Looking at the Oscar nominations every year, you have to wonder if, in the Best Actress category, they basically check if Meryl Streep has had a movie that year, and if she has, then they only have to worry about choosing the other four nominees. I have never been a great fan of the actress, whom I find too mannered and fussy to fully inhabit a part — we are never allowed to forget that MERYL STREEP IS ACTING, OH SHE IS ACTING — and even when she cuts loose in her comic roles, there’s this feeling I get of watching someone work very, very hard at something, like a dog determined to digest a rubber bone.
I know that I am in the extreme minority with this contention, but the reason I bring up Streep isn’t to be contrarian or some such thing. The reason is that I have seen August: Osage County, the film for which she is nominated this year — and she is awful.
Words cannot express the dreadfulness of this performance, the watch-me-act-watch-me-act-watch-me-act exhaustion it brings about. It’s really Julia Roberts, who’s strangely nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category (despite having a role of equal length and importance), who walks away with the movie with a keenly observed minor-key performance — but this is not to say that the only performances worth considering are those that are “invisible.”
Peter O’Toole was rarely subtle, in the way the term is used to describe screen acting, but he always inhabited his parts. He found his way inside them, so that even if we thought “Peter O’Toole is doing a great job as Henry II [in Becket],” even if the actor/star came first and the part only later, there was a thrilling dynamism in the way this fusion of actor/star and part came about. When this dynamism is evident, we are exhilarated, and when it isn’t, when we only see the nuts and bolts of craft (the parts, the sum of which never becomes an organic whole), we are merely exhausted.
I’ve done this exact bit of hand-wringing in this space earlier (I’d reproduced the Pauline Kael quote that summed it up best, the one where she observed that “instead of trying to achieve freedom in front of the camera, [Streep is] predetermining what it records), but what set off a new bout of angst was the non-nomination of Julia Louis-Dreyfus for her beautiful performance as a divorced mother who finds love and then loses it and then kinda-sorta finds it again in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said. (Her co-star James Gandolfini is equally good — big and sad and wise and foolish — and he wasn’t nominated either.)
And it isn’t just the non-nomination. Had Louis-Dreyfus lost out to some other worthy performer, we’d have just sighed and wished her better luck next time. But to lose a place in the top five to Streep and her grand parade of acting tics is just... infuriating.
And now you’re going to say, “But, of course, Streep was nominated. Don’t you know that the Oscar voters love these showy performances?” Yes, yes, I know. And Streep’s part as the mother-from-hell in August: Osage County is filled with the kind of touches Oscar voters seem to love. The character is cancer-stricken and prone to pill-popping — if there’s disease or suffering, Oscar is sure to follow. The character is enhanced by prosthetic makeup (or at least some kind of make-Meryl-Streep-look-different makeup) — if there’s physical transformation, Oscar is sure to follow.
Poor Julia Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand, just gets to look like she always does, as Enough Said is about ordinary people whose emotional complications are — at least to those people — as much of a cross to bear as cancer. That’s something Oscar never seems to get, that life isn’t always about the major issues, and that (relatively) minor setbacks can be equally worthwhile fodder for drama.
But then, Enough Said doesn’t quite qualify as drama either — and that’s the other problem with Oscar, its inability (or perhaps reluctance) to recognise the films that fall between the cracks. August: Osage County is one-hundred-per-cent drama — there’s no mistaking all that shouting for anything else. Gravity is one-hundred-per-cent drama — there’s no mistaking all that... gravity for anything else. 12 Years a Slave is one-hundred-per-cent drama — there’s no mistaking all that suffering for anything else.
But Enough Said? It’s about the difficulty of finding love after a certain age, about the second-guessing that happens with potential partners, about the perils of making hasty judgements about people, about our tendency to suck up to (and be influenced by) those we consider our intellectual superiors... All of this is hugely dramatic stuff, but it’s all presented with no fuss, with the lightest of touches (as lovers of other Holofcener’s films have come to expect). An Oscar for embodying life as we know it outside the movie theatre? The very thought...