We do not, as “cultural Americans,” tend to think of film actors as artists. As they do with pop singers, the studios and the media commoditize actors by turning them into celebrities. And celebrities are, in fact, brands that moviegoers, like buyers of the next version of an Apple product, will be unable to resist when their next movie is released or that TV watchers or magazine buyers will have to see or read about when the celebrity’s next peccadillo, real or alleged, becomes public.
So the artists get lumped together under the harsh light of celebrity with all the rest—the pretty faces that make box office millions, the sophomoric cretins, and the comic-book caricatures who become governors and even presidents. Perhaps it is time to shine a different-coloured light on those actors who time and again take on roles that test their skill and extend their range, who create, through thoughtful and thorough preparation and through courageous commitment, unique characters of great emotional and (sometimes intellectual) depth. Names like Philip Seymour Hoffman, the late Heath Ledger, Jessica Lange, and Cate Blanchett come to mind. But the epitome of such artistry is unquestionably Meryl Streep.
I have not seen every Streep movie and I am sure there are some I have seen and forgotten about, but in the thirty-year period from Sophie’s Choice to The Iron Lady I have experienced enough magnificent performances to convince me that she is the finest cinema actor in the English language. I love Katharine Hepburn and I believe that she was a wonderful actress, but when I see her in a film, I see Katharine Hepburn, no matter what role she is playing. The same can be said for Jack Nicholson and Julianne Moore. But when Streep plays Karen Blixen, I know I am watching the strong-willed Danish woman who seeks in Africa the life and the love she cannot have. When she plays Julia Child I see the woman who charmed millions of American television viewers with her loving but down-to-earth approach to French cooking. And in The Iron Lady there was hardly a scene in which I recognized Streep playing Margaret Thatcher; I saw only the Iron Lady herself.
In a June 4, 1989 review of the VHS release of A Cry in the Dark, New York Times critic Stephen Holden said of the actress, “Meryl Streep, unlike most film actresses, doesn’t bend her personality gently in the direction of a role. She invents her characters from scratch, creating an entirely different physical vocabulary for each part. One comes away from her performances with the sense of people who are much more than well-observed types. Each is a complex, quirky little universe.”
This “quirky little universe” that is a Streep character, with the accents, the facial expressions, the gestures that make the character both compelling and individual, is Streep’s trademark; it is what sets her apart from the crowd of good, even outstanding actors. In a television interview with Harry Smith after the release of One True Thing, Smith asked her: “Every time I see you on screen, whatever role it is you choose, the second I see you in it, you own it. Your voice is different, you physically may be different. How do you do that?” Streep replied, “Oh well,” and then in an Eastern European accent, “that’s acting.” And she laughed. “I mean it is. That’s what I like to do. That’s total immersion into possibility, a life I could imagine I lived, and that’s infinitely interesting to me.”
While Streep is invariably casual or offhand in remarks about her craft, perhaps disguising a reluctance to talk about this aspect of her work for fear of it being trivialized or misinterpreted by media that focus on the titillations of celebrity, there is no question that a great deal of hard work goes into the creation and the portrayal of each of her characters. She allegedly spent four and a half months studying Polish and German for her role in Sophie’s Choice. For Music of the Heart she practised the violin five or six hours a day for two months. One can only imagine the hours of reading, research, and rehearsal that went into her roles in Out of Africa, Julie and Julia, and The Iron Lady.
But there is something beyond great talent and diligence that informs the cinematic performances of Meryl Streep. A clue to the nature of this artistic alchemy may be found in the words of John Patrick Shanley, director and screenwriter of Doubt, in which Streep plays the fearsome but ultimately very human Sister Aloysius. In the director’s commentary on the DVD version of the movie Shanley describes the filming of the last scene, in which Sister Aloysius breaks down in front of the younger nun, Sister James.
“The amazing thing is that we did the first take in a wider shot and when we got to that point in the scene, Meryl completely broke down. I was very concerned because I knew I wasn’t going to want to be that wide…and I wondered if she could ever do it again. So I immediately abandoned that size and went into a close-up for the second take. Uh…she broke down again, and she broke down with an equal ferocity and genuineness over and over again, take after take, in different sizes, when the camera was on her and when it wasn’t. I remember Amy Adams [Sister James] walking away after this scene and just saying, ‘Meryl Streep. Wow! Now I know why she is Meryl Streep.’”
Streep herself, in a word of advice to younger actors, says that, “if you want [a career] that feeds your soul, I do think you have to go to the limit of experience.” In film after film we see her doing just that. And you only have to watch Sophie’s Choice or The Bridges of Madison County—I mean really watch—to understand that she takes us with her to the limit of experience and through that journey she feeds our soul.
Let us take a look at three Meryl Streep films, from three different decades, paying particular attention to the nuances of her performance in each, with the aim of perhaps teasing out a fuller understanding of the art of this great actor. The films are Sophie’s Choice (1982), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), and Doubt (2008).
In William Styron’s novel the least fully developed character is Sophie Zawistowski, the beautiful, troubled Polish refugee who lives in the Pink Palace, a Brooklyn rooming house. The narrator, called Stingo, a callow writer from the South who has come to New York to pen his first novel, is far more sharply delineated, as is Nathan Landau, Sophie’s lover, a fiercely intelligent, pathologically mercurial man who exercises a frightening degree of control the other two; both are also denizens of the Pink Palace.
I do think that, in a sense, Styron over-wrote the character of Sophie by providing in the novel such extensive detail of Auschwitz and of the horrors she experienced in the camp. The reader is overwhelmed by the author’s and Sophie’s recounting of the nightmare of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the soul-destroying guilt over the choice that she was forced to make when she arrived there on the train from Warsaw. It is as if all nuances of Sophie’s character have been scared away by the demons and the ghosts that followed her to America and are with her always. Moreover, she is utterly under the spell of Nathan’s powerful and dangerous personality. In the novel, then, it is Stingo who emerges, almost by default but also perhaps through the author’s unconscious choice, as the most interesting character.
In the film Streep gives us a Sophie who is still entirely defined by the searing tragedy she has endured, but with the mass of detail necessarily removed and our gaze fixed on the person of Sophie herself, her pain becomes a fully realized character of its own. And Streep mines every facet of this character, bringing out, sometimes in a dizzying succession of soft and loud notes, the guilt, the anger, the fear, the humiliation, the physical torment and deprivation brought upon her by the Nazi occupation of her homeland and by the eighteen months she spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz.
The opening sequences of scenes in the film, which take place in the Pink Palace and in the amusement park at Coney Island, are a breathtaking overture to Sophie’s and Nathan’s reckless race toward doom and a virtuosic display of Streep’s range and depth as an actor. One of these sequences will serve admirably as an example.
But first a note about accents. Streep’s skill in this area is such that following the inevitable few seconds of surprise when we first hear “Meryl Streep” speaking with a Polish accent, the accent merges with the character and Streep-with-an-accent disappears for the rest of the film. I have found this to be true with every character requiring an accent or a particular tone or timbre that she plays. Moreover, in Sophie’s Choice, in the scenes set in Auschwitz, she actually speaks flawless Polish and German.
The sequence takes place on Sunday morning in Sophie’s room at the Pink Palace. Stingo has been invited to breakfast after a disastrous first meeting with Nathan and Sophie the night before, in which Nathan raged at Sophie, insulted Stingo, and stormed out of the house. The couple has made up and apologies have been offered to Stingo. As Stingo comes into the room, Nathan and Sophie, dressed in outlandish clothing of the twenties, are frenetically dancing the Charleston to music playing on the phonograph. From her expression and the stiffness of her dancing, it is clear that she is not enjoying the dance but is going along with the impulsive Nathan.
In the subsequent scenes, Streep reveals to us, through facial expressions ranging from a varied assortment of smiles—forced, coquettish, self-deprecating, nostalgic, loving—to a sneer, to looks of haughtiness, irritation, hatred, and sadness, and through an entire lexicon of utterly unaffected gestures, a substantial chunk of the character of Sophie Zawistowski. She does this, in her broken English that is at once charming and heart-breaking, in less than eight minutes of screen time. What is more astonishing is that later on in the film, we discover that half of what she said in this sequence was a lie! It is simply impossible for me to imagine any other actress able to so completely inhabit the psyche of a woman from a radically different culture, era, and experience and with such a burden of pain and guilt.
It must be acknowledged here that Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol are magnificent as Nathan and Stingo, respectively. Kline perfectly captures the schizophrenia that drives Nathan from one extreme of frenzied enthusiasm or rapturous adoration to the other of raging paranoia. MacNicol is equally compelling as the love-starved, idol-worshiping writer who is swept up in the tumultuous lives of the couple upstairs. But in the end it is Streep who holds us in her spell with a performance that must be rated as one of the finest in modern cinema.
It is possible to see on YouTube, the last recorded performance of Vladimir Horowitz playing the Concerto No. 3 in D Minor by Rachmaninoff, with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1978. The concerto is technically demanding for the pianist; it is, in fact, nothing less than the devil Himself. The piece is filled with pain and pathos and tragedy, expressed in a panoply of musical register. Evoked through the heart and mind and hands of a maestro like Horowitz, it is a work of exquisite sublimity. If the story of Sophie Zawistowski is the Third Concerto, Meryl Streep is indeed Vladimir Horowitz, calling upon her considerable range of technical resources and reaching into her very soul to deliver a performance whose success in moving us to our core merits nothing less than the thunderous ovation of the audience and the beautiful smile on the face of Zubin Mehta we see at the end of the Rachmaninoff.
The Bridges of Madison County
Here again, we observe a shift in emphasis between the book and the movie. Robert James Waller’s novel is as much about Robert Kincaid, a rugged loner who takes photographs for a living, as it is about Francesca Johnson, the middle-aged Italian émigré who is spiritually languishing on an Iowa farm. Thanks to a fine screenplay by Richard LaGravanese (Waller’s novel is mediocre at best) and to the acting of Meryl Streep, the film focuses, as it should, on Francesca; the conflict in the story is hers.
I have heard people say that they consider Streep’s performance in this film to be over the top; I do not find it so. Francesca Johnson is a subtler role for Streep (even the accent is subtler), one that she may not have been able to pull off in 1982 when she was thirty-three. The rural housewife’s pain is less intense, less raw than Sophie Zawistowski’s; it is mitigated by the quiet joys of a close-knit family, by the comforting simplicity of a country life. Francesca suffers from no great emotional or psychological affliction; her husband is not a dangerous paranoid schizophrenic and she does not live with the guilt of having had to select one of her children for death so that the other might live. Francesca suffers merely from a longing for what could have been, from the disappointment of dreams not realized; she listens to opera on the kitchen radio—when her children don’t change the station to rock and roll—instead of sitting in the audience at the Metropolitan in New York.
As I have stated elsewhere on this site, The Bridges of Madison County is a “small story.” There is no great war, no Holocaust looming darkly in the background. It is just a story of two lonely people whom cruel destiny brings together and whom duty, convention, and a different kind of love quickly tear apart leaving only the searing memory and the artefacts of four days of bliss. Much of the story unfolds in a farmhouse kitchen—no romantic landscapes, no lavish hotels, no stirring violins—so it is up to Streep to keep us interested.
A word about Clint Eastwood: fine director, wooden actor; he has the range of a party favour. In this film, his rugged looks suit the role of the National Geographic photographer perfectly, but he is simply incapable of revealing the nuances of Waller’s sensitive, mystical, talented loner. For this reason, Streep’s job is even more challenging as she must compensate for the unfortunate distraction.
In a single scene, almost entirely through gesture and facial expression, Streep tells us the story of Francesca’s life on the farm and gives us a clue to the nature of the agonizing dilemma she will soon face. It is dinnertime at the Johnsons: Francesca is putting the meal on the table as the radio plays opera; it must be a piece she likes because she has just turned up the volume. She calls the children and her husband (in that order) and each of them allows the screen door to slam as they come in and sit at the table, jarring her nerves; she looks up in resigned exasperation as her daughter changes the radio station. There is no dinner conversation and Francesca is bored to the point that she has no interest in eating the meal she has prepared; yet she looks at her silent and insensitive family with the eyes of love, a faint smile gracing her lips, then disappearing, then appearing again and finally dissolving as she absently pulls at a strand of hair and looks into the distance.
The early scenes with Eastwood/Kincaid are masterful. At first Francesca is intrigued by his un-Iowan spontaneity; he has actually been to Bari, her home town in Italy (“You just got off the train because it looked pretty?”). And she is physically attracted to him; she watches him with a kind of growing erotic interest as he preps his shoot of Roseman Bridge. The dialogue is terse; all is told through expression and subtle shifts in posture. And there is a tension between attraction and circumspection which Streep expresses through brusqueness and avoidance of direct looks until Francesca and Robert are actually sitting across from each other at the Johnsons’ kitchen table. When she finally begins to let herself go with him, we are allowed to see the years of frustration and loneliness rise to the surface along with the joy of being near a man who thinks deeply, takes risks, and expresses himself with wit and articulation.
As the emotional intensity quickly builds, Streep does not just move forward with the passion of the affair; she brings along all of the baggage—the disappointment, the spiritual inertia, the traditional beliefs about family—that has been accumulated by Francesca over a lifetime and invites us to peek into that baggage in order to better understand the terrible dilemma she faces. As Oprah Winfrey would say: “Layers!”
At the beginning of the film we see Sister Aloysius at morning Mass. As the priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is giving his sermon, she is walking down the side aisle of the church, quietly but deliberately smacking and barking at inattentive students from St. Nicholas School. Later, as students line up outside the school in preparation to begin their day, Sister Aloysius is watching from a window above, and when a boy touches the young nun, Sister James, who is in charge of the line-up, we suddenly hear, “Boy! William London! Come up here.” And there is silence on the ground as all young eyes turn upward. After Sister has dragged William off to her lair, Father Flynn, who has been mingling with the students, says to the young nun, “The dragon is hungry.” Sister James smiles in spite of herself.
Sister Aloysius is a scary creature, and it is easy for those of us who remember such creatures from our elementary school days—the movie is set in 1964—to project those memories on to Sister Aloysius. For she is stern, strict, eternally vigilant, intolerant, and sometimes even mean, and the students are afraid of her. Sister Aloysius is a far different role for Streep from Sophie Zawistowski and Francesca Johnson—the actress is now 59, after all—but again she fully inhabits the character and fully humanizes her. The angst is still there but it is now cleverly hidden behind a no-nonsense façade.
Screenwriter-director Shanley has a more positive view of Sister Aloysius than we the viewers might have. He believes that she is “a real defender of good against evil, and she knows which is which.” And he calls her stance Victorian in that she believes there is a clear line between the two. Aloysius also reflects some of Shanley’s own views about education, that the nun “represents a major strand of what I believe about what is good in education, and the separation between adults and children: that in fact some of things that were encouraged in terms of education in the Church in the early sixties, which were “Be friends with the kid,” sort of blurred the line between adulthood and childhood and had people who had been very proscribed—these priests and these nuns—cross a certain invisible line and put them in territory that they didn’t completely understand. And I think some of these priests got in big trouble because of that.”
Thus Shanley makes Sister Aloysius a considerably more nuanced character than the viewer might at first see. She was once married (her husband died in the war); she possesses a wry sense of humour; she has accepted a black boy into her school and is concerned for his welfare; she cares for the older and frailer nuns at St. Nicholas, protecting them from the cold calculation of the male-dominated clerical culture. Streep brings out these nuances brilliantly in her portrayal of the nun. Throughout the film she dangles before us this human side of Sister Aloysius as a counterpoint to her natural dislike and her general suspicion of Father Flynn and ultimately her unshakable certainty of his guilt and her determination to destroy him even in the absence of clear proof. What she is doing is clearly monstrous but we cannot possibly hate her for it; this is where the magic of Streep’s art lies.
In the final scene (in which Streep/Sister Aloysius breaks down so convincingly), Sister James has returned to St. Nicholas from visiting her ill brother to find Father Flynn gone from the parish. Sister Aloysius coldly and causally explains how she effected his removal, even lying to achieve her aim. John Patrick Shanley: “It’s interesting how, even leading up to such a great breakdown, she can be this casual, so relaxed, showing no evidence of where she’s about to go, almost jovial. She’s seconds way from it. I really don’t know how she did it. She’s a natural wonder; it’s like watching the Aurora Borealis.”
Meryl Streep is indeed a natural wonder. But all prodigies risk squandering their gift if they do not recognize that the gift is merely a lump of clay, albeit magic clay, whose properties must be carefully studied in order to fathom its potential, then the clay meticulously and painstakingly shaped and reshaped, again and again, out of an acute awareness of the momentary but divine connection between the clay and the artist. The process has nothing to do with celebrity, it has nothing to do with awards, it has nothing to do with contracts and money. It has everything to do with preparation, commitment, courage—and love.
Just ask the Aurora Borealis.
Sophie’s Choice Poster, from Wikipedia
Main Gate Auschwitz II, by Sue Bowen
covered bridge, by jon.hayes
Farmhouse, by Lydiat