A-List: Meryl Streep
By Josh Spiegel
August 6, 2009
It's hard to believe that a movie starring Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro would become so quickly forgotten, but so it is with the 1996 movie Marvin's Room. Though the film garnered an Academy Award nomination for Keaton, as the daughter who takes care of her permanently bedridden father, the movie fell from favor pretty quickly. Of course, the next year would make DiCaprio a star with Titanic, so bad timing was partially to blame. Streep plays Lee, the bedridden man's other daughter, who has ignored her family for many years. Circumstances bring her and her sister together. What impresses me here with Streep's performance is the realism she brings to it.
An issue that I find with some of Streep's performances is that she tries too hard to bring something different to the table, whether it's an accent or some actorly tic. Such quirks are not found in Marvin's Room, a movie with generally strong performances, despite the urge to tip over into melodrama. To be fair, I find it rare that Streep doesn't seem to play to the back row of the movie theater (I fear that her role in Julie and Julia will be one of those roles, just as her turn in Mamma Mia! was). Still, what stood out from Marvin's Room was her intent to not be big, not be wild. Sometimes, playing someone completely normal and real is better than being quirky.
In one of her better roles, Streep not only plays button-down well, but she also manages to be as weird and wild as she's ever been in any of her movies (not counting the famed Streep-Roseanne face-off of She-Devil). Streep plays Susan Orlean, the real-life author of The Orchid Thief, a non-fiction book that is so beloved by Hollywood executives that they get quirky screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to write the film adaptation. So far, with the exception of Streep being involved, this is pretty much what really happened. Except The Orchid Thief isn't exactly a filmable novel, so Kaufman decides to write a movie about...writing the film adaptation of The Orchid Thief.
How Orlean fits into the story is fairly strange; first, we follow her as she encounters the titular criminal but...well, if you still haven't seen Adaptation., I won't spoil it for you, but things change as the movie goes on. Either way, Streep is fantastic as both a New York socialite excited at the wildness represented by the Florida Keys and someone who lets her freak flag fly. Overall, Adaptation. is a great movie and features the last good performance of one Nicolas Cage. Still, Streep's complex and showy performance is equally impressive, so much so that it garnered her an Academy Award nod in 2002 (she lost to Catherine Zeta-Jones). If you haven't seen this movie, do yourself a favor and check it out immediately.
Angels in America
Yes, I know I've taken Ms. Streep here to task for often trying too hard, and any project, TV or otherwise, where she gets to play four roles, including a female angel and a male rabbi, would seem to be trying way too hard. However, the 2003 HBO miniseries Angels in America transcends a lot of those issues; frankly, if she's trying too hard, it's only because the play on which the miniseries was based tried equally hard to make clear to its audiences the struggle gay people go through and have gone through during history. Though one of the more memorable roles, that of Roy Cohn, went to Al Pacino, Streep is amazing as real-life accused Communist Ethel Rosenberg, among others. Angels in America is based on a big play, and for such a project, only the biggest performances suffice. Streep is up to the challenge, forgoing subtlety for a larger emotional range.
The Manchurian Candidate
Though it's usually a major taboo to remake any movie, especially one that's considered such a classic by so many people, the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate was one of the more entertaining political thrillers of the past decade. Certainly, the social satire that is present in the original version directed by John Frankenheimer isn't nearly as obvious in the version directed by Jonathan Demme. What is apparent is how much Meryl Streep relishes playing the villain (as was made obvious in her 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada), as the conniving mother of the title character. It's hard to imagine that she didn't based her performance off of politicians as diverse as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Dick Cheney, not only in appearance and facial tics, but the more subtle elements.
In general, The Manchurian Candidate is one of Demme's better films, alongside Philadelphia and The Silence of the Lambs. The director doesn't always need big stars for his movies to shine, but with a cast including Liev Schreiber and Denzel Washington, this one stands out in the best way. Streep isn't onscreen as much, and may never be thought of as good a villain in the piece as Angela Lansbury was, but her villainy never pushes too far into Snidely Whiplash territory, always revolving around realism.