Monday, January 23, 2012

Class acts

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.

Teachers. The next turning point in Meryl Streep’s career—the point when she began offering fully realized visions of a feminist life in which public pursuits matter at least as much as private ones—arrived with her portrayal of a pair of teachers. In a way, that’s not surprising: teaching has long been considered a job for women, in part because it’s work women have long done at home. So it was an apt fulcrum for her to tip away from women whose lives were defined more by the gender identities and into ones whose professions were central to their conception of themselves.
It’s a bit ironic, though, how this point was first illustrated: in the 1998 Dancing at Lughnasa. That’s because the film is set in the culturally hidebound rural Ireland of 1936. Based on a play by Brian Friel, directed by veteran Irish director Pat O’Connor, and released through Sony Pictures Classics, this is one of those small-scale, actor-driven ensembles pieces that characterized Streep’s work at the turn of the century. Lughnana is at heart a coming of age story, told from the point of view of a child (Darrell Johnston), who recounts a memorable summer on the family farm when his errant father (Rhys Ifans) returns to the family from a long sojourn, as does his missionary uncle (Michael Gambon), who is only intermittently lucid. Streep plays Kate, an aging spinster who rules over her four unmarried sisters and elder brother with an iron hand. She strongly disapproves of the boy’s father, her brother’s candid observations about pagan African culture, and any other deviation from orthodoxy. The mere sight of Streep’s pursed lips captures Kate’s pinched, anxious persona. (Family and townspeople call her “gander” behind her back.)
But this is not her whole story. For Kate is also a teacher at a local Catholic school—or is until the priest who runs it tells her she is likely to be redundant come fall. This represents a serious potential economic setback for the family. It’s also a personal disaster for her, not only because her job is clearly close to the center of her identity, but also the source of the authority that allows her to boss her siblings around. Without it, she will be a husk of herself. Such knowledge tempers our distaste for Kate, who is not wholly lacking in a sense of humor or personal empathy (there’s a nice scene where she gives her nephew a gift before his birthday, regarding him with sad affection, and another of her dancing with her sisters in the final scene of the movie). It’s also a strong statement that the lack of a career can be a tragedy for women, even for women we may not particularly like.
 Conversely, having a career can right a life that is otherwise going off the rails. This is the story of Music of the Heart, the 1999 Miramax feature about the real-life Roberta Guaspari, a violin teacher who won national acclaim (and some controversy from back-to-basics camp in the school reform wars) for her work at a public school in East Harlem. We meet a despairing Guaspari when she has returned home to New York with her two sons after her husband had left her, needing a job. A genial old classmate (Aiden Quinn) directs her to principal-friend (Angela Bassett) who hires her as a music teacher on a fill-in basis. Music of the Heart, a rare foray outside the horror genre for director Wes Craven, fits squarely in its charismatic-teacher-changes-lives tradition that has long been a Hollywood fixture, but is better than most in that there are sustained scenes of Streep’s character in the classroom, interacting with students. The movie also avoids the cliché that a good teacher can somehow transcend any other factor in a child’s life such as the broader school environment or a home life, as we see multiple examples of such adversity. It also avoids unduly idealizing star teacher with infallible pedagogic instincts. Streep’s Roberta can sound surprisingly harsh to her students, criticizing one for having sounding worse than anyone else and demanding to know why, only to learn that the student’s grandmother was mugged and killed. To be sure, it’s stuffed with its fair share of feel-good moments, culminating in the big funding-raising concert at Carnegie Hall. That concert comes about because Quinn’s character refuses to commit to a long-term relationship, and boyfriend #2 (Jay O. Sanders) helps catalyze it with his connections. But in Music of the Heart, men are secondary to the imperatives of a working woman and mother whose life makes a palpable difference in the lives of whose for whom she labors. 
 Next: Streep's Adaptation to a new century.