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The Best Meryl Streep Performances that Oscar Didn’t Nominate

Sometimes Meryl's biggest competition is herself.

Some events are so infrequent they can happen only once in a lifetime. Haley’s comet, a royal coronation, or frogs falling from the sky are examples of such rare birds. Sometimes, in years of true freak occurrences, Meryl Streep does not receive an Oscar nomination.

 

Streep is the most nominated performer in Oscar history with twenty-one nominations and three wins. However, her tally could and should be higher. She has yet to score the elusive double nomination, despite worthy years like 2002 or 2006. The Oscars don’t permit actors two nominations in a category, either. Meryl couldn’t rack up the noms when her biggest competition was herself.

 

It looks as if Oscars 2021 is a Haley’s Comet year for Meryl Streep. After striking out at the Golden Globes for her performances in The Prom and Let Them All Talk, she’s a longshot at best for the Oscars. The omission for her Globes-friendly work in The Prom is especially odd, considering the HFPA nominated both the film and James Corden. (Talk about salt in the wound for the latter!) One wonders if Streep cancelled herself out, but that doesn’t explain loony choices like Kate Hudson in Music. Perhaps being the best invites a double standard.

 

Here’s a look at Meryl Streep’s best performances that didn’t get an Oscar nomination.

 

Manhattan (1979)

 

1979 was the Year of Meryl. Streep had three great roles with Kramer vs. Kramer, Manhattan, and The Seduction of Joe Tynan. She could have easily landed nominations for all three if not for the Academy rules. Her performance as Jill, the ex-wife who was turned off men entirely after being married to Woody Allen’s Isaac, offered a dry, mirthfully funny performance. It’s a small part, but early proof of Streep’s magnetic screen power, particularly in her long walking scene with Allen. Isaac blathers on as Jill reacts a full spectrum of emotions: humour, rage, irritation, relief, and pride for getting under his skin. It’s a rare case in which an Allen film swings favour to the woman’s side. That’s largely thanks to Streep.

Other honours: BAFTA nomination (Best Supporting Actress), LA Film Critics, National Board of Review, and National Society of Film Critics Award wins for Best Supporting Actress (jointly for all three films).

Should she have been nominated? No, the Oscars got it right with Kramer vs. Kramer. However, two nominations would have been warranted had they been allowed.

 

 

Plenty (1985)

Plenty might be the most undervalued performance in Meryl Streep’s filmography. 1985 was another Year of Meryl since she starred in the blockbuster Best Picture winner Out of Africa and was nominated for that film instead. Her performance as Danish author Karen Blixen is great, but the nomination feels like a case of residual support for the film. As Susan Traherne in Plenty, Streep gives an uncharacteristically downplayed performance in this unconventional spy film. Where her work in Out of Africa is as big as the sweeping epic is, her performance in Plenty perfectly gels with the film’s cold literary precision. It’s the most internalised performance in Streep’s career, which makes its under-appreciation especially disappointing.

Others honours: none!

Should she have been nominated? Yes, although I don’t begrudge the Out of Africa nom. It’s an example of how Streep is her own competition. But it’s also an example of the Academy picking chicken for dinner when duck is right there.

 

She-Devil (1989)

In the late ’80s, shortly after the success of Out of Africa, one Meryl Streep drama bombed financially after another. This trend inspired writer Mike Hammer to note that Streep “couldn’t open a movie.” He asked if she would ever lighten up and have fun. The response came via She-Devil and Death Becomes Her, two films in which Meryl loosened up spectacularly and delivered. However, the critics didn’t care. In She-Devil, Streep is a hoot as pulpy romance glamorous novelist Mary Fisher, a home-wrecker to Roseanne Barr’s chunky and unkempt homemaker, Ruth. The film, although dated, endures as the first true showcase of Streep’s comedic chops. She steals scene after scene from Roseanne, who was at her peak before revealing her true colours and getting cancelled. This film works only because of its star’s comedic timing.

Other honours: Golden Globe nomination (Best Actress – Comedy).

Should she have been nominated? No. Meryl’s a hoot but it’s not for all tastes.

 

Death Becomes Her (1992)

“These are the days that make life worth living,” quips the stunning Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes Her. Streep’s efforts to expand her résumé resulted in this odd early 1990s VFX extravaganza from Robert Zemeckis. Meryl Streep has called Death Becomes Her one of the most difficult roles of her career because it involved such technical precision with the Oscar-winning visual effects that twisted the actors’ bodies like Play-Doh. The film is wacky, but Streep is clearly having a hoot as the actress who decides to defy ageism by drinking from the fountain of youth. She has great chemistry with co-star Goldie Hawn, making for the most wickedly funny film of the Streep oeuvre. Her most GIF-able performance – way ahead of its time!

Other honours: Golden Globe nomination (Best Actress – Comedy), American Comedy Awards nomination (Funniest Actress in a Motion Picture), Saturn Award nomination (Best Actress).

Should she have been nominated? Yes, although the film’s cult status offsets the omission.

 

The River Wild (1994)

We’ve arrived at the wild one in the list: the Meryl Streep Action Movie. Even more “early ’90s” than Death Becomes Her, this rafting romp saw Meryl flex her muscles and out-badass Kevin Bacon. Streep plays Gail Hartman, an expert rafter who defends her family vacation from hoods on the lam. It’s not the smartest film, but Streep elevates it by capturing both Gail’s vulnerability and strength. The role is among the most physically demanding credits of Streep’s filmography. She manages to stick handle the technical limitations of acting within the confined dramatic space of a raft quite well. It’s one of the better examples of her ability to make an otherwise generic film memorable. If only more action movies let the heroes be so human.

Other honours: Golden Globe nomination (Best Actress – Drama), SAG nomination (Best Actress), Blockbuster Entertainment Awards nomination (Favourite Actress – Suspense)

Should she have been nominated? Yes. Men have won for far less.

 

Marvin’s Room (1996)

There is so much acting in this film, I can’t even deal. Meryl Streep is heartbreakingly good playing the mother to Leonardo DiCaprio and sister to Diane Keaton. The latter scored a well-earned Best Actress nomination over Meryl, but Streep arguably stood out in a formidable cast. (The film includes Robert De Niro, Cynthia Nixon, Margo Martindale, and Gwen Verdon among its cast.) This is one of those actors’ showpieces: a family drama about old wounds, resentment, and healing. Acting alongside the best in her field, Marvin’s Room is Meryl’s rendition of “Anything You Can Do” sung better than the rest. Lee is one of the least likable characters Streep has played, and she relishes the opportunity to explore someone burdened by ghosts and regrets. She ultimately redeems her in the end.

Other honours: Golden Globe nomination (Best Actress – Drama), SAG Nomination (Best Ensemble), Blockbuster Entertainment Awards nomination (Favourite Actress – Drama).

Should she have been nominated? Yes. Diane Keaton was up instead, but this is Meryl’s show. It’s hard to argue with the five nominated performances that year, though.

 

The Hours (2002)

If there’s one year when Meryl Streep truly deserved to be a double nominee, 2002 was it. The Academy nominated her for Adaptation, but 2002 was the year I fell head over heels for Meryl and The Hours deserves half the credit. Streep is a contemporary Mrs. Dalloway playing Clarissa Vaughan, a maven of the New York literary scene who unravels while preparing a party. This part is as Streeply as the come with its monologues and fragile psychology. Yet void of accents, wigs, and fake noses (Nicole Kidman had all of those covered), Meryl was next to naked. She bared herself in this performance as a woman coming to terms with life’s dissatisfactions and the meaning of happiness itself. Those kitchen scenes! The use of jangly jewellery for dramatic effect! The tears! There are moments in which Clarissa all but resembles shattered glass.

Other honours: Golden Globe nomination (Best Actress – Drama), BAFTA nomination (Best Actress), Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear (Best Actress, shared with Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore).

Should she have been nominated? Yes. She should have won for Adaptation and been nominated for The Hours. I might have voted Salma Hayek off the island or downgraded winner Nicole Kidman to supporting to nominate Meryl in Best Actress and give a win to Diane Lane. (Two birds, one stone.) However, I think it’s a case where there was such obvious support for her (stronger) performance in Adaptation that she inevitably slipped through the cracks with the shared enthusiasm for co-stars Kidman and Julianne Moore. 2002 kickstarted Streep’s “overdue” status that continued through The Iron Lady. (But arguably never takes a week off for her die-hard fans.)

 

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

There are few actors of a calibre worthy to take on and obliterate a beloved film performance. Angela Lansbury’s turn as the villainous mommy of the original Manchurian Candidate is one of cinema’s best villains. But let Meryl Streep chew the scenery by channelling her friend Hillary Clinton, and the part just sings on another level. She brilliantly lets the contemporary seep into this remake of the Cold War classic. She is fierce and intimidating; cold, focused, and determined. The Manchurian Candidate is a rare case in which a remake exceeds an original. It’s surprising that the role didn’t catch the wave of “overdue Streep” support for a third Oscar that began with Adaptation and grew thunderously until her win for The Iron Lady. Perhaps her Emmy the previous year for Angels in America briefly dulled the enthusiasm.

Other honours: Golden Globe nomination (Best Supporting Actress), BAFTA nomination (Best Supporting Actress), Saturn Award nomination (Best Supporting Actress).

Should she have been nominated? Goodness, yes! That scene where she chews the ice cube alone was worthy of the win.

 

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Another year in which Meryl Streep coulda/shoulda scored two Oscar nominations was 2006. She was an early favourite for The Devil Wears Prada, and probably would have won Best Actress had Helen Mirren not come along. But her folksy turn in Robert Altman’s swan song A Prairie Home Companion offered a viable consolation prize. This supporting role showcases Meryl’s ability to steal every scene while elevating everyone around her. Even Lindsay Lohan is good in this ensemble film about a radio show from a bygone era. Streep is marvellous in a singing sister duo with Lily Tomlin, belting out funny vocals and bantering whimsically. Of her musical performances, Prairie shows how country suits Meryl’s voice best. Its flare for storytelling doubles for her inclination towards monologues. Its distinct twang lets her get in character just like any accent. The joy is infectious.

Other honours: National Society of Film Critics Award (Best Supporting Actress, shared with her work in The Devil Wears Prada). A few ensemble nominations from critics’ groups.

Should she have been nominated? Yes. I would have gladly kicked the kid from Little Miss Sunshine to the curb to make room for Meryl. Although it’s understandable that the Academy favoured her work in The Devil Wears Prada. But I’ll confess that even I might have voted for Jennifer Hudson over Meryl had she been nominated for this role.

 

It’s Complicated (2009)

Meryl Streep competed against herself at the Golden Globes in the Comedy race in 2009. She won for playing Julia Child in Julie & Julia and was nominated for playing Jane in It’s Complicated. Any other year, Streep would have won a Globe for this performance. Here’s a good case in which the Academy, like the Globes, really should permit double nominations in a category. It’s silly that John Williams can get two nominations for Best Score but Meryl Streep can land two noms for Best Actress. This effervescently funny performance is just a joy to watch.

Moreover, the role capped off a landmark decade for Streep. Complicated marked her fourth $100 million grossing film of the decade. That’s an unprecedented feat for an actress over 60 to headline four box office hits of that scale. If anything, the film is further proof that Streep really can open a movie.

Other honours: Golden Globe nomination (Best Actress – Comedy), National Board of Review Award (Best Ensemble).

Should she have been nominated? No. The Academy got it right with nominating Meryl’s performance in Julie & Julia. Less so with giving the Oscar to Sandra Bullock.

 

Hope Springs (2012)

Streep followed her Oscar winning performance in The Iron Lady with a totally dissimilar role. Kay Soames is as far as one can get from Margaret Thatcher. This soft-spoken character shows how Streep doesn’t need a wig, accent, and gobs of make-up to bring a persona to life. Hope Springs is remarkable for showcasing Streep’s ability to convey shifts in consciousness. Her therapy scenes with Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell illustrate how she expresses a character’s inner life. With the flick of a mental switch, she has a viewer laughing one minute and deeply moved the next.

Other honours: Golden Globe nomination (Best Actress – Comedy)

Should she have been nominated? Yes, but no. She wasn’t going to be a repeat nominee after winning the previous year. As much as I love this performance, it would have been fifth on my ballot. The omissions of Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone) and Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina) were far more egregious. Capping off the decade with four more nominations wasn’t so bad, though!

 

The Laundromat (2019)

The Laundromat illustrates how more people who write about movies need to learn how to read them. The film found itself lost amid reactionary backlash upon its premieres at Venice and Toronto. Early reports panned Meryl’s performance and focused on scenes in which her character went undercover in intentionally ridiculous make-up to spy on a money laundering ring. Audiences missed an appreciation of the layers of Streep’s performance in this fourth-wall breaking lark about deception, truth, and transparency. The final scene in which she strips back the layers of her disguise, ultimately revealing herself underneath the padded butt and fake nose while reciting the words of a whistleblower whose work inspired the story, offered one of Streep’s most forceful examples of her ability to inject herself into a film.

Other honours: none!

Should she have been nominated? Yes. It’s odd that even the Golden Globes overlooked Meryl here.

So, for those keeping track at home, Meryl Streep should really have about 35 Oscar nominations and 7-10 wins. She’s both the most ludicrously celebrated actor in Oscar history and the most tragically under-recognized star. That’s versatility for you!

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