It was a surprise that Meryl Streep trumped Viola Davis for the best-actress Oscar — but it was no shock. The “Doubt” co-stars were neck-and-neck the entire season. Rooney Mara winning: That would have been freaky.
On Sunday night, the major races had been called, the supporting categories had gone as predicted, and at the 11th hour Streep beat Davis. On Feb. 28, latimes.com’s Steven Zeitchik used the upset to spin conspiracy theories about the race under the headline “What Was Behind Meryl Streep’s Upset Win?”
Zeitchik actually quoted snippets overheard in an elevator on Oscar night — because no studio executive ever lies to the face of a movie star in a moving box. According to latimes.com, Disney/ABC Television President Anne Sweeney shared the lift with newly minted Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. Sweeney confessed that she was “upset. I feel bad for Viola.” When Spencer asked how it could have happened, Sweeney reportedly said, “I have my theories.” But Sweeney did not share them. And, besides, it sounds more ominous without elaboration.
Only two days before, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty came clean about his “Streep Problem” in a pre-Oscar pile-on. McNulty got his knickers in a twist about how none of his friends wanted to see “The Iron Lady” with him. They would rather see “Shame” (which is interesting because they share a writer: Abi Morgan) first, or “Pina.”
Apparently the friend-o-meter went out with the buddy system. And as a way for a professional critic to root his own distaste for a performer (he strips Streep’s talent bare), or a film, it’s critique by peer pressure and should be left on the playground. Certainly, Streep has never followed the crowd — and that may be the root of her problem this year when she wasn’t playing beloved eccentric Julia Child. Instead, she was playing the controversial first female prime minister of the Western world.
After a very long Oscar race, I have come to believe that many Americans of the critical classes are just uncomfortable with a movie that takes a political figure who’s supposed to be “evil” and doesn’t treat her like Kim Jong-Il — either as the butt of jokes or Satan’s second coming. We have sadly become that polarized.
I have said elsewhere that someday American audiences will be able to look at Oliver Stone’s “W” with clarity, and recognize Josh Brolin’s brilliance as George W. Bush. But it didn’t happen at the 2008-09 Oscars. This was not a problem when Forest Whitaker won an Oscar for playing Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” He had his charming moments, but he was clearly bad to the bone. Bravo! And brave, too.
“It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive,” the famous French intellectual socialist Charles Peguy said in 1905. It’s still true in 2012.
The Los Angeles Times theater critic snarked about Streep as Thatcher: “Such a star turn may earn her more bric-a-brac, but it certainly won’t enrich her talent.” I must have seen a different movie. While I juggled Davis and Streep as Oscar front-runners while covering the race, I never doubted the talent or merit of either actress.
Many things stand out about “The Iron Lady,” a cameo-sized biopic that echoes “The Queen” (for which Helen Mirren won an Oscar) or “The Deal.” The opening sequence sets the tone for those who are open to it: a wandering elderly Thatcher leaves her gilded cage of an empty London apartment to go to the market. The granny that once governed a good chunk of the world now suffers in silence and befuddlement as she’s buffeted by disrespectful young men and can’t quite register how milk has gotten so expensive. It’s a petal-thin moment of individual grace beautifully, quietly captured by Streep under an unflattering headscarf. Unlike Leo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar,” the actress disappears beneath the makeup — the makeup doesn’t wear her. We believe her to be Thatcher, if we leave our preconceptions at the door like well-behaved houseguests.
Thatcher’s moment on the phone with her far-flung grown son is equally heartbreaking — he’s in South Africa with his own family and no more likely to rush home than she was when she was remaking the world and he was a schoolboy. The power relationship has shifted. It hurts, but it’s not conveyed with a Medea wail. That wasn’t her way, nor is it Streep’s in this carefully calibrated performance. Streep’s Thatcher is a woman who has made decisions in her life, and now all the decisions have come home to roost.
This Maggie — and she is a fictional construct within factual parameters — is not a self-questioner, she’s a doer. That element of her character that pushed her to the pinnacle of power is also her Achilles’ heel. When Streep and director Phyllida Lloyd discuss their Thatcher in terms of King Lear, that’s what they are referencing. “One of the themes was how our significance diminishes,” Lloyd told Indiewire. “We thought of this as a ‘King Lear’ for girls.”
“The Iron Lady” is not about conservative ideology; it’s about universal humanity — and the human costs for choices that took place on the public stage. And, yes, this does not deny that Thatcher’s decisions as prime minister impacted many other humans and changed the face of England forever.
And what, ultimately, I cherish in this movie may be precisely what drew Streep and Lloyd and Morgan to the project. This is a portrait of an intelligent woman created in their own image, a professional who refused to wash up the tea things for the men around her. Their Thatcher is feminism in action, if not in identification. She doesn’t work hard to be liked. And some of the resistance to the movie, to Streep, is that totally uncool, friends-won’t-like-it element: that this is a portrait of a woman who, unlike “The Queen,” refused to play well with others when it comes to being a woman in power. To the victor should go the spoils — why should women be any different? And, certainly, Streep, at another peak of a peak-filled career, understands that the resistance to women succeeding still exists and, apparently, it’s not considered entirely polite to point this out.