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The Movies : Standouts For The '80s

May 29, 1988|SHEILA BENSON

Two actors came into full flower on motion-picture screens in this decade. There on one screen was the perennial, Meryl Streep; on another the evergreen, Sean Connery. Times Film Critic Sheila Benson departs from individual movie criticism for the moment to unreel a filmography of each, a biographical evaluation of two distinct talents.

Let's start at the top.

With "Sophie's Choice," the disappearance of Meryl Streep into the persona of a well-born Polish Catholic survivor of the Nazi death camps approaches the eerie. Whether she is speaking excellent German or halting or fluent English, Sophie must convince us that her mother tongue is Polish. At one time or another, she must be "utterly, fatally glamorous," gray-green with malnutrition, giddily flirtatious, besotted with love or romantically melancholic. All the while, at the deepest level, she is carrying a secret horrendous enough to char the edges of anyone's soul. Streep simply dives into the role and vanishes. Even her sighs have a Slavic thickness to them. Her long speeches of revelation--and in retrospect the film feels like one unending string of them--emerge from a deep, cello-like monotone quite foreign to English speech patterns. In addition to its problems for director Alan Pakula, "Sophie's Choice" is also a test of other, critical arts of film making: photography, lighting, costuming and makeup, but particularly photography. It's as though each department were carrying on its own love affair with Streep . . . or with Sophie.

When she needs to, Streep looks like a '40s goddess with vivid red lipstick, vivacious as Carole Lombard. In the camp scenes, her head covered by a scarf, she becomes a concentration-camp Madonna, seemingly pounds thinner, translucent, with Brancusi modeling to her eye sockets and the planes of her cheeks.

Yet, finally, Streep's Sophie Zawistowska isn't about linguistics or make-up or photography; it's a melange of observation, intuition and truth that may come as much from the actress' unconscious as from her craft.

Streep has approached this level two other times, in "Ironweed," and in "Out of Africa," for director Sydney Pollack. Who could get anything out of the Baroness Blixen, at least Blixen as she so carefully chose to present herself: The enigmatic Ice Queen transplanted to hot climes but still under steely control. Even in a peignoir, she had an aristocratic ramrod from her heels to her brain stem. The film is measured enough to try the patience of an oyster, and the styles of Streep and her co-star Robert Redford, fatally miscast as this enigmatic Englishman, are polar opposites. Yet Streep succeeds.

She succeeds best when Klaus Maria Brandauer is around to match her strength for strength, but she has also found a route to the passion of the woman, passion that pushed even Karen Blixen to set limits on her free-as-air lover. She uses an accent again, of course, Scandinavian vowels this time. At one of their farewells, Streep's Blixen says mockingly, "I'm better at hellos," in a voice that might have come from Garbo.

When she plays "Ironweed's" derelict Helen Archer, she doesn't use such cello tones; this is a bass-baritone register, scoured by alcohol. Clearly, these are the last days of a downward spiral, yet Streep works to keep them feisty, not fragile, and in that amazing barroom song, Streep gives her a barrelhouse joy. This very American movie was probably not the best choice for its Brazilian-born director, Hector Babenco, yet there at its center is Nicholson's Francis Phelan and Tom Waits' Rudy and Meryl Streep's Helen.

She plays all but one scene in a cloche hat, so we must peer under it to find her and strain to make sense out of the growled fragments that are her sentences. Her mind has hold of the other half of them, and we're not always privy to its twists and references. It's a selfless piece of acting, becoming this pink-eyed, shapeless woman of no determinable age. But it may be Helen Archer who sticks in our memory forever, when the Baroness Blixen has faded into an amiable recollection of veiled toque hats and airplane vistas of Africa. I'm not quite sure why, except that there are Helens all around us and there was only one, grand Baroness Blixen, who created herself. Perhaps the unremarkable has a greater poignancy than the quixotically specific.

IT IS HER CRAFT, of course, that's held against Streep, at least in some circles. It has been since its first grand display, in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" in 1981 when director Karel Reisz gave her a chance to let loose in a double role, as a melancholic Victorian and a cheekily flirtatious, extremely contemporary actress. Particularly as the French lieutenant's anguished Sarah Woodruff, Streep gave a performance of meticulous detail as well as passion, yet it's possible to see that she has grown almost before our eyes since then.

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