Why Meryl Streep should sit out the Oscars this year

Do you remember the movie She-Devil? Maybe you don’t, and that’s probably OK. Released in 1989, it was fun little trifle of a revenge flick so light it seemed to evaporate as soon as it hit theaters. Sporting one of the worst prosthetic moles in film history, Roseanne Barr starred as a spurned housewife desperate for comeuppance when her husband cheats on her with a glamorous romance novelist. The other woman just happened to be played by Meryl Streep, in the kind of role she often took in the ’80s and ’90s (see also: Death Becomes Her), when she wanted to take time off from being the Greatest Living Actress to remove her brain and have a little fun. She’s, of course, perfect at it, because as the Internet knows, she’s perfect at basically everything.

But over the years, Meryl Streep has garnered such a reputation for infallibility that even her lighter fare doesn’t feel so light anymore. Whereas a decade ago, Streep might have been able to cloak herself in character-actor work like Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events or little-seen indie flicks like Dark Matter, she can’t hide from her own awards monster anymore. Aside from her small roles in The Homesman and The Giver, nearly everything she does gets nominated these days, even though she rarely actually wins. While August: Osage County and The Iron Lady found her in clear Oscar Bait Mode, even Hope Springs, It’s Complicated, and Mamma Mia! all got nominated for Golden Globes. Not even ABBA and overalls will save her from herself.

At this point, Streep is just there because, well, she’s there every year.  

Everyone in the world agrees that Meryl Streep is great—so great that Modern Family’s Cam argued she could play Batman. However, as Streep looks to be a lock to land her record 19th nomination on Thursday morning, perfection doesn’t look all that perfect. Meryl Streep is already, by far, the most Oscar-nominated person in history, beating Jack Nicholson and Katherine Hepburn by a mind-blowing six bids, and getting honored for Into the Woods does her absolutely no good. After her Golden Globes win and awards season domination, Patricia Arquette would have to kick a puppy or say something overtly racist to lose the Oscar. And at this point, Streep is just there because, well, she’s there every year.  

Meryl Streep’s performance in Into the Woods is more than fine—she’s a credible singer and scene-chewer—but it would be unlikely to attract attention if it were, say, Margo Martindale or co-star Christine Baranski in the role. Streep didn’t even earn the Internet’s highest share of plaudits; those went to Emily Blunt, who plays the Baker’s Wife. New York magazine’s David Edelstein called Blunt the heart of the film. “It’s her movie,” Edelstein said. “Dizzy, pop-eyed, blurty, she gives this unwieldy saga its daft, farcical heart.” Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips felt Blunt and her onscreen husband, James Corden, saved the movie. Phillips said, “[Into the Woods] works best whenever Corden and Blunt, performers of nearly limitless appeal and sweet-natured vulnerability, take the story back from their cohorts, though Kendrick is no less beguiling.” While many critics had kind things to say about Streep’s turn, others were less nice. Steve Davis of the Austin Chronicle found her witch to be “strangely joyless.”

A nomination is likely to steal the spotlight from equally deserving actresses who could really use the Oscar bump.

Despite this being a somewhat light year in the Best Actress category, Emily Blunt is unlikely to get nominated at the Oscars for her performance—Jennifer Aniston looks to snatch her spot for Cake instead—and in a surprise win, Amy Adams bested Blunt at the Golden Globes. But the problem isn’t just that Streep is likely to overshadow her co-stars at the Academy Awards, but that a nomination is likely to steal the spotlight from equally deserving actresses who could really use the Oscar bump. Laura Dern is terrific as the mother in Wild, an ethereal force seen in flashbacks, and Carrie Coon is an accidental scene-stealer in Gone Girl, playing Ben Affleck’s acerbic twin sister. Kristen Stewart was an unexpected standout from Clouds of Sils Maria and Still Alice, proving to her detractors that she’s a damn fine actress, if anyone happens to notice.

There’s also Inherent Vice’s lovely Katherine Waterston, Selma’s Carmen Ejogo, and the always-surprising Tilda Swinton’s turn as a Margaret Thatcher clone in Snowpiercer, but perhaps no outsider makes a stronger case for a nomination than Rene Russo. The ’90s bombshell launched quite the comeback campaign with Nightcrawler. Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut was a devastating critique of tabloid TMZ culture in the viral media era, as well as a look as the exploitation of women within that structure. The 60-year-old actress has never been better or more quietly devastating than as a news producer who is desperate to do whatever it takes to get her story, even if it means compromising everything she stands for in the process.

There’s a reason Meryl Streep is getting all these great parts: Other people don’t. 

Last week, noted mansplainer Russell Crowe used the time-honored Meryl Streep defense to explain that there are plenty of roles in Hollywood for actresses like Russo—and put the blame on women over 40 for the state of their careers. “Meryl Streep will give you 10,000 examples and arguments as to why that’s bullshit, so will Helen Mirren, or whoever it happens to be,” Crowe said. “If you are willing to live in your own skin, you can work as an actor. If you are trying to pretend that you’re still the young buck when you’re my age, it just doesn’t work.” This doesn’t exactly hold up, simply because there’s a reason Meryl Streep is getting all these parts: Other people don’t. While Streep is busy getting her 19th Oscar nomination, Ellen Burstyn is in Lifetime movies. And those are some of Burstyn’s more plum parts: In 2006, she was in a straight-to-video movie co-starring Da Brat. Her next role is in a Blake Lively vehicle—which, yes, still exist.

Meryl Streep is my personal favorite actress (the race isn’t even close), and I don’t fault her for a Hollywood system that writes such an infinitesimal number of parts for older women that the few name actresses over 60 have to fight for them as if in a cage match by way of Cocoon. But as a noted advocate for gender equality, Streep has been very vocal about the sexism she’s faced in the movie industry her entire career. She tells a great story about her she tried out for the 1976 remake of King Kong and producer Dino de Laurentiis immediately dismissed her for her appearance. He complained to casting directors, “Why did you send me this pig? This woman is so ugly.” Streep, who speaks perfect Italian, responded, “I’m so sorry I disappoint you.” 

While Streep is, thus, by no means at fault for systemic issues of sexism, she could go a long way to calling out her own part in that system simply by turning down her nominations, especially if we all know she isn’t going to even win. What a better way to highlight the few options available for the Rene Russos or the Ellen Burstyns than by shining a light on one of her under-recognized peers. The move isn’t unprecedented: Marlon Brando famously declined his Oscar in 1973, in a controversial protest of the treatment of Native Americans in film, and John Le Carre turned down his Booker Prize nomination in 2009 “to give less established authors the opportunity to win.” It’s a gutsy act Streep would do well to follow, simply by saying “Thanks but no thanks” when her name is inevitably announced on Thursday morning’s Oscar nomination roll call.

Meryl Streep might be a perfect human being, a screen goddess, and the Greatest Living Actress, but it’s time to let other women be great, too.

Photo via Disney/YouTube

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.