Thursday, January 19, 2012

Casting about

Streep, adrift in the nineties

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

Meryl Streep’s interests in the mid-nineties involved deepening her gender inquiry on another front by making a foray into a typically male enclave: the action-adventure film. Her 1994 movie The River Wild is set on the Salmon River in Idaho, where a Boston-based couple with marital problems (Streep and the always excellent David Strathairn) take their tween son (Joseph Mazzello) on a whitewater rafting trip. By coincidence, they depart at the same time as violent criminals (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly), who are fleeing a robbery. Streep’s character, Gail, is an expert oarswoman with experience navigating dangerous rapids. Bacon’s character, Wade, wants her help but bides his time with a friendly demeanor that fools her and her son but not her husband. Eventually the family realizes who they’re dealing with, but not before Strathairn’s character is forced to flee after an abortive attempt to steal the robbers’ gun. Gail now has two challenges: dealing the dangerous criminals who have her and her son hostage in a raft, as well executing their demand that she navigate rapids that are so dangerous it’s illegal to traverse them. Her husband (and the family dog) continue to track the raft from the shore, hoping to rescue his wife and son. In a carefully calibrated exercise in equality feminism, the family is saved both by Gail’s bravery and expertise, along with crucial contributions from a husband who improvises successfully in the climactic scene. Gail, though, is the central player in this novel, and the one who pulls the trigger for its resolution. Directed by Hollywood veteran Curtis Hanson, The River Wild is a beautifully photographed film shot on location, made under arduous circumstances (more arduous than Streep realized when she signed on).  But it’s both predictable and forced, especially in Strathairn’s implausible abilities to keep up with the rafters from the shore. In the context of Streep’s career, however, it represents an interesting experiment with genre.
It was an experiment all the more notable because by mid-decade there were signs Streep’s career was losing steam, not only commercially, but artistically as well. One critic described her box office appeal as “waning,” though Streep attributed this perception to a shift in moviegoing attitudes, in that most of her (female) audience was seeing her films on video. In terms of aesthetics, the problem was not so much that Streep’s performances were less convincing than the material she was choosing seemed thinner, at least in gender terms. Her 1993 movie House of the Spirits, based on the 1982 multigenerational saga by Chilean writer Isabelle Allende, was novel in a number of respects, among them its Latin American setting, magical realism, and a stellar cast that included Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder and Antonio Banderas. But Streep is a relatively bland, saintly matriarch.  The same problem afflicts Before and After (1996), in which she plays a New England wife, mother and doctor whose life is plunged into turmoil when her adolescent son (Edward Furlong) is accused of murder. Though her husband (Liam Neeson) has all kinds of ideas about how to protect him, and a sharp lawyer (Alfred Molina) has a clever strategy for getting an acquittal, Mother Knows Best that Honesty is the Best Policy.
Somewhat more interesting is Streep’s performance as Francesca Johnson, the expatriate Midwestern housewife and mother who savors a brief interlude of infidelity in The Bridges of Madison County (1995). Directed by Clint Eastwood, this is one of those movies—The Devil Wears Prada, to be described below, is another—that is vastly better than the treacly (1992) book on which it is based. A major reason is Streep’s minutely observed performance, and good chemistry with Eastwood. The core point of the movie—housewives are far more complicated than many people, particularly their children, imagine—is a worthwhile one.
It’s made in a somewhat different form in One True Thing (1998), based on the Anna Quindlen novel, in which Streep plays Kate Gulden, a Martha Stewartesque housewife whose conventionality and fidelity to her inconstant professor husband (William Hurt), appalls her ambitious journalist daughter (Renee Zellweger), particularly after Kate is diagnosed with terminal cancer. But it’s Kate whose appalled by her daughter’s suggestion that she turn her domestic pursuits into commercial opportunities, and she must ultimately explain to her that the work of nurturing people, whether friends, family, or charity work in her community, is more than a career: it’s a vocation. Again, a point well taken. But you sorta wish Kate was a little less spotless than her kitchen; it might have been nice, for example, if she was obsessed with a slovenly next-door neighbor had a spat with a close friend somewhere along the way. Her perfection ultimately compromises the power of the message.
One character who’s certainly not spotless is Lee, the aspiring Ohio cosmetologist of Marvin’s Room (1996), based on the 1990 play by Scott McPherson. Lee is the mother two sons, the eldest of whom is a troubled youth (Leonardo DiCaprio) who burns down their house. Lee is also the sister of Bessie (Diane Keaton), who has remained home in Florida for many years to care for her ailing father. The problem now is that Bessie has cancer. Perhaps Lee or her sons may be a match for a bone marrow transplant; perhaps Lee will have to take care of her family and aging aunt now that Bessie is sick (like hell she will, she says). Marvin’s Room is a nicely acted ensemble piece—Robert De Niro plays Bessie’s doctor, and has a scene with his old partner Streep—and is ongoing testimony both to her willingness to play complicated people and to give us women with multiple identities. Perhaps it’s a matter of mental typecasting, but she’s not quite as convincing to me as a working-class woman as she is in other capacities. In any case, Marvin’s Room is a curio in Streep’s career, likely to be overlooked (Keaton got an Oscar nomination out of it) but testimony to her ongoing versatility.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Marvin’s Room is not that Streep made made it, but rather the studio that released it: Miramax. Founded as a small independent by brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein in 1979, Miramax was acquired by Disney in 1993. But for the next dozen years, until they went off on their own again, the Weinsteins exercised considerable artistic independence within the Disney empire, and used it to make smaller-scale, but artistically ambitious movies that routinely won awards (in part because of the company’s relentless politicking within the industry). This approach to filmmaking comported well with Streep’s, and she would make a series of films with Miramax over the next decade, as well as other small independents. They would provide her with a haven, and the big studios became increasingly obsessed with big-budget extravaganzas built around comic book characters, sequels, or both.
By decade’s end, then, Streep’s career was in flux: active, varied, but lower-profile. She had drifted away from with the clear sense of direction that characterized the private feminism that dominated her work from the late seventies to the late eighties, or the gender critiques/experiments of the early nineties. But with the coming of a new century, Streep’s work took another turn, suggesting a real shift in the way women worked, in the broadest sense of the term, in contemporary society. The line would thus bend, but remain traceable.

Next: Streep's turn toward public feminism.