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Meryl Streep's Latest Accent Is a Laugh : In 'She-Devil,' America's most serious actress gets serious about comedy

December 10, 1989|NINA J. EASTON

Take notice, Pauline Kael and like-minded film critics who complain that Meryl Streep needs to "giggle more and suffer less": Streep is giggling. It happens every time the actress mentions Mary Fisher, the man-hungry romance novelist she portrays in the just-released comedy "She-Devil": Her voice gets breathy, her face turns flirtatiously upward and then, without warning, she erupts into giggles.

"Did you see it?," she asks, when the talk during a recent interview turns to tabloid reports about her relations with "She-Devil" co-star Roseanne Barr. "They put my head on Oprah Winfrey's body," she says, sitting back on her hotel room couch, letting the image sink in before breaking into peals of laughter. Maybe Streep has been suffering on-screen too long. She has the timing of a born comedian.

As the very blond, very coiffed Fisher, Streep has at last gone comic, even campy. She sweeps onto the screen in meticulous, lavishly pink designer garb, a biting caricature of today's aerobicized, plasticized, anesthesized woman.

Portraying Fisher in a comic fairy tale about ugly-duckling revenge is only the beginning of the surprises in store from this 40-year-old, two-time Academy Award winner, the most respected actress of her generation. In next summer's "Postcards from the Edge," based on actress Carrie Fisher's comedic book, Streep plays the wise-cracking, drug-addicted actress and daughter of an aging movie star. She also sings. Superficially, at least, she says "Postcards" provides the role closest to her--how she looks, talks and acts--of her career.

Streep has moved to Santa Monica temporarily because in February, she begins work on "Defending Your Life," a courtroom comedy co-starring Albert Brooks, who will also direct.

Meanwhile, she has dropped plans to once again play a suffering character with a foreign accent--former Argentine ruler Evita Peron.

"It was a bitter disappointment," says Streep. "But it's just a movie. As Albert (Brooks) said, 'You know, Meryl, you could do this and it would be the toughest thing you've ever done in your life. It would be monumental. It would be fantastic. It would be huge. And everyone would say, So what?' " Streep's voice slips into a snide nasal tone. " 'What else is new?'

"That's the joke about me, that I do all these really hard roles," Streep says, with no trace of bitterness in her voice. Her career may be short on on-screen punchlines, but off-screen she laughs at herself and wryly comments on the world around her. "I guess they're sick of me," she says of her detractors, and again she laughs.

The great irony of Streep's career is that she has transformed herself, chameleon-like, into such a diverse range of characters that by now these Oscar-attracting performances seem almost routine. She insists that comments from critics like Kael "mean nothing." But she also suggests she feels some impact. "It's out there in the air, like smog," she says of the criticism. "You don't feel smog going into your lungs. If the day's beautiful, you don't notice."

Whether her motives come from an inner drive, or are the result of the air quality around her, Streep--for now at least--is adding a new chapter to her career. She has turned the page on Lindy Chamberlain, the persecuted Australian mother in "Cry in the Dark"; on Helen, the ragged transient in "Ironweed"; on the death camp survivor Sophie in "Sophie's Choice"; on Baroness Karen Blixen in "Out of Africa"; on Joanna Kramer, the conflicted mother in "Kramer v. Kramer."

Mary Fisher has arrived.

It may be difficult to envision Mary Fisher as a role that Meryl Streep was born to play, but she has been preparing for it most of her life--at least since the first blonde vixens crossed her path in junior high. Streep herself wasn't immune to the demands of the beauty machine, though she may have approached it with a hint more irony than her peers. The daughter of a commercial artist (her mother) and a pharmaceutical company executive, Streep the teen-ager pulled out the bottle of peroxide and put in a pair of contacts to transform herself into a knock-out cheerleader at her suburban New Jersey high school.

By the time the role of Mary Fisher was offered two decades later, Streep was more than ready. "Ohhhh," she growls, "I just wanted to get it all in." She surprised "She-Devil" director Susan Seidelman by showing up at an early reading dressed for the part.

"She came into the room as Mary Fisher, with the perfectly coiffed nails and her hair all bouffanted," Seidelman recalls.

"The character could have gone a lot of ways," Streep says of Mary Fisher. "But I wanted to (deal with) traditional notions of beauty. I thought I was making fun of that. But I must say, the crew treated me real nice when I had my Mary outfit on, and my fingernails were all false and pasted on, and I had on all this sloppy jewelry, and my hair teased up and fluffed, and the makeup was on like lacquer. Barbie," she adds firmly, "is never going to go out of style."

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