Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My Magnum Opus…I mean, My Meryl Opus, Part I

By: Alex "The Savant" Heisman

© jollypeople.com 2011

Attempting to transcribe my Meryl Streep…addiction?, obsession?, fixation?...to just text cannot, in any significant way, truly establish the vast amount of respect and love I have for this woman. Perhaps that may be due to the taming down of the adjectives we are so familiar with- when one reads that something is “outstanding”, that does not immediately conjure the elements of grandeur as it should, simply because we are so used to the word. In fact, this will be the most challenging piece I will ever have to compose- both in personal or academic tones- as I am trying my hardest to not come off simply sounding quite pathetic and over the top. Those that know me can surely attest to the fact that I am even more infatuated with this particular actress then I will be able to convey, and, to certainly not appear completely crazy, I will only comment on Meryl Streep’s professional career and not how deeply she has affected me personally. (Although, the birthday parties I throw every year, the effort with which I strive to know every single last detail of her life, and the choice to live my life by the codes and ethics most important to her may give you some idea). While by no means exhaustive of the complete importance of her legacy, the sheer amount of films I wish to touch upon means this post must be divided into two parts. This first part can almost be dubbed her “Golden Dramatic Age”.

Kramer vs. Kramer- 1979  (Winner- Best Supporting Actress)
Streep’s first Oscar win proved how adept she was at emphasizing so much emotion with so little screen time. Here she plays Joanna Kramer, a very conflicted woman who leaves her husband and young son before finally asking for a divorce. It is then up to her partner, Dustin Hoffman, to pull his fatherly skills together and raise their son on his own. It is a testament to Streep’s prowess in only her third year of film acting that she manages to convey such divergent emotions while being interspersed throughout the film in only a few short scenes. It is also worth noting that while she was dismayed with the female monologue during the climactic divorce trial scene, the director actually allowed Streep to rewrite her part in the moment to better reflect a mother’s sympathies and defenses, as Streep has just recently given birth to her first child.

Sophie’s Choice- 1982 (Winner- Best Actress)
Here’s where my obsessive love for the woman may sound like it’s coming into play, however, I say this completely honestly and, yes, it is documented: scholars agree that Meryl Streep is the greatest actress in the history of the medium- scholars agree that Sophie’s Choice is her best performance- therefore, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice is the single greatest performance in the history of the medium (I can deduce that thanks to the logic class I took last semester!). Streep’s performance of a tormented Holocaust survivor exceeds any other in an absolutely devastating manner. The final plot reveal at the end of this somewhat long film quite literally broke my heart the first time I saw it but to say any more would be to say too much. The emotional depths Streep is able to plunge into here, combined with the massively complicated Polish accent she adapts, cement her place as the apex of the pantheon of film actors, and led to one of the greatest Oscar wins of all time.

Silkwood- 1983 (Nominee- Best Actress)
Streep’s third consecutive nomination (after The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Sophie) is her first for portraying a real life character. Karen Silkwood, an Oklahoman fuel fabrication plant worker, discovered unhealthy and morally wrong working conditions at the plant and attempted to bring the matters to light before she was mysteriously murdered by unknown figures. Streep did something many actresses are loathe to do, and de-glammed her entire persona to create quite an unsympathetic character- for Silkwood had many more enemies than friends in her efforts. Sporting a Southern-Midwest accent and typical 80’s mullet, Streep delivers her most raw performance- most notably in the scene where she is excruciatingly (both for the character and the audience) scrubbed down in radiation baths due to her exposure to the element. One of her slightly more subtle performances, Streep’s first collaboration with director and good friend Mike Nichols established a powerful team that will be investigated upon further in this series.

A Cry in the Dark- 1988 (Nominee- Best Actress)
Notice how every picture I’ve touched upon so far has been one of her nominations…that pattern continues on throughout her career as she is presently at an unsurpassed record of 17(!) nominations. That’s not to say that her films for which she has not been nominated are lesser for any reason, however. In A Cry in the Dark, Streep adopts an Australian accent (another pattern!) to play the real-life victim Lindy Chamberlain, whose newborn baby was eaten by a dingo during a camping trip to Ayres Rock. The subsequent trial, which accused Lindy of fabricating her story and actually murdering her child, captured the nation and divided responses. Streep’s emotions were fine-tuned that much more acutely as she, as Chamberlain, was actually pregnant with her next child through the process. Streep perfectly encapsulated the cold, dismissed demeanor the real Lindy Chamberlain presented during the trial and sported an unfortunate, indescribable haircut to further delve deeper into her portrayal. It is unfortunate that due to length I cannot also touch on her excellent role in 1985’s Out of Africa, but all these films so far, as well as Out of Africa, certainly contribute to Streep’s first decade or so in film with heavy dramas and spot-on accents.
Streep looks as excited as we are to be here!; image © content.flixster.com

Postcards from the Edge- 1990 (Nominee- Best Actress)
The final selection in Part I, Streep again portrays a real-life actress under the guise of a resemblance of Carrie Fisher and her trials and tribulations with drugs and growing up in the shadow of a famous mother (Debbie Reynolds as played magnificently by Shirley MacLaine). The wildly comical Fisher herself adapts the hilarious screenplay which lets Streep expand her comedy chops for the first time. The chemistry between Streep and MacLaine is fierce and powerful, perhaps due to another excellent pairing with director Mike Nichols, and really allows both actresses to hit the high notes of a range as of yet unexplored. While establishing a biting commentary on the entertainment and film industry, Postcards is notable for being the first instance where Streep masterfully sings a full-blown number on screen- she did, however, also provide a beautiful a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace at the end of Silkwood.

Postcards from the Edge is a great place to end Part 1 of this article as it retains the elements of heavy drama for which Streep was famous in the late 70’s and 80’s, while straddling the line into her new birth of comedy that begins to consume some of her films in the 90’s.  There is always more I wish I could say for each film I’ve listed, as well as just literally writing a short blurb as to why EVERY movie in her catalogue is impressive, although if you aren’t already tired of hearing about the fabulous, tremendous, exemplary, stellar, wonderful (there’s all those adjectives again!) Meryl Streep, do stay tuned for Part 2 of the opus!


  1. Mr. A. Savant Heisman--

    I know how difficult it is for you to put into words the depth of feeling you have for this woman, but I think you did a pretty damn good job here, sir. Despite the facts that (a) I am mildly creeped out by your obsession with her, (b) you have a logical fallacy in the Sophie's Choice section, and (c) you said she's the greatest actress of all time, when clearly, Shelley Duvall deserves that honor*, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece, and I can't wait for your next installment. Really, you should think about trying to become her official biographer. Excellent work, sir.

    *--to all readers of this comment, (a) The Savant is obsessed with Meryl Streep, but not at all stalkerishly so, (b) well, yes, there's a logical fallacy there, but having unfortunately taken a symbolic logic class, our friend The Savant is more than aware of it, I'm sure, and (c) . . . if you agreed with me, then please never watch a film again.

    -The Good-Looking One

    1. -The Good-Looking One,

      I greatly appreciate your compliments, sir, as you know more than most everyone how important this matter is to me! In response to your discussion points: A. you should be, B. damn logical fallacies- I thought I had escaped them, and C. you know Shelley Duvall is a wonderful actress, don't knock her! If Meryl specifically did not want a biography published of her during her lifetime, I would most GLADLY and quite proudly assume such a position. I wouldn't even have to do any research!

      -Your Humble Servant, The Savant