20 Years of Streep: 2008 ("Doubt")

On the heels of the spectacular box office success of The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep was more a household name than ever. Even teens and twentysomethings who weren't terribly familiar with Streep's body of work prior to Prada could now instantly identify the actress who made Miranda Priestly a big screen icon. She quickly hopped aboard three projects for 2007, all of which screamed 'Oscar bait' on paper and unfortunately, all of which tanked upon release.

First, there was Evening, a supremely sleepy drama which, despite the presence of heavyweights including Streep, Glenn Close, Claire Danes and Vanessa Redgrave, failed to leave much of an impression at all. Faring even worse was CIA thriller Rendition, with Streep in a Manchurian Candidate-like villainous supporting role, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon (stunningly, this was Witherspoon's follow-up to Walk the Line). The film was laughed off the screen by critics and ignored by audiences, spending a single week in the box office top 10.

Streep's final 2007 release, the war drama Lions for Lambs, was met with a collective shrug when it hit theaters in November. This, despite the picture marking Streep's long-awaited reunion with Out of Africa leading man Robert Redford and also Redford's first directorial effort in nearly a decade. Streep, no surprise, did not surface for any of these pictures on Oscar nominations morning.

The following year, thankfully, would prove a whole lot brighter.

While even the most ardent Streep aficionados may be prone to poking fun at ABBA movie musical Mamma Mia!, the Summer 2008 release was an unimpeachable box office smash, eclipsing even the success of The Devil Wears Prada. Once again, Streep was riding sky-high on the A-list. It was her next release, however, that would win back the affection of critics, who weren't exactly keen on the ABBA flick and definitely not enamored with her efforts the year prior.

Back in 1987, while Streep was losing on Oscar night for Ironweed, screenwriter John Patrick Shanley's Moonstruck fared splendidly with the Academy, picking up three Oscars, including one for Shanley's exquisite script. Fast-forward two decades and Shanley was ready to hit the big screen with his first directorial effort since 1990's Joe Versus the Volcano. The project? A film adaptation of his play Doubt, which proved the toast of the Tony Awards three years prior. 

Headlining Doubt would be none other than a star who Moonstruck's Cher defeated back at the '87 Oscars. And no, I'm not referring to Sally Kirkland.

The 2008 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Hathaway portrays Kym Buchman, a recovering addict temporarily released from rehab so she can attend sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt)'s wedding. Kym's presence proves challenging for family and friends, as Rachel frowns upon father Paul (Bill Irwin)'s pampering of Kym; Kym resents Rachel for selecting a friend instead of her own sister to be maid of honor; and self-centered mother Abby (Debra Winger) spurs tension with both of her daughters. This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors from the National Board of Review, marked Hathaway's first Oscar nomination.

Angelina Jolie, Changeling

Jolie portrays Christine Collins, a single mom who, in 1920s Los Angeles, arrives home to find son Walter missing. Months later, amidst Christine's grueling search, "Walter" is suddenly found in Illinois. Problem is, it's not really her son. This inspires Christine to challenge the L.A. police force, a move that leads to authorities slandering her as an unfit mother. This performance marked Jolie's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Leo portrays Ray Eddy, a working-class upstate New York mom in desperate need of money after her husband abandons the family. Ray meets Lila (Misty Upham), a widowed woman who resides on a reservation at the U.S.-Canadian border and earns a living smuggling immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River. Before long, Ray is joining Lila on these dangerous trafficking missions. This performance marked Leo's first Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, Doubt

Streep portrays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the ironclad, domineering principal at the St. Nicholas School in the Bronx, circa-1964. When fellow nun Sister James (Oscar-nominee Amy Adams) reveals her concerns about the unusual amount of time Father Flynn (Oscar-nominee Philip Seymour Hoffman) is spending alone with a new student, Sister Aloysius makes it her mission to bring down the priest, even though she hasn't a shred of evidence to prove any wrongdoing. This performance, which won her a Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Streep's 15th Oscar nomination.

Kate Winslet, The Reader

Winslet portrays Hanna Schmitz, a mysterious woman who enters into a covert affair with teenager Michael (David Cross) in postwar Germany. The two establish a deep bond as Michael reads one classic book after another to her. Then, suddenly, she disappears. Nearly a decade later, Michael at last comes across Hanna again, under the most unlikely and tragic of circumstances. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award and BAFTA Award, marked Winslet's sixth Oscar nomination and first win.

Overlooked: Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Penelope Cruz, Elegy; Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky; Frances McDormand, Burn After Reading; Kristin Scott-Thomas, I've Loved You So Long; Emma Thompson, Last Chance Harvey; Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy

Won: Kate Winslet, The Reader

Should've won: Melissa Leo, Frozen River

After the ghost town that was Best Lead Actress in 2006, 2008 offered up a far more fruitful field of fantastic leading ladies. This is one of those years where you could throw all five Oscar nominees overboard - not that you'd want to, given a few of the incredible turns recognized - and bring aboard a fivesome of non-nominees just as terrific.

It's too bad Blanchett, so exquisite and underappreciated here, couldn't ride Benjamin Button's coattails to a nomination. Likewise, Cruz and Scott-Thomas do some career-best work in Elegy and I've Loved You So Long, respectively. If only more than a mere handful of moviegoers had bothered to check out those two pictures. Hall, Hawkins and McDormand? All in fabulous form this year too.

In hindsight, this field is a bit more robust than I recall it being, which frankly makes the Winslet victory all the more exasperating.

I consider Winslet a very fine actress and in fact flirt with giving her the win, not here but in 2001, for her nominated turn in Iris. Much as I admire her, however, I'm not always so enamored with her films and this was especially the case during the 2000s, when Winslet was prone to attaching herself to the stinkiest of Oscar bait - the likes of The Life of David Gale, All the King's Men, Revolutionary Road and yes, The Reader, one of the worst films to ever grace Best Picture at the Oscars.

As is the case with The Reader, Winslet does not give a bad performance in even the least successful of Oscar bait but she's also not strong enough to lift the film in a consequential way.

The Reader is a truly horrendous motion picture, so bombastic and overbaked it almost plays like a parody of awards-hungry cinema. Director Stephen Daldry has had the advantage of being able to lean heavily on his actors before (i.e. The Hours) but here, Winslet, Cross and Ralph Fiennes are essentially just going through the motions, interjecting little life into the drab proceedings. Winslet fares best in the picture's early-going, when it's at its most tolerable, but even then she's not all that compelling.

Also stuck in a lackluster film, albeit one much more watchable than the Daldry picture, is Jolie.

Clint Eastwood is no stranger to delivering a masterful motion picture as a director (go back and see my salivating thoughts on The Bridges of Madison County in 1995) but, after the grand success of Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima in the mid-2000s, Eastwood's track record took a spotty turn toward the close of the decade. Gran Torino aside, Changeling, Invictus, Hereafter and J. Edgar all lost money and failed to generate much enthusiasm from critics or audiences.

Specifically problematic about Changeling and J. Edgar are their restless running times; thin screenplays; and an overstylized look and feel. I would toss the likes of Brian de Palma's The Black Dahlia and Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, both of which also sank on the silver screen around this time, into this batch of failed Oscar-wannabes.

Unlike Winslet in her picture, Jolie does transcend the mediocrity of Changeling, at least to some extent, as does co-star John Malkovich. It's a capable, sufficiently convincing portrayal that probably could have really shined if the focus were not so heavily on nailing the production design. She does not strike a false note as a prohibition-era woman, even if the film itself comes off so phony and manufactured. Still, for those who haven't seen the film, it's not a remarkable-enough performance to really make Changeling worth a look.

Beyond The Reader and Changeling, this line-up (whew) sports a whole lot more to like.

In mulling over Streep's turn in Doubt, I can't help but contrast it with the other two nun portrayals I've reviewed thus far - Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking and Anne Bancroft in Agnes of God. Streep, I think, falls smack-dab in the middle. It's a portrayal that lacks the alluring nuance of Sarandon's Oscar-winning work (also, Doubt is no Dead Man Walking) but is still plenty engrossing and not overwrought like Bancroft's turn (and yes, Doubt is much more preferable to Agnes of God).

I have not seen a stage production of Doubt, so I cannot compare the picture to its inspiration. What I will say, however, is while I don't find Shanley an especially compelling filmmaker, he does set the stage here for his performers to completely tear it up on the screen and, thankfully, all of the actors are game.

Sans at the film's conclusion, Streep is a little one-note here but, given the material, it's hard to fathom how one could play it otherwise (perhaps Cherry Jones managed to find more layers on Broadway). Also, I love love LOVE her extended scene with Davis (who should've won that Oscar over Penelope Cruz), even though it completely belongs to her co-star. While for sure not among her best work, I'm cool with the Doubt nod and, as will be noted below, would rank it close to the middle of her Oscar nominations.

Streep's Devil Wears Prada co-star leaves more of an impression here.

Rachel Getting Married is not, I don't think, quite top-tier Jonathan Demme. The acting is all-around astounding (a shame Irwin, Winger and especially DeWitt never much caught fire that awards season) and so much of the dialogue rings painfully true but I haven't seen wedding scenes go on and on and on and on like this since The Deer Hunter. With a little editing and tightening, I could absolutely see ranking Rachel alongside the likes of Something Wild and Married to the Mob, though still a bit below his best, The Silence of the Lambs and Beloved.

Hathaway's Kym is for sure her most compelling turn to date which, to be fair, doesn't say a ton, given so much of her filmography has been fluff.

It's a vivid and absorbing portrayal of an addict (not unlike prior nominee Marsha Mason in Only When I Laugh, though lacking some of the gravitas of that tour-de-force performance) and Demme's documentary-like vision makes her performance feel all the more real. Two scenes I'm especially taken with - Rachel confronting Kym about lies she told during rehab and Rachel later taking Kym in and comforting her sister after a disastrous encounter with their mother. It strikes me as nuts Hathaway could be nominated without DeWitt too but hey, one Oscar nod is better than none.

Much as I admire Hathaway and get a kick out of Streep too, Leo pretty handily takes the cake for me this year.

The first Leo performance I ever saw was her Oscar-winning one in The Fighter, which I adored then and still find supremely entertaining. It wasn't until after her victory that I caught up on Frozen River and thank heavens I finally did. It's a transfixing, devastating turn, absolutely among the most gripping efforts recognized in Best Lead Actress over the 2000s.

Both Leo and co-star Upham (who, at age 32, died tragically in 2014) brilliantly capture the desperation of this unlikely duo, and kudos to Charlie McDermott and Michael O'Keefe too for memorable, understated supporting turns. The toast of Sundance in 2008, we should all be grateful to film festivals for catapulting pictures like Frozen River and performances like Leo's to Oscar glory.

Unlike The Reader and Changeling, so over-the-top-obvious in their craving for awards season attention, Frozen River is an unassuming film that soars on the quiet strengths of its actors and screenwriter. Bravo to this small but superb picture.

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. Diane Keaton, Reds
  28. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  29. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  30. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  31. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
  32. Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
  33. Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
  34. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  35. Helen Mirren, The Queen
  36. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  37. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
  38. Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
  39. Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
  40. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
  41. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  42. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  43. Meryl Streep, Adaptation
  44. Penelope Cruz, Volver
  45. Meryl Streep, Doubt
  46. Meryl Streep, One True Thing
  47. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  48. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  49. Annette Bening, American Beauty
  50. Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
  51. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  52. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  53. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  54. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  55. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  56. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
  57. Julianne Moore, The Hours
  58. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  59. Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
  60. Angelina Jolie, Changeling
  61. Kate Winslet, Little Children
  62. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  63. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  64. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  65. Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
  66. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  67. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  68. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  69. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
  70. Kate Winslet, The Reader
  71. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  72. Queen Latifah, Chicago
  73. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  74. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
  75. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love