Monday, October 31, 2011

Streep critiques

Fair or unfair, not everyone has liked Meryl Streep's acting

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

Streep has always had her critics, and they have come in a variety of forms. Some of this has criticism has been the result of Streep’s early uneasiness with her peers, a problem that dogged her throughout her high school, college, and graduate education. In her first year at Yale one of her teachers placed her on a form of academic probation because he believed, as she later recalled, “that I was holding back my talent out of fear with competing with my fellow students.” Streep was hurt by this, but admitted it was true. Such problems became less obvious with the passage of time, but it’s hard to believe they disappeared entirely in a business as competitive as Hollywood. Streep herself has sometimes come out on the losing end of such contests, most notably in the case of the title role in the 1995 film Evita, for which she underwent considerable preparation. “I can sing better than Madonna,” she said at the time. “If she gets it, I'll rip her throat out.”
Streep has also had critics who have been less than enchanted by her style of acting. She can hardly be faulted on her technique, and her mastery of voices and accents – she learned Polish as part of her work in her Oscar winning performance in Sophie’s Choice, used a Danish accent for Out of Africa, and has spoken the Queen’s English in roles that ranged from the Victorian servant of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981 to Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady thirty years later – are simply dazzling. But to some that’s precisely the problem: her acting calls attention to itself. Katherine Hepburn told her biographer, Scott Berg, that he considered Streep among her least favorite contemporary actresses, dismissing her with this bitchy appraisal: “click, click, click.”
The best known, and most damaging, of Streep’s critics was Pauline Kael (who, as you may recall, was not particularly fond of Clint Eastwood, either, though for the opposite reason: she didn’t think he was an actor at all). Over the course of her first decade or so in movies, Kael asserted that Streep acted “only from the neck up,” speculating that “in her zeal to be an honest actress, she allows nothing to escape her conception of a performance.” Kael too could be bitchy, describing Streep as “our lady of the accents.” In 1994, three years after Kael’s retirement, Streep offered her reaction to such criticism: “It’s so awful that someone you admire hates what you do.” But still later, she was less diplomatic. “You know what I think?” she asked in 2008. “That Pauline was a poor Jewish girl at Berkeley with all these rich Pasadena WASPs with long blonde hair, and their heartlessness got to her; then, years later, she saw me.” New York Times reviewer came to his former colleague’s defense: “Kael being quite dead, she can't address Streep's psychoanalysis, but one might also think she wouldn't have gotten far as a critic if she relentlessly avenged these theorized college slights with undeserved digs against everyone on screen with long blonde hair, a not uncommon feature for an actress. One might think it's possible to simply not like Streep's acting style.” Streep, it is clear, can also be bitchy.
Still, on balance, it’s hard not to be impressed by Streep’s overall equanimity, particularly when one learns of far more crude dismissals. In a 2008 interview with Entertainment Weekly, she related that during her audition for a leading role in King Kong (1976), a part that ultimately went to Jessica Lange, producer Dino De Laurentiis asked his son in Italian, with Streep in the room, “Why did you send me this pig? This woman is so ugly!” Steep responded in Italian, “I’m very sorry that I disappoint you.” As she explained, “He was so used to treating girls like bimbos, never imagined that a blond person could speak Italian,” she said. De Laurentiis, who died in 2010, denied describing Streep as a pig, or meeting with her about King Kong, though he does recall doing so for another movie. In her 1984 biography of Streep, journalist Diana Maychick has the actor describing a similar incident involving a different De Laurentiis project, the 1978 film King of the Gypsies, in which it is De Launentiis’s son, who died in a 1981 plane crash, who makes the disparaging remark in Italian. My guess is that the earlier version of the story is what Streep was remembering, largely because less time had passed at the time she related it. But that something like it happened – in that case, among others – is very likely. Even in the case of a high prestige project like Out of Africa, and as enlightened a director as the late Sydney Pollack, Streep felt forced to deal with comporting with traditional ideas of femininity. In a documentary on the making of the film, she described  Pollack as believing she was not sexy enough to play the part of Isak Dinesen, and wrangling with a meeting to further discuss the part. “I went, pathetically, to that meeting in a very low-cut blouse with a push-up bra. I’m really shamed to say that I did, and it worked.  That’s the really sad part.” Streep related the story lightheartedly. But the tone never entirely undercut the words. In a subsequent interview with James Lipton for Inside the Actor’s Studio, Lipton noted that he had recently interviewed Pollack, who reported no such recollection these exchanges. “I knoooow,” she replied to laughter. “He probably doesn’t remember. You know, he probably doesn’t remember that was the thing. But” – she pauses for comic effect – “that was the thing.”  
Of course, she could afford to be magnanimous. One can only wonder – no, one need not wonder at all – what less esteemed women have had to put up with in Hollywood, among many other workplaces. Streep has had about a charmed a professional life as woman could have had in the American Century, which is a way that it’s been charmed indeed, and yet to faintly damn those who have smudged the quality of that life. Even at this late date, Streep does not have a production company the way many male movie stars, among them Eastwood and Hanks, do. (Playtone, the company run by Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson, was one of the producers of Mamma Mia!)  “I don’t have anybody directing my career, it just depends on what scripts come,” she said in 2010. “If I like them I do them.” Now in her sixties, she has been phenomenally productive, with dozens to her credit, among them four movies in 2007 alone.

In an important sense, Streep’s entire career has been a matter of using her talent and power to give voice to women. That career began at a propitious time; she had more opportunities that her predecessors did. But it also began in a culturally conservative one that decisively shaped Streep’s feminism.  The product of an anti-institutional moment, her statements on behalf of women took, if not anti-institutional tone, then a largely non-institutional one: the political was personal. That’s not surprising. What may be more surprising is that was only the beginning of her story.

Next: Streep's early years as a star.