In 1979, while Meryl Streep was kicking ass with an exemplary trio of motion pictures (Kramer vs. Kramer, Manhattan and The Seduction of Joe Tynan), a glass ceiling was shattered across the pond with the election of Margaret Thatcher to the position of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The first woman to hold this office, Thatcher, leader of the country's Conservative Party, would go on to serve three terms as Prime Minister. Her polarizing tenure was marked by the deregulation of the nation's financial sector; reduction in the power and influence of unions; and victory in the Falklands War, waged in 1982 (the year of Sophie's Choice!) between the United Kingdom and Argentina. With Thatcherism fatigue setting in by the decade's end, Thatcher resigned from her post in 1990.
Over the span of the Thatcher administration, Streep racked up seven of her Oscar nominations, including two wins. Odds are, not in her wildest dreams could she have imagined what role would land the actress her 17th career Oscar nod and that elusive third victory...
The 2011 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Close portrays Albert Nobbs, a timid butler in 19th century Ireland who hides a remarkable secret - he is in fact a she. Albert has long maintained a low profile but the entrance of Hubert (Oscar-nominee Janet McTeer), also a woman masquerading as a man, inspires her to open up. Hubert lives with a partner who is supportive of her lifestyle and Albert believes, with devastating consequences, that co-worker Helen (Mia Wasikowska) may be able to provide the same comfort. This performance marked Close's sixth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.
Viola Davis, The Help
Davis portrays Aibileen Clark, a hardworking, worn-out African-American housekeeper in 1960s Mississippi. Aibileen is approached by society girl and aspiring author Skeeter (Emma Stone), who wishes to profile the black women who have dedicated their lives to serving white southern families. At first reluctant to participate, Aibileen, who for years has put up with her employers' shit, eventually relents and also inspires other maids to share their stories. This performance, which won her a Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Davis' second Oscar nomination.
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Mara portrays Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant but scarred computer hacker, the survivor of extreme emotional and sexual abuse. Salander aides disgraced journalist Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) in investigating the disappearance of business magnate Vanger (Christopher Plummer)'s niece, lost for four decades. Salander and Blomkvist grow close as they uncover a series of corruption, abuse and murder that leaves the duo stunned. This performance marked Mara's first Oscar nomination.
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Streep portrays Margaret Thatcher who, battling dementia in her final years, reflects on her storied life, from a middle-class upbringing, working in her father's grocery store, through her lengthy and controversial tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. This performance, which won her honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, a BAFTA Award and a Golden Globe, marked Streep's 17th Oscar nomination and third victory.
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
Williams portrays Marilyn Monroe who, over the summer of 1956, films The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Sir Laurence Olivier (Oscar-nominee Kenneth Branagh) in England. Exhausted by work, Monroe, though married at this time to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), takes up production assistant Colin (Eddie Redmayne)'s offer to spend a relaxing week in the quaint British countryside. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Williams' third Oscar nomination.
Overlooked: Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin; Charlize Theron, Young Adult; Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids
Won: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Should've won: Viola Davis, The Help
Look, I get it. After a dozen consecutive losses, there was a plenty palpable sense of Streep being way due for Oscar #3. If only the Academy could've gotten the job done two years prior, or the year before that, instead of awarding her on one of her worst nominations. For my money, giving Streep an Oscar for The Iron Lady is not much worse than providing her the win for Music of the Heart.
Not that Streep's impersonation of Lady Thatcher isn't a spot-on one - per usual, she nails the dialect and looks the part to boot - but, unusual for her, she never really convinces in the role. The entire time, it feels like Streep is playing mere dress-up and it hardly helps that the rest of the picture, directed by Mamma Mia!'s Phyllida Lloyd, is a flat-out catastrophe.
The Iron Lady is so tedious and haphazardly structured, it nearly brings down Streep's performance with it. On occasion, she is able to transcend the proceedings but is never quite strong enough to lift the film into something truly compelling. Besides Lloyd, credit screenwriter Abi Morgan for somehow crafting a screenplay on Margaret Thatcher that is never the least bit engrossing or enlightening. If you're interested in learning about Thatcher's life and career, and not just aiming to watch every single nominated Streep performance, check out BBC's four-part documentary series instead.
No offense to Streep but beyond her winning performance, this is actually a pretty fantastic category.
Like Streep, Williams graces a picture that is quite a bit inferior to her performance. Unlike The Iron Lady, however, My Week with Marilyn is at least a watchable piece of cinema.
There's really only one problem with Marilyn but it's a big one and, if not for the rest of the talent gracing the screen, could've been a fatal flaw. Redmayne, marvelous as he is in his Oscar-winning The Theory of Everything turn, is stunningly boring here - and just as much, if not more of a lead than Williams. Thankfully, he's surrounded by a game and entertaining cast, including Branagh, Julia Ormond and Judi Dench, all having a blast portraying a host of acting legends. The film looks fabulous too.
As for Williams, she makes for a completely credible Monroe and, in a way, acting opposite the nothingness that is Redmayne makes her performance all the more stand out. It's a sensitive portrayal that beautifully captures the star's yearnings and vulnerabilities and Williams has a screen presence just bright enough to compete with Monroe's. This isn't exactly a Frances-level Oscar vehicle but Williams is still a pleasure to spend an hour and a half with, even if her leading man has the allure of an extra on The Walking Dead.
Headlining the only great picture among the five nominees is the chameleon-like Mara, dead-on believable in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Like Marilyn, this is a film that just wouldn't have worked without a successful casting of its leading lady. Mara proves a perfect fit for Salander - it's gritty, absorbing and ultimately heartbreaking performance, nicely matched by Craig, in one of his more underrated turns. I think the picture itself is at least half an hour too long and the real MVP is Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography but still, it's fabulous, gripping work by Mara that never strikes a false note. (Also, for what it's worth, I do think Mara should've prevailed for Carol.)
Albert Nobbs is fascinating to me. I know many are not so keen on the film, nor Close's performance for that matter. There are stretches in the picture that are downright lethargic and there is something aloof-feeling about it all but Close's work still grabs me in a significant way (and McTeer is stunning too). It's an assured, lived-in portrayal of one awfully tricky character that, even if the film itself is plagued with problems, very much lingers with me.
Close's Albert Nobbs has the resemblance of a mannequin, lifeless, devoid of emotion, and her temperament is stilted and awkward. I can see why this performance doesn't grab everyone, and in fact leaves many feeling entirely disconnected, but I for one see immense nuance in the work Close is doing here.
Through the most subtle of expressions, Close paints a truly tortured and tragic figure, desperate to at last let her guard down and find emotional fulfillment to go along with professional success. This is in ingenious performance, by one of the most brilliant actresses to ever grace the silver screen, that sure could have used a better film.
Much as I love Close, I'm still mad Davis didn't prevail here.
The Help is hardly a perfect film - it's for sure among the safest, most sanitized portrayals of the 1960s civil rights movement captured in a motion picture. Of the five films here, I would rank it just above The Iron Lady, which is a terrible piece of cinema. That said, director Tate Taylor luckily has one hell of an acting ensemble to lean on, and boy do they deliver the goods, even if their filmmaker is a hack. Beyond Davis, you have Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek, among others, turning in fabulous work.
That said, Davis is the heart and soul of The Help. It's a heartrending, unforgettable leading turn from an actress who's proven she can steal entire films with just ten minutes of screen time. On paper, the "you is smart, you is kind, you is important" line reads as more banal than anything but Davis manages to deliver it (multiple times) in a way that is downright devastating.
Davis is marvelous in all of her endeavors, even briefly managing to make Suicide Squad tolerable, but I'm not sure she'll ever be in finer form than she is here. It's among the best performances of the past decade.
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
- Melissa Leo, Frozen River
- Viola Davis, The Help
- 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
- Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
- 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
- Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
- Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
- Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
- Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
- Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
- Meryl Streep, Adaptation
- Penelope Cruz, Volver
- Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
- Meryl Streep, Doubt
- Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
- Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
- Meryl Streep, One True Thing
- Jodie Foster, The Accused
- Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
- Helen Mirren, The Last Station
- 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
- Angelina Jolie, Changeling
- Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
- 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
- Carey Mulligan, An Education
- Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
- Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
- Kate Winslet, The Reader
- Penelope Milford, Coming Home
- Queen Latifah, Chicago
- Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
- Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
- Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love