The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.
At the risk of belaboring the point, I want to be clear that I’ve been applying a specific litmus test to Meryl Streep movies, measuring them in terms of whether the women she portrays have an autonomous life apart from any specifically gendered one of wife, lover, or mother. I’ve done so to argue that Streep’s brand of feminism, neither unique to her nor entirely shared, had a specific tenor in the first decade of her career, one that both suggested the possibilities as well as the limits of that feminism in the mainstream popular culture of the Reagan era.
That said, I remain aware of Streep’s injunction about reading too much into her choices. The line I’m drawing is not exactly straight. Still, it is real. Actually, the Streep roles I’ve found most intriguing are the more ambiguous ones that blend private and public feminism. But even those ambiguous ones tend to run toward the private side of the spectrum. As we’ll see, that would change.
The other thing I need to say before we move on is that Streep has never been particularly ideological in these matters. She’s an artist, not an intellectual. And one who has been committed from the outset to capturing the realities of women’s lives from multiple perspectives, whether or not they happen to be her own.
It’s notable, then, that two of Streep’s greatest performances were a matter of embodying women whose gender identities—particularly the gender identity of mother—are avowedly at the center of who they understand themselves to be. The first is what for a long time was Streep’s signature role, that of Polish émigré Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice (1982), for which she won her second Oscar, this time for Best Actress. The movie, based on the semi-autobiographical 1979 novel by William Styron, is presented from the point of view of an aspiring novelist named Stingo, who moves to Brooklyn in 1947 after finishing his education at Duke. He rents a room in a large house whose residents include a vivacious couple, a dashing Jew named Stingo (Kevin Kline) and Streep’s mysterious and alluring Sophie, a Polish-Catholic refugee who fled Nazi Germany. The three enjoy each other’s company immensely, but it becomes increasingly apparent to Stingo that Nathan, who presents himself as a high-powered chemist, is a fraud, and a schizophrenic prone to flying into jealous rage.
Though Nathan is demonstrably insane, he is right in one respect: Stingo is falling in love with Sophie. She, too, is not who she appears to be: she claims her father was an anti-Nazi professor, though we later learn he was Anti-Semitic apologist for the regime. Sophie had a lover in the resistance movement in occupied Poland, who was caught and executed. Sophie herself was caught smuggling a ham for her dying mother and sent to Auschwitz with her children. In about the worst kind of cruelty imaginable, a camp official tells her she must choose which of her children should live. She chooses her son, who is sent to a children’s camp (we don’t learn anything beyond that), while her daughter goes to a crematorium. It is a scene about as wrenching as any in modern cinema, and must have been very difficult to execute.
Streep’s performance is awe-inspiring on many levels, most obvious in the way she reverse-engineered her way to English as a second language, by learning Polish (a language she did not master) and its accent (which she did). As with the French Lieutenant’s Woman, she conveyed a sense of alluring mystery in her character by managing to hold something in reserve that you can sense without ever being told. We also sense a tragic outcome, even as Stingo tries to flee Nathan’s murderous rage by taking her with him to a hotel, from which he hopes to return to the South and marry her, where they can live on a farm he has inherited. But Sophie simply cannot relinquish the horror of her motherhood. Indeed, one suspects her decision to cast her lot with Nathan after the war, a man who abuses her and with whom she can never finally be happy, is an act of self-sabotage.
In a 1983 interview, Streep responded to a journalist’s question about whether Sophie worked while living in New York by saying, “Yeah. Not that we ever saw. But yeah, she worked. Still, that wasn’t what that movie was about.” Instead, what it’s about is a mother’s grief. Sophie indulges Stingo with a night of fantasy, but returns to Nathan, with whom she commits suicide. Her death, like her life, can only be defined in terms of others.
Sophie’s Choice was a tour de force showcase for Streep’s talents. But her acting in A Cry in the Dark (1988) is all the more powerful for its understated quality. Here she’s another true-life character, Australian Lindy Chamberlain, who became ensnared in a media maelstrom in 1980 after she was accused of murdering her infant daughter despite her insistence that the child had been killed by a dingo, a wild dog indigenous to Australia, during a camping trip. Streep mastered yet another accent for this role, one she said she found more difficult because unlike Isak Dinesen or Karen Silkwood, Chamberlain was still alive and still in the public eye, and someone whose idiosyncratic expression required more precise emulation. But it’s the helmeted quality of Chamberlain’s expression, the Puritanical mien of a committed Seventh-Day Adventist married to a minister (Sam Neill), that badly damaged her public image, and which Streep captures in her performance.
Cry in the Dark was directed by Australian Fred Schepisi, who also directed Streep in Plenty. It performed poorly at the U.S. box office, probably because American viewers were not widely familiar with the scandal, and because the material is so wrenching. But Streep nevertheless earned yet another Oscar nomination for the role. Since nominations come from fellow actors—winners are chosen by the membership of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences as a whole—such recognition is an honor in its own right, and a testimonial to Streep’s realized ambition to represent the reality of a woman’s life on her own terms, in this case a woman who saw herself first and foremost wife and mother.
By the end of the 1980s, then, Streep was not simply a movie star, but a cinematic brand—a virtuoso known for high-wire characterizations in artistically challenging dramas. Asked by a film professor at the University of Kansas in 1988 whether she still takes a secret delight in jumping into a movie with a new face on, Streep said yes with a laugh. “It’s part of what I get criticized for,” she noted. “But that’s what the joy of it is for me.”
In the years that followed, however, Streep began seeking out somewhat different joys.
Next: Streep in (comic) transition.