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)...
- 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
- Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
- 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
- Judi Dench, Philomena
- Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
- Meryl Streep, Adaptation
- Penelope Cruz, Volver
- Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
- Meryl Streep, Doubt
- Sandra Bullock, Gravity
- 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, August: Osage County
- 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
- Amy Adams, American Hustle
- Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love