Tag Archives: Critics

The wilderness years of Meryl Streep

STREEP’S AHEAD Meryl Streep in ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (Photo: Josh Weiner).

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 Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in ‘A Cry in the Dark’ (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.

MERYL'S CHOICE Streep as Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County.
MERYL’S CHOICE Streep as Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County.

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.

DIFFICULT DEVIL Meryl Streep as magazine editor Miranda Priestly in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (Photo: Barry Wetcher).

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’.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

PLUCK COVER copyThis article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

The trouble with history

HISTORY OR LIES? The ‘Father of History’, Greek Historian Herodotus (Photograph by Konstantinos Stampoulis).

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

WRITING about the past is dangerous. Spare a thought for Greek historian Herodotus (c.484-425BC), known as both the ‘Father of History’ and ‘The Father of Lies’ depending on who you believe.

Here 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.

I came to realise how controversial history writing is during my second foray into getting published.

As I embarked on a simple local history book (written to mark the centenary of Coorah, a Victorian-era house), 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 a dose of academic detachment (for how I developed this trait, read my previous post on academic writing), 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 historic home?

But 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 made copies and duly passed it on.

Since the old house had been an Anglican hostel for children, church records were also of interest. A kind 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’.

I put this aside because word had gotten around about our book, 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 executive who’d been given it after news about our book got out, and now stored in his office on the same site as this 100-year-old home. Of course we were very keen to include it in the publication.

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 was duly presented to the publisher, in the same office as the photograph-concealer. We waited, and waited, and waited. Why? Again, we were met with mysterious dissembling.

Our deadline came and went. The centenary was celebrated, but with no book. It was printed six weeks later, without any opportunity given to its writers 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 historical truth.”

Six years later, a meeting with a woman who’d been housed at this old building while it was a church hostel revived the home’s story. Her account shed new light on the experiences recorded in the ecclesiastical 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 historical research showed that half a century before, the man who built the house had donated it for charitable purposes, for ‘use amongst 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 historical truth.

Over two decades have passed since the home’s centenary. There is now a whole 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. A flattering, poignant moment for me.

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. 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, I hear its current residents are looking for another home. History has a strange way of coming back to bite, after all.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A waiter’s revenge tragedy

220px-Waiter!THERE isn’t much to write about waitering that hasn’t already been covered brilliantly by Steve Dublanica in his blog and book Waiter Rant, but if I might add my own perspective…

I waitered throughout the first four of my five tertiary education years. During that time I wasn’t eligible for government support or scholarships. One of my parents couldn’t assist in supporting me financially, while the other one just wouldn’t.

A bad lot? Not really, but with six 12-hour days of coursework, there wasn’t much time left for earning an income to cover the costs of leaving home.

Café waitering wasn’t rocket science, but food experiences were very different two decades ago.

Coffee making wasn’t the exact and particular science fretted over by millions every morning across the world these days. A caffè latte had no froth (or coffee art on top), just plenty of hot milk. Soy milk was a gluggy, grey substance which you wouldn’t want to drink with coffee. Baby-cinos were just the sparkle in someone’s eye.

There was also a new bread on the scene: Focaccia. I fondly remember the year when diners couldn’t say the word. “Fossa-see-a”, “Fark-arr-chee”, and “Fock-akki” are three of my favourite mis-pronunciations of the Italian flatbread that was being filled and toasted like it was going out of style.

Yet the differences in cuisine back then did not mean people were less demanding. Not in the least.

FOCC-UP Could you pronounce the name of the new bread which hit Australian cafes in the late 1980s?

Every eating destination has its regulars, ready to pounce at the slightest change in serving size or ingredient. I got to know a few people like this in my waitering years, the kind who’d make your teeth gnash, the kind you’d like to suggest just go to the nearest supermarket and spend $10 on ingredients, go home, and make their own damned meal for once.

But my real hatred was birthed by those I’ll call the food pedants, those for whom nothing is ever good enough. “Please ask the chef to…”, or “my coffee is not hot enough”, “can I use my own tea bag?”, “I’m only paying for half the coffee because I only drank half”, and all manner of pinickerty requests. The kind of people who don’t know they’re alive unless they’re getting someone else to do something for them.

Such folk were a great source of inspiration for a story I called A Waiter’s Revenge Tragedy, one which I formulated in my left brain in order to escape the piles of washing-up along the floor and down the stairs, because there was no dishwasher and only one small sink in that particular establishment.

In this never-written story, a Waiter was pushed so far by a difficult customer that he plotted the man’s death in an elaborate and long-term strategy, culminating in what appeared to be suicide, after the customer’s attempts to get his way became so extreme that he faked a bout of food poisoning. Of course, the noble waiter would also need to perish at the end of the story to make it a true ‘tragedy’.

It was convoluted, sure, but planning this magnum opus brought me great delight. Each new encounter with a food pedant fed the story arc, until I’d made myself immune to them through the sheer delight of encountering more material.

Perhaps other people just switch off under these circumstances, but not this writer. Imaginary revenge was simply too delicious. A Waiter is only one letter away from being a Writer anyway.

The best part about being a waiter was working for a supportive boss. My last café manager was an ex-boxer who once removed a complainer through the front door by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his pants for querying the bill. He always said he’d support his staff against any customer complaint, even if we were in the wrong. The result? Excellent staff who did their job with energy and without fail. These days, that boss would probably end up in jail.

I now share meals with plenty of hospitality workers, and the stories they come out with would curl your toes. All I would advise readers is this:  respect your waiter, and never be a pedant. If you ignore this simple advice, you’ll never be able to trust anyone serving you…

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.