A Retrospective Celebration in June and maybe some of July, too.
At the risk of cries of sacrilege I decided to try a screening experiment with The Deer Hunter for my Streep project. I have never seen the movie (I know) and I opted to only watch the Meryl Streep parts.
"Why???" I can hear purists (and other versions of myself) screaming. Well, I've become fascinated of late with the idea that audiences are consuming their movies in an entirely different way than they used to. In the age of YouTube, termite criticism, DVR, cable, home theaters and dozens of "exclusive" clips from new movies available on hundreds of sites before the movie in question ever opens, it's now quite common to experience movies not as 90-
We first meet Linda (Meryl Streep) as she prepares a meal for her father. She seems harried and nervous and when we meet daddy, we understand why. He's drunk and muttering nonsense and despite her good daughter care taking efforts, he beats her. She hightails it over to her boyfriend Nick's (Christopher Walken) house to ask if she can move in. This scene is partially viewed through his best friend Michael's (Robert DeNiro) eyes. The Deer is already positioning her as an object between them even though they're both leaving her for service in Vietnam.
After these brief sketches, the film moves into a long bravura wedding sequence that's teeming with characters. Not for The Deer -- or The Deer Hunter either I suppose -- a halfhearted gesture at introducing these people and their environment. The director Michael Cimino beautifully captures a huge web of small town relationships and, most importantly for our discussion of "Linda", the way the women are often commodified by the men: they are literally traded in dancing and they aren't treated particularly well in general. One woman is punched by her boyfriend when another man fondles her and since we've already seen Linda smacked around by her father, we suspect that these aren't isolated occurrences but usual if not condoned behavior.
In the bustle of activity at the wedding, Linda is a constantly fluid beauty. She moves among the large group of male friends (including Streep's then real life lover, the late actor John Cazale) with equal parts familiar small town ease and awkward romantic intimacies. DeNiro and Streep are all furtive glances and repressed desire in this lengthy scene -- they'll rework this act as adulterous lovers six years later in Falling in Love (1984) -- but it's Streep in particular as Linda who is unknowable. Michael wants her. He's holding back only due to his friendship with Nick. But Linda... what does Linda want?
She seems to want Michael but after a close brush with romantic intimacy she races back to Nick's arms and spends the rest of the wedding hanging on him, over emphatically marking him (the unMichael) as her territory. The wedding scene ends with a rather brilliant pan shot of the men exiting the wedding (for god and country!) to the left while the camera moves right to show us what they've left behind: their town, family and Linda herself. I'm not sure if the wedding sequence is the greatest act in The Deer Hunter but its undoubtedly the highlight of The Deer.
The joy of a well choreographed shot: Feel the whole movie from the naive "good luck" exit to those left behind for "god and country"... which will be referenced again in the film's final moment.
Both men initially survive the war (or so we hear, though we never see Nick again in this refashioned 47 minute movie) but only Michael returns home to Linda. He skips the welcome home festivities she's cooked up but eventually they reunite, restarting their muddled "should we be doing this?" courtship that began before the war. Linda remains entirely confused in these reunion scenes. One bizarre rush of dialogue illustrates the myriad ways in which she spins on a dime, confusing Michael and herself.
I'm so glad you're alive. I'm so happy. I really don't know what I feel.She either does know what she feels and immediately second guesses herself or she doesn't at all, still flailing for self knowledge. She rationalizes her desire for Michael in a particularly delicate scene a little later.
Don't go. I'll make you a nice sit down dinner. Why don't we go to bed? Can't we just comfort each other?I suspect, though I wish Streep's performance was a smidgen clearer in this regard, that Linda really does love Michael. She's just never quite admitted this for fear of losing Nick twice over. But if Linda doesn't love Michael then this is her most honest moment in the movie. They could surely use the comfort.
Watching The Deer Hunter without the war (or any of the all male sequences) proved fascinating if unfulfilling. Katharine Hepburn and Pauline Kael, among others, once dismissed Meryl's technical facilities as being too 'click click click' mechanical -- but I prefer to think of her unmistakably quick gear shifting in crucial scenes here as emotional fluidity. This is just right for Linda, a woman who continually vacillates. For all of Meryl's skill and the resulting Oscar nomination (even if she weren't so skilled, Oscar voters often favor "the girl" in male dominant dramas with supporting actress nominations), Linda proves to be a frustrating character to hang a film on. I imagine The Deer Hunter is much more fulfilling than this smaller drama of a particular girlwoman. It's not only that the film defines Linda in the abstracted space between two men but that Linda defines herself this way, too. In the hauntingly sad rendition of "God Bless America" which closes the film (it's the first of many times we'd hear Streep sing on movie screens) she seems as shell shocked as any soldier. The war, though entirely absent in her movie, is still a gaping abyss in her life, robbing her of one half of her self-defining equation. She'll forever remain undefined.
The Deer Hunter was nominated for 9 Oscars, winning 5 including Best Picture. Streep's first win was not among them. She lost to Maggie Smith, who took home her second Oscar for California Suite. But momentum is (nearly) all with Oscar and Streep, who was unmistakably the hottest "must cast!" actress in Hollywood at the time, would win her first Oscar the following year for Kramer Vs. Kramer.
Previous Article: Julia (1977)