According to Kevin Bacon, if you break down any great actor’s best performances, they are all shades of one performance. Any actor that is, except his The River Wild co-star Meryl Streep, who Bacon refers to as a “transcendental performer.” Witnessing what she was capable of in the same room on Mama Mia, Colin Firth described it as looking at close-up magic, and for Nicole Kidman, no other actor comes close: “In terms of her body of work, I think she’s unrivalled. We all have to say thank you Meryl because basically, she showed us all how to do it.” Today, La Streep continues to inspire generations of aspiring, upcoming and established thespians,and amongst cinephiles she has exceeded even sacred cow status, simply referred to by those who know what they’re talking about as the ‘greatest actress of all time.’
Nominated for her eighteenth Academy Award at last Sunday’s Oscars, it seems inconceivable that no comprehensive study of Meryl Streep’s career and craft exisited until earlier this year, with the publication of former LA Weekly film editor Karina Longworth’s second contribution to Cahiers Du Cinema’s Anatomy of an Actor series, which explores how legendary actors have become so respected and influential in the world of film through analysis of ten of their most iconic roles. One can’t help but feel Longworth must have found the format to be a blessing when considering this most wide-ranging and monumental of filmographies, and through her expert and insightful readings of The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, Out of Africa, Death Becomes Her, The Bridges of Madison County, The Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia and The Iron Lady, the author builds a picture of woman whose social conscious is neatly aligned with the people she’s portrayed, courageously fighting for richer, truthful and more varied representations of women on screen.
Turning sixity in 2009, Streep starred in Julie & Julia, her fourth $100 million dollar hit in four years. A box office star in late middle age who defied conventional wisdom about a woman’s shelf life in front of the camera, she broke a glass ceiling for older women on screen, continuing to demonstrate the savvy control she’s exercised over her career since she first found fame in The Deer Hunter. Many have already bestowed the title of world’s greatest actor on Meryl Streep, but Longworth convinciningly (and more interestingly) points out that Streep, as well as being a serial accumulator of accolades, is also one of the few examples of the actor as auteur.
Streep has never failed to astound audiences with her ability to fully inhabit her characters and Longworth does her subject justice by fully understanding them and what they each contribute to the larger picture of Streep’s astounding thirty-five year career.
Vérité: Fans have waited a long time for a doorstop tome on Meryl Streep, but despite lots of fascinating biographical insight, it’s worth pointing out that this reads more like an extended piece of film criticism rather than a traditional biography.
Karina Longworth: It was never really intended as a biography. Cahiers Du Cinema’s history is of course in film criticism, and the Anatomy of an Actor series is a reflection of that.
Was there ever any talk of getting one-on-one access to Meryl Streep?
The format was set in stone and under those constraints of profiling ten films, frankly I wasn’t interested in talking to her. I thought I could be more honest about the way that her work functions in the culture if I wasn’t bringing in her direct perspective. I think it’s really hard to combine film criticism with interview. Once you start interfacing with the person you’re writing about, you lose your objectivity.
And yet each chapter opens with a direct quote from Meryl Streep, that you then look at and start to unpack. How early on did you come up with the idea of beginning each chapter this way and how helpful was it to your writing process?
I don’t know it was even a conscious decision. It might have just been more of a writing exercise to help get me started and then it sort of stuck in the final draft. When I do anything, I always do an enormous amount of research and for this I spent many days at the Margaret Herrick Library, run by the Academy here in Los Angeles. They have these files where they take clippings from magazines and newspapers – basically anything they can find throughout history – which are all searchable by actor, director or film title. So I read every interview with her that I could find, dating back to 1978 and there are a lot of gems that are forgotten or that people don’t talk about. Starting each chapter with a quote might have been a way for me to just highlight some of the really smart things she said. Actors don’t always have whip-smart insight about what it is that they do and how it fits into the culture, but she does.
Streep is the most revered actress of all time and yet there is so little writing on her in terms of books. Do you think that for many writers, taking on such a herculean body of work is too daunting?
I was really surprised when I first started the project to see how little there was in terms of long-form writing about her. I wonder if other people felt the same way I did before I looked into it. I assumed that there was no need for a Meryl Streep book because there must already be many miles of writing about this person who we think of as being so revered it’s sort of exhausting. I’m starting to become really interested in something I’ve perceived in our culture right now – I don’t know if it’s because of the internet or that the internet has sort of morphed in order to feed this thing – but I think people have really short term memories when it comes to culture. They have this idea of Meryl Streep as she is now and they don’t think at all about what happened in the seventies, eighties and nineties to get her to this place and that was something that really excited me about the idea of taking it on. But yes, I was incredibly surprised that no one had done it up to this point.
The book tracks changes in feminism and maps them on to these roles in Streep’s career. Was this idea important to you in terms of getting away from more general discussions of her as “the greatest actor of all time”?
I don’t know that it tracks changes in feminism. I think her body of work was pretty removed from politics. I’m grafting onto her career a feminist study, choosing to look at her body of work as a kind of alternate history of the twentieth century from a woman’s point of view. The ten films I selected are all a kind of historical fiction and in all of them she’s basically relating a woman’s perspective and the challenges faced by women in a specific time and place. That to me was a feminist act, but that’s a little bit different from actually tracing the progress of feminism over thirty years.
Tell us about this idea of Meryl as a secret, subversive feminist, sneaking ideas into nonpoliticized people’s entertainment.
Writing this, I quickly realized that Meryl Streep was not an out of the closet feminist until relatively recently. When she was first becoming a star with movies like The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer, these were movies that really appealed to an increasingly conservative population as Regan was becoming president and a pro-capital culture was coming in and replacing any elements of progressiveness left over from the sixties. It was considered not just uncool but commercially unadvisable to be associated with left wing things at that time and Meryl Streep was really careful to not be publically feminist. Jane Fonda limited the opportunities available to herself, both in terms of the politics of Hollywood and the types of roles she could play by really wearing her personal politics, including feminism on her sleeve, and Meryl saw that as an example of what not to do. However behind the scenes of movies like Kramer vs. Kramer and Out of Africa, she was fighting for a deeper representation of the female characters she was playing.
And fighting quite a bit I’d imagine, working mostly with men.
Exactly. Within these movies written and directed and produced by men, she fought to ensure that these women were at least heard in the narrative. When she auditioned for the role of the Joanna Kramer she told writer-director Robert Benton she was worried about the novel the film was based on being considered a backlash, anti-feminist text. Streep understood the point of view of the female character, and was worried the filmmakers would exclude it, so when they cast her, to throw her a bone and make it seem like he was giving his actress what she wanted, Benton offered to let her write her own dialogue in the courtroom scene in which Joanna states her case as to why she should be given custody of her child. He was doing it to make his actress feel comfortable but she did such a good job of inventing a speech more powerful than anything he could come up with that he ended up keeping that dialogue in the movie. Kramer was a huge zeitgeist hit, which won a lot of Oscars, but most people who watch that film have no idea Meryl Streep participated to that level. Most of the time when she’s doing stuff behind the scenes like that, she’s not taking writing or producing credit because doing so in the early eighties might have pushed her more towards the Jane Fonda territory of being a pushy, in your face woman. She knew she could speak to more people and speak to the people who needed to hear her more effectively, if her persona were that of an actress rather than someone pushing to be heard.
And were there any films of her career you were regretful about not being able to write about in more depth? I would have loved to have seen you tackle Ironweed, though I’m not sure exactly how it would have fit into your thesis. A shame because while it’s largely been forgotten about, it was an Oscar nominated performance – to my mind the best of her career and ripe for re-evaluation.
I did watch Ironweed and consider it for inclusion. It was difficult to fit it in being limited to just ten films and having to cover the full scope of her career. I agree with you that a lot of people have forgotten Ironweed and it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s a really strange movie and she’s really interesting in it, but it wasn’t emblematic enough of a specific period in her career for me to ultimately include it. I do think that period of the late eighties, early nineties is really fascinating because she’s kind of stumbling a bit. She’s being criticised in the Hollywood trades for not being enough of a box office draw, with magazine editorials complaining that she’s overrated and getting paid too much. During the late eighties she fights back and starts talking publically about how it’s ludicrous to accuse her of being overpaid when she’s in fact paid half of what Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty are paid. She gives this keynote speech at a woman’s conference at the Screen Actors Guild, laying it all out on the table with all this research, talking about the paucity of roles for women, especially older women, and directly attacks the big hit of the season, Pretty Woman for promoting the idea of prostitutes. (Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts recently starred together in August: Osage County Ed.)
That’s a really ballsy and dangerous move.
This is really her first feminist coming out moment that’s trashed in the press, and she’s seen as biting the hand that feeds her. She’s making movies during this time like Postcards from the Edge, She Devil and Death Becomes Her that are really interesting in terms of how women are depicted but none of them are box office hits. It’s a period of her being more open about who she really is and what she really believes, thinking she has the power to back that up when it actually weakens her power in Hollywood. She doesn’t really get back in the saddle until the early two-thousands. 2002, she had Adaptation, The Hours and Angels in America all in the same year. If I could’ve done an eleventh chapter I would’ve done that year with the focus on Adaptation. I think she had trouble in her forties finding an identity and it’s only when she was comfortably in middle age that she began to find her footing again.
I found your astute reading of scenes at a micro level, particularly in the chapter on Silkwood really impressive. It made me appreciate the film on a whole other level. How much of your time did you spend re-watching the films whilst writing the book to bring those details into sharper focus?
There’s that phase at the beginning of the book where I’m just watching movies and taking notes. That’s when I’m not sure exactly which movies I’m going to include, and when I do decide based on those viewings, the second watch is when I’m hitting pause all the time so I can catch up, making sure my quotes are accurate and including my own analysis in my notes. And then I might watch it a third time just to make sure my interpretation of it based on the previous two times still holds. Sometimes I’ll have written a couple thousand words about a movie and then I’ll start thinking about a certain idea and wonder how a scene supports that idea or doesn’t support it, so I’ll go back and watch that scene a few times. It’s a constantly evolving process and I do think that if I wasn’t watching the films over and over again I might not have included the chapters on Silkwood and The Bridges of Madison County. Those are two movies that ended up being really crucial to my argument and my dream double feature of Meryl’s movies ripe for re-discovery. Unfortunately nobody wants to watch either one of them! They’re both perceived as being boring women’s movies when in fact they’re fascinating twin portraits of the inner lives and external challenges faced by women in rural America.
I think your book makes a great case for both films, and I’m glad you decided to include them because they were my two favourite chapters.
After reading, I think you’ll change a lot of people’s minds, and they’ll actively seek these films out and re-discover them. I re-watched all the ten films before reading this book, apart from The Bridges of Madison County, which I’ve actually never seen. You’re right, it does have a certain reputation, and for this reason I purposely decided not to watch it to see if you could get me excited about it as a recommendation. You totally succeeded. I can’t wait for it to come out on Blu-ray in May, and it’s on my birthday wishlist.
Oh wow! Thanks. That was one I felt obligated to include because it was the only hit she had in the nineties and I wanted to understand why it connected with audiences. I think it’s a great movie and I’m not really a Clint Eastwood fan and I can’t say I’ve read the book, or was part of that phenomena, but just on its own it holds up as a really strong film I think.
Commendably, you’re so deep down in the nitty gritty of performance particulars that you don’t let your admiration of Streep as a performer get in the way. You offer brilliant readings of the films but curiously, I came away having little idea of how Karina Longworth would rank these ten films as a fan and which titles you had a particular preference for. The only time you show your hand in this way is during the chapter on The Iron Lady, and in just a few scant lines, I think I detected a brusque dismissal of The River Wild, which for the longest time was my favourite Streep performance, but that probably has to do with the fact it was the first of hers I saw in the cinema.
Oh, I wasn’t even really trying to dis The River Wild. That’s interesting… My style of film criticism is not really “loved it, hated it, thumbs up, thumbs down” it’s much more about reporting on my experience of watching the film and considering it as an art object. That said, I think I am actually pretty open in the book about which films are my favourites and which ones I like less. Certainly, The Iron Lady is a film I don’t think is very good but it seemed it was important to include. I’m pretty critical of Out of Africa, which is that kind of film I’ll put on when I’m sick ‘cause it takes a whole day to watch and is nice in the way it sort of washes over you like a blanket, but which I don’t think is a very good film and I don’t think it’s one of her best performances. I guess I’m careful not want to come off as a fan girl and in not speaking to her I don’t have to effect any form of flattery or any sort of artificiality.
When did you first become a fan of Streep? Do you remember the first film of hers you saw in cinema and the roles you gravitated towards when you started writing professionally?
I can’t say she was ever somebody I was more interested in than anybody else. I think the first film of hers I saw was Death Becomes Her. I was about twelve years old when that came out. That was at a time I was going to see every movie and that’s still one of my favourites. I hope that’s not just nostalgic attachment from my preteen years but I really like that film. I was going to say no when I was first asked to write this book. Because I thought there wasn’t anything interesting to say about Meryl Streep that hadn’t already been said. I didn’t have a passionate attachment to her work at all. It was only going through the initial research to explain to myself why I didn’t want to write the book that I realised that I really did want to write the book because there was so much fascinating material and stuff that hadn’t been said.
Previously you’d written a book in the same series on Al Pacino. Were you more personally connected to his films?
He was someone I had more of an emotional attachment to. I am really fascinated by ’70s Hollywood and it’s something I keep returning to over and over again. For me he’s the guy who embodies that period. I think in the way you’re a Beatles or a Stones person, you’re a De Niro or a Pacino person. I’ve always been a Pacino person. His scrappy insanity is something I really respond to. I think he’s sexier and his performance style is more mindboggling to me. So that was something they asked me to do it and, I was like, “Great, can’t wait!”, but I do think I struggled in that book to find the thread that ties it all together. I’m proud of that book but not in the way I’m proud of the Meryl Streep book, which says things about Meryl Streep that have never been said before, at least in written form.
What are some of the most surprising discoveries you made in terms of her work behind the scenes? The revelation that Sophie’s eventual choice was a scene where Streep completely winged it was something so unexpected after you’ve just spent two chapters establishing how impeccably prepared she is.
I didn’t know anything about what sort of acting school she subscribed to until I started doing research. I think that she’s definitely someone that people in awe of her are always asking the question, “How does she do it?” and the answer is, there is no one way that she does it. She borrows from all kinds of acting schools and techniques. Sometimes she decides that the right way to prepare for a particularly harrowing emotional scene is to not prepare at all and just do it off the cuff. Sometimes she does a lot of improv, other times she insists scenes be re-written. I think people want the easy answer of this is how she does it, when in fact each time she has to start from scratch. She’s talked about that and I quote her on it. I was probably most surprised by the specifics of how she requested movies be changed. The Devil Wears Prada is an interesting example. Her key scene in that film is where you see her character Miranda Priestly without make-up, with tears on her face, breaking down and speaking in an honest way about the challenges she faces as a working women. And then she immediately snaps back into her persona of the glamour goddess who’s in control of it all. It was a revelation to me. To learn that that scene was not in the original script, that Meryl Streep asked for a scene where she could break down her guard and show that the character was human. Again, this is an act of feminism, advocating for these characters and showing that they’re not one dimensional, but people who live in the real world, who are shaped by their experiences.
I want to go back to Sophie’s Choice for a moment. You talk about how Streep gives a master class in acting for the camera, particularly the scene where Sophie finally tells Stingo the truth about her past in close-up. On the one hand, the claustrophobic theatrical aesthetic and the length of the takes lends a showiness to the monologue that Pauline Kael (Streep’s fiercest critic) would surely have prickled at, yet you point out the very cinematic choice of filming these close-ups through a window to make Sophie feel isolated and out of reach even as her face is filming the frame. Many critics talk about this film as having a sort of embalmed, lifeless quality. Does the film’s apparent stuffiness bother you, or do you feel it’s an essential part of its effectiveness?
I think it’s maybe an over-styled film. It sort of looks romantically beautiful even in scenes at the concentration camp, which is an interesting choice that has a lot to do with the fact that the whole film is filtered through memory. I’ve presented screenings of it recently and I like to point out that I think the movie gets a bad rap for being a three hour holocaust movie and that people don’t watch it because they think they know what it is when that haven’t seen it, or at least not recently. In pop culture there’s this idea of a “Sophie’s choice”, of that phrase being used colloquially now when people are talking about what kind of pizza to have, and that gets really far away from what the movie actually is. Cheesy as it may sound, I think the movie is a celebration of life and I think that there are so many things that people forget about in these long scenes of Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline dancing, singing, playing the piano and living life to the fullest in this way that’s being depicted as surreally awful. It’s a more complicated film than most give it credit.
Your study also has the appeal of a coffee table book, being packed full of great production stills, candid shots and rare on set photos. I particularly liked the pages that ended chapters, breaking down the scenes you were talking about into their most poignant screenshots. How early on does this part of the process start and how does it work in terms of you matching images to your writing and the options being given to you by the publisher?
I’m not involved with the photo editing at all. I never see any of the photos they’ve chosen until they send me the final proof of the book and in this case, I only asked for them to make one change. It’s in the sidebar where I’m talking about the speech she gave to the Screen Actor’s Guild. They had used this shot from Postcards from the Edge where Streep’s character has OD’d and she’s having this dream sequence where she’s stealing all sorts of vials from a cabinet in the hospital. It’s this photo where she looks crazy and completely out of control. I asked them to replace it with something where she looked more in control because as it was, the image juxtaposed with my text was sending the wrong message. You’ll be happy to know it was replaced with a still from The River Wild.
What’s next for you? Will you contribute a third book in the series?
I’m not going to work with this publisher again unfortunately, but I have a book coming out over the summer. It’s being released in England and America under different titles. Where you are as Hollywood Contacts: Movie Stars Behind the Scenes. It’s basically a photoboook collecting the contact sheets from still photo shoots of classic movies. I did all the research and wrote the text, even though there isn’t much of it. I’m also hoping to work on a music related book which I just finished a proposal for whilst trying to write a Hollywood novel which is in its early stages right now.
Meryl Streep was Oscar nominated again this past Sunday for August: Osage County. Do you think it was a performance deserving of the accolade?
I’m not a fan of the performance or the film but it’s really indicative of the esteem in which Meryl Streep is held in Hollywood. Her peers feel that she can do no wrong, to the point where it’s kind of ridiculous sometimes. Still, it’s amazing that as a sixty-five year old woman, she’s as beloved by that industry as she is.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on March 6, 2014