Oscars 2014: The Big Streep
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to refer to a scene in John Well’s August: Osage County in which Julia Roberts loses it and physically attacks Meryl Streep, wrestling her to the floor while trying to prise a bottle of tranqs from her hand. It comes midway through the film, just when I was saying to myself, There’s no point having a Best Actress category if Streep is in the running any given year. It’s as if Roberts were reacting to my thought. That bottle of pills might as well be this year’s Best Actress Oscar statuette.
The Academy will probably give it to another actress, however, perhaps Emma Thompson for her overrated anxious-finch performance in the immoral, mendacious, slanderous Saving Mr. Banks. But everyone will know that it really belongs to Streep. She has outdone herself once again, topped her every previous performance. No doubt she has little idea how she did it, and that only adds to the wonderment that is the latent genius coursing through every atom of this woman’s being. As with The Iron Lady, there are a few things to fault about this film, particularly in producer John Well’s ungainly direction, but Streep’s rendition of the bitter, acid-tongued, truth-telling matriarch Violet Weston shoots down any reasons not to see it.
It must be awful as an actor to get up there with Streep and have her kick the shit out of you no matter how good you are. I think I’d refuse. It must be like being one of Mohammed Ali’s sparring partners when he was heavyweight champion, floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee; in fact, that’s exactly how Streep attacks this role and everyone else in the ensemble cast.
What Streep does is invent a lexicon of gestures and speech patterns particular to a character she inhabits, often with a flawless accent as frosting. You are never not aware that it’s her, but that individual lexicon also hypnotizes you into completely believing she is someone else entirely. If I were Tracy Letts, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play from which August is adapted, I would be overjoyed and honored to hear how Streep has interpreted my words, interpreted in ways I couldn’t have imagined when the character was yammering at me in my mind while I was writing her.
Mine is by no means an original thought about how a writer should feel about having Streep interpret his work. Tennessee Williams summed it up first and best in an interview in 1982 about Streep’s performance in his 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, which I’ve never seen. Williams is particularly relevant to August: Osage County because the play/film is basically an update of his archetypal Southern Gothic drama, replete with a menagerie of human gargoyles redolent with that American killer soul that desires nothing more than to prey on its own kin, to napalm its nearest and dearest with abuse before it is napalmed itself. Quoth Williams about Streep:
The remarkable thing about her work—one of the remarkable things about her work—is that she honored the text to an almost penitential degree, but then allowed it to marinate within her, at which point she expelled it and it was if I had never read it—much less written it. She imprints her intelligence and humor on everything, and her performances feel improvised, wild. No matter how good the other actors were opposite her, they appeared stiff and amateurish in her orbit. How lucky to be a series of words traveling through her mind and her body. A fantastic voyage, indeed!
This is exactly what watching August: Osage County is like. Streep comes off as a bully to her fellow actors in this ensemble cast, all of them worthy under other circumstances, all rendered nearly worthless in this. At the very least, they are gasping and panting trying to keep up with her, or whimpering like whooped puppies in defeat. Luckily that bullying is organic to Streep’s character; at the risk of sounding like I use the word ‘meta’ too much in reference to films these days, her performance in August is meta in that regard: Violet is a bully with a tongue so sharp she has given herself mouth cancer. (A quick note about meta: I’m not wrong to use it often when it comes to awards-season cinema. It is something of an ideal quality to inject into a film if you can; it subliminally raises the impact of the piece. It’s something filmmakers actively try to include whenever possible.)
The most exposed actor in August is Julia Roberts, who plays Violet’s eldest daughter, Barbara, and shares the most screen time with Streep. Under the glare of Streep’s truth-telling acting, Roberts can’t help but reveal herself as being simply a movie star who has charmed her way through roles from Mystic Pizza to Pretty Woman to — yes, even this — Erin Brokovitch. It’s all about Robert’s face, the puffing or puckering of her lips, nothing more. Her soul isn’t in this, has never been in any performance, not if Streep’s soul is the benchmark.
Roberts hasn’t imprinted her intelligence and humor on the character. She pouts most of the time, then flares up histrionically when she’s meant to and attacks. Otherwise, her body is utterly slack, seemingly bored with yet another take, accustomed to hitting her mark without looking, and that’s all she need to — Just stay out of Meryl’s way, she says to herself. But Barbara is meant to be Violet’s heir in spirit and temperament as well as her daughter, and in that Roberts’ performance is serviceable, very good, but she is a galaxy away from Streep.
Streep has chosen to make Lett’s many, many relentlessly caustic words her arrows, her body a bow. Before letting fly a volley of devastation on her family, she curves into herself, shoulders bent, the invisible bow string becoming tenser and tenser until… TWANG! And they all fall down. Remarkable.
I don’t know if you could have cast this any better. Perhaps Philip Seymour Hoffman should have been there to balance Streep out — I’m not sure even he could have. The actors who survive best are the ones who remain as still as possible and let Streep’s performance wash over them, let her strain them with color, let her scent them with her viscera. By that I mean specifically Sam Shepherd as Violet’s alcoholic husband and TV actress Julianne Nicolson as her retiring, put-upon daughter Ivy. Everyone else is Streep’s roadkill.
John Wells made a critical production mistake, and I’m glad he made on my behalf: he clearly shot August mostly in sequence. Margot Martindale, who co-stars as Violet’s sister and whose early scenes with Chris Cooper almost derail the film with awkwardness, confirmed my assumption in an interview I read after seeing the film and I was Googling “Osage County shooing in sequence.” Shooting in sequence — or from page one right the way through, rather than jumping back and forth the way most movies are made — is something of an ideal when you’re filming theater, and a temptation, but it is nothing more than an ideal and not practical when it comes to covering up the initial wobbles every production undergoes. Until I saw this film, I was planning on doing it myself with my play/script Hatter. Not any more. The thinking is that actors have a clear arc for their emotions that rides the straight track of the plot; i.e., the emotion in this scene grows out of what happened in the previous scene, and onward down the road.
It was clear to me that Wells shot in sequence because in filmmaking actors are not as well rehearsed as they are in live theater, there are no preview shows in front of test audiences and so forth. The acclimatizing to the material and their characters by the performers makes watching the first half of the first act of August almost unbearable. While the audience is getting used to the particular reality of the film, and its unusual loquaciousness for a film because it’s really a theater piece, the actors are getting used to the reality of the set and the unusual amount of words they have to speak. And then there is all that expository dialogue that is rarely used any more in film that needs be delivered in as casual and organic a way possible, except it isn’t possible because it’s not in the least organic. It comes out too stilted and self-conscious. And Wells himself is also getting his sea legs and figuring things out. It’s a mess. He would have been better off shooting the meatier over-the-top sequences first and leaving the introductory scenes for the end of the schedule.
I’ve learned your lesson, Mr. Wells, so thank you for that.
The only one who has no trouble sliding into the role at whatever point you shoot her is Streep. If the other cast had her wildness, her lack of self-consciousness, you would never know it was filmed in sequence. But unlike others in the cast Streep is that embodiment of the Nietzsche quotation, “You must have chaos inside to give birth to a dancing star.” Yes, even more so than the willfully wildcat Juliette Lewis..
The oddest thing about Streep is you would never expect this sublime wildness if you met her. I lived directly across the street from her brownstone on West 12th in Manhattan for a number of months. We would run into each other when she walked her dogs. We never said more than “Hi, how are you? Gorgeous/hot/crappy day, huh?” But I got a sense of her and she’s lovely. Sweet. Humble. All of the positive attributes a human can have, which she exudes in interviews and speeches. The friends and colleagues I have who have worked with her more than support my assessment.
How does Streep do this, then? If she isn’t anything like these viragos she plays, what does she draw on to understand who they are? I have to assume that there is no “real” Meryl Streep, that even the sweet, humble, everywoman dog walker on West 12th Street is another performance among the many that make up who she is — the sweet persona is simply her at rest. In reality she is an avatar of the Hindu goddess Durga, who one moment is the nurturing, benign “fear not” mother figure and the next the terrible black Kali, jangling a garland of men’s heads around her neck as she gives birth to the cosmos. She is all possible women, the embodiment of female shakti.
The film business is one of the few remaining viable manufacturing industries in America. Streep stands at the pinnacle of it, raising high a torch kept aflame by both achievement and obsessive dedication to excellence. Sure, the Best Actress Oscar this year is likely to go to another actress simply to keep things interesting. After Blanchett’s win at the Golden Globes last night, it might go to her. And why not? Her performance in Blue Jasmine was fantastic. But in their heart of hearts, every actor knows how “stiff and amateurish” they will always be in The Big Streep’s orbit. But what a thrilling experience that orbit must be.