Saturday 20 January 2018

Streep's iron will

Oh, Maggie: Streep, in
character, bears a
striking resemblance
to the Iron Lady
Oh, Maggie: Streep, in character, bears a striking resemblance to the Iron Lady

Later this year, Meryl Streep will play Margaret Thatcher in a political biopic called The Iron Lady. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who also directed Streep in Mamma Mia!, the film will focus on the events surrounding Thatcher's decision to go to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands invasion.

In an on-set photo that was released last week, Streep in character bears a remarkable resemblance to Thatcher circa 1982. The distinctive beehive hairdo, twin set and handbag are in evidence of course, but it's Streep's expression and bearing that really catch the eye.

With her head jutting forward, lips parted and eyebrows quizzically raised, the actress captures perfectly the distinctive mix of steeliness and femininity that made Thatcher such a compelling public figure.

There's been some scepticism in the UK about the idea of an American playing the three-term prime minister, and Thatcher's children Mark and Carol have muttered darkly about the film's script rewriting history -- she's not sufficiently right wing in it, apparently.

But one thing is certain: Meryl Streep will deliver an extraordinary performance in The Iron Lady, because she never does anything different. And that photo of her in Thatcher mode is a reminder of just how versatile and chameleon-like an actress Streep is.

In the 1980s her portrayal of a bewildering array of characters led to comparisons with Robert De Niro, her co-star in The Deer Hunter. But unlike De Niro, Streep has continued challenging herself as she's gotten older, and she's done some of her very best work in recent years.

In the past four years or so she has played a Cruella De Vil-type fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada, a cynical CIA official in the Iraq War thriller Rendition, a singing Greek island hotelier in the smash hit musical Mamma Mia! and a pragmatic New York nun in the acclaimed drama Doubt.

Time and again over her long career she has proved that no role is beyond her reach, and as she faces into her 60s she seems to be busier than ever.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Streep studied drama at Yale and Vassar before heading to New York in the mid-1970s to embark on the hard slog of off-Broadway plays.

It was in Michael Cimino's Oscar-winning 1978 anti-war saga The Deer Hunter that Streep first got noticed. The 28-year-old more than held her own in a heavyweight cast that included De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and her then-boyfriend John Cazale -- even writing her own lines to flesh out her role as Walken's anxious girlfriend.

After The Deer Hunter, Streep's career took off with phenomenal speed. In 1979 alone, she was Woody Allen's glacial ex-wife in his magnificent comedy Manhattan; played Alan Alda's muse in his political drama The Seduction of Joe Tynan; and won her first Oscar -- Best Supporting Actress -- for her performance opposite Dustin Hoffman in the hit legal drama Kramer vs Kramer.

But it was in the early 1980s that she first revealed her extraordinary ability to immerse herself in unlikely characters. She took a big risk appearing with an all-English cast in the complex period drama The French Lieutentant's Woman in 1981, but did a brilliantly job playing a mysterious fallen Victorian woman, and her English accent was widely admired.

Her work in Alan J Paluka's Sophie's Choice, in 1982, was even more remarkable; she won a Best Actress Oscar playing a Polish immigrant in post-war America who is traumatised by her memories of Auschwitz.

Sophie Zawistowski is secretive about her past, but it eventually emerges that she was persecuted by the Nazis because of her husband's resistance activities, and in a harrowing flashback we see her being forced to choose which of her two small children will live and which will die.

Streep was attractive without being conventionally pretty, and was a film star who had the nerve to behave like a character actress. She was not vain, and alternated the romantic sumptuousness of a film like Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa (1985) by playing a toothless tramp opposite Jack Nicholson in Ironweed (1987).

There were those who thought her acting overly technical. According to Katharine Hepburn's biographer, the Hollywood legend was not a Streep fan: "click, click, click", Hepburn apparently said, referring to the wheels you could feel turning in Streep's head.

Then again, Hepburn was prone to such pronouncements: she once said that Glenn Close's feet were too big for her to be taken seriously as an actress.

Streep's adoption of difficult accents was lampooned by some: for instance her Australian accent in the dingo-ate-my-baby drama A Cry in the Dark (1988) is generally considered not to have been up to muster.

However, it's interesting that no one ever poked much fun at De Niro for his comparably meticulous attention to detail.

Streep has always done things her own way, refusing to bow to studio pressure to enhance her appearance as she has aged, yet somehow managing that rarest of feats for an actress -- remaining relevant and bankable into late middle age.

After -- by her high standards -- a bit of a slump in the mid-1990s, she returned to form in the early 2000s with fine performances in films such as The Hours (2002) and Jonathan Demme's 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, in which she gleefully assumed Angela Lansbury's villainous role.

Since then she has expanded her repertoire by appearing in comedies such as The Devil Wears Prada, rom coms such as It's Complicated, and has even ventured into musical territory with Mamma Mia!, in which she sang her own songs.

Streep holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations, having been nominated 16 times since The Deer Hunter in 1979. Remarkably, she's only won twice, for Sophie's Choice and Kramer vs Kramer, but she's considered a god by her peers, and at this stage has absolutely nothing left to prove.

But still Streep keeps pushing herself, and if The Iron Lady turns out to be yet another triumph, no one will be very surprised.


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