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On Monday, a colleague pointed out to me that the next Academy Awards were, to the day, five months away. Strangely, he said it in the panicked tone of someone on whom Christmas has too swiftly crept up, whereas all I could think of was how dauntingly far away it sounded. Five months is a long time to parse the possibility of a third consecutive Best Picture from the Weinstein stable, to debate Philip Seymour Hoffman’s category placement, and for Jeff Wells to denigrate Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abe Lincoln accent; this weekly column, meanwhile, will have mulled over more than enough unseen variables before the season is out. Welcome.
So with plenty of weeks remaining to direct our gaze forward, please indulge me as I inaugurate this year’s Long Shot series by rewinding the clock a bit – just six weeks or so, to a little late-summer release called “Hope Springs.”
A very credible, budget-dwarfing $65 million gross notwithstanding, “Hope Springs” is not most people’s idea of a big deal – as a digestible but dialogue-driven marital drama somewhat regrettably mismarketed as a silver-haired sex comedy, the chatter around the film is relaxed enough that I only got around to seeing it, as a ticket-buying customer, last weekend. And though reviews had been warmer than expected for what looked like a soft lob to the Nancy Meyers set, I was still taken aback by just how special the film is.
Senior sexuality is already a pretty courageous topic for a mainstream studio entertainment, and Vanessa Taylor’s tartly candid original script pushes it into the most truthful, occasionally desolate directions it can go within the padded pastel confines of a multiplex relationship movie. The packaging is cozy, and characters emerge from it rose-scented, but there’s a bare vein of fear and loneliness running through “Hope Springs” that’s hard to shake. The whole may be tonally haphazard, and aesthetically rather worse than that, but key scenes where Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, as a 60-something Midwestern couple facing up to their sexless shell of a marriage, nervously exchange blame from opposite ends of a therapist’s couch are as brisk and invigorating as any indie confessional. I can’t remember the last Hollywood romance that wanted its characters to endure such emotional brutality, much less had any idea how to write it.
Thanks to its A-grade leads, “Hope Springs” would be credited with a built-in veneer of class even if it weren’t half as good as it actually is, but both Streep and Jones work unexpectedly hard for the material. It’s not without due consideration that I say Streep hasn’t been this terrific since “The Hours” 10 years ago, mining seams of passion and pettiness in a mousy housewife without stooping to condescension or affectation. It’s a performance I’d take in a heartbeat over a dozen fussy, trophy-bedecked Maggie Thatchers. (I’m tempted to knock David Frankel’s direction, not least for his ruinously cloth-eared musical cues, but given that Streep’s two sharpest and subtlest turns in a decade have come on his watch – he made “The Devil Wears Prada,” too – he’s clearly doing something right.)
Streep’s detractors have complained of awards bodies’ tendency to pile laurels on the 17-time Oscar nominee merely for breathing; I’m the first to admit that I wasn’t keen on her ostentatiously mannered work in “Doubt,” “Julie & Julia” and “The Iron Lady,” a trio responsible for a hat-trick of Academy nods in the last four years. This year, however, I’m fully on board the train for Nomination #18. So why, when you look at the Best Actress charts being drawn up by the pundits that be, does Streep appear to be on the outside looking in, and in a purportedly “weak” category to boot?
You could make the case for possible push-back after her third Oscar win in February for “The Iron Lady,” an outcome that was neither entirely expected nor universally popular, and certainly eased the pressure on voters to recognize the actress with quite such regularity. (Perhaps she’d be regarded as a frontrunner right now if Viola Davis’s name had been in that envelope; we’ll never know.) But there’s a more interesting, and more deeply-rooted, awards season truth at play in the soft buzz for Streep’s work in “Hope Springs”: voters all too frequently resist the regular. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a number of Streep’s strongest performances to somehow escape Academy recognition – “The Hours,” “Falling in Love,” even “The River Wild” – are ones in which she plays American everywomen, boasting neither the virtuosic accents and/or biographical consequence that color much of her nominated work. She may have won her first Oscar for playing a regular Jo, but she had to play British and iconic to earn her third.
Streep’s hardly the only example one could use to illustrate the Academy’s tendency to conflate notions of extraordinary artistry with an extraordinary subject. Consider the fact that 13 of the last 20 leading-role Oscar winners have won for biopics. Even when pitting fiction against fiction, they prefer more grandiose dramatic arcs, which is how Sean Penn’s vocal, vengeful grief in “Mystic River” beats out Bill Murray’s quiet ennui in “Lost in Translation,” or how Natalie Portman’s delusional, high-strung “Black Swan” ballerina defeated a quartet of more silently suffering family women.
The preference applies to films as much as performances. Not since “American Beauty” in 1999 has a fundamentally domestic drama won Best Picture, and even then, that victory was something of an anomaly after a long run of high-flown, far-flung period pieces taking the prize; voters’ tastes have since run more frequently in the direction of “small” narratives that nonetheless span exceptional situations and heftier social constructs.
The film many think is in the drivers’ seat for Best Picture, “Silver Linings Playbook,” could represent a compromise of sorts, reportedly elevating a common-or-garden relationship drama with distinguishing stripes of quirk, but it has a lot of attractively extraordinary stories in its way, from the epic ardors of “Les Misérables” to the sensational survival of “The Impossible” to the momentous history of “Lincoln” to the stranger-than-fiction adventure of “Argo.”
In this year’s Oscar race, as in most, ordinary people don’t have time to take it slow.
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