20 Years of Streep: 1985 ("Out of Africa")

In 1984, after making three consecutive Oscar appearances in Best Lead Actress, Meryl Streep was a no-show on nominations morning for her turn opposite Robert De Niro in the instantly forgotten Falling in Love. The odds of a Streep return to the ceremony looked strong, however, in 1985. Two projects were lined up, both awards-calibur on paper, with Oscar-friendly release dates.

The first of these two projects landed with a whimper that September. Plenty, directed by acclaimed Australian filmmaker Fred Schepisi (later of A Cry in the Dark) with a screenplay by David Hare (later of The Hours), cast Streep as an Englishwoman searching for fulfillment in life after serving with the French Resistance in WWII. While the film has its passionate defenders to this day, Plenty garnered a remarkably lukewarm reception upon release, with many arguing Streep was miscast and/or upstaged by supporting players John Gielgud and Tracey Ullman.

Plenty would be long out of theaters by the time Streep's second picture hit the silver screen in December. This one, thankfully, was a big, fat hit. Working under the direction of Sydney Pollack (in his follow-up to the even bigger, fatter hit Tootsie) and alongside leading man Robert Redford, Streep was about to headline her first Best Picture Oscar-winner since Kramer vs. Kramer.

The 1985 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God

Bancroft portrays the domineering Mother Miriam Ruth who clashes with Dr. Livingston (Jane Fonda), the court-appointed psychiatrist sent to evaluate Sister Agnes (Oscar-nominee Meg Tilly), a young nun found in her room, covered in blood beside a dead baby. Livingston's investigation into what happened is constantly interrupted by the overbearing Mother Miriam, who seems to know more about the tragedy than she's willing to admit. This performance marked Bancroft's fifth and final Oscar nomination.

Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple

Goldberg portrays Celie Johnson, an African-American woman grappling with life in rural Georgia over the first half of the 20th century. At age 14, Celie is raped and impregnated by her father (Adolph Caesar), who forces her into a marriage with the comparably abusive "Mister" Albert (Danny Glover, somehow not Oscar-nominated for his chilling turn). Celie spends all too much of her adulthood subjected to Albert's violence and the rampant racism of the south. Events, however, like the entrance of the colorful and strong-willed Shug Avery (Oscar-nominee Margaret Avery) give Celie reason to keep on going. This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors from the Golden Globes and National Board of Review, marked Goldberg's first Oscar nomination.

Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams

Lange portrays Patsy Cline, the talented and beautiful country singer who, early on in her career, is stuck in a loveless marriage and relegated to the most unrewarding of gigs. After meeting and falling for the charming Charlie (Ed Harris), Patsy ditches her dud of a husband, marries Charlie and at last starts to find success as a musician. Just as her star is rising, however, her marriage to Charlie goes downhill and, at age 30, tragedy strikes. This performance marked Lange's fourth Oscar nomination.

Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful

Page portrays Carrie Watts, a high-spirited senior citizen who bolts from her tiny apartment, over the objections of her obnoxious son and daughter-in-law, to venture on a bus trip to visit her childhood home one last time in Bountiful, Texas. On the way, she befriends Thelma (Rebecca De Mornay), a young woman who is fascinated by Carrie's memories from the past. This performance marked Page's eighth and final Oscar nomination and first victory.

Meryl Streep, Out of Africa

Streep portrays aristocrat Karen Blixen who, alongside husband Bror (Oscar-nominee Klaus Maria Brandauer), moves to Africa with the intention of opening a dairy farm. Things don't quite go as planned, however - Bror instead uses Karen's wealth to invest in a coffee plantation and engages in extramarital affairs that ultimately lead to Karen contracting syphilis from her husband. Karen leaves Bror and becomes involved with the dashing Denys (Robert Redford), a big-game hunter who adores her but has little interest in marriage. This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, marked Streep's sixth Oscar nomination.

Won: Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful

Should've won: Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple

Overlooked: Norma Aleandro, The Official Story; Rosanna Arquette, Desperately Seeking Susan; Cher, Mask; Mia Farrow, The Purple Rose of Cairo; Sally Field, Murphy's Romance; Joyce Hyser, Just One of the Guys; Kathleen Turner, Prizzi's Honor

Dammit, 1982 and 1983 Best Lead Actress, you so spoiled me!

This category could've been a dynamite affair in 1985. Keep Goldberg, boot the rest and bring on board the heartbreaking Aleandro, hilarious Arquette, revelatory Cher and brilliant (as usual) Farrow, and this would have been one hell of a line-up. Alas, the Academy's selections here come a lot closer in quality to the leading ladies from 1981. They simply, I guess, just couldn't resist nominating Lange and Streep (again), plus the legendary Bancroft and Page, even if all were up for substandard performances.

This was, of course, the infamous year in which the Academy showered Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple with heaps of affection on Oscar nominations morning - 11 nods in total - only to award it with an an across-the-board shutout on the big night. Among the losers was Goldberg who, at the time, marked only the fifth African-American to grace Best Lead Actress at the Oscars. Unlike Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones), Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues), Cicely Tyson (Sounder) and Diahann Carroll (Claudine) before her, Goldberg had a legitimate shot at taking home the golden statute. Alas, that never came to fruition, as the sentimental vote won the day. I'll get to Goldberg's performance in just a bit.

First, I'll start with Bancroft, an actress I generally have enormous affection for - her stirring turn in The Miracle Worker is among my very favorite winners in this category - but who by the 1980s was prone to devouring every single inch of scenery on the film set. Her performance as the Mother Superior from Hell in Agnes of God kind of reminds me of Rosalind Russell's hammy work as another Mother Superior, in the Angels series from the late 1960s. The difference, of course, is Russell's performance worked and was entertaining in a comedy like The Trouble with Angels. In an overwrought drama like Agnes, Bancroft's histrionics are just plain distracting.

I do, however, have a few kind things to say about Bancroft here. One, at least her performance has a pulse, which is more than I can say about co-star Jane Fonda, who sleepwalks her way through the picture. I can't think of a time when Fonda was in more anemic form and yes, I've seen Old Gringo. Two, Bancroft does have one nice scene, where Mother Miriam lets loose a bit with Dr. Livingston by indulging in a cigarette. (It's the only moment with some levity in this maudlin picture.) Third, most significant, Mother Miriam might just be a downright impossible character to play. Agnes of God is pretty lackluster stuff and it's hard to see just what director Norman Jewison saw in the John Pielmeier play, which garnered mixed reviews on Broadway earlier in the decade, that screamed 'NEEDS FILM ADAPTATION!'

Oddly enough, it was none other than Geraldine Page who originated the role of Mother Miriam in the Broadway production and something tells me, given Page's history, her performance probably wasn't packed with subtlety either.

As for Streep's sixth Oscar-nominated performance, I'm admittedly not super-fond of Out of Africa, nor her performance in it, though I wouldn't quite throw it in the dumpster with something like The French Lieutenant's Woman.

While there's much to like about the Pollack picture, including David Watkin's sumptuous photography and the stunning John Barry music, the thing moves like molasses and is at least half an hour too long. I can appreciate the chemistry between Streep and Redford (who knew shampooing hair could be so orgasmic) but this just isn't among the most exciting acting by either of these two greats. It's actually Brandauer who gives the one amazing performance here and probably should've prevailed over that travesty of a Best Supporting Actor win for Don Ameche (Cocoon). What an oddity to see a picture sweep the way Out of Africa did and not carry along with it a victory for its strongest player.

Like Ameche, Page was able to withstand the Out of Africa lovefest and (at last!) score a victory at the Oscars. Now, that isn't to say Page's turn is on the same level as Ameche's extremely modest performance - there's a lot more to like - but I'm awfully skeptical either of them would have prevailed had they already taken home the golden fella in the past.

The Trip to Bountiful finds Page in fine form though, not unlike Out of Africa, I can't help but find the proceedings a little sleepy. It's a reliable vehicle for a leading lady but rather mundane beyond that. The flair-free direction by B-movie director Peter Masterson and high school-play level of acting by the rest of the ensemble don't much help, other than to make Page look all the better, I guess. Much like Bancroft, Page's late-career turns tended to become more and more affected but here, she actually reigns it in quite nicely, while still turning in a lively and colorful performance.

Presenter F. Murray Abraham wasn't far-off when he opened up that envelope on Oscar night and gleefully proclaimed Page "the greatest actress in the English language." I could totally make a case for a Page victory on several of her other nominations, including Sweet Bird of Youth and Interiors. The Trip to Bountiful, though, is just a little too slender for me to agree with the Academy on. I'm delighted Page was able to finally grab that Oscar, I just wish it were for another, better turn.

As was the case in 1982, I happen to prefer Lange over Streep here, not that Sweet Dreams is even half as compelling an effort as Frances.

On the heels of the grand success of Coal Miner's Daughter in 1980, it was all but inevitable Hollywood would quickly pump out a similar biopic on Patsy Cline, who perished in a tragic plane crash at the mere age of 30. Coal Miner's Daughter was a solid, if workmanlike piece of cinema (though I happen to strongly prefer Mary Tyler Moore over Sissy Spacek in Lead Actress that year) and Sweet Dreams can't even reach those modest heights. Perhaps it had something to do with being the follow-up picture for the director of..wait for it, wait for it...The French Lieutenant's Woman!

Sweet Dreams isn't without its pleasures. It does feature a rich, Oscar-calibur supporting turn from the insanely underappreciated Ann Wedgeworth as Cline's mother and also sports a nice early Ed Harris appearance. Lange is in good but not great form here. No doubt in part on account of the distracting lip-syncing to the old Cline tunes, I just don't find her terribly convincing in the role. She has several nice scenes with both Wedgeworth and Harris but ultimately doesn't transcend the disheveled production around her, like she so masterfully did three years prior. At the time same, for what it's worth, I still actually prefer this performance to her Oscar-winning one in Blue Sky. Go figure.

Ultimately, the only exceptional performance recognized here - and one of my all-time favorite nominees in this category period - is Goldberg, in her film debut, absolutely killing it in Spielberg's splendid The Color Purple.

I recognize the Spielberg picture isn't without its detractors (just look at what came to fruition on Oscar night), often strongly in opposition to his adaptation of the Alice Walker novel, but I don't think I've come across many, if any criticism to Goldberg's turn.

This is a legit powerhouse of a performance, a harrowing master class in acting from someone who somehow hadn't done a whole lot of acting beforehand. We feel Celie's suppressed anger toward Albert and society and want to leap out of our seats for a standing ovation when she at last stands up to her husband. ("Everything you've done to me..." is basically the epitome of an Oscar clip.) We're overcome by the same onslaught of emotions when Celie discovers all of the letters from her sister that Albert had for years hidden from her. And we're of course bursting into tears and applause at the film's sublime conclusion.

I know most of us adore Oda Mae Brown but come on, this, not Ghost, should've been Goldberg's Oscar.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jessica Lange, Frances
  2. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
  3. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
  4. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
  5. Meryl Streep, Silkwood
  6. Jane Alexander, Testament
  7. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  8. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
  9. Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
  10. Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
  11. Diane Keaton, Reds
  12. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  13. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  14. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  15. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  16. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  17. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  18. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  19. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  20. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  21. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  22. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  23. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  24. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  25. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  26. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  27. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  28. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  29. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  30. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away