State of the (Oscar) Race: Best Actress, Accumulated Oscars, and Meryl Streep

E: As February rolls to a close, I’d love to introduce you to My Movie Going Friend, with whom I’ve shared my Oscar obsession since our college days.  He’s the one who’ll go with me to movies I can’t drag my siblings to (most recently Crazy Heart and A Single Man -next week, The Last Station) and will debate with me the fine points of Academy rules and campaign nuances.  He’s much more thorough than I am – he’ll see a movie just for the Best Make-up nomination.  He’s seriously hard-core.  And he has graciously assented to guest blog with me on the Oscar race.  Some thoughts, leading up to the March 7th telecast (eek!  so much yet to see!):

E: Why did they go and have the BAFTAs during the Olympics?  All I’ve been doing for nearly two weeks is watching the Olympics, and I totally missed it.  I’m pissed.  It’s usually a wonderful show – snappy,  entertaining, suitably glamorous and ceremonious without being stodgy.  I like the winners, though and would love to think it was a trend rather than just partisanship.  Of course Firth and Mulligan are British, so you have to wonder, but generally BAFTA rewards the same people who win Oscars no matter what their nationality, so I feel almost guilty suspecting them.

MMGF: Oh, no kidding, right? (And now I finally have BBC America for the first time ever, and probably could have watched. Sheesh.)  Winners were good, although I’d have preferred Streep win, to give her a little momentum.  Feels more and more like Bullock’s trophy every day.  Oh well.

E: What do you think of the Streep article in the NYT?  Could it galvanize support for her?  I would LOVE that.  I adore her Julia Child.  I think Sandra Bullock is fantastic and underappreciated, but I hate that she’s going to beat out Streep and Mulligan who are infinitely more wonderful.

I’m not a fan of the Pauline Kael quote, though; I think she’s dead wrong to say that Meryl’s not a real actress, and I think it’s a weird bit to find in a pro-Streep article.  Although I suppose when it comes down to it I think Kael is more emphatic than correct, at least the times I’ve read her.  She writes with great conviction, but I’ve never agreed with what she said.

MMGF: Well, first of all, I’ve never read much Pauline Kael, but everything I’ve seen quoted from her just, eh, makes her seem a little… unpleasant.  It’s like she loves to pick things apart and find fault.  But, again, I’m not terribly familiar, so I can’t really say much for sure.

E: Yeah, that’s my impression, too.  And you’re right, I suppose I ought to force myself to read more of her before condemning her just because I disagree with so many meanspirited quotes I’ve read.  Sigh.

MMGF: This year’s Best Actress race is killing me, though, and in different ways.  The not knowing is one side of it.  And – it’s, like, not even knowing what to know.  I know front-runners come and go some years, but wow, this year.  Before there was a race, it was Gabby Sidibe’s Oscar.  Then, oddly, Precious, after shattering records in limited release, stalled in wide release. So Carey Mulligan seemed to take over at the beginning of the race, with some talk about Streep.  All of a sudden, Bullock came on strong, and it’s been considered a race between her and Streep ever since.

E: And that’s odd, too, because why Streep rather than Sidibe or Mulligan?  Oscar buzz can be so nonsensical.

MMGF: So, it’s interesting – with the majority of the awards over and done with, it’s hard to imagine what happens now.  Does Bullock keep that momentum?  Could ANYONE keep momentum when there’s nothing happening?

E: It’s a rotten schedule for Oscar watchers – we’ve had practically nothing to talk about since the nominations, other than speculation and some nasty chatter about Precious.  Why kick that film when it’s already down?

MMGF: It’s hard, too, because – I genuinely love Sandra Bullock.  I do.  I find a lot of her performances fantastic, and eminently watchable and natural and enjoyable.  But Meryl Streep, wow.  First, talk about overdue.  But then, take another look.  She WAS Julia Child.  And she was Julia Child in some really remarkable moments.  If you took the two of them side by side, and made everyone watch both films again, one after the other, I think most would realize how much higher the level is where Streep’s performance progresses.  I think people have been getting swept up in the Bullock buzz, and I think that kind of… I don’t know – maybe overrides people’s memories of the actual performance?  Which, I wonder, too, if, as time keeps ticking, if that buzz fades enough for people to revisit their memories, and the actual performances.

E: That definitely happens – buzz and remembrance overriding the actual performance.  I suppose it’s inevitable, but it’s also kind of unfortunate.

MMGF: Finally, you have to wonder what goes through voters’ heads.  I have this sneaking suspicion that what could push Bullock over the top is this idea that this could be her one chance.  Sure, Meryl was better, but Meryl will be back next year, and the year after, and the year after.  We’ll eventually get her her third Oscar.  But Sandy, this could be her one chance.  She’s so nice and fun, we might never get the chance again to give her one of these.  I worry that that might do it.  (And again, don’t get me wrong I love Bullock.  Just feel like Meryl’s been overlooked too many times, and did actually give the best performance this year.)

E: Any time someone writes “it’s between x and Meryl Streep” you can just give the award to x, whomever she might be, and sometimes that’s just so sad.

MMGF: Honestly.  If they handed out silver medals at the Oscars, I bet she’d have a closetful.

E: Her Julia Child was the warmest and most memorable person I’ve seen all year.  If anyone was close, it was Mo’Nique (well, not that her character was warm, but certainly memorable), Colin Firth, Carey Mulligan, but sorry, not Sandra Bullock.
I think the whole “but we love her and it’s her only chance!” feeling has to be right on the money.  She IS so nice and funny.  She’s sweet, but not too sweet, and she’s totally endearing.  Really, the only tiny question in my mind is whether (as I’ve mentioned before) she’s going to be Eddie Murphy or Julia Roberts.  When a big star connects with the perfect dramatic role, they can seem inevitable.  Roberts was, but Murphy?  Turns out that while people on Main Street love him, the people in Hollywood don’t.  I can’t see that being true of “Sandy” Bullock,  so we’re just left wondering how the idea of Oscar winner Sandra Bullock will go down with snobby Oscar voters?  They swallowed Tom Hanks, after all.

And sure, everyone expects that Meryl will have another chance next year.  But my God, how many years are we going to keep on saying that?  Doesn’t “some day” eventually have to turn into now?  And what the heck is that going to take?

MMGF: Yeah, poor Meryl’s awesomeness does end up hurting her, doesn’t it, in that weird way?  The idea that it’s nice to give awards to other people when they have a chance, because Meryl’ll be back for more opportunities?  It really IS unfair.  I mean, come on.  Last year, it was that Kate Winslet was overdue, so she wins over Streep.  (Because, heck, I love Winslet as much as ANYONE, but I could never think that her role in The Reader was anything even close to Streep in Doubt.)  Now this year, it’s that Bullock has her (likely) one chance.  And make no mistake, the knowledge that Bullock’s been around a while, and making money for a while, and is nominated for a film where she was the one main name brand, parlaying that into the allegedly biggest female-led film ever is definitely something that’s in those voter’s heads.  (Because, come on – was Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich *really* better than Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream or Laura Linney in You Can Count On Me?  Please.)

E: That would be no.

MMGF: I just feel like, while Bullock really was good in that movie, it’s one of those things where 10 years from now people are going to say, “She won an Oscar for THAT?”  Not quite a Roberto Begnini double-take, but definitely a weak win.  It’s a great role, and she does a wonderful job with it, but the role and, more importantly, the performance doesn’t really progress.  It’s like, you wait for her to be different than she was at the beginning, and she really isn’t, and the acting really isn’t.  There are the small things, like how she becomes more defensive, and sees the shallowness of her friends, but we don’t get to really see how that actually changes her as a person.  Maybe that’s the writing’s or directing’s fault more than it is Bullock’s, but, ultimately, you kind of can’t (or shouldn’t) win an acting award for a poorly written role, anyway.

Streep, on the other hand – first of all, she’s portraying a person who EVERYONE knows.  So there’s the immediate challenge of capturing that, which she does brilliantly.  But then, you also do get that growth, that progression.  She’s starting somewhere, as a certain person, and she moves and blossoms into something and someone else.  The fact that she does that and we’re a part of it (and for only half of a movie, no less!) really makes that performance special, in my eyes.  And it’s just one more time (along with similar tour-de-forces in films such as Doubt, Adaptation, The Devil Wears Prada, One True Thing, Bridges of Madison County, etc.) that she’ll be unfairly rationalized out.

E: Oh, God, Roberto Begnini!  And think about that – I’m willing to bet people assumed that Sir Ian McKellan (the infinitely more accomplished actor) would get another chance, and here he is, not only without a win but without a nomination in how many years?  7, maybe?

MMGF: And that’s what’s the killer.  It seems fine to say things like that at the time – oh, we’ll get him/her later or next time.  But you never know when that’s going to be the last time.  I mean, even the way people go in and out of “fashion.”  After 5 Oscar nominations in 7 years, who would have thought 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons would be Glenn Close’s last nomination to date??  I suppose it’s easy to look back and see things more clearly, like the total horror of Begnini triumphing over McKellan (or Ed Norton or Nick Nolte, for that matter.)  (Heck, that was just a bad year – I think people think less and less of the decision to award Gwyneth Paltrow over Cate Blanchett and Fernanda Montenegro, too.)  But I worry that this year will end up like that – people looking back at thinking what a poor choice it was, once time has released them from the grip of the buzz.  The Oscar road is just too littered with Joan Allens and Ralph Fiennes and Michelle Pfeiffers, it’s a shame.  I guess the up-side is that sometimes an odd decision can actually turn out to look pretty good in hindsight.  Like, I know Marisa Tomei is the eternal joke, but I’d argue that her My Cousin Vinny performance is the one that stands the test of time that year (up against Miranda Richardson in Damage, Joan Plowright in Enchanted April, Vanessa Redgrave in Howard’s End and Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives.)  So, at the time, it was hard to not feel bad that amazing talents like Richardson, Plowright and Davis still didn’t get Oscars (and still haven’t,) but at least Tomei doesn’t seem so unworthy.

E: Tomei has gotten nominated since – twice, even – which helped rehabilitate her image.  She really was the poster child for allegedly undeserved awards for a while, though.  I think the parallel to Streep is a terrific one, particularly this year, because her role as Julia Child has a lot of comedy in it, and Oscar forgets that comedic roles can often be the most memorable and lasting (and sometimes also the most moving).  Tomei’s foot stomping speech about her biological clock?  People remember it.  Of course I’m very fond of Enchanted April and Howard’s End, too, but I’m a sucker for snappy, quotable dialogue.

MMGF: And I might argue that’s one of the great lines and scenes in modern film, period.  People remember it, and that kind of thing doesn’t always go hand in hand with Oscar.

E: Which points to a flaw in the system, don’t you think?  Shouldn’t the most lasting and memorable movies be the ones that get awards?  And yes, people really do go in and out of fashion.  I could cry over Tommy Lee Jones getting Ralph  Fiennes’ Oscar.  That was so unfair.  Fiennes’ performance in Schindler’s List was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.  How crazy is it that Hilary Swank has essentially two knock out performances in her career, and has an Oscar for each of them?  She has as many Oscars as Meryl Streep, despite Streep’s 16 nominations!

Sigh.  I suppose that’s been said too many times.  By me, by you, by the New York Times, for heavens sake.  Too bad no one is listening!

5 comments on “State of the (Oscar) Race: Best Actress, Accumulated Oscars, and Meryl Streep

  1. M says:

    Finally getting to this, some comments:

    The BAFTAs go great … as long as the orchestra doesn’t dare interrupt the “Best Actor’s poem”.

    The discussion on being able to award someone/something later is completely in line with my argument about Oscars biases in general. I mentioned it specifically with the first two Lord of the Ring movies being snubbed for FAR less memorable movies because of the opportunity to reward Return of the King. What if ROTK had fizzled? What if Meryl Streep turns into the next Glenn Close (i.e. becomes mannish looking and forgets how to carry movies) and never gets nominated again?

    When you get in the habit of falling for the fad, or eliminating movies or people because of biases against comedy, or sci fi (Annie Hall over Star Wars? How does that stand the test of time? oops!) or comic book movies (Batman Begins), you lose credibility over time. It’s like when a sports team drafts players based on their needs, as opposed to who the best player available is. It may look like the right move at the time, and might for a bit, but you end up 10 years later looking back at the talent that you passed up, and kicking yourself.

    Now, does that mean that Sandra Bullock shouldn’t win over Meryl Streep? I don’t know because I haven’t seen either film, but I do know that Streep has been passed over far too many times, much like Scorsese was for years. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

    • Matt H says:

      The politics of it are really gross, although I suppose they’re inevitable. But do you think sometimes Al Pacino’s a little embarrassed that his Oscar is for his work in “Scent of a Woman?”

  2. MMGF says:

    “he’ll see a movie just for the Best Make-up nomination”
    It’s so true. Mere hours after this went up I was viewing obscure Best Makeup Nominee “Il Divo.” I’m so predictable.

    • E says:

      LOL, that’s great. How was it?

      • MMGF says:

        Pretty interesting, actually. But I think a lot of what captivated me was the Italian and the style of speaking. The main character speaks at a machine gun pace, and has some fascinating mannerisms. He’s a fantastic character. And there are some truly indelible scenes. It’s not an easy film, not one you can enjoy in the background of your life, but I definitely recommend it.

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