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Critic's Notebook: My Meryl Streep problem

The virtuosic 'Iron Lady' star is stuck in two self-parodying modes of late: impersonating a character quite unlike herself or playing one who bears a teasing resemblance to her starry self.

February 26, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • "The Iron Lady" won Meryl Streep (as Margaret Thatcher) her 17th Oscar nomination.
"The Iron Lady" won Meryl Streep (as Margaret Thatcher) her… (Alex Bailey / The Weinstein…)

A funny thing happened whenever I set out to see Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady.” I'd invite one of my moviegoing pals to join me and then find myself later that evening at “Shame,” “My Week With Marilyn” or the glorious “Pina.”

The reviews for “The Iron Lady” weren't all that glowing, but Streep came in for her usual chorus of hosannas. For some reason, this wasn't proving to be much of a lure. Even after the Oscar nominations came out, with two-time winner Streep making history with her 17th nomination, “The Iron Lady” was still a no-go with them.

Surely this was an aversion to Margaret Thatcher, I thought. But after I investigated their reluctance a bit further, I discovered that several of my well-read, culturally engaged, Pinot Noir-sipping friends are not just indifferent to Streep's greatness — they're actually put off by it. This was shocking news, and they were rightly ashamed to confess it, whispering their secret as though disclosing some white-collar crime they had gotten away with years ago.

Should a drama critic be associating with such a crowd? I could feel what I assumed to be my gorge rising. But after reflecting on Streep's recent spate of box-office hits — “The Devil Wears Prada,” “ Mamma Mia!” and “Julie & Julia” — I had to admit that, much as I may have been amused by her outsize portrayals in these films, I found them either too cartoonish or superficial (in that trading on personality way) to leave a lasting impression.

Yes, I guess I need to come clean: I too have a Streep problem.

Lately, it seems as if her acting comes in two varieties: artful drag burlesques (the Anna Wintourish tyrant Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada,” the cluck-clucking Julia Child in “Julie & Julia” and the holy terror nun in “ Doubt”) and relaxed diva charm-fests (aging hippie Donna of “Mamma Mia!” and the spurned Santa Barbara divorcée rediscovering romance in “It's Complicated”). And in both these modes the overriding effect is one of elaborate imposture. She's either impersonating a character quite unlike herself (ah, Streep the magician!) or one who bears a teasing resemblance to her starry middle-aged persona (oh, that lovable grande dame!).

Sadly, it seems that even the greatest actors have difficulty not falling into the self-parodying trap memorably summed up by Stephen Sondheim in “I'm Still Here”: “First you're another / sloe-eyed vamp / Then someone's mother / then you're camp.”

Her performances are always marvels of technical virtuosity, and her mimicry can indeed be dazzling. One senses her own delight in capturing the likeness of another. Perhaps this is why as she has gotten older she has tended to favor comic masks over tragic ones. But then comedy, which allows her to build a role through selected exaggeration, plays better to her strengths. She can zero in on a defining vocal or physical mannerism and thus flex her muscles as a talking mime.

Dramatic characterizations, on the other hand, tend to become lifeless when overly conceptualized. The psychology, if it is to resonate with our own, needs to be embodied rather than anatomized. Of course there's still interpretive emphasis, but an actor's choices should create a coherent inner life. This isn't Streep's strong suit. Drama critic Gordon Rogoff once referred to her as “that scholar of emotions, burrowing in the archives for card-indexed feeling.” Yet the issue isn't really one of authenticity. Streep can be piercing in grief, as her searing Oscar-winning performance in “Sophie's Choice” attests. But her characterizations are so well calculated that they call attention to their own artistry. The dancer is always distinguishable from the dance.

It may be hard to recall, now that Streep has become our thespian in chief, that her acting hasn't always been universally acclaimed. One famous detractor, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, found Streep's studied perfection bloodless. “[A]fter I've seen her in a movie,” Kael observed in her “Sophie's Choice” review, “I can't visualize her from the neck down.”

By the time “Out of Africa” came around, Kael had had enough of the foreign accents. But her biggest gripe with Streep in this sweeping epic — and the cornerstone of her critique of Streep's acting — is that “her character doesn't deepen” or “come to mean more to us.”

Streep told the Guardian in 2008 how she felt about this rejection: “I'm incapable of not thinking about what Pauline wrote. And you know what I think? That Pauline was a poor Jewish girl who was at Berkeley with all these rich Pasadena WASPs with long blond hair, and the heartlessness of them got her.”

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