This Sunday, Meryl Streep is in with a chance of winning her third Academy Award, following a record-breaking 16th nomination for Julie and Julia. Despite the extraordinary amount of goodwill towards Meryl Streep throughout the industry and the general public, the question has cropped up repeatedly amongst awards chatterers: does she really need three Oscars? Why bother awarding an actress who is already acclaimed as the greatest of her generation, whose career at 60 is in such rude health it is positively obscene? Here’s why.
Let’s start by stating my belief that the Academy Awards hold virtually no value as a barometer of the “best” films and performances of any given year. For me, an Oscar only has value as a kind of institutional endorsement from the film industry. To paraphrase Sally Field in accepting her second Best Actress award (yes, Meryl is currently tied for awards with Sally Field – another reason she must win), an Oscar can say to the recipient “We like you”. And when the recipient is, say, Dustin Lance Black for the screenplay to Milk, being told you are liked can be a powerful thing.
How does this apply to this year’s race? The slight front-runner as things stand is Sandra Bullock, for her work in The Blind Side. There are few who think hers is the best female performance of the year, but the film has been a $250 million-grossing phenomenon in the US, while Bullock’s The Proposal has just made $314 million worldwide. To put it bluntly, Sandra has made a shedload of money for Hollywood this year, and thanks to her perfectly decent performance in The Blind Side, they have a chance to say thank you. The nearest parallel is Julia Roberts’ win for Erin Brockovich in 2001, which beat Ellen Burstyn’s acclaimed performance in Requiem for a Dream.
Two potential upsetters in the race are Gabourey Sidibe, nominated for her work in Precious, and Carey Mulligan, BAFTA-winning star of An Education. (The fifth nominee, Helen Mirren, stands no chance). Wouldn’t it be preferable to see either of these young actresses be told “We like you” in front of hundreds of millions of viewers? Sidibe, because she is playing a character whose narrative seldom appears in mainstream culture, and the award might send out some kind of message that there is room for these stories to be told. Or Mulligan because she is on the verge of becoming a breakthrough leading lady, and the award could open as many doors for her as it seems to have done for 2008 winner Marion Cotillard.
No – I want the Best Actress statuette to go to Meryl Streep. She doesn’t “need” the award in terms of her career, but then the Academy Award has never been a reliable guarantor of fulfilling future employment. For every Marion Cotillard, there is a Helen Hunt (and let’s not even discuss Cuba Gooding Jr…). For me, an Oscar is not about the future but the moment itself. The opening of the envelope and the ensuing acceptance speech. On these grounds, I have no doubt it should be Meryl’s moment.
If anyone is All About The Acting it is Meryl Streep, but my god does the woman know how to receive an award. She always gives vocal support to female actors and directors with a lower profile than herself (witness her screaming “Give this woman a movie!” in reference to Viola Davis during her 2009 Critics Choice acceptance speech). She also knows how to make the moment Not Just About Her – following her Golden Globe win for The Devil Wears Prada, her exhortation to movie-goers to demand a wider variety of films from their local cinema managers is the kind of thing that might, somewhere, have inspired one or two people to do exactly that. Finally, she is quite simply very, very funny. Amid all the tub-thumping, tears and po-faced solemnity we are dealt at awards shows, a few minutes of Meryl would be a breath of fresh air.
What other 60 year old could have been cast as George Clooney’s wife in Fantastic Mr Fox without some tremendous sniping? Her celebration of mature sexual desire in It’s Complicated, meanwhile, was even more quietly empowering. And then, of course, there is her delectable performance in Julie and Julia. In short, Meryl Streep deserves more than mere gushing from idiots like me. You may think me trivial for not even bothering to discuss the actual performances of the nominees, or ponder which may be “the best”. But in a year when Tilda Swinton was not nominated for Julia, nor Abbie Cornish for Bright Star, I don’t think performance appraisal is what this game is about. Regardless, the Oscars retain a purpose. And for me, that purpose will be best fulfilled with a win for Ms Streep on Sunday night.