As a sometimes film programmer for the Trylon microcinema, a great little theater in Minneapolis, I’m always thinking in terms of building series around themes, titles, and, of course, actors and actresses. The latter are my favorite: in the past, the Trylon’s screened the best movies of Bette Davis, Jack Nicholson, Jimmy Stewart’s westerns, and, this month, the whole of Marlene Dietrich’s work with Josef von Sternberg.
When we have movie conversations about silly things, you know, like any discussion about the Academy Awards, my mind turns to programming. As Meryl Streep is about to win her third Oscar, or become, for the umpteenth time, the bridesmaid to the little gold man, I think to myself about a Meryl Streep series. Thing is, there’s a problem. And that problem is this:
Meryl Streep has never made a great movie.
Streep has one of the most storied careers in the history of cinema, and is the most nominated actress in Oscar history. She has incredible longevity, commanding leading parts all her professional life in costume dramas, comedies, action films (rarely, but still there), and can play Americans, Brits, Australians, Poles, you name it.
Many of these performances are brilliant. As Julia Child, Streep did not merely mimic an easily parodied voice. Julie & Julia’s one ballsy moments was when Nora Ephron actually put Dan Ackroyd’s great SNL skit in the picture, as if to show that Meryl wasn’t going to go there. No, she made Child a vibrant, energetic woman, someone equally at home with kings and queens and on the other hand bobbling a boiling cannoli and claiming it’s as hot as a stiff cock. That’s awesome.
But I wish I could say she’s a great actress, because great in my mind includes taking great risks. Streep misses that mark, misses it by a country mile.
Look at the best actresses: Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Kate Winslet, Katherine Hepburn–they all took chances, made weird, strange movies that set them apart, like The Letter, No Man of Her Own (Stanwyck’s insane noir), Bringing Up Baby.
Winslet is a great companion to Streep, and Oscar-wise, has more nominations at her age than anyone before her, including Streep. Good God damn, would that Streep had an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Heavenly Creatures in her pocket.
I write this because I like Meryl Streep. I’ve actually seen her in person, at a press junket for the risible Prairie Home Companion, where I also met a teenage girl who was probably the world’s only member of the Meryl Streep Fan Club. The girl, clad in jeans and a print shirt, claimed to be dressed like Streep in Silkwood, one of Streep’s many, many, many decent movies that no one watches anymore (in part because decent is all they are.) The girl, and her mother, admired Streep for teaching girls to get an education and work hard. That’s great. But I bet there’s more girls who dig Winslet’s bold choices and more intriguing movies.
Look at the list: Kramer vs. Kramer, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, Plenty, Out of Africa (oh, bet you watch that one again and again), Heartburn, A Cry in the Dark, Death Becomes Her (which revealed Streep’s deep discomfort in black comedy, and it was misguided and poorly executed besides), The River Wild, The Hours, The Manchurian Candidate (and here she was a pale, pale comparison to Angela Lansbury’s mother in the original), The Devil Wears Prada (edgy only if you think Sex in the City is the height of wit), Mamma Mia! (stop) and Doubt, which I liked. But then I like a conservative night at the theater now and then.
Ah, you might say, but you’ve left out three intriguing titles, Schilling: The Deer Hunter, Manhattan, and Adaptation. The problem here is that those are not Meryl Streep movies. She is not the heart and soul of those, the way Winslet wrestles with Jim Carrey to make Eternal Sunshine as much her movie as his. Not to mention, she’s the weakest part of The Deer Hunter (in an admittedly thankless role), and, despite the fact that she should have known better, was kind of dismal in Adaptation (both that and Sunshine are Charlie Kaufman scripts.)
Streep can be funny (witness moments in Julie & Julia, such a terrible waste of talent and subject) and she’s certainly a great actress, which makes her decision making all the more regrettable in my mind. Recently, she was honored at the Kennedy Center, and for the life of me, I can’t imagine what clips they’d show, just as I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be to have some kind of Streep retrospective that would attract more than fifteen people in the course of a month.
I have yet to see The Iron Lady, but really, how good can a movie like this be? Actually, any subject could be made into a great film, but by now I’ve come to think that if Streep’s the star, the chances are good–in fact, they’re pretty much guaranteed–that the film in question will be safe, non-threatening, and in good taste. Like Gertrude Stein once said, “there’s no there there.”
That’s a damn shame. I’m sure that Streep has had a great career, and I’m sure she’s a happy woman, respected by everyone. She actually has that reputation–of being a delight to work with, to know. But those women whose reputations are not as stellar–see all of the aforementioned actresses–have left us with a body of work that inspires and amazes us, even a half century or more later.
Streep? Unfortunately, she’s played it safe. And in twenty years (or less), no one remembers safe at all…