Meryl Streep is a genius. It must be said. That she now has a permanent slot reserved in the Best Actress race is both well-deserved and a pretty good indicator that there aren’t many opportunities for actresses as they get older. While it’s true that older ticket buyers at the art house turn out to be a reliable and profitable group, the Oscar race isn’t always so keen on honoring that. A lot of those voters like them young. They like them fresh. And they like them served up hot. However, Meryl Streep is one of those who is good enough to overcome that inherent, possibly biological bias. Streep has a head-start on almost every other actor working in Hollywood, male or female. She’s been good since the 1970s and has found a way to keep her work alive, curious, versatile, and interesting. She’s intelligent, gifted, and has the kind of face that can be shaped and shifted and preserved for all time.
It is simply the fact of the matter. She’s got a permanent slot in the Oscar race, which probably will provoke some — as they always have with her, as they often do with gifted, powerful, talented women — to diminish what she’s made of her career. The critics, for instance, do not seem to really notice Streep anymore. But the critics aren’t the industry and the industry appreciates an actress who really does seem to reinvent the wheel each time out.
One might be inclined to dismiss her work in Florence Foster Jenkins, but that would be a mistake. If you’ve seen the movie and her performance, then you should know better. It is another unequivocal tour de force. Streep, by now, on the verge of her 20th Oscar nod, is not in this for awards. She’s not in it for money or fame. She really and truly loves the work, vanity free. She deep dives into this character with compassion. And it’s devastating. Also great is Hugh Grant, playing her strange, platonic husband. Props to Variety’s Kris Tapley for never wavering on his prediction that both would land in the race. And land they have. Or they’ve really always been there.
You could say that Streep has had more opportunities as a white actress, as a white person in America for that matter, and you’d be right. It does indeed suck that there aren’t more opportunities for actresses of color. In 2011, white people decided that they didn’t want to award Viola Davis for “playing a maid” — punishing her for the lack of opportunities for black actresses of her caliber. Davis was made to carry the burden — as though she didn’t carry enough — that she couldn’t fix what is wrong with Hollywood and the Oscars, so she lost. It’s also true that her work in The Help fit the traditional mold of supporting more than it did lead. Streep’s work in The Iron Lady was the bigger performance, with no other actresses whose movies matched that degree of one-woman show. Hard to compete with that. Now, Davis is back but placed in supporting again. They’re taking no chances that we would have to watch something like 2012 unfold for a second time. Lest we remind ourselves yet again: only one black actress has won for a lead role in 89 years of Oscar history. That’s 89 because there is no chance that record gets broken this year unless Davis somehow it vaulted into lead on nomination ballots, and wins there. She has competition, though. It’s worth noting about Davis that Denzel Washington and August Wilson have given her a chance to play someone who isn’t a maid, but a middle-class black woman holding an entire fractured family together, helping to preserve their pasts and strengthen their futures. One woman. One strong woman. But she’s going to be in the supporting category, so she will not be competing with Streep. (Though if it were down to the two of them this year, Davis would win.)
So this means that we’re left with four slots for Best Actress, and what highly competitive slots they are. We have two locks that we know are slam dunks for nominations:
Natalie Portman – giving yet another transformative breathtaking turn as Jackie Kennedy, a performance that will be remembered and talked about for decades. No one has managed to pull this off and many have tried. Portman balances the voice, the walk, the accent, the speech hesitation, the humility, the under confidence and inner strength so so well.
Emma Stone – whose performance in La La Land is so good the heart immediately yearns to see it again. And then again. She is like a blast of fresh air, giving everything she has to the camera. Whatever Stone has, whatever the chemistry she has with Gosling, but more importantly with Damien Chazelle, is cinematic magic. What Stone does is far harder to pull off than it looks — to effortlessly flow from singing to dancing to acting like that? She brings it 10/10 every time.
Now we’ll fold in Meryl Streep to make three potential locks. There is a slight chance Streep won’t make it in. I’m not saying she is for sure in. But after seeing Florence Foster Jenkins, I would think it will be hard for the actors not to nominate her again.
Now we should fold in Amy Adams in Arrival because she has hit with a nomination from every important group thus far and is the center of a much-lauded film. Unlike her 5 previous nominations, this time out she isn’t a supporting player who shares screen time with an ensemble. Here she is the whole movie. If voters like the movie, they will probably nominate her. Adams plays a scientist who relies on her unique intelligence to figure out how to communicate with another intelligent species. Rather than trying to impose her ideas onto them, she listens to them, interacts with them.How brilliant to write a character who is female whose skills for listening becomes so important it could save the human race. This isn’t a woman cast in what could be a man’s role — this role was specifically written for a woman. That some chafe at the idea that her being a mother is written into the part, as though women can’t exist without somehow being defined as wives or mothers. I think this is unfair and internalized misogyny. Giving birth, raising a child — there should be no shame attached to that. There is no shame in not being a mother either, but please, let’s not condemn those (like me) whose experience as a mother far surpasses any other earthly thing. Trust me, it’s all a wash. But in those moments where Adams connects with her daughter — my god. Is there anything more moving in any film this year? I don’t think so. Arrival is the best film of the year because of its mystery, its originality, but mainly because the actress at the center is in full command of the material and for once is allowed to reign.
That leaves one slot open and it’s likely to go to one of these three:
Annette Bening in 20th Century Women. Beloved in the industry, brilliant in the film, long overdue, she seems like a very good bet for Oscar. Why she didn’t make SAG’s list is probably simply due to the vagaries of SAG-AFTRA’s unusual ballot process. A nominating committee, randomly selected, from a somewhat unpredictable group of people that could be anyone — actor, radio DJ, newscaster, or media personality. Also, one name is almost always left off when we make the jump from SAG to Oscar. Beyond all that, Bening’s work in 20th Century Women is unlike anything she’s ever done. While it’s true that she shares screen time with two other brilliantly-acted female performances, hers stands out and sticks with you because you can never really figure her out. This was a deliberate choice by a very smart actress. Mike Mills could never figure his mother out. He didn’t really try. He wanted to celebrate her and in 20th Century Women he does just that, along with the other women who influenced him growing up.
It must be said (trust me, I know it must), one major threat to Adams and Bening has to be Isabelle Huppert in Elle. While the critics have put their full support behind her, the jury is out on what the Academy will do. It’s a divisive performance in a controversial film, a loaded combination that people either appreciate or are horrified by. Still, Huppert’s stature in film history, the marvelous work she’s done over the years is without question, and many boomers who populate the Academy will have fond memories of Huppert from their salad days. This makes her a formidable contender for a nomination. Can she win without a SAG nomination? Anything’s possible. It is less likely, perhaps, but not impossible.
Finally, standing eye to eye as a threat to Huppert, Bening and perhaps even Adams is Ruth Negga in Loving, who was shut out of the SAG nominations but recognized by the Golden Globes and Critics Choice. Hers is a brilliant but subdued and subtle performance, which is probably why it had a harder time standing out among the more bravura works we’re seeing this year from women. But if the Academy really loves the film, she will get in. If they have an eye on diversity and inclusion and sheer significance, they might work a little harder to push her through. Negga is the only black actress eligible for the lead category at this point. It’s so hard to break in there, harder still to win. Might the shock of her missing out with SAG drive Academy voters more toward her? It’s possible. She’s so great in the movie. Both leads keep so much back, but it packs a powerful punch nonetheless. Negga becomes the character in a really astonishing way. Hers is a career to watch.
Then there are Emily Blunt, who earned a surprise SAG nomination for The Girl on the Train, and Jessica Chastain for Miss Sloane. It should be said that these are two powerhouse performances that are centered on the female character full stop. They aren’t supporting, they aren’t a dimension of the male lead. The whole film is about them. So I can see why they were singled out by the various groups, even if some weren’t entirely thrilled with the films overall. The list of requirements and prerequisites for women keeps getting longer and more exclusive. That these films even got made at all is a miracle in and of itself.
Now for a little SAG history. Has any actress ever won without a SAG nomination? No, not technically. In 2008 Kate Winslet won her Oscar for The Reader but she was nominated in supporting at SAG. Other than that, no. So that would indicate that only the following have a shot at winning:
Natalie Portman (Globes/SAG)
Emma Stone (Globes/SAG)
Amy Adams (Globes/SAG)
Meryl Streep (Globes/SAG)
Emily Blunt (SAG)
That a hurdle for:
Annette Bening (Globes)
Ruth Negga (Globes)
Isabelle Huppert (Globes)
Next, has any actress ever won without a Globe nom going back, let’s say, ten years? And the answer to that is no. You could probably go back pretty far and find an instance where they did, but generally speaking, to be a winner you want both. That narrows our list of potential winners down to:
Natalie Portman (Globes/SAG)
Emma Stone (Globes/SAG)
Amy Adams (Globes/SAG)
Meryl Streep (Globes/SAG)
That doesn’t mean, of course, that someone who isn’t nominated for the SAG won’t get in for Oscar. Either Huppert and Bening (or both) could certainly get in. It just means when it comes to determing a likely winner, those are your long-established options.
The Best Actress race this year has been most impressive, we’re happy to say, compared to years past. There have been so many actresses — both homegrown American and international — who have turned in a wealth of great work. To see them all being honored across the board is great, even if there is no rock solid consensus.
We should again point out, regrettably, that there has been a dramatic drop in the number of Best Picture nominees that even have Best Actress nominees in them at all. Not since 2004 has a Best Actress winner appeared in a Best Picture winner. Think about that. Twelve horrible years. Compared to say, 2012, 2011, etc.
In case you were wondering how rare it would be for Emma Stone to win Best Actress and for La La Land to win Best Picture (which is, right now, our only option. stats-wise, unless somehow Arrival miraculously wins Best Picture), the last time a film won Best Picture and Best Actress was in 2004.
Will that dismal streak be broken at last this year? It’s a long shot, given that La La Land missed the SAG Ensemble nomination, but not outside the realm of possibility. It’s just that these things are so incredibly rare now, it’s worth noting them when the opportunity arises.
Meanwhile, you can see how women are routinely shut out from the Best Picture race, or in lead roles at all, by looking at the way pundits like Kris Tapley and Scott Feinberg have Amy Adams disappearing off the Best Actress roster because they think the Academy “won’t like” Arrival.
Hell, maybe it’s just women the Academy doesn’t like? An aversion to women who can take charge and not flap around helplessly? There’s a thought. I wonder if that theory would have any application outside the film industry…
So if guys like Tapley and Feinberg turn out to be right, you’re really looking at only one Best Actress contender in the entire Best Picture lineup — unless Florence Foster Jenkins miraculously gets in for BP. How demoralizing, in a year like this, with so many roles and films for women. One Best Picture/Best Actress match-up: La La Land. The one that just missed the SAG Ensemble.
Well, my friends, that is a fine kettle of fish, I tell you. A fine kettle of fish.
Thanks to Marshall Flores, for research.