A Streep for all seasons, especially this one

Have not awakened from deep Streep mode over here. Partly because the Weinstein Company has been working her like a dog to see that The Iron Lady gets a decent lift-off. Thus her Kennedy Center Honors now, a Vogue cover, a Newsweek cover, plus an appearance – and an unsurprising win — at the otherwise crushingly dull Golden Globes. (Well, she and Idris Elba. That was nice.)

Then it’s the Oscars, February 26th (nominations January 28th.) I have less than no faith in that august body, which moves like lemmings with a strong startle reaction. Think back to that clip from Julie & Julia during the Kennedy Center night, when Stanley Tucci’s Paul Child asks his wife Julia what she likes to do best, and, brimming with enthusiasm and a mouth full of divine French food, she says, “Eat!” Consider the pure joy of that performance.

Then remember: that year, Academy voters preferred Sandra Bullock.

It makes me worry that they’ll let her towering work as Margaret Thatcher go unacknowledged while they dither over its “propriety” or “historical inaccuracy” or, heaven help us, its “anti-feminism.”  Really!

So, at this house it’s been one or another of her 46 features, each night, with or without friends, just to warm up the gods.  We’ve had The River Wild, which she said she made to prove to her girls that she was brave, and A Cry in the Dark and Sophie’s Choice, which proved it to the world. Next is One True Thing, her open-hearted evocation of the kind of small town Americans she grew up around.

I also dug out hindsight from the file, to prove that my appreciation isn’t a sometimes thing.  This was from the late 80s, an attempt to sum up her decade of extraordinary portraits.

“With Sophie’s Choice the disappearance of Meryl Streep into the persona of a well-born Polish Catholic survivor of the Nazi death camps approaches the eerie. Whether she is speaking excellent German or halting or fluent English, Sophie must convince us that her mother tongue is Polish. At one time or another, she must be “utterly, fatally glamourous,” grey-green with malnutrition, giddily flirtatious, besotted with love or romantically melancholic.  All the while, at the deepest level, she is carrying a secret horrendous enough to char the edges of anyone’s soul.

Streep simply dives into the role and vanishes. Even her sighs have a Slavic thickness to them and her long speeches of revelation — and in retrospect the film feels like one unending string of them — emerge from a deep, cello-like monotone quite foreign to English speech patterns.  In addition to its challenges for director Alan Pakula, Sophie’s Choice is also a test of other, critical filmmaking arts: camerawork, lighting, costuming and make-up, (particularly cinematography) yet it’s as though each department were carrying on its own love affair with Sophie. . .or with Streep.

When she needs to, she looks like a Forties goddess with vivid red lipstick, as vivacious as Carole Lombard. In the camp scenes, her head covered by a scarf she becomes a concentration camp Madonna, seemingly pounds thinner, translucent, with Brancusi modeling to her eye sockets and the planes of her cheeks.

Yet, finally Sophie Zawistowska isn’t about linguistics or make-up or cinematography; it’s a mélange of observation, intuition and truth that may come as much from the actress’ unconscious as from her craft.

Streep has approached this level two other times, in Out of Africa for director Sydney Pollock, and Ironweed for director Hector Babenco.

Ironweed is not a success, at times it’s barely watchable, with all those whitewashed dead folks Babenco dragged in to bring a little magic realism to Depression-era Albany. All I can say is Streep’s work is reward enough for some. For others, it’s the sight of an early Tom Waits, or even her co-star, Jack Nicholson, munching up the wallpaper.

As for Out of Africa, who could get anything out of the Baroness Blixen, or at least Blixen as she so carefully chose to present herself: the enigmatic Ice Queen transplanted to hot climes yet still under steely control. Even in a peignoir she had an aristocratic ramrod from her heels to her brain stem.

The film is measured enough to try the patience of an oyster and the styles of Streep and her co-star Robert Redford, fatally unable to suggest this enigmatic Englishman, are polar opposites.  Yet Streep succeeds.

She succeeds best when Klaus-Maria Brandauer is around to give her a run for her money, to match her strength for strength. From some private depths she finds a way to suggest the passion of the woman, passion that pushed even the worldly Karen Blixen to set limits on her free-as-air lover, although she knew what that would do.  She uses an accent again, of course, Scandinavian vowels this time.  At one of their farewells, Streep’s Blixen says mockingly, “I’m better at hullos,” in a voice that might have come from Garbo.

When she plays Ironweed’s derelict, Helen Archer, she doesn’t use cello tones, this is a bass-baritone register, scoured by alcohol.  Clearly, these are the last days of a deadly downward spiral yet Streep works to keep them feisty, not fragile, and in that amazing barroom song of hers, “She’s Me Pal” Streep gives her a barrelhouse joy.

Helen wears her cloche hat for all but one scene, so we must peer under it to find her and strain to make sense out of the growled fragments that are her sentences. Her mind has hold of the other half of them, and we’re not always privy to its twists and references. It’s a selfless piece of acting, this pink-eyed, shapeless woman of no determinable age.

Modest as the role actually is, in terms of time on the screen, Helen Archer is the summation of everything Streep has done and learned up to this point. It may be that as a former theatre actress Streep blooms in an acting ensemble, which Ironweed certainly is, or it may have been simply her fun at keeping the playing field level with that devil Nicholson.

It may even be that it’s Helen Archer who sticks in our memory when the Baroness Blixen has faded into an amiable recollection of veiled toque hats and airplane vistas of Africa and her voice crooning, “I had a home in Ahfrikahhhh.”

I’m not quite sure why, except that there are Helens all around us and there was only one, grand Baroness Blixen, who created herself. Perhaps the unremarkable has greater poignancy than the flamboyant, where the soul is concerned.”

This entry was posted in SB posts by Sheila Benson. Bookmark the permalink.

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 “A Streep for all seasons, especially this one

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

  2. I am smitten, too. And I’m in complete agreement about Sophie’s Choice! A true tour de force, a phenomenon. It is still shocking how versatile and convincing she was in that film. As you said, utterly loses herself in Sophie’s character(s). I cannot understand why people aren’t talking about it more often today. Perhaps the subject matter is so disturbing, in so many ways, and she so convincing, that they have to put it out of their minds because it is simply too painful and real to dwell on.

    Recently, we re-watched The Deer Hunter. Amazing again.
    There are just so many!

  3. Pingback: A Streep for all seasons, especially this one | Parallax View

  4. Chère Shelia, Merci merci merci!!! It is an honor to be able to “te lire” or “read you” again. I am now going to up our collection of Meryl Streep dvds, and do a marathon viewing here too. Many bisous from Provence, Aia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s