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Meryl Streep vs. Sandra Bullock: Battle Over Best Actress

Posted: 09/18/2013 9:22 am

Sandra Bullock Meryl Streep
TIFF/TIFF

*** WARNING: Potential Spoilers Ahead! ***

Awards season may be months away, but the battle for Best Actress statues is already heating up.

There is no clearer-cut matchup than the one brewing between Sandra Bullock in Gravity and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County. The latter is an absolute acting legend -- and the most-nominated woman in Oscar history -- and the former is one of America's sweethearts, best-known for her roles as the girl next door, or the sweet, innocent charmer who we all fall in love with. This is going to be one epic face-off.

The Case For (And Against) Streep:
This woman can do it all. Truly. From a straight-up bitch to an anguished lost soul, Streep delivers memorable performances in every single role. Even in simple romantic comedies like It's Complicated, we still laugh along with her as she gets high with Steve Martin's character, or feel sad for her when she snuffs out candles at the end of the night when she's stood up. She has an ability to reach through the screen and get to us.

Perhaps most remarkable about her performance in August: Osage County are her incredible transitions. One minute, she's angry; the next, she's calm and borderline comatose. I recently interviewed Benedict Cumberbatch (one of her many illustrious co-stars in the movie), and he raved about her prowess, how she could switch on a dime from one emotion to the next. He admitted that he was in awe of her, and maybe even a little intimidated. To hear someone of his pedigree confess to something like that made me realize just how immense Streep is, even among the Hollywood elite. In August, she's a force -- both in character and out.

With that to consider, I also feel a bit torn, and in agreement with Richard Corliss over at Time. In his capsule review, he talks about how Streep will more than likely win the Oscar for her over-the-top, loud and cantankerous performance. He even credits her hairstylist (in some scenes in the movie, her hair is a kinky, grey dishevelled mane, the result of chemotherapy), which isn't too far off the mark. It's almost like Streep playing Streep, chewing the scenery ... actually, make that gnashing at the scenery. No one else in the movie matters, even Julia Roberts. Nearly every time Roberts is on-screen, she's acting in Streep's shadow. As I've often felt about Brad Pitt's much-ballyhooed performance in 12 Monkeys, any actor who calls themselves an actor can play "crazy." It shouldn't be a challenge. It's far more difficult to play a resigned, buttoned-down character without a lot of dialogue. And this is where Bullock comes in.

The Case For (And Against) Bullock:
Gravity is all Bullock, with the exception of a few moments of levity from George Clooney. His sole purpose is to flip the relief switch, which thankfully supplies the audience with some time to breathe. Yes, the movie is that intense. At first I was skeptical that the woman who helmed Miss Congeniality (1 and 2!) and Speed (1 and 2!) could possibly possess the gravitas (sorry) to carry this solemn, anxiety-inducing movie.

Somehow, she does it, and she does it well. You root for her from start to finish, if only because -- dear God -- she's been lost in space with no one to help her (save for a boost from Clooney). Bullock, playing a scientist, gives a sincere and endearing performance, but at no time does she come off as pandering or unqualified for the role. I would argue that she's perfect for it; who would we sympathize with more than one of our "sweetest" actors? At some points it was like watching a wayward puppy trying to find its way back to its mother. You just want her to get back to Earth. While Streep is a tour de force in August, Bullock is along for the ride in Gravity. Supporting her performance in Gravity are sweeping shots of our planet, mind-boggling special effects, and seamless graphic editing that has Bullock leaping through space, or hurtling through the International Space Station. It is a technical wonder to be sure, and it's to Bullock's credit that she doesn't detract from that. A hammier actor might have.

So this is where Bullock might lose to Streep. Bullock's performance isn't ball-busting or ostentatious -- it just is. How would any of us react if we were lost in space, ironically trapped in the largest expanse of all? Just as Bullock does, with immeasurable fear tempered by the need to survive. It comes across in her eyes as her tears fall up (again, amazing), or as her oxygen depletes. There are tangible, real emotions on display. There are no ridiculous monologues, no contemplative lip purses, no ranting and raving. Bullock plays a woman scared out of her mind. I won't reveal anything else about the movie, but the final shot is surely something that's going to go down in cinematic history. It's a landmark moment in movies.

The rightful winner of this award should be the woman whose work will last the longest, not the one who speaks the loudest.

'Gravity' opens in theatres on October 4, and 'August: Osage County' opens on Christmas Day.

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