"I want to thank each of you for your generous support and I sincerely hope that you enjoy the blog post."If you need someone to introduce something, you choose Angela Bassett. It's the only way to go. She will always e•nun•ci•ate for you. I lead off with Angela's intro to the concert which concludes Music of the Heart because this is the sort of film that is entirely about its heartwarming climax. In fact, when it comes to movie narratives, the Inspirational True Story is the subgenre that most begs a swift telling. Inspirational Stories are about inevitable triumphs. The audience knows it's coming so too much dilly-dallying is deadly.
Music of the Heart tells the story of Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep) who started a violin program in East Harlem. The program was forever endangered due to a lack of funding for arts education (same as it ever was), but it changed the lives of Roberta, her family, and thousands of students while it lasted.
<-- Streep with her screen son (Michael Angaro way back when!)
When we first meet Roberta she's angry and red eyed, tearing up photos and screaming out the window at movers. Her husband has recently left her and she's moving back in with her mother (Cloris Leachman). With the help of her pushy mom and an old school friend who always had the hots for her (Aidan Quinn) she crawls towards a new life. She wins a teaching job from an East Harlem principal (Angela Bassett) who's impressed by her talent and chutzpah. We spend the rest of the movie watching Roberta find her footing as a single mom, teacher, and Inspirational True Person.
Like The River Wild (previously discussed), the simplistic story is complicated by Streep's detailed characterization. We know when Roberta is worried, turned on, sad, relieved, amused or angry... and she's often angry though Streep is careful to delineate the varieties thereof. Streep's violin skills won attention during the film's release -- is there anything she can't do or pick up quickly should a role require it? -- but that's a technical aspect of the performance that's a necessity rather than an interesting character interpretation. The most intriguing element of her performance is undoubtedly the push and pull between her meek wifely persona and the iron willed single woman she's forcing herself to become. You can feel this especially in the arc of her relationship with Aidan Quinn. Though he's helping her move forward into her new persona, she often seems to be retreating in his presence, replaying her marriage as it were.
Though it's not often discussed when praising her work, Streep's always been particularly skilled at conveying external romantic arcs and the erotic internal (which will hopefully serve her well in Great Hope Springs). I don't mean this in a garish "I'm sexy!" way but in a grounded flesh and blood way. She can hit all the notes that any good actor can about sexual attraction but she also drops enough conflicting suggestions into her performances to keep you guessing about how much Character A likes being with, romantically loves and desires to have sex with Character B and how consistently or deeply she feels or has ever felt those things and whether those types of love are satisfyingly portioned out. If you stop to think about romances, isn't that far more truthful than merely portraying attraction or the lack of it.
But it's strange to talk about how much she does or doesn't want to have sex with Aidan Quinn in Music of the Heart, because A) who wouldn't? and B) she's playing this romance while entirely buried in Wal-Mart's Old Maid line. Question for all: Is Roberta Streep's frumpiest character? You'd barely know she had breasts or hips underneath all those layers and heavy ankle length dresses. Roberta barely remembers that she has them either, given that her two sons are forced to play matchmaker in the second act.
About that second act. Music of the Heart is more enjoyable than its reputation suggests but it does lose considerable steam when it jumps forward ten years. There's a fun moment shortly before the movie's phantom intermission when Roberta conspiratorially teaches her students to make the audience wait for the final notes of a song. The promised moment of silence and release in the mini-concert is quite a satisfying finish. (There's even a slo-mo fadeout like the movie is ending!) Until, you realize, that was only the curtain on Act 1. You've now seen Roberta triumph over her past meek self, lazy students, disbelieving faculty, and her commitment-phobic boyfriend. Now, you'll watch her triumph all over again but on a larger scale.
Roberta's artful baiting , that "wait for it..." theatrical finish, only lasts a few beats. Craven's "wait for it" finish involves a whole second movie. Roberta teach her students discipline. Wes Craven, taking a rare step outside the horror genre for this true story, merely tests his audience's patience.
Music of the Heart is moving, yes. I teared up, I did. But what Inspirational True Story involving kids and learning isn't? Streep makes a valiant effort with Roberta, though, and her sensitive performance is the best and arguably only reason to see this inelegantly structured, awkwardly told story.
As you may know, Music of the Heart netted Streep her 12th nomination. Some context now.
That honor tied Katharine Hepburn's nomination record and kept Jack Nicholson permanently at bay (the next time he was nominated, she was too). It took Hepburn 49 years to win 12 nominations. Streep did it in only 21. Hepburn is still the champ for Oscar wins with 4 competitive statues to her name. Streep's insane nomination record is working against her when it comes to actual wins. When you're nominated in more than 50% of the Oscar races in your working lifetime -- she has been -- what incentive do they have to give you yet more recognition in the form of a win?
for 1999 the nominees were
- Annette Bening, American Beauty
- Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
- Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair
- Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
- Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry *Nathaniel's vote*
Other 1999 women for context
It was not a competitive Best Actress year. Though there was critical love for Reese Witherspoon (Election) anti-comedy bias and poor box office worked against her worthy hilarious performance as Tracey Flick. Cecilia Roth (All About My Mother) had a passionate but very small fanbase. Beyond that, it didn't seem like anyone was really competing: Michelle Pfeiffer (Deep End of the Ocean, The Story of Us) had a double dose of loud pre-release hype that didn't translate to actual buzz once the films underwhelmed, other Oscar-types like Jodie Foster (Anna and the King), Sigourney Weaver (A Map of the World) Susan Sarandon (Anywhere But Here), Kate Winslet (Holy Smoke!) and Kristin Scott Thomas (Random Hearts) failed to generate enthusiasm for one reason or five others. Meanwhile, Julia Roberts (Notting Hill, The Runaway Bride) ruled the box office and Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) made a frantic dash through the nation's arthouses.
Nathaniel's medals would divvy up like so...
- Gold (Winslet. I still think Holy Smoke! is her best work)
- Silver (Swank)
- Bronze (Bening or Witherspoon?)
For the fifth nominee I'd go with either Moore, Potente or Roth. (I haven't seen McTeer's much lauded Tumbleweeds performance.)