Meryl started the 1980s by appearing in one acclaimed drama after another, like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, and Silkwood. By the end of the decade, she had racked up eight Academy Award nominations, and was considered by most the most gifted actress of her generation. After her superb performances in Ironweed and A Cry in the Dark, there was little left for Meryl to prove. So what did she do? She signed on for a role in a film that no one, including probably her own agent, could have ever expected. Her last film of the decade, released in December 1989, was the comedy flop She-Devil, co-starring Roseanne Barr.
Meryl has never discussed her role in She-Devil in any interviews since the release of this film (at least in any that I could find), but many would deem it obvious that she took her role of wealthy romance writer Mary Fisher not because she thought the script was brilliant or that director Susan Seidelman was particularly original or that Roseanne was the co-star she had been waiting for her entire career; she clearly wanted to go outside her comfort zone and attempt the comedy genre. She had some effective comedic moments in Manhattan, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, and Heartburn, but up until 1989 had never appeared in a full-fledged comedy before. Just like director Sydney Pollack didn’t find her sexy enough to be in Out of Africa—she famously proved him wrong in her audition—many filmmakers couldn’t picture Meryl in a comedy. Of course, no one says no to Meryl, and if she wants to give a new genre a try, she will find a way.
She-Devil was my introduction to Meryl. I was five years old when it was released to video, and I have a clear memory of watching it at home at a young age in Roseville, California. I remember being revolted by the shot of a boy puking (I still to this day have a borderline phobia of vomiting), and amazed by a shot of a woman walking out of an exploding house (of course this shot looks ludicrously fake today). I also have a clear memory of being instantly intrigued by the nutty, self-absorbed blonde lady on the screen. My introduction to Meryl was through her comedies, not her dramas—Death Becomes Her was a childhood favorite—and it’s a genre that to this day she doesn’t get enough credit for. Without She-Devil, there might not have been Death Becomes Her. Hell, there might not have been that other devil comedy she’s so well known for, The Devil Wears Prada. She-Devil is a flawed movie, much slower and convoluted than I remembered from childhood, but no one can deny Meryl’s hilarious, original performance, and her seamless transition into a genre few could have ever imagined her attempting.
Arguably the funniest element in watching She-Devil today is that it wouldn’t even be discussed, even thought of anymore, if it weren’t for Meryl. As iconic as the show Roseanne was, Barr’s unremarkable film career is without a single winner. Her only other significant features are the ’90s flops Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Blue in the Face, as well as the rare disaster for the Disney animated studio, 2004’s Home on the Range. She-Devil offers her most well-developed character in a movie, but unfortunately, she’s still not developed enough. The main flaw in She-Devil is that Barr’s character of Ruth Patchett, who discovers her husband is cheating on her with a famous woman and ultimately vows to take revenge on him, never becomes a character we root for, or care about, or laugh at, or ever truly believe. Barr looks a bit lost at times, and any time the film focuses on her for too long, the pacing noticeably slows down. Ed Begley Jr, as Ruth’s husband Bob, is more effective than Barr, although he plays such a dweeb that it’s hard to believe Mary would fall in love with him so hard and so fast.
While Meryl’s other comedies like Death Becomes Her and especially Defending Your Life have sharp, imaginative screenplays, the script for She-Devil is fairly routine, offering few surprises, and only the occasional laugh throughout its brief running time. The reason it remains a cult classic to some, and the reason it continues to be screened and discussed more than twenty-five years later, is Meryl’s performance, which is far better than the movie itself. It’s a shame that she couldn’t have picked a better script for her first foray into the comedy genre, but there’s still a lot to admire here. Her intro scene, which Ruth watches on a monitor, is hilariously over-the-top, with Meryl pursing her lips and walking down a giant staircase like royalty. We know within ten seconds of seeing her that this is a side of Meryl that she had never shown in a movie before—one that doesn’t take itself so seriously.
Another actress would have turned Mary into a one-dimensional joke, but Meryl makes an underwritten character both funny and sad at the same time, funny in her outrageous mannerisms and lines of dialogue and sad in her loneliness and desire to be loved. When she yells at her literary agent about not publishing her new manuscript, and when she snaps at her mother for revealing her real age of forty-one, we laugh, but at the same time, feel sorry for the emptiness she clearly feels inside. While Ruth is the central character of the film, Meryl manages to make Mary a full-blown, memorable comic character who has an arc all her own. Lost in her own world for most of the running time, she in the end is in a much happier place, even when she signs an autograph for the conniving Ruth, a person who made her life hell for weeks on end.
It’s worth noting that Meryl and Barr share very few minutes in the movie together. Aside from a brief conversation at a dinner party toward the beginning, and the aforementioned final scene, they co-exist in their own separate story lines most of the time. Barr was an up-and-coming comic at the time of this film’s production, and Gene Siskel, in his televised review, was right in pointing out that one missed opportunity in She-Devil was not having these two uniquely different actresses spar with each other more. As a whole, this is not one of Meryl’s better movies. The script doesn’t take a lot of risks, and Barr always appears a bit uncomfortable in her leading role. What this movie will best be known for is its giving Meryl her first chance at a truly meaty comedic role, which she clearly bit into with great verve and relish. She would go on to make better comedies in the next few years, but She-Devil was the one she needed to show critics and audiences a brand new side of her evolving screen persona.