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As we’ve covered Meryl’s motion picture debut last week, this Sunday we spotlight her first television appearance – in the 1977 drama “The Deadliest Season”. New screencaptures have been added to the gallery and a clip can be found in the video archive. Production notes and review after the cut. As always, please share your thoughts on “The Deadliest Season” in the comments.
Success was the name of his game. Then one day he went too far… and it wasn’t a game anymore. Michael Moriarty stars as a popular defenseman whose take-no-prisoners approach to the game results in the serious – and ultimately fatal – injury of another player. He remais outwardly blase about the whole affair, chalking it off to the fortunes of hockey. But an equally ruthless DA charges Moriarty with aggravated assault with a “deadly weapon”. In “The Deadliest Season”, Meryl Streep makes her television debut as Moriarty’s conscience-ridden wif. Moriarty and Streep have first worked together in the 1971 stage production of “The Playboy of Seville”. And Herbert Brodkin, producer of “The Deadliest Season”, was so impressed with bother their performances that he cast them together again in his controversial miniseries “Holcoaust”, which earned them both Primetime Emmy Awards.
Moriarty remembers Meryl as being “especially nervous on the set. She’d bite her fingers and twirl her hair. I liked her, though. Anybody who was putting that kind of effort into a TV movie was a serious player. And she was just getting her feet wet”. Her part was small. Meryl played Sharon, the loving spouse of Moriarty, a professional hockey player who is pressured into provoking brutal fights on the ice to increase the excitement of the game. Like “The Deer Hunter”, its target audience was men. But this was still television, where subtlety is more feared than sex. Meryl had to utter lines that thudded harder than a fall on the ice. Still, she made them work. “When I watched you in a game it turned me on,” she tells Moriarty. Her delivery is quiet and slow, as if she is searching for better words to tell her husband that she loves him. When she can’t come up with them, the effect is poignant. When “The Deadliest Season” first aired over NBC in March 1977, John J. O’Connor of The New York Times extended lavish praise on this dramatic indictment of the savagary in hockey. “At a time when television is being seriously and widely questioning about its own violent content, “The Deadliest Season” is an especially noteworthy presentation for a major network,” he wrote. “Beyond that, this is an exceptionally impressive production”.
The story of “The Deadliest Season” feels as current as it has probably always been. A proffesional hockey player tries to climb up the ladder and uses unfair methods against the other players for the sake of his career, something that can be projected on every job these days. The story is told straight, and Michael Moriarty plays the central character just at that. At times you wish his portrayal was a bit more symphatetic so you could care more, but for most of the time, he’s the last to realise the mistakes he did. Meryl’s performance as his wife feels unnecessary throughout. As with most films in the sports genre, the “wife” role is there to show that the leading man has a normal private life, but she doesn’t have much to do beyond that. Her dialogue is odd at times, and I’m sure this is a part Meryl wouldn’t have accepted at another time in her career. Still, it’s no failure. She works around the dialogue and has a nice dramatic scene at the end of the film. Also, this appearance has lead to her leading role in “Holocaust”, which became her breakthrough on film, so “The Deadliest Season”, if not an interesting gig for Meryl, has at least lead to bigger things. The film is recommended to everyone interested in icehockey or adecent courtroom drama.