What Makes Meryl Magic
September 1981 / Written by John Skow
Actress Streep brings passion and skill to her richest role yetThe camera sees gray clouds, a churning gray sea, the spray-lashed stones of a harboe breakwater, and at the breakwater's end, facing seaward, the cloaked and motionless figure of a woman. A storm is blowing up. There is danger. A passerby, a tall, mustached young man, maked his way out along the breakwater to warn the solitary watcher. Ove rthe rising wind he calls out to her that she is not safe. Now the mysterious figure turns, plucks aisde the rough cloth of her hood and stares at the man, or through him, for a few moments. Then she turns again, having found no reason to speak, and once more looks out to sea. The young man, confused and troubled by what he has seen in her face, rejoins his fiancée, with whom he has been strolling, and retreats distractedly to the solidity of the shore.
This moody and romantic tableau, which is instantly recognizable as the opening scene of John Fowle's novel "The French Lieutnan't Woman", is a cinematographer's delight. The breakwater exists, just as Fowles describes it, at Lyme Regis, the small English seacost town of which he wrote. A film company needs only to go to there, dress its actors in the costumes of 1867 (the story is a 19th century period piece, seen with irony through the filter of 20th century conceptions and misconceptions) and wait for dirty water. All true, with only one complication: the look that Sarah Woodruff, the distraught figure on the breakwater, directs at Charles Smithson, the aristocratic young idler who approaches her there, must be so devastating that his comfortable life tumbles into chaos. He must, as the result of this unexpected collision with a woman of whom he knows nothing, begin a slide that leads him to jilt his wealthy fiancée, confess publicity to dishonor and lead the life of a lonely exile.
Clearly nothing as simple as mere beauty, or sensuality, or torment, or any ordinary combination of these qualities will reduce both Charles and cynical 20th century filmgoers to the requisite mush. Fowles uses a good many words and some carefully worked literary effects to evoke Sarah's strangeness: "It was an unforgettable face, and a tragic face. Its sorrow welled out of it as purely naturally and unstoppably as water out of a woodland spring. There was no artifice there, no hypocrisy, no hysterica, no mask; and above all, no sign of madness. The madness was in the empty sea, the empty horizon, the lack of reason for such sorrow." Does that do it? No, Fowles ist not yet satisfied, and he goes back to work. "Again and again, afterwards, Charles thought of that look as a lance; and to think so is of course not merely to describe an object but the effects it has."
A screenwriter, on the other hand, can give the cinematic Sarah no help at all. She must lance Charles on her own, without the assistance of metaphor, and without a line to speak. Worse, she must do it wearing unflattering makeup, eyes and nose reddened from the rough weather and, perhaps, from weeping. An actress, who can manage this adequately is a remarkable technician. One who can do it well is a rarity of the sort who comes along once or twice in a decade. What Charles sees when the cloaked woman turns toward him is an alarming, elemental Sarah who blows through the film like a sea storm, a Sarah who defines the role for all time. Her name is Meryl Streep.
There is a sensible tradition among movie people to say, always that the actors who are finally cast for a film wjere the only ones ever considered. This avoids needlessly affronting the actors who were considered but passed over, or admitting that some actors turned down the preferred parts. It also shields audiences from the dampening perception that they are getting second choices. In the case of the extraordinary new film "The French Lieutnant's Woman", however, when director Karel reisz swears that when he undertook the project he never thought of casting any other actress as Sarah, the tendency is not only to believe him, but to think, "Yes, of course, that's obvious."
What is remarkable about Meryl Streep's brief film career - Sarah is her first really big role - is that she has brought this same feeling of inevitability even to relatively minor parts. In "The Deer Hunter" she had only a few important scenes, but it requires a wrenching effort now to imagine another actress playing Linda, Christopher Walken's shy girlfriend. Casual television viewers, who cared not at all that she had made her reputation as a stage actress at the Yale School of Drama and at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York City, were struck by her potrayal of a gentile woman married to a Jew among the haunted faces of the "Holocaust" series. As Woody Allen's lesbian ex-wife in "Manhattan", she was chilling and funny, and an exquisite counterpoise to the agiated feminity of Diane Keaton. In "The Seduction of Joe Tynan", she was utterly convincing, cornpone accent and all, as the other woman, a Southern civil rights lawyer who falls in love with Alan Alda, a liberal Senator from New York. But to be convincing is merely to be competent, and Streep managed to give enough humanity to a routine role that when the cardbroad Senator predictably told her that he was returning to his cardboard wife, viewers worried about what would become of the seductress.
Well before she played Joanna, the wife who walks out on Dustin Hoffman and their son in "Kramer vs. Kramer", and astonishing public clamor had set up around this almost gawky-looking blond, all bones and angles. When "Kramer" opened, the outcry redoubled. Though the script was weighted too much toward sympathy for Hoffman and the boy, Streep brought the films back into balance. By playing Joanna as a woman baffled and hurt not simply by her husband's shortcomings but her own failures, she fave it a sublety it would not have otherwise possessed.
The reviews of "Kramer" were rapturous, and she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. But the din from feature writers eager to probe her personal life was oppressive to Streep, a private person who feels (following the fashion of Actor Robert De Niro and some lordly professional athletes) that newsprint could wrap fish even better if reporters did not go through the messy and wasteful process of putting ink on it. "Far a while there it was either me or the Ayatullah on the covers of national magazines," she says with no pleasure. "It was excessive hype." Of course, the line between excessive and hype and just the right amount of hype is difficult to draw in show business. But the excitement Streep stirs whenever she appears on a screen or a stage has nothing to do with puffery. It is a real, if sometimes clumsily eypressed, response to an artist of rare skill and presence. Film Maker Robert Benton, who directed Streep in "Kramer" and a thriller called "Stab", to be released next spring, calls her "one of a handfil of really great actresses." It is nearly impossible to find a knowledgeable person in the film and theater worlds who does not use superlatives when talking about her. "There's nothing, she can't do," Benton goes on. "Like De Niro she has no limits. I've watched Meryl over the years, and she's so staggeringly different in "Kramer" from the way she is in "Deer Hunter" - and try as I might, I can't figure out why. She has an immense backbone of technique, but you never catch her using it."
A viewer finds himslef watching Meryl Streep much more closely than he is accustomed to watching actresses. More seems to be going on. It is not simply that she manages to make her face an astonishing clear reflection of her character's complexities. It is not merely that this pale face, with its small, amused eyes and its long nose and curved as as a flensing knife (when she kissed Alan Alda injudiciously in "Tynan", this precarious nose displaced the flesh of his cheek up toward his eyeball), is poised fascinatingly between beauty and harshness. What maked the viewer sit forward in his seat is that Streep is so thoroughly a creature of change. Her expression is shadowed by a dizzying mutability. There is no doubt that in an instand this woman could take flight toward any state of emoting or mind.
In "The French Lieutnant's Woman", a film in which the sanity of ther 19th century character is in grave doubt, what Streep manages to convey when she is not speaking is extraordinary. She is pleased with the performance. "I luff effrythink I do, darlink," she says, giving a brief Zsa Zsa Garbor imitation. Then she lapses into the somewhat prosy shoptalk of a college-educated actress: "When I read the book, it elicited an emotional reaction in me and I determined to re-create it for someone else through thinking and design, thought and craft. The arc I designed for the character went up and happened." Then the arc-and-craft jargon drops away, and she says a bit, wistfully: "Watching the film, I couldn't help wishing that I was more beautiful. There comes a point when you have to look the part, especially in movies. In Victorian literature, passion, and illicit feeling, was always represented by darkness. I'm so fair that dark hair makes me look like some old fish, so I opted for auburn hair instead. I really wished I was the kind of actress who could have just stood there and said it all."
Streep's unusual looks give her, at 32, the flexibility to play anything from a hag to a beauty, and she is aware of this. "I know, I'm good-looking enough to play any of the women I usually play - individuals in the world. But for the character with her intense beauty, it wasn't enough." She laughs at herself. "I once went up for "King of the Gypsies", a Dino De Laurentius film. His son, who has since died (in July) in a plane crah, remarked to his father in Italian, "But she's not beautiful." It didn't bother me as much that she said it, as that he said it in Italian. I did Italian 105 at Vassar. I told him I understood him and that it didn't matter anyway. But I never forgot it. "What does he mean?" I told myself, "I was voted Best Looking in my high school.'"
The remark is made with airy irony, but the fact is that she went through an ugly-ducking stage in late childhood - glasses, fat cheeks, permed hair and a bossy, show-offy disposition, as she recalls it. "She was pretty ghastly," admits her younger brother "Third" (Harry Streep III), 30, a modern dancer, who heads the Third Dance Theater in Manhattan. It was by no means a terrible childhood, Streep says now. The family lived comfortably in a succession of pleasant New Yersey towns. Harry Streep II was a pharmaceutical executive, and his wife Mary Louise a commercial artist. The parents were "fond of us, to put it mildly; they thought we were the greatest thing ever born," says Meryl. The elder Streeps, now retired ans living in Mystic, Conn., were forever talking Merly and their two boys (Brother Dana, 28, is a bonds salesman who lives in New Yersey) to museums, the theater, the ballet and ball games. But Merly had few friends, and as far as anyone knew only one asset, a "nice, light, coloratura voice." At tweve she began talking singing lessons, in Manhattan with Voice Coach Estelle Liebling (and gradually became aware that the "nice lady who had the lesson before me, was Opera Star Beverly Sills).
Singing was not enough, however; a complete transformation was required. The passage of time and the ingestion of enough peanut butter sandwiches usually do transform twelve-year-old children, of course. But Streep sees what she calls "my makeover" as a willed act, accomplished with contact lenses, a bottle of peridoxide, and an iron determination. By the time she entered Bernards High School in Bernardsville, N.J., she had indeed become "the perfect Seventeen magazine knockout," acting our what she calls "my first characterization; I played the blond homecoming queen for several years." It was nit a mindless, giddy time, however: a highly developed sense of irony intruded, she says, with the result that "I haven't felt young since I was 13." But high school was an improvement. "I had friends, sort of." She was a cheerleader, she was popular with boys, and best of all, she was the star of all of the high school musical. She had seen "The Music Man" on Broadway and had fallen in love with Star Barbara Cook. Now at 15, she won the Cook role of Marian the lieberian.
If I can locate the moment when I was first bitten, that was it," says Meryl. "The whole audience stood up when I came out. Mind you, I've never had that experience since. It must be like what Lady Diana felt on the balcony." English teacher Jean Galbraith recalls dropping in on a rehearsal and hearing her sing "Till There Was You". "I thought, that can't be the kid in the first row who sits next to the windows? I mean that's professional, that's fantastic." Brother Third, who played Winthrop, Marian's little brother, says that there was some jealousy when she went on to get the leads in "Li'l Abner" and "Oklahoma". The present Bernards High drama teacher, a veteren road-company actor named Dick Everhart, happened to be applying for a job when Meryl played Laurie in Oklahoma. Her enormous natural gift was clear even then. Says he: "When she walked on the stage there was nobody else there."
Streep's career had begun, and its record since then has been a matter of theater people of increasing authority repeating those first cries of astonishment. She enrolled Vassar, then a college for women. In the nonconformist atmosphere of the late 1960s she was able to slop around in jeans, with an old feld hat pulled down her ears and drop her pom-pom girl impersonation for good. She established herself quickly as an actress at Vassar. She never seemed to care especially about being a star, recalls Clinton Atkinson, who directed her in the demandling lead role of Strindberg's "Miss Julie". But it was clear that she would go beyond college theater. "Onstage," says Atkinson, "something happened within her that glowed. Men were always falling in love with her. I found her acting hair raising, absolutely mind-boggling."
After Vassar she toured Vermont colleges and ski areas for a few months with the Green Mountain Guild, a rep company, playing Shaw and Chekhov for $48 a week - "and it wasn't even the Depression." The she made her commitment, ans hent off an application to the Yale School of Drama. Yale awarded her a three-year scholarship and, as it turned out, the privilege of playing twelve to 15 roles a year.
"It was terribly intense," she says now. "Those years made me tired, crazy, nervous. I was contantly throwing up, on my way to an ucler." She loathed the infighting for roles, she says; but she got the roles. Robert Lewis, a Yale drama professor, recalls a scene she did playing Alma in Tennessee William's "Summer and Smoke". "It was certainly the best I ever saw that part played, and that's a reaction you don't usually feel when acting students do scenes, you know. It was so clinical you could hardly look at it. It was like looking into somebody's life." He recalls her flying about a wheelchair, playing a crazy, octogenarian translator of Russian literature in a Christopher Durang play. "It was really the most imaginative farcial performance I've ever seen."
By the time this favored child of a dozen college directors received her degree from Yale in 1975, she was, in that odd way common to sensitive people who have received a great deal of praise, choking on success. "I resign myself to being lousy on opening nights," she says. "It's not getting easier, but harder. You look out and see people with pads in their laps judging you." That the judgements are nearly always ecstatic does not really help. She seems uncomfortable with the fact she was praised so highly (she received an Obie award) for her rousing performance last winter in a Public Theater musical "Alice in Concert", for which the playwright, her friend Elizabeth Swados, was roundly panned. "It's insane to have winners and losers in art. We live in a society plagued by sports mania. To say that one performance is better than another is just plain bumb. You wouldn't think of comparing two colors in a painting, would you; this blue is better tham that blue?"
As a matter of fact, yes, you would. And Streep's remarkable parade of successes marched without a pause from Yale to New York. It does not seem accurate to speak of lucky breaks. Streep talked herself into a Public Theater audition for Pinero's "Trelawny of the Wells" and Impresario Joe Papp asked her to play a featured part. But the truth surely is that it it had not been Papp who took her in hand, it would have been some other director. The "Trelawny" role was followed by a spectacular success at Manhattan's Phoenix Theater, when she played two utterly different characters on the same evening, a sexy secretary in Arthur Miller's one-act "A Memory of Two Mondays1" and a 170-ln. floozie in Tennessee William's "27 Wagons Full of Cotton". Playgoers were shocked to realise that they were seeing the same actress. "That sort of thing is done all the time," she says now, "but to do it on the same night was considered pretty impressive."
Papp's Shakespeare in the Park gave New York some of its most exciting theater a few years ago, and the 1976 production of "Measure for Measure", with Streep as Isabella, was one of the high points of the series. Also in the cast was John Cazale, who played Fredo, the weak brother, in the "Godfather" films. They fell in love and lived together until Cazale died of bone cancer two years later, at 42. By the time they worked together in Michael Cimino's "Deer Hunter", Cazale was fighting for the strength to say his lines. Streep contracted to film "Holocaust" in Austria, where, as Cazale was dying in the U.S., she played a woman whose husband was imprisoned in a concetration camp. It was a grim experience, but, says Actor Fritz Weaver, who worked with her, "there was not one moment of self-pity. She has tremendous professional devotion." Back in the U.S., she dropped her career to stay with Cazale for the months that remained until he died, in March 1978.
Afterward, she says, "I was emotionally blitzed, All my energy was challenged into my work. I was doing "Joe Tynan" at the time. It was a selfish period, a period of healing for me, of trying to incorporate what had happened into my life. I wanted to find a place where I could carry it forever and still function."
Within a few months her life changed again. She began keeping company with Don Gummer, a sculptor friend of Third, a tall, dark-haired fellow in his early 30s, who had graduated a few years before from Yale's School of Art. After a couple of months the two were married, and late in 1979 Henry Wolfe Gummer, called Gippy, wsa born. When she was in England during the next spring and summer portraying the unhappy outcast Sarah, she was, in fact, a contended young mother, who breat-fed her baby during lunch break. Her husband stayed with the film company for the first month, then had to return to New York to get his own work - architectural constructions, mostly of wood or stone - ready for shows. Says Streep: "He felt so cut off … the phone bill for five weeks in Lyme Regis was $500." Confecting an English accent was easy for her: "I think of myself as a great mimic." Classical training also helped, "primarily in getting me used to wearing a corset for hours at a time." Playing Sarah posed problems "because the reasons for her actions were so vague, I only knew that she was 'ambitious.' And because so much was covered up during Victorian times, I had to come on as though there was a fire inside, while remaining outwardly calm. Id had, as the English say, to be careful about not going over the top. I played the monologue like a dialogue with myself. What my eyes said was the truth, and what came out of my mouth wasn't. Says Fowles, who is well satisfied with Streep's Sarah: "She was very shy about me. When I appeared on the set, she'd hide. She had some extraordinary notion that I didn't want an American actress. But there's not English actress of her age group who could have done it."
Now, with "The French Lieutnant's Woman" opening across the U.S. and "Stab" in the editing stage, Streep is enjoying a few months without professional commitments. She plays with Gippy, escapes with her husband whenever they can to a tree farm they bought not long ago in Dutchess County, and when she is in Manhattan tries to stay out of midtown, where every tourist comes equipped with a celebrity detector. She an Gummer are moving from his loft in Tribeca, an area in downtown Manhattan favored by artists, to a larger but equally unpretentious place just to the north, in Little Italy. Streep is now and forever a New Yorker, without a trace of a tan or of West Coast show-biz glos. She bounces into a magazine photo session, wearing a dime-store sun dress and dark glasses held together by a safety pon. She is a fan of egg creams (a New York soft drink made of seltzer, chocolate syrup, milk and, of course, eggs), and a resolute riders of subways; if the middle class and the rich don't use the subways, she argues, they will continue to fall apart and so will her beloved city. Streep is a liberal who is outreaged by the Reaganauts in Washington, and as a feminist who supports the ERA and who gets angry at the way films exploit women in sex scenes.
When she talks about herself nowadays, it is to tell about blowing sky high - not remembering her speech - when she presented an award at the Tony ceremonies a few months ago. Or to describe how, on the set of "Stab", "I just couldn't get a scene right. The dialogue seemed false. I got madder and madder because I knew the answer lay within me, but I couldn't wrestle it up. I sulked all day - something I never did before. There is a lot of tension toward the end of a film, because the answers have to be there.
The privacy that she folds around herself falls away when she talks about her next project, which is to play Sophie in Director Alan Pakula's film of the William Styron novel "Sophie's Choice". She says with deadly intensity, "I really wanted that part." She obtained a pirated copy of the script "through nefarious means," and, she continues, "I went to Pakula and threw myself on the ground. 'Please, God, let me do it,' I begged." Her own part secure she urged that Actor Kevin Kline, 33, play opposite her as Nathan (The mans's mad, he's brilliant.") Streep has the professional weight to do that now and make it stick, and Kline, who has been playing rhe pirate kind in Papp's production of "The Pirates of Penzance", got the part. The Sophie-Nathan pairing should be a memorable collision. Since Sophie must speak with a Polish accent, Streep plans to study Polish five days a week for three months before filming begins. "I don't know how I see the character yet," says Streep. "I'm still in the intuit stage, and I haven't picked her apart yet. First I'll learn Polish. Then I'll forget me. Then I'll get to her. That's my plan of action."
Beyond Sophie? There is a film on the horizon about Karen Silkwood, an antinuclear activist who was mysteriously killed in an auto crash while working on an exposé in 1974. And afterward? It is a little startling to realize that Meryl Streep has appeared in only one Broadway show (Happy End in 1977). Another Broadway musical? A filmed musical? Some really alarming risktaking on one of Joe Papp's stages? Says her friend Papp: "I'm convinced we haven't yet begun to see the richness of her talent." In fact, says this cheerfully biased stage director, "in films - which always do the obvious - we've only seen about ten percent of her."
By John Skow, Reported by Elaine Dutka / New York
© 1981 Time Magazine. No copyright infringment intended.