Meryl Streep: The great pretender

She is considered a 'genius' by her peers. She's had a record 13 Oscar nominations. It would appear that she can turn her hand to anything. So why do we take Meryl Streep for granted, asks David Thomson. Is it because she's just too good? Or do we simply misunderstand the meaning of make-believe? And, as the actress prepares for a rare British appearance, Elisabeth Vincentelli assesses her return to the stage...
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She is a middle-aged woman, married for over 25 years to a man named Don Gummer, and the mother of four children. There's no need to depict her or her children as the model for a Happy Family, but the kids seem to be doing well enough: the oldest is about to graduate from Dartmouth College, where his mother did a visiting term while she studied at (and graduated from) Vassar. She has been a voice on The Simpsons; she has been honoured in the character "Meryl Sheep" on the children's television programme, Sesame Street. She will be 56 this 22 June, and she is an institution. She has been nominated 13 times for Oscars, and she is the actress Diane Keaton called "my generation's genius".

She is a middle-aged woman, married for over 25 years to a man named Don Gummer, and the mother of four children. There's no need to depict her or her children as the model for a Happy Family, but the kids seem to be doing well enough: the oldest is about to graduate from Dartmouth College, where his mother did a visiting term while she studied at (and graduated from) Vassar. She has been a voice on The Simpsons; she has been honoured in the character "Meryl Sheep" on the children's television programme, Sesame Street. She will be 56 this 22 June, and she is an institution. She has been nominated 13 times for Oscars, and she is the actress Diane Keaton called "my generation's genius".

I am talking about Meryl Streep, and I dare say you take her for granted. Yet you might be surprised to hear that she has not won an Academy Award since 1983, for Sophie's Choice - released at about the time Natalie Portman celebrated her first birthday. I put it that way because, despite the enormous esteem in which Streep is held, something is amiss in the way that respect actually manifests itself. It's not that Ms Streep is in any sense unpopular or difficult. Still, an idea has developed over the years - and it has been assisted by such judges as Pauline Kael and Katharine Hepburn - that her brilliance is intellectual, theoretical, or mechanical. It is sometimes said that she is so good an actress, or a pretender, as to be out of the common range of feeling. I think that's nonsense, and doubly unfair in that it amounts to an actress being criticised or envied because of her astonishing ability. But it is a fascinating issue, and one that leads to a pernicious fallacy that has hovered over American acting ever since the foundation of the Actors' Studio - that "sincerity" is more important than pretending in acting.

Mary Louise Streep was born and raised in suburban New Jersey, the daughter of a pharmaceutical company executive and a commercial artist. It was the kind of family that took the kids to the theatre, museums, the ballet and music, and Mary Louise loved it all. She took serious singing lessons (and still believes she would have been better than Madonna in Evita), and she started doing theatre. At first, people noted her ambition as much as her talent - she worked hard to lose weight, wear contact lenses and go bright blonde. And Streep established herself very quickly as an actress. Yet it's worth stressing how carefully she had prepared. When she made her effective screen debut, in Fred Zinnemann's Julia (1977), a film dominated by Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, she was already 28. So we should notice straightaway how movies never really had Streep as a very young person - like Julia Roberts, 21 in Mystic Pizza; Nicole Kidman, 22 in Dead Calm; or Natalie Portman, 23 in Closer.

Streep had given those years to Vassar and the Yale Drama School, and to early work on the stage. So we never met her as a sexy kid - and in the modern era there's no doubt that public affection owes a lot to the way in which the young audience desires someone their own age in the launching of a career. So Streep never looked raw or wild; she seemed grown-up and, sad to say, that is no longer the most admired attribute (in a woman, or in anyone) in this culture.

Still, it gave Streep advantages, not least a mixture of technique and feeling that seemed ready for nearly anything. In the space of just a few years, she won an Emmy in the TV mini-series Holocaust; she was a simple girl from a Pennsylvania mining town in The Deer Hunter; she was in Woody Allen's Manhattan; she was sexy in The Seduction of Joe Tynan; she won a supporting actress Oscar as the mother in Kramer vs Kramer; she was both modern and 19th-century in The French Lieutenant's Woman; and then she won her leading actress Oscar in Sophie's Choice - pale, refined, nervy and quite haunting as the mother who has to choose one of her two children for survival.

I'm still not sure how decent it was to film that choice. There is something so ghastly about it that even the most respectful recreation may seem callous. But I defy anyone to watch that film and find Streep emotionally lacking. The whole movie works as tragedy, and it has much more than its concentration camp scenes. But Streep's ability to convey Sophie's horror - moral as well as emotional - at the deal being offered her is not just heartbreaking. Every time I see it, I find breathing difficult, and that is because of the many ways in which she has conveyed the visceral nightmare. What else is acting if it can take so overdone a situation - the concentration camp - and make it seem so alive and present that the viewer's breathing is constricted?

But even in 1982 some felt her Polish accent was so meticulous as to seem studied. Yes, Streep was pretending, but when are we going to remember that pretending can be a noble and humane practice? It is nothing less than attempting to imagine and convey the feelings of strangers. What else is art about?

Streep was established, and throughout the Eighties she was hardly out of the nominations. But she held to an honesty that did not beg to be liked. She never acquired a sexy manner, a constant seductiveness. Make the comparison with Nicole Kidman. Kidman has made an exciting journey from kid or girlfriend roles to being a mature actress. For her age, she may be as good as we have, and one of many who have been inspired by Streep's example of becoming other people. But Kidman cannot quite manage without being "sexy": it is there in her princess-hooker's look on every magazine cover she does. It's not dishonest - she is naturally sexy. But it is a helpless way of saying to all of us, buy my ticket and you get a piece of me - if only in your dreams. Meryl Streep has never done that. Rather, she takes the attitude: I want you to believe every time that you are seeing a new person - it is my job to be empty until a character fills me up.

This is not a minor distinction, or separation. But it is rather against the American grain in the time of Streep's greatness. For the way of acting that came from Stanislavsky and which is most identified with the Actors' Studio, the teaching of Lee Strasberg and the Method, is to assert that the actor and the role become as one. Thus, the actor finds the part in his or her own emotional sense memory, and may find it very difficult to step out of the character after a day's work or when the production is over. The alleged authenticity or sincerity of this approach was hailed as a new and uniquely American way of acting - and a weapon in despising the cultivated pretending of the English style. It also tended to indulge and prolong the neurotic condition of immature personalities who had become actors.

Marlon Brando was a very great actor, but his unhappiness diverted him from the art and craft of pretending. He came to hate its dishonesty and feel ruined by his own art. And even at his peak, I would suggest that Brando fell short of Streep's detailed observation of life. Instead, he offered his self. To see On the Waterfront today is not easy if you feel bound to think that this Terry Malloy is really a battered, brain-damaged ex-boxer as opposed to an immature personality revelling in the pose and the attendant self-indulgence. For showing off in pretence is not the same as being absorbed by it. In On the Waterfront we are always watching Brando (made up to seem damaged); in Sophie's Choice we are riveted by this pale, delicate, Polish woman and the inner damage done to her.

Furthermore, if you were to suggest to Meryl Streep that the "pain" of being an actor might be so great as to prevent her working, I think Streep would tell you to brush your teeth and get on with it. She is eminently professional, and she works to the assumption that if she is a cellist playing Bach, then Bach was the genius and she is the performer and the enabler. Bach might have needed a month or so off between concertos to recover his creative spirit. But a great cellist is utterly "in" the music at one moment, and then a few seconds later the recovered player who is content to be applauded and happy to think that her generosity has given the Bach piece to others.

This may seem like a diversion, yet it is a profound reason for some people holding reservations about Meryl Streep, and in the movies as a whole it is one of many reasons why we are not producing enough good work. Too many actors have fallen into the thinking that the movies are about them.

Equally, I do think that her reluctance to be simply a screen presence helps account for limits. She was cast as a sex object - a mysterious, beautiful seductress -in Still of the Night, and I think the picture failed in part because she didn't have the patience to do no more than be photographed. On the other hand, her lead role in Silkwood was a revelation - raunchy, working-class, restless, a woman slowly strengthened by her predicament. And Streep was completely believable as an Oklahoma redneck. Then recollect the range of the next few years: as Susan Traherne, high-minded, brave, yet spiteful, jittery and half-destroyed in the film of David Hare's Plenty (one of her greatest performances, but playing a character so far beyond easy likeability that it got not even a nomination); Karen Blixen in Out of Africa; and the valiant hobo in Ironweed. Of course, Out of Africa was nominated, and so were Silkwood and Ironweed - but that was because those characters were politically correct and emotionally accessible. Streep is remarkable in all the films (and actors are always dependent on their material), but you have to study Plenty (a seriously neglected picture) to appreciate Streep's courage.

Yet another example of that determination to trust material is her wife and mother in A Cry in the Dark. It was not just that Streep had handled the Australian accent flawlessly. Far more impressive, she had entered into the soul of a woman who was rather harsh and restricted in her self-expression. And nothing has done more damage to movies in the last 20 years than the power of actors to shift their characters so that they become guaranteed "likeable". This is, literally, a culture in which executives and actors alike might argue the hope that Lady Macbeth, Hedda Gabler or Lindy Chamberlain (in A Cry in the Dark) might be a little softer, gentler, and cuddly. Again, I don't think there's a case in her career where Streep has fallen for that nonsense or been a part of it.

Does that put her beyond reproach? Not at all. Over the years, she has faced the problems of any actress growing older. She tried comedy - She-Devil; Death Becomes Her - and exposed a serious lack of humour. But those were poor scripts and bad pictures, and it doesn't mean she couldn't have done far better if anyone was writing intelligent comedy - a remake of His Girl Friday, say. She took on some pictures that were lucky to have her, but not terribly sure of how to take advantage of her: Postcards from the Edge, The House of the Spirits, The River Wild and, I would suggest, The Bridges of Madison County. That film was a crowd-pleaser and it won her a nomination, yet I felt it stressed a cultural gap between herself and Clint Eastwood that left their "love" seeming more alleged than real.

Streep was at her best as the mother who is the weakest, gentlest corner in an uneasy family in One True Thing, and she was literally and emotionally naked in the scenes where her character takes on cancer.

Music of the Heart was her last Best Actress nomination, and by far the most charitable. But by then Meryl Streep was 50. You will take a long time making anything like a list of American actresses of that age who currently play leading roles in big pictures. So it's the more revealing to stress how inventive and far-reaching Streep has been: a supporting nomination as Susan Orlean in Adaptation; Clarissa in The Hours; a variety of roles in Angels in America - including a rabbi and Ethel Rosenberg; and the ice-chewing Senator Eleanor Shaw in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

That last project was a guide to Streep's method. She was entering helplessly into a contest with the cherished memory of Angela Lansbury's mother in the original. I'd guess that Streep assisted in the smart refusal to challenge directly. So Streep's mother is also a senator - as opposed to a power-broker. Some saw a hint of Hillary Clinton, but I think that was unfair to both women. Streep had reinvented the role and identified a new kind of ball-breaking tenacity in American career women. It wasn't her fault that the remake didn't shake the citadel of the original film.

I think it's very interesting to see that Streep is now making some moves back towards the theatre. To concentrate on film now is to risk restricting herself to supporting parts or very lovable grandmothers. But on stage, Streep is still easily within the age range to give us a superb Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night; to do Chekhov and Shaw. She might do Beckett, as well as having great roles written for her. Not that she will give up movies. At this moment, she is involved in half-a-dozen projects in some stage of production or pre-production. I doubt that she has had the last of her Academy nominations (and already she holds the record at 13). She was given the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 2004, and she is likely to be weighed down by such honours as she grows older.

Not that anyone should expect satisfaction or relaxation from this actress. In the end, pretending is a lifelong habit as well as a joyful commitment. Granted health, we may see Streep working on like a Gielgud (they had a scene together in Plenty), and it is worth remembering that she will be an old woman in a time that is suddenly crowded all over the world with real age, prolonged survival and the family reality that comes from that. She will not give up on pretending, and she will not betray the sport and the fun that drive pretending.

For who is better equipped to deliver a few great old women original enough to terrify and amaze, as well as to bring great comfort?

Charisma, perched on a wooden stool

New York's St Ann's Warehouse was the scene of a curious, star-studded event last week. Theater of the New Ear is an evening-length experiment of "sound plays" put together by composer Carter Burwell.

Asked to present a programme of his film scores, Burwell instead set to music new material from frequent collaborators Joel and Ethan Coen (with whom he's worked since 1984's Blood Simple) and Charlie Kaufman (Burwell scored Being John Malkovich and Adaptation). The end result is a pair of pieces designed to be heard as much as seen.

Kaufman's contribution - his theatrical debut - was Hope Leaves the Theater. It deploys his customary hall-of-mirrors tricks, but it also ingeniously plays off viewers' expectations. Scenes take place, we're told, in the engine room of an Argentinian freighter, 1943, and "the eye of a hurricane, Easter Island, now", while the list of characters includes William of Essex, the Empress of Japan and Sir Isaac Newton.

But, in reality, the Argentinian freighter and the Empress of Japan are nowhere to be seen. As for the titular Hope, it's Hope Davis ( American Splendor), abruptly exiting a play-within-a-play starring Peter Dinklage ( The Station Agent) and Meryl Streep. They themselves incarnate wickedly funny versions of their public personas: Dinklage soft-spoken and self-effacing, La Streep an imperial, self-important descendant of Eleonora Duse. Constantly ricocheting from hilarious to touching and back again, Hope Leaves the Theater is stunning in its imaginative velocity and served by a trio of supremely gifted actors - with Streep so effortlessly charismatic that she commands the entire space from her perch on a stool.

A stool, yes. The actors are sitting the entire time, clad in non-descript civilian garb and reading from scripts propped on lecterns. In the background, the eight-piece Parabola ensemble gently supplies mood music while Marko Costanzo diligently produces sound effects (heels clippety-clopping, computer keys clickety-clacking, etc) in full view of the audience.

In the Coens' contribution, Sawbones, the titular character, a frontier veterinarian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) stars in a television western enjoyed by Jerry Nelson (John Goodman) and his philandering wife Joan (Brooke Smith). The most memorable elements are an unrestrained comic performance by Steve Buscemi, Costanzo's inventive effect for a delicate suture (it involves squeeky balloons) and Burwell's oft-repeated TV-serial theme, a catchy tribute to the age of Bonanza.

Introducing the evening, the piece feels like no more than a middling amuse-bouche for Hope Leaves the Theater, which might well be the funniest hour to grace the New York stage this year. Not only does it circumstantiate Kaufman's talent, but it confirms Streep's return to the stage. And yes, she does one of her trademark flawless accents. Like Kaufman, Streep can have her cake and gleefully devour it too.

Elisabeth Vincentelli

'Theater of the New Ear': Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0870 160 2520), Friday