Fifteen Oscar nominations in 30 years! It’s no wonder that Meryl Streep takes award ceremonies in her stride these days. Seeing as how she’s lost on no less than 13 of those occasions she’d have to be a gibbering wreck if she took them too seriously.
My first prediction for the Oscars 2010 is that la Streep will add another nomination to her record-breaking tally, this time for playing TV chef Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie And Julia. And my second prediction is that she will lose again.
The movie is too light to back her up, but the performance is sheer bliss: a fruity, over-the-top confection in which Streep appears to have grown an extra foot (Child was a clumsy 6’2). Julia always seems slightly tipsy – her high-falutin’, boarding school voice slipping and slurring between octaves with gay abandon. While she probably did enjoy a good few bottles of vin rouge in her time, we get the impression that mostly she’s just high on life.
At least in the States, Child is an iconic figure (always good for an Oscar nod), but while Streep’s portrait has elements of caricature this is fundamentally a sympathetic account of an indefatigable woman finding her own way in life. A feminist fighting to get into the kitchen, you might say.
It used to be the case that (a bit like Robert De Niro) comedy was considered the one chink in Streep’s armour. Both actors – costars in one of Streep’s first films, The Deer Hunter, and again in Falling In Love – knew all about underplaying in drama, but tended to ham it up when they were going for laughs.
In Streep’s case, it was as if she reverted to a more theatrical style (she made her name on Broadway and excelled as a light comedienne in that context). You could also blame her collaborators: Susan Seidelman, who directed She-Devil, certainly didn’t do her any favours, and Robert Zemeckis, who made Death Becomes Her always seems more interested in special effects than flesh and blood.
Still, there was a suspicion that when Streep wanted to lighten up she tried too hard. This was the exacting perfectionist who mastered accents from Denmark, Australia, Poland, Ireland, England, Italy, you name it… There was something un-movie-like about such dedication. Didn’t she know it was just make-believe?
Streep’s admirers understandably stew when their heroine is criticized for doing her job too well. When the critic Pauline Kael famously cracked that Streep was an actress from the neck up she seriously misjudged the emotional intensity of Streep’s work in films like Sophie’s Choice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. You can be cerebral and soulful, after all.
But I think there is something in the complaints. While there’s no question about the mastery of her performances, their diversity and ambition, I confess I find the sheer dexterity can be a distraction. Entire movies risk becoming showcases for Streep’s virtuosity; her application puts everything around her in the shade.
Or perhaps it was her commitment to playing women who weren’t necessarily likeable that riled some people? Her refusal to smooth over the rough edges the way that most stars do could have been a point of political principle, and this was also the explicit theme of A Cry in the Dark, the film about Lindy Chamberlain, whose baby was snatched by a dingo but who fell under suspicion of murder herself: how women, especially, are judged for not showing the “appropriate” emotions. Streep herself was so darned serious about what she did, it was hard to have fun watching her.
That’s changed over recent years – and how! Entering her fifties at the turn of the century, she palpably relaxed, both on screen, and in her choice of roles. You can see it in her portrait of writer Susan Orlean in Adaptation, particularly when she’s discovered the joys of weed and she’s giggling with her feet up in camera… it’s hard to imagine the younger Streep getting so free and loose as that – or wanting to.
She was a formidable heavy as Eleanor Shaw in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, hinted at the sacrifice beneath the ice in The Devil Wears Prada and camped it up in very different registers in last year’s Mamma Mia! and Doubt (I like to imagine her mixing up the schedules and showing up for the former dressed as Sister Aloysius, and in hot pants, belting out “Take a Chance on Me” in Doubt).
Will these go down as Streep’s greatest performances at the end of the day? Perhaps not. But as she goes into her sixth decade there’s every sign that she loves performing more than ever, and it’s that appetite which makes her such a good call for Julia Child in Julie & Julia. It’s a true blessing to find your calling, and just as Child was cooking and working well into her 80s, Streep will surely be dishing up sublime desserts for many years yet.
As Julia Child would say: Bon appetit!
Titles related to this article