Monday, December 5, 2011

Engendering humor

Streep's comic approach to middle-aged womanhood

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

In 1989, Meryl Streep turned 40. By that point, she had crossed into “woman of a certain age” territory, at least in Hollywood terms, and as such had entered rocky shoals. It has long been the conventional wisdom that female stars fade in Hollywood, and while there have always been exceptions (Sally Field, Susan Sarandon, and Helen Mirren come to mind), illustrations of the rule (Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer and Melanie Griffith, all a decade younger than Streep) are not hard to generate. Though she never has never gone more three years without appearing in a movie, and has appeared in two or more movies in the same year a dozen times, there is a general perception that Streep’s star power dimmed in the 1990s, when she typically surfaced annually. Partly this is a matter of choice; these were years when she was actively raising children, and logistical considerations, like the locale of a shoot, have often been factors for her. But the quality of the roles she took was sometimes weaker, principally when the women she played were so saintly as to lack the edgy interest of a Joanna Kramer, Lindy Chamberlain, or even Karen Blixen. Still, Streep was never a passive recipient of parts, and while it’s clear that she acted on instinct, there’s surprising consistency in batches of choices that she made in the second decade of her career.
The first such batch of choices involved a set of roles that satirically deconstructed the idea of womanhood itself. The conventional wisdom is that after ten years of appearing in serious drama, Streep made leap into comedy. This was indeed a shift, and while critical and commercial reception was initially mixed, it proved to be a durable one: Streep has been a reliable cinematic source of laughter ever since, particularly in the last decade. But it’s those first few movies, a quartet of films she made between 1989 and 1992 that I want to focus on here. Though they were not highly regarded, they’re surprisingly coherent in the way they play with notions of gender.
The first, and perhaps most obvious example is She-Devil (1989). In what was widely regarded at the time as an odd piece of casting, Streep’s co-star was Roseanne Barr, a stand-up comedian who was approaching the peak of her cultural status as a working-class icon of feminism on the strength of her hit TV series Roseanne (1988-1997). But the dramatic contrast between the aristocratic-looking Streep and dumpy-looking Barr, which was played to the hilt, is essentially the core premise of the movie. She-Devil, based on the 1983 novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil  by British writer Fay Weldon, had been made into a four-part BBC television series in 1986.  The main storyline of all iterations involves a housewife and mother named Ruth Patchett, whose accountant husband (Ed Begley Jr. in the movie) leaves her for a famous romance novelist named Mary Fisher (Streep). Patchett then systematically responds to this betrayal by dismantling the public and private pillars of her husband’s and Mary’s, life. In its literally explosive garishness, the film version of She-Devil makes the BBC series seem downright prim by comparison. Barr goes out of her way to accentuate her ugliness as Ruth (as in ruthless), though she’ll undergo a transformation before it’s all over. But it’s Streep’s performance that endows the movie with a comic zing by giving us a Mary Fisher who’s both sharply observed and almost impossibly over the top at the same time. The funniest scene in the movie is a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous profile by the real-life host of the series, Robin Leach. “They find ways to make the man feel important and comfortable,” she says of her novels in a breathy voice, her blond tresses framed by a pink dress, pink nails, and poodle with pink ribbons.  “To let him know that he is—pregnant pause—the man. You know, so, there’s no confusion.” Mary later condescendingly marvels about “all the little families, mommies and daddies and dear little children tucked away for the night. How lucky they all are.” She will of course get her comeuppance, and Streep is as least as game in playing her descent, already underway when she snappishly evades being caught in a lie about her age. Ruth, for her part, begins her revival by dumping the kids at Mary’s house end entering the work force, something she does in the service of her master plan, but which results in a promising new career. These strongly feminist accents are undercut a bit, in that the story ends with Ruth’s husband rejoining the family after his release from prison for embezzlement, which she helped expose: Why would she want the lout back? Mary, for her part, recovers from a tepidly received final novel (she’s seen painfully ignored at a mall book-signing) to reinvent herself as a Serious Writer with a memoir, Trust and Betrayal: A Docu-novel of Love, Money and Skepticism (our last view of her is at a bookstore signing flirting with a charming Frenchman). Revenge may be sweet, but it need not be complete. Besides, the Other Woman was never the primary problem anyway; the feckless man is.

Next: Other Streep deconstructions of gender.