20 Years of Streep: 1990 ("Postcards from the Edge")

By 1989, Meryl Streep had graced the silver screen in 15 motion pictures. Thirteen of these were dramas, with the exceptions being Manhattan (in which Streep had a small supporting role) and Heartburn (a critical and financial failure for the many A-listers involved). So, it was about damn time that Streep at last scored a leading role in a successful comedy.

She-Devil, released in '89, found Streep in the broadest, loosest form of her career. Portraying flamboyant romantic novelist Mary Fisher, opposite Roseanne Barr of all people, Streep herself garnered positive notices but the picture flopped even harder than Heartburn, spending one measly week in the box office top 10. Barr's film career was pronounced dead. Streep, of course, was here to stay.

Her follow-up to She-Devil had shades of Heartburn on paper. Postcards from the Edge would reunite Streep with director Mike Nichols (fresh off his success on Working Girl), with Carrie Fisher adapting the screenplay from her best-selling book (not unlike Nora Ephron's page-to-screen adaptation of her Heartburn). In September of 1990, Postcards hit theaters and - whew - was not a catastrophe. Reviews were warm for both Streep and co-star Shirley MacLaine and the picture just did fine at the box office, debuting in the top slot.

Amazingly, however, it would take five years post-Postcards for Streep to make her 10th appearance at the Oscars.

The 1990 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Kathy Bates, Misery

Bates portrays Annie Wilkes, disgraced former nurse and number one fan of best-selling author Paul Sheldon (James Caan, inexplicably not Oscar-nominated). During a wild snowstorm in which Paul's car flies off the road, Annie rescues the writer from sure death and brings him back to her place to recover. Annie is none too pleased, however, when she reads a manuscript for Paul's upcoming novel and isn't keen on letting him leave without a rewrite. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Bates' first Oscar nomination and win.

Anjelica Huston, The Grifters

Huston portrays Lily Dillon, longtime con artist and estranged mother to small-time grifter Roy (John Cusack). Dillon, who plays horse races for the intimidating bookie Bobo (Pat Hingle), pays a visit to Roy while on business in Los Angeles and finds her son in rough physical shape. Fearful he'll die if he continues, Lily urges Roy to quit conning but that's easier said than done, especially since he's dating a grifter himself, the manipulative Myra (Oscar-nominee Annette Bening). This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics, marked Huston's third (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman

Roberts portrays Vivian Ward, a Los Angeles hooker (with a heart of gold, of course) who's picked up one evening by dashing corporate raider Edward (Richard Gere). Romance blossoms as Roxette and Roy Orbison fill the air. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Roberts' second Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge

Streep portrays actress and recovering addict Suzanne Vale who, upon leaving rehab, must move in with mom Doris (Shirley MacLaine, one of her all-time great turns) as a condition of remaining employed. Maintaining her sobriety (and sanity) proves a challenge for Suzanne, who for her whole life has yearned to escape the shadow of her mother, a brash, boozy and beloved Hollywood legend. This performance marked Streep's ninth Oscar nomination.

Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge

Woodward portrays Mrs. India Bridge, a wife and mother who, alongside husband Walter (Paul Newman), struggles to keep up with the changing times in 1940s-era Kansas City. While Walter is emotionally distant and squarely focused on his law practice, India is a warmer, more optimistic presence, yet can't establish any sort of independence from her husband, nor fully relate to her children, who have grown wary of their parents' traditional values. This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, marked Woodward's fourth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Laura Dern, Wild at Heart; Mia Farrow, Alice; Whoopi Goldberg, The Long Walk Home; Michelle Pfeiffer, The Russia House; Winona Ryder, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael; Sissy Spacek, The Long Walk Home

Won and should've won: Kathy Bates, Misery

Another year, another downright mind-boggling Mia Farrow snub.

By this point in Farrow's career, she deserved a minimum of two Oscar nominations (for Rosemary's Baby and The Purple Rose of Cairo), arguably three (she's terrific in Hannah and Her Sisters, albeit the least compelling of the three ladies). Alice totally should've been the vehicle to at last secure her a nod and indeed, Farrow roared out of the starting gates in the 1990 awards season with a Best Lead Actress victory from the National Board of Review. Then came Oscar nominations morning and - sigh - nada, again. This, despite Woody Allen garnering a screenwriting nod for the film.

What makes the Farrow omission all the more egregious is the Academy's fivesome in 1990 isn't that spectacular. While I am fond of four of the recognized performances, there's not a true powerhouse turn to be found. In hindsight, forget just a nomination, this probably should've been the year Farrow won an Oscar.

Soft a spot as I have for the late filmmaker Garry Marshall, the one nominee I'm not terribly fond of here is Roberts, in the Marshall-directed box office smash Pretty Woman.

It's not hard to see why Pretty Woman was such a sensation upon release. Roberts and Gere, both more or less at their peaks on the A-list, have rarely looked so fetching and do share some dynamite chemistry. Also, 1990 was not exactly a fertile year for romantic comedies. At a time when the lackluster likes of Bird on a Wire, Crazy People and Joe Versus the Volcano represented the genre, there was a palpable hunger for a halfway decent romcom.

Much as I love a good romance, however, I've never been quite on board with Pretty Woman, nor Roberts' performance. Marshall was a director very much capable of filming a fine turn - Michelle Pfeiffer, for instance, would've been a deserving Oscar nominee for his Frankie and Johnny the following year -  but I don't think Roberts in Pretty Woman is among them. Yes, she's a solid match for Gere and sure, the soundtrack is aces, but this isn't a remarkable piece of acting in any way. Frankly, I think I prefer Roberts' work in another Marshall-directed film, 1999's Runaway Bride, not that I would have recognized her for that either. I know she has her passionate proponents and I respect that. I just think it's kind of an absurd nomination when someone like Farrow was stuck on the sidelines.

The other four honorees are leaps and bounds superior to Roberts though, as I said, there's not really a Goldberg in The Color Purple among them.

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge is not, I would argue, among the top tier of Merchant Ivory productions. It lacks the sumptuous look and feel of a Howards End or The Remains of the Day and, for much of the proceedings, moves like molasses. It is, however, completely worth a look for at least one reason - it's the final feature film pairing of real-life husband and wife Newman and Woodward. And, even if their film largely fails to make the leap from ordinary to extraordinary, both actors are in sublime form.

Both leading turns are restrained ones, effectively so. Neither Newman nor Woodward are presented with a plethora of 'Oscar-scenes' but couldn't be more convincing as a couple stuck in their stuffy, conservative ways. Woodward quietly and powerfully conveys India's struggles to maintain a sanguine outlook on life while her priggish husband and more forward-thinking children are at such odds. It's not an extravagantly showy turn in any way but still a memorable one and what a pleasure it is to see Woodward, who won her Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve in 1958, garnering recognition into the 1990s.

Streep places a respectable third for me this year, in her first Oscar-nominated comic turn. I think Postcards from the Edge should've been even more potent than it ultimately is - the starry supporting players are underused and at just over an hour and a half, it feels curiously fleeting - but still, given the brilliant work of Streep and MacLaine, plus plenty of powerful dialogue from Fisher, it satisfies.

I actually think MacLaine, taking on the Debbie Reynolds role, is even more riveting than Streep here (the "I'm Still Here" scene is among the all-time great MacLaine movie moments and Postcards often loses its potency when she's off-screen) but the latter still has plenty of meaty material to work with. The picture's best scene, in which Suzanne and Doris let off some steam on the latter's staircase, gives both Streep and MacLaine the license to really tear it up. I'm also particularly fond of a less hostile scene between the two toward the film's end, when Suzanne visits her mom in the hospital.

In the end, however, this race is more or less a jump ball for me between Huston and Bates, two of my very favorite actresses.

I say Huston's Oscar should've come not for 1985's Prizzi's Honor (in which she's memorable but hardly on the level of that year's Color Purple honorees), for which she actually took home the prize, but for her devastating turn opposite Martin Landau in 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Huston was instead nominated for that year's Enemies: A Love Story, in which she's very good, but there's something so haunting about her work in the Woody Allen picture.

I do think The Grifters is the strongest of her three Oscar-nominated performances. It's an exhilarating, often unsettling turn that runs a gamut of emotions and it's clear Huston had an absolute blast in the role. She's also so much stronger than Cusack and Bening. I think what I love about Huston is how lived-in she is in all of her roles. By comparison, her two co-stars here seem to be playing dress-up.

I would have been whole-heartedly fine with Huston picking up a second Oscar here. Alas, by the tiniest of margins, I think I prefer Bates here.

I have long been enamored with Bates and Misery, though I would concede Dolores Claiborne is the superior Stephen King film adaptation all-around (absolutely nuts that Columbia Pictures dumped that one with a March release date but we'll get to that in the 1995 race). A horror buff and Bates super-fan, I have been watching Misery on an annual basis since at least age 10, perhaps even earlier. I can recall having my parents constantly rent the film out for me from the local video store...damn you, you cockadoodie R-rating!

Bates (and Caan, who's just as fantastic) hits all of the right notes as the cheery-turned-chilling Annie Wilkes. Toward the start of the picture, Annie couldn't be a warmer, more wonderful presence, hardly the second-coming of Nurse Ratched. Then, there's some eyebrow-raising behavior, which becomes exasperated when Annie is rubbed the wrong way. By the film's midway point, the audience feels just as horrified and helpless as Paul Sheldon. Bates is served well by Rob Reiner's direction - he no doubt saw the bravura performance he was capturing, so he allows his leading lady to completely take over the screen, giving her the license - and a very effective one at that - to speak directly to the camera on several occasions.

I wouldn't label Bates' turn in Misery as the finest of her career - I don't even consider it her best Oscar-nominated performance (that's Primary Colors) - but it's still one hell of an effort and a richly deserved win.

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