No one loves Meryl Streep more than I. She is without a doubt the greatest actor of our generation, perhaps all of time. I cannot name a single false not in any role she’s played, or a single misstep in her career choices. Impossibly impeccable.
Yet I was overwhelmingly disappointed when she won Best Actress at the Oscars last night.
Full disclosure, I did not see The Iron Lady (I saw everything else this year, though… literally, I think, everything). I am not here to debate her performance, though– I am sure it is marvelous.
However, as we’ve all come to understand, the Oscars are political. Everyone knows that. Heavy campaigning, personal missteps, career timing… all of these elements are weighed along with the judgment of a performance or a film. That’s something we Oscar-lovers wrestle with and must remember throughout awards season.
My problem with Meryl winning over Viola Davis has many strands.
1. Contrary to some of the arguments I’ve heard, this is by no means Meryl’s last chance to win an Oscar. She’s been nominated seventeen times… and she just gets better with age. Plus, there’s that Lifetime Achievement Award on its way. You cannot say the same for Viola– you simply cannot with assurance claim that she’ll get another shot.
2. Viola Davis was the only Best Actress nominee who was also in a Best Picture nominee. Personally, I really liked The Help (which surprised me too!), although I do understand the issue people have with it. I thought Viola was remarkable. Sure, she had less to do than Meryl did, but Meryl was in a star vehicle manufactured for Oscar. Viola was the heart and soul of The Help, the foundation for a huge ensemble, and she shone.
3. Hollywood is notoriously racist. Sorry, it just is. The whole entertainment industry is, in fact, because the whole industry is based on profit (this is not cynical– this is simple numbers.) I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer, but let’s look at the numbers real quick. Meryl has won 3 Oscars (2 for Best Actress). She now has two more Oscars as all black women have for Best Actress combined (only Halle Berry has ever won BA). Meryl has 3 Oscars. Only 9 black women have ever been nominated for Best Actress in the history of the Oscars. If the Oscars are about timing… it’s time.
Obviously I have a lot to say about this subject, and again I just want to clarify that I don’t begrudge Meryl her Oscar at all. She probably deserved it. BUT if we are meant to assume that the Oscars function in some sort of political, calculated way,all my calculations point to Viola. It should’ve been Viola.
Now I’ll quote some Sasha Stone from Awards Daily. She’s been a big sassafras this whole season, but this essay is quite good and really illuminates a lot of what I think about the race. I highly recommend reading the whole article if you follow awards shows at all.
Oiling the Oscar Machine
by Sasha Stone
I knew that the fallout would be the fans of Meryl Streep rejoicing, chanting “I told you so!” and that those who were rooting for Davis would feel angry and crestfallen. I knew that the subject of race would come up again, and people would want to talk less about race and more about who deserved to win. As if there is such a thing as “deserves.” The Best Actress race is not a fair fight to begin with. There aren’t producers and Oscar dream makers lining up to make Oscar-winning roles for black women in their 40s. And though people like David Poland and Jeff Wells say things like “Viola Davis will have plenty of chances,” those of us at this long enough know that just ain’t true.
The key to this discussion is how impossible and improbable it would be for an actress like Davis ever to get a part like Streep got in The Iron Lady… Viola Davis’ entire career has been making the tiny discards of the roles she’s been offered better.