Thursday, March 1, 2012

The souls of Streep

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

In the 2009 movie Julie & Julia, Amy Adams is Julie Powell, a young arrival in 2002 Queens who decides to launch a blog in which she writes about preparing all 524 of Julia Child’s 1961 book Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days. Her story alternates with that of Streep as Child in the 1950s, and the series of events that culminate in the publication of that book. Julie Powell is pleased by the increasingly positive attention she gets for her work, which will result in her own book (and, eventually, a movie). But toward the end of the film she learns from a reporter that Julia Child herself is contemptuous and dismissive Powell, though we never learn exactly what she said or even whether Child actually ever read her blog. Julie is crushed to conclude that the will not only never meet her now 90 year-old inspiration, but will never get her approval, either. “The one in your head is the one that matters,” her husband consoles her.
As someone who has spent time writing about famous people he’s never met, I’ll confess that this scene had some personal resonance for me. Analyzing the careers of celebrities evokes a range of emotions, among them admiration, longing, distaste, and shame (can’t you generate your own material rather than relying on somebody else’s?). Notwithstanding the rejection I’ve experienced, and the fear of it that has prevented me from pursuing the people I’ve been writing about in this book, I have nevertheless soldiered on in the belief that it’s the work—their work, and the work I’ve done to build on it in this modest way—that finally matters, if for no other reason than keeping me out of any number of forms of trouble. There are, after all, worse ways of spending time than in the virtual company of movie stars.
But one of the things I’ve learned from Meryl Streep is that her work is not finally about her, or about me. Instead, it’s really about other people. The great paradox of actors is that by embodying fictive people they enliven real ones. In her 1998 appearance on the TV program Inside the Actor’s Studio, Streep explained this with spontaneity that’s worth quoting at some length:

I was thinking about applying to law school and thinking that acting is a stupid way to make a living, that it doesn’t do any good in the world. But I think it does, I think it does, there’s a great worth in it. And the worth is in listening to people who maybe don’t even exist or who are voices in your past and through you come through the work and you give them to other people. I think that giving voice to characters who have no other voice is the great worth of what we do. So much of acting is vanity. I mean, this [appearing on the show] feels so great to come here and sit here and have everybody clap. But the real thing that makes me feel so good is when I know I’ve said something for a soul, when I’ve presented a soul.

            In terms of the overarching argument that frames this book, I would describe Meryl Streep’s historiographic vision as that of a progressive feminist. I say that because the arc, the non-straight but clear line that runs through her work, is one in which the lives of women have gradually improved.  They get more power over control of the terms in their lives, power that begins at home but eventually moves outside the home. That power has precedents in the past in the lives of those who illuminated the way, but most of it is something whose emergence she charts in the history of our time. To a great degree, this realized dream is a substantively American one, grounded in aspirations that transcend gender. But realized dreams are also surprisingly complicated ones, with unexpected consequences, ambiguities, and unfinished work.
As her comments also suggest, Streep’s historiographic vision has a powerful moral component, and a belief in a living connection that binds people across time and space that she describes in terms of the transcendent term “soul.” Sister Aloysius would probably not approve of this use of the word. But Streep blessed her anyway.