20 Years of Streep: 1988 ("A Cry in the Dark")

When Meryl Streep first collaborated with filmmaker Fred Schepisi, reaction to their work was, at best, muted. 1985's Plenty came and went from theaters in no time, spending all of one week in the box office top 10. In 1987, both Streep and Schepisi found better luck, the former with her Oscar-nominated turn in Ironweed and the latter directing the popular Steve Martin comedy Roxanne.

In 1988, Streep and Schepisi gave it another shot and ultimately redeemed themselves for the failure of Plenty. While A Cry in the Dark, adapted from John Bryson's 1985 book Evil Angels, was hardly a crowd-pleaser and in fact bombed at the box office, the picture and Streep's performance garnered abundant critical acclaim. The film would mark Streep's final drama until 1993's The House of the Spirits.

The 1988 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons

Close portrays the cool and conniving Marquise de Merteuil, who challengers former lover Valmont (John Malkovich) to seduce the virginal Cecile (Uma Thurman). Valmont has a bold counter-challenge - he bets he can instead bed the moral and married Madame de Tourvel (Oscar-nominee Michelle Pfeiffer). While Valmont is overcome by contrition during this quest, however, the Marquise becomes all the more fierce. This performance marked Close's fifth Oscar nomination.

Jodie Foster, The Accused

Foster portrays Sarah Tobias, a young woman violently gang raped by three men in a bar, while onlookers cheer them on. Sarah is furious when district attorney Kathryn (Kelly McGillis), assigned to the case, arranges a plea bargain to result in limited jail time for the assailants. After an accident involving one of the men encouraging the rapists, Sarah convinces Kathryn to prosecute him and two others who were cheerleading the attackers that night. This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors from the Golden Globes (tied with MacLaine and Weaver) and National Board of Review, marked Foster's second Oscar nomination and first win.

Melanie Griffith, Working Girl

Griffith portrays Tess McGill, a New York City secretary with aspirations of someday becoming a business executive. When self-absorbed boss Katharine (Sigourney Weaver, who should've taken home the Oscar for this savagely funny turn) is injured in a skiing accident, Tess decides to pose as her employer. A natural talent in business, Tess quickly finds success and becomes romantically involved with a top investment broker (Harrison Ford). Then, however, Katharine recovers. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Griffith's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark

Streep portrays Lindy Chamberlain, mother of baby Azaria, who goes missing from the tent in which she was sleeping while on family vacation in the Australia outback. Lindy is convinced she saw a dingo leaving the tent with an object in its mouth and while the initial inquest into the disappearance supports Lindy's belief that the dingo took Azaria, public opinion gradually turns against the Chamberlains, who are viewed as too stoic in light of the tragedy. Before long, law enforcement cobbles together new "evidence" that lands Lindy in prison. This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, marked Streep's eighth Oscar nomination.

Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist

Weaver portrays zoologist Dian Fossey, who leaves the United States for Africa to devote her life to studying the primates of Rwanda and Uganda. Fossey becomes entranced by the lives of the region's mountain gorillas and is able to develop a means of communication with them. Fossey grows concerned that the rampant poaching of gorillas for their skins will ultimately result in the extinction of the species. She takes her case to the local government and, when her concerns are dismissed, emerges a fierce animal rights activist. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe (tied with Foster and MacLaine), marked one of two Weaver Oscar nominations in 1988, the other for Working Girl.

Overlooked: Jamie Lee Curtis, A Fish Called Wanda; Barbara Hershey, A World Apart; Amy Irving, Crossing Delancey; Christine Lahti, Running on Empty; Shirley MacLaine, Madame Sousatzka; Elizabeth McGovern, She's Having a Baby; Bette Midler, Big Business; Michelle Pfeiffer, Married to the Mob; Gena Rowlands, Another Woman; Susan Sarandon, Bull Durham; Sean Young, The Boost

Won: Jodie Foster, The Accused

Should've won: Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons

Yowsa. And I thought 1987 was a gangbusters year for leading ladies!

1988 is decidedly not among my favorite Oscar seasons. Three of the year's Best Picture nominees (The Accidental Tourist, Mississippi Burning and Rain Man) don't float my boat in the slightest and soft a spot as I have for the film, I find it flabbergasting that I flirt with the idea that Working Girl perhaps should've triumphed in the top category. Dustin Hoffman and Geena Davis? Love them both but not here. And much as I love Kevin Kline, that should've been Martin Landau or River Phoenix's Oscar.

While most of 1988 leaves me sighing, that isn't the case at all in Best Lead Actress. The Academy's selections are all-around fantastic, with even the weakest nominee (in this case, the winner, actually) leaving a potent impression. What's so incredible about this year is you could have replaced the Oscar five with an entirely different line-up - say, Curtis, Lahti, MacLaine, Pfeiffer and Rowlands - and had just as sensational a fivesome. This cycle was stacked.

Foster's Oscar-winning performance is perhaps my all-time favorite turn to triumph in Lead Actress. By that, I mean her work as Clarice Starling, three years down the road in The Silence of the Lambs. That isn't to say she's not note-worthy in The Accused - she very much is, and it's one tough role. The thing is, The Accused is no The Silence of the Lambs.

The Accused feels dated and, beyond Foster's performance, has the look and sophistication of an early Lifetime TV movie. Kelly McGillis may have been aces in Witness three years earlier but she phones it in big time here, in a turn that curiously reminds me of Jane Fonda's sleepwalking in Agnes of God in 1985. The film is just not very good, unlike the other four films here, and it does drag a bit on Foster's work, bold as it may be.

It may be hard to be believe now, given the downward spiral of her career in the 1990s and beyond, but Griffith was one sizzling-hot up-and-comer in the 1980s, not just with moviegoers overall but especially critics.

Prior to Working Girl, which briefly catapulted Griffith onto the Hollywood A-list, she garnered legit raves for turns in pictures like Body Double and Something Wild. Just about everyone at the time was rooting for her to land a leading turn on the level of Working Girl, so imagine the frustrations when her follow-ups to that turned out to be the likes of The Bonfire of the Vanities and Shining Through.

Griffith may have racked up her fair share of Razzie nominations in the decade to come but she couldn't be more of a delight in Working Girl. Tess McGill rings of a role Audrey (maybe even Katharine) Hepburn could have magically tackled in her heyday and while Griffith is obviously no Hepburn, she brings a uniquely down-to-earth, lived-in feel to the character. No doubt, she's helped immensely by Mike Nichols' rock-solid direction and the fabulous Kevin Wade screenplay but Working Girl is a legit star-is-born vehicle for its leading lady. She not only has marvelous chemistry with leading man Harrison Ford (at his comic finest) but supporting players Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack too. Griffith's line deliveries ("I have a head for business and a bod for sin," among others) are aces here. What a shame she was never able to find another project even half as successful as this one.

Amazingly, I find himself torn as to whether the Melanie Griffith performance or the Meryl Streep turn is superior this year. Right now, I lean ever-so-slightly toward the latter, whose work in A Cry in the Dark isn't without its dissenters. 

Streep's portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain is a tad on the blank side but purposely so. This was a woman who refused to let herself show much in the way of emotion, so Streep accurately plays her on the frosty side. For some, this may make the performance rather frustrating but I'm not in that camp. I think it's a wholly convincing turn, sporting one of Streep's most challenging and believable accent jobs to date. She's matched nicely by the supremely underrated (and understated) Sam Neill, who portrays Lindy's pastor husband. A Cry in the Dark isn't terribly remarkable beyond its central performances but boy, the picture is a real must-see for Streep and Neill alone.

Much as I like Foster and love Griffith and Streep, it's Weaver and Close who I'm really enamored with.

It royally sucks Weaver went home empty-handed on Oscar night in 1988. It totally should have been a repeat of Jessica Lange in 1982, when she garnered the Supporting prize for Tootsie as a consolation for the inevitable loss in Lead for Frances. Going into the big evening, Weaver looked shaky in Lead, bunched up with Foster, Griffith and Close (only Streep didn't have a real prayer), but Supporting seemed like a slam dunk. The competition wasn't even as potent as Lange's six years earlier. Alas, out of nowhere, came the Geena Davis victory, in spite of The Accidental Tourist star not showing up at a single precursor. The selection of none other than co-star Griffith and Griffith's then-husband Don Johnson to present the Best Supporting Actress prize was a testament to how sure the Academy was of a Weaver win. Oh well.

Not sure if I'm more smitten with Weaver in Working Girl or Gorillas in the Mist. Obviously, she has heaps more screen time in the latter but I think her Katharine Parker is an even more vivid characterization than her portrayal of Dian Fossey. That isn't to say Weaver isn't brilliant as Fossey, though - she is Gorillas in the Mist, critical to all of the film's success. The turn has shades of Streep in Out of Africa, except this picture is significantly less sluggish than the Sydney Pollack film and Weaver seems a bit more at-ease in Fossey's shoes than Streep in Karen Blixen's. Fossey's transformation from curious scientist to impassioned radical is fascinating to watch and Weaver is completely convincing every step of the way. 

I believe there was a time when I most loved Weaver of this line-up but - admittedly, perhaps I'm in part saying this because I recently saw this lady legit set the stage on fire on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard - I think I now adore Close just a tad more.

Dangerous Liaisons had a rather funky awards season run in 1988. The film was given a limited release at the 11 o'clock hour by Warner Bros, barely in time for Oscar consideration, and had little presence to speak of at all during the precursors. Yet, come nominations morning, it was up for seven prizes, including Best Picture. Thankfully, Close was among the nods.

The Stephen Frears film doesn't leave me quite as hot and bothered as it does some film buffs (blame Keanu?) but Close still stuns me as the scheming Merteuil. The performance strikes just the right notes, meticulously tailored to the silver screen, whereas co-star Malkovich often seems to be playing to the last row of the balcony. Close is deliciously cunning here, better-directed by Frears than she was Adrian Lyne in Fatal Attraction, and walks away with just about all of her scenes. She. Is. Amazing.

If only Close and Weaver had Oscars, all would be right in the film world.

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