Everyone knows that Meryl Streep, a current Best Actress nominee for “The Post,” is the Secretariat of the Oscar nominations race. Her 21 combined lead and supporting actress bids put her nine lengths ahead of runners-up Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson and 11 ahead of legends Bette Davis and Sir Laurence Olivier.
But in a race within a race that has gotten less attention, Streep has an even greater lead: in nominations for roles based on real people. The number is either 10 or 11 depending on whether you agree with the fashion world and me that she plays a thinly-veiled version of Vogue’s Queen of Mean editor Anna Wintour in “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Streep, in fact, has more nominations for playing historical figures than any other major actor has even attempted. Hepburn, the most heralded and honored actress before Streep came along, played only a half-dozen real life characters in her long career, receiving just one nomination for them, though it brought her an Oscar (for Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter”).
Hepburn’s four Oscars are still the most by any actor, one better than the three each for Streep, Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ingrid Bergman and Walter Brennan. But Streep is in a class by herself when it comes to being honored for bringing real people to life on screen. And she’s getting more biographically prolific as she goes.
Her nomination for the role of iconic newspaper publisher Katharine Graham in “The Post’ is her seventh since her 2000 nomination for her portrayal of Harlem music education maestro Roberta Guaspari in “Music of the Heart.”
Between Graham and Guaspari, she was nominated for her roles of New Yorker writer Susan Orlean in “Adaptation,” Wintour in “The Devil Wears Prada” (I insist), cookbook author Julia Childs in “Julie & Julia,” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” and the titular opera screecher in “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
She also portrayed British women’s rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst in the 2015 “Suffragette” but was not nominated (how dare they?).
The frequency of Streep’s forays into biographical performance is partially explained by the fact that she’s old enough now to play historically interesting figures like Thatcher, Childs and Graham, and partly because of the reputation she established early in her career for accents and vocal authenticity.
She debuted a convincing British accent playing a woman in different time periods in the 1981 “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” stunned critics with her Polish accent in the 1992 “Sophie’s Choice,” got Danish under control playing author Karen Blixen in the Oscar-winning “Out of Africa,” fooled Australians as Lindy Chamberlain in the Down Under drama “A Cry in the Dark,” affected a fine Irish brogue in “Dancing at Lughnasa,” and charmed Clint Eastwood with her flattened Italian accent as a misplaced immigrant Midwestern wife in “The Bridges of Madison County.”
It is no wonder, then, that when producers are casting biographical roles for women of a certain age they go directly to Streep. They know that she’ll nail the characters’ accents, if they have them, and inhabit those characters as if she’d grown up in their bodies and had incorporated their histories. For that, she keeps getting the roles. . .and the nominations.
Here are the 11 biographical roles that earned Streep nominations:
Karen Silkwood, a plutonium plant worker intentionally contaminated to prevent her from exposing leaks in the plant, “Silkwood.”
Karen Blixen, a Danish coffee plantation owner in Kenya and her affair with a British big-game hunter, “Out of Africa.”
Lindy Chamberlain, an Australian woman accused with her husband of the death of their child in the Outback, “A Cry in the Dark.” (Spoiler: The movie was nicknamed “A Dingo Ate My Baby.”)
Suzanne Vale, the alter-ego of Carrie Fisher whose autobiographical novel reveals her strained relationship with her mother Debbie Reynolds, “Postcards From the Edge.”
Roberta Guaspari, a violinist and music teacher fighting to keep music alive in inner-city New York, “Music of the Heart.”
Susan Orlean, the New Yorker author whose book “The Orchid Thief” inspired a comedy-drama in which she is a major character, “Adaptation.”
Miranda Priestly, the Cruella de Ville of fashion magazine editors and transmogrification of long-time Vogue editor Anna Wintour, “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Julia Child, an American cookbook author who promoted French cuisine in America and brought her sing-song voice to millions of television viewers, “Julie & Julia.”
Margaret Thatcher, the long-serving British prime minister through her slide from world leader to a lonely dotage, “The Iron Lady.”
Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress intent on performing in operas despite a voice that would cause dogs to howl, “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
Katharine Graham, the socialite widow of a trailblazing Washington Post publisher who became a newspaper heroine in her own right through the Post’s role in the release of the Pentagon Papers and its dogged reporting on Watergate, “The Post.”
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