Cheer up, Meryl — you have your masterpiece

Posted by · 6:03 pm · August 28th, 2009

Meryl StreepYou may well have spotted this very funny (and frequently accurate) Onion piece doing the web rounds today, in which a writer claiming to be Meryl Streep shoots down her career with all the withering disdain of Miranda Priestly.

The gist of the argument is that, as fine an actor as Streep is, she has — whether through bad luck or bad choices — never made a truly great film.

I can see the temptation to agree. Certainly the latter stretch of Streep’s filmography is spotty: even if you remove the outright embarrassments, (“Prime,” “Mamma Mia!”) or even the respectable-but-still-throwaway entertainments (“Julie & Julia,” “The Devil Wears Prada”), you’re left with a lot of worthily middlebrow titles engineered more as performance showcases than as vital, durable cinema.

Many of the films in that category are still pretty weak (“Doubt,” “Marvin’s Room,” “Music of the Heart,” etc), but even the good ones fall some way short of classic status. “The Hours” is an intelligent, finely crafted piece that features the actress’s best work in two decades (though it’s still Nicole Kidman’s film, for my money), but there’s a certain softness of directorial vision there that keeps it in the second tier with a bunch of similar Streep vehicles, from “Sophie’s Choice” to “A Cry in the Dark” to “The Bridges of Madison County.”

It goes without saying that she’s wonderful in all of them, but one could be forgiven for wondering if she actually seeks scripts and collaborators where the filmmaking is less likely to interfere with her performance. I wrote recently that Streep seems less auteur-inclined than, say, a Nicole Kidman. The Onion article, however, points out that she rather has an odd tendency to work with major directors on minor films:

The annoying thing about all of this is that I’ve worked with directors who have produced some of the finest films in American cinema. I’m just not in any of them. I do a movie with Robert Altman, but it’s A Prairie Home Companion. Mike Nichols calls me up, not for Carnal Knowledge, but Heartburn. Does anyone in the world other than Mike Nichols own the DVD of Heartburn?

It’s a deliberately flippant piece, so no need to point out her superior Nichols collaborations — though I’d venture that even “Silkwood” falls just short of the canon. In her defence, however, I will add that she truly went out on a limb to work with Spike Jonze, yielding terrific work in the one film from her recent work that I’d say has a shot at garnering classic status one day.

And when you delve back further in her career, the Onion’s argument becomes harder to support — not least because they veer between the terms “classic” and “masterpiece,” which we all know are hardly one and the same. “Out of Africa” may be no masterpiece (I wouldn’t even call it a particularly good film), but it is an era-defining classic of sorts; on the flipside, the sensual, adventurously structured “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” hasn’t the following to claim classic status, but I would consider calling it a masterpiece.

If, however, “Streep” is looking for films that cover both bases, the earliest days of her career still throw up a few possibilities. There is a case to be made for the small but perfectly formed classic that is “Kramer vs. Kramer,” though I’d probably agree with her contention that it “isn’t really a masterpiece in the same way that, say, “The French Connection” or “On The Waterfront” is a masterpiece.” “Manhattan,” meanwhile, is a masterpiece by any definition — however small (but hilarious) Streep’s contribution, it’s an invaluable credit on her résumé.

All of which, finally, brings me to “The Deer Hunter”: not only handily the best film of Streep’s career (and one of her subtlest, most undervalued performances too), but a cast-iron masterpiece of American cinema, bristling with social currency and formal and thematic challenges. (It’s a personal Top 20 entry, I’ll admit.) Michael Cimino’s film may have its detractors, but it’s still going to be watched and studied decades hence — whether or not it’s the title audiences most immediately connect with the career of America’s foremost actress.

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42 responses so far

  • 1 8-28-2009 at 6:10 pm

    Danny said...

    The Deer Hunter is also a personal favorite of mine. One of the most emotionally affecting films I’ve ever seen. Certainly the best of Streep’s career, although I did also enjoy Doubt very much.

    I think that The Deer Hunter could also be De Niro’s most unrecognized work. People hear Robert De Niro, and they automatically think Scorsese, while his work in this film seems a little bit underrated, even though he got a nomination.

  • 2 8-28-2009 at 6:50 pm

    Tim Strain said...

    C’mon, “Adaptation.” is the best movie she has ever been a part of.

  • 3 8-28-2009 at 7:32 pm

    JAB said...

    I feel the exact opposite about her work in 2002, I thought her performance shone brighter than Kidman’s in The Hours, and her own in Adaptation.

  • 4 8-28-2009 at 8:15 pm

    brian said...

    The Onion piece is pretty great, even if it omits some of her better roles for the sake of comedy. It gets a lot of things right. Kramer vs. Kramer really is more Dustin Hoffman’s vehicle than hers, and Sophie’s Choice may sport the best female performance since The Passion of Joan of Ark, but as a whole it’s not the masterpiece we’d all like it to be.

    Like everyone else here, apparently, I think The Deer Hunter is one of the best films ever made, and certainly the best Vietnam movie. Yes, I put it above Apocalypse Now, though I think I’m in the minority there. But her role is nearly a cameo, just as it is in Manhattan so it’s hardly fair to say that those are Meryl Streep’s masterpieces, given that they wouldn’t have suffered any loss of quality without her involvement.

    She’s terrific in Postcards from the Edge, A Cry in the Dark, The River Wild, Ironweed, Silkwood, and any number of other great films. But I have to agree with Meryl here, as much as I hate to say it. Meryl Streep’s masterpiece has yet to be made, though “The dingo’s got my baby” is clearly a line for the ages.

  • 5 8-28-2009 at 8:32 pm

    davidraider88 said...

    The Deer Hunter is also a personal top 20 entry of mine. I, like Danny, agree that she was good and that its an underrated DeNiro performance (maybe my favorite of his after Raging Bull). Manhattan is also a personal top 20 entry of mine, and Streep in her couple scenes is very good in it.

  • 6 8-28-2009 at 9:27 pm

    slayton said...

    I agree with her – I don’t believe she’s ever been in a ‘masterpiece’.

    But I wouldn’t call ‘Prime’ an embarrassment, Guy – the film itself is quite well-written and, despite a cheap dissatisfying ending, quite a lot of fun. The acting is good all around but for me Streep is the standout – her comic timing in this film is absolutely perfect, and 100% better than, say, “The Devil Wears Prada” or “Julie & Julia”.

    I think she’s very good in “Adaptation” but that film is an infuriating piece of celebrity self-worshipping tripe… I can’t imagine it being hailed as a masterpiece. Same with “The Deer Hunter”, where the direction is incredibly inconsistent and the film’s moods poorly telegraphed. She annoyed me in “The Hours”, though – I think pretty much every woman in that film gives a better performance.

    She’s deservedly legendary in “Sophie’s Choice”, of course. Still haven’t seen “Evil Angels” so I’ll hold my tongue. I don’t buy the ‘greatest working actress’ hype, but she’s a talent and definitely a smart, shrewd actor and businessperson.

  • 7 8-28-2009 at 10:15 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Thank goodness I’m not the one who has to be the “asshole” (as I usually am) and be the first to say that I would not call The Deer Hunter a masterpiece, either. Great acting and some compelling moments, but it’s also very overwrought and poorly edited. In fact, this may be one of the worst edited Great Films I’ve ever seen.

    Still, it does have its moments, and I don’t mind it winning Best Picture, though I would have chosen Days of Heaven.

  • 8 8-28-2009 at 10:26 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    I think it’s pretty safe to say ‘Lions for Lambs’ is going to go down as her Masterpiece.

    did anybody see that? was she any good in it?

  • 9 8-28-2009 at 11:45 pm

    brian said...

    She was good in Lions for Lambs, but that scene was pretty much owned by Tom Cruise. He had the bigger, showier part and did a great job, so it’s hard to stand out when her role was the understated reporter feeding him lines for his monologues.

    That was also the only good section of the movie. Otherwise, it blows.

  • 10 8-29-2009 at 1:51 am

    Brooke said...

    Are we allowed to cheat and say Angels in America?

  • 11 8-29-2009 at 2:11 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    @Tim Strain: The best from the last three decades, I’ll give you that.

    @Brian: Come on, Streep’s role in “The Deer Hunter” is a lot more than a cameo. (Thanks to the invaluable geekery of Nathaniel Rogers, I can inform you all that she’s in it for 45 minutes.)

    @Slayton: Sorry, I really thought “Prime” excruciating … and Streep terrible in it. Thurman was (only moderately) better, in my opinion.

    @Brooke: Of course you are, though it still doesn’t make the grade for me … I thought it really went off the rails after a terrific first part. By the way, am I the only one who thinks Patrick Wilson owns everyone in it?

  • 12 8-29-2009 at 3:22 am

    Jane said...

    Her role in “The Deer Hunter” was far from being a 5 minute cameo. After Robert De Niro, her part was the largest.

  • 13 8-29-2009 at 4:06 am

    Mike said...

    Am I the only one who’s getting sick and tired of her.

  • 14 8-29-2009 at 4:25 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    As much as I admire the brilliance with which Streep has managed her career of late, I sort of see where you’re coming from, Mike.

    Let me put it more diplomatically: I wouldn’t mind if a few of her similarly gifted contemporaries got anything like the same amount of attention. (And roles.) Sissy Spacek, anyone? Jessica Lange? No?

  • 15 8-29-2009 at 4:37 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    How about Joan Allen?

  • 16 8-29-2009 at 5:11 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Quite. Plenty of great over-50 actresses to go round.

  • 17 8-29-2009 at 5:29 am

    El Rocho said...

    Personally, I feel this talk of ‘The Deer Hunter’ being one of her finest roles is ludacris. Sure, she was good in it, but she’s done so many better roles.
    She was far superior in The French Lieutenants Woman, SIlkwood, Ironweed, The River Wild (her most underrated to date), Postcards from the Edge (her most humerous role), Marvin’s Room, One True Things. She was even great in A Series of Unfortunate Events. But I would not put The Deer Hunter, nor Manhattan, though she was fine and capable in each role, as some of her finest moments.
    But then again…that’s just me.

  • 18 8-29-2009 at 5:49 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Personally, I feel this talk of ‘The Deer Hunter’ being one of her finest roles is ludacris.”

    I don’t think anyone has actually said that so far. We’re talking films, not roles.

    And “Ludacris” is the rapper, “ludicrous” is the word. ;)

  • 19 8-29-2009 at 6:28 am

    Mark Kratina said...

    Out of Africa not a good film? Come on, Guy.

  • 20 8-29-2009 at 6:43 am

    El Rocho said...

    Tooshay, Guy ;)

  • 21 8-29-2009 at 7:38 am

    Bill M. said...

    OK, I’m not sure how many of you folk are aware of this but ‘The Onion’ is a satirical newspaper. I haven’t read the article you are discussing but I’m positive it follows the line of the newspaper’s history of being satire pieces.

    WOW I can’t believe so many people took that article seriously. I’ve been reading The Onion for years so I’m just a little overwhelmed that some people aren’t aware of it.

  • 22 8-29-2009 at 7:38 am

    John H. Foote said...

    OI believe “Sophie’s Choice” is one of the most under appreciated films ever made — yep, she won her Oescar for Best Actress (incredibly the only one) but the film is extraordinary, a loyal and remarkable adaptation of a superb book with flawless performances from not only Streep, but Kevin Kine and Peter McNichol — the cinematography is marvelous, why, why, why is this film not hgher regarded? — I have not seen a better performance…ever than Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” and she has indeed been in more than a single materpiece — Anyone out there remember Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”? By my count she should have four Academy Awards for Best Actress and two for Best Supporting…but that’s just me.

  • 23 8-29-2009 at 7:50 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Mark: I’m sorry, but “Out of Africa” bores me rigid. As beautifully crafted and well-acted as it is, the narrative is sheer candyfloss. But like I said, it has its place in history.

    Bill: Yes, I think most of us are aware of The Onion’s schtick. But truth can lie in satire.

    John: Interestingly, “Sophie’s Choice” weighed in at #91 on the AFI’s last Top 100 Movies list, which I think came as a surprise to many. So there are obviously a lot of people who agree with you.

  • 24 8-29-2009 at 8:02 am

    The Other James D. said...

    I love Kramer vs. Kramer, no matter what anyone’s gripe may be about it beating Apocalypse Now for BP. The Deer Hunter is an amazing film I have got to see in full ASAP. I have always loved Adaptation.. And I recently saw Sophie’s Choice and thoroughly enjoyed it, though I understand its flaws. It’s still legendary and she’s tremendous, so that alone makes it a semi-masterpiece.

  • 25 8-29-2009 at 9:31 am

    rickets said...

    angels in america. angels in america. angels in america. angels in america.

  • 26 8-29-2009 at 9:51 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Does it matter if this sentiment were true? She’s a larger than life figure in film – I have no doubt (pun intended) that’s main reason for Katharine Hepburn’s open distain – “I can see you acting click–click–click.”

  • 27 8-29-2009 at 9:52 am

    Patryk said...

    I agree with John. I believe her Sophie is as good as Leigh’s Blanche. And surely “Manhattan” is a masterpiece, and Streep’s small role is perfectly played. I recently saw “Ironweed” again and found her work there to also be one of her best.

  • 28 8-29-2009 at 10:50 am

    Jesse said...

    THANK YOU!! I’ve been championing The Deer Hunter since I first saw it, and still wonder why I have to. One of the most haunting and stunning portrayals both on American small-town life and Vietnam. Meryl, though not a lead, delivered a brilliant performance (not easy to do when opposite DeNiro in prime form). It is her classic.

  • 29 8-29-2009 at 10:59 am

    Eunice said...

    @Mike and Guy: I know where you’re coming from. There are a lot of 50+ actresses out there who have the same or at least approximate the same kind of talent that Streep has. I mean, after “Damages,” I’m a little frustrated that Glenn Close isn’t being offered more roles.

    The thing is, though, this whole thing about her being in the spotlight in her 60s, is also largely due to business. It just happened that she did “The Devil Wears Prada” and that earned a lot, so they’ve been getting her for more movies ever since.

  • 30 8-29-2009 at 11:12 am

    Nathan said...

    Death becomes her. Point made

  • 31 8-29-2009 at 11:23 am

    Markus said...

    Guy, Meryl’s so called “throw-away” role in Julie and Julia will most likely win her a 3rd Oscar.

  • 32 8-29-2009 at 11:30 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Again, talking about the film, not the role.

  • 33 8-29-2009 at 2:44 pm

    Edward L. said...

    I think some of her best performances were The Deer Hunter, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Silkwood, Out of Africa, The Bridges of Madison County and Adaptation. I thought she was especially vulnerable in the last of these.

    Out of Africa is underrated, in my opinion – not just her contribution to it, but the film as a whole. While it’s very glossy and lush and I can see that those things make it look less than serious and profound, I think the dialogue scenes between her and Redford are really good – the discussions about possessiveness in particular. And the relationship she has with Klaus Maria Brandauer as her wayward husband is terrific. It’s one of those films that perhaps doesn’t play too well in the memory, but every time I watch it, I am totally drawn in.

  • 34 8-29-2009 at 4:02 pm

    Mike said...

    @ John H. Foote. What would be the four best actress awards for? (obviously one is Sophie’s Choice, and the two supporting one’s are Kramer vs. Kramer and Adaptation)? I would say Silkwood, A Cry in the Dark, and The Bridges of Madsison County, maybe The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Out of Africa).

  • 35 8-29-2009 at 4:31 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Personally (picking only from the nominees given each year) I’d gave awarded her for The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood and A Cry in the Dark.

  • 36 8-29-2009 at 8:46 pm

    Louis said...

    By no means a masterpiece, but I think that Postcards From the Edge is a great film, not just a great Meryl performance.

  • 37 8-30-2009 at 3:24 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Mike — “Sophie’s Choice”, ‘Out of Africa”, “A Cry in the Dark”, and “Doubt” — supporting for “Kramer vs Kramer” and “Adaptation” and she should have got nominated for ‘The Manchurian Candidate”…fucking chilling…

  • 38 8-30-2009 at 3:30 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    For “Out of Africa?” Over Geraldine Page and Whoopi Goldberg? Not even close for me.

  • 39 8-30-2009 at 5:22 pm

    Patryk said...

    Geraldine Page most deservedly won for “Trip to Bountiful.” That was one case of the Academy getting it right for the performance, not for the sentimentality.

  • 40 8-31-2009 at 6:38 am

    Andrew said...

    I think she was much better than Kidman in The Hours, but Kidman got the campaign behind her and didn’t have any Oscars at that point, plus, being Meryl a lead in The Hours [Yes, a lead, she even has more screen time than Kidman], the producers didn’t want to cancel each other out of the competition by campaigning for the already two time Oscar winner.

    I think The Deer Hunter, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Out of Africa, Silkwood, Sophie’s Choice, Manhattan, The Hours and Adaptation are all masterpieces, no matter what you think.

    They were all critically aclaimed by pretty much everyone in the industry.

  • 41 8-31-2009 at 8:56 am

    alluhrey said...

    i think it was meryl herself who asked something to the effect that “who votes for those, anyway” referring to some list of 100 greatest films.

    it’s men and by men’s standards that those lists of “greatest” or “masterpieces” are formed.

    “big f*#king deal!”, i imagine meryl streep saying wryly.

  • 42 9-05-2009 at 3:27 pm

    Ivan said...

    Meryl’s worst movie is definitely BEFORE AND AFTER! And considering the source material I always thought of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY as true masterpiece!