If you came of age in the 1980s, you lived through a time when American actresses did not depend on conventional, youthful good looks, or hotness, to get on the A list. The good parts went to those who took the craft seriously. A lot has changed since then. If you look at the Best Actress race of the 1970s, 1980s and even into the 1990s, the Best Actress race was dominated by strong roles, with established, respected actresses, many of them homegrown here in America, with well-earned clout in Hollywood — clout that was built on their talent, not just how much money they brought in. Their Oscar nominations bolstered their dominance. But something shifted. Was it the moment the young, fresh, charismatic but untrained Julia Roberts became a box office sensation, thus rendering actresses who couldn’t “open” movies obsolete? Was it the general globalization of the film industry overall? Was it the rise of the target demographic aimed at young boys?
It’s hard to know. Surely, there is nothing wrong with foreign actresses working in American film – Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullman, Vanessa Redgrave — but it’s also lamentable that there are far far fewer American actresses mow, the real powerhouse performers, as it seems there used to be. It is almost as if we can’t find women who are beautiful and sound smart unless we import them from overseas.
But Glenn Close and Meryl Streep were two of the last big stars to come out of a time when acting ability counted for more than hotness or profitability; Meryl Streep keeps making movies because her movies make money. She keeps getting Oscar nominations because actresses in The States aren’t reared the same way — their budding talent is plucked long before they really have a chance to hone their craft. Then they’re used up and cast aside once their good looks run out. Or they keep botoxing themselves to oblivion in order to keep working. Our actresses are not allowed to age gracefully — and those who do can’t get work. I happened to catch Jill Clayburgh playing Kristin Wiig’s mother in Bridesmaids and was taken aback that she actually looked her age: she hadn’t gone under the knife to try to keep up with the extreme suppression of female aging. She looked beautiful — real — her experiences in life recorded for all time on her wonderful face. Where did Jane Fonda’s go? Yes, she gets props for looking so much younger than she is. But she, like Faye Dunaway, like every woman who hides who they are, has a self-inflicted in-authenticity that, quite simply, does not work on film. Fake youth displays our vanity. If you are an actress playing a character in real life you have to explain all of that surgery. Oh, Jill Clayburgh — you are the stuff that American actresses should be made on.
But if you were a young adult in 1980s, as I was, you wouldn’t be surprised that someone like Holly Hunter, or Frances McDormand would follow in the footsteps of Streep and Close — these women took acting so seriously that where you went to school and what plays you did mattered as much as how good you looked on film. Such is not the case anymore, not anywhere. It doesn’t matter where you went to school and it doesn’t matter if you’ve done theater or not. In fact, today’s actresses do theater long after they’ve become established in film.
Most young American actresses don’t even go to college, let alone graduate school. And so I thought I’d take a look back at the careers of Streep and Close and celebrate them for what they’ve contributed to the craft of acting, and how that was reflected and appreciated throughout Oscar history.
Meryl Streep: BA, Vasser; MFA, Yale. Perfected her acting at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Was never considered conventionally beautiful, Dino De Laurentiis supposedly said about her when she auditioned for King Kong, “She’s ugly. Why did you bring me this thing?” And, as the story goes, was shocked when Streep answered him back in fluent Italian. That did not motivate Streep to get her nose fixed or to try to fit in — she didn’t like the rules so she changed the game. It wasn’t long before Streep evolved out of theater into film. It turned out that the camera loved Streep. Her beauty came on like Garbo’s — once you got used to it you were mesmerized by it. I know that I was. And I remember thinking at the time that if Meryl Streep could make it in Hollywood with that crooked nose, and by being a great actress, anyone could. But no one looked like her — no one had those cheekbones, those watery, pink-rimmed eyes, that mouth.
As a young actress, Streep’s ability was immediately noticeable, even if she was playing ingenues. And yet, all of her great early performances couldn’t really prepare us for what she did in Sophie’s Choice. Can you imagine, with all of that Kevin Kline scenery chewing going on that the only thing you noticed in the movie was Meryl Streep? Not only did she transform her body to play the voluptuous Sophie, utilizing a tooth piece to make her lips look fuller, but she starved herself for days, living on, she said, only white wine to play concentration camp Sophie. That performance may be among the best anyone has ever given, male or female. In fact, I might hold it up there in the top five of all time, right up there with Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.
Her brilliance in Sophie’s Choice, however, remains her biggest problem for an Oscar win now. She currently holds the record for the most Oscar nominations, 16, and has survived the devolution of strong female leads in Hollywood. She also survived all of the talk that she’s just about the wig and the accent. She has been acting in films for four decades and is still giving us one surprising, brilliant performance after the next. The Oscar nominations are well deserved. She has no equal. Strangely, her career now seems stronger than it’s ever been. And yet…
But she does have the Sophie’s Choice problem. Streep has only won a single Oscar for Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice, and a Supporting for Kramer vs. Kramer, which seems almost like a joke considering the great works she’s done since then: A Cry in the Dark, Silkwood, The Devil Wears Prada, Doubt and Julie & Julia.
Gold Derby currently has her at number one, with Octavia Spencer to be the one winner from The Help, not Viola Davis. The reason Streep rises to the top every year, even before anyone has seen her performance, is because of her forty years plus of cinematic genius. She might have won for Julie & Julia if it hadn’t been for the Julie part of the movie, which forever ruined it for Oscar. Streep always elevates the work. If Nora Ephron had made that movie just about Julia Child, Ephron herself might have been looking at an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Director – an unexpected collaboration burst forth when Ephron had the brilliant Streep to work with. Lesser directors and writers are immediately classed up when they work with her because she brings not only her education to the work, but her life experience.
Even Mamma Mia, mostly a throwaway film, was made tolerable by Streep – who took her role right to the edge. That is why, probably, that Oscarologists, as Tom O’Neil calls them, have Streep in the number one position, with or without its inexperienced, untested director.
Glenn Close leads this year for having delivered a brilliant performance in Albert Nobbs – understated, dark, but compassionate in its own sweet way. Close, though, doesn’t turn in the showiest performance in this movie – her co-star, Janet McTeer does. But that doesn’t make Close’s performance any less so. The two of them together make Albert Nobbs moving, melancholy, achingly sad. And yet, Streep is still predicted to beat Glenn Close by people, it should be said, who have not even seen Streep’s work in The Iron Lady beyond the trailer.
Close, like Streep, went to college to study theater. She went to the College of William and Mary and then began a career in theater. Like Streep she entered Hollywood as an unconventional beauty, but instead of playing the bitch, as Streep did, she played gentle characters before breaking out with deeper character studies. Close has mostly gone darker than Streep – though it must be noted that when Streep has gone dark (like in the Manchurian Candidate) it hasn’t been received as well. The Devil Wears Prada would reside somewhere in between. But Close has played truly dark, truly unlikable people – Alex in Fatal Attraction (though if they’d kept the real ending, where she kills herself, she might have emerged as more liked — as it was, she was so unliked that test audiences wanted to see her take a bullet to the chest). Likewise, in Dangerous Liaisons she is the reason true love not only doesn’t prevail but it dies. By the end, no one likes Close’s character.
That unlikability, probably, is probably what has kept her from winning all of this time. It’s easier to digest on television, where Close has won actual awards for playing Patty Hewes in Damages. But should she ever play someone as heroic and likable as Streep in Sophie’s Choice? Well, the Oscar is hers.
Meanwhile, Streep will test her lovability when she plays Margaret Thatcher, a genuinely unlikable figure — in fact, hated by many. Will she make Thatcher more human and vulnerable, as Helen Mirren did in The Queen — a great PR machine for the Royal family, that movie was. Or will Streep pass more harsh judgment on Thatcher and access that thing about her no one likes. It should be interesting, as Streep is, famously, a liberal.
I have been watching this notion that Streep is the defacto winner already with some skepticism. The year before last (it’s all a blur) when Sandra Bullock was up against Streep it seemed obvious to me that Streep wasn’t going to win fairly early on. This, because Sandra Bullock was bringing in more box office that year than just about anyone. But the main reason was that The Blind Side became a Best Picture nominee and that was the key factor. Even before that, though, it felt like Bullock had it in the bag because to give Streep another Oscar is to give her another Oscar for giving a better performance than her best performance. When Sean Penn won for Milk he won because (it was a Best Picture nominee but also) he bested his Oscar-winning role in Mystic River. Jodie Foster bested her work in The Accused with The Silence of the Lambs (Best Picture winner) and Hilary Swank (did not best) her role in Boys Don’t Cry with Million Dollar Baby — but it won Best Picture.
The Best Picture thing is the reason I think Viola Davis, not Streep nor Close, will have the edge, as I believe The Help, box office and cultural phenom that it is, will be the only Best Picture nominee of the three. However, if The Iron Lady should get nominated, Streep’s chances grow considerably. The film should also look to get more than just the one Oscar nomination. Albert Nobbs has a shot for Actress, Supporting Actress and Screenplay (Close should get props for having adapted the script). The Iron Lady, who knows at this stage. The Help could get a whole bunch of them.
Whichever way the Oscars turn out, Close and Streep have their place firmly in film history, both for the memorable roles they’ve given us, and for having lasted this long. One has 16 Oscar nominations and two wins. The other has five Oscar nominations and no wins. Yet for both of these women, those stats really have very little to do with who they are and what they’ve done. Funny, that.