by Allan Fish
There’s perhaps only one thing more predictable than the love of Steven Spielberg in modern film buff circles; the deification of Meryl Streep. Or at least maybe there’s something else equally predictable, my thunderous objection to this sanctification. Meryl Streep is a technically gifted actress with a marvellous command of accents, but she’s also the personification of a poison that has inflicted American cinema since the turn of the 1980s.
What’s wrong with her, I can see her millions of worshippers saying? My reply is to look carefully at what she represents. The fact is this, in terms of individual performances Meryl has given at least a dozen that can be seen as just about faultless, taken on their own terms, and many others would say a lot more than a mere dozen. But what do you do when her performance is part of the problem why the films themselves don’t work?
Take a gander at her work post 1980. There’s a selection of highlights; The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, Plenty, Out of Africa, Heartburn, Ironweed, A Cry in the Dark, Postcards from the Edge, The Bridges of Madison County, Marvin’s Room, Adaptation, The Hours, Angels in America, The Devil Wears Prada, Doubt, Julie and Julia, The Iron Lady, Into the Woods (as things stand, I’ll wager Suffragette can be tossed in there, too). There’s not a single great film amongst that little lot. Only two – Adaptation and The Hours – are even very good, and then it’s perhaps not a coincidence that Meryl wasn’t the focal point of either. The only two great films she was in, The Deer Hunter and Manhattan, were both made in the late 1970s and few would argue she was the most interesting thing in either.
Because we live in an age where money is all that matters, the suits realise that the converted will come and see Meryl read the phone book. Just change her hair, see her adopt a new accent, and the Academy of Motion Picture Farts and Sciences will give her a nomination just for burping on camera in a given year. But nearly all her films are just about her performance, the films are lopsided, mundane, mere vehicles for a talent given her head in such a way critics lose theirs. How hard can it be to see that nearly all the films I listed are mediocre films, in many cases insufferably bad?
It’s not all her fault, one might say, and you’d be right, but she, like Spielberg, has benefited most from the lowering of standards. She’s only one a very fine generation of actresses – Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton, Sally Field, Sigourney Weaver, Sissy Spacek, Susan Sarandon – that appeared in the seventies and lasted through to the ends of the eighties. Essentially any star vehicles any may have had were just that. Films made to showcase performers and please academies, not films that should exist in their own right. Streep has films made to fit her choice of character; the story and everything else being created around her. The star is the auteur, not the director. In the days when Hollywood was really at its peak, sure they made women’s films, vehicles for Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford et al, but they were quality productions which, while centring around their stars, the directors still had complete control of. Garbo would have been nothing without Clarence Brown, George Cukor or Edmund Goulding, Bette Davis would certainly have been nothing without William Wyler, Edmund Goulding or Michael Curtiz. It’s Douglas Sirk’s name you remember as the auteur of the women’s pictures of the fifties, not star Jane Wyman or Lana Turner. Those films were tailored for the stars but within strict guidelines. They weren’t the ones in control.
One could argue that the lack of great roles for women in Hollywood has something to do with it, and there’s certainly validity to this. In Hollywood women are generally objects to look at or else seen through the male gaze. So few films deal with interesting female protagonists in an original way, and those that do buck the trend of formula – say Lonergan’s Margaret – get held up for years and roundly trashed by critics who have become conditioned to mediocrity. And because of the having to look good factor, many actresses find themselves largely finished by the time they’re 40, often, if they started as children or teens, by the time they’re 30. Christina Ricci, Anna Paquin, Kirsten Dunst, Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, even Britain’s Romola Garai, there’s a lot of talent there, but the majority of it has been grossly wasted. Even one who has done well, say Michelle Williams, has done little in the last few years.
Let’s take another tack. If one was to think of an actor who represented the same thing as Streep, the ultimate example of commitment and hushed reverence, it’s probably Daniel Day-Lewis. He makes a lot less films than Streep. Yet take a look at the variety of his work; My Beautiful Laundrette, A Room With a View, Kafka for Alan Bennett in The Insurance Man, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, The Age of Innocence, The Crucible, Gangs of New York, There Will be Blood, Lincoln. Yes, there’s only perhaps one great film in there, but it’s noticeable that while There Will be Blood is all about Daniel Plainview on one level, Day-Lewis is modest enough a craftsman and Anderson’s strong enough a director to ensure it’s a heck of a lot more than that. Day-Lewis gives himself over to the director’s vision. And that’s why his performances seem that much stronger than Streep’s and not just skin deep. He’s loyal to certain directors – Scorsese, Jim Sheridan – and watching him act one gets the feeling of watching him taking a journey. With Streep, you get the feeling she wants you to take the journey just to watch her act.
Streep for me works best as part of an ensemble when she isn’t the be all and end all. And she’s not been entirely without that; definitely so in The Hours and Adaptation, Sam Neill and Ian McKellen in Plenty, Amy Adams a couple of times recently, dear old Jack Nicholson in the eighties. And perhaps she could do with a little of Nicholson’s attitude. When Nicholson was at his peak it was never about the roles, it was always about the directors. From 1969-1980 he worked with Bob Rafelson (twice), Dennis Hopper, Vincente Minnelli, Mike Nichols (twice), Hal Ashby, Roman Polanski, Ken Russell, Michelangelo Antonioni, Milos Forman, Arthur Penn, Elia Kazan, Stanley Kubrick. Not all the projects worked, but the majority did and there’s four or five genuinely great films that resulted. He adapted his style to different directors’ visions and styles, not, and this is the crucial part, making the director and the audience come to them.
In Meryl’s case she won her last Oscar for The Iron Lady. It was a superb impersonation, but featherweight. Indeed, most of the nominees that year didn’t deserve their nods. In 2011 take Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, Anna Paquin in Margaret, Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre, Emily Browning in Sleeping Beauty. All were superior to Streep or any of the nominees and neither were nominated. And considering the Academy has started nominating select foreign language performances I could add Deannie Ip in A Simple Life, Vanessa Paradis in Café de Flore, Megumi Kegurazaka in Guilty of Romance or Leila Hatami in A Separation all on another level entirely to Streep.
Not that any of this matters, because still to the masses Meryl is their queen, no matter whether she doesn’t belong in the same paragraph, let alone sentence, as Davis, Hepburn, Stanwyck or the true greats. Let alone the great actresses from world cinema. Yet still there’s diehards who will say she’s better than Jeanne Moreau, better than Signoret, better than Ullmann, Thulin or the two Anderssons, better than Nargis or Sharmila Tagore, than Milena Dravic, Mari Torocsik, Anna Magnani, Irene Papas or Hanna Schygulla, than Ruan Lingyu or Gong Li, not to mention the Japanese; I’d take around twenty Japanese goddesses over Streep seven days a week and thrice on Sunday. Keep giving Oscars to Meryl if you must, they represent mediocrities anyway. But leave serious conversations about truly great film divinities to the professionals.