Meryl Streep and the Case of the Gratuitous Nomination
Why the Academy's obsession with the actress is so irritating
KEVIN SPACEY, SUPERVILLAIN
homage to film noir, any time someone so much as utters the term “cleaning woman” (which is frequent in the film’s 88 minutes), Martin goes berserk like a robot programmed to kill whenever an archvillain strokes his fluffy white kitty.
In entertainment, my “cleaning woman” does not come in the form of an accidental mentioning of someone’s occupational title but rather an event that took place about six years ago. That event is the 2012 Oscar ceremony, which celebrated 2011’s best movies.
Ultimately, the ceremony was rewarding. Though that year’s host, Billy Crystal, played it safe, the occasion was so entertaining because most of the winners were so deserving. But something continues to haunt me about that year’s Academy Awards, and that is the fact that Meryl Streep, the most decorated actress of all time, triumphed over Viola Davis for Best Actress.
Despite Davis doing career-best work in The Help — and winning practically every other award for her performance — Streep unexpectedly won. The film in question was The Iron Lady, a fairly terrible Margaret Thatcher biopic whose only saving grace was, of course, Streep’s caricatured leading performance, which required her to put on George Washington teeth, a magnificently Aqua-Netted wig, and a shrill British accent.
Make no mistake: I love Streep. I marvel at the way she’s able to slip into any role as if she were a shape-shifting beast akin to X-Men’s Mystique, and how she has managed to maintain a sort of otherworldly presence in the acting industry for nearly four decades. She’s even the star of the month on my film website.
But 2011 was Davis’ year, and the Academy’s Streep fetish put a halt to the former’s momentum. So many actors say that winning an award doesn’t really matter in the long run. But the fact of the matter is is that it does: An Oscar can as much be a cherry on top of months of press junkets and award ceremonies as it can be a major career boost.
At that point, Streep didn’t need that Oscar, she already had the reputation to back her. But so many people – including myself – had not been aware of Davis until she starred in The Help. By choosing the decorated Streep over the less ubiquitous Davis, it made for an almost meaningless win. Streep doesn’t have to prove herself. By contrast, Davis was a talent who had slummed away in roles that probably weren’t worthy of her talents for decades and finally seemed as though she was about to be recognized in the ultimate way. But this breakthrough was cast aside in the name of tradition. And this still makes me mad.
For the past 10 years or so, the Academy has almost habitually nominated Streep, so much so that they’ve arguably started to ignore the quality of the movie in which she’s starring (and even the quality of the performance itself). Though most of the films she headlined in the ‘70s and ‘80s were culturally influential pieces that warranted additional acting recognition, the Academy in recent years has started to nominate Streep so frequently that it has begun to appear as though just being in something is enough to get her a nod. Films like Julie & Julia (2008), August: Osage County (2013), Into the Woods (2014), and Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) were fine, but they saw Streep going through the motions with no real performative nuance.
So because the Academy has opted to nominate Streep even when she hasn’t really deserved it, it has become both eye roll-inducing and infuriating when she’s showed up on nominations lists for the last decade. By almost instinctively kissing up to an undoubtedly fantastic actress, the Academy has often unwittingly sabotaged what could be the climax of the year — or the career — for other actresses who should be more than just names listed on a “most underrated” list. (There are many reasons why the public has never heard of actresses from Catherine Deneuve to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, but I guarantee the biggest is because of the Academy’s repeated ignorance of their great work.)
Kristin Scott Thomas or Debra Winger should have been recognized in 2008. Greta Gerwig or one of the women in Blue is the Warmest Color in 2013. Tilda Swinton or Kristen Stewart in 2014. Amy Adams or Rebecca Hall in 2016. The list goes on.
Though nominations for the 2018 Academy Awards have not yet been announced, most expect Streep to be nominated for her work in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, in which she plays former Washington Post editor Katharine Graham. But no matter how great she is in that movie, I hope the Academy takes a risk for once and shines a light on someone else. Meryl Streep is already our Best Actress no matter the time or place. Let someone else have a chance for a change.
- DECEMBER 8, 2017
This piece also appeared in The Daily.
ne of the most memorable running gags in Carl Reiner’s 1982 comedy masterpiece Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a two-word trigger. In the film, our detective protagonist (Steve Martin) is plagued by major daddy issues; when he was just a tot, his father walked out to pursue an affair with the family maid, never to look back. In another movie, this trauma would silently toy with this character, perhaps helping make him more multidimensional in the eyes of viewers. But in this movie, itself a joke-a-minute