Tag Archives: meryl streep

Another Year

As Another Year, Mike Leigh’s latest wonder, came to a close, I was met with a horrible feeling. I was never going to see these people again. Good people, irritating people. It didn’t matter. They were people, and I was never going to see them again.

What a master Mike Leigh is! Who else can bring an audience to pity, reject, and completely forgive a fictional character in the short space of two hours? Simply inspiring pity would be enough, but the full cycle! Continually shifting our alignment between complicity and remove, Mike Leigh, with imperceptible finesse, demonstrates (once again) his total control over his people, their stories – and utterly without bravura style – his medium.

It’s British and verbal and the camera doesn’t do much, so critics call it “theatrical,” but Another Year is unmistakably cinematic. Yes, what transpires in those long masters could be set on stage, and a hefty handful of the film’s more actorly moments stretch easily to the very back row, but what’s between those unmoving wideshots – the strategic inserts and reactions Leigh layers in like Miracle-Gro – offers, by cutting, a deepened view of the story as only the movies can. Via the well-placed close up, in other words, Leigh is refracting his people through his people. The effect is one of total knowledge.

But without the right look from the right actor, the right close-up will never be. I know audiences will leave the theater talking about Mary, Leslie Manville’s attention-grabbing character, but the person I will never forget is Gerri. Played by Ruth Sheen with paper-thin lightness and ingenuous off-camera ease, this is, male or female, the performance of the year. I promise. There is great acting that you notice and great acting that you don’t, and Another Year is bursting at the seams with both kinds, but it’s Ruth Sheen – whose work is notably devoid of juicy “moments” – who shows, once again, that the most affecting performances, like the most affecting cinema, disappear as they appear. (Johnny Depp can do a lot, but I wonder, can he, like Sheen, just be?) That right there is the real real stuff. Meryl Streep may be the actor’s actor, but Ruth Sheen, we now know, is the actor’s actor’s actor.

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Twilights

Warner Bros. head Alan Horn has announced that he plans to follow the Harry Potter movies with more comic book movies. “As we ease out of Harry Potter,” he said, “we hope to bring you the excitement of the DC [comics] Library!” He also announced these pictures will be released in 3D. All of them.

It’s only a matter of time before the other studios follow, and the already widened gap between tentpole films and whatever they call the dying breed – let’s say, sideshow films – is widened even further. In time, expensive technologies like 3D, no matter how beautifully employed, will invariably draw asunder the once-valued populist precepts of glamour, wit, and personality. The reason why is simple: 3D is as fit to convey these invisible qualities as 2D is to contain those of Avatar. To those of us who still had a dream of Hollywood quality, this is indeed unfortunate.

Of course many will be unfazed, or at least claim to be, but how will the creative people of vision and virtue justify their endeavors now? Last night, at Genghis Cohen, my favorite Chinese restaurant, friends of mine, quoting a friend of theirs, said, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusionally optimistic.” But that was last night. After this news, I would revise that statement to read, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusional.”

Soon studio pictures will be separated into two genres: boy and girl. Fires & Farts and Clothes & Crushes.

How will grown-up people spend their evenings? You would think Hollywood would be eager to answer that question, for as my field research has proven, there seem to be many older individuals out there wandering around in suede jackets. In fact, just yesterday I saw at least seven balding men at Genghis Cohen alone. Seven! Multiply that by the number of Chinese restaurants in town, or the country, then double it (for wives and girlfriends), and there you have just a sliver of the new paying audience. It may not account for the number of older people who stay home, or those at other restaurants unfriendly to shrimp in lobster sauce, but that’s no excuse. I saw them. They’re out there. I promise millions to the executive who thinks on their entertainment needs.

Unfortunately, as the recent Oscar ceremony confirmed, Hollywood’s interests are as far from producing grown-up product as they’ve ever been. Even Nancy Meyers, who has an ostensible claim to restoring adulthood to the screen, fails, time and again, when it comes to treating her characters as actual people in midlife. Her women cry and pout and moan and take baths; they are, in short, a longer-in-tooth product of genre two, Clothes & Crushes. So you see, even when Hollywood tries to “grow up,” it still must have two feet firmly planted in Dean & Deluca.

Let’s stay with Meryl for a moment. Consider Julie & Julia. Grown up fare? Well, yes and no. Yes: to see Meryl and Tucci, as Mrs. & Mr. Child, so completely revel in each other’s pleasure, culinary and otherwise, was absolutely a moment of hope for the Chinese restaurateurians among us. There we saw a relationship. It was stunning. No: Amy Adams.

We can read Meryl’s recent run of fluffier films since The Devil Wears Prada as sign of a major actress growing her palette, or, in light of the state of Hollywood film, as an if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em play for the audience that really matters the most – the kids.

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The Arthurian Romance

Well, it had to happen. They’re remaking Arthur. With Russell Brand.

The original Arthur, written and directed by Steve Gordon, and starring Dudley Moore in the title role, is one of those almost-great movies with so much great and non-great in it, it’s hard to not not watch all of it, over and over again.

What it has is a sensational first half, loaded with rapid-fire one-liners so well-crafted, rhythmically attuned, and deliciously delivered (by Moore, of course), one can’t help but compare the high points of the film to Noel Coward’s best moments. The difficult thing about one-liners, as low-level productions of Coward and Wilde have famously shown, is that, when mishandled, they can come off as arch, or improbable to the point of distancing the players from the play. They can sound like spoken literature, not dialogue.

In Arthur (and while we’re at it, Arthur 2: On the Rocks), Dudley Moore surmounts the challenge by speaking his lines not to declaim the joke, but as if to entertain himself. And only himself. Watching Moore, we understand that Arthur, who laughs sometimes just to laugh, is an unyielding, almost compulsive hedonist of humor. He even finds his own laughter funny, which is funny. In fact, Arthur gets such a kick out of Arthur, he doesn’t seem to care that no one else does. That makes him a kind of stand-up deposed, and creates a pathos lacking in most contemporary interpretations of Coward, or Wilde, or even Preston Sturges, who often hurries his jokes on through without stopping for a moment to ask why.

It means that Moore’s Arthur, for all of his frivolous whimsy, is absolutely real. Chaplin had that too.

The first twenty minutes of Arthur are among the funniest twenty minutes of film ever shot. Then Steve Gordon lets it get sentimental, he pushes Moore to mush, and before our very eyes, Liza Minnelli (oh yes, she’s in it too) seems to shove a pluck-filled hypodermic needled into her best vein and overdose for two hours. It’s a shame. But that makes it good fodder for a remake.

If there is one thing in Arthur that never flags, it’s John Gielgud. As Arthur’s butler/nanny, Gielgud is unspeakably gud. Like all brilliant actors, Sir John had the rare ability to fuse one attitude with its opposite, and linger, somehow, in the gulf. To observe him negotiate irritation and devotion is to witness a lifetime’s accumulation of skill distilled into a single performance. And as a former Cowardian, and onetime muse to Coward himself, Gielgud knows his way around a bon mot. Tynan described the actor’s technique as a feat of nimble grace. In 1953, he wrote, “Gielgud, seizing a parasol, crosses by tightrope.”

As I write this, I see that Meryl Streep is rumored to take on the Gielgud part. I’ll alert the media.

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.

On Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side

Trying to come to terms with Sandra Bullock’s likely Oscar win, I cleared aside a fat portion of yesterday to have a look, once and for all, at The Blind Side.

Right off the bat, I should say that Bullock clearly understands her part. Though light comedy is her forte, she resists every impulse to needle her way through Leigh Anne Tuohy’s rich, suburban existence, and shows instead a kind of Mary Poppins-ish stiff upper lip, spouting ready-made aphorisms with a cheeky Memphis twang. Her gait is brisk, her delivery clipped, and her face – tighter than ever – tells of a compulsive personality driven by down-to-the-follicle precision. She steps to the edge of camp and turns back:  Tuohy is the sort of lady-who-lunches Truman Capote would have loved, and after a few drinks, the sort Tennessee Williams would have sent shrieking into the night. (Close your eyes and you could see, in another version of The Blind Side, Lee Anne sitting on a porch swathed in moonlight, her negligee torn to shreds.) But Bullock, to her credit, doesn’t go there.

Unfortunately, her director, John Lee Hancock, doesn’t help her any. Without much by way of emotional variation, or choice pieces of business to help refine her characterization, Bullock is left alone to draw from a limited reserve. She comes out okay in the end, but with added attention from Hancock, her Leigh Anne might have trounced the limitations of the material (“You can do it, Mike!”) and perhaps even become her best performance to date, which is still Speed.

Hancock should have had another look at Speed. It might have clued him into a few of Bullock’s strengths, like, for instance, how good she can be when she doesn’t have to mind her manners. You want Sandra Bullock to let her hair down – that’s why all of her romantic heroines either start out prude, or overworked and prude. But when she stays tight, as credible as that tight may be, some of her trademark capriciousness is lost. The Blind Side‘s many “meaningful” speeches only make it harder on her.

Still, she’ll probably win. The Academy, after all, loves a converted comedian (“Look how serious she is! Now that’s acting!”) But a converted tragedian is something else entirely. Just look at Meryl. If only she made The Devil Wears Prada before Sophie’s Choice.

Nancy

Esprit d’escalier.

Literally, it means “sprit of the stairs.” Figuratively, it’s what you should have said when you had the chance. But now that you’re on the stairs, on your way out, it’s too late.

I met Nancy Meyers at a dinner party off Via de la Paz. It was around Christmas time a year ago and we were all standing around the buffet making jokes about Gran Torino. It was sometime around my second drink that Nancy arrived. She was late, but she was so charming about it, so recklessly flummoxed, it was instantly forgotten. She claimed it was something having to do with the kids, and I believed her. Just one look at her big, black sunglasses, cashmere sweater set, and chunky leather purse, and anyone versed in the unspoken semiology of Brentwood would know: this person was a mom, and a cute one too.

We spoke only briefly that night. But, had that night been last night instead of last year, and had I been given the chance (and two more drinks), our conversation might have been completely different.

“Nancy?”

“Yes!”

“Congratulations on the weekend. They say it was the best ever.”

“Oh, well, thank you, sweetie.”

“Some stiff competition and you did good, I think, right?”

“We did alright. A few more blue people and we would have done better.”

“Maybe. But you had Meryl.”

“Still, we should have made her blue. Or at least 3D.”

“She could have handled it.” I drink. “God damn her. She can do anything.”

“Yes, well – ”

I drink again.

“Sweetie, I want to get to that prosciutto before it disappears.”

“Okay, but before you do, I just wanted to say, I think you’re very courageous, going out there and making personal movies about… ” I hesitate. “I mean, romantic movies about women…of a certain – ”

“Older women.”

“Older women. Yes, that’s just the – just the term I was looking for. When there’s AvatarAlvin and the Chipmunks, and Sherlock Holmes, I just wanted to say, I really appreciate it. I know a lot of people do.”

“Wow, well, thank you, that’s – ”

“Having said that, I would appreciate it even more if you made stronger decisions with the camera, cut out a good half-hour, hold off on the Williams-Sonoma kitchens, and not light the thing like it was a tampon commercial, but I really don’t want to split hairs here. You did the impossible, you made a personal movie in Hollywood, and that’s just fantastic.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

“Now let’s get some prosciutto.”

“I’d rather go alone.”

“Of course, of course. Merry Christmas.”

“Yes. Merry Christmas.” She starts to go.

“I loved Father of the Bride by the way.”

“Thanks, I’m going now.”

“Okay. Great.”