I KNOW OF A COUPLE that has harmoniously chosen movies to watch together for years by following some very simple rules. They take turns picking the movie and keep the restrictions to a minimum: she won’t watch horror movies and he won’t watch anything with Meryl Streep. Lucky for them, for the last few years, Meryl Streep has been making horror movies.
As the cancer-ridden matriarch who turns a family reunion into a living hell in August: Osage County, Streep becomes the apotheosis of the gorgon roles she has played in Doubt and The Iron Lady. This is the star not just as monster but hungry monster. Streep heads a cast that includes Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Chris Cooper, many of them very good. But up against Streep, they’re like canapés offered to a party guest who can’t wait to tear into the spitted stag roasting in the fireplace. Streep gobbles them up so ravenously that were Goya alive to see her, he’d scrap his canvas of Saturn devouring his children and start from scratch.
More kindly, you might say that Streep, who is still only 65 (and, thank God, still looks like herself, having chosen not to disfigure her face in the manner of so many others actors), has entered her late-decadent period. She began as a dull barometer of respectable taste, like NPR, conferring a veneer of civility and culture on those who like that sort of thing. Then she moved on to Great Lady poses, roles that made her the heir apparent to that paragon of boring American acting Helen Hayes. Now, she has entered the Sacred Monster stage. Streep now provides a higher-brow version of the kind of bald scenery chewing that Joan Crawford and Susan Hayward specialized in. But unlike those paragons of masochism, Streep doesn’t suffer or go nuts. Rather, Streep has managed to channel the tastelessness of her showboating grotesquerie into middlebrow vehicles like Doubt and August, which come to the screen with the cachet of acclaimed stage shows, or the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, whose cachet is political and historical. No one need be embarrassed watching a Streep performance—though, by God, she should be.
It wasn’t always this way. When she first started appearing in movies in the late ’70s, you could see something natural in Streep. The awkwardness and hesitancies of the working-class Pennsylvania steel-town woman she played in The Deer Hunter belonged to the character, not to her. And as a Southern political operative in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Streep had real comedic charm and as much style as the pokey movie allowed her. But then Streep has always been best in comedy, willing to cut loose and raise hell. Her zenith is Robert Zemeckis’s delirious satire of Hollywood vanity, Death Becomes Her. Streep has never been as much of a broad as when, with her head literally screwed on backwards after a fall down a flight of stairs, she announces to Bruce Willis, the milquetoast husband who caused the spill, “You’re in the shithouse now, pal!” And she displayed a winning lack of self-importance in the Farrelly Brothers’ odd and touching Siamese-twin comedy Stuck on You, in which she played a venerated movie star named “Meryl Streep.”
Her two best performances — one dramatic, one comic — came 19 years apart in two very different movies. Almost everybody knows “a dingo ate my baby” as a gag catch phrase, but not so many know the movie it comes from, Fred Schepisi’s wrenching A Cry in the Dark (1988). In it, Streep plays Lindy Chamberlain, the Seventh Day Adventist who, along with her husband, was unjustly charged with her infant daughter’s murder. The movie is a stunning demonstration of conviction by public opinion despite all facts to the contrary. Within the body of her work, Streep’s performance in A Cry in the Dark is the exception that proves the rule. Lindy is such a tightly controlled person that, paradoxically, the role allows Streep to relax and do her most instinctive acting, quite likely her deepest. It’s a performance that while you’re watching it erases the idea of Streep as the good grind, the unimaginative but dutiful A-student who gets praise for her perseverance and precision.
That kind of precision is on display in Streep’s other great performance as Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia — but to superb effect. Watching Streep in this movie is a kind of bliss. Her reproduction of Child’s high, drawn-out breathless quaver is as impeccable as any of her accents and, as with them, you never forget you’re watching an impersonation. But there’s real love in Streep’s impersonation, and it mingles with the audience’s fond memories of the years they spent watching Child. Streep mixes the newlywed Julia’s fretting that she hasn’t yet found her true calling with the Yankee determination that pushed Child forward once she discovered the culinary arts. It’s very winning (much more than the fluttery sycophancy Amy Adams is required to show as Julie Powell in the movie’s fairly insufferable other half) and the way the 5’6” Streep conveys the 6’2” Child’s stooped yet towering stature is rather remarkable. (In the ’80s, I worked in a Harvard Square bookstore a few blocks down the street from where Child lived with her husband, Paul. I was the cashier and the register was on a raised platform. Child was one of only two customers who, when standing on the ground, was taller than I was standing on the platform. The other one was Bill Walton.)
A performance like the one Streep gives in Julie & Julia can make you forgive an actor for a lot. The triptych of performances Streep gives in Doubt, The Iron Lady, and August: Osage County leaves you certain that the actor can’t do any worse — until the next film comes along and proves you wrong. Streep isn’t interested in humanizing any of the monsters she plays. That would place her on the same mortal level as the rest of the class. Streep is content to allow each of her characters to be explained by the shallow psychology offered by the scripts. She’s not plumbing the characters for depth, but turning each role into an acting contest she’s determined to win by obliterating the competition. At one point in Doubt, Streep’s Sister Aloysius says of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn, “It’s my job to outshine the fox in cleverness.” That pretty much sums up Streep’s approach to acting. In a New York Times Magazine profile of Hoffman that ran before the film’s release, John Patrick Shanley, who directed the film version of Doubt from his play, said:
Meryl is a street fighter, and she schemes as an actress — she wants to win the scene. Phil won’t play that way. He won’t engage. Before their big confrontation scene, Meryl would be muttering “I’m going to kick his butt” for the entire crew to hear.
An actor who takes that approach might be one who can be directed, but it would have to be with a whip and a chair. It is not the approach of someone who is thinking of either the project as a whole or the basic precept of acting, which is to engage with the actors around you. Streep has never been one of those performers who is naturally relaxed in front of a camera, like George Clooney or Dean Martin or Julia Roberts. That in itself is not a hindrance. Some great actors were never natural in that way, Laurence Olivier among them. But even a self-conscious actor can appear against a relaxed actor, as Vivien Leigh did Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, if the focus is on connecting with their partner in the scene. At this point in her career, Streep is having none of that. That she isn’t called on to connect is due to both her Revered Thespian status and the prestige-movie trappings of the projects she chooses.
Those trappings are especially noticeable in Doubt, which the usually superb cinematographer Roger Deakins loads up with gray skies, bare wintry limbed trees, the grimy floors and walls of an aging Catholic school, all of it meant to convey that deep and serious things are going on here.
Doubt is a problem-play set in the Bronx in 1964 in which a Machiavellian nun (Streep), the principal of a Catholic children’s school, foments a campaign against the younger parish priest (Hoffman), accusing him of abusing the lonely young black boy to whom he’s shown kindness. Streep’s Sister Aloysius represents religion as an unforgiving, joyless tradition that rules by fear. Hoffman’s Father Flynn is the modernizing strain of a friendlier, kinder church that emphasizes compassion. It’s just the kind of carefully constructed symbol-laden claptrap that wins Pulitzer Prizes for drama (as Doubt did).
Doubt allows Streep to run rampant. Dressed up in a Puritan bonnet and black cloak, Streep looks less the proverbial penguin than what Marjorie Main might have looked like had she been cast as Hester Prynne. Streep glowers beady-eyed from behind her round spectacles and scrunches up her mouth as if she’s searching for a piece of gristle trapped under her partial plate. She rests her chin in her fist and runs a dry, pointy index finger under her lower lip in the manner of someone who has consulted the torture sections of The Lives of the Saints as a how-to manual. The performance is all tells, radio signals to the audience that something nefarious is being cooked up beneath that funereal habit. She speaks in a nasal bray — somewhere between New England and Noo Yawk — that we’ve all encountered at some time or another in our school years, the voice of an essentially graceless person trying to affect authority and learning. And it might be inspired if it weren’t, like nearly every one of her accents, done to make us exclaim, “What a chameleon!”
Has there ever been a less chameleonic star than Meryl Streep? Outside of the classically insane decision to cast John Malkovich as a master of disguise in In the Line of Fire, there are few actors less able to lose themselves in a character. The long scene where Streep has to play alongside Viola Davis, who is immediately and fully believable here as she is in every role, would be an embarrassment for any showboating actor capable of shame. Streep isn’t interested in inhabiting a character as much as presenting her latest incarnation in the manner of a student presenting the flawlessly constructed jigamajoo she’s rigged up for the Science Fair, waiting for the ribbons to be pinned to her chest. After eight Golden Globes, three Oscars, and 46 nominations between the two ceremonies, it’s working.
Her transformation into Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady is typically immaculate. Streep is peculiarly suited to play a woman so dedicated to her agenda that she’s willing to destroy everything around her to implement it. The movie begs easy sympathy for Thatcher by framing the film as the story of the former prime minister in retirement, going over her life story as she slips in and out of dementia.
Whose dementia dreamed up this movie? The Iron Lady is one of the most grotesque whitewashes of a political tyrant that any filmmaker has ever attempted to perpetrate; we should be grateful that the director, Phyllida Lloyd, and the screenwriter, Abi Morgan, are such hapless propagandists. The movie shows us Thatcher from her early years as a grocer’s daughter and unsuccessful Conservative candidate for Parliament in the London suburb of Finchley, condescended to by a procession of men who believe a woman can’t wrap her noggin around the complexities of politics. The irony of the movie is that the women making it, Lloyd, Streep, and Morgan, show no ability to wrap their noggins around the reality of Thatcher’s regime. It’s geopolitics viewed from the same reductive strain of feminist self-pity which caused that fearless opponent of tyrants, Oriana Fallaci, to coo over Indira Gandhi tossing her opponents in prison and closing the newspapers, or British pundit Julie Burchill to commend Thatcher for wielding power as a woman.
Among the women not taken into account by Burchill or the makers of The Iron Lady include the wives and other family of the mine workers whose lives were crushed by Thatcher’s mine closings and opposition to the unions; the nurses who were forced to look overseas for jobs after Thatcher gutted the National Health Service; and the mothers whose sons Thatcher sacrificed to save the Falklands. (She writes them a nice consoling letter.) The movie gives us Thatcher proclaiming that the Argentine junta who seized those islands are thugs, but ignores her later praise for Pinochet for bringing democracy to Chile. You don’t hear Thatcher’s famous proclamation, “There is no such thing as society.”
Streep’s early scenes as the confused elderly Thatcher show some restraint, but it’s not long before the accuracy of the impersonation gives way to nostril-flaring and displays of fiery hauteur as the star runs roughshod over the cast, just as Thatcher did her cabinet. The real monstrousness here, though, is not so much the star’s usual hogging the spotlight as her acquiescence in the fawning portrait of a woman who would have sneered at any of the claims for equality the filmmakers think they are making.
If Sister Aloysius and Margaret Thatcher can be reduced to textbook impulses, Violet in August: Osage County just seems mean. I didn’t see Tracy Letts’s play (another Pulitzer Prize winner) on stage, though its appeal seems pretty plain from this shortened film version. The story of a family that gathers after their father (Sam Shepard) has committed suicide only to find themselves subjected to their dying, pill-addicted mother’s merciless “truth telling” is theatrical in the extreme. The characters say things like, “It isn’t black and white. It exists in the middle, where we all live.” The clashing, faded floral patterns of the Oklahoma plains homestead is turned into a gothic cave from which emerges Streep’s Grendel-like matriarch. You watch it and imagine that publicists could write copy for it in their sleep, proclaiming a devastating encounter where long-buried secrets are revealed and long-festering resentments come to the surface. It’s all just an exercise, though. If you put August: Osage County up against Long Day’s Journey into Night, you would see the difference between a play in which situations are whipped up for theatrical effect and a play in which human beings allow their disappointments and demons to turn themselves into pitiable monsters and ghosts.
But the superficiality suits Streep. There’s no subtext to get in her way and no real people to interact with. The other characters exist as little more than acting prompts to whoever plays Vi. Streep begins the movie in full hurricane-a-brewin’ mode. Stumbling into her not-yet-dead husband’s study as he interviews a young Native American woman (Misty Upham) for a job as a cook, Streep’s Vi, wearing a bald wig with the wispy white tufts left by chemo treatments, high on whatever pills she’s gobbled down, lets loose the kind of sloppy display that made Claire Trevor’s boozy lounge singer in Key Largo a classic of overacting. Except, of course, there’s no vulnerability in Vi. She insults her husband, and does her best to make the unassuming young woman uncomfortable by fingering what’s left of her hair and asking, “Do you think I’m pretty?” She can’t even put out her cigarette without stubbing it so aggressively that no spark will reignite in this lifetime or the next. The rest of the movie pretty much consists of Streep treating her co-stars like that cigarette.
As grotesque a grabber as Streep’s cancer wig is, the black bouffant she dons to cover it up, and the accompanying Kabuki makeup, makes her look as if she’s double-tasking, playing this role while auditioning for a Lafcadio Hearn adaptation. In the performance, there isn’t a drop of subtlety or grace. Streep skulks, she lumbers, she droops her head at the dining room table as if she can’t believe the numbskulls that life has surrounded her with. And, as in Doubt and The Iron Lady, her casualties include people who are actually acting — that is to say, inhabiting a character and connecting with the actors around them doing the same. As Vi’s daughter, Barbara, Julia Roberts has a moment at the beginning of the film where, roused from sleep to learn that her father has disappeared, she simply stands at a window and touches her hand to her face. It’s an understated gesture, the worry in her bones giving her face a momentary tautness that makes you wish someone had the gumption to sit Streep down in front of it and say, “This is how you act for the camera.” (You could do the same with Julianne Nicholson’s quiet, lived-in performance as Vi’s daughter Ivy.) That Roberts, who remains one of our most purely likable screen presences, is reduced to Streep’s Mini-Me, is a dreadful misuse of her talent. As Streep’s sister and brother-in-law, Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper find a nice unforced rhythm as the kind of couple whose affection has long expressed itself in companionable squabbling. And they make it all too believable when that squabbling turns real.
As Vi, Streep seems to have gone as far as she can go in her hell-bent determination to play the monsters that are the last ones standing. She will soon be seen as The Witch in the film of Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, and maybe fantasy and special effects are a logical leap for an actress now specializing in the grotesque. Streep is one of the few stars who have resisted the comic-book and fantasy franchises that have taken over mainstream movies, though in a way she has chosen just as disposable a path. So why not embrace the transparent junk and be a new X-Men villain or nemesis of The Fantastic Four?
But should she continue along the prestige route, there are plenty of historical personages still to play: Meryl IS Indira, Meryl IS Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. There are literary ones awaiting, too. Imagine Streep’s Lillian Hellman, Or her Janet Flanner. Instead of sitting by disapprovingly while Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer have at each other on the Cavett Show, she could grab Mailer (Seth Rogen) in a headlock and wrestle him to the ground while Vidal (Neil Patrick Harris) looks on in amusement, sipping a Pernod.
Meanwhile, what we face is a procession of performances where Monster Meryl rises from the slab while those of us in the audience are meant, like Colin Clive, to cry out in amazement, “It’s alive!” At least in front of the camera. But not in memory, which is where the best performances continue to live.
Charles Taylor is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and teaches writing at New York University.