The three years following Adaptation did not produce an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep - her longest drought since the early 1990s, post-Postcards from the Edge. That is not to say, of course, that these years were without substantial Streep contributions to the big and small screens and stage.
Sans a brief cameo portraying herself in the Matt Damon-Greg Kinnear conjoined twins comedy Stuck on You, Streep did not grace the silver screen in 2003. She did, however, hit the television circuit in a big way with her reunion alongside filmmaker Mike Nichols on the HBO production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America.
At last starring opposite Al Pacino, Streep portrayed three roles in the miniseries, perhaps most memorably the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who visits the controversial and closeted Roy Cohn (Pacino) as he succumbs to AIDS on his deathbed. Angels brought Streep back to the Emmys where, 26 years since her victory for Holocaust, she scored her second prize in Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie.
In 2004, Streep returned to cinemas with the juicy role of Senator Eleanor Shaw in Jonathan Demme's retooling of The Manchurian Candidate. The part having won Angela Lansbury a nomination back in 1962, Streep was promptly placed on Oscar prediction shortlists for Best Supporting Actress. A summer release, the film was met with a modest reception from both critics and audiences. After a month in theaters, The Manchurian Candidate fell out of the box office top 10 and Streep did not land that anticipated 14th Oscar nomination. A colorful supporting turn in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, released that December, also left negligible impact.
The following year saw Streep headlining just one motion picture - the romcom Prime, opposite Uma Thurman. Released over Halloween weekend vs. Saw II, Prime garnered a lukewarm critical reception and was largely ignored by moviegoers. There was plenty, thankfully, on the horizon for Streep fans to look forward to the following year.
Summer 2006 proved a fruitful season for Streep as she returned to the stage for a four-week run, alongside Sophie's Choice co-star Kevin Kline, in the New York revival of Mother Courage and Her Children. Then, there was the cinema.
That June, Streep graced the big screen in two motion pictures with plenty of Oscar potential. First, there was A Prairie Home Companion, a project which finally saw Streep working under the direction of the legendary Robert Altman (and alongside Lily Tomlin!). The film, while hardly a box office smash, was warmly received by critics and Altman devotees. It would ultimately prove the filmmaker's swan song, as Altman died that November.
While the subject of fine notices, A Prairie Home Companion's success would look awfully modest in contrast to that of Streep's second June 2006 release. The film adaptation of the much-adored best-seller The Devil Wears Prada was about to introduce Streep to a generation not raised on the likes of Kramer vs. Kramer and Out of Africa and deliver her most robust box office hit to date.
The 2006 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Cruz portrays Raimunda, a working class wife and mother who, on the heels of a gory family tragedy, is comforted by the ghost of late mom Irene (the marvelous Carmen Maura), who died years back in house fire that also claimed the life of her father. This performance, which won her the Best Actress prize at Cannes (shared with the entire female cast), marked Cruz's first Oscar nomination.
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Dench portrays Barbara Covett, a veteran London high school teacher whose bitterness and loneliness is alleviated with the entrance of Sheba Hart (Oscar-nominee Cate Blanchett), the school's young, pretty and popular new art teacher. The two become friends but when Barbara catches Sheba hooking up with a teenage student, Barbara becomes keeper to a potentially career-ending secret. This performance marked Dench's sixth Oscar nomination.
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth II who, following the death of Princess Diana in an auto accident, finds herself torn between the sentiment of the monarchy and that of newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) on a proper response to the tragedy. The public, devastated over Diana's passing, grows restless with the Queen's wariness to openly share in the mourning. This performance, which won her nearly every single precursor, including a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award and BAFTA Award, marked Mirren's third Oscar nomination and first win.
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Streep portrays Miranda Priestly, ruthless editor of the Runway fashion magazine. Newly placed under her wing is Andy (Anne Hathaway), a recent college graduate with dreams of someday becoming a journalist and more than a little skepticism that she'll be able to endure Miranda's exorbitant demands for the long run. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe and Best Supporting Actress honors from the National Society of Film Critics (also for her work in A Prairie Home Companion), marked Streep's 14th Oscar nomination.
Kate Winslet, Little Children
Winslet portrays Sarah Pierce, a highly educated woman without much satisfaction to speak of in her roles as housewife and mother. She meets Brad (Patrick Wilson), a fellow stay-at-home parent in an impassive marriage and it isn't long before the two get intimate while their respective spouses are away at work. This performance marked Winslet's fifth Oscar nomination.
Overlooked: Annette Bening, Running with Scissors; Shareeka Epps, Half Nelson
Won and should've won: Helen Mirren, The Queen
After the plethora of marvelous Best Supporting Actress contenders in 2002 (none of who were ultimately nominated), Best Lead Actress in 2006 can't help but look a little vacant. The Academy's selections are a respectable fivesome but beyond them, only Epps' startling turn in Half Nelson stands out as an egregious snub. And no, I am not forgetting Beyoncé in Dreamgirls. Catherine O'Hara in For Your Consideration? A memorable performance in a not-so-memorable film but I lean toward a Supporting placement on that one.
Toward the end of the decade, Winslet headlined two anti-suburbia pictures, both insufferable, albeit somewhat salvaged by a great supporting male performance. Of course, I'm referring to Todd Field's Little Children (and Oscar-nominee Jackie Earle Haley, who should've won) and then-hubby Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road (and Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon).
Both Field and Mendes have aced family dramas before, with In the Bedroom and American Beauty, respectively, but I find these two later films awfully tough to endure. Comparative to their prior pictures, the films feel overwrought and phony, the writing's not as sharp and the acting isn't extraordinary enough to make the proceedings worthwhile. These are projects that yearn to be the next The Ice Storm but, from my vantage point at least, miss the mark.
With that said, Winslet's not bad here. For a role I don't consider terribly well-written, she does a convincing job and I for sure prefer this turn over her Oscar-winning one in The Reader. She's not, however, strong enough to really lift the film in a measurable way and rescue it from its dreariness.
A performance that does interject substantial life into an otherwise-passable picture is Streep, whose Miranda Priestly has managed to emerge one of her most iconic roles to date.
The Devil Wears Prada is not exactly my cup of tea. No doubt a picture about Anna Wintour or, as is the case here, one centered on a character closely mirrored after the Vogue editor, should make for fascinating viewing but, with the likes of director David Frankel and screenwriter Alone Brosh McKenna at the helm, not many dividends are paid. It doesn't help that Wintour/Priestly is essentially a supporting player in the picture, the focus much more so on Hathaway's Andy, who's not the most exciting of protagonists.
When Streep does grace the screen, however, Devil can be a lot of fun (though never as pleasurable as the other Devil, She-Devil). Even when the material is thin, Streep is able to juice what she can out of the script and deliver some real zingers. She's also refreshingly restrained in a role that could have totally be utilized to chew scenery.
Volver marked the first time I was not only wowed by a Cruz performance but frankly, even the least bit impressed by one. By the mid-2000s, I'd merely been acquainted with her turns in garbage like Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Gothika and Vanilla Sky, so I had to question why this seemingly skill-free actress was landing these high-profile roles in the first place. Then, I saw Volver, followed by Elegy, and then I caught up on All About My Mother too. And I finally got it. If only Cruz could work on all of Pedro Almodovar's pictures!
First off, Cruz has never, ever looked more more radiant than she does in Volver. The camera is madly in love with her and even though the entire picture has a sumptuous, colorful, painting-like look, Cruz brightens up every single moment she's on the screen, like a ray of sunshine. It's a remarkable turn, though Carmen Maura, Yohana Cobo and Lola Duenas are just as terrific - it's unfair, I think, to single out just one performance, even if Cruz's screen presence is the most enchanting. This is one of Almodovar's very best films and I could see giving Cruz the win in a weaker year.
Earlier, I mentioned how much I appreciated the great subtlety Streep brought to the larger-than-life role of Miranda Priestly. Well, much as I admire the art of reigning oneself in, I can also get a real kick out of, when it's done right, hamming it up, and that's exactly what Dench brings to the table in Richard Eyre's deliriously titillating Notes on a Scandal.
While the picture is a bit more sophisticated than the likes of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Strait-Jacket, I do think Notes and the role of Barbara Covett fit rather nicely into that "hagsploitation"/"psycho-biddy" subgenre of thrillers. (It's not terribly hard to picture Bette Davis having a field day in this role.) Dench ravenously sinks her teeth into the role and manages to completely tower above Blanchett - no small feat, considering what a gangbusters actress the latter is.
I think, however, the Dench Oscar should have come nearly a decade prior, for Mrs. Brown. The Mirren victory was a deserved one.
While I wouldn't rank it among the all-time greats in this category, Mirren in The Queen might just be among the least affected performances I've seen grace the silver screen. She is Queen Elizabeth II, through and through, without a false note to her portrayal. It's not an especially extravagant vehicle, in the traditional 'one Oscar scene after another' sense, but Mirren is so persuasive and compelling that one leaves the picture convinced it's the definitive portrayal of the Queen.
Long live Helen Mirren!
The performances ranked (thus far)...
- Jessica Lange, Frances
- Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
- Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
- Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
- Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
- Meryl Streep, Silkwood
- Jane Alexander, Testament
- Sally Kirkland, Anna
- Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
- Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
- Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
- Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
- Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist
- Cher, Moonstruck
- Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
- Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
- Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
- Kathy Bates, Misery
- Anjelica Huston, The Grifters
- Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair
- Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
- Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
- Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie
- Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
- Sharon Stone, Casino
- Diane Keaton, Reds
- Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
- Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
- Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
- Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
- Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
- Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
- Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
- Helen Mirren, The Queen
- Sissy Spacek, Missing
- Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
- Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
- Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
- Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
- Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
- Meryl Streep, Adaptation
- Penelope Cruz, Volver
- Meryl Streep, One True Thing
- Jodie Foster, The Accused
- Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
- Annette Bening, American Beauty
- Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
- Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
- Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
- Julie Walters, Educating Rita
- Candice Bergen, Starting Over
- Maggie Smith, California Suite
- Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
- Julianne Moore, The Hours
- Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
- Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
- Kate Winslet, Little Children
- Meryl Streep, Ironweed
- Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
- Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
- Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
- Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
- Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
- Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
- Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
- Penelope Milford, Coming Home
- Queen Latifah, Chicago
- Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
- Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
- Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love