20 Years of Streep: 2009 ("Julie & Julia")

In 1977, the year Meryl Streep made her feature film debut in Julia, Nora Ephron was working full-time as a columnist for Esquire, penning memorable pieces on the likes of controversial Boston University President John Silber and the series finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

By the time, six years later, Ephron made her own big screen debut as screenwriter of the Streep-headlined Silkwood, Streep had two Oscar victories under her belt. The success of Silkwood in 1983 set expectations supremely high for their collaboration on 1986's Heartburn, based on the acclaimed Ephron semi-autobiographical novel - anticipation that would make that picture's ultimate lukewarm response all the more disappointing.

Not that Heartburn proved catastrophic for Ephron or Streep, of course. Ephron's grand success on the screenplay of romcom mega hit When Harry Met Sally...(Oscar nomination #2) in 1989 largely eclipsed the underwhelming reception to her other efforts (Cookie, My Blue Heaven and directorial debut This Is My Life) at the turn of the decade and 1993's Sleepless in Seattle (Oscar nod #3) proved even more a smash than the Billy Crystal-Meg Ryan film.

From there, Ephron's track record was hit-or-miss. She directed a couple of box office hits (1996's Michael and 1998's You've Got Mail) but neither attained the critical acclaim of When Harry Met Sally... More pronounced were the flops - 1994's Mixed Nuts, 2000's Lucky Numbers and 2005's Bewitched. Her 2006 book I Feel Bad About My Neck, a #1 New York Times best-seller, served as a reminder of Ephron's brilliance and it was inevitable, despite the recent tanking of Bewitched, that she'd have scant problem landing another project.

That project, sadly her final one before her death in 2012, would reunite her with none other than the actress who graced Ephron's first feature film.

The 2009 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

Bullock portrays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a headstrong interior designer who, to the bewilderment of some in her white, southern, Christian conservative community, takes in Michael Oher (Quentin Aaron) a homeless African-American teen who has been in and out of foster care. When Michael expresses an interest in football, Leigh Anne is determined to ensure his abilities are put to use. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Bullock's first Oscar nomination and win.

Helen Mirren, The Last Station

Mirren portrays Sofya Andreyevna, wife of beloved Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (Oscar-nominee Christopher Plummer). While still very much in love, Sofya and Leo spar over who will control the Tolstoy works after his death - she would like the copyrights bestowed upon her, while he prefers they be placed into the public domain. This performance marked Mirren's fourth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Carey Mulligan, An Education

Mulligan portrays Jenny Mellor, a bright and beautiful teenager, prepping for admission into Oxford University. Jenny crosses paths with David (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy playboy, twice her age, who pursues Jenny romantically and even wins over her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). Complications arise when Jenny discovers David makes his living as a con artist but she continues to indulge in this new lavish lifestyle, until another revelation proves too much to swallow. This performance, which won Mulligan honors from the National Board of Review and a BAFTA Award, marked Mulligan's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

Sidibe portrays Claireece "Precious" Jones, an overweight, illiterate teenager, incessantly subjected to physical and verbal abuse by loose cannon mother Mary (Oscar-winner Mo'Nique). Impregnated by her father for the second time, Precious at last sees light on the horizon when she is offered the chance to transfer to an alternative school. There, she encounters the kind Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who is determined to provide Precious the chance to start anew. This performance marked Sidibe's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Streep portrays Julia Child, the beloved chef who, in the early years of her culinary career, attends Le Cordon Blue to learn French cooking and co-writes Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a book tailored to American housewives. This performance, which won her honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and a Golden Globe, marked Streep's 16th Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Penelope Cruz, Broken Embraces; Alison Lohman, Drag Me to Hell; Catalina Saavedra, The Maid; Meryl Streep, It's Complicated

Won: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

Should've won: Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

2009, year of the underwhelming Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker barn burner, proved an even more modest affair in Best Lead Actress than the year prior. This is also one of those occasions in which the Academy got the performer right but not the performance.

Cruz, for instance, can't lift the dreck that is Nine (for which she garnered an Oscar nod in supporting) but would have been a richly deserving honoree here for Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces. Likewise, I find Streep so much more loose and fun in It's Complicated than Julie & Julia, the latter of which is only half a watchable film, and even the decent half (Streep's) isn't all that super. And imagine if the Academy had the shrewdness to recognize Saavedra! I can dream.

Alas, on Oscar nominations morning, with the flabbergasting Best Picture nod for The Blind Side, the cake was baked for the big night.

As is the case with Kate Winslet and The Reader, here is an actress (Bullock) I have great affection for and, with the right role and film, would be delighted to see with an Oscar. The Blind Side's Leigh Anne Tuohy is decidedly not that role. The film may not be gag-inducing like The Reader but is precisely the sort of bland, cookie cutter cinema that has been so prevalent among sports films in recent years. If only The Blind Side had the ambition and patience of say, the Friday Night Lights television series, this could have been a real winner. 

Ultimately, though, it's pretty lackluster stuff and not even my favorite actress (Kathy Bates) can juice anything out of the proceedings. Bullock's performance may not be a bad one but it's very much a going-through-the-motions turn, in search of a better director/screenplay. If only the Academy waited a few years, she could have been recognized for a far more watchable effort.

I suspect I may be the recipient of a fair amount of shit for my thoughts on Mulligan, in a performance I know many feel great affection for but I for one find negligibly more compelling than Bullock's.

I'm a sucker for a good coming-of-age story but An Education, despite a look that aces 1960s London and a fabulous supporting turn by Molina (who surely deserved an Oscar nod), leaves me rather cold. Though it's not a total misfire of a performance, blame's got to go to Mulligan, an actress I, more often than not, find exceedingly stiff, the one exception being Never Let Me Go. She nicely captures the vulnerability and dizzying feeling of a young woman swept off her feet by a much older man but there's a curious aloofness to her acting that I can't get over. It was far more pronounced in, for instance, The Great Gatsby, but even here, she doesn't much resonate.

Much more satisfying, albeit not exactly in a Jessica Lange in Frances way, are the remaining three nominees. I consider this trio more or less interchangeable - in fact, Mirren, who I now rank third in the line-up, was my personal favorite back in the day.

With the exception of its two nominated performances, The Last Station is a very modest endeavor, from a filmmaker (Michael Hoffman) with a proven penchant for satisfactory cinema. I suspect Tolstoy's story would be much better told on the stage than the silver screen - the scenery-chewing here by Mirren and Plummer, while plenty entertaining, would surely be a better fit in a different medium. Still, their larger-than-life turns are pretty much the only reason to sit through the picture and it's a lot of fun watching these thespians ham it up. In hindsight, though, I have a tough time thinking of Mirren's turn as an Oscar-winning one. In a more anemic year, maybe.

Likewise, Streep is a blast to watch in Julie & Julia and, alongside the delightful Stanley Tucci, the sole reason to check out her film. Not that the Ephron film is on the level of Bewitched but the Amy Adams half of the picture is stunningly inferior to the Streep half, so much so you leave dumbfounded that Ephron didn't scrap all of the tedious Adams stuff and just go all-in on Streep.

Streep's turn lacks the depth of her best work (the writing, I'm afraid, is sitcom-level) and isn't even among her strongest comic performances but it's still a pleasure spending time with one of our finest actresses, doing a dead-on Julia Child impression. Her chemistry with Tucci (and Jane Lynch, in a small but splendid role as Child's sister) is splendid and it's hard not to be won over by her charms, even if the material is light as a feather. Streep is able to make her film worthwhile in a way that Bullock and Winslet aren't.

Right now, however, I'm partial to Sidibe, another actress who shines in a problematic picture.

I'm not terribly fond of Precious, or Mo'Nique's impassioned but overwhelmingly histrionic performance. Like all Lee Daniels cinema, it's a film in dire need of a shot of subtlety. All too often, the proceedings veer on the bombastic, which is unfortunate because there are two truly great turns in it - Sidibe and the radiant Patton, who'd I much rather have seen garner that Supporting Actress nomination.

Sidibe, somehow in her screen debut, is devastating in the title role, portraying a damaged young woman who has entirely shut herself down from her surroundings. You can feel the pain that for years as suffocated Precious and you feel that same stirring sense of hope when she's able to last begin escaping this horrific life. If only Precious were a stronger, less on-the-nose film, Sidibe's performance perhaps could have shined even brighter.

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. Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
  46. Meryl Streep, Doubt
  47. Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
  48. Meryl Streep, One True Thing
  49. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  50. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  51. Helen Mirren, The Last Station
  52. Annette Bening, American Beauty
  53. Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
  54. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  55. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  56. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  57. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  58. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  59. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
  60. Julianne Moore, The Hours
  61. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  62. Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
  63. Angelina Jolie, Changeling
  64. Kate Winslet, Little Children
  65. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  66. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  67. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  68. Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
  69. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  70. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  71. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  72. Carey Mulligan, An Education
  73. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
  74. Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
  75. Kate Winslet, The Reader
  76. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  77. Queen Latifah, Chicago
  78. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  79. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
  80. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love