The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.
There were some Streep projects of the 1980s in which the non-gendered aspects of her characters life were truly important. In Plenty (1985), based on the David Hare play, she is Susan Traherne, a British woman whose small but dramatic role in the French Resistance during World War II, depicted in the opening sequence, makes everything that happens in her life subsequently pale by comparison. We see her in a number of jobs, among them a “good” one in advertising, whose mindlessness infuriates her. Traherne has a tryst with another operative (Sam Neill) early in her life, from which she never recovers, subsequently marrying a diplomat (Charles Dance) whom she treats with indifference that sometimes crosses the line into cruelty. The same can be said of a prior relationship with a young working-class man (Sting) with whom she seeks to father a child without attachments.
In the context of her career, Plenty is a fascinating experiment for Streep: she plays a stunningly unpleasant character. There’s an excruciating dinner-party scene in which Traherne manages to make us sorry for a stuffy senior Foreign Office operative (John Gielgud) grieving over British ineptitude in the Suez crisis. Streep’s capacity to incite anger in viewers usefully poses questions about the standards, gendered and otherwise, by which we judge people, something she would do repeatedly over the course of her career.
Streep did make a couple movies in which the synthesis of public and private feminism was far more successful from both an ideological as well as artistic standpoint. The best example is Silkwood (1983), the first of a series of collaborations with director Mike Nichols, screenplay by Ephron and Alice Arlen. Streep is Karen Silkwood, the real-life metallurgy worker at a nuclear power plant in Oklahoma. Divorced with children who live with their father, Silkwood shares a house with two co-workers, her lover (Kurt Russell) and a lesbian friend (Cher). The rhythms of their everyday life, both in terms of casual humor and domestic tensions, seems more authentic and contemporary than that of The Deer Hunter. “If anything that’s the thing I’m most proud of in this movie, it’s that it accurately depicts the work force and how people keep their sense of humor no matter how bad things get,” Streep said in 1983.
She plays Silkwood with a low-grade anti-authoritarian attitude, rendering her as an appealingly profane, pot-smoking good-ol’-girl who at one point flashes her breast on the job as a riposte to some heckling men. That anti-authoritarian disposition hardens as she gradually comes to realize that inadequate safety measures endanger workers at the plant, danger that ultimately engulfs Silkwood herself. Her growing labor activism attracts attention in Washington, but at the cost of multiple personal relationships, with men and women, among them Russell, who nevertheless still loves her.
The real Karen Silkwood died in murky circumstances in a 1974 car accident, just as revelations at the plant where she worked would go public and ultimately force its closure. Some critics disliked the ambiguity of the film’s ending, which was aesthetically as well as politically unsatisfying. But Silkwood herself belongs in the pantheon of Streep characters for the fully integrated quality of her life, a truly three-dimensional feminism of the kind one rarely sees in movies.
My personal favorite example of such three-dimensionality, however, is Streep’s turn as Helen Archer, a fictional character in the 1987 film Ironweed, based on William Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel. This may seem like an odd statement, in that the movie is about a couple of homeless alcoholics in the Depression-era Albany of 1938. (Streep is paired again with Nicholson, an impressive piece of teamwork when one considers they played a Washington DC power couple the previous year in Heartburn.) Helen, cut off from her family, is jobless and nearly hopeless. But we learn she was once a singer in concerts and on the radio. At one point she, Nicholson and a friend (Tom Waits) wander into a local saloon and chat up the bartender (Fred Gwynn), a former singer and recovering alcoholic himself. When Helen ingenuously gushes about his singing and mentions that she too once performed, he genially insists she take the stage at the back of the room and sing a tune. Helen tentatively begins a version of “He’s Me Pal,” a pop standard circa 1905, which she dedicates to Nicholson. But her performance gains in intensity—Streep’s singing talents are put to very good use here—and the room takes on a remarkable glow, even if her teeth are blackened and her clothes tattered. Helen finishes to rousing applause, and Nicholson, who had bought her a flower for her coat moments before, now comes over for a kiss. “My God, Helen, this is as good as it gets. You were born to be a star,” he tells her. “You think so?” she replies, tentative pleasure in her voice, and the two embrace, protected from view by their hats, the iconic image that became the movie’s poster.
As we’ve been suspecting, though—how is it that her voice is projecting even when she’s not in front of the microphone, and where did band accompaniment we hear come from?—it’s all been an illusion. The camera cuts to Helen finishing her song, much less impressively than imagined, to a crowd that less impressive, and less impressed, than imagined. (Her man is still waiting for her, though, and the kind bartender, ironically, buys her a drink.) It’s a beautifully heartbreaking moment in a vivid but painful movie. It also represents a rare moment of fusion in a woman’s life, where she is doing something she loves in a public setting for a man she loves, and that man is there to support and savor labors that generate positive attention from the crowd, even if not as much as we wish for her. Helen is a tragic figure—she had explained the bartender before she sang that her Nicholson’s drinking problem had forced them to sell off her piano and other prized musical possessions—precisely because her vision of a career was not a mere illusion. Just as Nicholson’s love of her is both real and destructive.
Next: Streep as mother.