Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Meryl Streep, the Anti-Auteur's Actor

The New York Film Critics Circle announced their annual awards over night Australian time and the list reads quite nicely. While I haven't seen Michel Hazanavicuous' The Artist yet (a couple of weeks away, that one) at least people seem to really like it so it's hard to argue that it was merely chosen to be an Oscar prediction. While I can't say I agree with Werner Herzog's hipster National Geographic documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, taking out the non-fiction prize, and I'm disappointed Sean Durkin's mesmerising, haunting and fragile Martha Marcy May Marlene walked away with nothing (including the Best First Feature category, which went to Margin Call) many of the other categories had strong, worthy winners. Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, Emmanuel Lubezki... all great choices that Oscar would be best to take note of. I was sad to hear that Lars von Trier's Melancholia was apparently very close to scooping a prize or two, but came up unfortunately short. That would have been a real kick of the gears for Kirsten Dunst's longshot Oscar hopes for her searing portrayal as a depressed bride at the end of the world.

However, it was their selection for Best Actress that made me give out a sigh of resignation. I guess awards bodies really are going to flip for Meryl Streep's impersonation performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, which is a damned shame. While Streep is easily the best thing about Phyllida Lloyd's movie (well, apart from the make-up work, which was generally flawless), there are still big problems with the performance that are only made more obvious by the shortcomings of the film surrounding her. A full review will hopefully show up later down the path closer to the film's Boxing Day (ya know, for the same people who went to the movies on Boxing Day to be inspired by the opening day of The King's Speech!) release, but when discussing Streep I couldn't have but wished she'd reserve some of her biggest actorly tricks for directors of more substance and worth than the ones she tends to work with.

It only takes one look at Streep's IMDb profile to realise she hardly works with cinema's biggest and brightest filmmakers. Fantastic Mr Fox in 2009 was the last time she worked with a director who could be described as an "auteur" and given that that was only a voice performance in an animated film (albeit a great voice performance in a great animated film), it probably shouldn't count. Before that it was A Prairie Home Companion for Robert Altman in 2006, but as great as she was in that film that was never going to get awards traction given it's lightness of touch and comedic aspects. In between Altman's final film and this year's The Iron Lady she has worked with Nora Ephron (Julie & Julia), Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated), David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), cinematographer-turned-director Lajos Koltai (Evening), Gavin Hood (Rendition), Robert Redford (Lions for Lambs), and John Patrick Shanley (Doubt). I can understand wanting to work with all of those, especially Ephron and Redford who have had plenty of success in the past, but maybe that illusive third Oscar would be within greater reach if she worked with a director truly worthy of her talent.

I think it's of little surprise that her work with Spike Jonze on Adaptation, definitely a higher class of filmmaker than she's been used to lately, is one of the few genuine moments I felt non Streeposexuals clamouring to give her an Oscar. She was beaten to the trophy by Catherine Zeta-Jones, but that was probably the moment the tides really turned and people decided Streep needed a third Oscar. Sadly, after that she all but stopped working with directors of Jonze's quality. The last time Streep was even nominated for a Best Picture nominee was way back in 1986 for Out of Africa, which is quite telling. Her performance as a strict nun in Doubt was surely her best best for a third statue, but Kate Winslet's "give her an Oscar, already!" train chugged along faster than Meryl's. A win for playing Julia Child a year later was doomed the moment Sandra Bullock's vehicle, The Blind Side, snapped a surprise Best Picture nomination whilst Julie & Julia did not.

So is it really Oscar's fault that she doesn't have three Oscars? Would any of you seriously give her the Oscar for One True Thing, Music from the Heart, Bridges of Madison County, Evil Angels or Julie & Julia? And even though I thought she was great and definitely nomination-worthy in Silkwood, The Devil Wears Prada, Adaptation, Postcards from the Edge and Doubt, I personally would have placed my vote for somebody else just as the majority of Academy members did (although, I could certainly be persuaded to swap out Penelope Cruz for Meryl Streep in the battle of 2006). It's why I believe the trick to Meryl finally snagging another Oscar for her mantle lies in making a strong, dramatic piece of cinema with a director that commands respect. August: Osage County may be the correct path, but who knows what's going on with that production.

Before my screening of The Iron Lady on Monday evening, I was discussing the thought of Meryl working with the likes of Lars von Trier. Can you imagine that? Von Trier isn't exactly the most Oscar-friendly director, but he pulls out miraculous performances from his leading ladies and the thought of those two combining their talents sounds too good to be true. But if not him - perhaps she's reached a time in her career where she just doesn't want to have to deal with that, for which she's very entitled - then why not collaborate once again with artists like Mike Nichols, Woody Allen or Steven Daldry? She's proven time and time again that she wants to work alongside female directors, but why not trade in the lazy clunkiness of a Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady) film for spearheading a second feature for Courtney Hunt (Frozen River)? There are so many great female directors out there that would relish the chance to work with The Meryl Streep, but instead she prefers to make romantic comedies with Nancy Meyers. It would be insulting if she weren't so lovable.

So, I guess this awards season we will be seeing Meryl Streep's name pop up time and time again thanks to lazy critics and awards organisations who want nothing more than to predict Oscar's tastes and have Meryl show up at their awards galas rather than truly honouring the best. As I've said, Streep has some great moments in The Iron Lady, but when compared the work being given by Dunst, Olsen, Swinton, Browning, Wasikowska, Williams, Davis, Gainsbourg, Farmiga, Watson, Deneuve and many others her performance comes off as weak and uninspiring. I long for the day that Streep's name gets bandied about in Oscar discussions for a film that is as great as she almost always tries to be. Until then, this iron lady is little more than a poor imitation.

And just to leave on a fun note...



B.A.Sc said...

Actually, it is Meryl Streep impersonating (poorly) the stunning Andrea Riseborough (Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley) (excellently) 'walking' in the shoes of Margaret Thatcher.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but you single out Michelle Williams among others. For what? For a really poor imitation of Monroe. Williams doesn't have the charisma of Monroe, the sensuality of Monroe. And she didn't get it right. My five cents. But you still single her out. And your statement that Meryl doesn't deserve a third Oscar based on her career is something I would never ever agree with.

Marcos Celesia said...

Hi! I liked your post very much. I had never thought her "choice" of directors. I have to differ, though, about her performance in "The Bridges of Madison County." She deserved her nomination, and then some. It was one of her best.
On the other hand... OK. We shouldn't have been offended if she didn't get recognized for One True Thing, Music from the Heart or even Postcards from the Edge. She should have gone Supporting for Ironweed, and who knows what could have happened?
However, I would have liked to see her nominated at least for one of these: Falling in Love and Heartburn, and as Supporting Actress for Dancing at Lughnasa or particularly The Manchurian Candidate.

Anonymous said...

I agree, but these assumptions leave out the dynamics of the relationship an actor has with a director. Sure, these auteurs may be brilliant at creating gripping movies. That does not mean they are necessarily a pleasure to work with. While I personally would favor being in a good movie with a troubling director than a so-so movie with a wonderful one, I understand an industry's veteran to make such choices. As you said yourself, she may not want to work with a Von Trier type. So, maybe Meryl is just trying to have fun while doing what she loves, and it's all of the rest of us that assume she makes these choices and still expects an Oscar. If she wanted an Oscar, I think she'd have another by now. I think she just wants to make movies.

Anonymous said...

stupid comments... I am sick of the word auteur .. she does great work in mediocre films ... where is the crime... i do not feel she works for awards. If she wins another Oscar, her career might end!

Glenn Dunks said...

B.A.Sc, Andrea Riseborough actually came up in conversation after the screening. I haven't seen it, but I've heard the raves.

Anon, I singled out Michelle Williams for Meek's Cutoff. I have yet to see My Week with Marilyn.

Don't get me wrong though, I think Meryl deserves a whole bunch of Oscars - if she'd won for Silkwood or Prada I most definitely wouldn't complain - but it's silly for people to constantly whine "why doesn't she have a third oscar?!? wah!" when she's not making the films that typically win Oscars. And, much like people constantly complaining as to why Kate Winslet never had an Oscar it was because there was always someone the Academy were more eager to reward. Simple as that.

Marcos, she's very good in Bridges, but would anybody really say she deserved a win for that?

Anon, Oh please believe me when I say that I fully believe Meryl Streep doesn't care one bit about whether she has two Oscars, three Oscars or eight Oscars, but it's hard to deny that Streep doesn't exactly work with directors on projects that seem like natural fits for awards. If her performance in about a third of her nominations were given by somebody else I doubt they would have ever been on the Oscar radar. If all she wants to do is make movies then that's great, but movies can be made by real artists and I more want her to make movies with brilliant directors for my sake rather than Oscar's.

Anon 2, I wonder if you're right about her career ending after getting a third Oscar. The Academy surely probably wouldn't bite again so casting agents may look elsewhere for their older ladies. Maybe. Maybe not.

Amir said...

Just got around to reading this after I saw your response on The Film Experience.
I have to say, I agree with every single word in this article.