Meryl Streep just scored her 18th Oscar nomination with August: Osage County, a benchmark she'd probably acknowledge with a self-deprecating eye roll. She's not one to applaud her own achievements. In fact, she has spent her 37-year career doing the opposite, writing off her hits as just good roles that happened to be available when she wasn't preoccupied with her four children. But Streep's humility may actually be her strategy for surviving Hollywood, argues Karina Longworth, former L.A. Weekly film editor and critic, and author of the new book Anatomy of an Actor: Meryl Streep.
By playing coy, Streep was feminism's great, subliminal advocate — even when she didn't like the script. From the tossed-around girlfriend in The Deer Hunter to Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, she tested the limits of what her women could accomplish, and she called on audiences to root for them to accomplish even more.
Starting Jan. 24, Longworth will host a week of Streep films at the New Beverly, starting with a can't-miss double bill of Death Becomes Her and She-Devil. But first, Longworth (a friend, in full disclosure) tells us about the secret Streep we never knew: firebrand, tactician, enemy of Madonna.
L.A. WEEKLY: You open the book talking about what Streep called her first acting job: playing dumb in high school so boys would like her.
KARINA LONGWORTH: She's referred to that several times as her first role. I think she sort of replicated that role-playing in Hollywood at the beginning of her career. There's not much difference between high school and male-dominated Hollywood: In both cases, you can get away with more if you fool them into thinking that you're docile and submissive.
Yet she had a casual way of making a point. When People asked if she was a feminist, she said, “Why not?” And in her movies, which were mostly written and directed by men, she told a woman's story within that story.
And she found ways to make those characters more fully realized than any other actress was doing at any of the times that she's worked.
Her recent speech slamming Walt Disney shocked people, but it has a precedent. In 1990 at the Screen Actors Guild National Woman's Conference, she said that women had only 29 percent of that year's roles.
That was a super-controversial speech. It was considered by the industry that she was biting the hand that fed her by daring to raise the bare statistics of the percentage of roles for women. She also got a lot of criticism for saying in interviews that she thought she was as famous as Jack Nicholson, yet she didn't make as much money.
Still, the most surprising quote I read in your book was when Meryl said she was so mad that Madonna was playing Evita that she wanted to “rip her throat out.”
I know! When you do a deep research dive on somebody, you find things that you never suspected. I never knew Meryl had been cast in Evita years before the movie got made. But after she backed out voluntarily, Madonna snatched the role.
That must be the meanest thing she's ever said.
Maybe the meanest thing she's ever been quoted on.
You dig into her awareness of a Meryl Streep brand. What do you think that is?
I think it's changed over time. In the '80s, it was this idea of a serious picture, which hit its high point with Out of Africa, which was so huge that the only place she could go was down.
She cried when she saw Out of Africa.
She didn't like it. She's said that she was surprised that it was the huge hit that it was — it was zeitgeist-defining. It was the kind of hit that's going to cause a backlash, and unfortunately she bore the brunt of it. A fatigue had set in that everything she did was So Important. Then she hit this era when she was turning 40 and picking movies that were unpopular, comedies like She-Devil and Death Becomes Her. It could be because her lightening-up had a desperate air to it, or that the material she was choosing was pretty bitingly satiric and critical of the patriarchy and the industry.
Death Becomes Her is the only movie where she really dove into special effects.
She didn't like them. I guess she's done more makeup effects than anything.
Unless you count her voice as a special effect. But she's probably sick of hearing about her accents.
Yeah, she is. I make the case in the book that she started to get her footing back in 1995 with The Bridges of Madison County.
Even though she called the original novel a “crime against literature.”
That's a good example of how she could suss out the limitations of the material and then figure out ways to elevate it. But she really turned a corner in 2002 with movies like Adaptation — she seemed to have let go of something that was holding her back.
What do you think that was?
She's definitely talked about feeling changed by the Bush administration, feeling that she didn't want to keep her opinions to herself anymore. Her kids were getting older. All of her kids moved out of the house and that freed her up to be more selective about the movies she took.
One of the consistent, dismissive things she says of her career is that she just took whatever roles were offered when she wasn't pregnant.
She was raised during that time when women were taught not to take credit for things. You see her behaving that way for the first 10 years of her career, really until that SAG speech in 1989. And then when she starts breaking out of that shell, it's badly received.
After she had hits like The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia!, she's talking about how the older you get, the less you worry about accommodating what other people want. If there's one thing that explains why she's become this huge movie star in her 60s, that might be it: She just doesn't give a fuck anymore.
MERYL STREEP: ANATOMY OF AN ACTRESS | New Beverly | Jan. 24-29 | newbevcinema.com