Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dissecting the win

As the dust has now settled a bit on Sunday night's momentous event, I'd like to provide my own sort of postmortem on how Meryl managed to pull off the win, which is to say, how she ended up getting more votes than Viola Davis. Yes, everyone had a chance (in theory), but let's be real, we knew it was going to be one of these two. Most people predicted Davis to take it, myself included. We'll explore a bunch of ideas (several covered by Tom O'Neil from gold derby), a combination of which likely explain the outcome. Inevitably, shock among pundits and Davis fans prompted some interesting commentary on the web, which I address below. Fasten your seat belts.

Oh, where to begin? Shall we start with the “due” factor? As much as an actor could be for an Oscar win, Meryl was. But how could someone who already holds two trophies possibly be due for another win? The answer is based on the tremendous scope of her career. Meryl has been in over 40 films, 17 of which have earned her an Academy Award nomination. Had she won two years ago, she certainly wouldn't be due this year. But considering that the last win she had was for 1982's Sophie's Choice, and the subsequent 12 losses she had in between that span, one could argue it was time. And it's been time for a while. We need to remember that Meryl has been around a lot longer than Viola Davis, and is clearly very popular among Academy members, even if she rarely gets the ultimate prize. In his post-Oscar podcast on Monday, Kris Tapley from in contention questioned the validity of an actor's third Oscar being more “due” than any other actor's first. I argue that in Meryl's case, for the reasons I've already mentioned, she was more due than Viola, who was on just her second overall nomination. If anyone was due for her first win it was Glen Close for Albert Nobbs. Alas, the performance and film weren't nearly good enough and Close remains 0-for-6.

Historically it's been helpful for winners to play a real person. Recently we can cite Helen Mirren in The Queen, Marion Cotillard in Le Vie en Rosa, and Colin Firth in The King's Speech. Maggie Thatcher was as real as they get, unfortunately. I don't give a ton of weight to this factor, but I think people often mistake good impersonation for good acting. Meryl's the best at both, so we have to put that in her corner. On top of this, she is essentially in every single scene of The Iron Lady, a film, mind you, that was mostly panned by critics. She was able to carry that film and make her characterization the best thing about it. I'm not certain the same can be said about Davis's role as Aibileen Clark in The Help, a role many argue could've been in the supporting category. The truth is that The Iron Lady isn't as bad as some critics and champions of Davis would like us to think. We could just as easily argue that The Help is a tired, re-hashed white-guilt flick, written from the perspective of a white woman that perpetuates stereotypes of African Americans.

That said, it doesn't mean a movie like that can't be truthful and have excellent acting. Davis herself argued very intelligently to Tavis Smiley that the black community's over-focus on message in film is “destroying the black actor.” Meaning that as actors, they can't be politicians. The best they can hope is to tell the truth, and if a black character happens to be a drug addict, or on welfare, or physically abusive to his wife, then that's the story that needs to be told because “life is messy.” I applaud Davis for her insight into that issue, and although it doesn't make The Help a bad film, I don't think on the whole it does it any favors.

Which leads us more deeply into the touchy subject of race, a hotly contested issue in the Best Actress category this year. If during this awards season one happened to visit Awards Daily, he or she could quickly discern that the fact that Viola Davis is African American was the only perceptible reason Sasha Stone wanted Davis to win, and she had no qualms about expressing it. Of course she argued, at times ineffectively, that it was simply the best performance of the year, but a lot of people didn't buy it. With 12% of the U.S. population being black, three African American women have won the Oscar for supporting actress over the past six years. However, in the 84-year history of the Academy Awards, only Halle Berry has won in the lead category (for 2001's Monster's Ball). Is this acceptable? Who knows. I could argue that it's a travesty, which it is, but is it the Academy's fault? As if there isn't already a drought of good roles for women, much less women of color over the age of 40. The roles and performances have to be there to be recognized. African American actress Robinne Lee stated after Streep's win, “How inspiring would it be if we could be nominated in roles where we are playing kings, queens, politicians, writers, artists, dancers? We could soar.” I've no doubt! There's no shortage of incredibly gifted black actresses, but prominent blacks in the aforementioned fields have been tragically limited. The tide is changing, however, and I'm optimistic that film will catch up. I look forward to a great role that would cover life events of Maya Angelou, Condoleeza Rice, Toni Morrison or Marian Anderson.

So, was race ultimately a factor in the Academy voting against Davis? Well, the Academy is mostly made up of white men with an average age of 62. Guess who else is 62. You make the call. I'd like to believe that members instead voted for Meryl, rather than against Viola, but that's impossible to know. What is possible is that most just preferred Meryl's performance. After all, she won the Golden Globe, New York Film Critics' Circle Award, and the BAFTA. Davis won the SAG award, typically a pretty good barometer of the Academy, but I understand that The Help had at that point been far more widely distributed to members than had The Iron Lady.

The X factor in all of this may have been Harvey Weinstein, or “God” as Meryl called him in her Globe acceptance speech. His production company is notorious for rabidly campaigning for Oscars, and when he picked up The Iron Lady last summer, we knew why. He pushed hard for Meryl, focusing on the “due” factor, considering it had been 29 years since she had won an Oscar. "Experts" have been giving this idea a lot of weight. Look at what happened with The King's Speech over The Social Network last year, and the inevitability as it felt of The Artist winning best picture this year, both Weinstein Co. films. I have to agree that I think this was likely a huge contribution to Meryl's ultimate win, and Harvey played it brilliantly.

Can we be mad at Meryl? Hell no, and I think very few people are. It's hard to be, especially after her somewhat self-deprecating and funny acceptance speech. While Anne Thompson at Thompson on Hollywood said she thought it was the best of the night, her “in contention” partner Kris Tapley called it a missed opportunity. Missed opportunity for what? To recognize Viola Davis? To apologize? To acknowledge director Phyllida Lloyd or even Margaret Thatcher? The Oscar race is very long. Meryl had in countless interviews and acceptance speeches up to that point made it very clear how fond she was of Viola, that she wanted her to win, how proud she was of The Iron Lady, and how many misconceptions she had about Thatcher before filming. We get it. I think Meryl, with her usual adeptness and gravitas, spoke of things that transcend film awards: family, friends, colleagues, collaborative art, joy. And above all, sincere and heartfelt appreciation. She hit it out of the ballpark if you ask me.

Finally (which, if you've read this far I'm sure is a welcome word), I want to address a few detractors who have fashioned obligatory “she's not that good” articles since Meryl's win. In particular, a piece in the L.A. Times by Charles McNulty entitled “My Meryl Streep Problem” gave me some pause. This sort of pseudo-intellectual concept of Meryl being a great mimic and having amazing technique but lacking emotional connection is nothing new. Critic Pauline Kael has said in a review of The Bridges of Madison County,

Once or twice you think that what's inside Streep's head
isn't 'I don't know what to do with my hands' or even 'I am
a woman who doesn't know what to do with her hands'
but 'My character is a woman who doesn't know what to
do with her hands.' Streep's controlling intelligence would
be even more impressive if she could make it invisible.

How the hell can they possibly know that? I'll tell you how they think they know, and it has nothing to do with her performance. Overwhelmingly, Streep impresses critics, casual movie-goers and fans (including yours truly) precisely for her ability to connect and make her characters believable. These naysayers can only make these comments because they've heard Meryl Streep speak in interviews and speeches, and have judged her to be a very intelligent woman. How else can one possibly claim to be able to distinguish between observing what they believe is someone thinking “I am a woman who doesn't know what to do with her hands,” vs “my character is a woman...” Give me a break. Apparently unless an actress is a slow-coach these critics can't suspend their disbelief. Or, it's just en vogue and enticing for readers to try to be the one who can put together a logical reason for their claim of Streep's overrated-ness.

Regardless of all this mess, I'm absolutely thrilled about Meryl's win and look forward to her upcoming projects. My God, if there's this much hullabaloo after her third Oscar win, imagine what people are going to say when she wins again in two years for August: Osage County?! I'll probably say she deserves it.


  1. Hi! Your articles are amazing! It's very well-thought and very professional! I'm proud to see Streep fans like you!

    Anyway, how can I contact you? I have a proposal for a project that will definitely interest you.

    Hope hear from you soon!

    1. Feel free to email me at