AT the age when society would have preferred I formed a teen crush on Arnold Schwarzenegger, I developed an addiction to the work of Meryl Streep.
It started with a video night for my mother and one of her nursing friends. The film was Sophie’s Choice (1982). I plonked myself down in a bean bag, thinking it would be a bit of a distraction. Then the magic began …
As the layers of grief were stripped away in this story, Streep took her flaying knife and removed the last of my outer shell, piece by piece, as she led me through the guilt of Holocaust survival.
In many ways, the experience opened my heart, and my willingness to allow this idea of pain to be planted in my consciousness came with the stark realisation that I was quite different to other boys.
But Streep’s work was always a great solace for that realisation, and I devoured it all, willingly.
By the time she played Sophie Zawitowski’s devastating journey, she’d already portrayed a few ‘difficult women’ – a terrible pop-culture term to describe complex female characters. Female protagonists, basically.
Think Joanna in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), the mother who does the unthinkable and leaves not only her husband, but her child. Think Sarah Woodruff in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), the governess who entraps a society gentleman in her web of melancholia.
Sophie Zawitowski was every bit as elusive, with her escapist surrender to the sensations of sex and play in the wake of her years in Auschwitz.
Soon after, Streep took on the role of Susan Traherne in the screen version of David Hare’s Plenty (1985) – perhaps one of the most ‘difficult woman’ characters in postmodern theatre. Perpetually dissatisfied, Susan tries to make herself happy through work, motherhood and relationships, but none of it matches the adrenalin rush of her years as a WWII resistance fighter in France.
This role was eclipsed by Streep’s turn as the more romantic Karen Blixen in Out of Africa (1985). Although Blixen was just a less abrasive ‘difficult woman’, with her corrupt marriage, her refusal to bend to colonial rules, and her devotion to a man who expressed little more than a transitory connection to her.
Streep’s portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain, accused of fabricating the abduction of her baby by a dingo in the Australian desert in A Cry in the Dark (1988) was her most stunning transformation to that point. A woman of strong faith who disdained the role of victim, Chamberlain was vilified, tried, jailed and exonerated for the murder of her daughter Azaria.
By the end of the 1980s, Streep went on to play the intriguing role of sex queen Mary Fisher in She-Devil (1988), based on Fay Weldon’s novel about a ‘difficult woman’s’ revenge; and was the ultimate female control freak in her portrayal of President’s wife Eva Peron in Oliver Stone’s political musical masterpiece Evita (1989).
This unstoppable run continued with Streep’s turns as Miss Kenton, the housemaid who niggles at the heartstrings of the head butler in Mike Nichols’ production of Remains of the Day (1991); and as formidable poet Joy Gresham, who opens C.S Lewis’ heart in Shadowlands (1993).
Hang on … is that right? This writer’s got it wrong, hasn’t he? Check your facts, Mike! Meryl did chase the dingo from her tent, but you’re treading on the careers of Emma Thompson, Debra Winger and Madonna!
Okay, rewind …
To date there has been no comprehensive biography of Meryl Streep. If there ever is, to be complete, it must explore her ‘wilderness years’, where critics and film buffs rather generously describe her as experimenting with comedy and the action genre.
British film critic Barry Norman interviewed Streep in 1993 and asked her outright why she agreed to be part of She-Devil at all. Drawing him with one of her sharp stares, she put on a slightly comic voice and said: “Because I liked the one they did over here …”, referring to the BBC’s 1986 adaptation of Weldon’s novel, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil.
What might have attracted Streep was the original atmosphere, and climax, of the book and the TV series, which required the actress playing Mary Fisher to also play the very She-Devil herself. It was a plot twist like no other, and to have seen it in Streep’s hands would have been a real cinematic treat, but it was left out of the schlocky Hollywood version.
Streep’s preparation for the role of Eva Peron – singing and dancing rehearsals, and the recording of some of the musical’s tracks for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s approval – are well documented. A 1989 New York Times article cited security concerns about planned location work in Argentina, and an escalating budget complicated by Streep’s salary demands during delays in the doomed Oliver Stone production.
Mike Nichols was to direct Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Booker Prize winning novel Remains of the Day, and screen tested Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep for the leads. In an incident which has had only cursory exposure, Nichols did not believe this casting would work. Why that might have been the case (especially since both appeared to widespread acclaim in The French Lieutenant’s Woman a decade before), is unknown. A 1994 New York Times interview with Streep outlined how nobody had the guts to inform her, and confirmed that she sacked her longtime agent as a result. The Nichols-Pinter version was shelved until Merchant Ivory picked up the material, with new leads.
So why did Meryl Streep – a two-time Oscar winner at this point – find it difficult to land the roles she wanted? Had demanding a ‘pay or play’ clause during production delays on Evita labelled Streep as ‘difficult’ as her characters?
In the absence of any objective analysis, we’ll have to wait until Streep opens up.
By the time Clint Eastwood was on board to direct and star in The Bridges of Madison County (1994), plenty of other actresses had been talked-up for the female lead, but Eastwood got Streep’s number from Carrie Fisher (screenwriter of Postcards from the Edge), circumvented any Hollywood agent protocols, and asked the actress if she was remotely interested?
Streep reportedly upped-sticks and arrived in Iowa for filming at the drop of a hat.
The role of farm wife Francesca Johnson does not seem like a ‘difficult woman’. At first glance, she appears anaesthetised by her circumstances, but she’s a kind of dormant volcano, much like I imagine Streep was at the time.
The movie gave her another chance at a slow flaying of the viewer’s hide, in the role of another European woman, seemingly exiled in America.
By the time she’s removing the last layers, the similarities between Sophie Zawitowski and Francesca Johnson are obvious. The emphasis on significant life choices for both characters was a reminder for audiences of Streep’s other great characterisation of a decade earlier.
The Bridges of Madison County was also a return to relatively low production budget for Streep, and she remarked on Eastwood’s relaxed shooting style, which relied less on rehearsals and post production and more on the ability to come prepared and turn on the skill for the cameras.
Over the next five years she worked her way through a series of more veiled ‘difficult women’ like Francesca – Kate Mundy in Dancing at Lughnasa (1998) stands out as the strongest of these.
But she broke through into her old territory as Roberta Guaspari in Music of the Heart (1999), another ‘won’t take no for an answer’ protagonist.
By The Devil Wears Prada (2006), audiences were responding in a way they hadn’t at the box office since Out of Africa two decades before. Streep recalls reaching a new male audience with this movie, playing magazine editor Miranda Priestly as a serenely powerful figure, who maintains control even when everything is crumbling around her.
At last we got to see her claim a third Oscar for making us come to terms with the human being behind a Baroness who once ruled a nation.
As usual, not everyone was happy to see Streep shine – she’s always had her detractors. But despite not getting votes from film critic Pauline Kael (who always reserved a special kind of venom for Streep), and Katharine Hepburn (who claimed to hear the mechanics of technique ‘clicking’ with a Streep performance), legions of fans voted Streep’s role as Sophie Zawitowski into third place (and highest position for an actress) in Premiere Magazine’s poll ‘100 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time’.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.