Tag Archives: Meryl Streep

Breaking heartland in August: Osage County

BROKEN HEARTS Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep.
BROKEN HEARTS Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep.

A Writer’s review.

SIX decades ago, great American playwrights like Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams only ever alluded to addiction, sexual diversity, mental health and suicide, or portrayed them in the hands of villains who always ‘got it’ at the end.

These days, there’s a growing number of storytellers courageous enough to begin where their antecedents left-off, helped by more relaxed censorship laws and a broader understanding of the human condition.

Tracy Letts’ play, and now screenplay, August: Osage County, is one of those, and has already become a benchmark in 21st century storytelling.

There are no spoilers in revealing that Violet Weston (played by Meryl Streep) opens this film with a frank revelation of her pill popping and her mental maladies in the kind of scene Eugene O’Neill could only have dreamt about including in Long Day’s Journey into Night (published in 1956).

Streep marks out a battlefield within a crumbling, overheated Oklahoma country house, and proceeds to destroy every member of the family who steps inside it in the wake of the disappearance of her husband (played by Sam Sheppard).

With a sister, three daughters, their partners, a Native American housekeeper and a granddaughter, she has plenty of adversaries, and she goads them until they all bite ferociously back.

Just who takes it up to her, and why, is the story of this film, revealing the life changing consequences of staring-down and surviving addiction.

It’s a bitter conflict, with violence, assault, and enabling wrapped into every scene. Letts’ greatest achievement is that not one character, not even Streep’s, could be described as either purely hero or villain.

“This is Roberts’ most controlled, and most out of control performance.”

They are all as bad, and as good, as one another, an unthinkable concept in 20th century drama, where every protagonist had to battle with their equivalent antagonist, so that the audience knew who to barrack for, and who won or lost.

On this score, it’s hard to know if August: Osage County is a comedy or a tragedy.

Streep has never climbed higher in an entirely convincing portrayal, a tribute to her risk taking. It will be hard to topple this performance, which spills off the screen like vomit.

Yet Violet has grace. She has you hating her and sympathising with her in turns, never revealing anything ultimately honest, yet claiming to be the “truth teller” of the family. Nothing about Streep’s Weston is absolute, apart from her total inability to be saved.

Julia Roberts as Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara wears the family angst as a barely concealed boxing glove which she is not afraid to wield. There is little that can be said about the role and the performance which will not reveal the plot, just know this is Robert’s most controlled, and most out of control performance.

In the midst of the family intrigue, it’s easy to forget the isolation and hardship of the American heartland (and remote communities everywhere), but Letts reminds us now and again that we are not in the city, we are in dangerous country, stolen from Native Americans, fought over by settlers, and reminisced in the poetry of Violet’s husband.

This is a universally rural story about the experiences of country souls, those that escaped and those who got left behind. In the final scene, with Julia Roberts caught at an emotional crossroads, this reality becomes a painful reminder of what can go wrong when great, unsustainable dreams are created in farming regions.

CREATING WAVESAugust: Osage County is a heartbreaking elegy to all broken heartlands and the souls they failed to nurture.

This review first appeared on NoFibs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

 

A dingo took the story

DESERT CHAMELEON Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in 'A Cry in the Dark' (Photograph by Vivian Zink).
‘DINGO BABY’ Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in ‘A Cry in the Dark’ (Photos by Vivian Zink).

Can a real-life story be plotted into a dramatic arc?

THE hardest form of plotting is the real-life story. Remember when James Cameron made you forget the Titanic was going to sink? Like or love his movie, Cameron’s masterstroke of ‘real-life’ storytelling created a new benchmark, but his love story also bent the ‘real life rule’ quite a bit by using fictitious characters within a real-life story.

The reason real life is the hardest form of fiction should be obvious – life does not slot easily into a three- or five-act dramatic arc. Producers and publishers don’t like real life – it’s never fast or entertaining enough to put bums on seats, it’s way too random, and it usually needs a bit of tweaking.

Even reality television only feels real – it’s been fictionalised ever since the quiz show hit the small screen.

One of the finest examples of a real-life dramatic arc is Fred Schepisi and Robert Caswell’s adaptation of John Bryson’s long-form work of journalism, Evil Angels, the story of the Chamberlain ‘dingo baby’ case, otherwise known as A Cry in the Dark.

Let’s put the plot through its paces… beware, there are spoilers (yeah I know, you know how the story ends… or do you?).

Exposition – “A dingo’s got the baby”

The exposition must introduce us to the characters and show who is the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the anti-hero, or ‘villain’); and the protagonist must be called to action, posing a question so interesting that we are gripped.

Lindy and Michael Chamberlain (the protagonists) are at their Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa for the christening of their daughter, Azaria, when passing truckers gossip about Adventists over their radios, and the family portrait is showered by their dust, revealing the Australian public’s (the antagonists) wariness of anyone they don’t understand. Michael (Sam Neill) and Lindy (Meryl Streep) leave for a holiday to Uluru (Ayers Rock), and settle in for a barbecue dinner. Lindy puts Azaria to sleep in their tent, and after she returns to the barbecue, another camper, Sally Lowe, hears the baby cry. When Lindy goes to check, she sees a dingo emerge from the tent, finds Azaria missing, and shouts the now infamous line.

Rising Action – “A lie goes around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on”

The rising actions are those the antagonist uses to thwart the protagonist and show us who both of them really are.

The Chamberlains wake to news that Azaria’s body has not been found. The media soon picks-up on the disappearance and stories spread across the Australian public’s TV screens, with an edge of eeriness and mystery. The Chamberlains return home to rebuild their lives, but the media continues its push for information, and Lindy attempts to tell her story, but it backfires as the media disseminates rumours about the family. The Australian public starts its own dialogue about the case, mainly convinced of Lindy’s guilt and the dingo’s innocence. An inquest, which clears the Chamberlains of all guilt in Azaria’s death, seems to resolve the case.

MIKL CURDLER Meryl Streep's portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain saw her on the receiving end of similar hatred.
NUT CRACKER Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain saw her on the receiving end of similar hatred.

Climax – “A face that could crack walnuts”

The climax must be the start of a battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, and a turning point after which there is no going back for either.

Disgruntled Northern Territory police consult forensic experts, who find enough evidence to re-open the case. The Chamberlain’s home is raided and items taken for testing. Witnesses are simultaneously interviewed. The media breaks the story and the Australian public devours the new information with hysteria, focussed on perceptions of Lindy’s demeanour. Lindy is heavily pregnant as the ‘trial of the century’ begins in Darwin. The jury, representatives of the Australian public, ultimately ignores eyewitness accounts in favour of forensic evidence and finds Lindy Chamberlain guilty of murder and her husband Michael an accessory. Lindy is sentenced to life imprisonment. The Australian public celebrates.

Falling Action – “I will not have another dinner party ruined by those people” 

The falling action must play out the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, allowing one of them to win. The winner defines the piece as a comedy or a tragedy.

Lindy is separated from her family in prison, where she gives birth to a daughter whom she is quickly forced to hand over to Michael, and she disappears from the Australian public’s consciousness while the Chamberlain’s legal team begins the long process of appealing her sentence. Despite the Australian public’s deeply-held conviction that she is guilty, cracks start to appear in the wall of opposition to Lindy. When the unexpected death of a tourist at Uluru leads to the chance discovery of Azaria’s matinee jacket (evidence the prosecutors used to paint Lindy as a liar), Lindy’s is swiftly released from prison after three years. She returns home, a stranger to her new daughter Khalia.

Dénouement – “How important innocence is to innocent people”

The dénouement (‘to untie’) must unravel all the conflict and bring everything to a sense of resolution. In a comedy, the protagonist is better off than when they started. In a tragedy, this is reversed. The big question posed in the exposition must be left answered.

At their church, the Chamberlains are welcomed by a cheering crowd of Adventists, and Lindy speaks about the family’s patience and endurance while the truth about Azaria’s disappearance was eventually revealed. During the applause, Khalia comes to her mother’s side, and the family group which was ripped apart is restored, albeit changed. Outside, a media pack launches itself at the Chamberlains, suggesting that their journey to exoneration is far from over, and Michael underlines the importance of the concept do innocence to innocent people.

WITCH HUNT The Chamberlains pursued into Darwin Court by a media pack.
WITCH HUNT The Chamberlains portrayed by Neill and Streep pursued into Darwin Court by a media pack.

The Verdict

The screenwriters’ decision to portray the entire Australian public as the antagonist was not only genius, it was based on the truth of the Chamberlain’s story, and helped rank the movie amongst the most gripping courtroom dramas.

The dramatic arc of A Cry in the Dark hits all the right moments, the most subtle of which is the antagonist’s (the public’s) slow realisation that an error of judgement has been made. In the end, they are defeated by the evidence.

But this win for Lindy Chamberlain cannot be defined as a comedy. This is another reason why producers often avoid real-life stories: they’re hard to define and therefore hard to sell.

In 1988, when this film was released, twenty-four years were yet to pass before the true antagonist of the Chamberlain’s story – the dingo who took Azaria – was acknowledged by the Northern Territory legal system. Before this factual milestone was reached, which acknowledged the reason no body was ever found (Azaria having been consumed by dingoes), the screenwriters of A Cry in the Dark acknowledged that the dingo took not only the baby, but also her story.

WRITE REGARDLESSThat the filmmakers found a way to capture this true tale long before it was over makes A Cry in the Dark one of the best lessons in real-life storytelling.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

The dingo’s not a maybe

GUILTY VERDICT The disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain has at last been explained (Photo by The GirlsNY)

A Writer’s first lesson in injustice.

I HAVE been obsessed by the Azaria Chamberlain case since I was ten years old. When others in my family would cry ‘change the channel’, I wanted to follow the legal process which led to Michael and Lindy Chamberlain’s conviction in 1982.

It’s hard to get your way at that age, especially when you’re in the minority.

I was the only person I knew who believed the Chamberlains were innocent and was willing to say so. My great-uncle (a retired lawyer) was sure, based on the forensic evidence, that Azaria had not been taken by a dingo but had been killed by her mother. Not surprisingly, his influence was quite strong amongst our circle, and it swung other generally sensible adults over to the ‘Lindy is as guilty as hell’ way of thinking.

A collective energy against an individual has often been called a ‘witch hunt‘, and Australia willingly engaged in one.

I remember the T-shirts at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, the word ‘Azaria’ written in fake blood around the neck.

I remember the time a friend’s mother told me that I wouldn’t be welcome in their home unless I changed my mind and believed that Azaria was killed by her own mother.

I remember getting onto a plane in Sydney bound for Darwin in July 1985, as Michael Chamberlain boarded and bravely ignored the wall of hushed emotion from every single passenger as we craned our necks to stare at him.

I remember the vitriol leveled at Fred Schepisi and the filmmakers behind A Cry in the Dark for producing a movie which told the Chamberlain’s story based on eyewitnesses accounts of events on the night of August 17, 1980, at Ayer’s Rock.

I remember a scene in that movie, when Lindy Chamberlain (portrayed by Meryl Streep) shakily emptied her bottle sterliser as the family packed-up and went to a motel, since Azaria had not been found.

I remember how my mother shuddered next to me in the cinema, as it dawned on her (recalling her own experience of losing a child), that a baby had died that night.

I remember how seeing the accurate portrayal of eyewitness evidence changed her mind about the case.

I remember that one of her friends admonished her for being so easily swayed by something as ‘flimsy’ as a movie.

I remember reading Justice Morling’s 1988 Report, as he unravelled every single rumour about the Chamberlains, and thinking it should be essential reading for anyone who had an opinion about the family.

In 32 years I don’t remember anyone ever coming up with a credible explanation for why they believed Lindy Chamberlain would kill her baby.

I will always remember June 12, 2012, as the day Australia grew up a little, and became a slightly safer place because justice was finally granted to a family who only wanted a truthful explanation for their trauma. Safer not because the dingo had finally gone on record as a predator capable of hunting humans in the Northern Territory, but because our justice system upheld the accounts of eyewitnesses over forensic errors.

No piece of writing could ever rival the case of the taking of Azaria Chamberlain by a dingo. We have lived through events that, if told as a piece of fiction, would be written off as unbelievable.

But it happened. Truth is far stranger, as they say.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.