Monthly Archives: May 2014

My Year With Meryl: The River Wild (1994)

 

the-river-wild-movie-poster-1994-1020210524I miss the ‘90s. I miss Super Nintendo, and my best friend Brandon, and my second grade teacher Mrs. Uribe. I also miss that magical period when action blockbusters relied not on special effects but on actual suspense, and performances that delivered. Christopher Nolan understands that audiences are hungry for big-budget movies that don’t just shove CGI down your throat every second for two hours. 1994 was an excellent year for action movies, with Speed and True Lies making big impressions, and The River Wild, released that September, was one of the most exciting releases of all—and not just because visual effects don’t drive the film. The film has a solid story, characters that make sense, and a breathless climax. It also remains the one and only action movie that Meryl ever made.

Death Becomes Her had been Meryl’s most surprising and daring film yet, but The River Wild was an even more unlikely choice, a project that allowed her to flex both her acting and physical muscles. Following in the footsteps of Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton, Meryl took on an action movie with so much zeal and gusto that it’s a shame she hasn’t returned to the genre since. She commits one hundred percent to every character she takes on, so of course to play Gail Hartman, a skilled rafting expert, she trained for weeks and weeks leading up to production, and got herself in the best physical shape of her adult life.

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As the film opens, she is not in the best place. Her husband Tom (David Strathairn) is a workaholic who spends little time with his wife and kids, and so she doesn’t expect him to tag along for the family summer rafting trip. Therefore, Gail is stunned when he shows up to take the journey, and to save their crumbling marriage. The family adventure down the river begins calmly, with impressive views all around, but a trio of men in a separate raft begin impeding on the family’s vacation almost immediately, saying a harmless hello at first but soon asking for more and more help. Soon the trio is mysteriously cut down to two, and the more charismatic of the two—Wade, played by an effectively chilling Kevin Bacon—convinces Gail and her family to let them board their boat. Of course, no movie like this exists without a villain, so Wade and his buddy Terry (John C. Reilly) eventually take the family hostage and demand that Gail bring them past the checkpoint and into the Gauntlet, a dangerous part of the river that has been off-limits to rafters for years.

Although Meryl and Bacon both received Golden Globe nominations for their performances, The River Wild was not well-received by some critics at the time. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the film two thumbs down on their show, neither one impressed by what they felt was a lackluster story that had a lack of surprises. While I don’t disagree that the story is a little thin, part of the charm of movies like these—Breakdown, starring Kurt Russell, is another ‘90s movie that comes to mind—is a story stripped to the bare bones to offer the maximum suspense possible. Is The River Wild predictable at times? Does the good guy win and the bad guy lose in the end? This movie isn’t trying to redefine a genre. As entertainment, it works, all the way through.

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Curtis Hanson, who had previously directed the cheesy thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, gives The River Wild just the right pacing. If Bacon’s character went off the rails ten minutes in, half the fun would be lost. Anyone who’s ever seen a movie before knows from his introductory scene that he is going to be bad, but the joy of the film’s first half is watching and waiting for when he’ll strike first. This is not an action movie along the lines of Speed by any means, considering that the only true action sequence comes at the end, but the brewing tension that builds and builds is very effective. Take for instance the scene when Gail skinny dips, and discovers Wade watching her from up top the mountain. Or the extremely tense scene where Gail and Tom try to escape from Wade before he finds out. As the viewer, you constantly put yourself in each scenario, wondering what you would do. Do the protagonists always make the right decisions? Not always. But again, that’s the charm!

The River Wild is notable as one of the few movies my mother stayed in her seat all the way through the credits for, and I’m guessing thousands of people did the same thing upon its release, not to find out what the character names were or to see who the second assistant director was, but to find out where the movie was shot. The film’s cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) is stunning, and no matter how wrapped up you get in the narrative, that burning question nags at you constantly: “Where was this filmed?” Most of the movie’s whitewater scenes were filmed on the Kootenai River In Montana, while some additional photography was done on the Rogue River in Oregon. If shot today, the producers would probably cut corners and shoot bits and pieces on a water stage, or—gulp—use special effects water. But what you see in The River Wild is always real, and this element brings a much-needed sense of menace to the proceedings.

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The performances are excellent all around. Meryl’s Plenty and A Cry in the Dark co-star Sam Neill was asked to play her husband Tom—he turned the part down—but Strathairn was ultimately the best choice, a perfect mix of nerd and hero. Joseph Mazzello, as Gail’s son Roarke, is not the typical annoying movie kid, and, the same way he did in the previous year’s Jurassic Park, makes for a compelling character all his own. Reilly is the appropriate villainous sidekick, and Bacon, who up until 1994 was more known for playing a hero than a villain, was ingeniously cast against type in this as an unpredictable and threatening bad guy, to great effect. His intense chemistry with Meryl is one of the film’s best qualities.

The role of Gail could have been played by many actresses at the time—Julia Roberts, Geena Davis, and Sharon Stone were likely considered—and Meryl, despite all her Oscar nominations, probably wasn’t an obvious choice. She had appeared in one suspense film before—the lame Still of the Night—but had never taken on a role in an action movie. Whether it was Meryl who pursued the project or Hanson who thought of her for the role, her casting in The River Wild was a masterstroke. It’s always a thrill to see a strong, independent, capable woman on-screen, especially in a big-budget action movie, and Meryl makes what was already a good movie into something even greater. She had shown so many layers on screen before, but never had she shown this tremendous physical side. Meryl did most of her own stunts throughout the movie, but what’s most impressive of all is how she is able to balance humor, terror, and a love for her family with all the strenuous physicality.

The River Wild may be Meryl’s one and only action movie, but at least we have the one—it’s better than nothing. She would have looked silly in the ‘90s appearing in something like Independence Day or Armageddon, but The River Wild was the right choice for her, in a movie of this magnitude. It’s one that tells an exciting, fast-paced story, without unnecessary special effects, and instead with tension and suspense, and that awesome finale that takes Gail and Co. down the Gauntlet. She must not have loved shooting this movie, since the following year she returned to drama with The Bridges of Madison County and stayed in the genre for the rest of the decade. Yes, any fun she showed, any big smiles or winks to the camera she displayed on screen between her risk-taking years of 1989 and 1994, were over—at least for a little while.

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My Year With Meryl: The House of the Spirits (1993)

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Has Meryl appeared in any bad movies? Meryl herself has said in an interview with Andy Cohen that Robert Benton’s Still of the Night is not one of her better efforts. Some may argue that Heartburn and Ironweed have major flaws and that the more recent Lions for Lambs and Rendition don’t work at all. Before and After, a 1996 bomb co-starring Liam Neeson, is probably her most critically ravished movie of all. But there was another 1990s movie, one released between her special effects extravaganza Death Becomes Her and her taut action thriller The River Wild, that also received a harsh beating from the critics. It has one of the most astonishing ensemble casts of any movie she’s appeared in. It features sumptuous cinematography, superb editing, and an epic family story that spans decades. But with all its stellar attributes, The House of the Spirits, directed by Billie August (Pelle the Conquerer), may be Meryl’s worst film of all, a bloated, never-ending mess that features one of her most phoned-in and least inspired performances.

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I can almost hear the chat she had with her agent, probably sometime around 1992. Meryl had appeared in four comedies in a row, including a box office bomb with Roseanne Barr, and her agent likely wanted to get Meryl back into the business that wins her awards—dramatic work. I can see him waving the script for The House of the Spirits in her face, boasting about the acclaimed director, and the beloved novel, and the amazing cast that had already been assembled, insisting she sign on if she still wants to be considered a serious actress. While Meryl has often been smart and selective in her choosing of projects, bouncing around different genres and surprising us with new shades of what she’s capable of, there is nothing fresh about The House of the Spirits. This feels all the way through like a movie made just to win its actors and craftsmen awards, not to tell a story anyone particularly cares about.

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The cast is astonishing. Meryl, in a supporting role, is joined on-screen by such powerhouse actors as Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, and Vanessa Redgrave, along with a young and pretty Antonio Banderas and a young and creepy Vincent Gallo. (Meryl’s daughter Grace Gummer also plays her character at a young age, in a bit of inspiring casting.) The pairings in the film are significant in a few ways. One, Meryl re-teamed with her The French Lieutenant’s Woman co-star Irons and her Julia co-star Redgrave. Two, Close and Irons reteamed after their successful pairing in Reversal of Fortune, which won Irons an Academy Award. Lastly, and most interesting to Meryl fans, this is to date the only movie that she and Close have appeared in together. Often thought of as two of the finest actresses of their generation, and having competed for Best Actress in three Oscar races—in 1988, 1989, and 2012—they certainly have a history together. Therefore, it is unfortunate that they would only share screen-time in a dramatically inert movie like this one.

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Meryl plays Clara, the wife of Esteban Trueba, a man who grows up poor but eventually becomes a powerful conservative in twentieth century Chile. She first appears about a half-hour into the movie, ages close to fifty years over the course of the narrative, then exits long before the film is over. Yes, this is one long movie. At about two hours and twenty minutes, The House of the Spirits feels an hour longer. It has scenes of joy, and sadness, and romance, and great tragedy—but Titanic this is not. When Close cries in a scene of grim truth-telling, no tears from the viewer are shed. When an older pair die in an unlikely train collision, little care is expressed. A willing cast does what they can, but the story lacks depth and emotion, with only Ryder coming through in the end with a character that keeps us engaged. Meryl is given a rare role in her career that pretty much any actress her age could have played. She often appears bored, probably counting the days until she can leave the production, and suit up for the more exciting and physically demanding The River Wild.

Not everyone is able to make a good movie each time out, not even Meryl. Classic stars like Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman made the occasional flop, and even respected modern Oscar winners like Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett have made tired clunkers, some of which were never released to theaters. Meryl has appeared in more terrific films than any actress of her generation, so it’s understood that once in awhile she may offer her talents to a film not worthy of her. Some may argue that The House of the Spirits, with its amazing cast, its acclaimed source material, is nowhere near her worst movie, but if I had to pick one film she’s ever starred in to never watch for the rest of my life, it’s this one.

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My Year With Meryl: Death Becomes Her (1992)

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“Meryl, you are a special effect,” Goldie Hawn said at Meryl’s 2004 AFI Lifetime Achievement ceremony, and while the line got a laugh, some might argue that what Hawn said is true. Meryl has appeared in, on average, one film per year, and decade after decade she continues to impress us with her incredible transformations. Best of all, she continues to surprise us, not just in her choice of roles, but in her choice of genres. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she moved away from dramas to have a bit more fun, in four comedies ranging in scope and broadness. Her fourth and final comedy for a long while—she wouldn’t return to anything close to the genre until 2002’s Adaptation—is also the only film Meryl has made in her entire career that relies heavily on special effects. The splendidly entertaining and endlessly imaginative Death Becomes Her, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), may not be one of Meryl’s most important films, but it’s easily one of my five favorites she has ever appeared in.

More than any movie I’m discussing in this series, Death Becomes Her is the one I have a long history with, and such great affection for. It is the first film starring Meryl I ever saw in a theater. It was at the United Artists Sunrise Mall in Roseville, California, in the summer of 1992. Why my mom thought I, at seven years old, would enjoy a black comedy about youth, beauty, and death, I’ll never know, but I have a clear memory of sitting in the theater enraptured in the film from beginning to end. I spent many hours the rest of that year writing my own version of the story down on paper, as well as a sequel starring myself and two of my best friends called Death Becomes Him. When the movie was released on VHS, my mom bought me a copy for Christmas, and for the next year, I played it over and over and over again. I remember as late as high school bringing friends over to screen the film—”You haven’t seen Death Becomes Her? Then your life is not complete. Sit down!” was basically my pitch—but when I screened it again for this series, it had been a few years, at least ten or more.

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So being such a fan more than twenty years ago, how does Death Becomes Her hold up after all this time? It is definitely an uneven film, and, I’m sad to say, some of the special effects, so revolutionary at the time—they won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects that year—look a bit phony. The scene of Madeline talking to Ernest after her fall down the stairs looks particularly dated. What hasn’t aged, and what still puts a smile on my face, is the sharp script by Martin Donovan and David Koepp, and the memorable comic performances by Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, and, of course, Meryl. Considering that Meryl had never worked closely with visual effects before, her turn here is particularly inspired, with her comfortable in the skin of one of her most self-obsessed and nasty characters this side of Miranda Priestley, and with her game for everything the special effects wizards throw at her.

The story begins in 1978, where Ernest Menville (Willis) and Helen Sharp (Hawn), a loving couple, go to see the latest Broadway production starring the critically panned Madeline Ashton (Meryl). Most of the audience walks out, but Ernest sure likes the show, and is delighted to meet Madeline backstage. Soon enough, Ernest and Madeline are married, and the scorned Helen spends the next seven years fattening herself up and hating on Madeline. Another seven years pass, and Madeline is losing everything—her looks, her career, the love of her husband. So she turns to Lisle Von Rhuman (a stunning Isabella Rossellini), an eccentric but gorgeous woman living in a Vincent Price-esque castle who bestows onto Madeline a potion that promises immortality and eternal beauty. Madeline is delighted by her newfound youthful appearance; however, when Ernest pushes her down the stairs, causing her to break her neck, havoc ensues. She and Helen, who we also come to learn has been basking in the glory of the potion for many years, can’t die, so it’s up to Ernest to ensure that these two diva broads will stay beautiful forever—unless, that is, he wants to find a way out.

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It’s interesting to note that Meryl preceded this film with Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life because it is another comedy, albeit more subtle, about death, and the ramifications of both good and bad decisions one makes in his life. Of course, that’s where the comparisons end; if one would describe Defending Your Life as a studious high school freshman, Death Becomes Her is like its nasty, constantly drunk, college-bound older brother. Death Becomes Her didn’t do well at the time because black comedy has always been a hard sell when it comes to theatrical motion pictures, but anyone involved with the film had to have known that it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. None of the three main characters is likable. The movie touches on themes of fleeting beauty, wrecked marriages, animosity toward old friends, fat people as lazy and disgusting. The list goes on and on. This is not a movie your conservative grandmother will appreciate, but if you’re in the right state of mind, it is one of Meryl’s all-time most entertaining films.

When Meryl read the script, she originally thought director Zemeckis wanted her to play Helen, the intellectual writer, and was shocked when she discovered he wanted her for Madeline—of course, in watching the movie today, it’s near impossible to imagine the two actresses’ roles flipped. Hawn’s choice of material over the years was sometimes questionable—I can’t imagine too many are revisiting films like Bird on a Wire, Deceived, and Town & Country these days—but Death Becomes Her offered her one of her most unique and inventive characters to play. The two transformations she has at the beginning of the movie are incredible by themselves, but when Helen finally goes mano-e-mano with Madeline’s character at the mansion, Hawn truly revels in the outlandish qualities of her character. Willis was an unlikely choice at the time for Ernest, considering he was a huge box-office action star in the Die Hard movies, and of the three leads, he might be the one who disappears the most into his character, playing a depressed alcoholic dweeb who looks so unlike the handsome Willis that it takes the viewer a few minutes to recognize that it’s even him.

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Meryl, however, looks to be having the most fun of all. She is the main character in the movie, a woman who obsesses over her image so much that she is incapable of feeling anything resembling love for her husband, and anything but animosity toward younger, more beautiful women than she. Of course Meryl was, and still is, a stunningly gorgeous person, so the make-up artists had their work cut out for them when they needed to make her appear less than flattering in the two scenes that lead up to Madeline’s taking of the potion. Meryl is more known for her dramatic work than her comedic work, but her performance in Death Becomes Her has to be considered one of her most hysterically funny of her career, and absolutely worthy of her Golden Globe nomination she received in early 1993. The role allows her to play all sorts of different colors. She gets to sing and dance in the film’s stupendous all-in-one-take opener. She gets one zinger after another throughout the movie, with more than a few particularly memorable—just the way she says the line, “NOW a warning?” is a classic. And she also had the opportunity, for the first time, to work with special effects. While Meryl has commented in a later interview that she didn’t particularly enjoy working with all the innovative and time-staking effects in Death Becomes Her, it is a treat for the viewer to see Meryl, so known for her dramas, express great delight in surrounding herself with the most inventive special effects of the time.

There’s not much left to say about Death Becomes Her, except, where’s the special edition Blu Ray? Zemeckis, whose celebrated films like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump have all received special edition releases with generous supplements, has not yet contributed toward such a release for Death Becomes Her. And it’s not to say there are no supplements in existence. There are surely many neat behind-the-scenes featurettes that could be made about the visual effects process, and even more enticing, in what is one of the holy grails of lost footage from a modern classic, the original ending was excised and a whole subplot involving Meryl’s Plenty and Into the Woods co-star Tracey Ullman was completely removed (you can see hints of her character in the film’s theatrical trailer). As of this writing, there is no special edition, no Blu Ray release, and only an old DVD release from January 1998 that offers merely a full frame presentation. Here’s hoping Universal will eventually give fans of Death Becomes Her the release the film deserves.

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Death Becomes Her marked the end of Meryl’s momentary hibernation into the world of comedies. She returned the following year with the critically panned drama The House of the Spirits, and spent the rest of the 1990s appearing in more serious work, most of them acclaimed and well-respected. While it is easy to admire Meryl’s work in a movie like The Bridges of Madison County or One True Thing, it’s comedy that most actors say is the hardest of all, and what Meryl does in Death Becomes Her has to be considered one of her most challenging and groundbreaking performances of her entire career. She manages to make us sympathize with a mostly unsympathetic character, and gets us to laugh time after time, even though the material itself is extremely dark and frequently demented. Death Becomes Her is one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures, a movie I can return to again and again. I’m already looking forward to the next time I give the disc a spin in my player, if only to hear Meryl one more time say the immortal line, “Ernest… my ass… I can see… my ass!”

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My Year With Meryl: Defending Your Life (1991)

Meryl has appeared in so many great movies that it can be hard to pick a favorite. Many would make a case for Sophie’s Choice, or Out of Africa, or Kramer Vs. Kramer. Death Becomes Her has its rabid fans, and The Devil Wears Prada is a modern comedy classic. Meryl’s performances have been nominated for Academy Awards in eighteen movies, so many might assume my favorite would be one of those. Most would assume, at the very least, that my favorite film of hers would feature her in the lead role. These assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth: my all-time favorite Meryl movie is one of her lesser-known works, one she didn’t win any awards for, and one in which she plays a supporting role. Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life is an enchanting motion picture that also happens to be my favorite comedy of all time.

D6Brooks plays Daniel Miller, a thirty-something advertising executive who, on his birthday, dies when his car crashes into a bus. He wakes up in a place called Judgment City, a sort-of purgatory where everyone who passes away goes to defend his or her life, in a trial-like setting. The place looks a lot like Earth, with its high-rise buildings, sushi restaurants, and championship golf courses. But it’s not Earth; in Judgment City, the life you just led is examined by a defender, a prosecutor, and two judges, to determine if you are ready to move on to the next higher stage of life, or need to go back and try again. For four days, you sit in a revolving chair and watch clips from your life, some of which show examples of your fear, and some that show examples of your courage. Did Daniel have enough courage? Or was he afraid, all the way to the end?

A story like this could have been told with a harder edge—even Woody Allen probably would have gone for the jugular more often in his punch-lines—but it’s the film’s sweetness that makes it truly winning, especially when Meryl pops up about a half-hour into the picture. She plays Julia, a mother of two who died when she tripped and drowned in a pool. She has an instant chemistry with Daniel, after they meet at a comedy club, and even though they only have four days together in this alternate universe, they immediately fall in love. Daniel never found true love on Earth but he immediately feels a connection with this woman, who is intelligent, likable, and funny, and who led a mostly fearless life. She’s obviously going to move on to the next stage, but is he?

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Defending Your Life is a subtle film. There is nothing particularly special about any of the performances, or the cinematography, or the production design. The jokes more often put a smile on your face than they make you laugh out loud. At the heart of the film is a tender romance, with the required Meet Cute, the first tender kiss, the obligatory happy ending. The premise is a great one, and Brooks’ screenplay is extremely clever, but there’s nothing especially extraordinary about the movie, especially from a filmmaking standpoint. So why then is this my favorite Meryl movie, and my favorite comedy ever?

Few movies, especially comedies, make you think differently about the world, but Defending Your Life truly transformed me when I saw it in high school. I had few friends at the time, and was always scared of social situations. I didn’t have a phobia by any means, but fear seemed to cloud up my head all day every day, in every endeavor I took on. Watching Defending Your Life for the first time not only entertained me to no end, with its witty one-liners and philosophical ideas and shades of romance, but it also woke me up to the fears that had been plaguing me year after year. At one point, a character says, “[People] can’t get through that fog [of fear]. But you get through it, and baby, you’re in for the ride of your life!” Defending Your Life is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about conquering your fears, and living a life in truth. This film is a whole lot more than a comedy. It’s one of those rare movies that can change your life for the better; it certainly did mine.

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The film is packed with one memorable scene after another. You can eat whatever you want to your heart’s content without gaining weight in Judgment City, and so this concept plays a big role in the film. Judgment City has a Past Lives Pavilion, where you can see the people you’ve been in previous lives; the scene that takes the viewer into this Disneyland-like attraction offers some of the film’s biggest laughs. Merely the way Brooks starts the film is ingenious, not rushing to the first punch-line, but instead giving us close to ten minutes with Daniel as he goes about his day, chatting with a friend, buying a new car, singing a Barbra Streisand song to his heart’s content. For those not knowing what’s coming, his death might seem a surprise, especially given that this is a comedy.

Can a comedy about death be funny, though? Allen’s done it, in Love & Death, as well as Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait. Brooks’ film is the most effective of all because it’s not overly surreal, and it doesn’t have a dead person returning to Earth. Brooks treats his premise seriously, and one of the elements that works so well here is that after awhile you begin to believe that heading to Judgment City and defending your own life is what actually happens to you when death rears its ugly head. And it’s not a ridiculous notion! I have no idea what happens to us when we die, but in the fifteen years since I first saw this movie, I haven’t been able to find a more sensible afterlife, albeit brief at only five days, than the one featured here.

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Casting is critical to a movie, especially comedies, and in Defending Your Life, Brooks gathered the perfect group. Brooks stars in every film he directs, and he’s a unique actor who always brings something unexpected and moving to each role he plays, whether it’s broader comedies like his Lost in America and Mother, or in more serious fare like the 2011 thriller Drive. He has a lovable face that harbors what always looks to be a tortured soul. In Defending Your Life, he brings the necessary mix of dry humor and self-loathing to a role that could have come across much blander in the hands of a different actor. His Daniel is not afraid to admit his past mistakes, and he has a sweet, romantic side even he probably didn’t know he was capable of. He can be silly at times, over-the-top in his mannerisms occasionally, but incredibly moving, too, especially in the speech he makes to Julia his final night in Judgment City, and in his defeated expression he displays when the devastating verdict comes in. Brooks has only been nominated for one Academy Award—Best Supporting Actor in Broadcast News—but he deserved a second nod for his stellar turn here.

The supporting cast was especially well chosen. Rip Torn has rarely been more effective in a comedy than he is in Defending Your Life, playing Daniel’s defendant, Bob Diamond. His corny counterarguments in the courtroom, the way he laughs at his own terrible jokes, his insistence on calling humans who live on Earth “little brains.” He is simply fantastic in this. Lee Grant is equally memorable, playing Lena Foster, otherwise known as the Dragon Lady. She’s Daniel’s prosecutor, and, coming off a loss the previous Thursday, she is determined to prove that Daniel’s fears should keep him from moving forward. Her icy demeanor makes for great sparring between she and Daniel, as well as she and Bob, especially toward the end.

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Meryl is at her cheery, likable best in Defending Your Life, and while this is my favorite film of hers, it’s probably her least remarkable performance in her entire career. Her character Julia has only a little backstory—her marriage had more bad times than good, and she loved her children—and all we come to really know about her is that she is a smarter, more heroic, more giving individual than Daniel. It’s not hard to see why he’s attracted to her; not only is Meryl absolutely luminous in this film, but she makes Daniel a better person.

Despite her limited screen-time and lack of any true character development, Meryl makes an indelible impression. While she played more selfish, borderline wicked characters in her other two broad comedies at the time—She-Devil and Death Becomes Her—she plays, more or less, the perfect woman in Defending Your Life. It was probably the concept of the movie and the chance to work with Brooks that attracted her to this project—even Meryl would have to admit this may have been her least challenging role as an actress in her entire career—but it probably didn’t hurt that she got to play the funny and at the same time be endearing, as opposed to her typical conniving.

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While Julia is only in small chunks of the movie, she becomes firmly swept up in Daniel’s journey. When Daniel is sentenced to return to Earth to try again, it seems inevitable that these two characters are not meant to be. Lost in America, Brooks’ previous film he wrote and directed before Defending Your Life, is an 1980s comedy classic, but it was criticized at the time by top critics, including Roger Ebert, for having a weak ending. Brooks must have learned his lesson because the ending to Defending Your Life couldn’t be more perfect. Not only does it have a happy ending, with Daniel reuniting with his beloved Julia, but it is an earned happy ending, one that forces Daniel to prove his courage once and for all. I have watched this movie multiple times over the last fifteen years, and that final minute still makes me tear up.

Released quietly in the spring of 1991, Defending Your Life did mediocre box office and made little impression on audiences. However, more than any movie Meryl has made, this film has grown in stature over the years through word of mouth, more than anything. Unlike so many movies that leave your mind when the credits start rolling, Defending Your Life sticks with you, not just for days, but for years. It’s one of those rare movies I own that I’ll pop in to my DVD player once in a while, because it makes me think about where I am in my life and how I’m going to proceed from here. Fear robs us from what we can accomplish, from experiences we wouldn’t otherwise be able to enjoy. When I have a moment of panic, or try to avoid a situation that might make me step out of my comfort zone, I think about Defending Your Life. What would my prosecutor in Judgment City say, if I said no to an opportunity because I was afraid? This is a very deep movie, especially for a comedy. Most films in this genre make you laugh. Defending Your Life has the ability to transform you, in every aspect of your life.

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Best of all, this movie makes me happy. My favorite films include Sunset Boulevard, The Truman Show, Mulholland Drive, Halloween. All very different, all special to me for different reasons. These are timeless movies to me, the kind that never get old and actually seem to improve each time I watch them. Defending Your Life is the same way. It may not feature Meryl’s most extraordinary performance—not by a long shot—but it’s certainly an extraordinary film, one I will treasure for the rest of my life.

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My Year With Meryl: Postcards From the Edge (1990)

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Sometimes, even the most acclaimed dramatic actress in the world needs to relax, and have some fun. After appearing in her first comedy She-Devil in 1989, some may have expected Meryl to go back to what she’s best known for—serious dramas. She eventually did of course, but not until 1993’s The House of the Spirits. With three kids in tow and a fourth on the way, Meryl didn’t want to make a movie on location far, far away, and chose between 1990 and 1992 to make films closer to home, in Los Angeles. Is it a coincidence that the three movies she made during this time were also comedies? Meryl had proven her wroth by the end of the 1980s, and it was her right to make a few broader comedies. Following She-Devil, she re-teamed with her beloved director Mike Nichols and co-starred alongside Shirley MacLaine in the entertaining, Hollywood-centric Postcards From the Edge.

Of course, of the four comedies she made during this time, Postcards From the Edge is the one that’s more serious, featuring plenty of powerful dramatic scenes. But it’s also hilarious at times, too, the story of a troubled, A-list actress named Suzanne who overdoses on pills and ends up in the hospital, then rehab. To get insurance on her next movie, she is forced into living with her drunk of a mother (Doris). The two rarely see eye-to-eye, and so Postcards From the Edge scores with a ferocious bite the most when these two gifted actresses square off against each other in a few memorable scenes. The script was written by Carrie Fisher, based on her novel, which has, she has even admitted, similarities to her own life with her actress mother, Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds desperately wanted to play the role of Doris in the movie, but director Nichols had his eye on MacLaine from the start. (Janet Leigh also reportedly wanted to play Doris, with her real-life daughter Jamie Lee Curtis playing Suzanne. How amazing would that have been!)

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Meryl has often said that Mike Nichols is one of her favorite directors to work with. They first collaborated on Silkwood in 1983, and then again on Heartburn in 1986. This would be their last motion picture together (they worked together one last time on the HBO mini-series Angels in America, in 2003), and once again, Nichols was able to bring out sides of Meryl that she had never shown before. As ridiculous as it may seem, up until 1990, Meryl had neglected showing herself on film simply as a modern-day American too often, and it’s refreshing to see that simple side of her in Postcards From the Edge. She has her addiction problems, her turmoil with her over-protective mother, but she also lets loose, enjoying romantic flings with a handsome young producer (Dennis Quaid) and goofing around on movie sets (the shot of her pretending to hang off a high-rise balcony is a great one). She may not be playing Australian or Polish or British here, but what Meryl does is just as difficult, portraying a sexy, vibrant woman whose emotional battles are not yet won.

The film itself is, like Meryl’s previous collaboration with Nichols, a mixed bag. Like Heartburn, Postcards From the Edge is made up of a few good to excellent scenes. The opening sequence before the title cards may be its best; it features a long shot of Suzanne, acting within the movie, ruining a long take, taking a quick break to get her drug fix, and getting screamed at by her director (a hugely effective Gene Hackman) for something no one on the set pretends is a secret. These first few minutes set up what could have been a more biting satirical film about Hollywood, but the tone of the movie fluctuates time and time again, going from straight comedy to intense drama to a romantic subplot that heads nowhere. There’s one great ferocious fight between Suzanne and Doris on a staircase that revs up the energy, but like Heartburn, Postcards From the Edge rarely offers much tension, and starts to burn out in its second half, ultimately giving us a phony happy ending (with singing!) that feels like something out of a different movie.

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Despite some flaws, one element that is always exciting of Nichols’ films is the superb casts he assembles, and Postcards From the Edge is no different. Meryl could be the sole actor in a movie, a la Robert Redford in All is Lost, and it would still be fascinating, but she is always at her best when she has other great actors on-screen to play off of. MacLaine is an inspired choice to play her mother, and she often gets the best lines. She knows this is a meaty role from the get-go, and offers both funny and dramatic moments. While Meryl received another Academy Award nomination for her performance in this film, MacLaine was snubbed in the Supporting category, despite her being a very worthy contender. Quaid does his best with an underwritten role, while Hackman is so superb playing a controlling film director that the character’s screen-time should have been doubled, if not tripled. Richard Dreyfuss, Rob Reiner, and the delightful Mary Wickes pop up in small roles, and Annette Bening, whose career was about to explode, makes an impression in just a single scene, playing an air-headed, gun-smacking actress who sleeps around and isn’t afraid to admit it.

One of the great pleasures of Postcards From the Edge is watching Meryl belt out a few songs. While the only musicals she has played significant parts in are 2008’s Mamma Mia and 2014’s Into the Woods, she has sung in a few other movies, including The Deer Hunter, Ironweed, Death Becomes Her, and A Prairie Home Companion. Her singing voice is lovely, and it’s always a treat when we get to hear it. While her ending song in the movie is a show-stopper, her quieter rendition of Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me,” which her character sings under pressure from her mother, who wants her to impress a large group of friends, is hauntingly beautiful. While Postcards From the Edge never quite connects as a satisfying whole, it features a dazzling performance by MacLaine and yet another rich and complex performance by Meryl, who received her ninth Oscar nomination to date. While she wouldn’t receive her tenth for five more years, that’s not to say she next appeared in a series of clunkers. No, her next movie, easily one of the most underrated of her entire career, would turn out to be my favorite Meryl movie of all.

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