Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Streep, Hepburn and their paralleled Oscar trajectory

It's no secret that I hope Meryl one day breaks the all-time record for Oscar wins.  With four awards for Actress in a Leading Role, that record currently rests with the late, great Katharine Hepburn.  At three wins, Streep is tied with Walter Brennan, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis.   Considering Meryl only won her third last year, it may seem like I'm getting a little ahead of myself to assume or even wish that she ultimately land five.  But hear me out.

For quite some time, it seemed like Meryl was just destined to never win a third Oscar.  It had been 29 years since she won for Sophie's Choice at the ceremony held in 1983.  Finally, in 2012, she was awarded for her performance in The Iron Lady.  Last year, I went back and forth between really wanting her to win and wishing for Viola Davis to be recognized for The Help.  Ultimately however, I knew that if Meryl were to have a legitimate chance at getting her total closer to five, she needed this win...badly.  To some, The Iron Lady was a mediocre film at best and considered Streep's performance to be more mimicry than fine acting.  Evidently enough people at least disagreed with the latter notion, and Meryl went home with the win.

Later this year, Streep will star in the highly anticipated screen adaptation of Tracy Letts's play August: Osage County.  If one is to believe the hyperbolic positive reactions to an early screening, Meryl may be "undeniable" for another win.  This is interesting because normally we would assume it's highly unlikely for an actor to win so closely to their most recent, and particularly Streep, knowing her history.  Knowing what we know now,  had she instead won for August: Osage County last year and then had The Iron Lady coming this fall, I would expect the chances for a second win to be much less likely.  So the fact that Meryl already has #3 in the bag with a possible bravura performance as Violet Weston later this year should widen the eyes of  many Oscar observers.

I can't help but compare Meryl's Oscar path to that of  Katharine Hepburn's.  Hepburn won her first Oscar (also first nomination) in 1934 at the age of 26 for Morning Glory.  Streep won her first (in her second nomination) in 1980 at the age of 30 for Kramer vs Kramer (supporting).  Meryl won again only three years later for the aforementioned Sophie's Choice.  After these early wins, the two both went three decades before winning again.  Hepburn went 0-for-8 until her 1968 win for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner 34 years later, while Streep went a staggering 0-for-12 before her win for The Iron Lady 29 years later in 2012.  Rather similar.

What strikes me is the similar ages at which they both won their second lead actress Oscar.  Hepburn was 60 and Streep 62.  By the late 1960's I imagine Hepburn was beginning to enter the same territory as Streep had in the first decade of the 21st century, where such a revered actress strangely had only one lead actress Oscar to her resumé.  Christina Drayton in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, while a great film role, may not have jumped out as "Oscar bait."  Conversely, although the role of Margaret Thatcher was textbook bait, The Iron Lady was certainly not widely considered a fantastic film.  The compromise for both was that each film/performance provided an adequate vehicle for which to recognize these two great ladies and their monumental careers.

The tricky part is that only a year after her second win in 1968, Hepburn earned her third statue for a brilliant portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter (tied with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl).  As I eluded above, it takes a damn fine performance to win back-to-back Oscars (think Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump or Spencer Tracey for Captain Courageous and Boys Town).  Although it wouldn't be in back-to-back years, if Streep happens to win for August: Osage County, it'll be her second straight win as well as her second in three years. And, like The Lion in Winter, 'August'  is an adaptation of a Broadway play which garnered a Tony award for its original female lead.

This would theoretically bring their total wins equal to four apiece.  Hepburn won her record fourth Lead Actress Academy Award for On Golden Pond in 1982 at the age of 74, thirteen years after her most recent win.  This was her third straight win and last nomination (defeating among others, Streep, in her first nomination in the lead category).  If their Oscar paths are to remain similar, is it unreasonable to expect Meryl to be recognized again when in her mid to late 70's?  I think not.  Assuming a win for August: Osage County next year (and subsequently several more nominations over the next decade), Streep could certainly break that seemingly unbreakable record Hepburn has held for over thirty years.  With a fifth win (were it to be in lead), Streep and Hepburn would both hold four Lead Actress Oscars.  Meryl would tip the historical scales with her early supporting trophy.

Hepburn's nominations and winsStreep's nominations and wins
1. 1933: Morning Glory (lead)1. 1978: The Deer Hunter (supporting)
2. 1935:  Alice Adams (lead)2. 1979: Kramer vs Kramer (supporting)
3. 1940: The Philadelphia Story (lead)3. 1981: The French Lieutenant's Woman (lead)
4. 1942: Woman of the Year (lead)4. 1982: Sophie's Choice (lead)
5. 1953: The African Queen (lead)5. 1983: Silkwood (lead)
6. 1955: Summertime (lead)6. 1985: Out of Africa (lead)
7. 1958: The Rainmaker (lead)7. 1987: Ironweed (lead)
8. 1959: Suddenly, Last Summer (lead)8. 1988: A Cry in the Dark (lead)
9. 1962: Long Day's Journey into Night (lead)9. 1990: Postcards from the Edge (lead)
10: 1967: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (lead)10. 1995: The Bridges of Madison County (lead)
11. 1968: The Lion in Winter (lead)11. 1998: One True Thing (lead)
12. 1981: On Golden Pond (lead)12. 1999: Music of the Heart (lead)
13. 2002: Adaptation (supporting)
14. 2006: The Devil Wears Prada (lead)
15. 2008: Doubt (lead)
16. 2009: Julie & Julia (lead)
17. 2011: The Iron Lady (lead)


  1. I personally feel, having grown up with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, that Meryl's performance was beyond comparison last year. I do get disheartened when people suggest the win was in some way honorary, or less deserved than someone else.
    Meryl showed much more of the Iron Lady than just mimicking her voice and mannerisms - it truly felt like the real woman was telling her story.
    On the point of your post I rate Meryl's chances of winning for August: Osage County (which I am very much looking forward to!) as quite good. I do feel though that major competition comes from Naomi Watts as Princess Diana. We shall see!

    1. Preaching to the choir, CJames! Meryl's portrayals of real people go way beyond mimicry. I'm sure a lot of Academy voters felt the same way in awarding her, but not necessarily all. Meryl's detractors relentlessly use the "impersonation" argument against the quality of her performances, and her Lady Thatcher was no exception.

      I agree that Naomi Watts could be a big factor, but I also could see that being over the top awful if the film isn't very good. Were Watts to win, it would be the third win for someone portraying a prominent Brit in the last seven years. Jeeze!

    2. Actually the fourth win if you count men (Firth as George VI)!

  2. I agree, it just felt like her momentum grew a little last year with her slightly surprising nomination for The Impossible.
    My hopes were raised for a time about a double nomination for Meryl this year but hey ho! Let's just hope she has more than 5 minutes on screen in The Homesman!
    I'm sure even if The Diana film is great Meryl will still pick up some awards (I suspect the film will get the best ensemble SAG!)