This article marks Part 10 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.
After steamrolling through the 1980s, racking up half a dozen Best Actress Oscar nominations, Meryl Streep experienced a more subdued reception in the early 1990s.
The decade started off on just the right note, with a ninth Oscar nomination for “Postcards from the Edge” (1990). Streep also garnered praise for her turn opposite Albert Brooks in “Defending Your Life” (1991). The picture, however, was not a box office success, drawing roughly the same interest in theaters as “She-Devil” (1989), which was deemed a bomb upon its release.
Streep’s next project was among her most ambitious to date – a big-budget horror-comedy from filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, whose success with the “Back to the Future” trilogy and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) gave him the license to go as extravagant as his heart desired. As the glamorous, exceedingly conceited Madeline Ashton, Streep is a comic delight in “Death Becomes Her” (1992). Hyped as one of the big summer releases of 1992, however, “Death Becomes Her” scored only fair box office receipts
“Death Becomes Her” was a big, fat hit, however, in comparison to Streep’s next film, Danish director Bille August‘s screen adaptation of the Isabel Allende novel “The House of the Spirits” (1994). Despite a starry ensemble cast of Streep, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder and Vanessa Redgrave, the film was panned by critics and ignored by audiences. With a $40 million price tag, the film managed to reap just over $6 million in box office receipts – a colossal disaster well worse than “Heartburn” (1986) and “She-Devil.”
Streep’s other 1994 release – the Curtis Hanson-directed adventure “The River Wild” – was not a failure on the level of “The House of the Spirits” but still met with a rather middling response.
While Streep searched for that next Oscar vehicle, Clint Eastwood – with whom Streep had never worked on a motion picture – was having stunning success. His western “Unforgiven” (1992) managed to even captivate audiences who’d never been terribly fond of his past work. The film won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Eastwood. He followed that up with a leading turn in Wolfgang Petersen‘s “In the Line of Fire” (1993), another hit.
After Eastwood’s “A Perfect World” (1993) drew a collective shrug from audiences and critics, the director turned to an unlikely source for his next project – Robert James Waller‘s best-selling novel “The Bridges of Madison County,” which focuses on the romance that blossoms between an Italian war bride in Iowa and the National Geographic photographer who rolls into town. While Waller advocated for Isabella Rossellini as the film’s leading lady, Eastwood wanted Streep from the get-go – a pitch-perfect selection, as he was about to capture one of Streep’s finest career performances, if not the best.
The 1995 Oscar nominees in Best Actress were:
Susan Sarandon, “Dead Man Walking”
Sarandon portrays Sister Helen Prejean, a nun and teacher called upon by death row inmate Matthew (Oscar nominee Sean Penn) to assist in his final appeal for a pardon. With that looking exceedingly improbable, Sister Helen emerges as more of a spiritual advisor to Matthew, stressing that redemption is possible if he takes responsibility for his crimes. This performance, which won her a Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Sarandon’s fifth Oscar nomination and first win.
Elisabeth Shue, “Leaving Las Vegas”
Shue portrays Sera, a Las Vegas prostitute who befriends Ben (Nicolas Cage, in a stirring, Oscar-winning turn), an alcoholic screenwriter in town with the goal of drinking himself to death. Their bond is built on one key condition – neither can interfere with the other’s unsavory practices. This performance, which won her Best Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics, marked Shue’s first Oscar nomination.
Sharon Stone, “Casino”
Stone portrays Ginger McKenna, hustler, former hooker and the apple of casino operator Ace (Robert De Niro)’s eye. Despite Ginger’s wariness to marriage, she and Ace wed but it isn’t long before their glamorous honeymoon period comes to an end. Ginger can’t seem to escape her sleazy con artist ex Lester (James Woods) but it’s her involvement with Ace’s violent and unpredictable pal Nicky (Joe Pesci) that really stirs trouble. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Stone’s first Oscar nomination.
Meryl Streep, “The Bridges of Madison County”
Streep portrays Francesca Johnson, a wife and mother who, while her family is away on a trip, engages in a brief, soulful affair with a National Geographic photographer (Eastwood, also superb) who is visiting to capture the bridges of Madison County, Iowa. Ultimately, Francesca finds herself at a painstaking crossroads – she can continue her mundane existence or run away and travel the world with the man who has so lifted her spirits. This performance marked Streep’s 10th Oscar nomination.
Emma Thompson, “Sense and Sensibility”
Thompson portrays Elinor Dashwood, eldest and most reserved and responsible daughter of three of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood. When their father dies, most of his estate is placed in the hands of his son, leaving the fortune-free sisters to move to a cottage. There, Elinor finds herself falling for the dashing Edward (Hugh Grant). If only Edward weren’t engaged to be married. This performance, which won her a BAFTA Award, marked Thompson’s fourth Oscar nomination for acting. She won the prize in Best Adapted Screenplay for the picture.
Overlooked Contenders: Angela Bassett, “Waiting to Exhale”; Kathy Bates, “Dolores Claiborne”; Annette Bening, “The American President”; Sandra Bullock, “While You Were Sleeping”; Toni Collette, “Muriel’s Wedding”; Julie Delpy, “Before Sunrise”; Jennifer Jason Leigh, “Georgia”; Julianne Moore, “Safe”; Nicole Kidman, “To Die For”; Alicia Silverstone, “Clueless”; Debra Winger, “Forget Paris”
Won: Susan Sarandon, “Dead Man Walking”
Should’ve won: Meryl Streep, “The Bridges of Madison County”
1995 marked a spectacularly crowded year for leading ladies on the big screen – another occasion in which one could scrap all five of the Oscar nominees for another quintet and produced just as fabulous a line-up.
Thompson is a cinematic treasure. Her Oscar-winning work in “Howards End” (1992) is dead-on brilliant and she’s even better in the “The Remains of the Day” (1993). It’s that Merchant-Ivory eloquence, however, that is rather lacking in Ang Lee‘s” Sense and Sensibility,” a sleepy adaptation of the beloved Jane Austen novel.
Her performance isn’t a bad one – Thompson always has the most enchanting of screen presences – but neither the performance nor film ever really take off. Even the costumes and production design seem too subdued here.
Beyond Thompson, the line-up is sheer heaven.
“Casino” is perhaps the most underrated of all Martin Scorsese films. It has a sprawling, epic feel to it – those three hours go by faster than any three hours ever have in cinema – and De Niro, Pesci and Stone are all on fire. Scorsese’s usual team – film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Robert Richardson, among others – all turn in exemplary work.
Stone largely coasts through the first half of “Casino” on sheer charisma. She looks phenomenal and is even more captivating to watch than she was three years earlier in “Basic Instinct” (1992). Once Ginger descends into alcoholism and starts hitting the white powder, however, Stone goes into “give me that Oscar nomination” mode and delivers a gangbusters, scenery-chewing performance that even manages to overshadow De Niro’s engrossing work. She turns her drop-dead gorgeous beauty into a sad and scary sight.
With Sarandon, there are decidedly no coked-up fits of hysteria. “Dead Man Walking” finds a solemn and conservative Sarandon, not unlike her even better (and also Oscar-nominated) turn in “Lorenzo’s Oil” (1992). She is completely convincing as the kind and empathetic Sister Helen, well-directed by then-partner Tim Robbins, who turns in a remarkable piece of filmmaking for someone on only their second project. Just as brilliant is Penn, arguably even stronger here than in his two Oscar-winning turns. It’s a fascinating sight watching these two improbably dig for a speck of humanity in the vile Matthew Poncelet.
“Leaving Las Vegas” is one grueling picture to watch. It’s an all-around superb film, no doubt, with Cage and Shue doing career-best work, but it all feels almost a little too real. And the doomed relationship that blossoms between Ben and Sera might just be among the most devastating pairings to ever grace the screen. Shue’s performance isn’t a terribly showy one but it sure does still pack a punch. By the end, she completely shatters you. It’s breathtaking work from an actress who, not unlike Stone, never managed to land another role on the same level.
And then there’s Streep.
Streep looks absolutely ravishing under Eastwood’s sumptuous direction but there’s of course a whole lot more to admire here than just looks. Her chemistry with Eastwood is not exactly sizzling but instead something very sincere and special. The first word that comes to mind when considering Eastwood’s filmmaking here is ‘sensitive.’ This is a delicate and understated picture that takes its sweet time, refreshingly so, in tracing its characters’ journey.
This performance recalls Katharine Hepburn‘s turn in “Summertime” (1955), one of her very best efforts as well.
Neither is necessarily the biggest, most extravagant performance of either career but there’s something about Streep here and Hepburn there is that is truly extraordinary and exceedingly improbable to replicate. It’s as if both actresses managed with these films to finally find the directors best-suited to their immense talents (David Lean filmed the Hepburn flick) and the movie magic pretty much just came naturally.
Reflecting on all of Streep’s performances, few scenes can top that of Francesca Johnson at the ultimate crossroads. With her kind but passionless husband beside her and newfound soulmate Robert mere feet away, waiting in his car for Francesca to make her move toward him, she has the most grueling of decisions. It’s an experience that manages to prove just as taxing for us as it does Francesca.
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. Susan Sarandon, “Dead Man Walking”
21. Sharon Stone, “Casino”
22. Diane Keaton, “Reds”
23. Meryl Streep, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
24. Meryl Streep, “The Deer Hunter”
25. Jane Alexander, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
26. Julie Andrews, “Victor/Victoria”
27. Meryl Streep, “A Cry in the Dark”
28. Melanie Griffith, “Working Girl”
29. Meryl Streep, “Postcards from the Edge”
30. Jessica Lange, “Sweet Dreams”
31. Sissy Spacek, “Missing”
32. Joanne Woodward, “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge”
33. Geraldine Page, “The Trip to Bountiful”
34. Jodie Foster, “The Accused”
35. Susan Sarandon, “Atlantic City”
36. Holly Hunter, “Broadcast News”
37. Meryl Streep, “Out of Africa”
38. Julie Walters, “Educating Rita”
39. Candice Bergen, “Starting Over”
40. Maggie Smith, “California Suite”
41. Katharine Hepburn, “On Golden Pond”
42. Meryl Streep, “Ironweed”
43. Anne Bancroft, “Agnes of God”
44. Debra Winger, “An Officer and a Gentleman”
45. Emma Thompson, “Sense and Sensibility”
46. Meryl Streep, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”
47. Dyan Cannon, “Heaven Can Wait”
48. Penelope Milford, “Coming Home”
49. Barbara Barrie, “Breaking Away”
50. 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”
SEE Meryl Streep in ‘Postcards from the Edge’
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.