The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.
Though, as I’ve indicated, Meryl Streep underwent a long and rigorous apprenticeship, and did some relatively high-profile television and film work in the late seventies, the movie that turned her into an “overnight sensation” in 1978 was The Deer Hunter. In part, that’s because The Deer Hunter, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, was a sensation in its own right, and became a Hollywood legend for a whole host of reasons. One was that its success led United Artists to give director Michael Cimino broad license for his next film, Heaven’s Gate (1978), whose colossal cost overruns helped plunge the studio into bankruptcy. Another was that it was the among the first major Hollywood films to deal with the Vietnam War, and included a notorious plot line involving Russian Roulette as a betting game among the Vietnamese. A third was its extraordinarily gifted cast—which included Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Streep’s fiancé John Cazale, in the final appearance of his brief but brilliant career—that defined the movie as a generational turning point for a new generation of actors.
The Deer Hunter follows the lives of a group of friends (De Niro, Walken, and John Savage) from a small Pennsylvania steel town to The Horror of the Vietnam war, from which only De Niro’s character returns home anything resembling intact. The film combines a gritty working-class feel along with action sequences that rival anything from the Francis Ford Coppola school of filmmaking (Coppola, of course, would weigh in with Apocalypse Now the following year). In their phallic bravado, both movies seem dated; the extended wedding reception sequence in The Deer Hunter was much celebrated at the time as a vivid, almost anthropological, slice of working-class life, but for my taste its sweaty Eastern-European vivacity, complete with a SERVING GOD AND COUNTRY banner looming behind the dancing partygoers, verges on condescension.
Streep’s character, a supermarket checkout girl named Linda, provides crucial ballast for this male-dominated cast. We first see her on the morning of the wedding, in a gaudy pink bridesmaid’s dress, making breakfast for her alcoholic father. When she brings it to him, he assaults her. But Linda is not a passive victim. When we next see her, it’s at the bungalow her boyfriend Nick (Walken) shares with his buddy Michael (De Niro). She asks Nick if she can stay in their place while the two are in the army, and states she wants to pay them. We don’t quite know what happens—we see the action through an interior window, and Nick seems to be remonstrating at the very idea of her paying—but we get the idea that Streep’s quiet, willowy persona notwithstanding, she’s got a spine.
Michael, we figure out quickly, has a soft spot for Linda. But he’s not going to steal his buddy’s girlfriend. Even after he returns from Vietnam—Nick, badly psychologically damaged during a stint as a prisoner of war, insists on staying behind to become a professional Russian Roulette player—he’s reluctant to take up with Linda. Linda, however, shows interest in taking up with him, which becomes an unresolved subplot in the movie.
In her scenes with De Niro (the two would team up again for Falling in Love in 1984 and Marvin’s Room in 1996), Streep deploys a become facial tactic that would become a standard part of her thespian repertoire: looking directly at her acting partner, then turning her head away, her eyes cast down, sometimes rolling her eyes as she does so in moments of levity or irony (we viewers are ever-so-briefly in on the joke). What’s really quite striking about this technique is that it manages to convey shyness and assertiveness simultaneously—feminine feminism, as it were. This delicate balance goes to the heart of her performance in The Deer Hunter, where she is largely at the mercy of events beyond her control, but still manages to quietly express herself in ways that are both moving and life-affirming in the face of death, literal or psychological. It’s not entirely clear whether Linda’s feelings for Michael are for him in their own right, or whether he’s simply a living connection to Nick and a sense of possibility the war seems to have wrecked. But she knows what she wants. “Why don’t we go bed,” she says to Michael shortly after his return. “Can’t we just comfort each other?” (Streep recites the line as a statement, not a question.) Michael demurs, but the next thing we see is Linda in his cheap motel room, undressed, climbing into bed with him (“feels kinda weird!” she says, looking into the bathroom mirror before she does so). But Linda finds the fully clothed Michael asleep on top of the sheets. She nevertheless crawls under them and lies beside him, taking uneasy comfort in his presence. That sense of uneasy comfort culminates in the final scene of the movie, where in a group middle shot, Linda leads the group in singing “God Bless America,” she and Michael looking at each other, but rarely at the same time. Love and pain, public and private, are intertwined. Feeling both is an act of will, and a prerequisite for hope.