This is one of the year’s best films.
A funny thing happened last week when both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild nominations were announced and, as is often the case, not everyone was happy with the results.
Yes, it was weird that “La La Land” was left out of SAG’s ensemble category—often seen as the equivalent of a Best Picture nod—considering the musical has been pegged as an Academy Award front-runner for months. And while the Globes nominated “Loving” stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as headliners in a drama (it helps that there is also a comedy/musical category for lead actors, which allows the Globes voters 10 extra slots), their acclaimed performances were ignored by their SAG peers.
But what unnerved me about the negative reactions to the ballot results was how Meryl Streep was being singled out as an unworthy entry for her role as a self-made opera diva who paid her way into the spotlight in “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Apparently, she was viewed as personally responsible for not allowing Negga, Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”), Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”) and Jessica Chastain (“Miss Sloane”) to receive the acting attention they deserved. And how dare she shove them out of competition while appearing in a fluffy comedy about a silly, deluded woman.
Here are some sample Twitter reactions:
@courtenlow: “There's no way anyone remembered Meryl Streep was actually in a movie this year. They just wrote her in for GG and SAG and got lucky.”
@poedamercn: “Meryl streep shouldnt have gotten nominated for that sag award sorry that nomination belongs to ruth negga”
@claireunderwoods: “excuse me why is meryl streep nominated for a sag award but isabelle huppert isn't”
True, social media also took some jabs at Emily Blunt for her first-ever SAG nod for “The Girl on the Train,” even if there was critical acclaim her work in the “Gone Girl”-ish thriller despite the film's mixed reviews.
But Streep? She is apparently an awards hog that needs to be stopped. Should she simply pull herself out of competition in order to make room for younger performers on the rise so they can be recognized? Consider that she is already getting the honorary Cecil B. DeMille Award for her contributions to entertainment at the upcoming Globes ceremony. How much recognition does one 67-year-old woman—who has three Oscars and a record of 19 nominations, nine Globes out of a never-topped 30 nods and three SAG trophies out of 18 tries—really need?
My answer: All that she can get.
Why, you might ask? Consider how Streep continues to re-invent herself and stretch her talents to the limit in almost every part. Since 2002, the year she turned 53, she appeared widely divergent roles in “The Hours” and “Adaptation,” and continues to challenge herself. Who else could nail Julia Child, Maggie Thatcher, a cruel drug-addicted Oklahoma matriarch, a singing Sondheim witch and early 20th-century high-society strangler of arias? Sure, she could rest on her laurels and knit booties. But why would we want that?
The fact is, Streep is a bona-fide movie star—an entity that seems to be somewhat endangered these days. One who continues to draw crowds to multiplexes and has fans of all ages, not just the AARP audience. We probably need her now more than she needs us. But do we really want to wait to fully appreciate her until she's no longer acting?
Let me start and say that Streep, who was trained in opera when she was younger, not only made me care about this idiosyncratic rich lady and her tub full of potato salad, her payback to her sponsors. But she managed to mine brilliant comic gold by squawking her heart out—and, possibly, her lungs as well—while drawing both laughter and tears.
Streep isn’t the only star of a certain stature who is somewhat taken for granted yet deserves to be recognized every chance we get. There is also Tom Hanks, who didn’t just rescue a plane full of passengers in “Sully” by playing Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the veteran pilot who pulled off 2009’s Miracle on the Hudson. He also keeps director Clint Eastwood’s entire film aloft with his well-anchored and assured performance.
If the re-creation of the near-tragedy itself is a masterful work of art, so, too, is Hanks' take on his role as he avoids showboating and instead exemplifies the valuable assets of experience, training and pure instinct that define his real-life character. I don’t know if there is another 60-ish Hollywood actor who could make us believe he is this kind of modest all-American Everyman so effortlessly.
That both Hanks and “Sully” the movie are likely to be also-rans in the awards race this year, despite a smattering of recognition by such second-tier honors as the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review, is a bit of a surprise. That is, unless you realize how long it has been since the actor has been a contender in the Oscar race.
Quick: What was the last time Hanks was nominated for an Academy Award?
Was it for his worthy efforts as a principled lawyer in 2015’s “Bridge of Spies”? Perhaps his memorable embodiment of a cagey Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks” in 2013? Or maybe it was his incredible outpouring of emotion during the final moments of “Captain Phillips” that same year that did the trick?
Try going back to 2001’s “Cast Away.” Hanks has had four other tries at the big prize, including for 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan” and 1988’s “Big.” And he managed to win rare back-to-back Oscars for 1993’s "Philadelphia" and 1994’s “Forrest Gump.” But that means he has been skipped over for the past 15 years, despite such highly regarded performances in 2002’s “Catch Me if You Can” and “Road to Perdition” as well as 2007’s “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
It’s not like Hanks isn’t as good as ever or even better. It just might be a case of his peers taking him for granted or that he sometimes makes what he does seem too easy.
At least there is one super star who is pretty much assured to receive justified plaudits this year. That would be Denzel Washington, whose third directing effort is an achievement of the highest order. His well of passion for his film adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s "Fences" pours forth in waves of emotion off the screen, from his interpretation of a baseball player turned garbage man who is prone to grandiose speechifying, to the stellar performance by co-star Viola Davis as his devoted yet far from subservient wife. They both earned Tonys for a 2010 stage revival and the sparks that fly between them, some loving, some angry, electrify this drama of generational divides and familial betrayals.
“Fences” has received plenty of early awards attention, both from the Globes and SAG, and chances look good that Washington—who turns 62 on December 28—will likely join the club of nominated actors who also competed for a directing Oscar for the same film. They include Orson Welles (1941’s “Citizen Kane”), Laurence Olivier (1948’s ‘Hamlet”), Woody Allen (1977’s “Annie Hall”) and Warren Beatty (1978’s “Heaven Can Wait,” 1981’s “Reds” and 1992’s “Bugsy”).
Actually, the Oscars have been more than good to Washington over the years as acting nominations go. He has made the cut six times, and won twice—in the supporting category for 1989’s Civil War epic “Glory” and for his lead as a corrupt cop in 2001’s “Training Day.”
But, of course, there is more at stake if Washington wins either category—especially if he accomplishes both. If he receives the actor prize, it would mark only the fifth time that a black male took home a lead Academy Award. That includes his own win as well as Sidney Poitier’s landmark trophy for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field.”
What would be truly historic, however, is if he becomes the first black director to win an Oscar—an achievement that proved elusive for previous nominees John Singleton (1991’s “Boyz N the Hood”), Lee Daniels (“Precious,” 2009) and Steve McQueen (2013’s “12 Years a Slave,” although he did become the first black director to win Best Picture).
We will see what Oscar has in store when nominations are announced on January 24. But if the names of this seasoned triumvirate of talent show up on the ballot in any form, I would consider it a cause for celebration, not a lost opportunity for others.
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