Monday, June 23, 2014

Here is Why We Need to Stop Labeling Meryl Streep as "The Greatest Actress"

Meryl Streep in Out of Africa
With yesterday marking actress Meryl Streep's 65th birthday, it left a chance to explore a tough subject that I have insinuated several times. It is a tough subject to approach because what I say, I don't mean as a flat-out insult. On majority of lists, she always ranks as one of the best living actresses with every film she releases being hailed as another great performance. While she has made some masterpieces, the idea of hailing her as this other worldly being makes no sense and her legacy feels unwarranted, or over  hyped. It should be applauded that she is 65 and still producing work that people care about, but to the level that she receives, it makes no sense.

There's the inevitable cries ringing through readers' heads. I am simply just jealous. It has probably seemed that way since this blog's launch in 2012. However, I want to say that when I use the word overrated, I mean it more in the general perception of her. For starters, her recent track record has been lackluster. Even if I enjoyed August: Osage County, I couldn't help but feel an unfair amount of praise for Streep's overacting. Her simple ability to transform into a role is substituted for presenting material in a human manner. She is reliably tolerable, but the quality of her work compared to her praise has always irked me.

In the realm of Oscars, it has also seemed baffling. If you go by Oscar nominations, she is "the best." Given that, she has only won three times out of 18 nominations. That's 1 out of 6, which is some of the worst odds in history. Even Daniel Day-Lewis managed to win three times with only five nominations. Without getting into logistics about which nominations were deserved, it does seem like Streep has become "The McDonald's Choice." Since her first nomination for The Deer Hunter in 1979, she has become a wunderkind, peeking in the 80's with seven nominations. Whether or not that you believe her to be great, this record seems unfair in that she is McDonald's (familiar, reliable, universally accepted as the top choice).

I personally feel that her work has been fine, but I imagine that her records are reserved solely for number count. General audiences will acknowledge her greatness, but can any of them name any of those films she was nominated for? There's a few, but majority have become forgotten titles that in hindsight, weren't that great. The one benefit is that the Academy never went overboard with giving her trophies, so we have that to be thankful for. However, much like McDonald's, there is a question of if maybe someone else should be recognized. We know that Streep is great, but what about those people that want Burger King, Wendy's, Carl's Jr., or something entirely different like K.F.C., El Pollo Loco or Chic Fil A (no pizza, because Ellen Degeneres ruined it for everyone)? 

I look back at the Oscars with an eye of awareness. Sometimes there's bias and some nominations don't happen for political reasons. Even then, I look at the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress fields and try and understand their structures. Last year in this category, Streep got nominated for August: Osage County along with Amy Adams (American Hustle), Judi Dench (Philomena), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), and winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine). A decent array that inevitably ended with Blanchett's speech asking for more films lead by women. While films like The Hunger Games and Divergent more than prove her point, it is a fact that I apply to the entire Academy and their nomination progress.

We need a more diverse selection of nominees. While none compare to 2012's Best Supporting Actor atrocity, it does feel like some cards are played from sheer bias. It does happen, but I feel like this bias is a flamboyant problem. With limited exception, what performers, living and working, do you think are the best of the best? The male side is packed full of names while the female side is reduced to a more limited variety. It is in part due to Hollywood's inability to write compelling female roles sometimes, but even then, the crop of new talent is getting ignored in favor of the old hats. 

We need to recognize the new generation of greats such as Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Amy Adams, Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Elisabeth Moss, Michelle Williams, and countless more. Even then, go younger and recognize Brie Larson, Greta Gerwig, Saoirse Ronan, Mia Wasikowska, Brit Marling, Rooney Mara, Lea Seydoux or Shailene Woodley (I only name so many so that you know they exist). As much as the Academy was about giving Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) a nomination for Best Actress, it feels like a fluke in hindsight. Unless an actress turns in a wrenching performance (Lupita Nyon'o - Best Supporting Actress, 12 Years a Slave), nobody is going to care. However, if Streep asks you to eat the fish in a kooky voice, she'll get nominated.

I don't mean to tear down a legendary performer, but her reputation is far too inflated. Her status as the greatest isn't fair. Consider the films she is in. While she has Defending Your Life and The Devil Wears Prada to her name, Hope Springs and Mama Mia! are also there. Even if you think those films are enjoyable, you have to admit that they're not the best. It is an actress taking on fun roles. This isn't the problem. While it is true that Rotten Tomatoes' highest rated film of hers since 2000 is Fantastic Mr. Fox (92%), she hasn't turned in the highest caliber of work. For a performer with that much prestige, it seems down right offensive for her to not make films with more compelling stories and production values. Of the 18 nominations, only four of those films have been in the Best Picture race. This isn't always indicative of bad movies, but it does suggest that she is doing great work in mediocre films. I feel that it is in some ways undervaluing her impact. She hasn't had a Best Actress-Best Picture match-up since Out of Africa. That was 1986. 

By comparison, Jessica Chastain has been in three Best Picture nominees (Zero Dark Thirty, The Tree of Life, and The Help) since 2011. It is unfair to compare the short spurt to Streep's long career, but it still rings strangely. She has put in great work, yet it seems likely that Chastain won't get nearly as much recognition as Streep did when she was starting out. What Chastain did in Zero Dark Thirty is phenomenal. Chastain is more magnetic than anything Streep has done within the same time frame, yet they both have two Oscar nominations. Why do we recognize a performer who has nothing to prove when there's others like Chastain who could use the attention? Now imagine for the berth of performers who get ignored because we think that Streep turned in a great performance in a forgettable film. How much does that hurt the idea of going diverse?

To say I hate Streep is a lie. I don't. I simply wish that her reputation wasn't as acclaimed in many people's eyes because I feel it is regressing a lot of the current generation of performers to attain a goal that is ridiculously biased. 18 nominations will not likely happen to anyone from this generation of acting in my lifetime. That's because we don't look as anyone as being great in the way that we look at Streep as being great. I just believe that it is about time that we begin to reconsider things and maybe just call her great only when we acknowledge that somebody under 30 is great that isn't a social focus (Jennifer Lawrence being the big one -- this isn't to say she's bad at acting). I want to challenge the idea that there's other places besides McDonald's out there and that even if they haven't served billions, they deserve a chance to prove themselves.


  1. I find her style too mannered. I can feel her acting. It separates her as a person from the character she's playing. She's also incredibly overexposed. Every Wednesday it seems she has a new movie being released. As Alicia Keyes said about her peer Beyonce - go away, let us miss you. To be honest, I wouldn't miss her

    1. "I find her style too mannered. I can feel her acting." Yeah that's pretty much it..I'm always aware I'm watching a performance..takes me out of the movie.

  2. I personally find several of Streep's films good; She-Devil, Doubt, It's Complicated, Mamma Mia!, and others. She isn't always in the best movie out there, but I think her ability to give good performances nonetheless (just as noted above) is reason enough to call her one of the greats. Notice I said, "one of" the greats. She perhaps isn't the best of all time, but she is definitely one of the best actresses around today. I can certainly understand were one might think of her as overrated, or perhaps a tad overblown. Every actress (or actor) is overrated to someone, but could very well be the favorite of someone else. I can't agree with all of her nominations, but she has deserved some of them for sure.

  3. I agree with great critic Pauline Kael-she only acts from the neck up- she is far too cerebral and mannered and fools many people into thinking she is a good actress because of her ability to do an accent foreign. Also she looks like Wayne Gretzky which doesn't help in her earlier romantic leads. The above summation is right on.