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It’s hard to argue that the actress Meryl Streep — who has garnered 16 Oscar nominations (more than any other male or female in history), two of which resulted in wins — is under-appreciated by the Academy. That, however, is precisely what I’ve felt the urge to do since screening the latest film in which she stars, Phyllida Lloyd‘s The Iron Lady, earlier this week.
If anyone needed a reminder that Streep is the world’s greatest living actress, this performance is it. She transforms — body, soul, and, as always, accent — into former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who is not exactly history’s most likable or sympathetic character, but who is humanized by the actress to an extent that I never thought imaginable. It’s almost beside the point to talk about the film overall, since Streep’s performance so dominates it. Sure, Alexandra Roach is quite good as the younger version of Maggie; Jim Broadbent does his usual solid character work as the older version’s put-upon husband Denis Thatcher; and Alexander Head is perfectly fine as Thatcher’s political ally-turned-challenger Geoffrey Howe. But the fact of the matter is that there is one reason to see The Iron Lady: it features the best actress that we have working at the top of her game.
The question, of course, is whether that’s good enough for the Academy, which has, on 14 occasions, nominated Streep but chosen to honor someone else — including three of the last five years, even though she was perfectly worthy of a win for her extraordinary work in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and/or Doubt (2008) and/or Julie & Julia (2009). It’s not like the performances that beat hers — Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006), Kate Winslet in The Reader (2008), and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side (2009) — were markedly better. (In fact, I would argue that only Mirren’s even might have been worthier.) And it’s not like Streep is unliked — in fact, she seems to be adored and revered by her peers. (Indeed, both Winslet and Bullock specifically acknowledged her from the podium when delivering their Oscar acceptance speeches, with Winslet saying, “I think we all can’t believe we’re in a category with Meryl Streep at all!”)
So how does one explain it?
Here’s my theory: most people — including Academy members — aren’t exactly up on their Oscar stats. What they know about Streep is that she seems to be nominated every year, and that she doesn’t campaign to win nearly as aggressively as her competitors, so, understandably enough, they conclude that she has been properly taken care of over the years (“She must have six Oscars by now!”) and isn’t especially hungry for further recognition (“In that case, let’s give someone else a chance this time!”).
The cold, hard facts, however, tell a different story, and should be noted by voters henceforth. Consider the following numbers…
- 29 — The number of years that it’s been since Meryl Streep last won an Oscar — in other words, a full generation of people, including myself, have come of age without ever having seen her honored for her work by the Academy.
- 3 — The number of best actress Oscars that Katharine Hepburn — the actress to whom Streep is most often compared and the only other one who ever seems to top lists of the greatest movie actresses of all-time — had won by the time she was Streep’s current age (62); Hepburn would go on to win another to bring her total to four.
- 1 — The number of best actress Oscars that Streep has won. It came for Sophie’s Choice (1982); her first Oscar, which came three years earlier for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), was for best supporting actress. To put things in some perspective, this is the same number of best actress Oscars that have been won by Cher, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, and Reese Witherspoon.
- 2 — The number of best actress Oscars that Hilary Swank has won. In pointing out this disparity I mean no disrespect to Swank, who is a terrific actress in her own right… but I think that even Swank would acknowledge that it’s a bit messed up that she has twice as many best actress Oscars as Meryl Streep.
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