The Morning Call
An Attraction For Opposites
September 18, 1998 / Written by Amy Longsdorf
Meryl Streep's Latest Role At Odds With Driven ImageImagine Meryl Streep as Martha Stewart. Only an example this extreme will prepare you for the shock of seeing the woman many consider the greatest actress of her generation playing a character with no ambition besides making sure the lives of her husband and children run smoothly. In "One True Thing," which opens today in area movie theaters, Streep plays Kate Gulden, a housewife whose days are filled with laundry folding, pie baking and kitchen cleaning. And unlike the salt-of-the-earth types the actress has played in "Silkwood" (1983), "The Bridges of Madison County" (1995) and "Marvin's Room" (1996), Kate doesn't yearn for something more. She's happy right where she is, at least until she contracts terminal cancer and has to rely on her journalist-daughter, Renee Zellweger, for help.
In many ways, Streep is the antithesis of Kate Gulden. The winner of two Academy Awards (and eight more nominations), she's one of Hollywood's most conspicuous over-achievers. "I'd need pills or therapy if I couldn't express myself through my work," admits Streep. "It keeps me sane. But I've always wanted a family and kids ever since I was a kid. I can't imagine my life without them." And, by the way, she digs Martha Stewart. "I love her. I really do," laughs Streep, a mother of four children with sculptor husband Don Gummer. "I think there's a true value in all those lovely things that a woman can do to a house." When Streep walks into a suite at the Essex House Hotel, she's wearing a black and white pantsuit, nothing fancy. Her hair is blond, her manner friendly. Behaving more like a fantasy best-girlfriend than a movie queen, she seems to revel in dishing intimately about herself.
"I mortify my children," she says happily of her brood, ages 18, 14, 11 and 7. "I have to drop them off around the corner from school. First of all, I'm not allowed to listen to my music or sing along with the radio in the car. I'm not even allowed to sing in my house. They don't like it. "It started when they were little. I always had this fantasy that when I'd have children, I'd sing them these lullabies. When they're 4, they're saying, `Can you please not sing that?' It's so awful. They were little, really itty bitty, screaming, `Noooo!' The only place I'm appreciated is at work." After more than two decades on screen, Streep stars in back-to-back dramas. After Carl Franklin's "One True Thing," an adaption of the Anna Quindlen best-seller co-starring William Hurt and Tom Everett Scott, comes "Dancing at Lughnasa," a Brian Friel play adaptation co-starring Michael Gambon due in early November. Streep has regained some of her box-office clout thanks to the success of "The River Wild" and "The Bridges of Madison County."
To hear Streep tell it, being a mom is just as important as being a movie star. She won't commit to a project unless she's guaranteed nights at her Connecticut home. For "One True Thing," which was shot in Princeton, N.J., Streep commuted to work every day by helicopter. "My kids have no interest in what I do all day long," she swears, "but they do care that I'm home at night to tell them where their clean underwear is." Even though she usually only makes one movie a year, and then only if the location is approved by her family, Streep insists she's a different mother to her children than her mother was to her. "I don't make all the Halloween costumes," says Streep with a sigh. "For a couple of years, I tried. I really did. I made Peter Pan and Wendy. Wendy had the wig from `French Lieutenant's Woman' so the costume was pretty good. "But I gave up trying to be everything to all people (at) about the third child. Then I realized I just couldn't make every deadline the way my mother had. And my mother could because she worked at home. She was a commercial artist for our little local advertising company. She was there every day, and I can't be. My mom is my inspiration, though, and I try to be as much like her as I can."
"One True Thing," which is in the tear-stained tradition of such early Streep pictures as "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979) and "Sophie's Choice" (1982), is guaranteed to make you get out your handkerchiefs. That's fine with Streep, who says she's happy to make audiences feel sad. "I think we've gotten away from movies that make you feel anything at all," muses Streep, who lost nearly 20 pounds for the "One True Thing" role. "I like to feel something at the movies, and I think other people do too. Look at `Titanic.' Girls went back time and again not to see the ship sink - no matter how fabulous that was - but because of the love story. It was, I should add, a tragic love story where (one of) the lovers died. The lesson is that people like to be emotional at the movies." For Streep, "One True Thing" was not only an appealing way to pay tribute to motherhood, but it was also a way for her to celebrate the joys and sorrows of being a caregiver. It's a subject that's close to the actress' heart.
While Streep was in her 20s, she met and fell in love with actor John Cazale ("The Godfather's" Fredo) when both were appearing in a Shakespeare in the Park production of "Measure for Measure." When he was diagnosed with cancer, she stopped working for a year to nurse him in his final illness. He died in March 1978. "When you're a caregiver, you feel like you're putting your hands on something every day and that you're making it better," she says. "Even if you're not, you think you are. So you live in a very fulfilled space. In a way, (caring for Cazale) was a great time for me, a very intimate time. It was an exquisite feeling because only in the most extreme circumstances do you get down to what you really want to say to somebody." Streep's voice catches and her eyes moisten when she speaks of Cazale. "For me, it has always been something has been so private that making this movie is my way of talking about it. But it's not anything I'd use to publicize a movie. It's hard for me to talk about in any context except with the people who were there and knew him.
"Talking about it makes it smaller, but it had an enormous effect on me. It made me focus on what to do with the rest of my life and how to be in it. ... It put everything in perspective for me." Streep is 49 but doesn't look much different than she did in 1978 when she delivered her breakthrough performance as a small-town grocery clerk in "The Deer Hunter" (1978), a movie which also starred Cazale. While she's remained relatively unchanged through the years, the same cannot be said of Hollywood's opinion of her. She's gone from being the ingenue to the "female Laurence Olivier" to being ridiculed as Our Lady of the Accents to being told she's too old for a role. "It makes me angry, sure," she says. "Let's make a list of great actresses who are now quote, unquote, too old. There's Jessica Lange, Anjelica Huston, Glenn Close. We could sit here forever."
What particularly galled Streep was being told by Warner Bros. that at 45 she was too old to play a 45-year-old in "The Bridges of Madison County." Meanwhile, 65-year-old co-star Clint Eastwood was playing a man of 50. "The studio told Clint to get a younger co-star," recalls Streep. "Clint finally had to say he'd direct the movie himself so he could have the person he wanted in the part." Streep sighs. "Things have changed for women in other professions, but nothing has changed in Hollywood. Look at Bette Davis. When she made `All About Eve' (in 1950), which was pretty much her swan song for leading roles, she was 41. When she made `Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte' (in 1964), she was (five) years older than I am now. She had to make these scary movies because Hollywood perceived her as an old, old lady. So we've always tossed women away. We're terrified of older women. It's a very deep subject."
Ironically, Streep's next movie is for horror maven Wes Craven, but it's not what you might think. In "50 Violins," the actress will play a Harlem schoolteacher whose students wind up performing in Carnegie Hall. Long planed as a starring vehicle for Madonna, Streep took over when the pop singer dropped out. This isn't the first time the two icons have swapped roles. Streep was originally slotted for "Evita" before she was dubbed "too old" for the part. "Well, you know, it makes perfect sense, because Madonna and I are so interchangeable," cracks Streep. The actress, who is famous for her intense preparation for roles, has already picked up a violin. It's tough to master, says Streep, because she's only to allowed to practice while her children are away at school.
"The sacrifices I make," jokes the actress. "The other day, I was practicing. My daughter came up to me and said, `Mom, can you pleeeeeze take that somewhere else?' "
© 1998 The Morning Call. No copyright infringment intended.