This year, Meryl Streep received her 21st Oscar nomination. That’s one nomination for every film Jennifer Lawrence has been in. And there’s no denying she’s the most amazing actress of her — or perhaps any — generation. She’s adept at drama, romance, comedy, musical, even historical epic.
But even so, are all her Oscar-nominated (and winning) performances that good? And even without that context, aren’t some better than the others?
So, discounting her current nomination, I decided to rank all prior 20 nominations in descending order of greatness. Meaning, all of them are great, but some are greater than others.
20. Music of the Heart (1999, best actress; lost to Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry). Probably Meryl’s least distinctive leading role — she became the only performer ever nominated for an Oscar being directed by Wes Craven! — she was good, but it was basically a TV movie with a theatrical release. Pretty much her least-deserved nomination.
19. The Deer Hunter (1978, supporting actress; lost to Maggie Smith in California Suite). In only her second film role, Meryl got a nomination as Robert De Niro’s girlfriend. Not a meaty role, but you could see her skill emerging.
18. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981, best actress; lost to Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond). Probably Meryl’s most experimental film, where she plays and actress and a character in a film. The movie itself wasn’t a total success, though she did her best.
17. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, supporting actress; won). Her Oscar as the wife and mother who abandons her family, only to return to claim custody, was expected, but in truth, her co-star Jane Alexander was probably better in the same movie. But her star was on the rise, and you could tell.
16. Adaptation (2002, best supporting actress; lost to Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago). Like Music of the Heart, one of her most “ordinary” performances, and her first supporting nomination since her with for KvK more than two decades earlier.
14. One True Thing (1998, best actress; lost to Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love). As a woman dying of cancer, this was a total tearjerker of the most manipulative kind, elevated by Meryl’s purposeful performance.
13. Postcards from the Edge (1990, best actress; lost to Kathy Bates in Misery). As a recovering addict, actress and singer (based on Carrie Fisher), Meryl sang her own music and combined comedy with pathos for one of the roles that helped reinvent her as a “popular” actress of Hollywood entertainments. It was also her last nomination for five years, the longest gap in her career.
12. Silkwood (1883, best actress; lost to Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment). After playing wives, Holocaust survivors and actresses, Meryl astonished everyone with this raw portrait of a trashy blue collar worker who becomes an unlikely hero of the anti-nuke movement.
11. A Cry in the Dark (1988, best actress; lost to Jodie Foster in The Accused). My most conflicted feelings about Meryl are captured in this film, in which she plays the unsympathetic mother of a missing child in a terrible wig and with a terse Australia accent. It’s not an “easy” performance, and the film is all over the place, but it’s one that imbeds its style into your memory once you see it. Along with Out of Africa and Sophie’s Choice, probably the film that you would most associate with her skill at accents.
10. Julie & Julia (2009, best actress; lost to Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side). As Julia Child, Meryl camps it up some intoxicatingly, you can’t help but be charmed.
9. The Devil Wears Prada (2006, best actress; lost to Helen Mirren in The Queen). I’m probably gonna catch gay hell for putting this performance so low. It’s iconic, no doubt, and elevates the film, but it proves what makes Meryl so damn good: Anyone else probably would not have even scored a nomination, and she was neck-and-neck with Mirren for the win.
8. Florence Foster Jenkins (2016, best actress; lost to Emma Stone in La La Land). Only Meryl could take the world’s worst opera singer and make her sympathetic, funny, sad and resonant at once.
7. Out of Africa (1985, best actress; lost to Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful). Meryl appeared in three Oscar winners for best picture — The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer and this one — but this is the only one in which she had the leading role, and she carries it. It really made her a movie star and cemented her as a force in Hollywood. Amazingly, she would not appear in another film nominated for best picture until this year’s The Post.
6. Doubt (2008, best actress; lost to Kate Winslet in The Reader). As the axe-faced nun who suspects a priest of sexual misconduct, Meryl was icy and fiery at the same time. Winslet’s win was more career achievement (it’s not really even a good performance) and Meryl was robbed of her third Oscar … until the error was corrected a few years later.
5. August: Osage County (2013, best actress; lost to Cate Blanchette in Blue Jasmine). It was never more apparent that Meryl was stage trained than here, in which she allows close-up of herself looking dreadful and portrays a bitter, complex character fearlessly.
4. The Bridges of Madison County (1995, best actress; lost to Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking). After action films (The River Wild) and FX comedies (Death Becomes Her), Meryl roared back into detailed characterization with this no-nonsense role as an Italian immigrant, turning the most treacly best seller of the 1990s into a breathtakingly prickly romance.
3. The Iron Lady (2011, best actress; won). As Margaret Thatcher, Meryl won her third Oscar — her first win after 12 consecutive losses. It was well-deserved and a great job, where she simply lost herself in the role. Hypnotic.
2. Ironweed (1987, best actress; lost to Cher in Moonstruck). My favorite unheralded performance by Meryl is this underseen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, in which she plays a dotty homeless woman on the streets of 1930s Albany. If she had been nominated in the supporting rather than leading category — it’s a meaty but not big part — she may have defeated Olympia Dukakis. Instead, she lost to Cher, who actually thanked Meryl in her acceptance speech. Meryl seemed totally delighted.
1. Sophie’s Choice (1982, best actress; won). Still the performance against which all performances will be judged.
— Arnold Wayne Jones