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Meryl Streep vs. Sandra Bullock: Battle Over Best Actress

Posted: 09/18/2013 9:22 am

Sandra Bullock Meryl Streep

*** 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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    Naomi Watts and Robin Wright star as two mothers who fall into sexual relationships with each other's sons. (Yep, it's real.)

  • "Riddick" (Sept. 6)

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  • 'Good Ol' Freda' (Sept. 6)

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  • "Salinger" (Sept. 6)

    Shane Salerno ("Savages") directs this documentary about the reclusive "Catcher in the Rye" author.

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  • "The Family" (Sept. 13)

    Director Luc Besson's mob comedy stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, because sometimes we're allowed to have nice things.

  • "Insidious: Chapter 2" (Sept. 13)

    Too scary.

  • "Jayne Mansfield's Car" (Sept. 13)

    Billy Bob Thornton's first feature directorial effort since 2001's "Daddy and Them" stars Thornton himself, Kevin Bacon and Robert Duvall.

  • "Battle Of The Year" (Sept. 20)

    Chris Brown made a movie with Sawyer from "Lost." (Real.)

  • "Prisoners" (Sept. 20)

    Hugh Jackman leads an all-star cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo) in this revenge drama from director Denis Villeneuve.

  • "A Single Shot" (Sept. 20)

    Sam Rockwell stars in this thriller, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival.

  • "Enough Said" (Sept. 20)

    Nicole Holofcener's romantic comedy features James Gandolfini's final role as a leading man. (Gandolfini has a supporting role in the upcoming film "Animal Rescue.") Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Toni Collette and Catherine Keener co-star.

  • "Thanks For Sharing" (Sept. 20)

    Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow star in this dramedy about sex addiction. From Stuart Blumberg, an Oscar nominee for "The Kids Are All Right."

  • "After Tiller" (Sept. 20)

    A controversial documentary about U.S. doctors who still perform third-trimester abortions.

  • "Parkland" (Sept. 20)

    Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti and Zac Efron star in this drama about the immediate aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

  • "C.O.G." (Sept. 20)

    Jonathan Groff stars in this new movie, which is based on a story by David Sedaris.

  • "Rush" (Sept. 20)

    Ron Howard's Formula 1 drama casts Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl as, respectively, James Hunt and Niki Lauda, two of the sport's greatest competitors. The film, which is also due to bow at the Toronto International Film Festival, opens wide on Sept. 27.

  • "Baggage Claim" (Sept. 27)

    Paula Patton stars in this rom-com about a flight attendant looking for love. Bonus: <strike>Seth Cohen</strike> Adam Brody as her outlandish confidant.

  • "Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2" (Sept. 27)

    Tying up all the loose ends from part one.

  • "Don Jon" (Sept. 27)

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut is a funny and poignant look at relationships in the age of instantaneous gratification. (Also, porn.) Tony Danza, Julianne Moore and a scene-stealing Scarlett Johansson all co-star.

  • "Metallica: Through The Never" (Sept. 27)

    Enter sandman: Metallica made a concert movie that's not a just a concert movie. Dane DeHaan stars.

  • "Gravity" (Oct. 4)

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  • "Captain Phillips" (Oct. 11)

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  • "Romeo And Juliet" (Oct. 11)

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  • "Kill Your Darlings" (Oct. 16)

    Daniel Radcliffe grows up. The erstwhile Harry Potter plays Allen Ginsberg in this Sundance Film Festival fave.

  • "The Fifth Estate" (Oct. 18)

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  • "Carrie" (Oct. 18)

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  • "Escape Plan" (Oct. 18)

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  • "All Is Lost" (Oct. 18)

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  • "Twelve Years A Slave" (Oct. 18)

    Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a New York man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard star in this new drama from "Shame" director Steve McQueen. The film is based on Northup's acclaimed memoir.

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    Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz go bad in Ridley Scott's "The Counselor," based on an original script by Cormac McCarthy. Yes, please.

  • "Jackass: Bad Grandpa" (Oct. 25)


  • "Ender's Game" (Nov. 1)

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  • "Free Birds" (Nov. 1)

    An animated movie about turkeys, "from the Academy Award-winning producer of 'Shrek.'"

  • "Last Vegas" (Nov. 1)

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  • "About Time" (Nov. 1)

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  • "Diana" (Nov. 1)

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  • "How I Live Now" (Nov. 8)

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  • "Thor: The Dark World" (Nov. 8)

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  • "The Book Thief" (Nov. 15)

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  • "The Wolf Of Wall Street" (Nov. 15)

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  • "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (Nov. 22)

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  • "Nebraska" (Nov. 22)

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  • "Oldboy" (Nov. 27)

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