underwhelming reception to her other efforts (Cookie, My Blue Heaven and directorial debut This Is My Life) at the turn of the decade and 1993's Sleepless in Seattle (Oscar nod #3) proved even more a smash than the Billy Crystal-Meg Ryan film.

From there, Ephron's track record was hit-or-miss. She directed a couple of box office hits (1996's Michael and 1998's You've Got Mail) but neither attained the critical acclaim of When Harry Met Sally... More pronounced were the flops - 1994's Mixed Nuts, 2000's Lucky Numbers and 2005's Bewitched. Her 2006 book I Feel Bad About My Neck, a #1 New York Times best-seller, served as a reminder of Ephron's brilliance and it was inevitable, despite the recent tanking of Bewitched, that she'd have scant problem landing another project.

That project, sadly her final one before her death in 2012, would reunite her with none other than the actress who graced Ephron's first feature film.

The 2009 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

Bullock portrays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a headstrong interior designer who, to the bewilderment of some in her white, southern, Christian conservative community, takes in Michael Oher (Quentin Aaron) a homeless African-American teen who has been in and out of foster care. When Michael expresses an interest in football, Leigh Anne is determined to ensure his abilities are put to use. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Bullock's first Oscar nomination and win.

Helen Mirren, The Last Station

Mirren portrays Sofya Andreyevna, wife of beloved Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (Oscar-nominee Christopher Plummer). While still very much in love, Sofya and Leo spar over who will control the Tolstoy works after his death - she would like the copyrights bestowed upon her, while he prefers they be placed into the public domain. This performance marked Mirren's fourth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Carey Mulligan, An Education

Mulligan portrays Jenny Mellor, a bright and beautiful teenager, prepping for admission into Oxford University. Jenny crosses paths with David (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy playboy, twice her age, who pursues Jenny romantically and even wins over her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). Complications arise when Jenny discovers David makes his living as a con artist but she continues to indulge in this new lavish lifestyle, until another revelation proves too much to swallow. This performance, which won Mulligan honors from the National Board of Review and a BAFTA Award, marked Mulligan's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

Sidibe portrays Claireece "Precious" Jones, an overweight, illiterate teenager, incessantly subjected to physical and verbal abuse by loose cannon mother Mary (Oscar-winner Mo'Nique). Impregnated by her father for the second time, Precious at last sees light on the horizon when she is offered the chance to transfer to an alternative school. There, she encounters the kind Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who is determined to provide Precious the chance to start anew. This performance marked Sidibe's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Streep portrays Julia Child, the beloved chef who, in the early years of her culinary career, attends Le Cordon Blue to learn French cooking and co-writes Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a book tailored to American housewives. This performance, which won her honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and a Golden Globe, marked Streep's 16th Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Penelope Cruz, Broken Embraces; Alison Lohman, Drag Me to Hell; Catalina Saavedra, The Maid; Meryl Streep, It's Complicated

Won: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

Should've won: Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

2009, year of the underwhelming Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker barn burner, proved an even more modest affair in Best Lead Actress than the year prior. This is also one of those occasions in which the Academy got the performer right but not the performance.

Cruz, for instance, can't lift the dreck that is Nine (for which she garnered an Oscar nod in supporting) but would have been a richly deserving honoree here for Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces. Likewise, I find Streep so much more loose and fun in It's Complicated than Julie & Julia, the latter of which is only half a watchable film, and even the decent half (Streep's) isn't all that super. And imagine if the Academy had the shrewdness to recognize Saavedra! I can dream.

Alas, on Oscar nominations morning, with the flabbergasting Best Picture nod for The Blind Side, the cake was baked for the big night.

As is the case with Kate Winslet and The Reader, here is an actress (Bullock) I have great affection for and, with the right role and film, would be delighted to see with an Oscar. The Blind Side's Leigh Anne Tuohy is decidedly not that role. The film may not be gag-inducing like The Reader but is precisely the sort of bland, cookie cutter cinema that has been so prevalent among sports films in recent years. If only The Blind Side had the ambition and patience of say, the Friday Night Lights television series, this could have been a real winner. 

Ultimately, though, it's pretty lackluster stuff and not even my favorite actress (Kathy Bates) can juice anything out of the proceedings. Bullock's performance may not be a bad one but it's very much a going-through-the-motions turn, in search of a better director/screenplay. If only the Academy waited a few years, she could have been recognized for a far more watchable effort.

I suspect I may be the recipient of a fair amount of shit for my thoughts on Mulligan, in a performance I know many feel great affection for but I for one find negligibly more compelling than Bullock's.

I'm a sucker for a good coming-of-age story but An Education, despite a look that aces 1960s London and a fabulous supporting turn by Molina (who surely deserved an Oscar nod), leaves me rather cold. Though it's not a total misfire of a performance, blame's got to go to Mulligan, an actress I, more often than not, find exceedingly stiff, the one exception being Never Let Me Go. She nicely captures the vulnerability and dizzying feeling of a young woman swept off her feet by a much older man but there's a curious aloofness to her acting that I can't get over. It was far more pronounced in, for instance, The Great Gatsby, but even here, she doesn't much resonate.

Much more satisfying, albeit not exactly in a Jessica Lange in Frances way, are the remaining three nominees. I consider this trio more or less interchangeable - in fact, Mirren, who I now rank third in the line-up, was my personal favorite back in the day.

With the exception of its two nominated performances, The Last Station is a very modest endeavor, from a filmmaker (Michael Hoffman) with a proven penchant for satisfactory cinema. I suspect Tolstoy's story would be much better told on the stage than the silver screen - the scenery-chewing here by Mirren and Plummer, while plenty entertaining, would surely be a better fit in a different medium. Still, their larger-than-life turns are pretty much the only reason to sit through the picture and it's a lot of fun watching these thespians ham it up. In hindsight, though, I have a tough time thinking of Mirren's turn as an Oscar-winning one. In a more anemic year, maybe.

Likewise, Streep is a blast to watch in Julie & Julia and, alongside the delightful Stanley Tucci, the sole reason to check out her film. Not that the Ephron film is on the level of Bewitched but the Amy Adams half of the picture is stunningly inferior to the Streep half, so much so you leave dumbfounded that Ephron didn't scrap all of the tedious Adams stuff and just go all-in on Streep.

Streep's turn lacks the depth of her best work (the writing, I'm afraid, is sitcom-level) and isn't even among her strongest comic performances but it's still a pleasure spending time with one of our finest actresses, doing a dead-on Julia Child impression. Her chemistry with Tucci (and Jane Lynch, in a small but splendid role as Child's sister) is splendid and it's hard not to be won over by her charms, even if the material is light as a feather. Streep is able to make her film worthwhile in a way that Bullock and Winslet aren't.

Right now, however, I'm partial to Sidibe, another actress who shines in a problematic picture.

I'm not terribly fond of Precious, or Mo'Nique's impassioned but overwhelmingly histrionic performance. Like all Lee Daniels cinema, it's a film in dire need of a shot of subtlety. All too often, the proceedings veer on the bombastic, which is unfortunate because there are two truly great turns in it - Sidibe and the radiant Patton, who'd I much rather have seen garner that Supporting Actress nomination.

Sidibe, somehow in her screen debut, is devastating in the title role, portraying a damaged young woman who has entirely shut herself down from her surroundings. You can feel the pain that for years as suffocated Precious and you feel that same stirring sense of hope when she's able to last begin escaping this horrific life. If only Precious were a stronger, less on-the-nose film, Sidibe's performance perhaps could have shined even brighter.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jessica Lange, Frances
  2. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
  3. Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
  4. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
  5. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
  6. Meryl Streep, Silkwood
  7. Jane Alexander, Testament
  8. Sally Kirkland, Anna
  9. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  10. Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
  11. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
  12. Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
  13. Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist
  14. Cher, Moonstruck
  15. Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
  16. Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
  17. Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
  18. Kathy Bates, Misery
  19. Anjelica Huston, The Grifters
  20. Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair
  21. Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
  22. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
  23. Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie
  24. Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
  25. Sharon Stone, Casino
  26. Melissa Leo, Frozen River
  27. Diane Keaton, Reds
  28. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  29. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  30. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  31. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
  32. Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
  33. Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
  34. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  35. Helen Mirren, The Queen
  36. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  37. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
  38. Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
  39. Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
  40. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
  41. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  42. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  43. Meryl Streep, Adaptation
  44. Penelope Cruz, Volver
  45. Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
  46. Meryl Streep, Doubt
  47. Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
  48. Meryl Streep, One True Thing
  49. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  50. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  51. Helen Mirren, The Last Station
  52. Annette Bening, American Beauty
  53. Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
  54. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  55. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  56. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  57. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  58. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  59. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
  60. Julianne Moore, The Hours
  61. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  62. Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
  63. Angelina Jolie, Changeling
  64. Kate Winslet, Little Children
  65. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  66. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  67. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  68. Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
  69. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  70. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  71. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  72. Carey Mulligan, An Education
  73. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
  74. Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
  75. Kate Winslet, The Reader
  76. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  77. Queen Latifah, Chicago
  78. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  79. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
  80. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love

20 Years of Streep: 2008 ("Doubt")

On the heels of the spectacular box office success of The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep was more a household name than ever. Even teens and twentysomethings who weren't terribly familiar with Streep's body of work prior to Prada could now instantly identify the actress who made Miranda Priestly a big screen icon. She quickly hopped aboard three projects for 2007, all of which screamed 'Oscar bait' on paper and unfortunately, all of which tanked upon release.

First, there was Evening, a supremely sleepy drama which, despite the presence of heavyweights including Streep, Glenn Close, Claire Danes and Vanessa Redgrave, failed to leave much of an impression at all. Faring even worse was CIA thriller Rendition, with Streep in a Manchurian Candidate-like villainous supporting role, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon (stunningly, this was Witherspoon's follow-up to Walk the Line). The film was laughed off the screen by critics and ignored by audiences, spending a single week in the box office top 10.

Streep's final 2007 release, the war drama Lions for Lambs, was met with a collective shrug when it hit theaters in November. This, despite the picture marking Streep's long-awaited reunion with Out of Africa leading man Robert Redford and also Redford's first directorial effort in nearly a decade. Streep, no surprise, did not surface for any of these pictures on Oscar nominations morning.

The following year, thankfully, would prove a whole lot brighter.

While even the most ardent Streep aficionados may be prone to poking fun at ABBA movie musical Mamma Mia!, the Summer 2008 release was an unimpeachable box office smash, eclipsing even the success of The Devil Wears Prada. Once again, Streep was riding sky-high on the A-list. It was her next release, however, that would win back the affection of critics, who weren't exactly keen on the ABBA flick and definitely not enamored with her efforts the year prior.

Back in 1987, while Streep was losing on Oscar night for Ironweed, screenwriter John Patrick Shanley's Moonstruck fared splendidly with the Academy, picking up three Oscars, including one for Shanley's exquisite script. Fast-forward two decades and Shanley was ready to hit the big screen with his first directorial effort since 1990's Joe Versus the Volcano. The project? A film adaptation of his play Doubt, which proved the toast of the Tony Awards three years prior. 

Headlining Doubt would be none other than a star who Moonstruck's Cher defeated back at the '87 Oscars. And no, I'm not referring to Sally Kirkland.

The 2008 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Hathaway portrays Kym Buchman, a recovering addict temporarily released from rehab so she can attend sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt)'s wedding. Kym's presence proves challenging for family and friends, as Rachel frowns upon father Paul (Bill Irwin)'s pampering of Kym; Kym resents Rachel for selecting a friend instead of her own sister to be maid of honor; and self-centered mother Abby (Debra Winger) spurs tension with both of her daughters. This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors from the National Board of Review, marked Hathaway's first Oscar nomination.

Angelina Jolie, Changeling

Jolie portrays Christine Collins, a single mom who, in 1920s Los Angeles, arrives home to find son Walter missing. Months later, amidst Christine's grueling search, "Walter" is suddenly found in Illinois. Problem is, it's not really her son. This inspires Christine to challenge the L.A. police force, a move that leads to authorities slandering her as an unfit mother. This performance marked Jolie's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Leo portrays Ray Eddy, a working-class upstate New York mom in desperate need of money after her husband abandons the family. Ray meets Lila (Misty Upham), a widowed woman who resides on a reservation at the U.S.-Canadian border and earns a living smuggling immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River. Before long, Ray is joining Lila on these dangerous trafficking missions. This performance marked Leo's first Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, Doubt

Streep portrays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the ironclad, domineering principal at the St. Nicholas School in the Bronx, circa-1964. When fellow nun Sister James (Oscar-nominee Amy Adams) reveals her concerns about the unusual amount of time Father Flynn (Oscar-nominee Philip Seymour Hoffman) is spending alone with a new student, Sister Aloysius makes it her mission to bring down the priest, even though she hasn't a shred of evidence to prove any wrongdoing. This performance, which won her a Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Streep's 15th Oscar nomination.

Kate Winslet, The Reader

Winslet portrays Hanna Schmitz, a mysterious woman who enters into a covert affair with teenager Michael (David Cross) in postwar Germany. The two establish a deep bond as Michael reads one classic book after another to her. Then, suddenly, she disappears. Nearly a decade later, Michael at last comes across Hanna again, under the most unlikely and tragic of circumstances. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award and BAFTA Award, marked Winslet's sixth Oscar nomination and first win.

Overlooked: Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Penelope Cruz, Elegy; Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky; Frances McDormand, Burn After Reading; Kristin Scott-Thomas, I've Loved You So Long; Emma Thompson, Last Chance Harvey; Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy

Won: Kate Winslet, The Reader

Should've won: Melissa Leo, Frozen River

After the ghost town that was Best Lead Actress in 2006, 2008 offered up a far more fruitful field of fantastic leading ladies. This is one of those years where you could throw all five Oscar nominees overboard - not that you'd want to, given a few of the incredible turns recognized - and bring aboard a fivesome of non-nominees just as terrific.

It's too bad Blanchett, so exquisite and underappreciated here, couldn't ride Benjamin Button's coattails to a nomination. Likewise, Cruz and Scott-Thomas do some career-best work in Elegy and I've Loved You So Long, respectively. If only more than a mere handful of moviegoers had bothered to check out those two pictures. Hall, Hawkins and McDormand? All in fabulous form this year too.

In hindsight, this field is a bit more robust than I recall it being, which frankly makes the Winslet victory all the more exasperating.

I consider Winslet a very fine actress and in fact flirt with giving her the win, not here but in 2001, for her nominated turn in Iris. Much as I admire her, however, I'm not always so enamored with her films and this was especially the case during the 2000s, when Winslet was prone to attaching herself to the stinkiest of Oscar bait - the likes of The Life of David Gale, All the King's Men, Revolutionary Road and yes, The Reader, one of the worst films to ever grace Best Picture at the Oscars.

As is the case with The Reader, Winslet does not give a bad performance in even the least successful of Oscar bait but she's also not strong enough to lift the film in a consequential way.

The Reader is a truly horrendous motion picture, so bombastic and overbaked it almost plays like a parody of awards-hungry cinema. Director Stephen Daldry has had the advantage of being able to lean heavily on his actors before (i.e. The Hours) but here, Winslet, Cross and Ralph Fiennes are essentially just going through the motions, interjecting little life into the drab proceedings. Winslet fares best in the picture's early-going, when it's at its most tolerable, but even then she's not all that compelling.

Also stuck in a lackluster film, albeit one much more watchable than the Daldry picture, is Jolie.

Clint Eastwood is no stranger to delivering a masterful motion picture as a director (go back and see my salivating thoughts on The Bridges of Madison County in 1995) but, after the grand success of Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima in the mid-2000s, Eastwood's track record took a spotty turn toward the close of the decade. Gran Torino aside, Changeling, Invictus, Hereafter and J. Edgar all lost money and failed to generate much enthusiasm from critics or audiences.

Specifically problematic about Changeling and J. Edgar are their restless running times; thin screenplays; and an overstylized look and feel. I would toss the likes of Brian de Palma's The Black Dahlia and Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, both of which also sank on the silver screen around this time, into this batch of failed Oscar-wannabes.

Unlike Winslet in her picture, Jolie does transcend the mediocrity of Changeling, at least to some extent, as does co-star John Malkovich. It's a capable, sufficiently convincing portrayal that probably could have really shined if the focus were not so heavily on nailing the production design. She does not strike a false note as a prohibition-era woman, even if the film itself comes off so phony and manufactured. Still, for those who haven't seen the film, it's not a remarkable-enough performance to really make Changeling worth a look.

Beyond The Reader and Changeling, this line-up (whew) sports a whole lot more to like.

In mulling over Streep's turn in Doubt, I can't help but contrast it with the other two nun portrayals I've reviewed thus far - Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking and Anne Bancroft in Agnes of God. Streep, I think, falls smack-dab in the middle. It's a portrayal that lacks the alluring nuance of Sarandon's Oscar-winning work (also, Doubt is no Dead Man Walking) but is still plenty engrossing and not overwrought like Bancroft's turn (and yes, Doubt is much more preferable to Agnes of God).

I have not seen a stage production of Doubt, so I cannot compare the picture to its inspiration. What I will say, however, is while I don't find Shanley an especially compelling filmmaker, he does set the stage here for his performers to completely tear it up on the screen and, thankfully, all of the actors are game.

Sans at the film's conclusion, Streep is a little one-note here but, given the material, it's hard to fathom how one could play it otherwise (perhaps Cherry Jones managed to find more layers on Broadway). Also, I love love LOVE her extended scene with Davis (who should've won that Oscar over Penelope Cruz), even though it completely belongs to her co-star. While for sure not among her best work, I'm cool with the Doubt nod and, as will be noted below, would rank it close to the middle of her Oscar nominations.

Streep's Devil Wears Prada co-star leaves more of an impression here.

Rachel Getting Married is not, I don't think, quite top-tier Jonathan Demme. The acting is all-around astounding (a shame Irwin, Winger and especially DeWitt never much caught fire that awards season) and so much of the dialogue rings painfully true but I haven't seen wedding scenes go on and on and on and on like this since The Deer Hunter. With a little editing and tightening, I could absolutely see ranking Rachel alongside the likes of Something Wild and Married to the Mob, though still a bit below his best, The Silence of the Lambs and Beloved.

Hathaway's Kym is for sure her most compelling turn to date which, to be fair, doesn't say a ton, given so much of her filmography has been fluff.

It's a vivid and absorbing portrayal of an addict (not unlike prior nominee Marsha Mason in Only When I Laugh, though lacking some of the gravitas of that tour-de-force performance) and Demme's documentary-like vision makes her performance feel all the more real. Two scenes I'm especially taken with - Rachel confronting Kym about lies she told during rehab and Rachel later taking Kym in and comforting her sister after a disastrous encounter with their mother. It strikes me as nuts Hathaway could be nominated without DeWitt too but hey, one Oscar nod is better than none.

Much as I admire Hathaway and get a kick out of Streep too, Leo pretty handily takes the cake for me this year.

The first Leo performance I ever saw was her Oscar-winning one in The Fighter, which I adored then and still find supremely entertaining. It wasn't until after her victory that I caught up on Frozen River and thank heavens I finally did. It's a transfixing, devastating turn, absolutely among the most gripping efforts recognized in Best Lead Actress over the 2000s.

Both Leo and co-star Upham (who, at age 32, died tragically in 2014) brilliantly capture the desperation of this unlikely duo, and kudos to Charlie McDermott and Michael O'Keefe too for memorable, understated supporting turns. The toast of Sundance in 2008, we should all be grateful to film festivals for catapulting pictures like Frozen River and performances like Leo's to Oscar glory.

Unlike The Reader and Changeling, so over-the-top-obvious in their craving for awards season attention, Frozen River is an unassuming film that soars on the quiet strengths of its actors and screenwriter. Bravo to this small but superb picture.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jessica Lange, Frances
  2. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
  3. Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
  4. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
  5. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
  6. Meryl Streep, Silkwood
  7. Jane Alexander, Testament
  8. Sally Kirkland, Anna
  9. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  10. Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
  11. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
  12. Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
  13. Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist
  14. Cher, Moonstruck
  15. Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
  16. Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
  17. Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
  18. Kathy Bates, Misery
  19. Anjelica Huston, The Grifters
  20. Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair
  21. Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
  22. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
  23. Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie
  24. Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
  25. Sharon Stone, Casino
  26. Melissa Leo, Frozen River
  27. Diane Keaton, Reds
  28. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  29. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  30. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  31. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
  32. Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
  33. Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
  34. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  35. Helen Mirren, The Queen
  36. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  37. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
  38. Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
  39. Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
  40. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
  41. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  42. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  43. Meryl Streep, Adaptation
  44. Penelope Cruz, Volver
  45. Meryl Streep, Doubt
  46. Meryl Streep, One True Thing
  47. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  48. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  49. Annette Bening, American Beauty
  50. Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
  51. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  52. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  53. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  54. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  55. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  56. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
  57. Julianne Moore, The Hours
  58. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  59. Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
  60. Angelina Jolie, Changeling
  61. Kate Winslet, Little Children
  62. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  63. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  64. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  65. Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
  66. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  67. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  68. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  69. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
  70. Kate Winslet, The Reader
  71. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  72. Queen Latifah, Chicago
  73. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  74. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
  75. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love

20 Years of Streep: 2006 ("The Devil Wears Prada")

The three years following Adaptation did not produce an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep - her longest drought since the early 1990s, post-Postcards from the Edge. That is not to say, of course, that these years were without substantial Streep contributions to the big and small screens and stage.

Sans a brief cameo portraying herself in the Matt Damon-Greg Kinnear conjoined twins comedy Stuck on You, Streep did not grace the silver screen in 2003. She did, however, hit the television circuit in a big way with her reunion alongside filmmaker Mike Nichols on the HBO production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America.

At last starring opposite Al Pacino, Streep portrayed three roles in the miniseries, perhaps most memorably the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who visits the controversial and closeted Roy Cohn (Pacino) as he succumbs to AIDS on his deathbed. Angels brought Streep back to the Emmys where, 26 years since her victory for Holocaust, she scored her second prize in Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie.

In 2004, Streep returned to cinemas with the juicy role of Senator Eleanor Shaw in Jonathan Demme's retooling of The Manchurian Candidate. The part having won Angela Lansbury a nomination back in 1962, Streep was promptly placed on Oscar prediction shortlists for Best Supporting Actress. A summer release, the film was met with a modest reception from both critics and audiences. After a month in theaters, The Manchurian Candidate fell out of the box office top 10 and Streep did not land that anticipated 14th Oscar nomination. A colorful supporting turn in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, released that December, also left negligible impact.

The following year saw Streep headlining just one motion picture - the romcom Prime, opposite Uma Thurman. Released over Halloween weekend vs. Saw II, Prime garnered a lukewarm critical reception and was largely ignored by moviegoers. There was plenty, thankfully, on the horizon for Streep fans to look forward to the following year.

Summer 2006 proved a fruitful season for Streep as she returned to the stage for a four-week run, alongside Sophie's Choice co-star Kevin Kline, in the New York revival of Mother Courage and Her Children. Then, there was the cinema.

That June, Streep graced the big screen in two motion pictures with plenty of Oscar potential. First, there was A Prairie Home Companion, a project which finally saw Streep working under the direction of the legendary Robert Altman (and alongside Lily Tomlin!). The film, while hardly a box office smash, was warmly received by critics and Altman devotees. It would ultimately prove the filmmaker's swan song, as Altman died that November.

While the subject of fine notices, A Prairie Home Companion's success would look awfully modest in contrast to that of Streep's second June 2006 release. The film adaptation of the much-adored best-seller The Devil Wears Prada was about to introduce Streep to a generation not raised on the likes of Kramer vs. Kramer and Out of Africa and deliver her most robust box office hit to date.

The 2006 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Penelope Cruz, Volver

Cruz portrays Raimunda, a working class wife and mother who, on the heels of a gory family tragedy, is comforted by the ghost of late mom Irene (the marvelous Carmen Maura), who died years back in house fire that also claimed the life of her father. This performance, which won her the Best Actress prize at Cannes (shared with the entire female cast), marked Cruz's first Oscar nomination.

Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal

Dench portrays Barbara Covett, a veteran London high school teacher whose bitterness and loneliness is alleviated with the entrance of Sheba Hart (Oscar-nominee Cate Blanchett), the school's young, pretty and popular new art teacher. The two become friends but when Barbara catches Sheba hooking up with a teenage student, Barbara becomes keeper to a potentially career-ending secret. This performance marked Dench's sixth Oscar nomination.

Helen Mirren, The Queen

Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth II who, following the death of Princess Diana in an auto accident, finds herself torn between the sentiment of the monarchy and that of newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) on a proper response to the tragedy. The public, devastated over Diana's passing, grows restless with the Queen's wariness to openly share in the mourning. This performance, which won her nearly every single precursor, including a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award and BAFTA Award, marked Mirren's third Oscar nomination and first win.

Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada

Streep portrays Miranda Priestly, ruthless editor of the Runway fashion magazine. Newly placed under her wing is Andy (Anne Hathaway), a recent college graduate with dreams of someday becoming a journalist and more than a little skepticism that she'll be able to endure Miranda's exorbitant demands for the long run. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe and Best Supporting Actress honors from the National Society of Film Critics (also for her work in A Prairie Home Companion), marked Streep's 14th Oscar nomination.

Kate Winslet, Little Children

Winslet portrays Sarah Pierce, a highly educated woman without much satisfaction to speak of in her roles as housewife and mother. She meets Brad (Patrick Wilson), a fellow stay-at-home parent in an impassive marriage and it isn't long before the two get intimate while their respective spouses are away at work. This performance marked Winslet's fifth Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Annette Bening, Running with Scissors; Shareeka Epps, Half Nelson

Won and should've won: Helen Mirren, The Queen

After the plethora of marvelous Best Supporting Actress contenders in 2002 (none of who were ultimately nominated), Best Lead Actress in 2006 can't help but look a little vacant. The Academy's selections are a respectable fivesome but beyond them, only Epps' startling turn in Half Nelson stands out as an egregious snub. And no, I am not forgetting Beyoncé in Dreamgirls. Catherine O'Hara in For Your Consideration? A memorable performance in a not-so-memorable film but I lean toward a Supporting placement on that one.

Toward the end of the decade, Winslet headlined two anti-suburbia pictures, both insufferable, albeit somewhat salvaged by a great supporting male performance. Of course, I'm referring to Todd Field's Little Children (and Oscar-nominee Jackie Earle Haley, who should've won) and then-hubby Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road (and Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon).

Both Field and Mendes have aced family dramas before, with In the Bedroom and American Beauty, respectively, but I find these two later films awfully tough to endure. Comparative to their prior pictures, the films feel overwrought and phony, the writing's not as sharp and the acting isn't extraordinary enough to make the proceedings worthwhile. These are projects that yearn to be the next The Ice Storm but, from my vantage point at least, miss the mark.

With that said, Winslet's not bad here. For a role I don't consider terribly well-written, she does a convincing job and I for sure prefer this turn over her Oscar-winning one in The Reader. She's not, however, strong enough to really lift the film in a measurable way and rescue it from its dreariness.

A performance that does interject substantial life into an otherwise-passable picture is Streep, whose Miranda Priestly has managed to emerge one of her most iconic roles to date.

The Devil Wears Prada is not exactly my cup of tea. No doubt a picture about Anna Wintour or, as is the case here, one centered on a character closely mirrored after the Vogue editor, should make for fascinating viewing but, with the likes of director David Frankel and screenwriter Alone Brosh McKenna at the helm, not many dividends are paid. It doesn't help that Wintour/Priestly is essentially a supporting player in the picture, the focus much more so on Hathaway's Andy, who's not the most exciting of protagonists.

When Streep does grace the screen, however, Devil can be a lot of fun (though never as pleasurable as the other Devil, She-Devil). Even when the material is thin, Streep is able to juice what she can out of the script and deliver some real zingers. She's also refreshingly restrained in a role that could have totally be utilized to chew scenery.

Volver marked the first time I was not only wowed by a Cruz performance but frankly, even the least bit impressed by one. By the mid-2000s, I'd merely been acquainted with her turns in garbage like Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Gothika and Vanilla Sky, so I had to question why this seemingly skill-free actress was landing these high-profile roles in the first place. Then, I saw Volver, followed by Elegy, and then I caught up on All About My Mother too. And I finally got it. If only Cruz could work on all of Pedro Almodovar's pictures!

First off, Cruz has never, ever looked more more radiant than she does in Volver. The camera is madly in love with her and even though the entire picture has a sumptuous, colorful, painting-like look, Cruz brightens up every single moment she's on the screen, like a ray of sunshine. It's a remarkable turn, though Carmen Maura, Yohana Cobo and Lola Duenas are just as terrific - it's unfair, I think, to single out just one performance, even if Cruz's screen presence is the most enchanting. This is one of Almodovar's very best films and I could see giving Cruz the win in a weaker year.

Earlier, I mentioned how much I appreciated the great subtlety Streep brought to the larger-than-life role of Miranda Priestly. Well, much as I admire the art of reigning oneself in, I can also get a real kick out of, when it's done right, hamming it up, and that's exactly what Dench brings to the table in Richard Eyre's deliriously titillating Notes on a Scandal.

While the picture is a bit more sophisticated than the likes of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Strait-Jacket, I do think Notes and the role of Barbara Covett fit rather nicely into that "hagsploitation"/"psycho-biddy" subgenre of thrillers. (It's not terribly hard to picture Bette Davis having a field day in this role.) Dench ravenously sinks her teeth into the role and manages to completely tower above Blanchett - no small feat, considering what a gangbusters actress the latter is.

I think, however, the Dench Oscar should have come nearly a decade prior, for Mrs. Brown. The Mirren victory was a deserved one.

While I wouldn't rank it among the all-time greats in this category, Mirren in The Queen might just be among the least affected performances I've seen grace the silver screen. She is Queen Elizabeth II, through and through, without a false note to her portrayal. It's not an especially extravagant vehicle, in the traditional 'one Oscar scene after another' sense, but Mirren is so persuasive and compelling that one leaves the picture convinced it's the definitive portrayal of the Queen.

Long live Helen Mirren!

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jessica Lange, Frances
  2. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
  3. Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
  4. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
  5. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
  6. Meryl Streep, Silkwood
  7. Jane Alexander, Testament
  8. Sally Kirkland, Anna
  9. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  10. Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
  11. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
  12. Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
  13. Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist
  14. Cher, Moonstruck
  15. Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
  16. Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
  17. Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
  18. Kathy Bates, Misery
  19. Anjelica Huston, The Grifters
  20. Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair
  21. Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
  22. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
  23. Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie
  24. Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
  25. Sharon Stone, Casino
  26. Diane Keaton, Reds
  27. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  28. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  29. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  30. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
  31. Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
  32. Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
  33. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  34. Helen Mirren, The Queen
  35. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  36. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
  37. Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
  38. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
  39. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  40. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  41. Meryl Streep, Adaptation
  42. Penelope Cruz, Volver
  43. Meryl Streep, One True Thing
  44. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  45. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  46. Annette Bening, American Beauty
  47. Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
  48. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  49. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  50. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  51. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  52. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  53. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
  54. Julianne Moore, The Hours
  55. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  56. Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
  57. Kate Winslet, Little Children
  58. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  59. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  60. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  61. Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
  62. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  63. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  64. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  65. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
  66. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  67. Queen Latifah, Chicago
  68. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  69. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
  70. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love

20 Years of Streep: 2002 ("Adaptation")

In 1998, journalist Susan Orlean authored The Orchid Thief, based on her investigation of oddball horticulturalist John Laroche who, hellbent on finding and cloning the rare ghost orchid for profit, was arrested in 1994 for allegedly poaching the endangered orchids at a state preserve in Florida. The book, an instant New York Times best seller, was hailed not only for its engrossing profile of Laroche but also the other many colorful characters the author came across along the way and Orlean's own introspection as she yearned for the same enthusiasm in life that these plant aficionados felt.

Not long after its release, filmmaker Jonathan Demme optioned The Orchid Thief and hired up-and-coming writer Charlie Kaufman to pen the screenplay. Kaufman's writing process on the project was, to put it mildly, a struggle, as the writer battled a wicked case of writer's block. Over time, Kaufman's work evolved from a straight adaptation of Orlean's piece (which he deemed impossible to credibly pull off) to a script about Kaufman's own exasperating journey to turn The Orchid Thief into something for the big screen. He even added in a fictional brother, Donald, to the proceedings.

Fearful his script might spell the end of his career, Kaufman turned in a draft anyway, to stunningly positive notices. By the time the screenplay adaptation, aptly titled Adaptation, was complete (after several additional drafts), Kaufman had catapulted himself onto the Hollywood map in a big way with his Oscar-nominated work on 1999's Being John Malkovich. While Demme had mulled directing Adaptation himself, he ultimately passed along the project to Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich.

The success of their first collaboration gave Jonze and Kaufman the license to hire big name actors for their follow-up feature. Among them would be none other than a certain 12-time Oscar nominee...

The 2002 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actress were...

Kathy Bates, About Schmidt

Bates portrays Roberta Hertzel, free-spirited mom of Randall (Dermot Mulroney) and future mother-in-law to Jeannie Schmidt (Hope Davis). On the heels of the big wedding day, Roberta welcomes Jeannie's estranged father Warren (Oscar-nominee Jack Nicholson) into her home. Warren has been aimlessly meandering through life since retirement and the death of wife Helen (June Squibb). The exuberant and mightily oversexed Roberta suspects a dip in her hot tub might just perk him up. This performance, which won her Best Supporting Actress honors from the National Board of Review, marked Bates' third (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Queen Latifah, Chicago

Latifah portrays Matron "Mama" Morton, keeper of the keys, countess of the clink, the mistress of Murderess' Row. Mama may be the epitome of corruption but she's also a nurturing and indomitable force at Cook County Jail. It isn't long before homicidal housewife Roxie Hart (Oscar-nominee Renee Zellweger) learns that as long as you're good to mama, she'll be good to you. This performance marked Latifah's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Julianne Moore, The Hours

Moore portrays Laura Brown, seemingly living the American Dream as a housewife and mother in post-World War II California but immensely unhappy beneath the surface. Despondent over the possibility that she may not be able to again conceive, Laura finds escape from her sorrowful existence through Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors (for both this and Far from Heaven) from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, marked Moore's third Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, Adaptation

Streep portrays Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief. Susan is pursued by eccentric screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Oscar-nominee Nicolas Cage), who is working on a big screen adaptation of her best-seller. Charlie and twin brother Donald (also Cage) follow Susan down to Florida, where she is meeting up with John Laroche (Chris Cooper, in a brilliant Oscar-winning turn), the central protagonist of her novel who is instilling some long overdue life into the bored writer. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Streep's 13th Oscar nomination.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago

Zeta-Jones portrays Velma Kelly, a vaudeville sensation who once performed alongside sister Veronica. That is, unless Velma caught Veronica sleeping with her husband and well, things got a little bloody. Velma emerges a commanding presence on Murderess' Row and lands virtuoso attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) but her public attention is threatened by the debut of fellow inmate Roxie Hart, who also hires Flynn and yearns to make a name for herself in the headlines. This performance, which won her a BAFTA Award and Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Zeta-Jones' first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and win.

Overlooked: Amy Adams, Catch Me if You Can; Brenda Blethyn, Lovely & Amazing; Patricia Clarkson, Far from Heaven; Toni Collette, The Hours; Raven Goodwin, Lovely & Amazing; Tea Leoni, Hollywood Ending; Debra Messing, Hollywood Ending; Emily Mortimer, Lovely & Amazing; Samantha Morton, Minority Report; Bebe Neuwirth, Tadpole; Lupe Ontiveros, Real Women Have Curves; Miranda Richardson, Spider; Susan Sarandon, Igby Goes Down; Do Thi Hai Yen, The Quiet American

Won: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago

Should've won: Meryl Streep, Adaptation

The first Oscar ceremony I ever watched was, at age eight, the 1998 telecast. I recall rooting for Gods and Monsters that evening, not because I'd actually seen the picture but on account of it involving Frankenstein in some way (by this point in life, I'd managed to see and been over-the-moon for nearly all of the old Universal monster movies).

It was not until 2002, however, that I began making Oscar predictions, and an effort to catch as many nominated films and performances as possible. My very first set of predictions were, in the top categories, Chicago, Rob Marshall, Daniel Day-Lewis, Renee Zellweger, Chris Cooper and Catherine Zeta-Jones - so, an even more powerful Chicago sweep than ultimately came to fruition. At the time, I was rooting for actors I for years had adored - Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates. I also thought it was pretty sweet seeing Queen Latifah garner an Oscar nomination, having been richly deserving in the past for both Set it Off and Living Out Loud.

In hindsight, though the 2002 ceremony holds a special place in my heart, it is decidedly not among my favorite years at the Oscars. While I admire much of The Hours and The Pianist, I'm not exactly head-over-heels for any of the Best Picture nominees. Far from Heaven, one of my favorite films of the decade, deserved so much more than the measly four nominations it garnered. Nicole Kidman? Meh.

Best Supporting Actress, I'm afraid, marks one of the reasons I'm not so hot on 2002. Though I consider myself a fan of all five performers - and a legit superfan of at least two - none of these turns would I classify among their finest hours. Frankly, with the possible exception of Streep, I'd be tempted to throw all of the nominees overboard and start from scratch.

There was no shortage of fabulous supporting female performances in 2002. The other turns just happened to grace far more obscure films, like Nicole Holofcener's criminally underappreciated Lovely & Amazing, which could have practically filled the entire category. Patricia Clarkson, Bebe Neuwirth and Lupe Ontiveros for sure deserved recognition and while it's not among Woody Allen's finest, both Tea Leoni and Debra Messing are dazzling in Hollywood Ending.

Instead, what we get here are five, on the whole, merely decent performances riding the coattails of their respective pictures.

Much as I got a kick out of Latifah's nomination back in the day, I would now concede it's a real stretch to label her work in Chicago as Oscar-caliber. Mama is a pretty limited, albeit scene-stealing role in the stage production and her presence is reduced even further in the film adaptation by eliminating one of her two musical numbers ("Class" was left on the cutting room floor and later showcased as a deleted scene). Latifah has a field day with "When You're Good to Mama" but then all but disappears from the picture. It's hardly a bad performance - she's both a fabulous actress and singer - but she simply isn't given a whole lot to do.

Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, has plenty of meat to chew on in Chicago, though Velma is also a bit less in attendance here vis a vis the stage, as Rob Marshall establishes Roxie as the de-facto leading lady of the motion picture. Zeta-Jones is a dazzling dancer and certainly looks the part but, much like the rest of the film, I find her portrayal curiously labored and affected. Her renditions of "All That Jazz" and "I Can't Do it Alone" are credible but I'm not a fan of Marshall's grandiloquent staging - the film so often rings false to me, looks and feels overstylized and lacks the sensual magic that has made the Broadway revival such a smash for decades.

I suspect, with the right direction, Zeta-Jones could have made for a dynamite Velma. Marshall, I'm afraid, was not that director.

Back in the day, I was pulling hard for Bates to score Oscar #2 here. This is an actress whose presence in a picture necessitates my seeing it, even if it's dreck on the level of The Waterboy or Failure to Launch. I love love LOVE Kathy Bates and would have totally given her prizes for both Misery and Primary Colors.

Bates is a riot in About Schmidt but I would now have to admit that it's a tad minuscule a part (and an effortless one) for me to quite support her for an Oscar win. About Schmidt is among my very favorite pictures from 2002 and surely deserved more than just nominations for Bates and Nicholson (where the hell was a screenwriting nod at least?!). The film especially catches fire when the two Oscar nominees share the screen, with Bates having a ball with the Alexander Payne-Jim Taylor dialogue. She doesn't have that much screen time, though, and Roberta, while blissfully raunchy, is hardly a role on the same level of an Annie Wilkes or Dolores Claiborne.

If I had to compare Bates with another Oscar-nominated performance, it'd probably be Joan Cusack in Working Girl. Hilarious work, outstanding film but...Oscar worthy? I have a soft spot for the recognition but it's a tough nod to defend when the likes of Clarkson and Ontiveros were stuck on the sidelines.

Another turn I admire but, given the strength of the non-nominees, likely would not have recognized is Moore, in her second-best performance from 2002 (the other of course being Far from Heaven, for which she deserved an Oscar, Pulitzer Prize and every other award that graces the planet), in The Hours.

Of the three generations of women depicted in The Hours, I actually find most compelling the modern day Streep scenes, followed by Moore's material and then the Kidman stuff dead last. (I totally would have switched out Kidman for Streep in Lead Actress.) The proceedings are dreary to say the least and not terribly nuanced (not unexpected, given it's a Stephen Daldry picture) but the performances are just rich enough to save the film.

Working with an inferior director and screenplay (comparative to Todd Haynes and Far from Heaven), Moore does what she can with Laura Brown. It's a sad, sensitive performance that lacks the layers of Moore's best turns but still gets under the skin. Her scene with the terrific Toni Collette is among the film's best and when Laura resurfaces in the picture's contemporary third, her presence is a plenty welcome one.

Even if I hesitate to rank Adaptation among Streep's greatest screen turns, giving her the win here is pretty much a no-brainer for me, given the competition.

What was so special at the time about taking on the role of Susan Orlean is Adaptation marked the first time Streep made us laugh in a decade - since Death Becomes Her in 1992. Her turns in pictures like The Bridges of Madison County and One True Thing were exemplary but there was a sense Streep needed to lighten up a bit after a barrage of heavy dramas.

I don't find Streep quite as devastatingly funny in Adaptation as I do Death Becomes Her or even She-Devil but it sure is still one sharp performance. She and Chris Cooper have an awe-inspiring grasp on the Kaufman screenplay, which at last gives Streep the opportunity to get high and drop some F-bombs. For me, Jonze and Kaufman tend to more miss than hit but Adaptation is clearly in the latter column, a fun and twisted oddity that's tough to resist. And Streep seems to be having an absolute blast.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jessica Lange, Frances
  2. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
  3. Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
  4. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
  5. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
  6. Meryl Streep, Silkwood
  7. Jane Alexander, Testament
  8. Sally Kirkland, Anna
  9. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  10. Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
  11. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
  12. Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
  13. Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist
  14. Cher, Moonstruck
  15. Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
  16. Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
  17. Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
  18. Kathy Bates, Misery
  19. Anjelica Huston, The Grifters
  20. Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair
  21. Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
  22. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
  23. Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie
  24. Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
  25. Sharon Stone, Casino
  26. Diane Keaton, Reds
  27. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  28. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  29. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  30. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
  31. Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
  32. Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
  33. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  34. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  35. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
  36. Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
  37. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  38. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  39. Meryl Streep, Adaptation
  40. Meryl Streep, One True Thing
  41. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  42. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  43. Annette Bening, American Beauty
  44. Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
  45. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  46. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  47. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  48. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  49. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  50. Julianne Moore, The Hours
  51. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  52. Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
  53. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  54. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  55. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  56. Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
  57. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  58. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  59. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  60. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
  61. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  62. Queen Latifah, Chicago
  63. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  64. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
  65. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love