It’s a pretty reasonable assumption that every time Meryl Streep steps in front of a camera, she’s gunning hard for an Academy Award, or at least a nomination. And that’s doubly true for her turn as Margaret Thatcher:
Looking at this, it struck me that there’s an odd imbalance between Best Actor and Best Actress nominations when it comes to whether the actors in question are playing real people from the U.S. or the U.K. In the last 10 years, the real-life roles for which women have been nominated have relatively evenly split between Americans and Brits. On the American side, women have been nominated for playing consumer safety advocate Erin Brockovich, semi-obscure serial killer Aileen Wuronos, singer June Carter Cash, mother of murder victim Christine Collins, football mom Leigh Anne Tuohy, and cookbook revolutionary Julia Child. On the British side, they’ve been nominated for playing Iris Murdoch, Virigina Woolf, Laura Henderson, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II.
Men, on the other hand, if they’re nominated for biopics, are heavily nominated for playing American men. They’ve gotten nods for playing Jackson Pollock, John Nash, Muhammad Ali, Bill the Butcher, Charlie Kaufman, Ray Charles, Howard Hughes, Truman Capote, Johnny Cash, Edward R. Murrow, Chris Gardner, Harvey Milk, and Richard Nixon. The exception to the other side of the pond is Johnny Depp who was nominated for playing J.M. Barrie.
What makes the gap interesting, I think, is that the British roles for women are for the most part, so much meatier than the American ones. June Carter Cash and Julia Child are obviously both very famous, but Erin Brockovich, Leigh Anne Tuohy, Aileen Wuronos, and Christine Collins are much more minor or transitory ones, who aren’t nearly as powerful or as long-lasting as English queens or Virginia Woolf. With a few exceptions, like Chris Gardner, the American biopics for men are about men who were very famous before their stories were told on film.
It’s not like there aren’t good stories about famous American women that aren’t worth telling. How awesome would a Harriet Tubman biopic be? What about Martha Washington or Abigail Adams? If you want Terrence Malick to make something dreamy, what about Emily Dickinson? Something sensationalistic, fun, and quietly feminist? Do Annie Oakley. I’m a nerdy Anglophile, and there are a lot of awesome British women. But it’s funny that we tell more stories about powerful British women than powerful American ones.