Monday, June 22, 2009

Marvelous Meryl Streep

I promised a return to cinematic matters, though if anyone wouldn't mind a movie blog casting a more-than-occasional eye toward stage drama, it would surely be Meryl Streep. And let's add a few more "surely"s: surely you love her, surely you have been following Nathaniel's month-long tribute to her 60th anniversary on the earth, and now that the big day itself has finally arrived, surely you have already relished his advice about how to celebrate, at least twice. While he's been up to all that public cheerleading, I have quietly (as my sidebar reveals) been filling the holes in my Streep-viewing, to include the PBS taping of Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women...and Others, the only thing she did in 1979 that I don't recommend you watch, unless you're an absolute completist, which would certainly be understandable.

In any event, Uncommon Woman that she certainly is, I've added this tribute to my Best Actress Special Section as a commemoration of her 60th birthday. I hope you enjoy it, I hope you rent widely and adventurously from her back catalogue, and I hope she's got several more decades of time-capsule performances left to share with us.

P.S. If you'd rather hear sensational tributes from people who actually know Meryl, try these from Nora Ephron (perfection), Carrie Fisher, Shirley MacLaine, Diane Keaton, Kurt Russell, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Kline, James Woods (Meryl meets Don!), Robert De Niro, Goldie Hawn, Claire Danes, Jack Nicholson (mooing), Jim Carrey (long, and bad video quality, but very funny), Mike Nichols, and the uproarious Tracey Ullman... and then Meryl says thank you.

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

Gah... this is beautiful. I especially love that it's so measured, doling out excessive praise but also pointing out her lapses in judgment. She ain't perfect but, like you said, it's comically churlish to point that out with anything approaching regularity or passion
(why complain about HER, You know... with all there is to complain about ;) )

anyway. thanks for chiming in.

7:23 AM, June 22, 2009  
Anonymous Victor S said...

All I can say is THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!!! for this post.

7:53 AM, June 22, 2009  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

I feel kind of silly that I've never come across this site before. Lapse in judgement on my part. Not a Meryl Fan, but the post was a good read. I did enjoy the one on Katharine Hepburn though, good work.

8:10 AM, June 22, 2009  
Blogger adelutza said...

Very beautiful well written post. I enjoy your site immensly, it's the best Oscar reference ever (among other things)

10:17 AM, June 22, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh, please, please watch plenty -- your tribute seemed to indicate that you haven't yet. it's absolutely wonderful, my absolute favorite. if she didn't deserve the nomination for music of the heart, which is debatable, she certainly deserved it for plenty.

1:23 PM, June 22, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

How do you do it? This question won't go away.

Another: which Streep Oscar nod would you subtract, in return for which bonus one? To my discredit, I haven't yet seen Marvin's Room or Ironweed, but I think I'd lose French Lieutenant and sub in The Hours.

6:15 PM, June 22, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nathaniel: You just keep the whole month going! I've especially been loving the full-on reviews, like of Julia and Kramer, though I'm sure they're the most time-consuming to write.

@Victor: I'm so glad you appreciated it.

@Encore: Thanks for the compliiments, especially about the Hepburn post. It's hard for Hepburn not have the tinge of the villain on a day that's so Meryl-centric (we all know how she felt about her...), so the favor thrown her way is especially sweet today.

@Adelutza: Thanks! I always enjoy your comments over at Nathaniel's joint.

@Anonymous: Trust me, I intend to, though I should warn you that I wasn't a fan of the play, really, and I'm a little worried about it... but, outside of TV work, it's the last High Drama I have left in the Meryl canon, and I do love watching her in that context.

@Tim: I'd certainly sub in The Hours, though it's tempting to recommend her Prairie Home Companion work as a Supporting nod in '06, given the weakness of the field the Academy devised for itself. I'd probably nix French Lieutenant's, too, though Out of Africa is a competitor. I haven't seen in a while, but I really found it empty and I wasn't especially taken with her Isak. Still, I do feel that she mostly got the nods for the right movies, unlike people like Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell who seemed so often to be recognized for the wrong stuff and slighted for their greatest performances.

6:59 PM, June 22, 2009  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

I would definitely sub in Plenty for Out of Africa in a heartbeat; no hesitations there.

Awesome write-up of Streep and her achievements, Nick! And I completely agree that unlike Hepburn, Grant and especially Russell; Streep has the good grace to be nominated for the right movies.

9:21 PM, June 22, 2009  
Blogger Glenn said...

This was great, Nick.

In regards to "what can't Meryl do" that so many people ask? I'd really love to see her do a scary film. Something like Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte or The Others. I reckon she'd knock that outta the park too.

12:06 AM, June 23, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Brooke: Well, that's another encouragement to see Plenty. Plus, after the Ullman clip linked in this entry, I admit that I'm pruriently piqued to figure out which castmate they both hated.

@Glenn: I have to admit, I'm not so sure. I'm "concerned," to use a Sister Aloysius word, about how broad she let herself get with the "sinister" aspects of her Manchurian and Doubt characters ("so.......... it's happened!"), and I worry whether she might overplay a horror film. I'm trying to think of a horror character I'd like to see her play. I wouldn't, for example, have been eager to see her as Carrie's mom, even though that seems like the "kind" of horror part she might be eligible for. I'll have to keep pondering this one. (Thanks for the compliment, by the way!)

12:37 AM, June 23, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

thanks for the links to those celebrity tributes. Nora Ephron doesn't often get "perfection" written by her name but she sure deserved it with that 2 minutes.

nick and glenn -- but hasn't meryl herself said that she doesn't 'get' thriller acting (she isn't fond of her Still of the Night work right?). That might be why she's never gone for a scary movie.

6:51 AM, June 23, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@N: Isn't Ephron's tribute exactly right for that format and scale? Better than any two-minute scene she's written in at least two years. But, she had great material to work with...

I know Meryl has said she doesn't get noir or "mystery" acting; her comment about Still of the Night was that she realized the genre forced her to play an idea about a woman, but not an actual woman, and that's why she was so impressed with Basinger: she felt she saw a woman up there. whether or not we even agree with her premise (I certainly think it's interesting...), thrillers and horrors don't seem as genre-defined as the "femme fatale" or "woman of mystery," but you do need to know exactly how broad or specific to go, and how colorful or severe to be. I don't know if Meryl would have found it in her to be as steely, say, as Joan Allen was in the Bourne movies (to cover the "thriller" area), and she's so multifaceted on screen that the kind of mad fundamentalism of Piper Laurie in Carrie or the sort of ceramic bafflement and frightened monomania of Nicole Kidman in The Others and the Pface in What Lies Beneath, deftly shaded though all of these performance are, might also fall outside of Meryl's wheelhouse. At least it seems so to me. I suspect she would have wanted to do "more" in these roles than these actresses allowed themselves to do, which was the right choice in all three cases.

I'll throw this out there: is A Cry in the Dark Meryl's "horror" performance of record? She dials things way back in terms of surface expressivity, she doesn't ask for almost a drop of audience sympathy or identification, and she diligently plays what everyone said about Lindy Chamberlain: that she was spookily lacking in the lachrymose affect we associate with the Aggrieved Mother, which is why she became such an enticing scapegoat to the press. There's something walled-off and unsettling about Meryl's Lindy (even though she saves her from being monstrous) that signals how interesting Meryl might be, say, in a Fionnula Flanagan-in-The Others role. Or in a part like Jennifer Connelly's in Dark Water or Bel&#233n Rueda's in The Orphanage where you can be a bit more generous with emotional outpourings but you still have to make the audience subtly uncomfortable with you at almost all times...

How Meryl, at 60, would find a part like that... but you never say "never" with Meryl.

11:20 AM, June 23, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

(About Ephron: I meant in at least ten years...)

11:20 AM, June 23, 2009  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

Ate this Meryl piece up like ice cream; I didn't want it to end.

"Plenty" is a very dreamy and obscure movie that doesn't quite settle itself on first viewing, but it stays with you. Such fun to watch her share the screen with an equal, John Gielgud. (Streep and Ullmann both hated leading man Charles Dance, by the way, and it works to the film's advantage).

"She-Devil" is just awful, 1989"comedy" to the max. She's sort of appalling in it, but what else can she be in such a context?

You've helped me settle my thoughts about where she's been and where she's going, and for that I thank you.

12:14 PM, June 23, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

"Ceramic bafflement." I just love that. I think I might keep saying it to myself all day. It's one of those phrases like "cellar door" which makes you think the two words belong together and always have.

I kind of love Meryl in She-Devil, I have to say, though it's many, many years since I've seen it. The movie's a fun-bad trainwreck, from what I remember, but I see it as a dry run for how generously she brings the vamp in Death Becomes Her -- vamp Meryl is fun Meryl, in my book.

I'd have killed to watch her in Belen Rueda's role in The Orphanage, since I found that performance oddly unhelpful to the film. Though I think Kristin Scott Thomas might have nailed it even better.

You've totally captured what's great about her in A Cry in the Dark, too. She painstakingly works up Lindy's surface villainy, if you like, or her surface monstrousness, but we're never in doubt that there's huge pain right under there. It's possibly my second favourite of her 80s performances, after Silkwood. (Again, though, I haven't seen Ironweed.)

2:25 PM, June 23, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Dan: Well, having just soldiered through the idiot editing and charmless leads of Prime, I won't be too quick to turn my nose up at She-Devil. And you've cracked the code on Dance! I figured it had to be him, though I've always had a soft spot for him because he was so sweet to Ripley in Alien³. Before, well...

@Tim: Ceramic bafflement! And: you will want to keep that "Best of the 80s" list in play until you've seen Ironweed. She's pretty sensational in it, at least as I recall. That Cry in the Dark perf has really grown on me over the years...

2:53 PM, June 23, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i'm always hypnotized by clips of her in A Cry in the Dark... to such an extent that I almost can't believe she gave the performance (not because I don't think she's capable of greatness) but because normally she's so much about the warmth and earthiness.

i suppose the Doubt performance is from this side of Meryl's artistic brain but I don't think it's very good.

I find that lately i'm longing for her to completely dissapear into a character (like Lindy or Helen Archer) OR to take on a "normal" woman again with as much breadth of feeling and effortless confidence as she managed in Postcards from the Edge or Silkwood.

tall orders i realize.

it's been so interesting to watch a bunch of her movies back to back. I highly recommend it. I'm only to 1985 but still...

7:31 PM, June 23, 2009  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

"Prime" just might be the bottom of the Meryl barrel---I really have no idea why she's in it at all. At least "She-Devil" is really out-there and brassy about its own awfulness.

I seem to have seen everything she's been in except "Dark Matter," which sounds very interesting.

1:01 PM, June 24, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nathaniel: I've been doing the same thing, but by sticking to movies I hadn't seen before, I've been stuck with a lot of lesser lights. I like what she did with the Heartburn role, though, even if it's not among her best. I'm completely in sync with you in terms of what I'd like to see her try soon.

@Dan: "Meryl Barrel" is kind of great. And yes, Prime is inexplicable to me. The only interesting things about it are the tempered notes in the end (more sober and principled than it might have been) and the odd experience of watching this white New York Jewish twentysomething and his Aryan girlfriend ooh and ahh over his penchant for painting such "realistic" portraits of down-on-their-luck black people... the film's whole relationship to questions of race and ethnicity is uncomfortable but it's also compellingly strange. I'd guess that it pushed harder in some earlier draft of the script. But the film's just god-awful (that editing! that lighting! that score! these characters! this script! these performances!), and aside from some ambition to push against her WASPiness, I don't get Meryl's choice to involve herself, either. Doing a favor to a friend? Hoping for a chance to go Bigger than they finally let her? Surely she wasn't frothing at the mouth to get to work with the consistently awful Uma, though at least the makeup team find some nice things to do with Uma's hair (though they kind of kill the good will with that wig they devised for Meryl).

2:43 AM, June 25, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

It's meant to be an impression of Pauline Kael, right? And what of She-Devil? A guilty D+ seems apt, but I have no idea whether I'm really just fantasising a better version of that performance...

6:29 AM, June 25, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim, re Kael: Yes, but why? I can't match her statements to that effect with this performance, and I don't see how this role lends itself to Kael. I'm not even sure I see Kael, except insofar as I see Streep pushing against the privileged WASPiness that she decided was at the root of Kael's dislike of her acting.

11:58 AM, June 25, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: Forgot to answer re: She-Devil. She's easily the best thing in the movie save for the always welcome Sylvia Miles... but I still have to say, I think she overdoes the breathy voice, the affectations of physical fragility, the flexing of line readings to find a comic charge that still doesn't always come. She gets high marks for trying so hard, and never looking embarrassed to be in the movie, but it's still something of a waste. (The bigger mystery is why Roseanne is so boring, and the biggest mystery is how many men said No before Ed Begley, Jr., said Yes.)

11:03 PM, June 25, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Rereading your Postcards review, I noticed your mention that "Meryl Streep will return at two more points higher on [your Favorites] list, in more recognizably Streepish vehicles". Well, The Hours has turned up 9 spots above it, but unless I'm being careless, we've reached (and, ahem, stalled at) #28 on your countdown without seeing another Streep movie. I'm conjecturing either Silkwood or Bridges of Madison County? Either way, I can't wait to read your thoughts about it. Until I hunted down those two movies, I had pinned Meryl down as a far more worthy comedienne than Dramatic Actress -- my knowledge of her work being post-2000 at the time, apart from the clips in her AFI tribute that were mostly unimpressive out of context. Silkwood and Bridges not only struck down my impression of her overratedness, they expanded my notions of what it meant to offer a full, original characterization in the movies, especially nearing the end of a decade in which most good performances consist of riffs on an inspired but ultimately limited angle to a character.

8:55 PM, July 15, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Colin: Good catch! You are exercising some smart Meryl-related sussing skills here. I won't give away which of these is the right hunch, but I will assure you that after a long dormancy period, the Favorites countdown is about to show a few signs of life.

12:02 PM, July 26, 2009  

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