This article marks Part 9 of the 21-part Gold Derby series 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.
By 1989, Meryl Streep had graced the silver screen in 15 motion pictures. Thirteen of these were dramas, with the exceptions being “Manhattan” (1979), in which Streep had a small supporting role, and “Heartburn” (1986), a critical and financial failure. So, it was about time that Streep at last scored a leading role in a successful comedy.
“She-Devil” (1989) found Streep in the broadest, loosest form of her career. Portraying flamboyant romantic novelist Mary Fisher, opposite Roseanne Barr, Streep herself garnered positive notices but the picture flopped even harder than “Heartburn,” spending one week in the box office top 10.
Her follow-up to “She-Devil” had shades of “Heartburn” on paper. “Postcards from the Edge” would reunite Streep with director Mike Nichols, with Carrie Fisher adapting the screenplay from her best-selling book (not unlike Nora Ephron‘s page-to-screen adaptation of her memoir “Heartburn”).
In September of 1990, “Postcards from the Edge” hit theaters and decidedly was not a catastrophe. Reviews were warm for both Streep and co-star Shirley MacLaine and the picture just did fine at the box office, debuting in the top slot.
The 1990 Oscar nominees in Best Actress were:
Kathy Bates, “Misery”
Bates portrays Annie Wilkes, disgraced former nurse and number one fan of best-selling author Paul Sheldon (James Caan). During a wild snowstorm in which Paul’s car flies off the road, Annie rescues the writer from sure death and brings him back to her place to recover. Annie is none too pleased, however, when she reads a manuscript for Paul’s upcoming novel and isn’t keen on letting him leave without a rewrite. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Bates’ first Oscar nomination and win.
Anjelica Huston, “The Grifters”
Huston portrays Lily Dillon, longtime con artist and estranged mother to small-time grifter Roy (John Cusack). Dillon, who plays horse races for the intimidating bookie Bobo (Pat Hingle), pays a visit to Roy while on business in Los Angeles and finds her son in rough physical shape. Fearful he’ll die if he continues, Lily urges Roy to quit conning but that’s easier said than done, especially since he’s dating a grifter himself, the manipulative Myra (Oscar nominee Annette Bening). This performance, which won her Best Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics, marked Huston’s third Oscar nomination.
Julia Roberts, “Pretty Woman”
Roberts portrays Vivian Ward, a Los Angeles hooker (with a heart of gold, of course) who’s picked up one evening by dashing corporate raider Edward (Richard Gere). Romance blossoms as tunes from Roxette and Roy Orbison fill the air. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Roberts’ second Oscar nomination.
Meryl Streep, “Postcards from the Edge”
Streep portrays actress and recovering addict Suzanne Vale who, upon leaving rehab, must move in with mom Doris (Shirley MacLaine, in one of her all-time great turns) as a condition of remaining employed. Maintaining her sobriety (and sanity) proves a challenge for Suzanne, who for her whole life has yearned to escape the shadow of her mother, a brash, boozy and beloved Hollywood legend. This performance marked Streep’s ninth Oscar nomination.
Joanne Woodward, “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge”
Woodward portrays Mrs. India Bridge, a wife and mother who, alongside husband Walter (Paul Newman), struggles to keep up with the changing times in 1940s-era Kansas City. While Walter is emotionally distant and squarely focused on his law practice, India is a warmer, more optimistic presence, yet can’t establish any sort of independence from her husband, nor fully relate to her children, who have grown wary of their parents’ traditional values. This performance, which won her Best Actress honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, marked Woodward’s fourth Oscar nomination.
Overlooked Contenders: Laura Dern, “Wild at Heart”; Mia Farrow, “Alice”; Whoopi Goldberg, “The Long Walk Home”; Sissy Spacek, “The Long Walk Home”
Won and should’ve won: Kathy Bates, Misery
Another year, another inexplicable Mia Farrow snub.
By this point in Farrow’s career, she deserved at least two Best Actress Oscar nominations, for “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985). “Alice” should have been the vehicle to at last secure her a nomination and indeed, Farrow roared out of the starting gates in the 1990 awards season with a Best Actress victory from the National Board of Review. Then came Oscar nominations morning and, once again, nothing. This, despite Woody Allen garnering a Best Original Screenplay nomination for the film.
It’s not hard to see why “Pretty Woman” was such a sensation upon release. Roberts and Gere, both have rarely looked so fetching and do share some dynamite chemistry. Also, 1990 was not exactly a fertile year for romantic comedies. At a time when the lackluster likes of “Bird on a Wire,” “Crazy People” and “Joe Versus the Volcano” represented the genre, there was a palpable hunger for a halfway decent romcom.
Even so, “Pretty Woman” isn’t exactly Oscar-caliber stuff. Roberts is a fabulous match to Gere and sure, the soundtrack is aces, but the acting isn’t terribly remarkable, especially in comparison to a turn like Farrow’s.
The other four nominees are far more impressive.
“Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” is not quite among the top productions of Ismael Merchant and James Ivory. It lacks the sumptuous look and feel of a “Howards End” (1992) or “The Remains of the Day” (1993) and, for much of the proceedings, moves like molasses. It is, however, completely worth a look for at least one reason – it is the final feature film pairing of real-life husband and wife Newman and Woodward. And, even if their film largely fails to make the leap from ordinary to extraordinary, both actors are in sublime form.
Both leading turns are restrained ones, effectively so. Neither Newman nor Woodward are presented with a plethora of “Oscar scenes” but couldn’t be more convincing as a couple stuck in their stuffy, conservative ways. Woodward quietly and powerfully conveys India’s struggles to maintain a sanguine outlook on life while her priggish husband and more forward-thinking children are at such odds. It’s not an extravagantly showy turn in any way but still a memorable one and what a pleasure it is to see Woodward, who won her Oscar for “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957), garnering recognition into the 1990s.
Streep in “Postcards from the Edge” marks her first Oscar-nominated comedic performance. The film perhaps should have been even more potent that is ultimately is – the starry supporting players are underused and at just over an hour and a half, it feels curiously fleeting. Still, given the brilliant work of Streep and MacLaine, plus plenty of powerful dialogue from Fisher, it satisfies.
MacLaine, taking on the Debbie Reynolds role, is often even more riveting than Streep here but the latter still has plenty of meaty material to work with. The picture’s best scene, in which Suzanne and Doris let off some steam on the latter’s staircase, gives both Streep and MacLaine the license to really tear it up. There’s also a wonderful, less hostile scene between the two toward the film’s end, when Suzanne visits her mom in the hospital.
In a perfect world, Huston’s Oscar would have arrived not for “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985) but for her devastating turn opposite Martin Landau in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989). Huston was instead nominated for that year’s “Enemies: A Love Story,” in which she’s also very good, but there’s something especially haunting about her work in that Woody Allen picture.
That said, “The Grifters” is the strongest of her three Oscar-nominated performances. It’s an exhilarating, often unsettling turn that runs a gamut of emotions and it’s clear Huston had an absolute blast in the role.
Great as Huston is, Bates is just a tad more extraordinary.
Bates (and Caan, just as fantastic) hits all of the right notes as the cheery yet chilling Annie Wilkes. Toward the start of the picture, Annie couldn’t be a warmer, more wonderful presence, hardly the second-coming of Nurse Ratched. Then, there’s some eyebrow-raising behavior, which becomes exasperated when Annie is rubbed the wrong way.
By the film’s midway point, the audience feels just as horrified and helpless as Paul Sheldon. Bates is served well by Rob Reiner‘s direction – he no doubt saw the bravura performance he was capturing, so he allows his leading lady to completely take over the screen, giving her the license – and a very effective one at that – to speak directly to the camera on several occasions.
Bates’ turn in “Misery” is perhaps not the absolute finest of her career – she’s stronger in another Stephen King adaptation, “Dolores Claiborne” (1995) – but it’s still one heck of an effort and a richly deserved win.
The performances ranked (thus far):
1. Jessica Lange, “Frances”
2. Whoopi Goldberg, “The Color Purple”
3. Meryl Streep, “Sophie’s Choice”
4. Shirley MacLaine, “Terms of Endearment”
5. Meryl Streep, “Silkwood”
6. Jane Alexander, “Testament”
7. Sally Kirkland, “Anna”
8. Maureen Stapleton, “Interiors”
9. Glenn Close, “Dangerous Liaisons”
10. Glenn Close, “Fatal Attraction”
11. Sigourney Weaver, “Gorillas in the Mist”
12. Cher, “Moonstruck”
13. Mariel Hemingway, “Manhattan”
14. Marsha Mason, “Only When I Laugh”
15. Debra Winger, “Terms of Endearment”
16. Kathy Bates, “Misery”
17. Anjelica Huston, “The Grifters”
18. Diane Keaton, “Reds”
19. Meryl Streep, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
20. Meryl Streep, “The Deer Hunter”
21. Jane Alexander, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
22. Julie Andrews, “Victor/Victoria”
23. Meryl Streep, “A Cry in the Dark”
24. Melanie Griffith, “Working Girl”
25. Meryl Streep, “Postcards from the Edge”
26. Jessica Lange, “Sweet Dreams”
27. Sissy Spacek, “Missing”
28. Joanne Woodward, “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge”
29. Geraldine Page, “The Trip to Bountiful”
30. Jodie Foster, “The Accused”
31. Susan Sarandon, “Atlantic City”
32. Holly Hunter, “Broadcast News”
33. Meryl Streep, “Out of Africa”
34. Julie Walters, “Educating Rita”
35. Candice Bergen, “Starting Over”
36. Maggie Smith, “California Suite”
37. Katharine Hepburn, “On Golden Pond”
38. Meryl Streep, “Ironweed”
39. Anne Bancroft, “Agnes of God”
40. Debra Winger, “An Officer and a Gentleman”
41. Meryl Streep, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”
42. Dyan Cannon, “Heaven Can Wait”
43. Penelope Milford, “Coming Home”
44. Barbara Barrie, “Breaking Away”
45. Julia Roberts, “Pretty Woman”
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”
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