Meryl is universally considered the greatest living actress currently working in film today, and she has spent more than thirty-five years proving her talent in movie after movie, now more than fifty in total. She has been nominated for eighteen Academy Awards — by far the record — with surely many more nominations in her future.
And yet it might be surprising to learn that of all the films she’s made over the decades, and of all the acclaimed performances she’s given, only a small handful of her movies have actually gone on to be acknowledged in the top categories at the Academy Awards. Her film debut Julia, in 1977, racked up a whopping eleven nominations, and two films she did soon after that won Best Picture — The Deer Hunter and Kramer Vs. Kramer. But following that 1979 film, only two more of her films to date would go on to even be nominated for the big prize. The Hours was nominated, in 2003. The only other film she appeared in that was not only nominated but also won? 1985’s Out of Africa.
Sydney Pollack’s sweeping two-hour-and-forty-minute epic had all the makings of an award-friendly movie. It tells an epic true story, set in 1916 Africa, filled with warmth and heart and romance and tragedy. It paired two of our finest actors — Meryl and Robert Redford — in a film for the first and still only time (although Redford directed Meryl in his 2007 disappointment Lions for Lambs). It’s the kind of film Academy members love, and it was honored with many of the top prizes, despite intense competition that year from other great films like Prizzi’s Honor, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and The Color Purple, Spielberg’s terrific achievement that scored eleven nominations but won nothing. (Of course many, including myself, would consider The Breakfast Club and Back to the Future as the two greatest movies of 1985!)
Out of Africa won seven Oscars, including Best Score, Best Screenplay, Best Director for Pollack, and Best Picture of the year. But is Out of Africa one of Meryl’s best pictures? Has it held up well all these years later? While there is more interest to be found here than in the somber, slow-moving Plenty, Out of Africa remains one of Meryl’s most overrated films.
She plays Karen Blixen, a Danish baroness who establishes a plantation in 1916 Kenya, Africa. Like in Plenty, she is torn between more than one man — in this case, there’s the husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer, in an Oscar-nominated supporting role) who she married out of convenience, and the valiant, free-spirited hunter Denys (played by Redford). Based on the writings of Blixen herself (published under the pen name Isak Dinesen), Out of Africa shows in great detail the many ups and downs of Karen’s complicated life, like troubles on the plantations, war, schooling of the natives, and catching siphilis from her husband, which nearly takes her life and prevents her from ever being able to bear children. But of course there’s always Denys, who ultimately changes her life for the better. Will the two walk hand-in-hand into the sunset together? Or will their love end in tragedy?
Director Pollack initially didn’t even consider Meryl for the part of Karen Blixen. He thought she wasn’t sexy enough to play the character, and probably assumed she wouldn’t have the right chemistry with the handsome leading man Redford. And Meryl, who has fought hard for more roles than one might think, went to a meeting with Pollack wearing a low-cut blouse and a push-up bra—and the rest is history. Even though she never comes across as all that sexy in Out of Africa, she does give the richer, fuller performance in the movie. and while both stars are top billed, this is definitely much more Meryl’s movie than it is Redford’s. Those who haven’t seen it in awhile might be surprised to see Redford missing for most of the film’s first half, a clever tactic used by Pollack and screenwriter Kurt Luedtke to keep them from getting involved romantically for as long as possible.
Of course Redford sticks out like a sore thumb in this period movie — Gene Siskel in his original review rightly says that Redford never manages to create a character here we think of as anything but himself — but Meryl is her typical transformative best. Nominated for her sixth Academy Award (in just eight years!), she sports brown curly hair and a realistic as usual accent, this time Danish. While Plenty, released the same year, provided a rare character she didn’t really disappear into that much, she plays the kind of character in Out of Africa that yet again makes us forget we’re watching Meryl up there on the screen. She shows pain and sadness, love and longing, and in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, pure unadulterated terror, when a lion approaches her on dangerous terrain. And the reaction she displays upon learning of the film’s closing tragedy is subtle and effective.
However, too much of the film, same as in Plenty, drones on and on. Let’s consider 1985 as the year of the overindulgent Streep. Plenty and Out of Africa both have a few terrific moments, but if it weren’t for Meryl’s stellar performances, these movies would register hardly at all. Out of Africa includes sumptuous Oscar-winning cinematography by David Watkin, incredible views of the African countryside, but to what end? The film is too episodic in its first half, with too many scenes of strained dialogue and lack of excitement, and by the time we arrive to the central relationship between Meryl and Redford it comes off as more awkward than tender — not as awkward as Meryl and Sting in Plenty, but awkward nonetheless. While Meryl and Redford probably would have made a great couple in a traditional ’80s modern romance, they never quite gel here.
While Meryl would go on later in her career to branch off into different genres, budgets and scopes in her work, she focused arguably too much in the 1980s on important, slow-moving historical dramas, many of which netted her Oscar nominations, but few of which offer emotionally involving experiences. Even Sophie’s Choice, probably her best of the ’80s historical dramas she starred in, is flawed, and a bit on the long side. She would go on to make Ironweed and A Cry in the Dark but finally took a break from dramas to make a string of four light-hearted comedies in a row. While by 1985 Meryl was considered one of the best, audiences had no idea yet just what she was capable of.