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Ten Meryl Streep Characters Through a Feminist Gaze

by Anne Thompson
March 2, 2014 5:11 PM
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Meryl Streep
Streep at 2012 Oscars
Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale in 'August: Osage County'
Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale in 'August: Osage County'

Meryl Streep is a cinema nonpareil whose acting talent and aura seemingly can't be explained. Nominated for a record 18 Academy Awards and winner of three, Streep is up for an Oscar on March 2 for her over-the-top portrayal of a grieving, drug-addicted mother in John Wells' movie version of Tracy Letts Broadway smash "August: Osage County," although she's not pegged for another win.

Finally, film critic Karina Longworth, who has moved from movie blogging in New York, to long-form criticism at the LA Weekly and Village Voice Media, to book author, has managed to nail Streep down. Longworth's third contribution to the Cahiers du Cinema/Phaidon series --the first was on Master of Cinema George Lucas, followed by an Anatomy of an Actor book on Al Pacino-- takes a straightforward deep dive into ten iconic Meryl Streep characters, from the start of her career through her rich middle-age blossoming, accompanied by glossy color photos. Longworth argues that "serving up a corrective to the patriarchal version of history has been the major project of Streep's acting career." At the end of her introduction Longworth concludes: "In playing and thereby giving voice to the voiceless, she has again and again authored alternative historical fiction from a female point-of-view. That's more than speaking to feminism, it's enacting feminism." 

Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady"
Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady"

The book is a pleasurable and enlightening read. No heavy plowing required. Longworth and I talked about Streep and writing the book over the phone. 

Anne Thompson: What made you interested in a close look at Meryl Streep? 

Karina Longworth: I was approached about doing a book on Streep. I didn't want to do it at first. I thought that everything that could be said had been said. In the course of doing research to explain why I wasn't interested, I became interested. No one had considered the whole of her career from beginning to end, they had not put the work into a social context over the course of decades, in terms of what was going on in the culture and with women. I went to the Academy Library every day for a month looking at the microfiche and clippings, reading different articles, trying to isolate Meryl's voice and how it changed over time.

Meryl Streep in 'The Devil Wears Prada'
Meryl Streep in 'The Devil Wears Prada'

What surprised you about what you learned about Streep?

I guess I got a larger picture of her. When I wasn't interested in writing the book, I thought of her as being the grand dame of acting, the most-praised screen actress of all time. I became interested in so many things people don't talk about, because they're talking about Oscar nominations. I was excited that in the '80s and '90s, she was making speeches at the Screen Actors Guild conference calling out 'Pretty Woman' as a bad influence. The ways she expressed herself in interviews behind the scenes in the making of movies, she'd stand up for her characters and make them more than what existed on the page.

Davis and Streep

Did Phaidon provide a set format?

The set format is to have ten movies, each chapter on one movie, and within that as long as you meet their specific length, they are hands off. With Pacino I wrote a critical biography, with Streep I went out on a limb with more analysis of her as a feminist artist. 

She became an outspoken critic of Hollywood's treatment of women. 

That was definitely a discovery for me. For the first 20 years of her career she was not particularly outspoken, even demure. But when asked her political views in the late 80s and early 90s she did speak out about not being paid like Jack Nicholson and not getting the roles she felt she deserved.

She took a turn toward more mainstream commercial roles.

Even though "Out of Africa" in 1985 was a huge hit, there was a backlash against her, a pattern in the 80s emerged as I was going through the articles. That's when Meryl decided to lighten up, when they were attacking her for not being a bigger box office draw, when she was taking comedies and "Death Becomes Her" and "She-Devil," with Roseanne Barr and Ed Begley.

She also played a dark role in the true story of an Australian woman nobody liked in Fred Schepisi's "A Cry in the Dark." And sure enough, no one went to see her in the movie.


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