This month will see the opening of Meryl Streep’s next Oscar-nominated performance, as the title character in “The Iron Lady,” Phyllida Lloyd’s “re-imagining” of Dame Margaret Thatcher’s life, career, and meaning. The controversy over the film has centered not on Streep’s performance, but rather on the question of whether or not the film represents a leftist hatchet job; and even before seeing it, there are plenty of indications that might be the case.
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For instance, Xan Brooks of the leftist Guardian finds Streep’s performance “astonishing and all but flawless; a masterpiece of mimicry” – apparently because Streep allows Brooks to indulge himself in his memories of Thatcher as cartoon villain:
Streep has the basilisk stare; the tilted, faintly predatory posture. Her delivery, too, is eerily good – a show of demure solicitude, invariably overtaken by steely, wild-eyed stridency.
There seems indeed to be plenty here for a leftist to love; but those who knew Thatcher are less impressed. Baron Tebbit, for instance–who famously was victimized by Brooks’s own paper when they printed the spurious quote, “No-one with a conscience votes Conservative”–has said this of Streep’s portrayal:
However, [Thatcher] was never, in my experience, the half-hysterical, over-emotional, over-acting woman portrayed by Meryl Streep.
Which brings up considerations far more interesting than simply the latest heavy-handed Hollywood attempt to hijack the political narrative. For instance–and we’re delving into Hollywood blasphemy here–is Meryl Streep a good actress? And, if so, by whose standards?
She’s certainly a popular one, at least among the voting members of the Academy. Streep owns the record for most nominations by any actor or actress, with 16. She has carried the statuette home twice, and is the odds-on favorite to do so a third time next year. Indeed, she has already been given the Best Actress Award by the New York Film Critics Circle–last month–for a film that hasn’t even opened yet.
But the public votes with money, and Streep’s films are not notably successful financially. Several of her most recent performances–for instance, her entire 2007 output in “Lions for Lambs,” “Evening,” “Rendition,” and “Dark Matter”–could be fairly described as disappointments. She is not a major box office magnet, and in her most successful film, the musical “Mamma Mia,” it was not the presence of Streep that drew crowds, but the deathless music of Abba.
Her popularity has always been higher among the Hollywood elite than among ordinary moviegoers. She has been called (over and over) America’s greatest living actress; but in an eerie parallel of leftist politics, the praise seems to be mainly an attempt by a self-anointed elite to force the idea upon a reluctant public. It could be the public tends to side with Pauline Kael, who remarked of Streep that she acted only “from the neck up” and said further that Streep “makes a career out of seeming to overcome being miscast.” It’s true that Streep is famously cerebral in her approach to her roles; it’s also true that there is almost never any Meryl there. Where Jimmy Stewart was always Jimmy Stewart, no matter the name of his character, Meryl Streep is never the American girl from New Jersey–she’s Polish, or Irish, or Danish, or Australian. She’s a bitter Bronx nun, or a chilly Manhattan editor, or a drunken bum. She’s Julia Child. Or she’s Margaret Thatcher–but she’s never, even a little bit, Meryl Streep. (This works to her benefit, because it always seems to be someone else who is struggling to be convincing.)
The reason for this is that Streep is perhaps the exemplar of the modern Hollywood theory of acting, which holds that the perfection of the craft lies in the total immersion of the actor in the character. This is “The Method,” which began to take over Hollywood in the late 40s, and really hit its stride when Marlon Brando burst onto the scene, alternately mumbling and screaming, in 1951. Since then actors have competed to become as invisible as possible, hiding behind accents, tics, quirks, foibles, or disabilities, or simply mimicking the voice and mannerisms of a real person.
In fact, flat-out impersonation has become so popular in Hollywood that in the last decade eight Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Actress have been given for impressions of modern figures–characters for whom there is ample video, audio, and film available to make them familiar not only to the actor but also the audience. Jamie Foxx, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Reese Witherspoon, Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren, Marion Cotillard, Sean Penn, and Colin Firth all won Oscars for their services in helping Hollywood tell the world the true meanings of the lives of Ray Charles, Truman Capote, June Carter Cash, Idi Amin, Queen Elizabeth II, Edith Piaf, Harvey Milk, and King George VI. All since 2004.
This is unprecedented in the history of the Academy Awards, yet it shouldn’t have been too hard to predict. If “losing oneself in the character” is the sine qua non of acting, what better way to judge an actor’s effectiveness than a note-perfect impersonation? (Besides, it’s simply the Hollywood penchant for remakes manifesting itself among actors rather than producers. Even actors are running out of ideas.)
Streep is indeed a gifted and meticulous mimic, perhaps the best of her generation; but in the end, that makes her a peer of Frank Caliendo, not Bette Davis. What Streep–and the rest of Hollywood–has forgotten, is that submerging oneself in the character is only half the job. The action has to be believable as well. Indeed, the illusion of spontaneity is far more powerful than the illusion of identity. Actors are routinely praised for “bringing a character to life,” but audiences pay to see stories brought to life. When Streep acts, no matter the role, every single word and gesture looks perfectly studied, considered, and prepared, as though she’s trying to give the story a manicure. She hasn’t the knack of convincing the audience that what they’re watching is actually happening. We can’t believe that what we’re seeing is real, and often it’s precisely because the excellence of the mimicry calls attention to the essential falsity of the situation.
By way of contrast, Jimmy Stewart never completely left himself out of his characters (which was okay, because we liked him). He was always, in his voice and mannerisms, Jimmy Stewart, even when he was called George Bailey or Rance Stoddard or Elwood P. Dowd. But Stewart had the ability to make any film seem like a hidden-camera documentary, capturing events as they happened. Even if the characters never rise much beyond the level of Archetype or Everyman (and here’s another interesting question: what’s wrong with that?), it’s the ability to achieve the impression of spontaneous action that made great actors of Stewart and others like Lionel Barrymore:
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If you require an example of a modern actor, who never hides his real self behind a thick crust of mannerisms, yet always manages to convince us the action is authentic (and the character, as well), I offer you Robert Duvall as Euliss “Sonny'” Dewey:
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On the other hand, if impersonation is the height of acting achievement, why not three Oscars for this?
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Maybe the Academy Award is out of reach. But there’s always the New York Film Critics Circle awards. “The Three Stooges” isn’t slated to open until next year, but it’s never too early.