Lord, what a joy it was to watch Meryl Streep at the Kennedy Center Honors. She’s long since mastered the trick of being heaped with praise; she just comes out and says it’s not really the worst thing that ever happened and even suggests (slyly, smiling) that she may just have done something to deserve it. And she manages to make honesty seem funny and endearing and not in the least off-putting.
Two things jumped out as I watched the show: she’s the first honoree I can remember who was utterly engaged with her fellow tributees. Most of them sit, cocooned in their memories, rarely alert to what’s going on in the next chair. Streep was scanning Sonny Rollins’ face as he reacted (impassively) to the goings-on; discreetly glancing at Barbara Cook to see how a parade of other singers having at Cook’s repertoire was going over (stonily.) And for quicksilver moments of fun, she and Yo-Yo Ma were like ping-pong partners, back and forth, during the night’s more raucous music.
Most of all she listened, and as she did, gave away one of the great secrets of her performances. . For the Kennedy Center interview, she said, “The real thing, that makes me so happy, is when I know I’ve said something for a soul.”
Acting isn’t, as it’s sometimes said, reacting, it’s listening and as you watch Meryl Streep listen, to everyone and everything around her, with every sense engaged, you see her storing up bits and pieces, Chuck Close details, so when she’s finally ready, her “something” rings true.
This night, she threw in a little extra body English,. When they lit into Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and the stage suddenly revealed a bleacher full of kids in Red Sox sweatshirts, her hands came up to the sides of her cheeks with pure surprise and her gold drop earrings swung wildly.
I would love to know if the Famous Five get to have any input about the work that’s chosen for their segments. Ironweed has sort of fallen by the wayside in the litany of her best work, a nearly criminal oversight, to my way of thinking. Heaven knows the film had its problems, but there were none in Streep’s Helen Archer. (I’ll dig around and post an appreciation of Streep’s landmark early work, Ironweed included, shortly.)
So, my second surprise was seeing the set of Ironweed’s seedy bar appear onstage, to round out Streep’s tribute. “She asked for Ironweed !“ I thought, blissfully, “She really really loves it.” Ummm, maybe. Mainly it was a chance to load up the stage with a clutch of loving co-stars and to bring the place down with everyone singing Helen Archer’s anthem: “She’s Me Pal. “