The wilderness years of Meryl Streep

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.

VILIFIED MOTHER Streep as Lindy Chamberlain (Photo: Vivian Zink).

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.

DIFFICULT DEVIL Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (Photo: Barry Wetcher).

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.

The takings of this movie and the smash-hit Mamma Mia paved the way for Streep’s masterstroke as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011).

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’.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

The trouble with history

WAR OF WORDS Writing about Australia’s history can lead to conflict

A Writer’s first lesson in the politics of publishing.

WRITING about the past is dangerous. In Australia, we’ve become so outraged by historical exploration of our nation’s journey that there is now a term for the debate – The History Wars.

Although I wasn’t writing about anything particularly controversial, I came to understand how contested history writing can be throughout my second foray into getting published.

In 1989. I embarked on co-authoring a simple local history book, written to mark the centenary of Coorah, a Victorian-era house in my home town Wentworth Falls, right at the heart of the high school I’d attended: Blue Mountains Grammar.

I was full of a heady naiveté, thinking it would be a cinch; but nothing prepared me for the fuss this seemingly innocent publication would cause.

Equipped with some experience in academic detachment, I set off to follow a few leads. Various people living in my town had worked at this home before the Second World War. Surely they’d be happy to speak about their time in this century-old home?

Yet while recording a series of interviews, the great material I anticipated was not forthcoming. Some of the subjects raised an eyebrow at why anyone was remotely interested in their lives. Trying to explain how first-hand accounts are invaluable in fleshing out history, I glossed over the grumbles and complaints and put it all down to old age.

Then came the primary evidence. In those pre-internet days, research for this kind of material was laborious, based on luck and generous contacts. Nevertheless, I spent many happy hours in the State Library making brilliant discoveries using processes of deduction, and when I found material related to others’ research, I duly passed it on.

Since the old house had been an Anglican hostel for children, church records were also of interest. An administrator from Sydney’s Anglican records office found plenty of references to the lives of the kids who’d lived in the home in the 1940s and quickly sent them for use in the book. Perhaps a little too quickly…

Eventually there was enough original material to start writing the book, but then the trouble really began.

The descendants of the family who’d built the house were contacted. Their awkward reactions to my queries left me with the distinct feeling I was treading on the toes of the ‘official family historian’, who was planning to write her own book.

I put this aside because word had gotten around about our project, and we were getting offers of assistance, extra historical material, and photographs.

Sometimes these came with a great spirit of generosity – after all, we weren’t about to make a fortune for voluntarily writing this book.

More often, the ‘gatekeepers’ for much of the material were difficult characters, heavy with their reminders that they were ‘experts’ in various fields, that we were somehow lacking in experience and the same commitment to the past as they. Plenty of head-nodding and patience were required to extract necessary archives from the hands of collectors.

Foremost in our minds was the earliest known image of the home, boasted-about by the school executive who’d been given it after news about our book got out, and now stored in his office. Of course we were very keen to include it in the publication.

Yet no amount of queries, by letter or by phone, could get that image into the light of day. We never received an outright ‘no’, but the delay caused by his dissembling was putting pressure on our deadline. The home’s centenary was fast approaching, and we’d planned, understandably, to have our book available for sale on the very day.

CAPTIVE PHOTOGRAPH The earliest known image of Coorah, in Wentworth Falls.

So the manuscript – an attempt to tell Coorah’s story from all that dissembling, denial and jealousy – was duly presented. 

Our deadline came and went. The centenary was celebrated, but with no book. Printed six weeks later, without any opportunity given for proof-reading, the brand new title languished in boxes, its target audience long gone.

More than a little disappointed, I got back to my drama school coursework and waitering job, and tried to make history of what had turned out to be a deflating experience.

“It was little wonder there were no copies of our book hanging around as pesky reminders of the truth.”

Six years later, a meeting with a woman who’d been housed at Coorah while it was a church hostel revived the home’s story. Her account shed new light on the experiences recorded in the church records. Far from the ‘happy times’ which Anglican subscribers were fed in the 1940s, this place had actually been a source of fear to many of the resident children. At this time, generations of stolen, abused and neglected children in Australia were just starting to surface and tell their stories.

The house itself had been given a timely facelift, and the force behind the transformation proved to be the very same guardian of the earliest photograph of the building. Unfortunately, he never got around to reading our book, or even having a copy of it on display. Misinformation about the building was rife – basic facts, like dates, which the book had recorded from primary sources, were not being communicated.

The cause of that was a little harder to discover, but it also revealed itself, in time.

The photograph-concealer headed-up a push to adapt the old house into a public space, very far removed from the building’s core purpose. Our research showed that half a century before, the man who built Coorah – Robert Pitt (1849-1935) – had willed it for charitable purposes, stipulating that the property be entrusted for the use of children.

Childrens’ homes and a school were undoubtedly fitting uses under that extremely generous gift, but what about a use which had less to do with the needs of children and more to do with the vested interests of adults? With this yawning gap between the original owner’s intentions, and the home’s new life, it was little wonder there were no copies of our book hanging around as pesky reminders of the truth.

Over two decades have passed since the home’s centenary. There is now a new generation of family historians amongst the descendants of the man who built it, and they hosted their first family reunion there a few years ago. I attended and was taken by surprise when one of them held out a copy of our little book on the house, asking me for my signature in it.  

Around that time I started writing again.

The avoidance of history has now become far more fascinating to me than history itself, and has become integral to my work. Yet I know that when I write something about the past, based on events which actually happened, it’s going to get me in trouble, somewhere, sometime…

And what of that elusive photograph? Well, thanks to the internet, I publish it here with this post, just because I can.

And what of my first full-length publication? Well, after two decades, all those once-languishing copies have become as rare as hen’s teeth, and our research has contributed to the record.

And what of the house? Well, after two decades masquerading as something it was never intended to be, the adults have been evicted and Coorah has returned to a use that benefits children.

History has a strange way of coming back to bite, after all.

Agatha Christie – drama queen

KEPT THEM GUESSING Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976), author of over 100 crime titles.

A Writer’s first lesson in dramatic tension.

WHEN I was around six years old, mum bundled me and my siblings into the back of our station wagon and took us to the Inverell drive-in cinema. We were already asleep, so I don’t remember the start of the movie.

Much later I woke up, not because there was a particularly loud scene up on the big screen, but because it had gone uncharacteristically quiet. To a high-pitched, menacingly subtle soundtrack, figures, in the half-darkness, were focussed on some terrible task.

The movie was Sidney Lumet’s 1974 production of Agatha Christie’s iconic 1934 mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express. The onscreen figures were an array of 1970s movie stars. Silent. Deadly. Determined.

It was a powerful dose of dramatic tension for my young mind.

At the end of my final school exams, I picked up a Christie novel for the first time. It was By the Pricking of my Thumbs (1968). What attracted me was the cover illustration by Tom Adams – a cracked doll’s head with only one staring eye – an image dripping with the same dramatic tension.

Written very late in Christie’s career, this book is one of her ‘Tommy and Tuppence’ Beresford stories, the married amateur spies who aged with the author, and whom she used to give voice to much of the change her own generation faced across the 20th century.

They were never as famous as Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, but the Beresfords took readers on adventures in the 1920s, through the espionage-rich 1940s, and featured in the last mystery story Christie ever penned – Postern of Fate (1973).

Heavy on atmosphere, By the Pricking of my Thumbs is a spooky page turner with plenty of sins of the past coming back to haunt the residents of a hidden-away village in England.

After months of research for exams, a murder mystery was exactly what I needed. It suited my propensity to dig up the past in my own home town, exploring the attics of old homes and the secrets they evoked.

COVER STORY Tom Adams’ cover illustration for Agatha Christie’s 1968 mystery By the Pricking of my Thumbs.

I began to spot Adams’ Magritte-like covers in the second-hand shops and book markets, and soon had quite a collection. There have been plenty of Christie cover artists, but I don’t think any have become quite so renowned for the job. Adams’ covers are masterpieces of illusion, with painterly, stylistic references running throughout.

Agatha Christie was a great exponent of plot, probably one of the greatest. Her use of the ‘slow reveal’, particularly in her most famous storylines (And Then There Were None in particular) made up for other skills she lacked as a writer.

She undoubtedly suffered from over-exposure and publishing fatigue – for most of her career her work was sold annually as a ‘Christie for Christmas’. The sheer volume of her storytelling (well over 100 titles altogether) saw her create an oeuvre which has so far been unmatched in the crime genre.

Christie’s own life held mysteries of its own. In December 1926 she disappeared, leaving clothing and her car at a lonely place near her home in Berkshire. A nearby lake was searched to find her body. The newspapers were all over the inexplicable story of the popular crime writer who seemed to be the victim of foul play.

Eleven days later she was discovered at Harrogate Spa in Yorkshire, a great distance for someone who’d left her transport and spare clothes. Whether the entire incident was a publicity stunt or the result of a nervous breakdown linked to her husband’s infidelity has never been fully explained. Christie herself never wrote about it.

“She’ll always be remembered for leaving us wanting more about those 11 mysterious days, where dramatic tension left the realm of fiction for a fortnight.”

Vanessa Redgrave played Agatha Christie in the movie Agatha (1979), based on this affair. Redgrave’s performance goes a long way to unravelling the truth of a woman faced with abandonment and loss, who just goes away for a while to sort her head out. Dustin Hoffman played the newspaper-man who helps her do so. It’s an artful script by screenwriters Kathleen Tynan and Arthur Hopcraft, assisted by the complete absence of Christie’s own account of the same events.

What I really admire about Christie’s work is how well her dramatic tension translates to the screen. In the right hands, the results are iconic – Murder on the Orient Express (screenwriter Paul Dehn) and Death on the Nile (screenwriter Anthony Shaffer) are perennially popular big screen productions, renowned for their ingenious plots and memorable characters played by screen giants. The original books have sustained more than one screen adaptation, none of which cancels-out the others.

But sometimes, the results are only passable. Stewart Harcourt’s adaptation of By the Pricking of my Thumbs became a kind of unintentional mash-up under the banner of the Marple ITV series in 2006, when Miss Marple was planted into the storyline to assist Tuppence Beresford unravel the mystery.

It was a great shame, not only because Tuppence was rendered a rather lacklustre detective’s assistant (despite the excellent casting of Greta Scacchi and the fact that Tommy and Tuppence had starred in their own ITV series in the past – Partners in Crime in 1983), but also because Christie’s storyline was unrecognisable in the second half.

Don’t muck around with plot when adapting for the screen is the lesson I suppose. Nuances can be altered, of course, but the course of events? Never. Christie’s skills in atmosphere and dramatic tension rarely wavered, even in her less popular works. They are a gift to screenwriters.

And the ultimate lesson she left for posterity? Well, that’s easy – she’ll always be remembered for leaving us wanting more about those 11 mysterious days, where dramatic tension left the realm of fiction for a fortnight, and possibly transformed an emerging writer into a storytelling giant. Perhaps her publishers always suggested she stay silent on the subject?

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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