Meryl Streep is a great actress and a terrible movie star. No shame in that—those things are often inversely proportional. The very qualities that enable her to glide so surely into the lives of her characters deflate her “brand.” Thank goodness—in the age of the soundbite, it’s a miracle anyone has subtlety and depth. Given the academy’s recent nod to her stellar abilities after so many slights, it’s time to take stock of her oeuvre.
The Supporting Actress Years
On the heels of a solid reputation in the theater, Meryl hit the movies hard, in small roles with a lot of punch. Supporting roles are often more interesting; the characters actually have character. And that’s what Meryl does. She holds her head differently, sighs differently, listens differently, depending on who she’s playing. It’s hard work. It’s an art and a science and an athletic endeavor. Her opening troika—The Deer Hunter, Manhattan, andKramer Vs. Kramer—brought her kudos and awards. Nobody minds when a supporting character isn’t likeable, and that quality almost never seems to be on Meryl’s mind. It’s not that you don’t love the people she plays, but if you do it’s accidental. At the time, I heard a lot of people bemoan her Oscar win for Kramer Vs. Kramer,but in listening to them, it was obvious that it was the character they didn’t like. Good job, Ms. Streep. Keep it up! And did she!
The Big Accent Roles
Meryl made the transition to starring roles as if it wasn’t one at all. She played characters that happened to have more screen time as if they were still characters. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice,Silkwood, Out of Africa, Ironweed, and A Cry in the Dark all feature very unique women, imperfect women reacting reasonably to some unreasonable situations. What amazed most viewers was Streep’s command of accents. She sounds so Polish, so Australian! Not at all gimmicky, her facility with sound is all of a piece with her facility with physicality and psychology. She becomes the character. She is a vessel into which these other people can incarnate.
Thus is the problem with her star-power: because she gets out of the way, who is she herself? Great movie stars—think of Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe and a debatable contemporary example, Will Ferrell—they are always themselves. There are subtle modifications for the role, but they certainly don’t “get out of the way.” They are that way. As an elf, Ferrell gives us his innocent side, as a news anchor, he gives us his narcissistic side, but there’s more in common in all these performances than there’s different. No problem—this is movie-star stuff and it can be fun. I’m not entirely sure I’d like to see Audrey Hepburn, for example, in a fat suit, playing Sophie Tucker in a musical bio. Or Jim Carey as a quiet, serious person in anything.
There’s another problem that begins to show up for Meryl, too, although it’s about to get worse: her taste in projects. She obviously lives and breathes role-playing. She picks her parts based on the scripts and what they offer her as far as an acting challenge goes. But just because there’s a juicy characteristic to master, doesn’t mean the movie is going to be interesting. And frankly, some of these projects end up being boring. The director isn’t daring enough, the script isn’t harrowing enough, the other players not up to snuff. Perhaps everyone involved got mesmerised by Meryl. I would be. That’s why the best of these big roles is A Cry in the Dark. Fred Schepisi is an amazing director, and he has something to say with this picture about gossip and prejudice. It’s definitely one of Meryl’s most astonishing transformations, but that’s not what you come away from the movie remembering. You come away thinking you wouldn’t want to be different and on trial in Australia.
The worst one is The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Despite the weirdness of the project, the role is probably the most typically starring-actressy movie she’s made. In the “period” time-stream, she is a woman of mystery, beautiful, and the prize for the hero. In the second, contemporary, time stream, she plays an actress. Again, there just isn’t enough for her to do, and the rest of the movie around her is awful. It’s the sort of “high art” that can fool people into thinking they should be impressed, that the emperor’s new outfit is splendid.
The Unfortunate Forays into Comedy
Streep is funny, but is it just me or is she trying too hard to prove it in the next phase of her career? Postcards from the Edge and Death Becomes Her have their moments, and she’s in most of them. But the films don’t work, and it honestly feels like Meryl’s doing “funny” like it’s another accent. None of her other characters act as if they notice there is an audience, you never felt she’s striving to be likeable or popular, but in these movies they do notice and want something; they want your laughter. Later on she’ll prove that she can be funny if the character is funny, again, accidentally.
The Unfortunate Forays into Sentimentality
One True Thing, The Bridges of Madison County, and Music of the Heart suck. The less said the better. It’s not her fault, except that she picked these junky projects, maybe hoping she’d up her star-power by appearing in the kind of schlock other actresses whimper all the way to the bank with. Are there extraordinary moments? Yes. Are they worth seeing, maybe.
And then, suddenly, she gets the point and picks some more artsy, pedigreed projects. Adaption, The Hours,and The Manchurian Candidate are good movies. The later, less so, but that would have been hard to see going into it—it’s such good material, such a good cast, and such a good director! It’s almost like Meryl majestically tosses off any attempt to be a “hit” or to have one. These are interesting films and her roles are woven into the fabric of the projects instead of sitting like diamonds on top of a sketch of a necklace.
I refuse to comment.
Fully, Completely Successful
Recently, she’s just gone to work. Shown up and done what she’s good at doing. She’s back to fully incarnating fascinating women. Real people, this time, in Julia & Julia, The Devil Wears Prada, and The Iron Lady. And these are all funny women, in their own unique ways, and Meryl is uniquely funny in these parts. I love her Margaret Thatcher, her complete disdain of idiots always bubbles up with surprising off-hand glee. It’s about time she won an Oscar again and there’s no surprise it took this movie to do it. The academy is kind of dumb. They can only tell good acting if they can hold it up to a real person and see the accuracy of the imitation. Wow—does Phillip Seymor Hoffman ever sound squeaky like Capote! Bio-pics often net their stars a golden statue.
There’re a few movies that I haven’t mentioned, more because they didn’t fit my schematics than because they are less worthy of mention. Although, they are less worthy of mention. There’s another point to make: Great plays rarely make great films. There are hardly more opposite artistic endeavours than the theater and the cinema, seriously. But I don’t think that is so apparent to actors. Plenty and Doubt are superb plays and you should see them when your local theater troupe puts them on.
What’s next for Meryl? She’s obviously gotta go transgender. She played a great (male) Rabbi in the Angels in America miniseries; and I don’t think there’s a part she couldn’t play. So why not Mike Tyson, Emperor Hirohito, or Alan Turing? She’s gotta remember that she needs a good director and a good story. I’d love to see her in a Lynne Ramsey film or even teamed up with Lars Von Trier. Unlike some actors she doesn’t seem to need or benefit from playing across from somebody else good. That’s a problem. Maybe, she’s just never had the chance. Her two films with Nicholson and her early work with Hoffman don’t leap out as particularly spark-full.
But what about a director who’s as in love with real people as she is. Mike Leigh? Or! Can she learn French? Of course she can. And then she’d do well to team up with Philip “Monsieur Lazhar and C’est pas moi, je le jure!” Falardeau. My dream Meryl project would be something gruesomely hyper-active with Park Chan Wook—hey! Who’s a historical blood-thirsty bitch? I mean other than Margaret Thatcher or Ana Wintour? Ma Baker, Catherine de’Medici, Madame Mao, Myra Hindley? I don’t know. Could they do a MacBeth featuring the wifey? Whatever she does, she’ll be great in it, of course. So why not take some major risks! Her role model should be Johnny Depp for the next phase of her career. My colleague at GuySpy, David Toussaint, interviewed her a few years back and said she wants to work with Sean Penn and Paul Thomas Anderson. Wow! That’s more like it!
But this brings up the last problem, which isn’t her fault. Filmmaking is still about money. And money is still about men. And women, for men with money, are still about being pretty objects, trophies that heroes win in the end. If there were more female directors, or at least gay, male directors, maybe there would be some roles in projects worthy of Meryl’s talent. In the meantime, I hate to write this but it’s true; we just don’t deserve her.