In 2012, on Watch What Happens Live, Andy Cohen asked Meryl, “Name one bad film that you have made.” She took about two seconds to think before she said, “Still of the Night.” We all know that one of Meryl’s most acclaimed performances was in Sophie’s Choice, but many might not be aware that Meryl had a second film released that year, in 1982: Still of the Night, which re-teamed her with her Kramer Vs. Kramer writer/director Robert Benton. It is not a bad film, so much that it is a disappointing one. It is certainly one of her weaker efforts, a lame Hitchcockian rip-off that is mostly worth a look for it being Meryl’s only suspense thriller.
Jamie Lee Curtis got her start in Halloween and The Fog, and Tom Hanks’ first movie was a low-rent slasher flick called He Knows You’re Alone. Brad Pitt made an early horror bomb called Cutting Class, and future Academy Award winners Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey starred together in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 4. So many actors who went on to be mega-stars got their starts in low-budget horror movies, and very few began right away in A-list projects.
Edward Norton is one of the few lucky ones—his debut was in the superb Primal Fear—and one could say Meryl also avoided the trap of starting in mediocrity. Julia, The Deer Hunter, Manhattan. Meryl started out strong from the beginning, and following her Oscar win for Kramer Vs. Kramer and Oscar nomination for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, it appeared as if she would do no wrong. In 1982, she would appear in Sophie’s Choice, her best career choice yet.
So how, why, did Still of the Night happen? Not only is the film fairly unremarkable, but Meryl is also miscast in the kind of part Grace Kelly or Kim Novak would have played for Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s. She does what she can with the role of Brooke Reynolds, an art auction house worker who was having an affair with a man who has been murdered. Brooke visits the man’s therapist Dr. Sam Rice, played by Scheider, and asks him not to reveal the affair. Rice immediately takes a liking to Brooke—her sophisticated bob of a haircut probably reminds him of a Hitchcock blonde—and the two begin an affair of their own, while Rice continues to piece together the mystery of who the killer is. Could it be Brooke herself? Or is it another woman entirely?
The plot of Still of the Night is sort of silly, and it’s a shame it’s taken so deadly seriously. You can see Meryl wanting to crack a smile in almost every scene of the film, but instead, she has to keep her face straight. Meryl probably gets more dialogue and screen-time in this film than any other up to that point, maybe even The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and it’s a shame much of the writing lets her down. Watching Meryl here is like watching her sing “Dancing Queen” while sliding down the bannister in Mamma Mia—it feels beneath her.
Meryl could certainly succeed in a well-written suspense thriller directed by someone more knowledgable of the genre, but Still of the Night is a major letdown in the suspense department, and most noticeably the scare department. Much of the film consists of dull plotting and long scenes of stilted dialogue, without much momentum, with little chemistry between her and Scheider. Worst of all, everything leads to a finale more laughable than exciting.
It’s not to say that there aren’t moments of interest to be found in Still of the Night. While director Benton should have spent an additional few months studying up on his thrillers and horror films, one dream sequence, involving a little girl chasing after a man in a house and pulling an eye out of a stuffed teddy bear, only for the bear to start bleeding, is effectively eerie.
This is probably the only movie Meryl made that involves a serious discussion while she’s sprawled out naked on a massage table, and Benton does give her a strong monologue (like he did with Kramer Vs. Kramer) toward the end. The last few minutes of the movie are a little silly, but there is some pleasure to be had in watching what will probably remain Meryl’s only time on screen running from a knife-wielding madwoman. Meryl even belts out a scream at the killer that would give Jamie Lee Curtis a run for her money as Scream Queen.
Why did Meryl do this movie? She has not gone on record at a later date discussing her thoughts on the film (aside from her comment made to Andy Cohen), but it’s likely she played this role as a favor to Benton, who made what her career was up to that time by casting her in Kramer Vs. Kramer. Actors have done this over the years, taking a substandard role to say thank you to their directors for previous work that boosted their careers. Sandra Bullock starred in Speed 2 as a favor to her Speed director Jan de Bont, and Nicole Kidman re-united with Baz Luhrmann for the atrocious Australia, after they had done great work together years prior in Moulin Rouge.
Meryl has worked with many of her directors more than once (David Frankel, Phyllida Lloyd, Robert Redford, Mike Nichols) but only with Benton did it seem like once may have been enough. Still of the Night is worth a look for Meryl die-hards but the only film she made in 1982 that is worth discussing in great detail all these decades later remains the astounding, and still resonant, Sophie’s Choice.