The grander a dame she becomes, the worse Meryl Streep's films get

Sat, Mar 3, 2012, 00:00

CULTURE SHOCK:IN THE RUN-UP to the Oscars, film companies place ads in venerable American newspapers highlighting the movies that feature their nominees. In the case of The Iron Lady, the ads featured Meryl Streep. The line they took was that the grande dame of Hollywood had not won an Oscar since 1983.

 This, the reader was to understand, was an outrage in itself. The import was not merely that the academy owed her an award but that it owed her an abject apology – which she duly and graciously accepted.

Yet The Iron Ladyis a dreadful film, and not in spite of Streep but largely because of her. It is bad on two fronts. One is the creepy way it manipulates an illness: progressive dementia is used, cheaply, as a kind of political metaphor, though it is hard to know exactly for what. The other is that it is lazily constructed, with no real dramatic arc and barely a narrative worth the name. Whatever one thinks of her, Thatcher is a figure of historical importance. But the film lacks any capacity to create moments at which the personal and historic are genuinely fused.

The overall feel is that Phyllida Lloyd was interested in making a film about Alzheimer’s, hung it on a well-known public figure and ended up with something that works as neither a medical nor a political drama.

So the standard conclusion would be that Streep deserves all the more praise for triumphing in a dud movie. But surely the truth is the reverse: it is Streep that allows a movie as bad as this to be made. Meryl Streep doesn’t appear in movies (except when she’s self-consciously slumming it, as in Mamma Mia!); movies appear for Meryl Streep. Her power and skill enable mediocrity to thrive.

There is now a discernible Streep Effect on movie-making, and it is entirely negative. In the case of The Iron Ladythe question posed is not “What is this film about?” but “Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher: what’s not to love?”

Who needs a decent script or a real sense of purpose when you’ve got our greatest diva pulling off another of her breathtaking feats of impersonation? Or, to pose it another way: has Streep ever made a great movie? I really can’t think of one. The nearest thing is The Deer Hunter– and it’s not nearly as great as Doubt, for example, is awful. In fact, the grander a Hollywood personage she has become, the worse her movies have been. After Ironweed, in 1987, there’s little that’s not pedestrian.

Surely someone of her stature should have at least one splendid film in her career. Streep has now won more best-actress Oscars than, to take just four near-contemporaries, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Holly Hunter or Maggie Smith. It’s easy to think of searing lead performances by those actors in outstanding movies: Redgrave in Wetherby; Jackson in Women in Love; Hunter in Raising Arizona; Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Conversely, while all of these actors have done some dross, it’s doubtful whether any of them can match the sheer weight of mediocre movies on Streep’s CV.

There’s surely a reason for this. And it’s almost certainly not that Streep doesn’t get offered top-class scripts. It’s that she appears very largely in movies that can become vehicles for her skills. One can think of many star actresses – Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandalcomes to mind – who will submerge themselves in films bigger than themselves. But Streep has to be bigger than the movie, to the point where she can become, in effect, a substitute for it.

In 1895 George Bernard Shaw wrote a superb review of two superstar actresses, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse – in the same role in a now-forgotten play. Duse, he wrote, created effects “you feel rather than see”. But Bernhardt’s art was “not the art of making you think more highly or feel more deeply, but the art of making you admire her, pity her, champion her, weep with her, laugh at her jokes, follow her fortunes breathlessly, and applaud her wildly when the curtain falls. It is the art of finding out all your weaknesses and practising on them – cajoling you, harrowing you, exciting you – on the whole, fooling you. And it is always Sarah Bernhardt in her own capacity who does this to you. The dress, the title of the play, the order of the words may vary, but the woman is always the same. She does not enter into the leading character; she substitutes herself for it.”

Streep is today’s Bernhardt. She is not, granted, “always the same” – film, unlike theatre, doesn’t allow that – but she is always Meryl Streep. She does not make you “feel rather than see”. There is not a moment when she is not practising “the art of making you admire her”. There is a great deal to admire. Her technical gifts are prodigious – but prodigious in the manner of a wonderfully sculpted monumental tomb, its dazzling exterior finery containing a nothingness.

Her performances do not enter into a character; they consume it. They are about the creation of a brilliant simulacrum, a convincing replicant. Her people are cyborgs crafted by a genius, with all the features of a human being (the accent, the hair, the gestures) except the humanity. Her creatures are too perfect. They lack the cracks through which, to adapt Leonard Cohen, the light gets in – and out.

Even with good dramatic material, Streep can suck the life out of a movie, as she does in, for example, Pat O’Connor’s film of Dancing at Lughnasa. With the bad material she increasingly favours, her great sophistication serves only to bring acting back to its most primitive urge: hey, everybody, look at me.