Oscar 2006: Meryl Streep (Devil Wears Prada) Kicks Off Acting Race

As of July, I have seen only two great performances that might be considered “Oscar-caliber,” and both are given by, Surprise, the incomparable Meryl Streep.

With 13 nominations to her credit, Steep is already the most nominated actress in the Academy’s history, besting the late and great Katharine Hepburn, who held the record foe many years with 12 nominations. However, Hepburn is still the only actress to have won 4 Oscars, all in the lead category.

Streep, in contrast, has won two: Supporting Actress for “Kramer Vs. Kramer” (1979) and Best Actress for “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). It’s hard to believe that she has not won an Academy Award in 25 years, despite numerous nominations and consistently superlative work.

Is 2006 Streep’s big year Perhaps, since she stands a chance to score two nominations: Lead for the black comedy “The Devil Wears Prada” and supporting for Altman’s ensemble piece, “A Prairie Home Companion,” in which she not only acts but also sings (lovely).

Streep is the best element in both movies, in my humble opinion.

Devil Wears Prada

Devil Wears Prada offers a vicious look at the new fashion world thats shallow but glitzy and vastly entertaining. In role that could have easily escalated into high camp, Streep, embodying an Anna Wintour-like magazine editor, gives such an astute and measured performance that she elevates the black comedy way above its narrative shortcomings and compromised denouement.

Streep plays Miranda Priestly, the reigning queen of fashion whose whims can literally start and end careers. Finding a good assistant who can live up to Mirandas high expectations is an impossible task; none lasts more than a few weeks. That changes when the smart and unfashionable Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), naively walks into her office.

In the films first half, Streep’s role mostly consists of entrances and exits, one-liners, and brief vignettes. The balance between her and Anne Hathaway is restored in the second half, when Streep is given three or four well-written and prolonged scenes that enable her to again validate why she’s regarded as the most accomplished actress in American film today.

Mirandas look stands on its own–no one else looks like her, and Streep sports her white hair with defiant vanity like a badge of honor. Along with Field, who dresses the worlds leading fashion editor so that she looks as beautiful as possible, legendary designer Valentino has designed a dress that Miranda wears at a ritzy charity ball. Simple yet elegant, it shows Streep’s beautiful shoulders, porcelain skin, and curves to an advantage. Valentino also makes an acting debut in the film in a cameo role.

With all due respect to Hathaway and Stanley Tucci, the movie belongs to Streep, who excels as a pro skating the edge between the comically mean and the genuinely sad. Streep has an incredible talent to blend comedy and drama in the same scene, often in the same line, that never feels forced or overly theatrical. Just notice the endless and musical variations in her voice when she says, thats all, a frequent phrase indicating the termination of a conversation or a meeting.

Prairie Home Companion

In “Prairie Home Companion,” Robert Altman joins forces with writer Garrison Keillor to create a comic backstage fable about a fictitious radio variety show that miraculously has managed to survive, despite fierce competition from TV and other modes of entertainment.

Scheduled as counter-programming to the summer’s top guns, Prairie Home Companion, which world-premiered at the Berlin Festival in February and played regional fests like SWSX, was distributed by Picturehouse June 9.

Altman’s loving tribute to this old institution is evocative and respectful, but not nostalgic, as you might have expected, considering his professional beginning as a radio writer. In tone, “Prairie Home Companion” is different from Woody Allen’s nostalgic “Radio Days,” a valentine to radio’s role in the Depression era.

Since there’s little plot, artifice, or melodrama in Altman’s film, all you have is the stellar cast, headed by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as the Johnson Sisters Yolanda and Rhonda, and including Lindsay Lohan as Streep’s daughter Lola, who gets her big chance to sing on the show and then forgets the words, Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, a private eye down on his luck working as backstage doorkeeper, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as Dusty and Lefty, the Old Trailhands singing cowboys, Virginia Madsen as a mysterious angel, Tommy Lee Jones as the Axeman, and Keillor himself in the film’s most dominant role.

The comic bits from Streep and Tomlin are whimsical and feel improvised. A glimpse of their act was shown at the Oscar telecast in March, when the couple presented the Honorary Oscar to Altman.

Some of the most spirited and energetic numbers in “Prairie” include Streep’s duet with Tomlin Goodbye to My Mama.” Since the show’s most prominent singers are Yolanda and Rhonda, Streep and Tomlin are at the center. In between songs, the sisters indulge in gossip about their family, shared memories, disappointments of their childhood, and relationship with Streep’s daughter.

Though she’s part of a large ensemble of gifted thespians, when Streep is on screen, you can’t take your eyes away from her. Playing an ordinary country woman, Streep is vastly different in look and demeanor from her flashier, attention-grabbing role in “Devil Wears Prada,” again attesting to her huge range as an actress.

Streep can do anything. At 57, aging gracefully, she can even look sexy, naturally sexy (as in “Adaptation”) as well as glamorously sexy (“Prada”). Too bad they don’t write many comedies and musicals worthy of her talent.

Bias against Comedy

The Academy is notorious for its short memory. Few Oscar-winning or nominated movies have been released before September or October; most open in December. Will the voters remember Streep’s movies, both of which opened in June, at year’s end

The voters are also known for snubbing comedic performances in favor of dramatic ones.

As I pointed in my book, All About Oscar, Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon, both experts at comedy, were nominated (and Lemmon won) for dramatic roles, and not necessarily good ones, or in good movies either.

Even so, adding two plum roles to an already crowned and nominated career, Meryl Streep is my first Oscar candidate this year. Not a bad way to kick off the 2006 Oscar race.

Streep’s Oscar Nominations and Awards

Streep has played several real-life women in her career: Karen Silkwood in “Silkwood,” Lindy Chamberlain in “A Cry in the Dark,” Roberta Guaspari in “Music of the Heart,” all of which had earned her Oscar nominations. And God knows, she has done numerous accents, for which she was also rewarded.

However, of her 13 nominations, only one was for comedy, Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, in 2002.