The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.
Though Dancing and Lughnasa and Music of the Heart represent important statements in the evolution of Streep’s cinematic feminism, both were small independent films with miniscule grosses compared with big-budget behemoths of the time like Armageddon (1998) or the The Matrix (1999). Moreover, Music of the Heart was followed by the longest interregnum in Streep’s career: it would be three full years before she appeared in a starring role. (She did have a voice cameo as a blue fairy in Steven Spielberg’s completion of the posthumous Stanley Kubric project A.I. [Articifical Intelligence] in 2001.) Streep’s youngest children were nine and thirteen in 2000, which may have played a role in this slowed output. They probably also played a role in her subsequent decisions to appear in small roles as the comically hapless Aunt Josephine in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) and to provide the imperious voice of the Ant Queen in The Ant Bully (2006). She also had a very funny cameo as herself—as a not very good actress—in the sublimely silly Farrelly Brothers film Stuck on You (2003).
But what might be termed the Meryl Streep renaissance—one defined not in talent but in terms of her artistic profile—began at the end of 2002 with her appearance in two other movies, both involving the portrayal of literary figures. The first of these, Adaptation, is a singular work in Streep’s corpus. Adaptation represented a collaboration between two of the most inventive figures in modern Hollywood: screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. The two teamed up in 1999 for the weirdly brilliant Being John Malkovich, in which a series of characters manage to enter a portal in the famed actor’s brain and experience reality through his eyes. Adaptation, which is about Kauffman’s difficulty in trying to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s 1998 non-fiction book The Orchid Thief for the big screen, actually begins with scenes on the set of Being John Malkovich. It also involves Kaufman’s relationship with his socially tone deaf twin brother Donald, who decides he, too, wants to write a screenplay—and does so successfully even as Charlie struggles. Ultimately the two brothers would get the writing credit for Adaptation, and be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. But Donald Kaufman is not actually a real person; for the first time in history, a wholly fictional, as opposed to pseudonymous, character was nominated for an Oscar (the award went to Richard Harwood for The Pianist).
Adaptation has a wonderful star-studded cast that includes Nicolas Cage as both Kaufmans; Chris Cooper, who won a supporting actor Academy Award for his portrayal of the actual Orchid Thief; and Brian Cox as the real life Robert McKee, the famed screenwriting teacher to whom both Kaufman brothers turn for help with their respective projects. Streep plays Orlean—or some facsimile of the actual person. Actually, it becomes increasingly clear as the story proceeds that Charlie Kaufman’s obsession with Orlean makes the portrayal of her that we see on screen increasingly suspect. For much of the movie, she’s a consummate professional, an intimidatingly competent member of the New York literati. Which is entirely credible. But Kaufman starts playing with her, incongruously scripting a sexual relationship with the repellent, if amusing, thief. (There’s a hilarious sequence of her getting high crushed orchid dust.) Indeed, her murderous behavior toward the end of the movie seems to come out of nowhere, its jarring character very much the point of the film’s postmodern sensibility. The meta-textual zaniness of Adaptation, the desire on a viewer’s part to see just how this crazy story will play out, gives it a freshness that’s extremely rare in mainstream Hollywood moviemaking (another Sony Pictures production, it was distributed by Columbia). And it’s especially refreshing to see Streep, a true blue-chip figure in the industry, lend her talents to such a project and take them to an entirely new level.
The same month Adaptation was appeared, Streep’s other film of 2002, The Hours, was also released. Though less so than Adaptation, The Hours, which David Hare adapted from Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel, has a literary/experimental air, which takes the form of a tripartite structure of single days in the lives of three women whose stories only converge at the end of the movie. One narrative involves Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman, wearing a now legendary prosthetic nose), struggling with depression as she begins to conceive her 1925 masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway (originally titled “The Hours”). Another involves Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a 1950s housewife and mother of a young son in Los Angeles who is fighting off suicidal impulses, in part by reading Mrs. Dalloway. The third involves Clarissa Vaughn (Streep) a bisexual New York book editor in 2001 nursing a beloved old gay poet/novelist friend (Ed Harris) through the ravages of AIDS on the day in which she plans to throw him a party—plot elements that allude to Mrs. Dalloway, which is his nickname for Clarissa. He’s written a famous novel that features a thinly fictionalized version of his friend.
I regard Clarissa Vaughn as Streep’s most fully realized creation. She’s a devoted friend of Harris’s character; lover of a woman played Allison Janney; mother of a college-age daughter played by Claire Danes; and a literary professional who midwives writing into publication. This last role is more hinted at by devices like manuscripts on her desk than actually depicted. But love and work, art and life, are so thoroughly fused that it seems misguided to insist on isolating the strands.
Which is not to say that Clarissa is a flawless person. She tends to live in the past, haunted by a romance with the poet that foundered on the vine of their youth. This is more than a strictly interior foible; it leads her to subtly neglect her relationship with Janney’s character, with whom Streep does some marvelously nuanced acting. Their alienation is subtle but palpable, conveyed most vividly in a scene in which they talk to each other from different rooms. Streep’s eyes betray impatience, and her voice is ever-so clipped in responding to Janney, who manages to inflect a slight air of aggrievement that seems justified, at least on the basis of the errands she’s running on behalf of a man she rightly senses is a rival with whom she cannot compete. Clarissa’s daughter is also impatient her mother’s lingering obsession with her former flame.
Streep’s Clarissa is the only major character of The Hours who can be said to achieve anything resembling a happy ending, though it takes a suicide, one of two in the movie, for her to finally come to her senses, signaled by the great tenderness with which she gazes into Janney’s eyes at the end of the story. In large measure, that happiness can be viewed as a matter of historical circumstance: as a woman of the 21st century, Clarissa has the capacity to achieve an integrated life of the kind that Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown can only dream of (albeit as very privileged people in terms of their class status). But having such a capacity is not synonymous with achieving it, and for Clarissa it’s a near thing. Michael Cunningham and David Hare created this character; Stephen Daldry, most of whose prior work was for the stage, directed it. But Meryl Streep is the figure who brings this Clarissa most fully to life, with a voice and gestures that are experienced as a gift.
Next: Streep as villain.