20 Years of Streep: 2013 ("August: Osage County")

In 2006, Meryl Streep and director David Frankel scored box office gold - the greatest financial success of Streep's career at that point - with The Devil Wears Prada. Given her affection for working alongside filmmakers on several occasions (see Nichols, Schepisi and Benton, among others) it was a sure thing the paths of Streep and Frankel would cross again.

That reunion went down six years later with Hope Springs, a genial, breezy dramedy that at last paired Streep with Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones. While hardly an iconic smash on the level of Devil, the picture, which found both stars in fine form (particularly Jones, in one of his best recent performances), was warmly received by critics and audiences alike. No Oscar nominations, however, would come to fruition.

That 18th Oscar nod would instead land for Streep in 2013, with the release of August: Osage County, TV producer John Wells' screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts play. Despite Letts penning the script and an all-star cast, the film opened to tepid reviews and comparably modest box office grosses. Not that a middling reception has prevented Streep from drawing Oscar love before...

The 2013 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Amy Adams, American Hustle

Adams portrays Sydney Prosser, glamorous grifter and partner to fellow con artist Irving (Oscar-nominee Christian Bale). Caught by hotheaded FBI agent DiMaso (Oscar-nominee Bradley Cooper), the two are forced to work undercover in a sting operation to bring down a corrupt New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner). This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Adams' fifth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Blanchett portrays Jasmine Francis, a New York socialite who, having suffered a nervous breakdown following the dissolution of her marriage to the disgraced Hal (Alec Baldwin), moves in with her unpretentious sister Ginger (Oscar-nominee Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. In emotional shambles and without much in the way of job skills, Jasmine still finds time to demean those around her. This performance, which won her honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award and BAFTA Award, marked Blanchett's sixth Oscar nomination and second win.

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Bullock portrays Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission. Working alongside veteran astronaut Matt (George Clooney) on a routine spacewalk, their effort is interrupted when debris from a Russian satellite catastrophically strikes the shuttle, leaving the rest of the crew dead. The sole survivors, surrounded by silent blackness, must find a way to reach safety before the debris field returns. This performance marked Bullock's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Judi Dench, Philomena

Dench portrays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who for 50 years has waged an agonizing search for her son, put up for adoption by nuns to an American couple. She meets disgraced former journalist Martin (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay), who takes an interest in Philomena's extraordinary story and arranges for a profile piece that might just lead her to some answers. This performance marked Dench's seventh (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Streep portrays Violet Weston, impossible matriarch of Osage County, Oklahoma's Weston family. More a hot mess than ever following the death of husband Beverly (Sam Shepard), Violet, who is battling oral cancer and addicted to narcotics, is joined by the rest the Weston clan, including her three daughters (Oscar-nominee Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis), for the funeral. Tensions run high as Violet targets everyone with a dose of her "truth-telling." This performance marked Streep's 18th Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight; Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Won and should've won: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Venturing into this particular Oscar night, I recall thinking to myself, despite nearly all pundits banking on Blanchett to triumph, that Adams could emerge victorious in Best Lead Actress, in an Adrien Brody sort of way. That is, she was the only contender of the five without a golden statue and to boot, on nomination #5, was beginning to be seen as somewhat due for a win. Plus, for what it's worth, she did win the Golden Globe.

Well, thank heavens that never came to fruition. Much as I like Adams in general, and probably could have supported her for victory the year prior (in Best Supporting Actress for The Master), she's slumming it big time for me this year, in one of my all-time least favorite Best Picture nominees.

Adams is hardly the worst part of American Hustle (that would be Jennifer Lawrence, in a constipated, Razzie-caliber performance), in fact she's perhaps among the most tolerable things it has going for it. She looks spectacular but ultimately, she's all dressed up with nowhere to go, in an empty, sanctimonious picture that thinks it can hide its worthlessness by blasting wall-to-wall '70s rock. It's a film that elicits responses like "love that song" or "adore those costumes...brings back so much nostalgia" and manages to win over many viewers, even though there's not a clever or genuine thing really happening on the screen. This picture makes me so mad! And Adams, while not Gwyneth Paltrow-bad, succumbs to David O. Russell's flat direction and screenplay. UGH.

Moving on, this category gets so, so much better.

I had the immense pleasure of catching August: Osage County during its Broadway run, with the incomparable Estelle Parsons completely killing it as Violet Weston. The stage production might well be among the finest plays I've ever seen in person, so I can't help but be a little underwhelmed with John Wells' merely workmanlike film adaptation. There's no shortage of marvelous acting here, especially from Roberts and Nicholson, but a feeling of staginess for sure lingers over the proceedings and the director brings little filmmaking flair of note to the table.

Streep's turn, while nowhere near as fierce or convincing (or downright terrifying) as Parsons', is still a lot of fun. Donning a big black wig and chowing down on scenery, this is the closest thing to Mommie Dearest the actress has ever done. The performance lacks the nuance some of the supporting players bring to their roles but still, Streep has a ball with the Letts dialogue and even if we never fully buy her as Violet, it's still a blast watching her duel with Roberts.

Oh Academy, if you'd only waited just a bit, you could have awarded Bullock for a decent performance.

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity might be an epic, CGI-packed sci-fi spectacular but there's no overshadowing its leading lady. While the film looks sensational and Cuaron's Oscar-winning direction is so tense it's suffocating, Gravity would not work at all without a commanding performance at its center and Bullock pulls it off perfectly. Her desperation is plenty palpable, as we ride a riotous roller coaster of emotions with the character. This has to be Bullock's finest work to date (though - keep this on the down-low - I have a super-soft spot for The Net) and, in a little weaker a year, I could see supporting her for victory.

As I mentioned a few years prior, I believe Dench's Oscar should have arrived not for Shakespeare in Love (an Oscar instead deserved by Kathy Bates or Lynn Redgrave) but for Mrs. Brown in 1997. While this Dame has had quite the filmography over the past two decades, no performance has topped the tour-de-force work she does in that John Madden picture.

That said, she is such a delight in Philomena and I would have been wholeheartedly fine with her triumphing here. The film is really something special, decidedly a step-up from the amusing fluff that was Dench and director Stephen Frears' collaboration on Mrs. Henderson Presents... (which also netted the actress an Oscar nod). Despite the sorrowful subject matter, Dench has a number of side-splittingly funny moments in the picture (I die when she flirts with watching Big Momma's House). For the most part, however, it is indeed an aggravating and tragic story and Dench sells it beautifully. It's one of her most sensitive and subtle turns to date and she and Coogan (an actor who, frankly, I'm not typically so fond of) make for a marvelous team.

Alas, I think the Academy got this one right.

Among Blanchett's Oscar nominations, I believe she has deserved to prevail on two occasions - for this and, even though it's blatant category fraud, Notes on a Scandal. I do get a kick out of her Kate Hepburn in The Aviator but that totally should have been Virginia Madsen's victory.

Blanchett's Jasmine is one of the all-time great hot messes to grace the silver screen (and among the most compellingly written Woody Allen characters). Another actress could have surely overplayed it but Blanchett strikes precisely the right notes, managing to draw empathy from viewers, even as she alienates most of the other figures on-screen.

I don't think Blue Jasmine itself is quite among the top tier (alongside Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors) in Allen cinema but at least reaches the same heights as fine films like Husbands and Wives, Alice and Stardust Memories. Its leading lady, however, is surely up there with the most stirring turns to lead an Allen picture, a testament to the filmmaker's ability to still occasionally capture a virtuoso performance, even as his filmography becomes more and more scattershot.

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. Melissa Leo, Frozen River
  27. Viola Davis, The Help
  28. Diane Keaton, Reds
  29. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  30. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  31. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  32. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
  33. Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
  34. Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
  35. Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
  36. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  37. Helen Mirren, The Queen
  38. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
  39. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  40. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
  41. Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
  42. Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
  43. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
  44. Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  45. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  46. Judi Dench, Philomena
  47. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  48. Meryl Streep, Adaptation
  49. Penelope Cruz, Volver
  50. Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
  51. Meryl Streep, Doubt
  52. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
  53. Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
  54. Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
  55. Meryl Streep, One True Thing
  56. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  57. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  58. Helen Mirren, The Last Station
  59. Annette Bening, American Beauty
  60. Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
  61. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  62. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  63. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  64. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  65. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  66. Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
  67. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
  68. Julianne Moore, The Hours
  69. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  70. Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
  71. Angelina Jolie, Changeling
  72. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
  73. Kate Winslet, Little Children
  74. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  75. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  76. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  77. Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
  78. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  79. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  80. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  81. Carey Mulligan, An Education
  82. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
  83. Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
  84. Kate Winslet, The Reader
  85. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  86. Queen Latifah, Chicago
  87. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  88. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
  89. Amy Adams, American Hustle
  90. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love