Thursday, November 17, 2011

The private sector

Feminism, Streep style, in the 1980s

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 continued to play strong-minded women in all of her film roles of the 1980s, but the power her characters wield is largely defined in sexual terms. She landed a high-profile double role in the 1981 film The French Lieutenant’s Woman, based on the 1969 novel of the same name by John Fowles. Fowles’s book is that rare case of a commercially successful postmodern novel—only Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Antonement, also made into a (weaker) movie, was comparably successful—in which characters defy the narrator-author’s wishes in a story with multiple endings. It would not appear to be particularly promising movie material, except that it was skillfully adapted by playwright and fellow Briton Harold Pinter, who created a parallel movie-within-a-movie plot involving actors making a romantic drama set in the Victorian era. The two pairs of characters, played by Jeremy Irons and Streep, are both in love. Their different fates at least initially appear to hinge on their different historical circumstances. In one case Streep is an abandoned woman, left desolate by the unseen French lieutenant of the title, who insists on lingering as a social outcast in a seaside town until she becomes a source of growing fascination for the affianced gentleman played by Irons. In the other, her character is a privileged professional actor in metropolitan London, empowered to conduct an extramarital affair and largely dictate its conditions to the (also married) Irons. But as with the novel, the point of the movie is very much that things are not what they seem. The French lieutenant’s woman has more resources, principal among them the power to beguile, than her pursuer realizes. And while the professional woman is, in the parlance of the time “liberated,” the problems she is seen grappling with are primarily romantic, not professional. (It might have been interesting, for example, to have a scene with her arguing with her director about the portrayal of her character.) I don’t want to go overboard in emphasizing how the bottle is half-empty here: women, and the actor who portrays them, are at the center of the story. But in retrospect their compass of action seems limited, precisely because the overt tenor of the discourse is emancipatory.
The same might be said for Still of the Night (1982), in which Streep returned to the supervision of Kramer vs. Kramer director Robert Benton in an overt work of homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Here Streep is a blue-blooded femme fatale named Brooke Reynolds, who may or may not have anything to do with the murder of a man who was undergoing psychoanalysis at the time of his death. Roy Scheider is the therapist who finds himself drawn against his better judgment to Reynolds, who works at an East Side auction house. The film is competent but boring, in large measure because Streep and Scheider are lacking in chemistry.
Even more boring is Streep’s 1984 film Falling in Love, much-ballyhooed at the time of its release, because it marked a reunion with De Niro. This time the two play married Westchester suburbanites who fall in love courtesy of the Metro North commuter railroad, despite their better judgment. De Niro is a construction executive, and we see him at work repeatedly. Streep does a little freelance artwork on the side, but is otherwise a housewife without children. This is one of those movies that make you impatient for the lovers to hurry the hell up and overcome the tedious obstacles that stand in the way of their inevitable triumph. Were it made ten or fifteen years later, a divorced Streep would start a business involving chocolate chip cookies or some other form of home economics, which would provide the perfect way for the lovers to accidentally run into each other at a strip mall. For now, they have to settle for Rizzoli’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue (seeing that got me pining for a long lost love).
In Heartburn (1986), Streep for the first time of many subsequent times tackles playing a real person, in this case journalist, later turned writer/director, Nora Ephron. (“It’s a little depressing to know that if you go to an audition to play yourself, you would lose to Meryl,” she later joked.) The film, directed by Mike Nichols, is based on the 1983 roman a clef of the same name, which chronicles the rise and fall of Ephron’s marriage to Washington Post writer Carl Bernstein, played by Jack Nicholson. It’s refreshing to note that we do see Streep’s character in workplace settings, unlike her husband, known to the world for his role in breaking the Watergate story. Not surprisingly, that working style is more fluid—the personal and professional aspects of her life are apparent both in showing up for meetings pregnant, and in her warm relationship with her younger boss, played by Jeff Daniels. Moreover, Ephron makes the bold choice of making the resolution of the story her decision to leave Bernstein for his infidelity without another man waiting in the wings, a clear breach with the normal logic of romantic storytelling.  Such an approach makes real demands of an audience, even a predominately female audience, and the pitch for its protagonist’s sympathy is further strained by the obvious elite status of a woman who can literally afford to be divorced, even with children. No doubt about it: this is a feminist movie. But it is decisively feminism of the private sector.
What’s striking about the pattern I’m describing is the way in which even a movie that seems a world away—1985 Best Picture Out of Africa, set in colonial Kenya—turns out to be pretty much the same old story. Writer/director Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) was a true Hollywood professional, and Africa is, from a visual standpoint, simply gorgeous. But its racial politics amount to little more than a postcard for imperialism, and its gender politics are also finally retrograde. Streep again plays a real person, Danish writer Karen Blixen, later known to the world by her pen name, Isak Dinesen (1885-1962). From the start, we see her as a maverick figure. During a frigid European hunting expedition, she proposes a marriage of convenience with a friend, Baron von Blixen-Finecke (an amiable Klaus Brandauer), whereby the two will start a diary farm in Kenya, which turns out to be a coffee plantation because he changes his mind without telling her. Mrs. Blixen arrives in Kenya and blithely walks into a men’s-only private club, causing a stir. (Naturally, they’ll collectively stand her a drink by the time the movie is over.)  She also takes a strong hand in running the plantation, not only because her husband would rather go hunting, but also because that’s the kind of woman she is, a woman who, when her husband sends word to send supplies to himself and British soldiers fighting the Germans in East Africa in the First World War, insists trekking across dangerous terrain and delivering them in person (with a retinue, of course).
But none of this, or even a Blixen writing career we know about chiefly through the flashback voiceover device that frames the film, can compete with the romantic charms of Robert Redford, who plays her lover Briton Denys Finch Hatton with an incongruous American accent. Redford is admittedly a powerful draw, but their relationship—she pining away while he repeatedly takes off—puts the film in very familiar grooves. Blixen does finally take a hard line with Finch Hatton, but we never really learn the outcome of such militancy, because he dies before their relationship is resolved. There are any number of possible reasons why the edgy or simply novel aspects of the story get swallowed by conventional romance; a desire to sell lots of tickets to a 1980s mainstream audience was surely prominent among them. But such big, bloated and bland moviemaking is exactly the kind of cinema that has given Hollywood films of the 1980s something of a benighted critical reputation, would later help spark the leaner, edgier independent movement of the 1990s (in which, as we’ll see, Streep would participate).

Next: Streep's (smaller) body of public sector feminism