This article marks Part 12 of the 21-part Gold Derby series analyzing Meryl Streep at the Oscars. Join us as we look back at Meryl Streep’s nominations, the performances that competed with her at the Academy Awards, the results of each race and the overall rankings of the contenders.
In 1977, while Meryl Streep was making her big screen debut with a small role in Fred Zinnemann‘s Oscar-winning “Julia,” young filmmaker Wes Craven was scaring the pants off moviegoers with his X-rated horror flick “The Hills Have Eyes.”
Seven years later, in 1984, Streep already had two Oscars under her belt, yet was putting fans to sleep with the tedious Robert De Niro romance “Falling in Love.” Meanwhile, Craven was at last breaking down the door into mainstream cinema, with his “A Nightmare on Elm Street” proving a sleeper hit and making burnt serial killer Freddy Krueger a household name.
Craven’s success proved more tepid over the coming decade, with few of his horror offerings leaving a real dent until “Scream” (1996) and “Scream 2” (1997) not only revived the filmmaker’s career but arguably the entire horror genre as a whole.
The paths of Craven, a master of horror, and Streep, one of the few actresses of her generation, could never possibly cross, right?
Well, on the heels of the ginormous success of “Scream,” Bob and Harvey Weinstein offered Craven a three-picture deal. In response, the director said he’d happily do a “Scream 3” but only if they would allow him to make one of their kind of pictures, more along the lines of “Shakespeare in Love” and “Life Is Beautiful,” the Miramax productions that steamrolled the Oscars in 1998.
Craven’s proposal was a feature film based on “Small Wonders” (1995), a documentary on East Harlem music teacher Roberta Guaspari that won Miramax an Oscar nomination a few years earlier. The Weinsteins gave the green light and initially, it was Madonna slated to take on the role of Guaspari. After the director and star clashed over the picture’s screenplay, however, Madonna bolted and none other than an 11-time Oscar nominee hopped on board to collaborate with the director who gave birth to Freddy Krueger.
The 1999 Oscar nominees in Best Actress were:
Annette Bening, “American Beauty”
Bening portrays Carolyn Burnham, real estate broker, wife of Lester (Oscar winner Kevin Spacey) and mother of Jane (Thora Birch). Carolyn strives to project an image of suburban perfection, spending heaps of time meticulously tending to her red roses in the front lawn, surrounded by the quintessential white picket fence. Beneath the surface, however, Carolyn is a deeply insecure woman, whose marital misery drives her into the arms of business rival Buddy (Peter Gallagher). This performance, which won her a BAFTA Award and Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Bening’s second Oscar nomination.
Julianne Moore, “The End of the Affair”
Moore portrays Sarah Miles, wife of lifeless civil servant Henry (Stephen Rea) and lover of Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), an up-and-coming writer in World War II-era London. The affair is tested by Bendrix’s frustrations over Sarah’s refusal to abandon her husband and WWII itself, as a bomb explosion nearly ends Bendrix’s life. This performance marked Moore’s second Oscar nomination.
Janet McTeer, “Tumbleweeds”
McTeer portrays Mary Jo Walker, single mom to Ava (the wonderful Kimberly J. Brown). Anytime Mary Jo encounters a problem, her solution is to pack the duo up and move to a new city – a routine Ava is hardly fond of. The two settle down in San Diego, where Ava finds immense success in school and Mary Jo takes up with trucker Jack (Gavin O’Connor). When her relationship with Jack sours, Mary Jo prepares to bolt yet again but getting Ava to agree will be one tall order. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe and Best Actress honors from the National Board of Review, marked McTeer’s first Oscar nomination.
Meryl Streep, “Music of the Heart”
Streep portrays Roberta Guaspari, a violinist who, following the departure of her husband, lands a job teaching music to underprivileged children in Harlem. Guaspari overcomes skepticism from students, parents and faculty alike to establish an immensely successful string program. A decade later, however, budget cuts trample over Guaspari and her curriculum, inspiring the teacher to organize a “Fiddlefest” to raise money to save the program. This performance marked Streep’s 12th Oscar nomination.
Hilary Swank, “Boys Don’t Cry”
Swank portrays Brandon Teena, a young trans man who, under physical threat following the discovery that he is biologically female, leaves home to settle down in a small Nebraska town. There, he falls in love with Lana (Oscar nominee Chloe Sevigny) and it’s not long before the two begin planning their future together. Tragic complications arise, however, when two of Lana’s friends learn Brandon’s secret. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe and Best Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle, marked Swank’s first Oscar nomination and win.
Overlooked Contenders: Diane Lane, “A Walk on the Moon”; Cecilia Roth, “All About My Mother”; Winona Ryder, “Girl, Interrupted”; Sigourney Weaver, “A Map of the World”; Reese Witherspoon, “Election”
Won: Hilary Swank, “Boys Don’t Cry”
Should’ve won: Julianne Moore, “The End of the Affair”
Not unlike the year prior, 1999 was not exactly one for the ages in terms of a vast plethora of extraordinary female lead performances.
The Oscar five are a respectable bunch, thankfully lacking a real sore spot. It’s a shame Ryder was missing in action all awards season for her career-best work in “Girl, Interrupted” and also stinks that Witherspoon couldn’t muster a debut Oscar nomination for her side-splitting (and now indisputably iconic) turn as Tracy Flick.
Alas, Oscar voters simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to bestow a 12th Oscar nomination upon Streep, even for a picture that garnered a middling reception at the box office and from critics.
That said, “Music of the Heart” unfairly gets a bit of a bad rap. There may not be an inspired bone in the film’s body but it’s most certainly a watchable picture at least, which is more than can be said for “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981). That the film pairs Streep with the amazing likes of Angela Bassett, Gloria Estefan and Cloris Leachman makes the proceedings all the more agreeable, even if there isn’t a smidgen of suspense to be felt.
Beyond Streep at the bottom, this category basically has two tiers – McTeer and Bening and then Moore and Swank. Of course, going into Oscar night, this race was the mother of all barn burners, with Globe winner and critics’ favorite Swank in a dead heat with SAG honoree Bening.
“Tumbleweeds” is a tough film to get terribly excited about. Both McTeer and Brown are a delight and the concept is intriguing but it’s an exceedingly modest affair all-around, not without its insights but beyond the performances, a rather static endeavor. There ultimately isn’t much to say about “Tumbleweeds,” other than kudos to it for catapulting McTeer onto the map in a big way.
A picture that decidedly does not leave one shrugging their shoulders is Sam Mendes‘ riveting and provocative “American Beauty.” The film holds up remarkably well and, alongside the likes of “The Ice Storm” (1997), “Ordinary People” (1980) and “Pleasantville” (1998), is among the definitive pieces of the anti-suburbia film canon.
If Bening’s task is to make Carolyn the most insufferable and shrill sight possible, she hits a grand slam on that count. The thing is, the performance, perhaps purposely so to some degree, often comes off as caricature, lacking the humanity that makes the rest of the cast of characters so compelling. Bening has a field day with Alan Ball‘s brilliant dialogue and has several great scenes here but never seems as grounded in reality as the rest of the ensemble and the constant shrieking, sobbing and scenery-chewing ultimately gets kind of exhausting.
On the other hand, turning in a career-best performance for sure is Swank, dead-on convincing and heartbreaking in her breakthrough turn as Brandon Teena.
Celebrated an actress as she is today, it’s easy to forget that, prior to “Boys Don’t Cry,” Swank was best-known for her turns in negligibly notable pictures like “The Next Karate Kid” (1994) and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992). Swank held her own in both films but did not exactly offer hints at grand abilities as an actress. Credit filmmaker Kimberly Peirce for seeing in Swank the potential to absolutely ace the part.
In a year in which saccharine cinema like “The Cider House Rules” was garnering heaps of awards love, it’s a real shame “Boys Don’t Cry” didn’t much catch on, beyond Swank and Sevigny. The proceedings look and feel all too real, like a documentary, with not a false note struck in the writing or acting. Swank is sublime here, disappearing into a tricky role, but it’s not like she carries the picture on her shoulders – it’s a remarkable effort all-around.
Moore is even better. She had one heck of a 1999. Not only was there a leading turn in “The End of the Affair” but four memorable supporting performances – in “Magnolia,” “An Ideal Husband,” “A Map of the World” and “Cookie’s Fortune” – to boot. Moore deserved some sort of honorary Oscar for hopping aboard so many worthwhile projects at the decade’s end. While a Supporting Actress nomination would have been wholeheartedly deserved, at least voters had the good sense to recognize her best of the five turns.
Second only to “Far from Heaven” (2002), “The End of the Affair” is the best and most underrated Moore vehicle. The picture, despite Moore’s nomination, was actually very much a financial flop during its U.S. release, never reaching any higher than 16th place at the box office. Even film critics weren’t terribly enthused, with most praising Moore, Fiennes and the look of the picture but also drawing unfavorable comparisons with the much-celebrated 1951 Graham Greene novel. (The film proved more of a success in the U.K., mustering a hefty 10 BAFTA nominations, including a win for Neil Jordan‘s screenplay adaptation.)
In hindsight, that aversion to the film is rather baffling. This is one of the all-time great, idiosyncratic romances to grace the silver screen. It has the grace and sophistication of a Merchant–Ivory production, the sumptuous look of a Douglas Sirk film and boundless chemistry between its two leads. It is also vastly superior to the first film adaptation of the novel in 1955, a plodding exercise that not even leading lady Deborah Kerr can save.
Moore is absolutely exquisite here. Sarah Miles is not quite as meaty a role as Cathy Whitaker (“Far from Heaven”) but it’s still a beautifully restrained, heartrending turn and it sure helps that Jordan and the camera seem head over heels for her. This is the most underappreciated turn from one of the finest actresses of the past quarter century.
The performances ranked (thus far):
1. Jessica Lange, “Frances”
2. Whoopi Goldberg, “The Color Purple”
3. Meryl Streep, “The Bridges of Madison County”
4. Meryl Streep, “Sophie’s Choice”
5. Shirley MacLaine, “Terms of Endearment”
6. Meryl Streep, “Silkwood”
7. Jane Alexander, “Testament”
8. Sally Kirkland, “Anna”
9. Maureen Stapleton, “Interiors”
10. Glenn Close, “Dangerous Liaisons”
11. Glenn Close, “Fatal Attraction”
12. Sigourney Weaver, “Gorillas in the Mist”
13. Cher, “Moonstruck”
14. Mariel Hemingway, “Manhattan”
15. Marsha Mason, “Only When I Laugh”
16. Elisabeth Shue, “Leaving Las Vegas”
17. Debra Winger, “Terms of Endearment”
18. Kathy Bates, “Misery”
19. Anjelica Huston, “The Grifters”
20. Julianne Moore, “The End of the Affair”
21. Fernanda Montenegro, “Central Station”
22. Susan Sarandon, “Dead Man Walking”
23. Emily Watson, “Hillary and Jackie”
24. Hilary Swank, “Boys Don’t Cry”
25. Sharon Stone, “Casino”
26. Diane Keaton, “Reds”
27. Meryl Streep, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
28. Meryl Streep, “The Deer Hunter”
29. Jane Alexander, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
30. Julie Andrews, “Victor/Victoria”
31. Meryl Streep, “A Cry in the Dark”
32. Melanie Griffith, “Working Girl”
33. Meryl Streep, “Postcards from the Edge”
34. Jessica Lange, “Sweet Dreams”
35. Sissy Spacek, “Missing”
36. Cate Blanchett, “Elizabeth”
37. Joanne Woodward, “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge”
38. Geraldine Page, “The Trip to Bountiful”
39. Meryl Streep, “One True Thing”
40. Jodie Foster, “The Accused”
41. Susan Sarandon, “Atlantic City”
42. Annette Bening, “American Beauty”
43. Janet McTeer, “Tumbleweeds”
44. Holly Hunter, “Broadcast News”
45. Meryl Streep, “Out of Africa”
46. Julie Walters, “Educating Rita”
47. Candice Bergen, “Starting Over”
48. Maggie Smith, “California Suite”
49. Katharine Hepburn, “On Golden Pond”
50. Meryl Streep, “Ironweed”
51. Anne Bancroft, “Agnes of God”
52. Debra Winger, “An Officer and a Gentleman”
53. Meryl Streep, “Music of the Heart”
54. Emma Thompson, “Sense and Sensibility”
55. Meryl Streep, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”
56. Dyan Cannon, “Heaven Can Wait”
57. Penelope Milford, “Coming Home”
58. Barbara Barrie, “Breaking Away”
59. Julia Roberts, “Pretty Woman”
60. Gwyneth Paltrow, “Shakespeare in Love”
SEE Meryl Streep in ‘The Deer Hunter’
SEE Meryl Streep in ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’
SEE Meryl Streep in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’
SEE Meryl Streep in ‘Sophie’s Choice’
SEE Meryl Streep in ‘Silkwood’
SEE Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa”
SEE Meryl Streep in “Ironweed”
SEE Meryl Streep in “A Cry in the Dark”
SEE Meryl Streep in ‘Postcards from the Edge’
SEE Meryl Streep in ‘The Bridges of Madison County’
SEE Meryl Streep in ‘One True Thing’
Be sure to make your Oscar predictions so that Hollywood insiders can see how their films and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions until just before winners are announced on March 4. And join in the fierce debate over the 2018 Oscars taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our movie forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.