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An actress, naturally

Meryl Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer, about to make her major film debut, plugs into her mom's `truth meter.'

June 26, 2007|Paul Cullum | Special to The Times

After a brief incandescent run in the theater and some TV movies, Meryl Streep's first film role was two brief scenes in "Julia," starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda. Her second was "The Deer Hunter," in which she played a war bride and fresh-faced beauty -- so fresh-faced, in fact, that some thought they had merely found a woman who resembled the character and cast her -- and which generated the first of her 14 Oscar nominations.

Now 30 years later, Streep's oldest daughter, Mamie Gummer, after only two professional plays, has her first role of consequence in a film starring Vanessa Redgrave ("Evening"), playing the younger version of Streep's character, with a second film on the way as a war bride and fresh-faced beauty (Kimberly Peirce's much-anticipated "Stop Loss"), and, apparently, people whose business it is to worry about these things can barely contain themselves.

"Vanity Fair," in a two-page spread staged to accentuate the family resemblance, called Gummer "an ethereal ingenue." Even the New York Times, reviewing "Mr. Marmalade," in which she played a precocious 4-year-old in a tutu with a coked-out boyfriend, said, 'Ms. Gummer brings a crackling intensity to Erica's anger that recalls the young Meryl Streep (who happens to be Ms. Gummer's mother) at her hostile best in Woody Allen's 'Manhattan.' "

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 26, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Lillian Hellman: An article in the June 26 Calendar section about actress Mamie Gummer called Lillian Hellman's "Pentimento" a novel. It was a memoir.

Based on a novel by Susan Minot and adapted by Michael Cunningham of "The Hours" fame (book and movie), "Evening" is a story told in split time frames about a dying woman (Redgrave), attended to by her two daughters (Toni Collette and Redgrave's real-life progeny, Natasha Richardson) reflecting back on a weekend 50 years before when her younger self (Claire Danes) attends the wedding of her best friend (Gummer) and sets in motion the events that will preoccupy her life. When her aging friend (Streep, in a galvanizing cameo) shows up in the final moments, the symmetry is complete.

Such is the film's accomplishment that the '50s scenes do not seem like flashbacks, nor the modern-day section a mere wraparound, but are given equal weight and audience loyalties divide neatly between them.

Gummer plays a small but pivotal part that serves as a fulcrum for the plot in her role as the reluctant bride, doomed to exist in the pale shadow of her friend as they compete for their one true love (Patrick Wilson), who they will both lose over the course of several days, and taking solace in a loveless marriage ever after.

In no more than a handful of scenes, she also captures the hysteria and desperation of an emotional decision made in haste, primarily so as to be done with it. In one memorable moment, crying in bed and confessing to Danes her nuptial doubts, her acting choices seem counterintuitive as her tears crest in embarrassed laughter. It's not the way actresses cry in movies -- it's just the way people cry in life.

Sounding like David Lynch meeting future fiancee Isabella Rossellini at a dinner party and guilelessly noting her resemblance to her mom, Ingrid Bergman, "Evening" director Lajos Koltai recalls the casting process.

"I think I saw 130 actors for the different roles," says the Hungarian cinematographer of his second film as a director (after "Fateless"), his first in English. "One morning Mamie came in and I liked her very much -- both her look and what she did with it. It was a very complicated scene, when she's deciding whether to marry or not, and she was very sensitive and very emotional. When I talked to the producer, I said, 'Look, this lady is beautiful -- she looks very much, actually, like Meryl Streep.' And the producer told me she was her daughter. I didn't know that; nobody talked to me about it. So I was surprised but also very happy, because I just found her as a person."

"I'm more Masha than Nina," says Gummer, referencing Chekhov's "The Seagull," as 23-year-old ex-theater majors are apt to do. "I'm more prone to the dark brooding Masha, the complicated character, than the sprightly beautiful ingenue Nina, for whatever reason. I've got this whole different side to my makeup, from Indianapolis, where my dad is from -- and Norway, before that," she says of sculptor Donald Gummer. "My dad is very introspective; he's an artist, and he's actually very shy in crowds. So I sort of balance these two personalities. Sometimes I would rather just sit in a corner and not talk to anyone."

Speaking from Manhattan, where she lives with her parents, she in fact appears extremely normal. So normal, in fact, that an hour on the phone with her seems less the extended audition that conversations with young actors often become, than like calling your kid sister at college. We resist the urge to do the crossword puzzle.

"Is it disarming?" she asks.

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