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Why I don’t want Meryl Streep to win the Oscar

To make my cinematic allegiance very clear, let me say at the outset that I think Meryl Streep is one of the finest and most versatile actresses Hollywood has seen. She is an inspiration to several actresses of following generations and few have been able to match her prowess in variety and perfection.

That said, I will add, that this fine actress does not deserve an Oscar this year for her performance as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

To begin with, The Iron Lady was a terrible film. It is poorly written and doesn’t understand the politics of the biopic as a genre. Thatcher spent an unprecedented three terms in office that are an essential feature of her biography but the film is unable to portray this duration, and in fact doesn’t even try to capture her influence on an entire era of British politics. It is little more than a clumsy coming together of some highlights of her career. The forced inclusion of Thatcher’s “emotional responses” to some of these situations is plain embarrassing.

So it can fairly be argued that Streep was caught in a bad script that didn’t allow her any room to really perform. But that doesn’t take away from Streep’s own performance technique, which is little more than mimicry. To be fair, as a number of people have added, she is remarkably like Thatcher, in her accent, in her look and everything. The question really is, is that enough? Meryl Streep established her ability to adopt accents with an uncanny degree of perfection very early in her career. A case in point is her first Oscar as Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice. While her Polish accent was the highlight of that film, it didn’t undermine her moving attempt to get under the skin of that incredibly slippery character. What remains in our mind then is not just an American actress, playing a Polish woman trying to speak English, but rather a character whose history and her contradictions are articulated through her body.

To be utterly crude, one can say, that there was an attempt to layer that character and several others that Streep performed subsequently, but is sadly missing from her two latest performances, as Julia Childs in Julie and Julia and now as Thatcher in The Iron Lady. They have been lazy responses of a person who knows she can get away with what comes quite easily to her, which at its best is an impersonation and its worst is parody. Given that that is definitely not the tone of this film, it is an unsuccessful outing. Personally, I think her last outstanding performance was as the soft-spoken menace in The Devil Wears Prada.

It has become something of a joke to nominate Streep, each time she so much as breathes on screen, in fact I think it is insulting, because clearly it is not skill, but about hype. It’s almost as if the Academy is too scared to dare to not nominate her.

7 comments

1 Aditya { 02.24.12 at 12:05 pm }

Nice!! But what is the impersonation vs. acting dialectic (for non film scholars)? Also, who, in your opinion kicked butt in a biopic type production-Helem Mirren, Frank Langella and why?

2 Holly { 02.24.12 at 12:32 pm }

Her performance was one of the best she has ever given. Speaking as someone who had a grandmother who had dementia for the last 2 years of her life, I can safely assure you that Streep’s portrayal as the dementia-ridden Thatcher was one of the most astoundingly accurate performances I have ever seen.
She had the same look in her eyes I saw in my own grandmother towards the end of her life, when she would look at me and not know who I was. It was like I was watching her on screen. You can tell she has had experiences with the illness herself (her father had dementia before he died in 2004)
We can praise her for her immitation of Thatcher through her leadership years, but the Oscar lies in the old Thatcher scenes. She deserves it for those alone.

3 Kuhu Tanvir { 02.24.12 at 12:37 pm }

Holly, I think I would agree to some extent. There was more effort and greater maturity in her old Thatcher scenes, but I wonder whether they are Oscar-worthy. It is a subjective thing at the end of the day I suppose.

4 Kuhu Tanvir { 02.24.12 at 12:37 pm }

The way I see it, impersonation is mostly about imitating a person’s accent, manner etc and is a device used mostly for parody and comedy, acting would seem to be a more laborious process of becoming someone with a backstory. I would think it entails more than just imitations. The idea is not to make a value judgment between one and the other, but see what is more suited to a script. I would imagine the difference as one between say Borat (or a standup act on Saturday Night Live) and something that pays more attention to presenting a character that has been etched out with some amount of detail.
I think Frank Langella was fantastic, as was say Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and Vidya Balan as Silk Smitha. They each adopted their characters, tried to understand them and that relationship came across in their portrayal. Vidya Balan in particular is a good example of how an actress can shine even with a substandard script. That’s the best I can do. Does it answer your question?

5 Aditya { 02.24.12 at 1:34 pm }

@Kuhu Tanvir

I guess this makes things somewhat clearer but I think your division between impersonation is more heuristic than analytically rigorous. I could easily argue that Borat (or Ali G) carries as great a wealth sub-textual potential and political relevance (assuming these are the components of any ‘back-story’) as Langella or Balan. Having not seen The Iron Lady, I can’t discuss this specifically but I would think that the main criterion for judging films on historical/alive figures is as much about acting as the fictional world that they inhabit or in other words, more about diegesis rather than pure acting merit alone? Therefore a moderately well acted Blair by Michael Sheen seems utterly compelling less because of his performance but because of the context in which his character exists; and is it possible that Streep bugs you here not because of her performance (or that it is ‘typical’ of her) but simply because the world which the Iron Lady inhabits falls short?

6 Kuhu Tanvir { 02.24.12 at 1:51 pm }

@Aditya – The point was never to say in any generalized terms that parody is irrelevant, because it is not. To argue that just because something is parodic does not suggest that it is not well-researched or relevant. I will reiterate that the point really is about what kind of acting suits what kind of narrative. Sacha Baron has very consciously adopted a particular style and his narrative is driven by it. If his Ali G persona were to play Richard Nixon, the film would have a very different tone, approach and impact.

And I absolutely agree that biopics (or any other film for that matter) are not just about historical accuracy, but a complexity of the narrative world. And I also agree that Streep was utterly let down by the script of this film, but that hardly changes the filmic experience as being lukewarm at best. I don’t think that after more than a decade of being nominated she should win for this film. Simply put, it is beneath her!

7 Aditya { 02.24.12 at 3:46 pm }

@Kuhu Tanvir@Kuhu Tanvir – Agreed.

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