Monthly Archives: February 2014

My Year With Meryl: Still of the Night (1982)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Top Ten Films of 2013

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1. Gravity

Was there any doubt? Gravity has catapulted to the list of not just one of my favorite films of 2013, but one of my favorites of all time. Nothing I have seen in a movie theater in the last five years has wowed me, moved me, thrilled me, and literally took my breath away like Alfonso Cuaron’s groundbreaking masterpiece. Sandra Bullock finally got the role of her career, in a rare big-budget studio movie that allows a woman to carry almost the entire story on her shoulders. Many great films were released in 2013, but only Gravity truly changed the ever-evolving cinematic landscape.

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 2. Before Midnight

One of the greatest love stories ever put on film, this third chapter in the Jesse and Celine saga is perhaps the richest yet. Before Sunset, the first sequel, is one of my favorite movies ever made, so to say I greatly anticipated this new installment is an understatement. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke pulled off a remarkable feat with this film, keeping the trademark long takes alive while also stranding our two beloved characters in the pits of marital Hell. Hawke and especially Delpy give astounding performances, in a film that completes one of the most remarkable movie trilogies of all time.

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3. Stuck in Love

Easily the year’s most underrated movie, Stuck in Love might have scared potential viewers away with its lamer-than-lame title (its original title Writers is much preferred). Josh Boone’s observant and moving debut is The Perks of Being a Wallflower good, about a family of writers all trying to come to terms with both their creative processes and their complicated love lives. Greg Kinnear gives one of his best performances as an acclaimed novelist still yearning for his ex-wife, and Nat Wolfe and Lily Collins are just as terrific as his son and daughter. Add in witty dialogue, a killer soundtrack, and a most unexpected cameo, and you have the film that most surprised me this year.

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4. The Way, Way Back

The other great coming-of-age dramatic comedy of 2013 was The Way, Way Back, a dazzling entertainment that made for the most pure fun I had at the movies last summer. Liam James gives a touching breakthrough performance as a teenager stuck at a Florida family vacation home with his single mom (Toni Collette) and her douchebag boyfriend (Steve Carell, effectively playing against type). His only joy comes from working at the local waterpark, where the sarcastic manager (an Oscar-worthy Sam Rockwell) takes him under his wing. Everything works in this hilarious, feel-good gem.

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5. The Place Beyond the Pines 

No, not every great film comes out in the second half of the year (or the last three months of the year, which Academy members seem to believe). Released back in March, Derek Cianfrance’s absorbing second feature plays out like a rich novel, with a unique narrative structure that brings the viewer in and out of characters’ lives, only to circle us back around again. Ryan Gosling is just as memorable here as he was in the director’s debut, Blue Valentine, and Bradley Cooper delivers a performance that is much more nuanced than the one he got the Oscar nomination for (American what?). Cianfrance is a master storyteller, and I eagerly await what he does next.

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6. All is Lost

The most stunning omission from the Academy Awards nominations this year was Robert Redford’s tour-de-force of a performance in J.C. Chandor’s riveting and poetic All is Lost. Gravity is mostly Sandra Bullock alone in space, but even that film had George Clooney to lend a helping hand in the first half-hour. All is Lost is all Redford, all the time, with no dialogue, and with increasingly mounting tension, as he finds himself stranded at sea with seemingly no way to get home. This is one of those haunting films that slowly pulls you in, never lets go, and wrings tears out of you in a final scene of rousing catharsis.

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7. Nebraska

Alexander Payne is six for six now, with the moving Nebraska his best work since Sideways. Bruce Dern gives one of the year’s most quietly affecting performances as Woody, an aging alcoholic who thinks he’s won a million dollars, but it’s Will Forte, the year’s unlikeliest dramatic actor, who holds the movie together, and gives it heart. The black and white cinematography looks stunning on a giant screen, making the desolate landscapes feel almost otherworldly. The involving script by Bob Nelson keeps surprising you, all the way through to an ending that is heartbreaking, the same time that it is surprisingly hopeful.

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8. The Wolf of Wall Street

It’s long. It’s outrageous. It’s filthy and crude. And it’s also a masterpiece. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of Martin Scorsese’s truly great movies, an ambitious piece of energetic filmmaking that feels like it was made by someone half his age. Leonardo DiCaprio gives the best performance of his career (which, in a truly great and varied career, says a lot), and Jonah Hill wows in a role that both mortifies and charms the viewer’s socks off. The hilarious Quaalude scene is enough to put this movie on any top ten list; that the rest of the film is just as wildly entertaining and gloriously unapologetic makes it one of Scorsese’s best since Goodfellas.

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9. Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen’s very best film in years features his most complex lead female character since Annie Hall, a diverse and exciting cast, and one of his most engaging stories since 1997’s Deconstructing Harry. Cate Blanchett is well deserving of the Oscar, giving a powerhouse unhinged performance as a privileged New York socialite who loses everything and is forced to move in with her lower class sister (a terrific Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Stand-up comedians Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay impress in supporting roles, but what impresses most is Allen, who at seventy-eight is still churning out sparkling scripts and, most importantly, continues to write beautiful characters for women.

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10. Short Term 12

The last 2013 film I watched before making my final list pushed Enough Said and Prisoners, previously tied in the final slot, down into the second ten. Short Term 12 is an insightful slice of life, lovingly written and directed by Destin Cretton, about a group of twenty-somethings who supervise underprivileged teenagers at a residential treatment facility. The acting crackles with a raw intensity, especially from United States of Tara’s Brie Larson, who is a revelation as Grace. The stories of the facility’s inhabitants always feel truthful and never maudlin, and I loved the way Cretton opens and closes the movie with two memorably told stories, and two even more memorable sprints. Short Term 12 is one of the year’s best!

 #11-20 (in alphabetical order)

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Behind the Candelabra

Bridegroom

Enough Said

Frozen

The Heat

Inside Llewyn Davis

Philomena

Prisoners

You’re Next

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My Year With Meryl: The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)

After Meryl’s very busy 1979, she took a rare year off from movies, in 1980. While most consider Meryl the greatest actress of her generation, she doesn’t get enough credit for how incredibly prolific she is. Since her film debut in 1977, she has appeared in at least one film almost every year, sometimes even two or three films. The only years she hasn’t appeared in a movie are 1980, 2000, and 2010 (she was also mostly absent in 2001, too, aside from a voice credit in Steven Spielberg’s AI).

Meryl’s film career was finally up and running with her Oscar-winning role in Kramer Vs. Kramer, and some might think she should have committed to a bunch of movies while interest in her was at a high. Instead, she went right back to the stage (appearing in Kiss Me, Petruchio, among other productions) and took her time in choosing not the first film project that came her way but the best. The French Lieutenant’s Woman was such a terrific choice because it gave Meryl her first leading role in a movie, an effective showcase of dual characters, and further evidence of her versatility.

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The odd, and oddly effective, dual narrative of The French Lieutenant’s Woman must have appealed to Meryl, because not only does she get to sink her teeth into the complex role of Sarah, a 19th century Englishwoman who enters a doomed love affair with Charles (Jeremy Irons); she also gets to play the actress Anna, who is portraying the role of Sarah in the movie. Confused yet? Some actresses might have been afraid that this unusual structure would alienate audiences and not work in the least. The director Karl Reisz’s only major credit at the time was The Gambler, starring James Caan, and Harold Pinter, who wrote the screenplay, had mostly written TV movies. The novel by John Fowles was well-regarded, but many directors, like John Frankenheimer, considered the book unfilmable. It was not a guaranteed success that this script was going to work, but Meryl committed anyway, making for one of her best career choices, one almost as good as her next major project—Sophie’s Choice.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is an interesting film more than it is an entertaining one, but it is particularly notable for being the first film in Meryl’s career that gives her a ton of screen time. As Sarah, she gets to show off her impeccable British accent. After speaking mostly in her own voice in other movies up to this point, this film marked the beginning of a long streak of projects where her various accents would impress audiences and critics the world over. Here, with her long, curly strawberry blonde hair, and her British accent, she looks and sounds nothing like any character she had played before. Some actors can never disappear into their roles no matter how hard they try. We all love Julia Roberts, but is there a film she’s appeared in that made you forget it was Julia up there on the screen? Meryl, on the other hand, has a unique ability to completely disappear into a role. It truly is hard to believe that the actress playing Sarah is the same one who played Joanna in Kramer Vs. Kramer.

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Meryl has a fair share of tender, emotionally complex moments in these period scenes. Just the first shot is a doozy—Meryl standing at the edge of a watery cliff. She’s at once so beautiful, and so vulnerable. One of her best scenes in the movie take place in the forest, where the crisp cinematography makes Meryl look like she’s stepped into the world of Errol Flynn. She has fallen in love with Charles but hates that he is committed to another woman Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter). “I am the French lieutenant’s whore!” she says, her voice quivering. It appears this forbidden romance has no chance of ending well. And when she eventually disappears from Charles’ life, he believes he has lost her forever.

Of course, should we even care if these characters end up together or not? The French Lieutenant’s Woman makes it clear from the beginning that this period narrative is merely a movie within the movie, and that the actual story involves a pair of film actors named Anna and Mike (also played by Meryl and Irons), who are portraying Sarah and Charles. In this second, modern-day narrative, Anna and Mike are both married but are having a love affair on the set of their movie. Meryl would have received accolades for her portrayal of Sarah alone, but her spot-on take on a conceited American film actress is just as impressive. It’s not often that Meryl disappears into two characters in the same movie, but she does so here. She seems five or more years older as Anna, more mature and confident. While Sarah often feels lost, Anna knows exactly what she’s doing.

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The novel was famous for including three alternate endings, and what Reisz and Pinter do effectively for the adaptation is give the audience two endings, one for each narrative. The period story gets a Hollywood happy ending, and the modern day story gets stuck with an unhappier, if more realistic, one. Mike even tries to get Anna’s attention in the final scene by shouting, “Sarah!” suggesting that since real life can be messy and filled with disappointment, we often yearn for the hopeful conclusions that fiction so often gives us.

Many remember that Meryl won the Oscars for Kramer Vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice, but few remember just how close she got to winning for The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She ultimately lost out to Katharine Hepburn, who won her fourth and final Best Actress Oscar, for On Golden Pond, but Meryl won the Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Drama, as well as the BAFTA award for Best Actress. At the Academy Awards, the film was also nominated for Best Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design, and Film Editing. Obviously there was considerable support for the movie, so one could argue Meryl got close to her second Oscar not in 1982, but in 1981. Of course she went on to win the following year for Sophie’s Choice, still her most impressive achievement in a career filled with too many achievements to count.

While it is not one of her very best movies, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is an original, sometimes baffling creation that brings to mind the unique creative structure of some of her later films, like The Hours and Adaptation. Meryl had options after Kramer Vs. Kramer. That she picked The French Lieutenant’s Woman shows that she not only values great stories and characters, but that she’s not afraid to take risks.

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My Year With Meryl: Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)

When did Meryl Streep become a star? Some might argue that it happened when she shared the screen with Jane Fonda in Julia. Others might argue that it happened when she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The Deer Hunter. These observations are valid, but few would disagree that Meryl had her first major breakthrough with Kramer Vs. Kramer, the film that won Meryl her first Oscar, and the film that worked its way into the hearts of millions in late 1979. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Kramer Vs. Kramer remains not just one of Meryl’s best films, but one of the best movies ever made. And while she is not the lead, her affecting performance lingers in the viewer’s memory long after the film has ended. Her scenes in this film crackle with honesty, intensity, raw emotion. And it’s a moment in a courtroom, as she delivers a devastating monologue she wrote herself, that I would argue made Meryl a bonafide movie star.

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Meryl wasn’t even supposed to play Joanna Kramer. Kate Jackson was initially slated for the part but had to drop out due to her commitment to Charlie’s Angels. After that, despite interest in Meryl for the role, producer Stanley R. Jaffe didn’t want to consider her, because she was busy starring in a play and acting in Manhattan. Jaffe wanted Meryl on Kramer Vs. Kramer only if she were to drop her other engagements, so it took the enthusiasm of both Dustin Hoffman and writer / director Robert Benton to officially bring her on board. By 1979 Hoffman was considered one of the finest actors in Hollywood, having appeared in films like The Graduate, Lenny, All the President’s Men, and Marathon Man. Despite her Oscar nomination for the Deer Hunter, Meryl was not the likeliest choice for Joanna at the time, and there must have been pressure put on Benton to find a bigger name for the role. Thankfully, he stuck to his guns, cast the best actress there was for the part, and in the end catapulted Meryl into the most incredibly diverse and exciting career any actress has ever had.

Again, Hoffman was a star at the time, while Meryl wasn’t. Similarly, Hoffman is the lead of Kramer Vs. Kramer, while Meryl has much less screen time. Therefore it was another risky move to open the movie on Meryl’s face, as she sits on her son’s bed, stroking his back. She appears so calm, so in love with that little boy, that nobody watching can expect her to do what she does in the next two minutes. When Joanna’s husband Ted (Hoffman, in one of his finest roles) comes home, excited to talk to his wife of eight years about a major account acquired at work, she gives him back his keys, and tells him she’s leaving him. For good. And she’s not taking Billy (Justin Henry, who gives one of the best child performances ever put to film). He barely has time to process what she’s telling him before she enters the elevator and walks out of his life for fifteen whole months. Ted has never been a mother figure to Billy, but once he is all his son has, he transforms from a workaholic advertising executive to a parent who truly cares about his kid. And then, just when father and son start developing a real bond together, Joanna comes rushing on back, feeling like a new person, and ready to take back what she believes is all hers: her son.

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Kramer Vs. Kramer is such an engaging film because viewers see themselves up there on the screen, whether they have kids, have been married, have been divorced, or none of the above. This is the story of a family that becomes broken, then becomes unbroken, then threatens to become broken yet again. Since we spend so much time with Ted and Billy, by the time Joanna enters the picture again, we don’t want her there. Her reappearance in the third act of the movie is startling because we have almost forgotten about her. While unsettling in her instability in the first few minutes, she’s gone from the movie for so long we almost forget that she might come back. And when she does, the unthinkable becomes a pained reality; when the two Kramers go up against each other in court, it’s likely from the get-go that the judge will side with the mother and not the father. But we’ve seen Ted and Billy create a life together, and we don’t want that to go away.

Meryl has the hardest acting job in the entire film, because she is, in a sense, the antagonist. Walking away from your seven-year-old child many would probably consider one of the selfish acts a mother could do. The audience doesn’t agree with her decision, and by the time Ted has finished his character arc and becomes a stand-up dad who will do anything for his kid, her insistence on getting Billy back grates on us. We are on his side, not hers. And yet it’s remarkable how Meryl, with the small amount of screen-time she has here, still ultimately makes Joanna a wounded, sympathetic creature. We never come to actually hate her, and in the hands of almost any other actress, she might have made her a one-note villain. Meryl, however, always gives Joanna a point of view that makes sense, especially in her long courtroom monologue that brings her, and many potential viewers, to tears.

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She is insanely good, focused, so very real, in every scene in Kramer Vs. Kramer. Her first scene at the beginning is devastating, with a pain in her eyes in each step she takes away from her little boy. When she comes back, meeting with Ted at a restaurant after more than a year away, she has a lightness about her, a positive change in both her attitude and her face. For a minute it appears like they might even have a pleasant conversation, but all things turn sour when she brings up Billy. Ted cuts Joanna off almost immediately and says she can’t have him. An improvised moment at the end, when Ted shatters his wine glass against the wall, shakes us, almost as much as it shook Meryl; she didn’t know Hoffman was going to push the glass off the table, and Meryl’s shocked expression is one hundred percent real.

Meryl’s shining moment in Kramer Vs. Kramer takes place in the courtroom. Not until now do we truly get a sense of what her character was going through fifteen months ago, and what she’s going through now. Benton wrote the scene in full, but days before they shot, he told Meryl he wanted her to write the speech herself, to make it more real. Her acting in this scene is exquisite; that Meryl took the time to write these beautiful words herself is just extraordinary. Just her delivery of “I’m his mother… I’m his mother,” her teary eyes focusing on her ex-husband, is enough to take your breath away. It is in this scene that the truth of the character finally comes out, and while it’s still difficult to imagine a mother walking away from her child, the personal demons and struggles she was going through make sense to us, and it’s not unfathomable to think it was right for her to go away.

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Of course, it is still heartbreaking to learn that the judge chooses Joanna over Ted, and so we’re left wondering, as the film draws to a close, just how we’re going to feel when he finally has to hand over his child. When Billy sits solemnly on the sofa, all packed and ready to go, with Hoffman doing his best to put on a happy face, it appears that no happy ending is in store. But the final scene changes everything. After the bitter courtroom battle they have both suffered through, Joanna comes to the realization that very morning that she can’t take her son away from his father. “I realize he already is home,” she says. I defy you not to cry in watching this final scene. Again, with another actress, this moment could read false. She has been fighting to get her son back for the past thirty minutes of the movie. Is she really just going to let him go? But again, her reasoning for having him stay with his father makes sense, and her stream of tears tells us that no matter how much it hurts, she knows she is making the right decision. The film closes on a moving image, of Joanna standing inside the elevator, staring back at the man she never knew could truly be a father. “How do I look?” she says to him. “You look terrific,” he replies. There’s no sense that things are going to be any easier from here on out, but at least an agreement has been made to allow Ted to not lose the one thing in his life that he loves more than life itself.

Kramer Vs. Kramer was the last of Meryl’s three 1979 films to be released, and she couldn’t have ended the decade on a bigger high. Not only did Kramer Vs. Kramer do well at the box office, making more than one hundred million; it swept the Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Supporting Actress, for Meryl. In her acceptance speech, she opened with “Holy mackerel,” and thanked Hoffman, Benton, and Jaffe for the career-changing opportunity. Would Meryl have gone on to become a big star without Kramer Vs. Kramer? Sure she would’ve. But this incredibly moving and affecting film, one that has stood the test of time and still resonates with viewers thirty-five years later, certainly helped paved the way for all that Meryl was to accomplish. She is mesmerizing in this movie, so beautiful and thoughtful and complicated, bringing to life in just a few minutes of screen-time a fully realized character who is one of the most memorable creations in her remarkable career. Meryl can do no wrong. And with Kramer Vs. Kramer, she did one of her best.

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My Year With Meryl: The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)

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Few of Meryl Streep’s movies can be considered obscure, but The Seduction of Joe Tynan would arguably be one of her least well-known. Released in 1979, the same year she appeared in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and, more famously, played Dustin Hoffman’s wife Joanna in Kramer vs. Kramer, The Seduction of Joe Tynan is a competent but unremarkable film, starring and written by Alan Alda. The pacing is slow, the cinematography is a bit flat, and the whole endeavor feels from top to bottom like a glorified TV movie. The actors ultimately elevate the film, though, particularly Meryl; while this is not one of her better performances, she does a fine job, and gives far more life to her character than there likely was on the page.

Alan Alda is considered to this day one of our finest actors. Nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Aviator, he has been a working actor for nearly five decades, appearing in such memorable films as Crimes and Misdemeanors, California Suite, and Same Time, Next Year. He has been famous for a long time, but he was arguably at the height of his popularity in the late 1970s, when his critically acclaimed smash hit of a TV show MASH was entering its seventh, eighth, and ninth seasons. He surely had the clout at this time to do anything he wanted, and so he was able to get a screenplay he wrote called The Seduction of Joe Tynan off the ground, with him also starring in the title role. Directed by Jerry Schatzberg (Scarecrow, The Panic in Needle Park), the film features a stellar supporting cast, including Barbara Harris, Melvyn Douglas, and the great Rip Torn, who Meryl would share the screen with a decade later in Defending Your Life.

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Meryl, of course, rounds out the cast, and in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, she gets to do a lot more than one might expect. While Alda is the lead in the film, Meryl is in a whole lot more of this movie than she was in Manhattan, as well as her Oscar-winning role in Kramer vs. Kramer. She plays Karen Traynor, a southern researcher who helps Joe prepare a case leading the opposition to a Supreme Court appointment. Married to his sweet but clueless wife Ellie (Harris), Joe takes an immediate fancy to Karen, and barely thirty minutes into the movie, he’s making his first move on her. One joy of the film is seeing her show a sense of fun on-screen. There is a moment early on when she and Alda go to bed together, and instead of a maudlin romantic montage, we get Meryl dumping beer on Alda’s naked crotch and laughing hysterically. Her character is a bit stiff when we first meet her, but she slowly gets to unwind as the film goes on.

Of course, one couldn’t blame her for giving one of her lesser performances. The Seduction of Joe Tynan was the first film Meryl made after the passing of her beloved John Cazale, and even she has said she was on “automatic pilot” during the filming because she was still grieving. She has said that it was the supportive Alda who helped get her though the process. But again, this is not to say that she gives a bad performance. She appeared in three films in 1979, in each as a blonde, in each as a supporting player to the male lead, but unlike in Manhattan, where she is angry and spends most of her time yelling, and in Kramer vs. Kramer, where she is often confused and trying to find herself before she can accept a child into her world again, in The Seduction of Joe Tynan she plays a confident, independent woman who knows what she is getting into when she enters the affair. Meryl is more gorgeous in this film than she possibly ever has been on screen, her hair up in a bun, her clothes professional and conservative. And she gets her fair share of emotions, especially in a sad scene at the end when she has to say good-bye to a torn-up Joe.

The Seduction of Joe Tynan came out at a time when Meryl was just about to break. Kramer vs. Kramer was just a few months away, which was soon followed by her first Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actress. After that came the releases of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, and Silkwood in the early 1980’s, all cementing her status as one of America’s finest actresses. The Seduction of Joe Tynan is an interesting political film, with solid performances all around, and it offered what was probably the last glimpse of Meryl before she became a respected worldwide figure. It’s not among her best work, but it is definitely worth seeking out if you’re a hardcore fan.

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