Monday, November 14, 2011

Bending with gender

In three 1979 films, Streep made the most of limited material 

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

The Deer Hunter put Streep on the map as a new force for women in cinema. In her next two movies, Manhattan and The Seduction of Joe Tynan (both 1979), Streep played professional women, a writer and a politico respectively. Significantly, however, they were women whose careers were secondary in terms of their function in these movies, which turned on their sexual relationships with men. In Manhattan is a fabled work in Woody Allen’s writing/directing career, but one whose May-December romance with the high school student played by Mariel Hemingway would never fly in terms of contemporary mores, even without the later controversy surrounding Allen’s relationship with his adoptive stepdaughter. Streep plays his ex-wife, Jill, who now has a lesbian lover and is writing a tell-all about her marriage with Allen’s character, Isaac Davis. (“Look at you, you’re so threatened,” she says amusedly to Isaac, even as we know he is right to be.) A walking stereotype of the feminist as castrating bitch, the character as written is so over-the-top as to amount to misogyny, even making allowances for comic license and the fact that Allen’s purported attempt to run over Jill’s lover in his car becomes a bit of a running joke. But Streep, who plays Jill straight, endows her with an unselfconscious confidence and intensity that makes her seem alive, and, amazingly enough, almost appealing. Yet the character, who only has two scenes in the movie, is defined in terms of being a foil for Allen’s persona, right down to her literary career, which consists of turning her personal life into commerce in the form of a book with the title Marriage, Love and Divorce.
Streep’s character is the creature of a decidedly less severe stripe in writer/actor Alan Alda’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan, in which she plays Karen Traynor, the daughter of a Southern political fixer who becomes one in her own right. Alda plays the title character, a married U.S. senator from New York drawn by the siren song of national office—and, of course, the charms of his hired female gun. In the 1970s, Alda was lionized as the quintessential modern man of the feminist era—a thinking woman’s man. The Seduction of Joe Tynan suggests that Alda’s vanity got the better of him, both in his unwillingness to play the bad guy (something Robert Redford was more willing to do in The Candidate, a similar movie released in 1972), or to make Streep’s character much more than a (professional) woman in love. The Seduction of Joe Tynan proved to be a forgettable movie, and a mere stepping-stone for Streep.
Far more important was her third film of 1979, Kramer vs. Kramer, for which she won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. (It’s a bit odd, yet a sign of the times, that Streep got a supporting Oscar for a title role.) In terms of gender politics, Streep’s role as Joanna Kramer is a tough sell, as she plays an emotionally distraught woman who leaves her husband and son to go off and find herself. The rhetorical deck was also a bit stacked against the character. In part, that’s because the source material for the movie, Avery Corman’s 1977 novel, has a distinctly male point of view. (“Feminists will applaud me,” his Joanna declares when she leaves her husband at their New York apartment, in stilted dialogue that characterizes the book.)  In part, it’s also because Streep’s co-star, Dustin Hoffman, was, to put it mildly, a strong-minded actor with figurative weight he wasn’t afraid to throw around. But Streep, who was married and had her first child by 1979, took the part as a matter of conviction, determined to make a case for Joanna as a woman who loved her child but who was in too much personal anguish to continue without respite. “I think that if there’s anything that runs through all my work, all my characters, it’s that I have a relationship with them where I feel I have to defend them,” she said of her feelings for the character.
In addition to her acting, Streep made her case for Joanna Kramer by arguing for changes in the script, successfully persuading director Robert Benton to rewrite her courtroom testimony for custody of the couple’s son toward the end of the film. In particular, she added a key line responding to assertions that Ted Kramer had been the primary parent for the couple’s child for eighteen months by noting that Joanna had been so for five and a half years. “We listened,” Benton later explained. “And she became the real Mrs. Kramer.”
But the real Mrs. Kramer remains, first and foremost, a mother. In the book, her aspirations for career, which turn out to involve working as a clerk for Hertz, becomes a source of bitter humor: “She left her family, her child, to go to California to rent cars,” Joanna’s own mother notes incredulously to Ted. In the movie, Joanna testifies that she’s a sportswear designer. But while Ted’s career in advertising is central to the course of the movie, this passing mention is all we hear about Joanna’s. Any work outside the home is incidental.

Next: Streep in the '80s.