Watching Her Watching Them

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. “

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About Sheila Benson

Growing up in a movie-centric household, with an abiding interest in ballet and a background in Theatre Arts at UCLA, somehow I found myself drawn to writing about films. At first on a small Mill Valley weekly, then at a slightly bigger paper, as the Los Angeles Times Film Critic (1981-1991.) Now, after 3 decades with the right husband, I read, write, sometimes cook, miss my kids, sound off about politics and watch movies as obsessively as ever.

4 thoughts on “Watching Her Watching Them

  1. Pingback: The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of January 27 | Parallax View

  2. How lovely to connect, and with such a warm story about someone I watched last night (Critics Choice). You know how I feel about her. I am so looking forward to this magic link in the ether!!

  3. Lovely blog, Sheila — and I’m also looking forward to IRONWEED. . . . .Oh, I was thinking SILKWOOD. But that too —

  4. What a delightful revery on the wonderful Streep! Her honesty off-camera seems to be part of the absolute “truth” in her performances. Looking forward to your piece on IRONWEED.

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