Meryl Streep upset Viola Davis: Exactly how did that happen?
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This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
Theories were flying at the Oscar after-parties Sunday night about how Meryl Streep pulled off perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2012 Oscars. After all, with her turn as Margaret Thatcher in ‘The Iron Lady,’ Streep had defeated Viola Davis as Aibilieen Clark even though the ‘Help’ star last month won the Screen Actors Guild award. (In the first 11 years of this century, the SAG winner had foretold the Oscars a whopping nine times.)
Streep also overcame Davis’ popularity, her candidacy forged by her running mate Octavia Spencer and a general feeling that Davis was an essential vehicle for honoring the race-themed drama, what with the movie overlooked in categories such as writing and directing.
So what happened? Among the explanations for the Streep win were Harvey Weinstein’s dominance -- the awards kingpin saw his movies take home the top four awards at the Oscars -- and general goodwill for Streep.
But there’s another, possibly cleaner, explanation: Streep was playing a real person.
For those who keep an eye on the Oscars, there’s sometimes a sense that anyone acting at a high level will have an advantage if they play an actual person, especially one the audience already knows.
The recent numbers, as it turns out, bear out that theory. In the last five actor races in which men playing real people competed against men playing fictitious ones, the actor playing the known personality won four times. (You can debate whether Billy Beane is sufficiently well known to qualify; we’d say that most voters couldn’t pick him out of a lineup).
Strikingly, the same ratio holds on the female side -- the actress playing the real-life person has now won four of the last five times they’ve competed against one another.
This in itself calls for an explanation. The best theory may be that with a real-life person we (or at least a certain kind of voter) have a frame of reference by which to judge the actor’s performance. These actors must be good at their jobs because, well, I knew a little bit about Margaret Thatcher or Edith Piaf, and what they’re doing reminds me of them. Of course, a bad performer playing a real person will find that this could highlight their weaknesses, but that won’t apply to Oscar-caliber acting.
You might find this a little unfair; actors playing real people, after all, have a template to work off that their fiction-minded siblings don’t. But maybe one should cut Streep some slack anyway. The lone exception among the past five cases of unknown-versus-known personalities? Streep was on the losing side, her rendition of Julia Child in ‘Julie and Julia’ losing out to Sandra Bullock in ‘The Blind Side.’
[For the record, 8:49 a.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled the first name of Viola Davis’ character in ‘The Help’ as Abilieen.]