This was a curious year: these four winners have an average age of 55; two had never been to the party before; Christopher Plummer was up for his second nomination in three years (after decades of sterling work); and then there was Meryl, with a record 17 nominations and her third win.
But remember: the Academy Award guarantees nothing. It may put up your asking price, and maybe there will a couple more job offers coming your way – but these positive side-effects are famously short-lived.
Since then, we’ve seen Penelope, Rendition, How Do You Know, Water for Elephants and This Means War. Only the mediocre Four Christmases qualifies as a box office hit, and Reese seems not to know what to do with herself.
Hilary Swank is an even more egregious example. She was named Best Actress twice, first for Boys Don't Cry in 1999, then for Million Dollar Baby five years later. But each award was followed by a precipitous decline in the quality of her work: The Gift; The Audition; The Affair Of The Necklace and The Core in the early 2000s… (Well, Swank wasn’t accustomed to be offered big roles, maybe she went a little ga-ga); and more recently: Red Dust, The Black Dahlia; The Reaping; PS I Love You; Amelia; The Resident and New Year’s Eve (nope, I guess she really doesn’t know good scripts from bad).
If I was Octavia Spencer, I’d be looking at Meryl and thinking, how does she do it, year in, year out? Bare in mind, not very long ago (two years, to be precise) she was seventh billed in something called Herpes Boy. (Octavia, not Meryl.) There is no way she wants to end up back there.
The good news for Spencer is that luck seems to be on her side. Indie films are always a gamble, but the next film audiences will see her in is Smashed, a sobriety drama that generated strong reviews at Sundance and was picked up for US distribution by Sony Classics. Just as important, she, or her agents, seem to have good taste: the two projects she has lined up put her in Diablo Cody’s directorial debut and the first US film by Korean maestro Bong Joon-ho (Mother; The Host). Of course these are not sure things, but if in doubt, follow the talent.
That’s one thing Streep has always done right. Of course it’s a strategy predicated on the talent wanting you too, but one way to keep em keen is not to do too much. Be choosey. After her first Oscar win, for Kramer vs Kramer in 1979, Meryl took her time. She didn’t have another film on release until 1981, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, directed by Karel Reisz with a script by Harold Pinter from John Fowles’ best-seller. It wasn’t a great film, but it had pedigree coming out of its ears and Streep was duly awarded the BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and was nominated for Best Actress.
What did she do then? She took her time. She made two films the next year, one a classy thriller (Still Of The Night), the other another highbrow literary adaptation (Sophie's Choice) and she won another Oscar. A year and one more film later (Silkwood) she had another nomination. In the next six years after that, Streep made just six more films amd three more times she was nominated for Best Actress (Out Of Africa; Ironweed; A Cry in the Dark). And so it goes on…
So Streep is picky. And she likes to work with good people (who doesn’t?). In effect, she ensured that her name became a hallmark for quality. And she challenged herself: she took on accents (Eastern European; Danish; Australian; English), she transformed her appearance, and she did period and contemporary roles across the class spectrum. She even tried comedy, with less stellar results. Some of her movies were genre pieces, but they were always on the classy end of the spectrum, so even if the movie didn’t work, it didn’t damage her reputation.
Is it even possible to put together a career like that today? Not easy, certainly, but then it never was. Maybe the key is to make movies for the right reason. Streep doesn’t seem to take roles for the money, or the fame, or even to win awards. Rather, she seems driven by the spirits of intellectual curiosity, adventure and variety. Not a bad role model for any actor, even if few will ever reach her level of accomplishment.
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