We really shouldn't be having this conversation. It's just too soon. Isn't it?
When Meryl Streep won her third Academy Award for “The Iron Lady,” the collective media mindset was that the acting icon had finally joined the three-timer club and any other nominations from that point on would be icing on the cake. A fourth Oscar win? Considering how many times she'd been overlooked since winning no. 2 for “Sophie's Choice” in 1982, it just didn't seem realistic that it would happen anytime soon or at all. Even after landing another Best Actress nod for “August: Osage County,” the concept of Streep conceivably winning another statue just didn't register. That is, until now.
To say that Streep is the standout in Rob Marshall's “Into the Woods” is somewhat of an understatement. Chris Pine does steal almost every scene he's in as the Prince (more on that in a moment), but it's Streep's performance as the Witch that is transfixing. She has three showcase numbers, “Stay With Me,” “Last Midnight” and “Children Will Listen,” the latter also featuring other cast members, and she knocks both of them out of the park. What's so remarkable is that while Streep's singing voice was fine for “Mamma Mia,” you'd almost think it was a another woman with the last name Streep singing in “Woods.” The difference in her vocals are just night and day. It could certainly be the material, but Streep also has a freedom in her performance here that just electrifies every scene she's in. Yes, she's pulling a little Miranda Priestly/Madeline Ashton attitude now and again, but, as you'd expect, it's the dramatic moments where she shines. “Into the Woods” is in many respects a dramedy with very serious moments punctuated by slightly over-the-top or self-aware (take your pick) comedy. No one makes this tricky balance work better than Streep.
Listen, we know what you're thinking: “Well, of course she's great. She's Meryl Streep!” No doubt, her reputation precedes her. This is a different situation, however. Frame it with lower-than-usual expectations, but her Witch in “Woods” is hers and owns the stage, er, soundstage. Is it a heartbreaking musical turn along the lines of Jennifer Hudson or Anne Hathaway's Oscar-winning turns in this category? No. But it may be the most affecting of all the potential supporting actress nominees.
As the category stands now – and it appears there are no more qualifying performances left to be seen – your players are Patricia Arquette for “Boyhood,” Keira Knightley for “The Imitation Game,” Emma Stone for “Birdman,” Jessica Chastain for “A Most Violent Year” and Laura Dern for “Wild.” Counting Streep you have six contenders. Obviously, one of them won't make the cut. Arquette could win for the longevity of her performance and a superb “last” scene, but Streep's larger canvas work may simply stick with Academy members more. And that could find Streep joining Katharine Hepburn as the only performers to ever win four Academy Awards specifically for acting. It seemed unthinkable a few months ago, but now? The film still has a long way to go in terms of critical and industry reaction, but that fourth win window is opening just a tad. A bit of light is coming through.
As for the rest of “Into the Woods,” general review reactions are embargoed until December but we'll note that while Emily Blunt's Baker's Wife was a lead role on Broadway, it seems more of a supporting one here (you could argue Anna Kendrick's Cinderella is actually more “lead” than Blunt). And like most musicals, this won't be for everyone. One thing to look forward to, however, is the aforementioned Pine as Cinderella's Prince. Whether it's intentional or not he seems to be channeling William Shatner for his portrayal of what he deemed a “two-dimensional” character, and he simply fantastic. He's hilarious and, no joke, has a fine singing voice.
As for below-the-line considerations, “Woods” seems like an easy play for makeup and hairstyling and sound mixing. Dennis Gassner and Anna Pinnock have a shot at production design, but the work might be slightly too predictable to make the cut. As for Colleen Atwood's costumes, do you really even need to ask?
“Into the Woods” opens nationwide on Dec. 25.