Oscars 2018: Why Meryl Streep, Frances McDormand are deserving frontrunners for the Best Actress award

Aparna Pednekar

Jan,30 2018 13:27:05 IST

As Frances McDormand is on the cusp of toppling all her rivals, including the formidable Meryl Streep, for a Best Actress Academy Award this year, here’s a look at the two versatile thespians who have essayed a range of unlikely heroines over the last five decades.

Meryl Streep and Frances McDormand. AP

Meryl Streep and Frances McDormand. AP

There she goes again.

Each time I buy a ticket to see a Meryl Streep film, I expect to yawn a bit, exhausted with those high cheekbones, porcelain perfection and on-screen brilliance the from the three-time Academy Award winner, currently sitting on a heap of 21 Oscar nominations and acknowledged as one of the best actors of all time.  And film after film, the thespian pulls unexpectedly delicate and nuanced punches. Watching her play Katherine Graham in The Post, I was (inevitably but grudgingly yet again) drawn into a multilayered Streep performance that unsettled something within me.

I’ve read Kay Graham’s wonderfully candid memoirs – Personal History -  in which the publisher of The Washington Post chronicles her journey from a privileged, painfully shy girl to wife, mother, and socialite playing second fiddle to her charismatic husband to becoming the first female publisher of a major American newspaper and then leading it to the controversial printing of the Pentagon Papers and winning a Pulitzer Prize for the Watergate coverage. Streep’s glowing, kooky beauty is a smokescreen to the nuanced, unlikely feminist Kay Graham and the legend delivers knockout punches with headline-grabbing precision and timing, like that acting machine she is. (Cher had once famously called Streep “an acting machine in the same sense that a shark is a killing machine.”)

 Singular Female Icons – Class No Bar

This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Sam Rockwell, left, and Frances McDormand in a scene from "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." Rockwell was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. The 90th Oscars will air live on ABC on Sunday, March 4. (Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight via AP)

Sam Rockwell (L) and Frances McDormand in a scene from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. AP

Less than a decade younger, but an equally ferocious performer and fellow Cancerian, Frances McDormand hasn’t portrayed the kind of exceptional real life women — from Karen Blixen to Julia Child and Margaret Thatcher — that Streep has. Her heroines are grungier, working class and often oddballs. The latest weapon in McDormand’s arsenal is Mildred Hayes, a mother who refuses to make peace with the injustice of her daughter’s rape and death. The pugilistic, blue-collared, bandana-sporting anti-heroine powers director Martin McDonagh’s dark comic drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, snapping up a SAG and Golden Globe with the Academy Award at close range. Mildred comes closest to McDormand’s iconic role in the 1996 cult classic Fargo, which earned her only Oscar to date.  “I will go to my grave being known as (Fargo‘s) Marge Gunderson and I don’t mind that, but Mildred is Marge grown up,” the 60-year old actor admitted.

Fargo, directed by the Coen brothers, saw McDormand play a pregnant, fluffy ear cap-wearing, comically homey police officer determined to investigate the savage serial murders in her rural community. The cult status of the character, nominated on several list of all-time great film heroes, is something that McDormand hasn’t been able to shake off, despite a line of roles that have propelled her into that elite club of actors who wear the Triple Crown of Acting – Oscar, Emmy and Tony.

Different but same

They may be poles apart in circumstances and achievements, but in a way, McDormand’s working class, eccentric heroines with slowly unfurling indomitable cores have much in common with Streep’s aristocratic achievers. Both define strong female characters in politically charged environments, whether overt or subtle. McDormand – an Illinois girl who was adopted by a Canada-born couple and a theatre graduate from Yale – has gone on record to admit that she’s always been insecure about the way she looks, which leads her to sabotage the looks of her characters by making them as homely as possible, from the nitpicking mom in Almost Famous to the crabby Olive Kitteridge.

In this image released by 20th Century Fox, Tom Hanks portrays Ben Bradlee, left, and Meryl Streep portrays Katharine Graham in a scene from "The Post." The film was nominated for an Oscar for best picture on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. The 90th Oscars will air live on ABC on Sunday, March 4. (Niko Tavernise/20th Century Fox via AP)

Meryl Streep (R) portrays Katharine Graham in a scene from The Post. AP

But imagine the famously deadpan actress swapping places with Streep’s legendary characters, swathed in fur, manicured, pedicure, impossibly chic and hoity-toity as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Or the chiselled-nosed, high-cheekbones 68-year old Streep donning overalls and a bandana to cuss her way to justice with deadpan intensity. Whatever their signature style may be, with their shared Cancerian instinctive talent for inevitably hitting an emotional nerve in the audience, armed with a droll, surprisingly off-the wall sense of humour.  Though Streep plays sophisticated white collar women and McDormand lends her unconventional persona to scruffier characters (picture a Jodie Foster heroine, just way less scarier and startlingly funny), both actors have carved out outstanding women characters onscreen (and they aren’t any more withering lilies off screen either).

Their collective kitty of characters is so multi-layered, it’s a given that any role that these supernovas take up — even if it’s one dimensional on paper — gets elevated to a profound, complex exploration of humanity.  The oldest actress to join the cast HBO’s Emmy-hogging series Big Little Lies in its second season, I’m counting on Streep to shake up what’s getting to be a pretty, rich, white women’s club.

If only they’d rope in McDormand too!

Updated Date: Jan 30, 2018 13:27 PM