Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Meryl Streep "The Immoral Psychotic Promiscuous One"

Streep at 60, A Retrospective
Previously: Julia, The Deer, 1978 Oscars

Sadie, Sadie (Un)married Lady
One of the fascinating things about old movies is the snapshots they take of their own time. Even in period pieces you can see the (then) modernity of the time period it was made in faintly stamped... a bit of reverse pentimento if you will. The Seventies might be the very best decade for cultural snapshots since it seems as if a large percentage of filmmakers were excited about capturing their own times rather than obsessing over eras gone by or creating imaginary worlds. That's arguably a naive modern perspective on the Seventies based on the films that endured but it feels like the truth.

Troubled marriages have been around since the sacred institution was invented. Naturally they've also been a part of cinema since its invention. What is Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans (1927) for example but a portrait of a marriage in crisis? Troubled marriages were and are a cinematic mainstay but DIVORCE was something like a freshly hot topic in the 70s. The times they had been a-changing with women's lib, the sexual revolution, rising divorce rates. For a brief fascinating moment, Meryl Streep seemed to embody all of this. She was Bitter Icy Emasculating Ex-Wife and (stated more generously) The Liberated Lady.

Isaac Davis (Woody Allen): Don't write this book. It's a humiliating experience.
Jill Davis (Meryl Streep): It's an honest account of our breakup.
Isaac: Everybody who knows us is going to know everything.
Jill: Look at you, you're so threatened.
Isaac: I'm not threatened. Of the two of us I wasn't the immoral psychotic promiscuous one.

I hope I didn't leave out anything.
Linda from The Deer Hunter, tearfully waiting for men to solve her, would have been confounded by Streep's 1979 women. Just as Meryl was coming into her own stardom, she created three far more liberated women. The highlight for some was her angry divorced lesbian Jill Davis in Woody Allen's Manhattan with her 'suffering-this-fool' superiority and her deadpan catchphrase "It's an honest account of our marriage". She also played 'the other woman', a career girl in the political drama The Seduction of Joe Tynan (I couldn't locate a copy so I can't comment so specifically there). Most famously, she won the Oscar playing the aggressively self-actualizing Joanna Kramer in Kramer Vs. Kramer.

Kramer Vs. Kramer opens with a closeup on Meryl's teary face, her wedding ring facing the viewer. As succinct first images go, it's damn impressive. Joanna is telling her young son she loves him but this isn't just any bedtime tuck in. She's choking back tears. Joanna, we learn, is hopelessly depressed. She's about to pull a Laura Brown and leave her young son behind to find herself. Her workaholic husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) arrives home shortly thereafter still buzzing from his latest work triumph and talking a mile a minute. He's so busy that he fails to even notice that his wife has packed her bags and is wiggling her keys at him, announcing her departure. He hasn't even looked at her or if he has, he hasn't truly seen her. Maybe not for a long time.

In his defense, she does blend in.

Joanna Kramer's life is all beige. She must escape it.

The life she is leading is not a life she can continue to lead. She knows she's a shell of a woman and an incomplete person. Joanna's departure is one of the most exquisitely rendered scenes in Streep's filmography. It begins very sadly and sympathetically in her child's bedroom. As the weight of what she's doing hits the audience, Streep ices over, telegraphing both her hostility towards the husband she doesn't love and her own numbing survivalist impulses: She's leaving her boy behind... ready the anaesthesia!

As the war between the Kramers erupts outside their apartment, Ted snatching her suitcase from her and trying to talk her back into the apartment, Streep's performance really soars. Hoffman is only really asked to play two notes here: confusion and a get-her-back-inside agenda. Streep, further ahead in Kramer Vs. Kramer's narrative as its driving force, has a whole barrelful. She has to incorporate confusion, fear, stay-on-track exit planning (she abandons her suitcase immediately when keeping it would be a struggle), anger, nearly suicidal grief, and years of pent-up anger into her face, line delivery and body language. Miraculously, it's all there just below the splintering ice.

As the elevator doors close on her old life, Joanna Kramer looks completely exhausted but Meryl Streep, thoroughbred actress, still has enough stamina for the scene's death blow.

[about her son] He's better off without me.
[to her husband] I don't love you anymore.
She punctuates this devastating opening scene with so much self-loathing, weary resignation and lost soul grief that it's nearly impossible to stop thinking about her. Her absence is a vacuum and the audience rushes in to fill it. Which, is exactly where the narrative needs you to be.

For, despite its title, Kramer vs. Kramer is not the story of a warring husband and wife but instead the story about a father and son coping with the sudden absence of this wife and mother. When Joanna returns to the movie, much later she is no longer the same woman. Neither are Ted and Billy the same father and son. Robert Benton's sensitive script and direction (both Oscar winners) detail the nuances and adult realizations of these changed dynamics. The court scenes as the Kramers fight for custody are appropriately sad and intrusive not least because both of the Kramers have already come to realize the rather gargantuan mistakes they have made in their marriage and child reading. And though Joanna's notion that personal happiness left her with no choice but to abandon her child may enrage some viewers, Streep has humanized the character enough to make any singular reaction to this complicated woman reductive.

Kramer vs. Kramer is definitely more of a time capsule than a timeless treasure but I submit that it's undervalued. Its reputation was surely damaged by its Oscar win over far superior envelope-pushing movies (All That Jazz and Apocalypse Now). To some it reads as an outdated sexist drama. That's certainly a valid read: the liberated woman in this case is quite possibly an unfit mother and is most definitely the icy antagonist while the abandoned husband is generally presented as a good father and likeable guy. But for all of Kramer's male gaze (and it's definitely a man's picture) the film strikes me as an essentially honest exploration of the confusion that men must have felt at the time (and some probably still do) when they are forced into the discovery of the unknown Other lying beside them. Her dreams, as it turns out, are her own.

Though dated, Kramer vs. Kramer is still absorbing thanks to the natural chemistry between Dustin Hoffman and screen son Justin Henry, the confident simplicity of the story and especially Streep's terrific star-making work. For anyone still assuming that their happiness is also their spouse's happiness, Joanna Kramer remains a discomfiting, restless spectre of the invisible, the unknowable and the unfulfilled. She still haunts.


Joe Shetina said...

Absolutely LOVE Manhattan. Kramer vs. Kramer I'm not exactly crazy about but I love the performances. Certain shots of her just flash into my head when I think of it.

Glendon said...

Just watched Manhattan for the first time yesterday. What a gorgeous film. Including the scenes without Meryl.

Alex said...

Am I the only film buff who thinks "Kramer vs. Kramer" is better than "Apocalypse Now and "All That Jazz" (as well as the non-nominated "Alien")?

adam k. said...

I just rewatched this recently when I found it available on Netflix instant viewing. It's soooo good. I suppose it's a bit dated, and not the most cinematically showy work - were it released now, it'd probably have taken the form of a TV movie - but it's such an exquisite little character study/slice of life/time capsule domestic drama. The In the Bedroom of 1979.

What a strong year that was, between this, Manhattan, All That Jazz and Apocalypse Now.

MrW said...

For a long time, 'Kramer' used to be my most loathed Best Picture winner, a title it eventually lost when I got a round to see 'The Sound of Music'.

'Kramer' feels to me like a desperate attempt to emulate Bergman, but all that distinguishes it from cheap sub-par TV melodramas are the quality of Hoffman's and Streep's performances.

Lena said...

When I tried to locate Seduction of Joe Tynan last summer it was a bitch to find. I ended up buying it in beta form off ebay and having it transfered to DVD. I don't know if it was worth the effort. There's one really excellent scene that's on youtube, but the movie isn't too bad.

Kent said...

Nat, why didn't you mention Streep's courtroom scene when she's being interrogated by the lawyer or that teary ending? Her realizations and mannerisms are heartbreaking. Streep's performance in KRAMER VS. KRAMER is in my top five for her.

Adored her in MANHATTAN. She's simply great in that film, but who isn't? Mariel Hemingway was best in show.

NicksFlickPicks said...

Loved this write-up on Kramer.

Barbara Harris is great in Joe Tynan if you can ever track it down, and I remember really liking the whole movie, though I saw it more than ten years ago (!).

Notas Sobre Creación Cultural e Imaginarios Sociales said...

Despite the fact that the seventies featured some of the most groundbreaking cinema ever made, Oscar messed it up and closed the decade by awarding the two worst movies from their respective years two times in a row (78 and 79... and 80 wasn't so good either...).
The one thing both Best Picture winners have in common is that Meryl completely owns them.
She is terrific in Kramer, but I would've preferred to see her lose that year and then get Oscar number one for "The French's Lieutenant's Woman" two years later.
I often wonder how different would Oscar history be if Meryl hadn't won the two so fast. Would we be discussing a 5th win or something like that by now?

Catherine said...

I used to be a huge defender of Kramer winning the Oscar, until I finally watched All That Jazz and had to eat my words. Despite that, I still maintain that it actually is a worthy film that gets a tough time because of the more obvious flashbangwow of its competitors.

It's interesting, I watched it a while ago with my mother and little sister. My mam and I had seen it before, but my sis hadn't and it was REALLY interesting to see that, in the courtroom scene, my sis had the least ambiguous reaction to the characters. She felt Joanna Kramer had done the wrong thing and was the definite villain of the piece.

Also, my absolute favourite moment is at the end, when she visits Dustin Hoffman at the apartment to give up custody. She's in the elevator and just before the doors slide shut, she begins patting down her hair and wiping her eyes. "How do I look?". Dustin Hoffman smiles, a little sadly, "Terrific". The look on Meryl Streep's face at that point KILLS me. It's so surprised and grateful and tender. I love it.

adelutza said...

Not that I don't like Meryl in The French's Lieutenant's Woman but I think Kramer vs. Kramer is a better film - I'm a big fan of John Fowels ( who wrote "The Ftench ..." novel) and I don't think the film does the book justice.
Also, Meryl is very good in Kramer vs. Kramer but really, there were so may other very good performances in other melodramas that weren't even considered for a nomination... I think she was much better in anything she was in the last 10 years then in Kramer . Again, not that she wasn't good, but if you look at her career as a whole, that role is just the tip of the iceberg.

Bernardo said...

I loved Manhattan, but it's a shame that Meryl and Woody didn't get along. She could be in so many of his films.

Terris said...

I never watched The Seduction of JT, here in Italy it's impossible to be found!
I "watched" Manhattan following the same strategy Nat used to watch The Deer Hunter, that is only Meryl's parts... but I really planned to watch the whole film as I'll get the italian version, since I tried to watch it in English but Woody speaks to fast... =)
I love Kramer VS Kramer and I think Meryl deserved the Oscar for her performance of Johanna. But in my opinion the power of the movie stands on Dustin- little "Bill" couple. They are great together!
Meryl is in the movie for no more than 30 minutes I guess, but all her scens are really intense. I read lots of articles about the making of KvsK and found out that in that was a particular period for her and her mood suited perfectly with the story. There would be many aneddocts to talk about about the movie: for example, the fact that Meryl didn't follow the script literally and many of her lines were added by herself (genius!), the problematic relation with Dustin ( I've read that he didin't like her)...
Anyway, great movie! So deep, so real... Johanna is not a nice carachter but Meryl did umanized it!
And actually I liked this movie much more than The French Lieutenant's woman... still can't understand why everyone consider it a sort of "masterpiece". I think it's a movie under the average, apart from the great couple Irons-Streep... but truly belive that Meryl best performances have been others: KvsK, Silkwood, Out of Africa, Postcards, The Hours, The Devil... and the unforgettable SOPHIE!

Bernardo said...

EW just made a list of the best Woody Allen movies. Guess who is the 1st?

Ben said...

I agree about K vs. K. I saw it again about a year ago and I found it fascinating and moving. Dated, yes, but beautifully done and Meryl certainly deserved her Oscar.

I love Woody but have never thought Manhattan was one of his best.... am I alone?


Ben... Manhattan is my favorite Woody so I can't join you there.

Terris good luck finding "Manhattan" with your subtitles. It really is a masterpiece. P.S. I agree with you that Kramer is essentially Dustin Hoffman's film. He really is amazing with that little boy. But this time I was struck with not being happy about his Oscar win (in the past I'd been so pleased that someone won for playing such a normal character... that's a rarity) and thinking that Roy Scheider was indeed robbed blind for All That Jazz.

Bernardo i didn't know that Streep & Woody didn't get along. I thought she was so great in Manhattan and wish we'd see her in another Woody, them both being New Yorkers and all

Kent... i didn't mention the courtoom scenes specifically because in order to keep going i have to stop somewhere in these writeups. And my favorite scene of hers is the abandonment scene. But, that said,

Catherine is so right about that flash of feeling in the film's finale.

Jose whenever Streep had won her 1st... we wouldn't be talking about her fifth. It took Hepburn til' 74 years of age to win her fourth (more on that tomorrow)

Bernardo said...

Nathaniel I read that they didn't get along in the "Cahiers du Cinema", where they quote Meryl:" I don't even know if Woody Allen remembers me. I saw Manhattan and I got the impression of not even make part of the movie. He could be the american Tchekov, but instead has a lifestyle of jet-set and vulgarize his talent."

Dean said...

Here's the whole quote:

"I don't think Woody Allen even remembers me. I went to see Manhattan
and I
felt like I wasn't even in it. I was pleased with the film because I
pretty in it and I thought it was entertaining. But I only worked on
film for three days and I didn't get to know Woody. Who gets to know
He's very much of a womanizer; very self-involved. On a certain level,
film offends me because it's about all these people whose sole concern
discussing their emotional states or their neuroses. It's sad because
has the potential to be America's Chekhov. But instead, he's still
up in the jet-set crowd type of life, trivializing his talent."

Bernardo said...

Thanks Dean. My english is terrible and the original quote is from the Eric Lax book entitled "Woody Allen". But we can see that she wasn't very pleased with him.

NicksFlickPicks said...

She has also discussed the schizophrenic feeling of working on this at the same time as Kramer, and whereas Benton and Hoffman were only too glad to have Meryl fill out and enrich the part (even writing some of her own material, like her entire courtroom speech), Woody would get mad if she didn't speak the dialogue precisely, pause at the exact moment that the script had a comma, etc. I didn't get the impression when I heard her recount this story that she disputes the filmmaker's right to shape the performance s/he wants, but in the context of being so unusually welcomed into the process of reconstructing a whole character in Kramer (and at such an early moment in her career!), it must have been particularly annoying to be so micromanaged during her three days of Manhattan. (I agree that I wish her part were a bit bigger.)


Nick... that's so weird to hear because you always hear from actors that Woody says nothing on set.

like he's the least micromanaging director.

i wonder why they didn't mesh at all?

Bernardo said...

It's definitely weird, because both of them are so sensitive people. But at the same time, we all know that Woody is not a easy person, so something must happen in those 3 days. And that's a shame, because she is perfect at comedies or dramas, and Woody is the kind of director that can deliver both.

Kyle said...

hmmm, have only seen "Kramer vs. Kramer" out of this lineup. Sigh.

Iggy said...

It's refreshing to hear an actor not being mad about Woody Allen.

That said, it's fairly gratuitous on Streep's part to say Allen is a womanizer and a self-involved man just after saying she doesn't know the guy.

I don't know, sometimes I'd like to live in a delusional world where actors don't "betray" their onscreen characters. A world where there aren't "making offs", "behind the scenes" , etc. A world where movies are still magical.

And at the same time, another part of me would love to read/hear Woody Allen would have to tell about all the actors that have worked in his movies. :)

NicksFlickPicks said...

@N: No, it's just the other side of the usual story, where he says nothing when he casts (check) or before he films a take (check), and then as soon as the take is over says things like, "You know what was wrong with that? Everything," etc., etc. The same thing we always hear, except in Meryl's case, the particular late-breaking criticisms were all about "Do you think you'd mind reciting the lines as I wrote them?"


Ah. understood. that's for the clarification. I really most read more 'making of' materials. they are always so fascinating.

Lisa said...

Did you know that Ted once actually calls Joanna "Meryl" in the movie? It's when Joanna is about to step into the elevator. He says: "Now, come on, Meryl."
It's very funny, and I just love how they just act on. A lot of this movie is improvised (Joanna hits her hand to the wall; that was not in the script and Meryl was really in pain). I think improvising shows the true talent of an actor. This movie is amazing.

Simona said...

Oh God!It's a fantastic article!!Thank you Nathaniel!!
I love this movie, I think it's one of my favorite movie on Meryl filmography!Joanna fascinates me, it's a debated character and Meryl plays this role perfectly!!
It's one of few characters that you love and hate contemporaneously!!
Great, great movie!!

catty said...

Wow, this is fabulous,nat. thank you.

I Looove Krmer vs. kramer.
To me, I think it's a masterpiece.
the acting,writing,directing,music.. everthing is just perfect.

and Meryl, oh I think Joanna was her the fisrt and Biggest opportunity. only about 20 min on this movie, but she fascinated me from openning secenes with her pitiable face.

In one word, she was set to show her self's genius.

Unknown said...

I just watched Kramer vs Kramer with my husband the other night for the first time. It's totally stuck with me and I think that what you've written is completely beautiful. What an amazing role she chose to play in this film, even though her time on screen was minimal. Her character definitely had a major impact and when she was actually on screen, her acting spoke volumes.