Is Meryl Streep the Most Overrated Actress of All Time, or Did the Academy Get it Right?

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by Jason Koenigsberg

Meryl Streep has become synonymous with earning Oscar nominations practically every year. She is the most honored performer in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Throughout her career she has accumulated a total of 20 Oscar nominations, breaking the record set by Katherine Hepburn’s 12 nominations. Since that time Jack Nicholson has tied Ms. Hepburn with 12, however neither Meryl or Jack have four Academy Award trophies on their shelves, they each have three, in three different decades to boot. 

Ms. Streep came from humble beginnings born to a middle class family in New Jersey, she was fortunate to train under Lee Strasberg’s prolific school of acting alongside the likes of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and the late John Cazale, who was her boyfriend at the time Cazale lost his unfortunate battle with cancer in 1978. After he first met Meryl Streep he told his friend Al Pacino that he had just met, “the greatest actress of all time.” Many including the voters of the Academy would agree with John Cazale. 

Earlier this year Meryl Streep made headlines at the Golden Globes after she won the Cecil B. Demille Lifetime Achievement Award and gave a politically charged speech highly critical of President Donald Trump. He immediately responded by calling Streep “the most overrated actress in Hollywood” and “a Hillary lackey”. She has always been outspoken with her liberal views, and only a fool would say that Streep is untalented, but 20 Oscar nominations does seem excessive when most actors receive none. Very few are fortunate enough to earn multiple nominations let alone reach double digits. She has almost double the two people that have the second most total nominations and at age 68 if she keeps acting for another decade and a half that number is likely to grow. 

Long before Trump gave his two cents on Meryl Streep, several years ago a friend and I were discussing Ms. Streep and how it seems that if she sneezes on camera, she gets an Oscar nomination. We both felt that some of her more recent efforts were not Oscar caliber performances but then my friend boldly stated that “Meryl Streep is the most overrated actress of all time and other than Sophie’s Choice (1981) she never really deserved any Oscar recognition and that her surplus of nominations has done more damage to others in her profession by robbing them of the chance to be nominated and get their name into the winners circle with potentially bigger and better roles.” I was flabbergasted and although his opinion was very harsh, I found it intriguing and challenged my friend to view all of the films she was nominated for, discuss if she was worthy of Oscar recognition and write an article about it. He did not feel up to it and stated, “it’s your website, you do it”. So here it is.

Pan and Slam is going to examine the 20 roles Meryl Streep received an Academy Award nomination for. Of those twenty she has won three Oscars, two for Best Actress and one for Supporting. She may have the most nominations but she also is the Academy’s biggest loser in the acting categories. This will determine if she indeed deserved the nomination or the win. 

1. 1979: The Deer Hunter

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Best Actress in a Supporting Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




Her first nomination for a supporting role in only her second major motion picture role after Julia (1977) and the massively successful miniseries The Holocaust (1978). Did she deserve the nomination? Absolutely, in fact I would go so far as to say that Streep should have won for The Deer Hunter, however I have no qualms with Maggie Smith winning her second Academy Award. So far Streep deserved her first nomination. 

2. 1979: Kramer vs. Kramer

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Best Actress in a Supporting Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




Yes indeed she deserved to win for Kramer vs. Kramer. She plays the overwhelmed and unqualified mother of  a child she abandoned and left with only his father (Dustin Hoffman). The story unfolds from the father’s point of view during the heated custody battle and Streep’s role is less understood so she comes off as almost a villain against Hoffman’s righteous, hard working father. In the hands of a lesser actress she would have been a one-note antagonist but instead the audience gets insight into the mothers pain and disillusion. She deserved this nomination and win, so far Ms. Streep is 2 for 2. 

3. 1981: The French Lieutenant’s Woman

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

On Golden Pond: Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn was not present at the awards ceremony. Presenter Jon Voightaccepted the award on her behalf.

NOMINEES




Eh, this one is more debatable. The film is an unconventional love story/drama. The best part about it being the lead performances from Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. The fact that I was not alive yet and have only seen three of the nominated performances I will give Meryl Streep the benefit of the doubt here. So she is 3 for 3. Deserving of all three nominations thus far and one win. 

4. 1982: Sophie’s Choice 

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




This is the one you cannot argue with. Quite possibly one of the greatest performances of any actress in the history of cinema is right here by Meryl Streep as a tortured Holocaust survivor being forced to live with the horror she witnessed. It will haunt her forever as it did all Holocaust survivors. Often hailed as a masterwork of acting, even my critical friend was willing to give Ms. Streep this one. Come on President Trump, you can at least admit that she was heartbreaking in this film alongside Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol in arguably their best dramatic performances. She is deserving of all four career nominations thus far, but we have a long way to go. 

5. 1983: Silkwood

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




Another one that is very good, but not great. She lost deservingly so to Shirley MacLaine for the superior Terms of Endearment which would go on to win Best Picture as well. Ironically Mike Nichols who directed her in Silkwood would unite Streep and MacLaine in Postcards From the Edge (1990) based on Carrie Fisher’s memoirs, a much better film than all of the ones listed here from 1983. Let’s give this one to Meryl. I cannot think of five better female performances and 1983 was a historically bad year for cinema. So she is deserving of all five nominations and her two wins thus far. 

6. 1985: Out of Africa

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




Now this is the first film and nomination the Academy honored that is wholly undeserving of their admiration, recognition and I would equate this 2 hours and forty-five minutes to the equivalent of waiting for a really long time to see a doctor. This movie is The English Patient (1996) for the 80’s. Overlong, overdramatic and incredibly boring. A shame the late-great Sydney Pollack directed this shlock and it was the only time the Academy chose to honor his work as a director and producer. If Streep was nominated for this then where’s Redford’s nomination? His character was slightly more fun. The nominees here are the typical Oscar fare. You could line these actresses and their films up in a line-up and they all fit the bill of what an awards season prestige picture should be. I would have given it to Whoopi Goldberg for Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, the only film listed above that had an emotional impact on me. This is the first time the Academy honored Meryl where she did not deserve it. So she should have a total of five nominations and not six. 

7. 1987: Ironweed

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




The late Hector Babenco, a great Brazilian director, had a brief but ultimately unsuccessful run in Hollywood during the late 80’s and early 90’s. One of his films he made in America was Ironweed, a story of an alcoholic drifter returning to his hometown for the first time in decades. It is a slow burn of a drama/romance and despite earning Oscar nominations for its lead actors Nicholson and Streep, it made very little at the box office and critics were overall lukewarm to the film. Ironweed has become one of the forgotten movies from Streep and Nicholson’s hefty resumes. That being said both the performances are superb and this movie might deserve more recognition than it received. In fact, although I would have voted for Glen Close to win for Fatal Attraction, Meryl Streep is much better than her Silkwood co-star Cher in Moonstruck. The fact Cher won Best Actress this year is still one of the Academy’s biggest blunders. So add the total tally up to six deserving of seven career nominations thus far. 

8. 1988: A Cry in the Dark

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




Also known as Evil Angels, but probably better known in many circles as “the dingo ate my baby” movie. Streep plays a mother accused of murdering her child in Australia trying to prove her innocence. This may be the role where Meryl Streep solidified her reputation as a skilled actress that could duplicate any accent pitch perfect. For that it is worthy of her nomination, but she certainly deserved to lose to Jodie Foster for The Accused. In fact, look at all of the women nominated that year. They are all outstanding performances. I would have given it to Foster, but Glen Close, Sigourney Weaver, and Meryl Streep all are excellent in their respective roles, I would not have minded if any of those women took home the gold. Melanie Griffith is the weakest of the nominees but Working Girl is probably one of her best roles. A very strong category indeed. Streep is now deserving of seven of the eight films she has been nominated for. 

9. 1990: Postcards From the Edge 

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




This is probably one of Meryl Streep’s very best roles and was often forgotten up until the recent deaths of director Mike Nichols and writer Carrie Fisher. Boy does she hit this one out of the park. The story of a drug addicted actress being forced to live with her mother and put up with all of her idiosyncrasies as well as face painful memories from her childhood. However, Kathy Bates definitely deserved to win for Misery, one of the rare times the Academy honored a horror film. Add another one to the plus column for Meryl, she deserves eight of her nine Oscar nominations. 

10. 1995: The Bridges of Madison County

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




As much as I like Clint Eastwood as an actor and director, and the thought of him teaming up with Meryl Streep sounds great, this was not exactly what many people had in mind. For the film adaptation of one of the most popular coffee table books from the 90’s that every housewife loved. Yes, it is a good movie, and yes the performances are just right, however when all is said and done, is this really one of the best films of either Clint or Meryl’s careers? I don’t think so. I would have rather seen Annette Being nominated for her work in The American President or Angela Bassett for Strange Days. Plus, of all the women nominated, other than Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep is probably the weakest one. I am glad Sarandon won, but would have been just as happy for Shue or Thompson if they walked onto the stage that night. So now the tally is eight deserving of her ten total nominations. 

11. 1998: One True Thing

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




This is probably her most forgettable nominated performance at this point. She plays a cancer stricken mother during her last days as her career oriented daughter is forced to move back home and help take care of her. This movie seemed more like a star vehicle to boost the career of then up and coming starlet Renee Zellweger who comes across as spoiled and annoying. Streep is good as usual and so is William Hurt as her husband. They carry this film and make it worth watching. One True Thing is good, but not Oscar worthy. Halle Berry was more deserving of her work in Bulworth, same with Cameron Diaz for There’s Something About Mary and  Susan Sarandon for Step Mom. Streep now deserves 8 out of her 11 nominations. 

12. 1999: Music of the Heart

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




Based on an incredible true story of a hard working teacher determined against all odds to teach inner city children violin. Streep actually learned how to play violin for this role, once again cementing her reputation as one of the hardest working actresses who will truly dedicate herself to any role. Music of the Heart is also going to go down in film history as a curio for two reasons. The lead role was intended for Madonna who turned it down and Meryl was the second choice and even if everything was identical, it is highly unlikely Madonna would have earned a Best Actress nomination for this schmaltz. Plus it is the only film directed by Wes Craven to earn an Academy Award nomination for its acting. Yes, the man who directed A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) directed this sweet love letter to all the hardworking and under appreciated teachers out there. Music of the Heart is a very good movie and Streep makes it better than it should be, but is it Oscar worthy? No. I would have much rather seen Rene Russo for The Thomas Crown Affair, Mira Sorvino for Summer of Sam, or Reese Witherspoon for Election take Meryl’s spot. But those titles are not your typical Oscar bait movies. Even with Wes Craven’s name visible on every poster, Music of the Heart is the kind of movie the Academy loves, especially with it’s favorite daughter in the lead role. Plus there is no way anybody should have won other than Hilary Swank, although Annette Bening comes close. So now she is still stuck at 8 deserving of her record tying 12 nominations. 

13. 2002: Adaptation

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Best Actress in a Supporting Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




Meryl Streep’s first supporting nomination in over twenty years and unlike her last few nominations, she really deserved it this time. Streep plays Susan Orlean in director Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman’s highly fictionalized account of writers block and the stress that it takes to create a successful film adaptation from a highly acclaimed and popular novel. This is the last great screen performance to date of Nicolas Cage and one of Streep’s very best roles, justice prevailed as they were both nominated. Chris Cooper was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor and would be the films only win on Oscar night. Streep would lose to Catherine Zeta-Jones for Chicago, no major arguments there. So now Meryl deserved 9 nominations out of her record breaking 13 thus far. Already at this point, nine incredible performances illustrates how phenomenal of an actress Streep is. 

14. 2006: The Devil Wears Prada

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Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




Did she deserve the nomination for this lighthearted but smart social commentary about life in the big city? Absolutely. Did she deserve to win over Helen Mirren for The Queen? No. The Academy got it right this year. So now Meryl is up to 10 deserving nominations out of 14. 

15. 2008: Doubt

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Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




This is Meryl Streep’s best leading performance this century. She has continued to excel in challenging roles unlike her male counterparts that she came up with in the seventies like De Niro, Pacino and Hoffman. They have not turned in an outstanding performance of this caliber in many years. Streep deserved the nomination and should have won as the determined nun from Hell trying to prove that a priest had inappropriate relations with a student in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Kate Winslet did not deserve anything for The Reader. I would have voted for Streep but also been very happy to see her Devil Wears Prada costar Anne Hathaway win for Rachel Getting Married. So now we are at 11 deserving of 15 total nominations. 

16. 2009: Julie and Julia

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Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




We go from one of Streep’s best roles and most deserving nominations to what is easily one of her least deserving nominations with Julie and Julia. Streep plays Julia Roberts, which in itself could have been interesting, but Julia Child was more than just a famous chef on TV. She was a spy in Europe during the Cold War. Julia Child lived one of the most fascinating double lives and the fact that she was a six foot plus female with a distinctive voice, how she could be a spy would make for a mind boggling movie. Yet, Julie and Julia was not interested in any of that, espionage took a back seat for chick flick cliches and told a mundane story that focused on Amy Adams creating a blog that tried to cook all of Julia Childs recipes. Who cares? Well I guess the Academy did to a certain point and this movie was a hit at the box office. A shame that Julia Child’s secret life will remain secret on screen. For the record I think Gabourey Sidibe should have won for Precious. The tally is now still as 11 deserving out of 16 nominations. 

17. 2011: The Iron Lady

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Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




Here is a situation of great performance in a lousy movie. Meryl Streep is great, as she almost always is, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The movie around her is weak in practically every way. It drags and feels long when it should not. This was the Academy throwing Meryl a bone after so many nominations and so many losses, they want to keep her a viable candidate. Plus, they are often suckers for true stories, accents, and all things English. Viola Davis was the front runner that night and would eventually win recently for Fences (2016). If I had a vote I would have given it to Rooney Mara for her courageous performance in the American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Meryl is still stuck at 11 deserving of 17 nominations. 

18. 2013: August: Osage County

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Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




Does anybody even remember this movie? Does anyone even know or care that Meryl Streep got her 18th nomination for this little seen awards bait release? Plus, the Oscars got it right by honoring Cate Blanchett for one of the best performances from an actress in any Woody Allen film, and that is saying quite a lot. It probably worked better as a play rather than a shameless showcase for Hollywood A-listers attempts as Academy recognition. It would have been nice to see Mia Wasikowska nominated for her brave performance in Stoker, and Julie Delpy for her heartbreaking work in Before Midnight. Meryl is still at 11 deserving nominations out of 18 if you are keeping up. 

19. 2014: Into the Woods

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Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




Now this is exactly the film that sparked the conversation between myself and my friend and this is probably his best argument that Meryl Streep is overrated and robs other actresses of recognition and opportunities. This is easily her least deserving nominated performance. So Meryl Streep can sing, big deal. Everytime she does something different the Academy feels compelled to acknowledge her as if no other actress has shown range and versatility. I would have rather seen Melissa Benoist nominated for Whiplash or Tilda Swinton for Snowpiercer. The best part about her nomination this time around was that when she inevitably lost to Patricia Arquette who was the most deserving of the nominees, Ms. Arquette gave a politically charged speech about equality in pay between men and women in motion pictures. Meryl Streep being Hollywood royalty sitting front and center stood up and cheered loudest for what Arquette was calling for, leading many others in the theater to rise to their feet and cheer. Still at 11 of 19 and only one more nomination to analyze. 

20. 2016: Florence Foster Jenkins

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Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER

NOMINEES




This last one was actually the toughest for me to make a decisive call on. I liked Florence Foster Jenkins and thought Meryl Streep actually did a terrific job as the title character. An odd yet true story about a singer who was the Ed Wood of vocalists yet never had the slightest idea she was terrible. She was good and I have no problem with her nomination… however, the point of this column, and one of the reasons my friend despises her 20 nominations is because it keeps lesser known actresses from earning recognition and Hollywood immortality on it’s grandest stage. In that respect, I have to, in good conscience say that Meryl did NOT deserve her nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins. It would have been much nicer to see young up and coming actresses take her spot like Sasha Lane in American Honey or Hailee Steinfeld in Edge of Seventeen. Both are terrific underrated films anchored by strong female performances from young women and it would have been nice to see them earn praise and acclaim from the Academy instead of the same old Meryl. I was happy to see Emma Stone win for La La Land but I would have given it to Isabelle Huppert for her outlandish performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle

So the final tally, Meryl Streep deserved 11 of her record 20 nominations. Still an incredible feat from one of the most talented actresses to ever grace the screen. Does that make her overrated? You can decide that on your own. 

Check out this montage of her work from the 2017 Golden Globes.

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1 Comment »

  1. Provacative as always. Your time and devotion to finding the answer to this question is admirable. I will take your word for many of these movies which I have not seen. (Although Melissa Leo’s quiet desperation in Frozen River was the winner that year) Yet I might add that Streep as Sister Aloyious was worth two nominations.

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