Fr. Jake Martin, SJ, looks at the Academy Award nominees and this year’s best films and performances through a spiritual lens — and makes a prediction or two along the way.
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What Is Great Acting?
It’s always about Meryl. Much like the painfully awkward song and dance numbers and the deadly dull banter between presenters, Streep has become a sort of informal Oscar tradition since her first nomination for The Deer Hunter in 1978. Streep is iconic, perhaps more so than the woman she portrayed to garner her 17th nomination: former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. She is undoubtedly the actress of this or perhaps any generation; whether or not she is the best actress, however, is another story.
Streep is a genius at mimicry, her ability to replicate the physical mannerisms, vocal tonality and inflections of a particular subject — in this case Thatcher — is extraordinary. She can copy any dialect and can disappear physically into a character to the point where there is seemingly not a trace of herself visible — all the marks of a good mimic and yes, perhaps even a good actor. This is all beyond question. But is it great acting? After all, celebrity impersonator Dana Carvey can do all of the above. I will admit comparing Streep to Dana Carvey is a bit extreme, but it does beg the question.
I would argue that like any other art form, acting requires a level of interior truth and authenticity that moves past strong technique and external pyrotechnics. Great art should be an impetus for conversion, however small — if not necessarily toward God, at least toward the good. Streep’s whole approach to her craft disallows this kind of authenticity, because a long time ago it became all about the technique.
People pay to go to Meryl Streep films to watch Meryl Streep “act.” This gets in the way of her, and the film’s, ability to plunge any deeper than the accent she is essaying and the gestures she is duplicating. In some ways, it is not her fault; she is a victim of her own image and public. The fact remains that when all is said and done, there is not a lot of there there in a Streep performance. Still, for many, watching Meryl “act” is enough and who am I to argue with 17 Oscar nominations? And so I would make Meryl my odds on favorite to take home the award this year.
If Streep has any competition it will be from Viola Davis in The Help and Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn. Williams gives far less of an externally accurate portrayal of her respective icon than does Streep, and instead offers a lighter, less formal charcoal sketching in comparison to Streep’s heavier more painstaking oil on canvas.
And then there’s Davis, who has neither the privilege nor the burden of playing a historical monolith the way that Streep and Williams do, allowing her a freedom that neither of these two competitors has: to tell her character’s story without the distraction of expectations bearing down on her performance. Davis gives a thoughtful, generous and, yes, honest performance that neither Streep nor Williams is able to give, bound as they are to keeping one eye on the outside at all times. Though I would still give Streep the win, it was Davis’ performance that told the truth.