Meryl Streep won the Oscar for Best Actress yesterday for her role in The Iron Lady, a bad movie. People have variously justified her win over Viola Davis as a de facto lifetime achievement award for all her great work that has gone unrecognized. After all, she’s the “best actress of her generation.”
But is she really that good? Considering that most lists of “best actresses of the last 30 years” would put her at or around number one, how good were her performances? Last night, as I tried to list her best performances, I found them variously lacking (more on this in a bit). She’s a bit like a Barry Larkin — consistently good but never “the best.” Certainly she belongs in the pantheon, but her brilliance rarely rose to the level of her predecessors or contemporaries.
Slate has a good rundown here, but I’ll point out that my favorite Streep performance is probably one of Adaptation, Kramer vs. Kramer, or Angels in America. And yet, these are not in the same stratosphere as, say, Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, or Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, or Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, et al. Even in each of those movies, Streep’s performance is arguably overshadowed by one of her costar’s work (Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, and Al Pacino in Angels).
I think Streep’s pedigree is part of the problem here. Her choice in films tends toward the prestige project or the indulgent (Devil WearsPrada, a fun but unnecessary movie; Julie and Julia, a movie that I enjoyed for its Streepness). When she goes off the beaten path, it’s not in search of an unusual new director or a bizarre indie picture. Instead, it’s for Mamma Mia! or A Prairie Home Companion.
Again, I like Streep’s work, and I enjoy the way that she fully embodies her characters. She’s clearly a sharp woman with phenomenal talent, but she’s cautious with that talent, which may lead her away from the most intriguing roles.
Perhaps I can’t blame Streep for her choice in movies, which is to some degree out of her control, but she’s Meryl Streep! She has her pick of movies! She could star in (almost) anything she wanted, and can play comedy, drama, thrillers, etc. Yet, she cannot help but hew towards the conventional.
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