Believe it or not, long before a record-shattering 21 Oscar nominations, there was a time when Meryl Streep was not the queen of the movies. After finishing at Yale Drama School in the 1970s, Streep found steady work on stage and television before her breakout role in 1978’s Best Picture Oscar winner, “The Deer Hunter.” That film brought Streep her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (and first loss) for her performance as Linda, the fiancee of a troubled Vietnam vet (Christopher Walken in an Oscar-winning performance).
The following year she starred in three major films: as the love interest of Alan Alda in “The Seduction of Joe Tynan;” as Woody Allen’s lesbian ex-wife in “Manhattan;” and as the troubled Joanna Kramer opposite Dustin Hoffman in “Kramer vs Kramer.” It was that latter role that brought her a first-ever win at the Academy Awards. The first words exclaimed by Streep were “Holy mackerel!” after receiving the trophy from Jack Lemmon and Cloris Leachman.
The film “Kramer vs. Kramer” was a critical darling of 1979, and went on to receive nine Oscar nominations and five wins:
Best Picture – Stanley R. Jaffe (winner)
Best Actor – Dustin Hoffman (winner)
Best Director – Robert Benton (winner)
Best Adapted Screenplay – Robert Benton (winner)
Best Supporting Actress – Meryl Streep (winner)
Best Supporting Actor – Justin Henry (lost to Melvyn Douglas, “Being There”)
Best Supporting Actress – Jane Alexander (lost to Streep)
Best Cinematography – Nestor Almendros (lost to Vittorio Storaro, “Apocalypse Now”)
Best Editing – Gerald B. Greenberg (lost to Alan Heim, “All That Jazz”)
On paper the character of Joanna was a rather unsympathetic woman who leaves her husband and child son. However, Streep wanted to convey Joanna’s emotional frailty and instability. She even took it upon herself to rewrite Joanna’s climactic courtroom scene, where she explains her reasons for leaving and her desire to have her son back. Though she could have easily competed in the leading category, Streep won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, beating out solid competition:
Jane Alexander – “Kramer vs. Kramer”
Jane played the critical role of Margaret, the Kramer’s next door neighbor who first encourages Joanna to leave her husband.
Barbara Barrie – “Breaking Away”
Barrie played the supportive mother of aspiring cyclist Dennis Christopher in this coming of age comedy/drama.
Candice Bergen – “Starting Over”
This hit romantic comedy starred Burt Reynolds as a man torn between his ex-wife, played by Bergen, and his new girlfriend, played by Jill Clayburgh (she earned a Best Actress nomination).
Mariel Hemingway – “Manhattan”
Mariel was only eighteen when she received her nomination for her performance as the object of affection of an older Woody Allen.
Just three years after that victory, Streep would win as Best Actress in “Sophie’s Choice.” She would then wait through many more ceremonies to finally triumph for a third time in the 2011 film “The Iron Lady.” The movie “The Post” from Steven Spielberg has her competing for a 21st time at the upcoming 2018 ceremony.
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