How Bad Does a Movie Have to Be for Meryl Streep to Not Get an Oscar Nomination? I Watched 23 to Find Out
For years, philosophers have asked, If Meryl Streep acts in a movie and doesn't get nominated for an Academy Award...did she really act in it at all?
But, really, Meryl Streep gets nominated for awards a lot. How often is she nominated? Well, she got a Golden Globe nod (as did her co-star Tommy Lee Jones) for "Hope Springs," a not-very-funny comedy that I'm pretty sure people only saw because they thought it was a remake of the 1998 Sandra Bullock/Harry Connick Jr. flick "Hope Floats."
In fact, Streep holds the record for the most acting Oscar nominations for a single person (man or woman) ever. She even broke her own record this year. The accolades are well-deserved, of course. She's the queen for a reason.
But, at times, Streep's ubiquity on the nominee list can be frustrating. Take this year's Oscar race. Streep is in the running for Best Actress for her performance as the titular "Florence Foster Jenkins." There's never enough room for every award-worthy actress to receive a nomination, but considering both Amy Adams (much praised for her Arrival, a film that rests completely on her shoulders) and Annette Bening (whose work in "20th Century Women" is as difficult, nuanced, and compelling as you're likely to see this year) were both shut out, one has to wonder: Do we need to give Meryl another nomination?
And another, larger question looms: How bad does a movie have to be for her to NOT get nominated? Among Streep's 79 acting credits, we found 23 feature films for which Meryl Streep earned zero major acting award nominations. No Golden Globes, no Academy Awards, no BAFTAS, nothing. They're a mixed bag, to say the least, and devoting a long weekend to them isn't the best use of your time. Which is why I did that for you; you're welcome.
(A note before we begin: Streep also makes an uncredited cameo in the 2003 Farrelly Brothers movie "Stuck on You," which is stupid and I love it. She also voices the Blue Fairy in "AI: Artificial Intelligence" (2001). For the purposes of this list, I did not include voiceover work or narration — but can we take a second to talk about AI? It makes no sense, it's totally pretentious and weird, and I accidentally saw the last half one time at a hotel where my mom and I were staying while we visited Disneyland and it upset me so much that I cried all the way to Disneyland.)
In chronological order:
The Deadliest Season (1977)
This was technically Meryl's first feature, but it's a TV movie. "The Deadliest Season" is about a hockey player who isn't Meryl who kills another hockey player who isn't Meryl. Moving on.
Jane Fonda stars as playwright Lillian Hellman in a series of glamorous gowns, who smokes and throws typewriters out of windows as she lives and bickers with Dashiell Hammett (he of "The Maltese Falcon"). Then, she goes to Europe to help her longtime best friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) smuggle cash to anti-Nazi rebels in Weimar, Germany. This alone would have been good, but the fact that it's based on a totally fake story in Hellman's memoir makes it great. The scam! Meryl is in this movie for like two minutes.
There is literally no good way to talk about "Manhattan." It's a much-lauded classic, a hit both critically and commercially in its own time, and has stayed on best-of lists ever since. Annnnnd it's about a grown man dating a teenager. That grown man is played by Woody Allen, who also wrote and directed the film, and that teenager is played by actual then-teenager Mariel Hemingway. Do you really think I'm gonna dip my toe into the scalding hot lava pit that is dealing with this movie? No, sir. Let's just stay focused on Meryl — she's luminous in the small-but-critical role of the protagonist's ex-wife who has, in the time since their marriage, come out as a lesbian.
The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)
A number of critics' groups actually gave Streep Best Supporting Actress for her work in this film about a liberal senator from New York (played by Alan Alda) whose career is nearly derailed by his personal life (where ever does Hollywood get its ideas?), but the casting here is simply mixed up. Streep should be playing the ambitious politician, not the mistress. She's the definition of high status.
Still of the Night (1982)
Meryl told Andy Cohen (and Billy Eichner and all of us) that this is a bad movie. Would Meryl lie to Andy/Billy/us? She would not, therefore this Hitchcock homage/rip-off about murder and psychiatry is bad.
Falling in Love (1984)
"Falling in Love" asks, "What would happen if two seemingly reasonable, decent, good-hearted adults were married to other reasonable, decent, good-hearted adults, but fell in love with each other on the Metro-North?" The answer is: That would be a difficult situation. Thus endeth the film's sincere but shallow exploration of attraction and fidelity. Streep and Robert De Niro, as the lovers, at this point had won two Oscars apiece and made "The Deer Hunter" together; it's not so much that their performances are phoned in (understated or naturalistic might be better terms), so much as they beg the question, "Why are they doing this project, again?" For a basically forgotten film, the cast is surprisingly stacked; Meryl and Bob, of course, each have a BFF, played by Dianne Wiest and Harvey Keitel, respectively. A totally throwaway waitress role goes to the ever-sparkling Frances Conroy (from "Six Feet Under" and a thousand other things), the jilted wife is played by Jane Kaczmarek ("Malcolm in the Middle"), and Jesse Bradford shows up for like a second as a five-year-old. Also, at one point De Niro plays tic tac toe against a chicken. Just thought you'd like to know.
I know this is a post about Streep, but sometimes the supporting cast is so good I can't deal with it. Like, OK, Sam Neill and Ian McKellen are in this, but more importantly so is Sting and TRACEY ULLMAN! Honestly, I don't remember what this movie was about; I couldn't hear the dialogue over the sound of my own voice shrieking "TRACEY ULLMAN!" I do know there is a lot of accent work — very precise accent work.
It's really a pity — and a little bit of a mystery — that this movie isn't better. You'd think Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep directed by Mike Nichols off of Nora Ephron's screenplay based on her (funny, wry, wise, quite good) novel based on her real marriage to Carl Bernstein would be a recipe for success. But alas, "Heartburn" isn't as funny as it should be or as quick-moving as wit demands. It's also kinda depressing? It's not awful, but expectations were so high that when an essentially mediocre film hit theaters, critics tossed it aside. Meryl's great in the heartbreak/marriage/parenting scenes, but she's just not neurotic enough to be an Ephron heroine. She's a woman who radiates "I have my shit together," and Rebecca Samstat does not have her shit together.
Defending Your Life (1991)
A role tailor-made for Meryl: Julia, a woman who is literally perfect. She doesn't have much to do — she's really just there for Albert Brooks to fall in love with — but it's a wonderfully relaxed performance. We've grown accustomed to seeing Meryl in big, meaty roles, often affecting an accent to sound more like a historical figure. Here, she's just a woman, and we get a light and charming and goofy side of her that we don't see much. The film (despite being totally great) wasn't a big enough deal to get Streep nominated for anything other than a Saturn award, but Streepologists often consider it one of her best performances. Also, if you're into NBC's "The Good Place," you should definitely check out "Defending Your Life"; the film almost certainly provided much of the basis for the show's conception of the afterlife. The
House of the Spirits (1993)
It's hard to use today's standards against yesterday's art. 1993 was a different time — but Meryl, as great as you are at acting, there's nothing you can do that will make you Latina. No es posible. Everyone should just read the book.
Before and After (1996)
See, this is why episodes of "Law & Order" are only 40 minutes. Two hours is just too long to watch parents fret over whether or not their son murdered his girlfriend. (Spoiler: He did.)
...First Do No Harm (1997)
So much to talk about with this one. First of all, titular ellipses! Second, there was a time when Meryl Streep (and Allison Janney!) could be in a TV movie in which she played basically your average mom with a hell of a Minnesota accent. But the big thing to note, of course, is the uncomfortable parallels between this based-on-a-true-story and our modern anti-vaccination/anti-medicine/anti-science movement. Let's break this down. If you, like Meryl, find that your son's epilepsy medication is making him sicker and that a textbook has published a report on a diet that could reduce the boy's seizures, and you find a doctor (at John's Hopkins, not Reddit) willing to monitor your son's progress as he goes from medication to the diet, then that's called "making an informed decision for the health of your family." Deciding that you're not going to the hospital even when your kids are suffering because you're pretty sure you can cure whatever they have with herbs based on a fake news article your aunt sent you is not. Now that all of that's out of the way, we can get to the movie: It is fine but totally unnecessary because we already have "Lorenzo's Oil" (1992, Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon, so sad).
Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)
It's an Irish movie about Irish things based on an Irish play, and it won all the big Irish awards. Meryl won them, too, but Trump says we have to say America First, so none of those awards count! America only, America forever, God save America! Meryl is in fine form, especially opposite Michael Gambon a.k.a. False Dumbledore.
A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
Unfortunately, a series of unfortunate events befell the development of "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events." A change in director meant that much of Lemony's (Daniel Handler's) script got tossed by the wayside and, well, the movie sucks. Streep isn't to blame, but her casting is emblematic of its issues. It can't decide whether it's a "Harry Potter"-style faithful adaptation of a book about savvy kids, the kind that would cast Streep and others and wrap the story up in a somewhat tidy bow, or a Tim Burton rip-off, all stylized and dark. The set design points to the latter, but in that case they should have gone with someone with a little edge and weirdness, like Diane Keaton or even Catherine O'Hara. But whatever, the Netflix version is super fun, so go watch it.
Uma Thurman plays a woman who blah blah blah Bryan Greenberg blah blah blah the point is she's dating her therapist's son (Meryl is the therapist) and then stuff happens. It's as awkward as it sounds.
Evening (2007) a.k.a. White Upper Class Women and Their Romantic Troubles Are the Most Important Things in the World, Let's Talk About It: The Movie
OK, so this movie is...not good, but in other ways it is extremely good. Let me explain: The costumes are extremely good, and the cast is extremely good, even if they aren't all doing good acting in this particular project. Evening features my favorite Streepism, which is that the young version of Meryl's character is played by one of her daughters (in this case Mamie Gummer, though it was Grace in "The House of the Spirits"). It also features another mother-daughter duo (Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson), but they play a mother and a daughter, not the same person. Evening also gave us one of the loveliest couples of the modern era: Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy. Thanks, Evening!
The end of the Bush era saw a spate of films ("Rendition" in 2007, "The Hurt Locker" in 2008, "Brothers" in 2009) that attempted to blend political drama with something more personal, putting a family (or family-type unit) at the center of, essentially, the Iraq War. It was, I think, an attempt to reconcile the at-home trauma of 9/11 with its far-away consequence: the war(s). TBH it never worked very well. "Rendition" is too packed with characters who see themselves as the center of the narrative played by actors who see themselves as the star of the show. Plus, it's based on a true story, so the whole time I was watching them torture the guy I was just like, "BUT IS HE OK OR WHAT?" (Answer: He's alive.)
Lions for Lambs (2007)
2007 was not a great year for Streep movies overall, but "Lions for Lambs" (a war drama about Afghanistan; see my earlier points re: war dramas) has a number of special distinctions. First, it's directed by Robert Redford, so you're hitting two Hollywood Greats with one stone. Second, Streep actually was nominated for an award for her work on this film, sliding into the "Best Actress" race in the Movies for Grownups Awards, which is apparently a real thing that the AARP does. Third, that's not even the most uncomfortable nomination she got for this movie. No, the most uncomfortable nomination comes from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, who at their awards nominated Streep for Actress Defying Age and Ageism. Oh my God.
Dark Matter (2008)
This movie is just really difficult to watch. It's difficult to watch its protagonist, the brilliant but lonely Liu, an immigrant from China, be ostracized by American academic institutions. It's difficult to watch him grow depressed and, ultimately, violent. It's difficult to think about the fact this is (loosely) based on a true story, and even if it weren't, bears a resemblance to other school shootings. It's also difficult for less serious reasons, like that there's a LOT of science and not a lot of Streep.
The Homesman (2014)
Both Grace Gummer and Meryl Streep appear in this film, but they do NOT play mother and daughter and they do NOT play the young/old versions of the same character. They play two totally unrelated women who are both in "The Homesman." Plot twist!
The Giver (2014)
The Giver, the book, is a vitally important and, unfortunately, timely meditation on the pros and cons (truly) of authoritarianism, aimed at an audience hungry to explore rebellion. Too bad the movie is 90 minutes of exposition with occasional "action" scenes and, when you get down to it, many implied murders. Our girl Meryl, as the Chief Elder, is a slightly muted version of Julianne Moore as President Coin in "Mockingjay Part One." She gives a lot of orders but actually does nothing. She doesn't even get to enter or exit a single room, preferring to beam in as a hologram. Um, but you know who else is a hologram in "The Giver?" Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift is a hologram in "The Giver."
Ricki and the Flash (2015)
Diablo Cody, I TRUSTED YOU. "Ricki and the Flash" is a) not about anything, b) not fun and c) not funny. And, yes, I will say it: Meryl was miscast. Who should have played the hard-living, Obama-hating runaway absent mother rockstar? Hello, Susan Sarandon! Hello, Courtney Love! Hello, Sigourney Weaver! Hello, literally anyone but Meryl Streep, who, I am sorry, looks wrong in leather pants and half a head of braids. Yes, it's very admirable that she learned guitar for the part and that they cast her daughter as her daughter (Mamie). Ricki is the heart of "Ricki and the Flash," and she's not as original and badass as she's supposed to be. Instead, it's kind of like if Joanna Kramer had pursued her dream of music and never come home and also if Joanna were the worst. But on the plus side, Rick Springfield is low-key a really good actor?
I gotta admit, "Suffragette" scratches an itch. Sometimes you want to watch a movie about women who break things and yell at men until they get what that want and/or die. Unfortunately, not only does "Suffragette" ignore the fact that the "equality" the women were fighting for was white-centric, the movie makes the story even whiter than it needed to be by omitting Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, a suffragette who was a contemporary of the women in the picture, as well as...pretty much every other person of color. Ultimately, the film doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know (early white feminists gonna early white feminize, patriarchy gonna patriarch), but it scratches the itch when you want a movie with the thesis, "If girl angry, girl smash."
So, what have we learned? It's always good to remind yourself that no one, not even Yale School of Drama alum Meryl Streep, hits it out of the park every single time. We remember people by their best work, but there's plenty of mediocrity out there. Whatever your industry, whatever your passion, you should go easy on yourself when you wind up creating something altogether meh. Another lesson: Despite what marketing would have you believe, having high caliber actors doesn't guarantee a film's quality. You can stack a cast on a dud project. The most important lesson, though? Taylor Swift is a hologram in "The Giver."
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Photo Credit: Reuters