Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Streep at 60: Chamaeleonidae Erotica

Streep at 60, a retrospective (June 11th - July 14th)

I wear body armor as I type this, for fear of your collective outrage but the time got away from me. We're jumping forward. You see, Streep's second act, those legend making years from 1981-1988, in which she morphed through one of cinema's all time hot streaks like some genetically enhanced superfreak chameleon, is too large a topic. I need more time with The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Sophie's Choice (1982) and Silkwood (1983), in particular. Perhaps I should write a book. For disparate reasons all three are deserving of chapter length essays.

For now, some general observations about this time period and the first of Streep's collaborations with director Fred Schepisi (Plenty).

Chameleonidae Erotica

Streep's penchant for shape shifting, particularly in the vocal arena, is well known. Though many actors collect several character voices and accents in their life's work, the vocals became an unusually significant part of Streep's mystique not only for her skill (considerable though not always unimpeachable) but for how many she tackled in quick succession. Here's how the 80s went down: British and American for The French Lieutenant's Woman (a neat trick), Streepian for Still of the Night, Polish for Sophie's Choice (insanely great), Oklahoma blue collar for Silkwood ( ♥ ), Streepian (Falling in Love), British again for Plenty (today's topic), Danish for Out of Africa (Hmmm), Ephronish for Heartburn (I haven't yet rewatched), simultaneously soused and hoarse Noo Yawk for Ironweed (freaking marvelous), Australian for A Cry in the Dark (!!!) and honeyed nouveau riche for She-Devil (funny if laboured).

Costumers and makeup artists usually go thankless in the accolades that greet an actor's transformation. That's a real shame. But Streep is the rare actor whose shape shifting is more than just cosmetic. It's literally aided by the shifting of shape. As an actress she uses her whole body. This is most obvious, I think, in Silkwood and Ironweed: Karen Silkwood and Helen Archer don't move like any of Streep's other characters. Watch and marvel.

Which brings us to Streep's life of the body. Though it's largely forgotten now, Streep was once quite a sensual screen presence. Anna and Sarah wield this eroticism carelessly and dangerously in The French Lieutenant's Woman. You don't need the narration in Sophie's Choice to tell you that Sophie escapes her dark thoughts through carnality. It's right there in the performance, in the way she's constantly clinging to her dangerous lover and the way she seems hypnotized when she's caressed. Karen Silkwood is obviously a good lay. Karen Blixen memorably gets her groove on in Out of Africa. In Plenty, based on the play by David Hare, we get the last of the regular erotic within Streep's work. Foregrounded sexuality began to slip away after 1985 with the notable exception of The Bridges of Madison County. If you ask me, Mamma Mia! needed a lot more of this former Streep specialty to justify its plot.

Susan Traherne, French Resistance Badass

Plenty (1985)
We first meet Susan Traherne (Meryl Streep) on a chilly still night in France during World War II. She's all chic war time cool with beret, barked orders (in French!) and loaded guns. But within minutes of meeting a parachuting soldier (Sam Neill) she loses her cool facade. Minutes later she's in bed with him. This, we soon understand, is how she's been living for some time. Her stealth life in an occupied country is full of pretense and fleeting anonymous erotic encounters.

Her new lover receives a morse code the next morning and departs without hesitation or fanfare, leaving her only a memento as reminder. She keeps it with her from then on.

Abruptly we jump forward in time, the war now behind us. Hare's screenplay never clues us in exactly to how far we've jumped ahead and it seems like we're leap frogging whole years. The point, one assumes, is that Susan's life is like this: impressions, momentary diversions, new careers and new lovers.

Susan insinuates herself into the life of a stuffy diplomat (Charles Dance), though we know before she does, that this romance will never satisfy her sexually or romantically. In spirit, if not in social strata, she's closer to the moneyless bohemians she hangs with (including Tracey Ullman in fine form in her first dramatic role). Before long Susan is viciously attacking her lover's vernacular in a fit of boredom
Push off. Bit of a tight corner. One helluva spot.
Afterwards, though she's never apologetic she admits to him that she's not fully present.
I think of France more than I can tell you... I often think of it. People I met for only an hour or two...
And she promptly leaves him. Susan, as we're increasingly aware, is impossible to please. She's always reaching for something new and always unsatisfied with whatever it is she's grabbed hold of -- check out the zombie stare, the careers abandoned the very scene after they're introduced and the continual drift of her conversations.

But reach and grab she does. Her next pitiful capture is Mick (Sting). She wants to get pregnant and she chooses him in no small part because she finds him attractive and disposable (not on her level).

Meryl mounts Sting in a scene that's both chilly and hot... Well played.

She's unapologetic and honest about using him for stud service. It's no surprise that she's on top when they make love. He enjoys her shameless blend of chilly business and hot pleasure. Like the diplomat before him, he's besmitten by her contradictions. Until he isn't.

Susan Traherne is not, as you've probably surmised, a pleasant woman. Plenty remains an underseen curio in Streep's filmography, completely eclipsed in its year by Out of Africa, and some of this is undoubtedly due to Susan as a character. Streep's two collaborations with Fred Schepisi are both on the chilly side but with Lindy Chamberlain in A Cry in the Dark, there was so much electricity in the character work that one hardly needed Streep's usual warmth for entertainment value. Susan Traherne is a less satisfying creation. Schepisi often shoots her in longshot but whenever he zeroes in for a closeup, Susan chooses that moment to drift off which makes for an alienating experience. For Susan's voice, Streep has chosen something like Hollywood Upper Crust British (close your eyes and you can almost hear Audrey Hepburn at times). In the French Resistance framing scenes, there's some strange notes as if Streep is overselling Traherne's former liveliness to contrast it with the bulk of her spiritlessness.

Dance hopes in vain that Streep won't embarrass him at a posh dinner.

Which is not to say that Streep's performance isn't a good watch. In the second half of the film, Susan's deep unhappiness derails her sanity and we get the expected thespian fireworks. At a terrifically savage dinner party, Streep gets one of the best monologues of her career and dives in with beautifully controlled force. At first she's there with the party, making small talk, and then she's floating in her wet dream of France again... wondering what the hell the rest of her life has been for.
Is it getting a bit chilly in here? October nights.

Those poor parachutists I do know how they feel even now. Cities, fields, trees, farms dark spaces, nights. Parachutes open. We descend.
There's a beat there that's just beautifully sad. But Streep's Susan is suddenly aware that she's drifting off and shifts into performance/attack mode towards the diplomats in her presence. She can't maintain this either and retreats to the sensuality of France again. It's a thrilling seesaw effect.
Of course we were comparatively welcome. I mean, we did make it our business to land in countries where we were wanted. Certainly the men were. Some of the relationships… I can’t tell you. I remember a colleague telling me of the heat of the smell of a particular young girl. The hot wet smell he said and nothing since...

Nothing since then.
At this point Susan is despair and fury, aware that she's killed the party and furious that her life is filled with only these parties and these people she feels infinitely superior to.
I can’t see the Egyptian girls somehow -- No, not in Egypt. Not now. I mean there were broken hearts when we left. I mean there are girls today who mourn Englishmen who died in Dachau – who died naked in Dachau -- men with whom they’d spent a single night.

Well, even for myself , I do like to make a point of sleeping with people I don’t know. I find once you get to know them you don’t want to sleep with them anymore.
At this, her emasculated husband loses his patience "Please can you stop? Can you stop fucking talking for fucking minutes on end". (Which is, I suspect, what people who don't thrill to Great Acting are thinking at this very moment should they ever stumble upon this movie). Streep's lacerating ugly response
Well I would stop. I would stop. I would fucking stop talking if I ever heard anybody else say anything else worth fucking stopping talking for!
Sir John Gielgud, surveying Streep's wreckage, announces his departure from the party, ending the festivities with a delicious Ingmar Bergman barb. The scene comes with the added jolt of recognition: you're finally watching Streep share the scene with an actor who isn't the least bit intimidated by her legend or her pyrotechnics. Streep even turns her back to the camera as if she's passed him the baton.

If I know Sir John Gielgud and Meryl Streep they were both fully aware that the movie was in a bit of tight corner, a helluva spot. If it didn't get livelier, the audience was going to push off. I bet they had a grand laugh in their trailers afterwards.

Streep retrieves the baton from Gielgud as he exits and in truly inspired fashion reveals an almost orgasmically present Susan, inexplicably giddy from her public breakdown. She's alive. She's ready for another round. She invites the alarmed guests back to the dinner table.
Why not, we have plenty?


Next: A Cry in the Dark
Previously: Julia, The Deer Hunter, Kramer Vs. Kramer


Kent said...

Have not seen PLENTY yet but Streep's performance sounds intriguing.

The 1980s really were such a great decade for her. I really should see IRONWEED and A CRY IN THE DARK before the new write ups.

It's still pretty hard to top SOPHIE'S CHOICE, SILKWOOD, and OUT OF AFRICA.

Heather said...

Ah, I love PLENTY... a breakthrough performance for Meryl, I think, even though it wasn't a widely popular one.

This may sound absurd but I do believe her performace in PLENTY is comparable to that of IRONWEED, HEARTBURN and, this may be a bit of a stretch, SOPHIE'S CHOICE.

But my complete and utter enthrallment with her may be clouding my judgment. I do believe every one of her performances is staggering.

Joe Shetina said...

Yeah...haven't seen it yet, but I love her and Tracey Ullman. Should be fun.

Unknown said...

The scene with Sting on the sofa is priceless. The look on her face while she moved her body with a full taffetta skirt on was perfection.

My favorite accent of hers after Sophie's was that of Karen Blixen. Why the question mark on it, Nathan?

Wayne B said...

I like how you spotlighted Streep's use of her sensuality. It's something that has been forgotten, especially amongst younger generations. It still can be employed to great effect such as "Adaptation." I re-watched "Death Becomes Her" recently and I love how Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman, says "I always thought yours one of the most beautiful to ever grace the silver screen." What a compliment! especially considering Isabella's parentage.

par3182 said...

"there will be days and days and days like this" is one of my all time favourite closing lines

and i still quote "psychiatric cabaret" far more often than i should have use for (maybe it's the crowd i run with?)

i'm a big fan of both this film and meryl's performance; same goes for evil angels (glenn will back me up on the title)


par3182 "psychiatric cabaret!" oh me that I forgot to use that in this review.

adelutza said...

I saw Plenty just last week.Didn't like it very much but Streep looked really good in it and she had a few good scenes with Sting.
I got a little bit lost in this film, all the time I felt like I wasn't paying attention and I missed something. So i would rewind and realize i hadn't.

Dan Callahan said...

Thanks for giving "Plenty" some detailed attention...I've always found it haunting, especially the score.

I've often used "psychiatric cabaret" in conversation. In fact, I have been known to do Susan's entire monologue from this scene when I'm in my cups :)

Gielgud spoke very admiringly of watching her work on the set. Off-hand, I can't think of another instance where Streep shared the screen with someone as formidable as him.

mrripley said...

i always prefeered this over karen blixen.

Jeff M said...

Interestingly, Charles Dance, who played her husband, is the only actor I've ever read to say something negative about working with Meryl. In a nutshell, it seemed like he said working with her was difficult and he supposed it wasn't her job to make it easy for him. I also remember him mentioning he preferred working with Shirley MacLaine over Meryl.

At Meryl's AFI tribute, you may recall Tracey Ullmann talking about working with an actor on PLENTY neither one of them liked - betcha it was him!!

Terris said...

I should probably watch it again, but my first impression of Plenty wasn't good.
I love Meryl's performance, but what I really couldn't understand was the sense of the film itself.
I hope the 2nd vision of the movie will clarify many of my doubts about it!
Anyway, the breakdown scene and the one on the sofa are very cool!