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