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Friday, February 24, 2012

Meryl Streep, or how to be the world's greatest actress for three decades - and counting

In her latest movie, la Streep
plays Mrs. T. to a T
One can be certain of few things in this world - only death and taxes, Mark Twain famously said. I'll add a third one: next Sunday, at this year's Academy Awards, Meryl Streep will walk away with the Best Actress statuette, and an egregious injustice will finally have been redressed. The Film Academy (see my  post about last year's awards edition) is famous for snubbing great acting and rewarding mediocre talent (isn't that an oxymoron?) Streep is "America's most admired actress" said Vogue, which I would dispute. America's? You mean the world's!!! but probably that the famous magazine as is the wont of many US companies cannot distinguish between the two. And yet the last time Streep won an Oscar was 30 years ago. Since then she has been regularly nominated, more than any other actor in  history, and as regularly ignored.

But next Sunday amazing Meryl will finally clutch her third Oscar for her tour-de-force performance as the famous British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, which I watched last week. I grew up with both ladies, had seen Thatcher in innumerable speeches and interviews, learned to admire her (when she became the Western world's first elected leader -  well, almost, I think tiny Iceland got there first) and revile her (as a student in Scotland in the mid-1980's during the famous miners' strike I saw first-hand how much hatred she elicited.) After ten minutes watching the movie, I sat mesmerized. Meryl Streep had completely disappeared. I was watching Thatcher, her voice, her tone, her pitch, her gestures, the face slightly bent, the teeth, the glowing eye. As a film buff who pride myself in having seen most movies worth watching in the art's 100+-year history, I have to say that this is simply one of the greatest performances ever put on screen.

The movie itself is of slight interest as it basically consists of sketches from Thatcher's life: we see Margaret get married, have kids, become a politician, win the election, flirt with declining popularity, win the Falkands war, get a historic third mandate, fall out with her party colleagues who ditch her. The only originality (well, even then, it isn't that original) is that it tells the story through flashbacks between the present where the old lady is losing her mind and the past. The movie doesn't bring anything new about the nature of British politics or how a woman managed to be such a winner in a man's world (or why she'd want to be in the first place). Whereas The Queen was brilliant in how it depicted the essence of political power in Britain (especially between the monarch, prime minister and the media-manipulated citizens), The Iron Lady is quite shallow. But then The Queen was made by one of Britain's greatest directors, Stephen Frears, whereas (and here's another prediction I'll make) The Iron Lady's Phyllida Lloyd will never reach directorial stratosphere. But who cares? Watching this average movie is the price to pay when it comes with such a dazzling performance.

Interestingly enough, Meryl Streep's most celebrated performances came as "dual" roles. In The Iron Lady, she plays Thatcher at the height of her career and in her old age, although with good makeup and clever shots, I think she could also have played her at a younger age (remember how a 50ish Bette Davis played herself as a teenager in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) In Sophie's Choice, in 1982 (her last Academy Award) Streep played the title role in two stages of her life: as a gaunt, thin Polish concentration-camp prisoner with a shaven scalp, and the emigrée version in New York, beautiful, with luxuriant blond hair, sexy  but still haunted by what happened in that concentration camp. The previous year, in what was her first major role, in The French Lieutenant's Woman, she actually played two different roles: a 19th- century woman caught in a socially unacceptable affair and the late 20-century actress playing her role. Seeing her toggle back and forth between accents, costumes and hairstyles, it was hard to believe it was the same actress. And to reward her astonishing performance, the Academy decided to give the Oscar to veteran actress, Katharine Hepburn for her role in On Golden Pond. I have great respect for Katie whom I met in my New York days in her townhouse on 49th Street but, seriously, just compare the two performances and there is no contest. I would even say that Katie's role was a supporting one and, anyway, with already three Oscars under her belt, did she really need a fourth one? But Academy members went emotional and rewarded age over talent. The following year, though, with Sophie's Choice they had to bow to superior acting - as they will this Sunday.

A few more things about this highly intelligent and well-balanced person. In neurosis-filled, ego-puffed up and drug-addicted Hollywood Meryl Streep is that rare person: a normal human being. She does her job better than anybody else in living memory, takes the praise she deservedly gets, and moves on with her life, taking care of her 30-year husband and children, helping them move to college, doing her groceries, getting involved in environmental issues. I always wondered how she manages to remain normal in such an abnormal industry?

For the cosmopolitan and multilingual person I am, Meryl Streep's trademark mannerism, the ability to portray women from different nationalities with an amazing ear for various accents, is awe-inspiring. From a  (Catholic) Polish Holocaust survivor in Sophie's Choice where she speaks Polish, German and English with a Polish accent, to a Victorian Englishwoman (not to mention a former British Prime Minister), or an Australian mother wrongly accused of killing her daughter* (A Cry in the Dark), she also played a Danish aristocrat running an estate in Kenya (Out of Africa), a Latin American woman in The House of the Spirits,  and an Italian discovering middle-age love in Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County. Coming from a famously monolingual nation, Meryl Streep truly stands out. As an actress, she is just unique. Let's treasure this jewel while we have her.

*News reports came out today that the Australian woman Meryl Streep played in A Cry in the Dark is asking the coroner in the case to officially declare her innocence.


  1. Grande artigo Ahmed! Eu ainda não assisti ao filme mas vc me despertou grande curiosidade/vontade de fazê-lo. Assisti àquele filme Mamma Mia e, provavelmente, foi a parti daí que pude perceber o nível de entrega dessa atriz. Talvez um pouco tarde? Risos... Foi justamente em uma cena de canto que não era canto. Era interpretação. Interpretar uma canção de tal modo a nos fazer esquecer que de fato se trata de música, acredito que pouquíssimos atores conseguiriam. Cada verso da letra transformava-se em diálogo. Achei brilhante e extremamente sensível. The Iron Lady será meu próximo filme! Abraços

  2. Tem outro filme musical que a Meryl quase fez, "Evita" com Oliver Stone nos anos 90. Mas quando Stone desistiu e que o projeto foi para Alan Parker foi Madonna quem ficou com o papel. Mas eu tenho certeza que a Meryl teria feito uma grande atuação.

    Vc ouviu falar que Mery Streep vai fazer um filme sobre Clarice Lispector? Isso seria bastante interessante. Outro sotaque para ela.