Thursday, December 15, 2011

False fantasies

Streep's early '90s movies deconstructed notions of gender

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 followed-up She-Devil with the more upscale comedy Postcards from the Edge (1990), Carrie Fisher’s 1987 autobiographical novel about recovery from addiction set among the Hollywood elite. Though it’s less pointed in its gender politics than She-Devil, the Mike Nichols-directed Postcards is nevertheless a departure for Streep. For the first time—and surprisingly late at that—she is a daughter rather than a mother, as the struggling adult child of a major star, presumably Fisher’s famous mother Debbie Reynolds, played by Shirley MacLaine.
There’s a pleasant postmodern fizz to Postcards, in that it calls attention to its own artifice. The film opens with a dramatic sequence about a drug cartel that turns out to be a movie-within-a-movie, though the drug angle is real enough: Streep’s character, actor Suzanne Vale, is fired for taking a snort in her trailer. At other points in the movie, we learn a city street is actually a movie set, and Streep spends a long stretch of the movie ironically wearing a policewoman’s costume.
Though much of the plot turns on her relationship with a wayward playboy producer (Dennis Quaid), her character’s struggle is typical of that facing the boy who seeks to become a man: What will I do with my life professionally? How do I emerge from the shadow of a powerful parent and gain my own public identity? How will romance fit into, as opposed to define, this picture? The script (also written by Fisher) suggests Suzanne has begun to resolve these questions by making the movie’s closing sequence the shooting a music video, which allows us to see a truly fabulous Streep performing a country tune, “I’m Checkin’ Out,” written by Shel Silverstein, a remarkably versatile author and illustrator who also wrote the Johnny Cash classic “A Boy Named Sue,” among other country hits.
Postcards, then, had some serious currents running it, notwithstanding its decisively comic tone. By contrast, Streep’s next movie, Defending Your Life (1991), proceeds from a presumably grave question—what happens when we die?—but is so light it almost floats off the screen. Writer/director Albert Brooks has long been a kind of cut-rate Woody Allen, an auteur with a real sense of humor whose movies are rarely fully satisfying (he’s better as an actor). In Defending Your Life, he plays Daniel Miller, a morose Los Angeles advertising executive who drives his brand new luxury car into an oncoming bus and dies. He awakens in “Judgment City,” a kind of purgatory where the events of his life are reviewed through a judicial hearing that will decide whether he will graduate to a higher form of consciousness or be forced to repeat human life in what amounts to a kind of Southern California Hinduism. Fortunately, Judgment City is a pleasant place to pass the time; you can eat all you want for free and never gain an ounce. While in Judgment City, Daniel meets his dream girl, Julia (Streep), who is charmed by Daniel’s jokes. There are lots of comic bits about Julia’s higher standard of living in Judgment City, owing the fact that she was a nicer person than Daniel was. But despite their divergent verdicts, true love conquers all, even in heaven.
Streep agreed to act in Defending Your Life because she was charmed when Brooks pitched it to her, poolside, while she was filming Postcards from the Edge. But her motives in taking the part seem to have been at least in part a matter of playful experimentation with gender expectations. “I know Albert feels he’s written a whole woman, a completely full-blown person,” she said in a 1991 New York Times profile. “I didn’t know how to break it to him, he’s really not done that. He’s written an idea of a woman. And I did my best to fill those silver slippers. But it was also fun. I thought, ‘Ah, the hell with it. You’re dead. You can do whatever you want.’ ”
Streep’s next movie, Death Becomes Her (1992), was a black comedy on the order of She-Devil. As with She-Devil, this is a story of romantic rivalry, but its main theme is a veritable American obsession: aging, a subject whose gender dimensions are especially vexing for women. Streep is Madeline Ashton, an aging actress who steals and marries Ernest Menville, the plastic surgeon boyfriend of her frenemy, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). Helen, plunged into a despair gauged by a grotesque weight gain, ends up in a psychiatric ward, but as with Ruth Patchett, gets rejuvenated by the prospect of revenge. Madeline, meanwhile, has also aged and gained in weight, while the alcoholic Ernest has been reduced to working as a mortician. Unbeknownst to the other, each of the women learns of, and imbibes, a magic potion that reverses the effect of aging, purveyed by a woman named Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini). A newly svelte Helen seduces Ernest, and convinces him to kill Madeline. Madeline learns of the plot, and the movie moves into slapstick overdrive as the women commit grotesque acts of violence against each other that result a twisted heads for Madeline, holes in the Helen’s abdomen, and the like, none of which are of course fatal. (Death Becomes Her, which Streep described as taking longer to make than any of her movies, won an Academy Award for its special effects.) Ironically, though the two women reconcile, they find themselves dependent on Ernest to spruce up their brittle, if immortal bodies, until, even more ironically, they find themselves dependent on each other. (Sisterhood may be powerful, but it’s very often exasperating.) As such, the movie ends on a comic, though not particularly satisfying, be-careful-what-you-wish-for note.
It’s a message, however, that’s consistent with Streep’s own thinking, particularly in terms of the movie’s critique of the cult of beauty. “My son, Henry, who’s 12, asked me, Who do you think is the prettiest girl in my class?’ ” she reported in a 1992 interview.  “And I said, ‘Who cares?’ ” Streep also professed to comfort with aging. “I felt 40 years old since I was eight,” she said. “And so when I became 40, I felt suddenly like I could fit into my clothes. I could say whatever I damn well please.” Of course, one might well reply, such things were easy for a woman as attractive and powerful as Streep to say. But her subsequent track record as an actor does indeed suggest a sense of personal liberation and a more relaxed persona in many of her roles. While few of them have had the searing intensity of Sophie’s Choice or Cry in the Dark, many have proven to be deeply satisfying. It’s hard not be moved, for example, by the tremendous affection that Streep pours into her portrayal of the aging Julia Child in Julie & Julia (2009), and the palpable joy that infuses the performance itself, which feels not showy in that “our lady of the accents” way critics like Pauline Kael disliked—even as her mastery of Child’s unique voice can make you laugh out loud—but rather as an affirmation of life itself.

 Next: Streep in flux.