It was clear that she wouldn't be drawn on any speculation of the outcome. "I think Kate Winslet is great - but I'm glad she wasn't in three films..."
Streep, who plays Sister Aloysius, is a consummate professional - funny, intelligent, gracious and dignified, but with an undeniable presence: all eyes are inexplicably drawn to her. This is her 15th nomination for the Academy awards, three times more than Katherine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson, and she has already won twice for Sophie's Choice and Kramer vs Kramer. The nomination is well deserved, as she is outstanding as the draconian principal Sister Aloysius. Yet beneath the hard exterior, Streep shows Sister Aloysius' ultimate humanity and kindness.
Streep speaks with great fondness when she describes the Sisters of Charity retirement home in New York which the cast visited as part of their research. Here, they met the real-life nuns who taught at schools like the fictitional St Nicholas in the film. Unlike many retirement homes Streep reflects, the Sisters of Charity lead happy and contented lives; "They were extraordinary, extraordinary people" she remembers, and they still work and contribute to the community with their fellow sisters; many of whom left their homes and families at 18 years old.
One nun who was particularly important to the production was Sister Peggy; she taught writer/director, Shanley when he was a lively six year old and she was an inexperienced 21 year old. Sister Peggy made such an impression on him that she was the inspiration for Amy Adams' character (the fresh-faced Sister James)and to whom the film is dedicated.
Sister Peggy remembers how it was in the 1960s. "It was rather austere. We couldn't have wine or go to parties. We were allowed to go to funerals but not weddings. They were very strict about that. I couldn't even go to my brother's wedding, which was sad, but you accepted that this was the life to which committed."
In 1964 when the film is set, nuns still wore the traditional heavy woollen habit and bonnet. But this was a liminal moment in history for the Catholic Church; changes as a result of Vatican II were about liberalize and open up the Church to the outside world.
Nuns were allowed to get a drivers' license, to vote and become "friendlier" with the lay world. In the film, Sister Aloysius' comments on the unwieldy nature of their uniform: "It's the habit. It catches us up more often than not. We go down like dominoes." By 1964 the Sisters of Charity had given up the habit, a sign that their world had changed forever.
The idea of change and the fragile equilibrium that the nuns exist in is very much a prevailing theme in the film. Characters are constantly shutting windows against the incoming storm winds and light bulb keep blowing-out. Although the thematic references may be a little heavy-handed, the period detailing is beautifully underplayed. Shanley wanted to create a precise palette of colours that felt "honest to the time and place but was also purposefully very sharp and striking" as David Gropman, the production designer, remembered. Of the local architecture of the Bronx, Gropman notes: "There's a lot of this kind of tan or yellow brick and that became a strong feeling in the favour of the film as well. The warmth and hardscrabble strength of that brick reflect these traditional institutions that supported the community yet were in a moment of change."
All this was part of the challenge for the new director, Shanley, to expand and adapt his multi-award winning Broadway play into a fully-fledged cinematic entity. "The physical environment of the film became a way to reinforce the drama, the tension, the emotion," Shanley explains.
"So the ringing of a phone that isn't answered becomes like the sinking of the Titanic to Sister James, and Father Flynn (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) adjusting the blinds in the Sister Aloysius' office becomes a parry in the battle between them. Every single camera move had to be justified by either adding something to the storytelling or to the portrayal of the characters. Everything in the design of the film exists as a reflection of the characters are saying, thinking and feeling."
"The economics of modern theatre is that you write plays with very few characters in it" Shanley laughs. So he decided to literally open up his play from four leading actors to include the students, congregation and the rest of the physical world outside the confines of the school and church. The young students and the members of Father Flynn's congregation are key to the authenticity, scope and narrative of the film. There is "a more profound emotion resonance since we see and know who is paying the price of their (Aloysius vs Flynn's) battle." Shanley explains "The film allowed me to detail this aspect of the story which I was unable to in the play - but had always longed to do."
Essentially, the central question in Doubt is "did he or didn't he?" unfortunately the only question on everyone's lips today is who will Oscar smile down upon on Feb 22?