Friday, December 18, 2015

'One of the Great Recent Epic Romances'

"It's an odd feeling, farewell. There is such envy in it. Men go off to be tested, for courage. And if we're tested at all, it's for patience, for doing without, for how well we can endure loneliness."

Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep)

Long ago, it became a cliche to speak of Meryl Streep as a perennial Oscar nominee. She has been nominated 17 times for her acting. The first two were for Best Supporting Actress (she won for "Kramer vs. Kramer"), and she got a third Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2002 for "Adaptation." The remaining 14 were for Best Actress (she has won twice).

Many actresses have been nominated for Oscars multiple times. Streep's nomination for "Out of Africa," which premiered on this day in 1985, was her fourth for Best Actress. That seems like a lot of times, but it really isn't so unusual. Thirteen actresses have been nominated for Best Actress four times. Another 11 have been nominated five times each. It isn't until you get to a half dozen Best Actress nominations that you start getting into the rarefied air of Ingrid Bergman, Greer Garson, Katharine Hepburn ... and Meryl Streep.

Nevertheless, I want to say it was her performance in "Out of Africa" that was her breakthrough into that rarefied category of the truly great, legendary actresses whose bodies of work were supported by an appropriate number of Oscar nominations. Some people will tell you her breakthrough was her Oscar–winning performance in "Sophie's Choice," but that was only her second Best Actress nomination. So many actresses have been nominated twice that it really isn't a noteworthy achievement. Others will say it was her Oscar–nominated performance in "Silkwood," and I can understand that. It was very serious subject matter. I could go along with that as the turning point in Streep's career even though she didn't win.

But it almost seems preordained. The movies she has picked always seem to have Oscar Nomination scrawled on the script.

The truth about Meryl Streep, it seems to me, is that she is so versatile. The reason why she has been nominated so many times is because she immerses herself in her roles. I guess that leads to a variation on the chicken–or–the–egg questions: Is it because she selects the best movies that she is perceived to be so good, or are the movies great because she is in them?

Not all the movies in which she has participated and been nominated for her work have been nominated for Best Picture so you have to conclude from that that her success is her own, that she did not ride the success of obvious winners. After all, she won Best Actress for "The Iron Lady," turning in a great performance in a movie that was otherwise sleep inducing. Some of her movies have been nominated for Best Picture — and "Out of Africa" won — even though Streep did not. It is hard to make the argument that the movie did not deserve the recognition. Film critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the great recent epic romances."

So did "Out of Africa" make Streep better? Or did Streep make "Out of Africa" better? In the words of Forrest Gump, maybe it has been a little of both.

I think it was the chemistry between Streep and her co–star Robert Redford, who wasn't even nominated. I think the chemistry between the stars of any love story has to be natural and believable. It isn't always, but when it's good, there is virtually no limit to how successful that movie can be.

In this case, it won the Oscar for Best Picture (and half a dozen other Oscars as well) and earned more than $128 million at the box office. That's pretty darn successful.

Redford is another one of those actors who frequently seemed to be in movies that really were among the best of a given year before his career began leaning more toward directing — but you can't really apply the same question to him that is applied to Streep. Although he's given several performances that were worthy of Oscar nominations, only one — his performance in "The Sting" — was rewarded with one. His only Oscar was for directing "Ordinary People."

I'm not a fan of romance movies, but I do like good stories, and "Out of Africa" was a good story with Oscar–winning direction from Sydney Pollack, screenplay by Kurt Luedtke that was adapted from an autobiography by Streep's character, John Barry's soaring score, David Watkin's sweeping cinematography and brilliant art direction and sound mixing.

It was a complete package.