The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.
With Eleanor Prentiss Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Streep launched the first of a string of politicians she would play. This remake of the 1962 classic, directed by Jonathan Demme, was updated in a series of ways, among them giving the famous Frank Sinatra role to an African American (Denzel Washington); moving the key war scene in the movie from Korea to Kuwait; and making the source of the conspiracy not international Marxism, but rather an ominous weapons manufacturer by the name of Manchurian Global. One key renovation, though, is in the role originated by Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Eleanor Iselin, the manipulative wife of the buffoonish, McCarthyesque Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory). This character is also the mother, from a previous marriage, of war hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who she wants to be a vice-presidential nominee. The 2004 version of the movie drops the husband and makes Streep the senator, with her son Raymond (Liev Shreiber) as a member of the House of Representatives.
Lansbury, who seems as genial in real life as she does vicious in the movie, did a fine job in the 1962 version. But Streep’s Mrs. Shaw is a dazzling embodiment of evil incarnate. She makes a stemwinding speech on behalf of her son’s reluctant candidacy with a group of party insiders that alternates charm, sarcasm, and motivational brimstone. The studied polish of Streep’s delivery subtly calls attention to itself, cueing the viewer that Shaw is truly dangerous. She describes her son’s rival (Jon Voigt, who’s usually the one to play bad guys) as “a one-worlder who believes that human beings are essentially goooood and that our power is somehow, I don’t know, SHAMEFUL, or evil, or never to be used” (the sarcastic “good” and shouted “shameful” are everything here). Her coquettish interactions with her son early in the movie alternate with bullying throughout, culminating in a scene with decidedly incestuous overtones. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw is no sane person’s idea of a role model, female or otherwise. But the raw power she demonstrates in public and private should give pause to anyone who might question the potential of women in politics, a potential that must be for harm if it ever can be for good.
Streep offered an even richer portrait of a powerful, unpleasant woman in what will surely go down as one of her signature roles as Miranda Priestley, the boss-from-hell magazine editor of The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Devil is based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. A roman a clef about her days working for the legendarily impossible Anna Wintour of Vogue, Weisberger’s book is a chronicle of the way Baby Boomers, in particular female professional Baby Boomers, oppress their successors. (“I hoped, as I usually did when she cut me off midsentence, that one day the cell phone would simply clamp down on her perfectly manicured fingers and swallow them whole, taking special time to shred those flawless red nails,” she fantasizes at one point.) We certainly see plenty of situations where Streep’s Miranda exercises a casual brutality, evident nowhere so arrogantly in a rapid-fire sequence of her repeatedly tossing her fur coat on the desk of her assistant Andrea (Anne Hathaway). Her icily delivered “That’s all,” which does come from the novel, becomes a signature line of the movie.
But the film version differs crucially from the novel in the locus of its (generational) sympathy. To a great degree, this is the result of Aline Brush McKenna’s screenplay, which renders a much more three-dimensional portrait of Miranda, including glimpses of a marriage where she certainly does not rule the roost, and a power struggle over control of the magazine. “I thought it was written out of anger,” Streep said of the novel, “and from a point of view that seemed to me very apparent. The girl seemed not to have an understanding of the larger machine to which she had apprenticed. So she was whining about getting coffee for people. If you keep your eyes open, you'll learn a lot.” Thus there’s a memorable moment when Hathaway’s character cannot stifle a giggle over the seeming inanity over a decision between belts in two shades of blue, whereupon Miranda delivers an impromptu lecture demonstrating the way the leaders of a multibillion dollar industry make decisions about such colors—“cerulean,” she clarifies—shape the behavior of her assistant in ways she’s completely oblivious.
Streep herself adds a lot to this role. Her expertly modulated voice—which, unlike the Miranda of the novel, she never raises—is key. There’s also a fine scene where she appears without makeup in a hotel room, her vulnerability as apparent as her defiance. We find ourselves rooting for Miranda despite her evident excesses. Which makes the movie a feminist triumph, in that we recognize, as we’ve always done in the case of men, that a leader need not be perfect or fair to nevertheless attract respect and even admiration.
Streep gave yet another portrait of a powerful, morally ambiguous figure in Rendition (2007), in which she plays a shadowy intelligence official with decidedly Dick Cheneyesque politics. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Egypt, she decides to abduct and secretly send an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen (Omar Metwally) back to his native country for interrogation, where he can be tortured without regard to the U.S. Constitution. His wife (Reese Witherspoon) desperately turns to an old Washington-based friend (Peter Sarsgaard) for help, who in turn pursues Streep’s character on the matter. But he’s out of her league. “Honey, this is a nasty business,” she tells him, her condescension wrapped in a smooth Southern accent. (Note the sexist gender reversal.) She proceeds to describe a situation where thousands of Londoners are alive because of intelligence work prevented the deaths of thousands of people. “I got grandkids in London,” she tells him, so I’m glad I’m doing this job—and you’re not.” He persists, but gets nowhere. “You sleep well now,” she says, walking away. The politics of Rendition are clearly left-wing; the man’s detention is based on suspicions that are both inaccurate and morally repugnant. But the portrait of Streep’s character is no caricature. Nor, conversely, is her character in the otherwise forgettable Robert Redford stilted gabfest Lions for Lambs (2007), in which she plays a broadcast journalist questioning the military strategy of a glib but charismatic senator played by Tom Cruise (who does approach caricature).
Next: Streep lite -- and Streep in a habit.