20 Years of Streep: 1987 ("Ironweed")

On paper, 1986's Heartburn had the sound of a surefire smash.

The picture would reunite the insanely talented trio from Silkwood - leading lady Meryl Streep, director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Nora Ephron (adapting from her eponymous best-seller). Production on the film hit a snag in the early-going, as Nichols, seeing no magic between he and Streep, fired leading man Mandy Patinkin after mere days of shooting. Things would presumably still be A-OK, however, if not better, considering Patinkin's replacement was none other than Jack Nicholson, hot as ever with his Oscar victory for Terms of Endearment and success the year prior with Prizzi's Honor. Among the other actors signed on were Stockard Channing, Maureen Stapleton, Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels, so this simply had to be incredible, right?

Not so much, I'm afraid. That summer, Heartburn hit theaters to reviews that ranged from lukewarm to scathing. Roger Ebert called it a "bitter, sour movie," while Pauline Kael took particular aim at Ephron's adaptation. The film opened to decent box office receipts but quickly dropped like a rock, leaving theaters after just one month.

Thankfully, the failure of Heartburn would not prevent Streep and Nicholson from collaborating on another picture. In fact, it would be a mere year before the two reunited and, this time around, their film didn't send critics running for the hills.

The 1987 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Cher, Moonstruck

Cher portrays Loretta Castorini, an Italian-American widow who accepts the marriage proposal of the decidedly unstimulating Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello), only to fall head-over-heels for Johnny's colorful kid brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) while her new fiancee is away. Loretta tries to resist Ronny's advances but can't seem to snap either one out of it. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Cher's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and first win.

Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction

Close portrays Alex Forrest, a Manhattan editor who engages in a steamy fling with attorney Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) while his wife (Anne Archer) is away. Dan tries to break off the relationship upon his wife's return but the distance doesn't sit well with Alex, who proceeds to attempt suicide, harass Dan at work and home and do some not-so-nice things to the family bunny. This performance marked Close's fourth Oscar nomination.

Holly Hunter, Broadcast News

Hunter portrays Jane Craig, a neurotic network news reporter who falls for the handsome, vapid new anchorman Tom (Oscar-nominee William Hurt), in spite of him representing all she loathes about the trend in evening news toward entertainment. Meanwhile, Jane's colleague and best friend Aaron (Albert Brooks, also Oscar-nominated) has long pined for her and understandably isn't thrilled about Tom's entrance. This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (tied with Sally Kirkland), National Board of Review (tied with Lillian Gish) and New York Film Critics Circle, marked Hunter's first Oscar nomination.

Sally Kirkland, Anna

Kirkland portrays Anna, an actress who was once a star of the silver screen in her homeland of Czechoslovakia but now struggles to merely land off-Broadway gigs in New York. She takes in the young Krystyna (Paulina Porizkova), who has immigrated from Czechoslovakia to meet her idol, only to watch as Krystyna becomes an unexpected hit in showbiz. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe and honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (tied with Hunter), marked Kirkland's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, Ironweed

Streep portrays Helen Archer, a long washed-up, terminally ill former radio singer who is stumbled upon by former lover and drinking pal Francis (Oscar-nominee Jack Nicholson) when he wanders into their hometown of Albany, NY. Francis takes on odd jobs to support Helen while dealing with devastating memories from his past. This performance marked Streep's seventh Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Ellen Barkin, The Big Easy; Faye Dunaway, Barfly; Mia Farrow, September; Lillian Gish, The Whales of August; Clare Higgins, Hellraiser; Diane Keaton, Baby Boom; Bette Midler, Outrageous Fortune; Elisabeth Shue, Adventures in Babysitting; Barbra Streisand, Nuts

Won: Cher, Moonstruck

Should've won: Sally Kirkland, Anna

1987, the year yet another prestige picture (The Last Emperor, in this case) bulldozed over a batch of crowd-pleasing box office hits (Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction and Moonstruck), was truly an embarrassment of riches for leading ladies on the silver screen.

Beyond the Academy's fine selections, you had Dunaway and Gish in exquisite comeback turns; Keaton and Midler in prime comic form; and Streisand in perhaps the finest dramatic role of her career. So, I think it's kind of a shame, given all of these options, that the Academy opted to overlook those and other fabulous performances and instead award Streep a seventh Oscar nomination for her convincing but negligibly memorable and borderline-Supporting work in Ironweed.

Hector Babenco's Ironweed - the filmmaker's follow-up to his Oscar-winning Kiss of the Spider Woman from two years prior - is a fascinating picture, with a distinct, supremely bleak look and feel. It sports one of Jack Nicholson's most decidedly un-Nicholson leading turns. His Francis is a hopeless, tortured man and, amazingly, we buy Nicholson in this form from the get-go. He's matched by not only Streep but also Carroll Baker, superb as Francis' estranged wife.

Much as I'd rather see Dunaway or Gish in her slot, Streep's work in Ironweed isn't without its moments. She's plenty believable as the suffering, homeless Helen and her performance of the tune "He's My Pal" - the first occasion in which Streep sang in a motion picture - is haunting stuff. Plus, she has the advantage of being in a terrific film here, unlike, you know, The French Lieutenant's Woman. Ultimately, however, it's only the third-best performance in Ironweed and really isn't among the more notable Streep turns. It's kind of remarkable she managed to garner this nomination, given both how poorly the film fared at the box office and Streisand's aggressive behind-the-scenes campaigning. This isn't the worst Streep Oscar nod but it's still toward the bottom.

James L. Brooks' Broadcast News was once among my all-time favorite comedies, if not films of any genre. I remember first catching it on cable (on Bravo, I think?) and finding Joan Cusack's wild sprint across the news station to be just about the funniest thing I'd ever witnessed on film. I still love Cusack and a lot of other things in the picture, especially Brooks' brilliant turn, but my enthusiasm has waned a bit in recent years. The film seems dated in a way that something like Network just isn't. I don't think Brooks' writing is as sharp as in his Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment and Hurt, perhaps purposely so to some extent, just seems to sleepwalk through the proceedings.

Between this and Raising Arizona, Hunter had a gangbusters 1987 and, when I consider the two performances collectively, I'm cool with the Oscar nomination, even if I'd have probably recognized another contender first. She strikes a nice balance between temperamental and irresistible in Broadcast News and has plenty of chemistry with both of her male co-stars. Watching the film, I think what a shame it is Hunter didn't go on to tackle more romcoms. That said, I think it's really Brooks, not Hunter, who walks away with the film. It's only his scenes that seem to leave me overjoyed with Broadcast News these days.

The remaining three nominees, while not quite on the level of a Lange in Frances or Goldberg in The Color Purple, are all fantastic and among my favorite Lead Actress Oscar nominees of the decade. Ranking them is an improbable task but hey, I'll give it a shot.

I'm completely cool with Cher's victory here. Moonstruck is all sorts of amazing (I say it should've taken Best Picture) and Cher's Loretta is a supreme delight. Her transformation from dowdy to dazzling is fabulous and Cher has a pitch-perfect grasp on John Patrick Shanley's brilliant dialogue. (I'm personally most fond of "In time, you'll drop dead and I'll come to your funeral in a red dress!") Her rapport with the entire cast - Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis and Oscar-nominee Vincent Gardenia, plus of course Cage - is aces and, while Moonstruck did not mark Cher's screen debut, the turn nonetheless has the feel of a star-making role.

Is Cher required to flex her acting muscles to the same extent Close and Kirkland are asked? Perhaps not but I still can't find any real fault in the performance.

Speaking of Close, the American Film Institute's ranking of her Alex Forrest as the seventh all-time greatest screen villain on its list of "100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains" is a richly deserved honor. While Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction isn't without its occasional misstep (the filmmaker has never been one renowned for great subtlety), Close strikes just the right notes as the unhinged Alex.

What's so compelling about Close here, not unlike in the case of Cher, is watching the metamorphosis of her character. Alex is already a bit off-putting right out of the starting gates but still plenty approachable and appealing. The gradual shift from that to flat-out batshit crazy is a remarkable sight and Close keeps herself nicely reigned-in for the most part, despite a screenplay that's obviously hungry for scenery-chewing. She and Douglas (who's much more interesting here than in Wall Street, for which he won the Oscar) make a dynamite match and engage in some of the most convincing and arousing lovemaking to perhaps ever grace the screen, especially at that time in a major motion picture.

Is Fatal Attraction the best Oscar-nominated Close turn? Perhaps but, as we'll see the following year, she has been recognized for other, comparably magnificent turns as well.

My favorite, by a hair, of the five ladies recognized is Kirkland, who's not only a tour-de-force in the title role of Anna but also happened to run one of the all-time great Oscar campaigns.

Anna, which is more or a less an arthouse All About Eve, was distributed in the fall of 1987 by Vestron Pictures, the small film distributor that struck expected gold with that year's Dirty Dancing, yet still couldn't dig itself out of financial squalor (Vestron went completely defunct in 1991). No surprise, Vestron didn't have a dime to invest in an Oscar campaign for Kirkland, who after years of bit parts in motion pictures like The Sting, The Way We Were and A Star Is Born, at last landed a meaty starring turn.

So, Kirkland took matters into her own hands and embarked on one of the most aggressive and effective self-campaigns in Oscar history. She personally hosted a plethora of screenings in Los Angeles and New York and took out her own For Your Consideration ads. Kirkland's Golden Globe victory came no doubt in part to her attention paid to members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Of course, it's a whole lot easier a task to win over a minuscule body like the HFPA, comparative to the thousands who make up the Academy's membership.

That's not to say, however, Kirkland's recognition came exclusively as a way to honor the chutzpah of her campaigning. She is astoundingly great in Anna. It's a real master class of a performance that both actors of the stage and screen could learn plenty from. Her reading of "Humpty Dumpty" during an audition for a play might just be the most awe-inspiring rendition of the nursery rhyme ever captured on record. Kirkland has many fabulous moments too alongside co-stars Porizkova and Daniel Fields, the latter portraying Anna's on-and-off boyfriend.

Perhaps the most devastating moment of Anna, however, is when the title character attends a New York screening of one of her old pictures, only to find the theater nearly empty. Then, the reel melts, at a critical moment in the film. It's a haunting moment in an obscenely underseen film that happens to sport one of the '80s finest leading turns.

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. Sally Kirkland, Anna
  8. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  9. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
  10. Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
  11. Cher, Moonstruck
  12. Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
  13. Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
  14. Diane Keaton, Reds
  15. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  16. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  17. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  18. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  19. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  20. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  21. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  22. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  23. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  24. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  25. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  26. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  27. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  28. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  29. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  30. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  31. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  32. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  33. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  34. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  35. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away