Get ready for the annual Meryl Weep

It is right and proper that Meryl Streep hasn’t won an Oscar since Sophie’s Choice in 1982. But just try telling her fans.

Mark Adnum

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There’s an almost annual fan-based outcry – let’s call it the Meryl Weep – over Meryl Streep’s extended losing run at the Oscars that kicked in around 2006, when she failed to win with The Devil Wears Prada. Streep’s bolting start at the Oscars (nominated for the first time in 1978, she had won twice by 1982) and persistent nominations – 16 in total, an all-time record for men or women – seemed to promise that the prolific mistress of tears and accents would continue to pick up at least a couple of Oscars each decade.

But this hasn’t come to pass, and plenty of Streep fans smell a rat. Streep hasn’t won another Oscar in the 27 years since she took Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice in 1982, and in the interim other actresses like Jodie Foster and Hilary Swank – who was eight years old when Streep last won an Oscar – have won two Best Actress Oscars each. Streep’s Oscar drought is sure to continue on 7 March when either Sandra Bullock (nominated for The Blind Side) or Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) glide past a bravely smiling Streep on their way to the Kodak Theatre stage.

However, Streep fans should not only calm down, they should be praying for her not to win the Best Actress Oscar this year for her performance in Julie and Julia, just as they should have been doing last year, when she apparently went very close to outmanoeuvring Kate Winslet and winning for her deplorably hammy performance in Doubt. There’s no need to rush it since Streep, 61 this year, has at least two more decades of acting ahead of her, and the legend she is erroneously compared to – Katharine Hepburn – won her fourth Oscar (for On Golden Pond in 1981) when she was 74, almost 50 years after she won her first (for Morning Glory in 1933).

Giving Streep an Oscar for a performance that can’t hold a candle to those that she deservedly won for – as Dustin Hoffman’s unstable young wife in Kramer vs. Kramer and as the undead Auschwitz survivor who makes her ghostly way through a doomed new life in Sophie’s Choice – would only undermine her Oscar legacy, since it would reduce her to Al Pacino/Jessica Lange status, where Oscars are handed out for lifetime service, rather than merit, and the winner drifts into premature obscurity. Her recent performances have been way beneath her best, and she doesn’t even really have the lead role in Julie and Julia as she shares equal screen time with lightweight Amy Adams.

Also, there should be a moment of thought about why Streep fans insist that she needs to win a third, fourth or even fifth acting award from an annual ceremony that, while fabulous, failed to give a single competitive award to Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Burton or Deborah Kerr, to name but a few – but let’s just leave that aside.

Instead, to the alleged ‘drought’ itself. The gap between Katharine Hepburn’s first and second Oscars was around 30 years. Bette Davis won her two Oscars in the 1930s, then failed ever to win another despite nominations for iconic performances in the 1940s (The Letter), 1950s (All About Eve) and the 1960s (Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?). Though Foster’s and Swank’s quick successes may raise an eyebrow here or there, it should be noted that neither of those actresses have won subsequent Oscars, either.

Also, Streep’s 12 Best Actress Oscar losses have hardly been surprising, or unjust. Each time, she’s been beaten by a winner who was either more deserving or more Oscar-logical.

  • Twice she’s come up against matriarchal actresses giving strong performances in what at the time looked like their last film. In 1981, she lost to Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond. In 1985, it was eight-time nominee and zero-time winner Geraldine Page (The Trip To Bountiful) who turned out to be the woman F Murray Abraham was talking about when he opened that year’s Best Actress envelope to gush, ‘oh, I consider this woman the greatest actress in the English language’.
  • Elsewhere, Streep failed to place herself head and shoulders above the other nominees, like in 1983, when she was excellent as a working-class, passionate woman in Silkwood, but so were fellow nominees like Debra Winger who out-Streeped Streep as the working-class mother who died of cancer in Terms Of Endearment and Julie Walters, who could have easily won for Educating Rita. (All lost to Shirley MacLaine, who entered with the momentum of four previous failed nominations stretching back to the late 1950s and the prestige of having the lead role in the year’s Oscar-favourite film, Terms Of Endearment.)
  • Streep’s given superb performances but failed to compete with superstar co-nominees whose performances had helped define that year’s cinema, as in 1987 when Cher, who won for Moonstruck, battled Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction) and left the rest of the field on the starting blocks, including Meryl whose all-singing, all-drinking performance in Ironweed that year may have had a chance of winning if, say, Tina Turner had played it well.
  • Ingénues are ever-popular in the Best Actress category – just ask Bette Davis, who lost her chance at a third Oscar when Judy Holliday won in 1950 for Born Yesterday. Hilary Swank came from out of nowhere to win in 1999 for Boys Don’t Cry, beating Streep’s wildly-acclaimed performance as a violin teacher in Music Of The Heart. Jodie Foster scored probably the most crushing victory over Streep in 1988 when she won for The Accused. Foster was very good in that film, but Streep may have given her best performance since Sophie’s Choice that year as Lindy Chamberlain, the Australian pastor’s wife falsely accused of slaughtering her baby in the centre of the Australian outback and then blaming it on a dingo (Cry in the dark). Famed for her accents, Streep outdid herself with a spot-on impersonation of Chamberlain, who was born in New Zealand and spoke with a very distinctive trans-Tasman drawl.
  • Other times, she’s valiantly gone down amid stellar fields, such as in 1990, when she did a very good abstract of Carrie Fisher in Postcards From The Edge but had the bad luck to run into a log jam that included Anjelica Huston (for The Grifters) and Joanne Woodward (Mr And Mrs Bridge), who were considered unsplittable favourites, as well as Julia Roberts, who looked to take advantage of the ingénue rule for Pretty Woman, and the surprise, but much-deserved, winner Kathy Bates (for Misery).
  • Other times, she just hasn’t been good enough. She was never going to win for The Bridges Of Madison County, especially when Susan Sarandon played a death-row nun in Dead Man Walking after losses for Atlantic City and Thelma And Louise, and in 1998, she stood little chance as a terminally-ill wife and mother in the diabetic Renée Zellweger vehicle One True Thing against the magnificence of Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth. Even Cate wasn’t able to beat Gwyneth Paltrow who won for Shakespeare In Love, but the less said about that the better. After a relatively long Oscar drought, Streep reappeared among the 2006 nominations for her wildly overpraised performance in The Devil Wears Prada, but lost to Helen Mirren (The Queen). And last year she lost to Kate Winslet in The Reader for another over-determined performance, this time in Doubt (Winslet wasn’t much better, but could have more credibly won for Revolutionary Road).

So let’s stay calm, Streep-fans (and I’m one). Meryl’s early successes were well-deserved and set a very high bar for what we expect her to be able to do. She’s reached this bar a couple of times, but at least one other actress has done something even better in the years when Streep was nominated. Putting fandom and loyalty aside, does anyone really think that her performance in Julie and Julia is so great that it needs to be recognised with the same prize given to her work in Sophie’s Choice?

Unless she falls over and dies some time soon, there will be plenty of opportunities for Streep to align great acting with good Oscar-stars and to pull at least one more Academy Award, especially when she gets into her seventies and combines gritty battleaxe acting with a sense that she had better win it now or never.

Mark Adnum is a writer on film based in Australia and editor of Outrate.

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