20 Years of Streep: 1995 ("The Bridges of Madison County")

After steamrolling through the 1980s, racking up half a dozen Best Lead Actress Oscar nominations, Meryl Streep came across a more subdued reception in the early 1990s.

The decade started off on just the right note, with a ninth Oscar nod for Postcards from the Edge. Streep also garnered praise for her turn opposite writer-director-leading man Albert Brooks in 1991's Defending Your Life. The picture, however, was not a box office success, drawing roughly the same interest in theaters as 1989's She-Devil, which was deemed an unqualified financial disaster upon its release.

Streep's next project was among her most ambitious to date - a big-budget horror-comedy from filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, whose success with the Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit gave him the license to go as extravagant as his heart desired. As the glamorous, exceedingly conceited Madeline Ashton, Streep is a comic delight in Death Becomes Her. The film's production was a troubled one, however, and Streep vowed to never sign on to another picture so heavy on the CGI. Hyped as one of the big summer releases of 1992, Death Becomes Her scored only fair box office receipts

Death Becomes Her was a big, fat hit, however, in comparison to Streep's 1994 film, Danish director Bille August's screen adaptation of the Isabel Allende novel The House of the Spirits. Despite a starry ensemble cast of Streep, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder and Vanessa Redgrave, the film was laughed off the screen by critics and entirely ignored by audiences. With a $40 million price tag, House managed to reap just over $6 million in box office receipts - a colossal disaster well worse than Heartburn and She-Devil.

Streep's other 1994 release - the Curtis Hanson-directed adventure The River Wild - was not a failure on the level of The House of the Spirits but still met with a mostly middling response. (It is tough, though, to not get at least some kick out of Streep and a psychotic Kevin Bacon going mano a mano.)

While Streep searched for that next Oscar vehicle, Clint Eastwood - with whom Streep had never worked on a motion picture - was having stunning success. His 1992 western Unforgiven managed to even captivate audiences who'd never been terribly fond of his past work. The film won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Eastwood. He followed that up with a leading turn in Wolfgang Petersen's In the Line of Fire - again, marvelous notices and the highest box office receipts of his career at the time.

After Eastwood's A Perfect World evoked a collective shrug from viewers in 1993, the director turned to an unlikely source for his next project - Robert James Waller's best-selling novel The Bridges of Madison County, which focuses on the romance that blossoms between an Italian war bride in Iowa and the National Geographic photographer who rolls into town. While Waller advocated for Isabella Rossellini as the film's leading lady, Eastwood wanted Streep from the get-go - a pitch-perfect selection, as he was about to capture one of Streep's finest career performances, if not the best.

The 1995 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking

Sarandon portrays Sister Helen Prejean, a nun and teacher called upon by death row inmate Matthew (Oscar-nominee Sean Penn) to assist in his final appeal for a pardon. With that looking exceedingly improbable, Sister Helen emerges as more of a spiritual advisor to Matthew, stressing that redemption is possible if he takes responsibility for his crimes. This performance, which won her a Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Sarandon's fifth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and first win.

Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas

Shue portrays Sera, a Las Vegas prostitute who befriends Ben (Nicolas Cage, in a stirring, Oscar-winning turn), an alcoholic screenwriter in town with the goal of drinking himself to death. Their bond is built on one key condition - neither can interfere with the other's unsavory practices. This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics, marked Shue's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Sharon Stone, Casino

Stone portrays Ginger McKenna, hustler, former hooker and the apple of casino operator Ace (Robert De Niro)'s eye. Despite Ginger's wariness to marriage, she and Ace wed but it isn't long before their glamorous honeymoon period comes to an end. Ginger can't seem to escape her sleazy con artist ex Lester (James Woods, in a performance that makes you want to take a shower) but it's her involvement with Ace's violent and unpredictable pal Nicky (Joe Pesci) that really stirs trouble. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Stone's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County

Streep portrays Francesca Johnson, a wife and mother who, while her family is away on a trip, engages in a brief, soulful affair with a National Geographic photographer (Clint Eastwood, also superb) who is visiting to capture the bridges of Madison County, Iowa. Ultimately, Francesca finds herself at a painstaking crossroads - she can continue her mundane existence or run away and travel the world with the man who has so lifted her spirits. This performance marked Streep's 10th Oscar nomination.

Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility

Thompson portrays Elinor Dashwood, eldest and most reserved and responsible daughter of three of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood. When their father dies, most of his estate is placed in the hands of his son, leaving the fortune-free sisters to move to a cottage. There, Elinor finds herself falling for the dashing Edward (Hugh Grant). If only Edward weren't engaged to be married. This performance, which won her a BAFTA Award, marked Thompson's fourth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination for acting. She won the prize in Best Adapted Screenplay for the picture.

Overlooked: Angela Bassett, Waiting to Exhale; Kathy Bates, Dolores Claiborne; Annette Bening, The American President; Sandra Bullock, While You Were Sleeping; Toni Collette, Muriel's Wedding; Julie Delpy, Before Sunrise; Jennifer Jason Leigh, Georgia; Shelley Long, The Brady Bunch Movie; Julianne Moore, Safe; Nicole Kidman, To Die For; Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Minds; Alicia Silverstone, Clueless; Debra Winger, Forget Paris

Won: Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking

Should've won: Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County

1994's race in Best Lead Actress was not the most exciting of affairs. That was the year in which Jessica Lange scored her Lead Oscar for Blue Sky, a picture hardly a soul remembers today (and deservedly so), over four contenders who weren't exactly at the tops of their games either. Too bad the Academy didn't have the guts to recognize a more offbeat turn like Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom or Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, as opposed to Susan Sarandon in a Joel Schumacher-directed John Grisham adaptation.

The following year couldn't have been more different. 1995 marked a spectacularly crowded year for leading ladies, so much so that you have to figure Columbia Pictures, which released Dolores Claiborne (featuring Kathy Bates' most incredible work of her career) in March of '95, had to be regretting not getting that film out just a few months earlier. Bates, a towering tour-de-force, even more compelling than her Oscar-winning turn in Misery, could have been a real threat for the win in '94. By Oscar season '95, however, Bates and Dolores Claiborne were long forgotten, overshadowed by a dozen or more performances in flicks with far more Oscar-friendly release dates.

Most Oscar pundits seem to rave about the Academy's ultimate selections here, with one exception - Sharon Stone, who I'd wager most folks would've like seen replaced with Nicole Kidman, devastatingly great in To Die For and that year's Golden Globe winner in the Comedy/Musical field. And indeed, Stone was the most vulnerable of the five nominees to miss out on the nod, taking the Drama Globe but failing to show up at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Alas, Stone's aggressive self-campaigning paid off and she landed the nomination.

I happen to think, however, Stone's nod was a richly deserved one. But I'll get to her in just a bit. It's another contender who I'd happily boot from this category.

I love Emma Thompson. Her Oscar-winning work in Howards End is dead-on brilliant and she's even better in the next Merchant Ivory production, The Remains of the Day. It's that Merchant Ivory eloquence that I think is so sorely lacking in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, a sleepy, workmanlike picture that may still satisfy Jane Austen fans but leaves this non-Austin aficionado less than enthused.

Thompson's performance isn't a bad one - she has an enchanting screen presence in even her most lackluster films - but I don't think her work or the film itself ever quite take off. Even the costumes and production design seem too subdued. Thompson's screenwriting Oscar should have gone to George Miller and Chris Noonan for Babe or perhaps even Mike Figgis for Leaving Las Vegas. I know Sense and Sensibility has plenty of admirers but I just can't get there.

Beyond Thompson, this line-up is sheer heaven.

I see-saw between Stone and Sarandon. The former is the more limited actress but Casino marks the best turn of her career, hands down. Sarandon can do no wrong, and I'm OK with her triumphing for this, but I don't quite consider Dead Man Walking her finest effort.

I L-O-V-E Casino and happen to think it's among Martin Scorsese's best, if not the finest Scorsese picture. It has a sprawling, epic feel to it - those three hours go by faster than any three hours ever have in cinema - and De Niro, Pesci and Stone are all on fire. Scorsese's usual team - film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Robert Richardson, among others - all turn in exemplary work. I fucking adore this movie.

Stone largely coasts through the first half of Casino on sheer charisma. She looks phenomenal and is even more captivating to watch than she was three years earlier in Basic Instinct. Once Ginger descends into alcoholism and starts hitting the white powder, however, Stone goes into "give me that Oscar nomination" mode and delivers a gangbusters, scenery-chewing performance that even manages to overshadow De Niro's engrossing work. She turns her drop-dead gorgeous beauty into a truly pathetic and kind of scary sight. It's an impressive piece of acting from an actress who unfortunately never quite captured the proper the follow-up.

With Sarandon, there are decidedly no coked-up fits of hysteria. Dead Man Walking finds a solemn and conservative Sarandon, not unlike her even better (and also Oscar-nominated) turn in Lorenzo's Oil from a few years prior. She is completely convincing as the kind and empathetic Sister Helen, well-directed by then-partner Tim Robbins, who turns in a remarkable piece of filmmaking for someone on only their second project (following Bob Roberts). Just as brilliant is Sean Penn, arguably even stronger here than in his two Oscar-winning turns (Mystic River and Milk). It's a fascinating sight watching these two improbably dig for a speck of humanity in the vile Matthew Poncelet.

On an intriguing note, the Independent Spirit Awards in 1995 did precisely the opposite of the Academy - awarding Penn the Best Male Lead prize and Shue the Best Female Lead trophy. I tend to like the ISA's thinking this year because Shue - star of such critically hailed Oscar-winners as The Karate Kid and Adventures in Babysitting - is truly gut-wrenching in Leaving Las Vegas. It's a revelatory turn from an actress who sadly seemed destined to never land one.

Leaving Las Vegas is one grueling picture to watch. It's an all-around superb film, no doubt, with Cage and obviously Shue doing career-best work, but it all feels almost a little too real. And the doomed relationship that blossoms between Ben and Sera might just be among the most devastating pairings to ever grace the silver screen. Shue's performance isn't a terribly showy one but it sure does still pack a punch. By the end, she completely shatters you. It's breathtaking work from an actress who, not unlike Stone, never managed to land another role anywhere near on the same level.

And then there's Streep. You must be thinking, "why the hell did this guy embark on a Streep Oscar project when he's never going to select her for the win?" The thing is, in different years, I totally could have supported Streep victories for both Sophie's Choice and Silkwood - Jessica Lange and Shirley MacLaine just happened to be in the way, respectively. In 1995, however, I am delighted to (at last!) side with Streep, and frankly by a comfortable margin.

There have been times over the past decade when I actually preferred Shue or even Stone for the victory here. In recent years, however, I'm come along to the conclusion that The Bridges of Madison County is the most exquisite work of Streep's career and really should have marked her third Oscar (or first, if I had my way).

Streep looks absolutely ravishing under Eastwood's sumptuous direction but there's of course a whole lot more to admire here than just looks. Her chemistry with Eastwood is not exactly sizzling but instead something very sincere and special. The first word that comes to mind when I consider Eastwood's filmmaking here is sensitive. This is a delicate and understated picture that takes its sweet time, refreshingly so, in tracing its characters' journey.

This performance reminds me so much of Katharine Hepburn's turn in Summertime, which in fact happens to be my favorite turn of that incomparable performer's filmography.

Neither is necessarily the biggest, most extravagant performance of either career but there's something about Streep here and Hepburn there is that is truly extraordinary and exceedingly improbable to replicate. It's as if both actresses managed with Bridges and Summertime to finally find the directors best-suited to their immense talents (David Lean did the Hepburn flick) and the movie magic pretty much just came naturally. 

When I look back and consider all of Streep's performances, I'm not sure any scene will be able to top that of Francesca Johnson at the ultimate crossroads. With her kind but passionless husband beside her and newfound soulmate Robert mere feet away, waiting in his car for Francesca to make her move toward him, she has the most grueling of decisions. It's an experience that manages to prove just as taxing for us as it does Francesca.

Sorry, Sophie's Choice and Unforgiven. I love you both but The Bridges of Madison County has my heart.

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. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
  21. Sharon Stone, Casino
  22. Diane Keaton, Reds
  23. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  24. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  25. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  26. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
  27. Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
  28. Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
  29. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  30. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  31. Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
  32. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  33. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  34. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  35. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  36. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  37. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  38. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  39. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  40. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  41. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  42. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  43. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  44. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  45. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  46. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  47. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  48. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  49. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  50. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman