Friday, August 08, 2008

Meryl Streep

So I finally saw Mamma Mia! Awful as expected but I went ahead just because Meryl Streep was in it and watching her on screen is never less than interesting. Also nice to see a serious dramatic actress lighten up a little and having just a good time, all the time being very self-aware of the essential inconsequentiality of the whole enterprise.

Apart from that, she gets my vote for the greatest contemporary actress. My other personal favourite would be Isabelle Huppert but she has typecast herself into a very specific set of roles (more on her later). There was a great article by Molly Haskell in film comment a couple of months ago in which she discusses her entire career, her various screen personae and acting style. She has been lucky (and we the audiences have been luckier) that she has been able to get so many great roles late in her career, specially when so much of contemporary mainstream cinema is "tyrannized by the male adolescent demographic," as Haskell puts it. She was brilliant in almost all of her recent films such as The Hours, Angels in America, Adaptation, The Manchurian Candidate, Prime, The Devil Wears Prada or A Prairie Home Companion. As compared to her early successes she seems more natural and less "actress-y" (for example, her turn in Sophie's Choice which I don't like as much as everybody else seems to do.) In fact in films like The Devil Wears Prada and A Prairie Home Companion she is sp natural that it feels she is almost sleepwalking through the role. It is also what enables her to do Mamma Mia!, she doesn't want to "prove" anything right now. As Haskell says:

"She’s proving now, in the freedom and prosperity of a spectacularly attractive late middle age, that she can do effortless as well as strenuous, ensemble as well as star, enjoy rather than hide behind her talent. More than that, it’s as if audiences who’d been lulled into a catatonia of admiration or vexation were forced to wake up and take notice of the dazzling dexterity and audacity of this woman who’s amassed a body of work that’s phenomenal any way you look at it, but especially at a time and in a filmmaking climate tyrannized by the male adolescent demographic. From 1977 to 2007, three decades in which a Hollywood was busy merchandising global franchises and blockbusters and independent cinema was proving its cojones, Meryl Streep made 44 mostly high profile films. And, to borrow the anthem of Shirley MacLaine who plays her mother in Postcards from the Edge (90), “she’s still here”—not just here, but on her own terms, not Hollywood’s. "


puccinio said...

What did you expect with ABBA! Even Frank Tashlin who went after rock music with such giddy joy in ''The Girl Can't Help It'' would have had his work cut out with those Merchants of Kitsch.

Meryl Streep is a really great actress. Yes she was actress-y early in her career with ''Sophie's Choice'' but it allowed her great freedom in her roles. Another great performance is ''Bridges of Madison County'', Eastwood was able to make a romantic potboiler into a real romance in that film.

That said, while I appreciate your enthusiasm for Streep, saying she sleep-walks in her role in ''A Prairie Home Companion'' is a stretch. It's an amazingly spontaneous performance, she doesn't give the impression of acting(which is the highest success an actor can achieve). Robert Altman when asked around the film was made his secret to directing actors, said, "My secret is I don't direct. I cast the roles, they come on set and I start the camera and just record the take."(paraphrase) Her singing is also special especially for that rhubarb commercial and "Way down in the mississipi".

Alok said...

I actually should have said she gives an *illusion* of sleepwalking through that role and this is exactly the kind of acting I love most. One utterly baneful legacy of the "method acting" school has been this awful series of stunt acting that we see more and more in contemporary cinema (example: Daniel Day Lewis in last year's There Will be Blood). With Female actors it is even worse - Nicole Kidman wants an Oscar just because she "sacrificed" her beauty by putting on that fake nose and flattening up her chest! That's why I said I love Streep's recent roles in which she doesn't seem to be trying to *prove* anything at all. She just *is* there on the screen and that's the mark of a genuinely great actor.

It is also what draws me so much to Robert Altman...this freedom and spontaneity that he is able to capture (even from actors who are not really that good elsewhere) which is actually quite rare in the movies. No wonder all the actors loved to work with him.

Alok said...

yes and agree about that singing. She and Lily Tomlin together singing about their "mama" is one of the great moments in recent cinema.

puccinio said...

There are a lot of examples of stunt acting but Daniel Day-Lewis isn't part of that. ''There Will Be Blood'' is a role that is on a very large scale. One critic compared it to Nikolai Cherkassov in Eisenstein's ''Ivan The Terrible'' not in terms of quality but in terms of scope and scale. It's about a a charming psychopath who becomes a conman then a businessman and finally when he is very rich he seems to have devolved spectacularly back into caveman times. It's not a realistic role(that would be Scorsese's ''Gangs of New York'') but then the film isn't realistic either. It's a very expressionist allegory in that aspects of interior emotions and psychology are played out physically by the actors.

I see stunt acting more in common with people like Edward Norton, the exception being his work on ''25the Hour'', one of the best American films this decade.

One utterly baneful legacy of the "method acting" school has been this awful series of stunt acting that we see more and more in contemporary cinema

It's not really the "method acting" behind it. The thing is many people have severe misunderstandings about that kind of acting. The original idea of method acting as proposed by Stella Adler was that actors should find the character in themselves, something not that different from other styles of acting. What that means in practice is don't treat any performance coldly, immerse and work hard on the part and get a natural connection with your character. It didn't mean this gimmick of relying on make-up or uglying up natural beauty, something which Marlon Brando never did(even in [i]Godfather[/i] the make-up although meant to age him doesn't take away his good looks).

This actually seems to have been a negative influence of DeNiro's work on ''Raging Bull'' but then idiots don't understand that his performance is impressive because of the small details rather than the fact that he physically shaped himself up and down for the same part.

No wonder all the actors loved to work with him.

Yeah. I have never seen a bad performance in a single Altman film. One of the few actors who pissed of Altman was Warren Beatty in ''McCabe & Mrs. Miller''. Beatty was a talented actor and actually very adventurous in that he routinely liked to play unlikable characters also liked to interfere with the director's work. So he and Altman clashed repeatedly. One shot in that film required him to fall on snow and he asked for another take. So Altman made several takes until Beatty was ice cold. He didn't suffer fools.

Alok said...

I agree it is not really method acting but more of a general perception of what that is. that's why i put that in quotes. to many people immersing yourself in the character means to *appear* like that character. Really immersing would result in a performance like Brando in On the Riverfront. Those subtle gestures (like the famous scene in the car in which he touches the gun) can come only when one "becomes" that character, and not by following some ready-made script or even based on any rational and conscious calculation and that's where an actor also becomes a great artist. This is also why only a few actors can be called artists in the true sense.

I don't like actors who desperately want to draw attention to themselves - in the "look what a great actor I am" sort of way. More often than not it only reveals their vanity and inflated sense of self-worth than their commitment to their work. Though to be fair to these actors, specially those who are young and not that established, this seems to be the only way to get themselves recognized by the establishment and people who give awards.

And I think Edward Norton is one of the better young actors though sometimes he comes across as a bit self-important. I really loved him in the recent "The Painted Veil"...a very subtle performance which reminded me of the great classic hollywood films.

Alok said...

ugh..that's Waterfront, not Riverfront

puccinio said...

This is also why only a few actors can be called artists in the true sense.

As opposed to painters and musicians. Acting is one of the most purest and most sensual art forms perhaps the oldest of all artforms. It predecessed theatre(I can't imagine theatres preceding actors), painting, perhaps not music since everybody sings and literature.

Among film actors of course that's another thing because even in good films there's acting that's functional and there's acting that goes beyond that. It's refreshing to see your posts on actors(Streep and now Huppert), since all this talk repeatedly about directorial style, theme, mise-en-scene tends to get boring after the time and since actors are such a major part of the film it's great to talk about it.

The one problem with talking with actors is that many of them including the best of them appear in a lot of bad films or outright crap and then bounce back with something interesting. Michael Caine is a good current example. He's still a great actor and is stunning in ''The Quiet American'' but he's reduced to resident Englishman in the two Batman films. Then Marlon Brando's late commercial work is notorious(however it includes one film ''The Freshman'' where his performance, a comic spoof of ''The Godfather'' makes him it's undisputed auteur) as is Larry Olivier's and of course Alec Guinness.

Which is why there's so much stress on director-actor collaborations. Like John Ford and John Wayne, Kurosawa and Mifune, Scorsese and DeNiro, Alfred Hitchcock with Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart and cary Grant. Jean-Pierre Leaud and Truffaut & Godard. Chabrol and Stephane Audran and now Huppert. Bunuel and Fernando Rey. Renoir and Jean Gabin and many examples. Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli. And many others. Then there's Ingmar Bergman's Stock Company.

Anonymous said...

What???? Mama Mia was a GREAT movie!!! What are you talking about???? I LOVED it! What more were you expecting???

Zawistowska said...

ABBA was, is and will always be music with a touch of genius. Streep was, is and will always be an actress with a touch of genius. I rest my case.

Anonymous said...

she's just one of a kind.