Let Me Count the Ways

Thanks to A.O. Scott for giving me an excuse to write a little something about Meryl Streep. (As if I needed an excuse. As if anyone did.)

In the piece published yesterday, Scott takes a loving look at Meryl across the ages, and comes up with a few choice observations – many of them fresh to Streepiana – that I’ll let you discover on your own. In the meantime, I thought I’d take the opportunity to say a few words about one of Meryl’s less visible performances.

Watching Prime, you can’t help but get the feeling Meryl is doing someone a favor. From the over-earnestness of the love scenes, to the crude, TV-movie predictability of its construction, there’s very little about the movie that actually works. But let’s put that aside for now.

In the middle of the maelstrom, guess who manages to turn out a very funny, very real performance? No surprise there – Meryl’s been turning out very funny, very real performances since she first leapt headfirst into comedy with She-Devil in 1989 (even when she’s hilariously unreal, like in Death Becomes Her, she’s still working in the tiniest units of acting – millimeters where others use feet). But if you clocked it laugh-to-laugh, in Prime, Meryl’s may be at her funniest.

If there is anything to say in Prime’s favor, it’s that it hands her a juicy challenge. As Upper West Side shrink, Dr. Lisa Metzger, Meryl is constantly in the position of having to lie to her patients, of having to keep her true feelings to herself. What this means is that Meryl, to pull it off, must play two opposing parts at once. Lisa Metzger must lie convincingly to her patient – a feat of acting from the character’s point of view – while simultaneously revealing (to the audience) her private response – a feat of acting from Meryl’s point of view. She must act, and she must act against her acting. Watching her negotiate the contrast can be hysterical.

And it is a perfectly calibrated contrast. If Meryl plays Metzger as too good of a liar, she’ll come off as cruel. If she plays her as an inadequate liar, Metzger will lose her credibility as professional therapist (either that, or it will make her clients seem like idiots). So Meryl must hit the nail on the head. Too far in one direction, and the character will be misrepresented.

So that’s quite a task, but of course, Meryl takes it further. Remember: she must also find ways to disclose Metzger’s inner thoughts in the midst of the charade. How does an actress do that? How does she speak to us in a language her patient, who she is deceiving, can’t understand?

She does it with split-second timing, which allows us, who understand her predicament, to fill in the unspoken dialogue. She does it by partnering with props – a glass of water, the beads on her necklace – in surprising ways that belie whatever she’s saying. In short, Meryl evinces counterpoint from almost everything around her. Whether it’s a choice inflection, a too-hard laugh, or too-short smile, her sources seem inexhaustible, and, in accordance with the reality of her character, always tuned to the right volume. That’s funny and real.

That’s Meryl.


2 responses to “Let Me Count the Ways

  1. I loved her in Prime. I’ve loved her in every movie I’ve seen her in. But I especially loved her in Adaptation, high on the ghost orchid, singing with the dial tone. I like what Scott said “the delight in watching Ms. Streep these days… comes partly from a sense of shared pleasure.”

    • EVERYTHING is good. EVERYTHING. Even when she’s not at her best, like in Julie & Julia, which I actually thought was one of her lesser performances, she still manages to find moments of incredible truth – more moments than most actors find at their absolute best. No doubt about it, she’s the best. Maybe even of all time. Think about it: does anyone even come close?

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