Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Young Film Audiences Don't Get Meryl Streep

By Daniel D’Addario

According to the oldest of old schools—those stodgy Academy Award voters—Meryl Streep is unquestionably the greatest actress of all time. They’ve just given her a record 16th Oscar nomination for her role as Julia Child in the sprightly comedy Julie & Julia. Streep has already won the Golden Globe for the film, and she could well take home her third Oscar next month (though Katharine Hepburn would still have the record with four). All this as her other 2009 film, It’s Complicated, is still playing to huge audiences of older female viewers. (As opposed to her other other film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is more popular with younger fans.) At this rate, Str
eep could keep getting nominated until her On Golden Pond period.

But when it comes to younger viewers, those who weren’t born when she received her first Oscar nomination in 1979, Streep’s not nearly so golden. The Onion recently ran a piece in which it had “Streep” write an op-ed about herself. Her conclusion? “Great actress, okay movies”. “Have you actually watched Sophie’s Choice lately? Boy, talk about a movie that has not aged well,” “Streep” writes. “And for those of you who want to say The Devil Wears Prada? Please. I don’t need your charity.”

Saturday Night Live—more influential among 20-somethings, to be sure, than any Streep film—ran a scathing parody of Streep’s It’s Complicated performance, complete with an oversized glass of wine, a mess of tics and giggles, and the kind of false modesty Sally Field can only dream ab
out. To an audience unversed in the glories of Streep’s long career, it’s not hard to see this as the defining image of Streep for the Facebook Generation.

The rap on Streep has been the same since the beginning of her career, or at least since she won the best-actress Oscar for Sophie’s Choice: she’s an accent machine, without the ability to create empathy from her audience. While this is arguably true, the accents aren’t the issue. What Streep most crucially lacks is the notion of underplaying. The outsized quality of Julia Child speaks exactly to Streep’s weaknesses among moviegoers not predisposed to like her. She plays every role to the absolute hilt, even when she hasn’t, it seems, decided what role she’s playing. Consider Doubt. The part called for subtle shadings of emotion as the nun protagonist began to question whether the priest she accus
ed of sexual misconduct was actually innocent. Streep simply put on a broad Bronx accent and went careening towards a final scene where she weeps and shouts to the heavens. In contrast, watch her rage in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, or her delicate pain in the accent bonanza of Sophie’s Choice. Streep is more subtly emotional in those than she’s been in decades.

In my lifetime as a moviegoer, Streep seems to have chosen one trait to build each of her characters, and dragged the film along behind her. What can a moviegoer who has only seen her warbling in Mamma Mia!, snarking in he Devil Wears Prada, and doing whatever she was trying to do in Doubt make of her sterling reputation?

Streep does a pitch-perfect Child, but the film’s major flaw is Streep’s campiness. Her devotion to throwing herself into Child’s quirky persona results in near-interminable sequences of Child chuckling and cluck
ing, usually with her hands or her mouth full of food (and sometimes both at the same time). There’s no denying Streep’s talents, but she and her directors, enthralled by the Streep legend, so indulge every opportunity to make a moment bigger that nothing she does can possibly be small or real. Anne Hathaway, Amy Adams (twice!), the entirely forgettable cast of Mamma Mia—no one can get a memorable word in. When Meryl (as her devotees invariably call her) is on the screen, you don’t notice anyone else. Streep fans invariably cite that as the highest kind of praise. But for the rest of us, she simply stops a movie dead in its tracks.

The best and most popular movies of the past year were shaded with powerful, compelling subtlety. Can you imagine Meryl Streep as the cranky scientist Sigourney Weaver plays in Avatar? She’d divide her time between manically giggling and hysterically crying, with no
room for the kind of quiet that informs any movie worth watching. For my generation, the performances of the year belonged to Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), two 20-somethings who manipulate long silences to create painful, palpable shyness and pain. There are few moments in Streep’s recent filmography as riveting as the near-newcomer Mulligan’s returning shamefacedly to her school at the end of An Education, or in Sidibe’s calculated stealing of a bucket of chicken. The actresses become Jenny and Precious—easy, you might say, because they are both relative unknowns. But Streep is always Streep first, character second.

Maybe that’s the way she wants it. “Acting is not about being someone different,” she once said. “It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.” But for people who started going to
the movies in the 1990s, the best actress of the 1980s always gives us the same performance: one or two specific and delineated character traits per movie, but surely none of them complicated.