On Top - And Tough Enough to Stay There
August 1987 / Written by Brad Darrach
Meryl Streep is gray with cold. In Ironweed, her new movie, she plays a ragged derelict who dies in a cheap hotel room, and for more than half an hour before the scene she has been hugging a huge bag of ice cubes in an agonizing effort to experience how it feels to be a corpse. Now the camera begins to turn. Jack Nicholson, her derelict lover, sobs and screams and shakes her body. But through take after take-and between takes too-Meryl just lies there like an iced mackerel. Frightened, a member of the crew whispers to the director, Hector Babenco, “What’s going on? She’s not breathing!” Babenco gives a start. In Meryl’s body there is absolutely no sign of life! He hesitates, then lets the scene proceed. Yet even after the shot is made and the set struck, Meryl continues to lie there, gray and still. Only after 10 minutes have passed does she slowly, slowly emerge from the coma-like state into which she has deliberately sunk. Babenco is amazed. "Now that," he mutters in amazement, "is acting! That is an actress!"
That in fact may well be the most extravagantly creative actress now at work in a world that swarms with leading ladies of redoubtable talent. Vanessa Redgrave, Liv Ullmann, Jessica Lange, Kathleen Turner, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Glenda Jackson, Hanna Schygulla, Sigourney Weaver, Sissy Spacek-each has stocked her resume with brilliant performances. Yet none has assembled a gallery of portraits that displays the depth and power and finesse of Streep in her supreme interpretations: Joanna in Kramer vs Kramer, Sarah in The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sophie in Sophie's Choice, Karen in Silkwood, Baroness Blixen in Out of Africa-and now Helen in Ironweed which opens this month. "Helen?' says Nicholson, "is one of Meryl's greatest transformations. She's done something extreme but impeccable-and as good as it gets. This one is for history." Like most things that rate such adjectives, Helen was not built in a day. Meryl constructed the character, as she constructs every character, pore by pore. "I have no Method, you know," she explains a little sheepishly. "I've never read Stanislavsky. I have a smattering of things I've learned from different teachers, but nothing I can put into a valise and open it up and say “Now which one would you like ?” Nothing I can count on and that makes it more dangerous. But then the danger makes it more exciting.
Danger was written all over Helen. In William Kennedy’s 1983 novel she shuffled like a wounded roach through the night streets of Depression-era Albany, NY., a thing of the gutter looking for a drain to die in-how could Meryl possibly make audiences care about such a dingy entity? She found a way. In a flash of intuition she heard a melody in Helen's life and instantly transformed it into a symbol. "My image for Helen" she says, "was the sign of the treble clef. It expressed for me her passion for music and her inner grace, and it gave me the sad, drooping line of her body." Inspired by this resonating hieroglyph Meryl imagined in acute detail Helen's hair, hands, feet, eyes, mouth, clothes, ways of moving, ways of speaking, how it felt to be in her body, what went on in her mind, how the world looked through her eyes. "These things trigger me," she says “They help me to build up a being.” Once the being was there, Meryl stepped into her skin and lived for hours at a time as if she really was Helen. Wrung with her sorrows, fleeing through her nightmares, inhabited by her fate. "For Helen,” she says, “I had a lot of things to prepare. Secret things that no one else would know. And that intrigued me because that's how we encounter people who live on the street. We don't know, anything about them except how they look. So I see Helen as a shadow, like a lot of those people are. They're just souls, stripped of all the things that most of us carry around. And they drift around like souls in purgatory. All these people have are their dreams. That's their real world. And their past, which they change into dreams, to make it better. They illuminate their ruins, because ruins are all they have. And drink comes into this. Alcohol is the fuel for these stuttering engines. "Helen," she goes on, "has none of the things most people covet-possessions and accomplishments and children. All she has are the purest impulses-fidelity and pride and resilience. I liked playing a stripped-down character. Even her age was a mystery. I located one for purpose of reality but then I threw it away. People who live on the edge don’t know how old they are. The young ones look ancient and there's something about the oldest ones that's childlike. So Helen is sort of an ember in this. We just get the last glow, and then she goes."
Many an actor can chat up a great character. Meryl can daub the creatures of her imagination on the front wall of a theater with a blood-red vitality that thrills her audiences and amazes her professional peers. "Meryl is actually great" says director (of Silkwood and Heartburn) Mike Nichols. "There is no other performer I would say this of." Nora Ephron, who worked on screenplays for Silkwood and Heartburn, adds: "We're talking genius here." Cher, who costarred with Meryl in Silkwood describes her as "an acting machine in the same sense that a shark is a killing machine. That's what she was born to be." And critic Robert Brustein, who was dean of the Yale School of Drama when Meryl was there, sings an aria of adoration: "She is one of the great enchantresses, a creature of mystery who haunts our dreams." Part of the mystery is how any woman so curiously constructed could pass for one of the great beauties of the age. Her legs are thick and short, her hips pudgy, her bust indistinct. Her hair, when it's not bleached, is taxidermic brown. Her eyes are small and almost colorless, the nose that wanders down between them is alarmingly long and strangely skewed, and the quasi-Mongolian cheekbones makes her look (as Nichols points out) “as if she had just swallowed a large light bulb.” Yet the least notion or emotion can galvanize this jumble of odd parts into a luminous flow of passion and imagination. "She has the most astonishing face on film: says producer (of Kramer) Stanley Jaffe. “Expressions drift over it like mist. It's an eternal face. She looks like a medieval Madonna-and that sexy blonde at the next table."
In fact, Meryl looks, speaks, moves, feels, thinks and probably even dreams like anyone she cares to impersonate. To call her an incomparable mimic is to understate the case; she is endowed with powers of self-transformation that are eerie. "Meryl can actually vanish into another person," says director (of Out of Africa) Sydney Pollack, and Nichols adds: "She changes who she is. In every role she becomes a totally new human being. I don't know of another actress in films who has ever done that." And Kramer’s director Robert Benton makes the crucial point: "Meryl deals not just with the surface but with the most profound levels of the characters she portrays. She invests them all with a moral sensibility, with a soul." Meryl acknowledges a kind of sotto voce spirituality in her work. "It's the great gift of human beings," she says, "that we have this power of empathy. We can all feel like Elliott when E.T. died. We can all cry for each other. We can all sense a mysterious connection to each other. And that's good. If there's hope for the future of us all, it lies in that. And it happens that actors can evoke that event between hearts. And when they do-well, if I'm in the audience, it makes me feel bigger. Enhanced. Even by the most tragic thing. I'm drawn out of my own life into someone else's life, and yet suddenly I myself feel more alive! I'm pulled out of what I do every day into something larger and more lasting. Into humanity. That's what an actor can do. That's what I want to do.” The woman who serves these motives is at least as complex, intense and fascinating as her work. Friends find her a bubbling stockpot of contradictions. She is mortally serious and completely wacko. She works like a dog-and plays like a puppy. She's 37-and when she laughs she looks like a girl of 17. She's a glamorous star-and a domestic drudge. She loves the camera-and dreads the public eye. Her mind is ice-clear-her passions sizzle. She adores her husband-and several of her costars. She's obsessed with her children-and possessed by her creative demon. In short, she's a working mother on a grand scale, an immoderately modern woman who while running a double life without too many head-on collisions has somehow achieved an emotional balance hard to distinguish from wisdom.
Cher says she’s also “incredibly brave” and by way of illustration recalls a night in Manhattan when she and Meryl saw "a huge man” mugging a woman. “Meryl screamed and ran straight at the man-who let go of the woman and ran straight at us! I thought we were going to be killed, but he ran between us and disappeared. We were both a wreck, but that's Meryl. She does what's right, no matter what." Meryl laughs out loud at the image of herself as a charging bull. "I'm like Ollie North," she says. "I convince myself of my own courage. After I've played Isak Dinesen, I think I'm as brave as she is. I can fight lions-for a while. I stuff my straw in there and I really believe I can scare the crows." Inevitably, acclaim and adoration have generated a backlash. Critics have blasted Meryl's performances as mannered, cold, crusted with tics and tricks-triumphs of motion over emotion and art over heart. The New Yorker's coruscating, irascible Pauline Kael, who likes to say that Meryl acts only from the neck up, has led the onslaught, and some of the best brains in show business have battled back.
Alan Alda: "What does that mean, act from the neck up? Should she act with her knees more?"
John Lithgow: "Meryl isn't acting from the neck up. It's the camera that isn't looking at the rest of her. Her directors have fallen in love with that amazing face."
Kael: "She's pallid and rather glacial ... like some creature from the moon trying to be a movie star .... If only she would giggle more and suffer less-she keeps turning herself into the red-eye special .... [She] has used too many foreign accents on us, and this ... one [in Out of Africa]-it puts quotation marks around everything she says."
Dustin Hoffman: "Hey, she's not just doing accents. She's looking for the character. Besides, her accents are terrific.”
Marilyn Stasio (New York reviewer): “She’s playing symbols, not people. Most of them are neurotic, unattainable snow princesses. All of them are boring.
Lithgow : “Meryl has become the great serious actress-a terrible burden. She can’t have had any fun for the last ten years. And we've lost a supreme comedienne.”
Hoffman: "Nobody's doing what she's doing. Nobody. My God! What do they want from her?"
Word has also gone out that the lady is a cool careerist, nice to people she needs and distant with people she doesn't. Some collaborators who profoundly respect Meryl's work insist that her halo casts a depressing shadow, “Meryl has values," say Elizabeth Swados, who coached her in a musical adoption of Alice In Wonderland, "but she can be manipulative. There's a sneaky, resistant person in there. She's so charming and she says yes, yes, but then she slides her way through. It's fascinating to watch how subtly Meryl gets her way. And what does Meryl say to that? "Sure. If I think I'm right, why not stand up for what I feel? Otherwise, why am I here? Why bother to pitch my tent at all?" There's a dollop of brass, in short, mixed in with that solid-gold talent. Without it, Meryl could never have traveled so far so fast. She became a superstar almost before the public had learned to spell her name, and everything happened so smoothly that people decided she must have a pact with the devil. What she had, in fact, was good old-fashioned hustle.
To begin with, Meryl had to beg and battle for a chance to perform her two greatest roles. “From the day I read the book I was obsessed with Sophie,” she remembers. “So the minute I heard that Alan Pakula was going to direct the picture, I sent word to him through my agent.” Thanks but no, thanks, said Pakula. Only an East European actress could play that East European character."I begged and pleaded for an interview,” Meryl admits, and Pakula finally gave in, figuring he'd have a polite but pointless chat with a desperate young actress. He figured wrong. Only Meryl and Pakula know what happened in the course of their conversation, and neither one is talking, but one thing is clear: Pakula was bedazzled. Meryl walked out with the part in her purse. Much the same mysterious thing must have happened when Sydney Pollack was casting the lead in Out of Africa. "My agent made a pitch to Sydney but he wasn't interested." Again, Meryl implored and wheedled until finally, reluctantly, Pollack agreed to see her. "Meanwhile," says scriptwriter Kurt Luedtke, "somebody told Meryl that Sydney didn't think she'd be sexy enough on the screen. So Meryl came to the interview wearing a dynamite push-up bra." No doubt the bra was good for openers, but it was the power of Meryl's presence that closed the deal. "She was so direct, so honest, so without bullshit," Pollack remembers. "There was no shielding between her and me. I thought, 'If this comes out of the screen-Wow!'" Even after she wins a role, Meryl fights hard to play it as she sees it. In Kramer vs. Kramer she fought Dustin Hoffman until he hollered uncle. Grittily competitive, Hoffman is a deft infighter, but Meryl, he reports,"comes to work loaded with adrenaline. I mean, you're in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard and you gotta take care of yourself. She would beg my best punches. We fought over scenes to the point where we were really pissed off at each other. But I had to respect her. Prepared? She had intellectually pummeled the material. So it was very frustrating if she didn't agree with you because her interpretation was very persuasive. It was an emotional experience, I tell you. We were trying to kill each other, yet when each round was over we were always embracing."
Meryl frowns in puzzlement when she hears how Hoffman experienced their relationship. "Fighting? With Dustin? Really? I just thought we were working on the material together." But behind the frown there is the shadow of a smile. The battle turned into a slugfest when director Benton suggested that Meryl rewrite the climactic courtroom scene to make a more effective emotional case for her character, a woman who had abandoned her child in order to “find herself”. When Meryl showed up with the rewrite, Hoffman went through the roof. But he had to admit that the scene was better, so in the end it played almost exactly as rewritten.
Meryl’s will is supported by roaring health. “We spent 101 days in Africa,” Pollack recalls. “Meryl shot on 99 of them. Everybody got sick but her. She has the stamina of a stevedore. And total dedication.” Kurt Luedtke agrees. "Do you remember the scene in which Meryl arrives at the farm and is introduced to a long line of servants? It was filmed in one long take and Meryl played it perfectly. Calm, dignified, completely in character. But the instant Sydney said 'Cut !' her face contorted and she smashed her fist against her chest as she yelled, 'Get this thing out of here!' The costume person tore open her dress, and out fell an enormous insect'. It had been crawling around in there all through the scene, but she had forced herself to ignore it." Meryl shrugs off such incidents. "On location little things always go wrong. You just deal with them." Nothing, but nothing, gets in the way of her work. She arrives on the set in character and stays that way all day-a preference that exerts a mysterious influence on everyone involved. Babenco recalls that on the set of Ironweed she spoke, like Helen, "in whines and growls and pieces of sentences. So I stopped explaining what I wanted and directed her by grabbing her shoulder, putting her where I wanted her to be and then just giving her a grunt or a moan to indicate what I had in mind. In a sense, she directed me how to direct"
Nichols says Meryl casts a spell of special potency over other members of the cast. "As she becomes the person she is portraying, the other performers begin to react to her as if she were that person. Whoever is playing the lover falls in love with her, whoever is playing the villain is frightened of her, whoever is playing her friend becomes her friend, and so on. She changes the chemistry of all the relationships. I've never seen anybody else do that." Chemistry is too mild a word to describe what frequently happens between Meryl and her leading men-and sometimes between Meryl and her directors. "Directing Streep," says Nichols, "is so much like falling in love that it has the characteristics of a time which you remember as magical but which is shrouded in mystery. I don't remember the things that she said and that I said… I find myself talking about her constantly, even to other women-which is not a good idea. I have to say, she is my inspiration."
Many men who have worked with Meryl find her bewitchingly erotic. Kevin Kline, her costar in Sophie’s Choice, remembers dreamingly that “her skin changes color like a Kokoschka painting.” And Meryl acknowledges that the atmosphere on the set of Sophie’s Choice was specially surcharged. “It was a wonderful, golden period of time. Kevin and Peter MacNicol and I really fell mutually in love, just as the characters did in the film.” Kline, says a friend, was mightily smitten-a feeling he finds difficult to discuss. “In love with Meryl? Well, you see, acting is an intimate thing. When you entrust someone with something very private, a tremendous bond of intimacy develops, and that intimacy is like love. I can feel everything with Meryl because she offers everything to respond to.” Meryl is less restrained. "Kevin is a dream," she says with a charming blush. "He's heaven. He really is. He's just heaven!" But she can also look back in laughter at her induced deliriums. "It's a' terrible job, you know," she confides earnestly. "I mean, loving all those handsome and fascinating men." Then she bursts into a big guffaw. "Come on! It's fun! It's fun to recreate those feelings and not have any of the repercussions. Just think of what lives I've lived vicariously. I've been poisoned by radiation, sent a child to the gas chamber, lost custody of another, lost husbands and lovers. God! If it weren't for the moments when I fell in love, I'd go nuts!" O.K., but what happens to Meryl's passions after a film is finished? Nichols explains: "In her feelings, in her work, anything is allowed. But not in her real life. Her rules are very strict. She's not about to rush off to Europe with some two-week love. Keeping it all in the world of imagination gives it so much color and passion. She can be anyone in her mind because she hasn't squandered her emotions. She lives the most bourgeois possible life and puts her wildness into her work."
Meryl's beginnings were middle-class. Her father was an executive in a pharmaceutical firm, her mother a commercial artist. She grew up in suburban New Jersey, a troubled tomboy who blossomed into a teen queen cheerleader with a blinding bleach job. She discovered her talents at Vassar, fine-tuned them at the Yale drama school and hit New York in 1975. In 18 months she appeared in eight plays and knocked the critics on their fundaments. At 27 she seemed to hold all the aces in the game of life. But fate dealt her a tragic jack of hearts. She fell in love with an actor named John Cazale, who less than two years later died of bone cancer. Meryl was devastated. "He was a profoundly eccentric, large-hearted human being," she says now, "and I loved him." Friends say she was deeply changed by the ordeal-more serious, more solid. Six months after Cazale's death, Meryl married Don Gummer, a sculptor she had met through her brother. They were thrown together under curious circumstances. Unable to stay on in Cazale's apartment, Meryl needed new lodgings and Gummer said she could camp in his studio while he took a vacation. When he came back he told her there was no reason to leave. Meryl was already fascinated with his sculptures-large, abstract objects of meditation executed with extreme finesse-and soon she was fascinated with the man who made them. "Don is a major artist," says Robyn Goodman, codirector of the Second Stage Theatre. "It's remarkable that two such strong, passionate, talented people should come together. He's very good-looking, tall, with dark hair, and ruggedly masculine. Great genetic material." Cher finds him “shy and understated but a real strong force. And he’s fun. He has a twinkle.”
In little more than a twinkle, the roommates were deeply involved. In September 1978 they were married at her parents’ home-and promptly embarked on a project that rarely succeeds in the lively arts: the simultaneous construction of a large family and two major careers. “Meryl has solved the problem of how to be happy, though famous, as well as anybody I know,” says Nichols. She has done it by fighting as hard for her personal life as she does for her career. To begin with, she refuses absolutely to become "celebrity junk food." She rarely permits interviews and lives in splendid seclusion on a large, $1.8 million estate in back country Connecticut. There's a 47-acre lake on the property, and a large studio with skylights for Don.
"What we really bought was privacy,” Meryl say's. "A house that can't be seen from the road. In Kenya when we woke we looked out the window at Mount Kilimanjaro floating in mist. And I thought, “After this, can we really go back to Eighty-seventh Street, where the only place the kids can play is in a park full of dog poop and diesel exhaust? So we found this place and it's a real haven. At first we got the odd helicopter hovering overhead, but that's stopped now. The only real invasion of privacy was a burglary that happened right after a magazine printed our address. For a while we had armed guards all over the place.” The house itself is no plutocrat's palazzo. "It's only fifteen years old," Meryl sighs, "but parts of it are rotting. The rooms are small and the ceilings are high, so in winter most of the heat is trapped up in the clerestory. The only way to get warm is to stand on a thirty-foot ladder. And in the upstairs rooms, because the roof is steep, you can't stand upright except in one or two places. I want to make dormers, but Don says you can't put dormers in a modern house. And I say, 'Do we have dormers or do we have hunchbacked children?'" What gives the place its charm, Meryl says, is the lake-which turned out to be less than charming. "It's pretty weedy," she explains glumly. "You swim in the top eightteen inches and work hard to keep your feet up-want to know why? Just after we moved in, I saw this suitcase floating about twenty feet offshore. But suddenly the suitcase began to swim away! It was a giant snapping turtle, at least two feet across. The pond is full of them."
The Gummers have two unglamorous cars and the only servants are a part-time gardener and a full-time nanny. Meryl is up at six every morning, sometimes earlier. "The kids are often awake in the night-there’s a lot of walking the halls.” She ferries them (Henry, 8; Mary Willa, 4; Grace, 17 months) to and from school, cooks three meals a day, does her own washing and ironing, knits sweaters, goes shopping in baggy jeans. “Oh, it’s a real tug-of-war,” Meryl says with a slightly desperate laugh. “I love my life at home-it gives me the strength to do my work. I love my work too, and I need it as a place to put all my dreams and my craziness and my-sizable passions. I don’t need analysis as long as I keep working. But every single day is a little bit harder. Every job is a little bit harder.” She laughs again and shakes her head. “Every day we make new rules. I know I couldn’t even dream of being a mother and making movies without Don. He’s the linchpin. I love him and I am so grateful. I resent that I’m held up as someone who’s able to juggle two lives and make everything work. I’m just balancing like Blind Justice-I mean barely holding it all together. And sometimes I could just scream for some intellectual life, so I wouldn’t be a blithering idiot at gatherings of people over seven.” She smiles wistfully. “Oh, there’s so much I’d like to do. When the public is used to you in heavy drama, it’s hard to take you unseriously. But I want to play comedy. I can’t stand it that stage fright inhibits me. At some point I’m gonna face up and do a play. But for now I just go day to day.” She throws up her hands. “With all these young children, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to make movies at all!”
Jack Nicholson has an old trouper’s answer to that. “When I hear Meryl talking in that vein, I say “Meryl, baby. Comes a time when you’re IT. You’re the state of the art. At that level you just have to gather your ass and go ahead. Take your best shot. There’s that Darwinian anvil out there and we’re all on it. You can be hammered fine or you can be broken. But in your case, little lady, you’re in contention for The Greatest Actress Of All Time. Now how the hell can you quit on that?”.
© 1987 LIFE Magazine. No copyright infringment intended.