Monthly Archives: June 2014

My Year With Meryl: …First Do No Harm (1997)

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Meryl has always been prolific in her career, often making one or two movies a year (sometimes even more), but she was really cranking films out in the second half of the 1990s, appearing in no less than seven in the span of just four years, between 1995’s The Bridges of Madison County and 1999’s Music of the Heart. While Before & After disappointed with critics, and Dancing at Lughnasa bombed at the box office, the film she made during this time that probably perplexed the most people was …First Do Harm, to date her one and only made-for-TV movie.

It’s not that Meryl always shied away from television. She appeared in a significant role in the epic 1978 mini-series for NBC, Holocaust, as well the acclaimed 2003 HBO mini-series Angels in America, which won her an Emmy. But for her to appear in a lowly TV-movie, one directed by the mastermind behind comedy spoofs like Airplane and Hot Shots and who had never attempted drama before, seemed a bit of a head-scratcher to people. But don’t let the fact that this isn’t some big Hollywood production deter you; …First Do No Harm is a riveting, first-rate film with excellent performances and a strong message about doing what’s right for your health, no matter the opposition. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges, with cinematography that can be wanting (too much shaky-cam at times) and a sometimes obnoxious musical score (especially when something really, really bad happens). But if you’re a Meryl fan, you owe it to yourself to seek this one out.

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Lori (Meryl) is happily married to Dave (Fred Ward), a truck driver, and is the mother to three children. She seems to have the ideal, stress-free life, when her youngest son Robbie (Seth Atkins) falls in the front yard and goes into a seizure. At the hospital he is diagnosed with epilepsy, and is immediately put on a variety of drugs, including phenobarbital, phenytoin, and carbamazepine. But the drugs only make him worse and worse, to the point that he’s completely bed-ridden and dependent and suffering at least 100 seizures a day. When the doctors can’t seem to solve Robbie’s problem, Lori starts researching epilepsy herself, and discovers a natural remedy and sometimes cure called the ketogenic diet that hasn’t even been brought up by the doctors as a potential option. Despite the misgivings of her doctor (an effectively cold Allison Janney), Lori stops at nothing to put her son on the diet, and stop his epilepsy for good.

Jim Abrahams, known for co-directing Airplane and Top Secret!, as well as directing the two Hot Shots movies, had never come close to stepping over that line between comedy and drama, but …First Do No Harm was a story he simply had to tell. Abrahams’ own son Charlie suffered from severe seizures and was cured after going on the ketogenic diet. Upset that the diet had never been presented as a possible treatment, Abrahams created the Charlie Foundation to promote it, and he directed and produced this film. His strong tie to the story probably had something to do with Meryl coming on board, given that this was a movie produced for ABC TV and not for cinemas; it’s not every day that a ten-time Oscar nominee headlines a project for the small screen. However, while many TV movies of the 1990s are practically unwatchable today—check out She Cried No, with Candace Cameron, for a hilarious example—First Do No Harm is compelling, important entertainment, no matter the medium it was made for.

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Abrahams assembled a stellar cast for this project, which includes faces still well known today and faces we haven’t seen much since, but they’re all fantastic. Ward is always a welcome presence in any movie, and he has powerful chemistry with Meryl, playing a man who loves his sick son but rarely knows what to do to make things right with his family. Margo Martindale plays Lori’s compassionate friend Marjean, making this the second of three times she shared the screen with Meryl (they share scenes in Marvin’s Room and August: Osage County). Janney wasn’t that well known in 1997, and this was one of her first substantial roles (later that same year she made impressions in Private Parts and The Ice Storm, on her way to The West Wing). Her performance as the boy’s stone-faced but sympathetic doctor is a standout. As terrific as all the adult actors is Seth Adkins, six years old when he played Robbie. His performance as the epileptic child is wholly convincing all the way through, and he rightly deserved his Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a TV Movie.

Of course, Meryl, who received Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for her performance as Lori, is as good here as she always is, and her stellar work raised the bar for acting in made-for-TV films. While she might have played one too many moms in the 1990s (pretty much everything besides Death Becomes Her), she obviously believed in this project from the get-go and committed to a multi-layered character who does anything she can to save her child, including removing her son from the hospital illegally and standing up to the narrow-minded authority. Scenes of her crying in desperation when she feels she’s out of options rip your heart out, and scenes toward the end when she discovers her son might actually pull through returns your heart to its proper place. She’s in almost every scene of the two-hour movie, and her performance makes an occasionally uneven film an absolute must-see. …First Do No Harm is proof that old TV movies aren’t necessarily lesser experiences than their theatrically released counterparts—but it also doesn’t hurt to have Meryl in the lead.

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My Year With Meryl: Marvin’s Room (1996)

 

If there’s one drama Meryl has made that she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for, but one I feel she absolutely deserved one for, it’s Marvin’s Room. Released at the end of 1996 to mostly great acclaim by critics, this endlessly absorbing film unfortunately stalled at the box office and received only a few significant awards nominations. While Meryl received yet another Golden Globe nomination for her performance, she was passed over at the Academy Awards, in favor of Diane Keaton, who earned a nomination in Meryl’s place. There might have been some confusion as to whether Meryl should have been submitted in the Lead Actress or Supporting Actress category, but no matter—her performance as Lee in Marvin’s Room is one of her best of the 1990s, and certainly one of her most entertainingly vitriolic. The film is also a real winner, one of my favorites of her entire career.

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Meryl originally didn’t want to play Lee. At her friend Robert De Niro’s request, she went to see the play by Scott McPherson in 1991, and instantly fell in love with the character of Bessie. The story of two estranged sisters who haven’t talked in twenty years but who come together when one is diagnosed with leukemia, Marvin’s Room features a terrific ensemble of characters, none richer than the sick but eternally optimistic Bessie. The actress playing this part gets the most emotional scenes and the most heart-wrenching moments, but by the time the film finally went into pre-production in 1995, Meryl had played a string of proper, good-natured characters, and she wanted a change of pace with the bad-tempered, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking sister, Lee.

When we first meet her, Lee is trying to get her life on track, the best way she can. She’s divorced and his two kids, her older son Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) a troublemaker who burns down their house and enters a psychiatric ward for observation. However, she is also about to receive her degree in cosmetology, so when her sister Bessie (Diane Keaton) calls to ask her if she and her two boys will come down to Florida to be tested for a possible bone marrow transplant, she isn’t exactly thrilled to go. She’s more nervous than excited to see Bessie after all these years, and she’s equally concerned at how well Hank will fit in with a house full of strangers. When she first arrives, there’s instant tension between her and her sister, but as the film goes on, and as Bessie becomes sicker, a bond forms between them that neither one could have expected.

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The film’s premise and differing personalities of the central characters give a wealth of complex scenes for the actors to play. While she shares about the same amount of screen-time with Meryl, Keaton is the heart and soul of the film. The beloved Oscar-winning actress had won over critics and audiences in The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Reds, but Keaton hadn’t received a real juicy dramatic role in more than ten years when Marvin’s Room came along. Any actress can go over-the-top when playing a character who’s dying of cancer, and the beauty of Keaton’s performance is that it is always understated, never going for that big showy moment. She is terrific throughout.

Equally impressive is DiCaprio, in his last major screen role before he made the fateful trip aboard the Titanic. Wonderfully crazed and manic in the first act, his character has many layers throughout, with an earned transformation toward the end. Robert De Niro, who also produced the film and developed it for many years from the stage to the screen, is hilarious as Bessie’s local doctor, and Gwen Verdon, in one of her last film roles, is a hoot as Bessie and Lee’s eccentric Aunt Ruth. Hume Cronyn, in his final theatrical film role, is quietly haunting as the film’s title character, saying so much by never uttering a word.

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Meryl, at the top of her game, hadn’t ripped into a showy, angry, resentful character like Lee since she played Madeline Ashton in the special effects comedy, Death Becomes Her. After a string of quieter dramatic roles, her best being Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County, Meryl probably had a blast inhabiting a showy role like Lee, one who provides some very funny moments as well as unexpectedly emotional ones in the third act. Her interaction with Hank’s therapist, Dr. Charlotte (Margo Martindale, who Meryl would share the screen with in 2013’s Osage: August County) is borderline goofy, and her initial interactions with Bessie feature awkward lines and moments that make the viewer laugh. But as the center core of her character comes through toward the end of the movie, the laughs drain away, and the true heart to her character finally starts beating. Just the way she hugs her sister in the final scene is enough to send any viewer into a crying fit. This is one of Meryl’s most unexpected performances, and also one of her most affecting.

The beauty of Marvin’s Room is the way that it treads the line between comedy and drama all the way through, and, somehow, almost impossibly, manages to succeed in both. Scott McPherson finished the screenplay mere weeks before he died (in November 1992, four years before the movie was released) and he clearly infused it with as much honesty and humanity as he could muster. The film is significant for featuring Keaton and De Niro in their first movie together since The Godfather Part II, and re-teaming Meryl and De Niro for the third (and to date, final) time, after The Deer Hunter and Falling in Love. It also is significant for being, like On Golden Pond and Driving Miss Daisy, one of the better modern stage-to-film adaptations made by a major studio. Marvin’s Room tells somewhat of a familiar story, but it remains one of my favorite Meryl movies. It teams half a dozen acting legends in one movie, and while Keaton ultimately received the Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Meryl, in yet another standout performance, was equally as deserving.

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My Year With Meryl: Before & After (1996)

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Not every actor makes perfect choices in his or her career, not even Meryl, and Before & After, a somber, mostly dull drama that offers few surprises, was one of her most peculiar choices of all. Released quietly in February 1996, Before & After died a quick death at the box office and was quickly dismissed by most major film critics. The film is competently made, watchable, includes a few effective scenes. But what about the mediocre screenplay attracted Meryl to this project? After a rare misstep with the dreadful The House of the Spirits, Meryl conquered action in The River Wild and a hauntingly beautiful love story in The Bridges of Madison County. She was at the height of her dramatic power in the mid-1990s, and Before & After, while not a terrible movie, is never worthy of Meryl’s talent.

The film plays out like a slow, dreary Lifetime TV-movie, the kind that would feature someone like Roma Downey in the mother role, not a ten-time-Oscar-nominated actress of Meryl’s stature. She plays a small town doctor who has what she thinks is a simple, normal life, with a husband who loves her and two kids at home. But everything changes one fateful day when a teenage girl turns up dead in the snow and her own son is accused of killing her. The film paints the son (an oddly distant Edward Furlong) as being guilty from the get-go, since he doesn’t show up until well into the movie’s second act. But did he actually kill her on purpose? And how will his parents react to the sentence their son is bound to receive in court?

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These questions are meant to keep us engaged all the way through the movie, but they do only to a certain point. While the movie has plenty of explosive acting scenes, probably three too many, to keep the viewer interested in the story, the movie ultimately flounders, for a few reasons. To start with, the script could have been tighter and more focused, with fewer scenes that ramble on and on. The direction by Barbet Schroeder is serviceable and yet without any interesting visual flourishes or passion on his part that shows he really cared about telling this story. Nominated for an Oscar for the fantastic Reversal of Fortune, from 1990, Schroeder has spent most of his career making B-list dramatic thrillers like Single White Female, Desperate Measures, and the Sandra Bullock starrer Murder by Numbers, to date his final American film. He shoots Before & After like he’s a director-for-hire, almost as if he’s counting the days until he can move on to another project.

There never seems to be much interest in telling this story from the actors either. Liam Neeson reportedly apologized to Gene Siskel at the 1996 Academy Awards for being in Before & After, which seems like a radical thing for an actor of his caliber to do—that is, until you watch this movie. He seems totally lost, almost always putting his character in a bad mood, sometimes for good reasons, and other times inexplicably. He also has no chemistry with Meryl and seems often like her mentally unstable younger brother (of course, this makes their unexpected sex scene halfway through the movie one of Meryl’s most awkward moments in a movie ever). Alfred Molina hams it up as the son’s smarmy lawyer (he even sports a thick, villain-like moustache!) and Edward Furlong, so great in films like Terminator 2 and American History X, appears so distant in the pivotal role of the son that it typically seems like he’s reading off cue cards.

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Meryl does what she can with a routine, underwritten role. This is not one of her most inspired performances; actually, this is one of her rare roles that could have been acted by any other actress of her generation, maybe even better. Meryl has such an intelligent, vibrant face that watching her dour expressions throughout this movie, listening to her utter one inane line of dialogue after another, becomes trying after awhile. A mother of four at this point in her life, she might have been intrigued to play the mother of a child accused of murder, but the script and direction are never worthy of her. Her son is missing for days, she doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead, and yet there never seems to be enough worry on her character’s part. Her profession in the film never rings true either, nor her relationship with her husband, nor the feeling ever that she is actually the mother of this unusual boy who trashes his room on a daily basis and hides secrets from everybody close to him. A decision the character makes to tell the truth late in the movie also doesn’t feel earned enough, so in the end, you’re left with Meryl doing all she can with a part that is easily one of her weakest ever.

This is not to say that Before and After is completely without merit. Meryl does have a few good moments, like when she defends her son to the sleazeball lawyer, and when she apologizes to the mother of the girl who died. It’s Meryl—she’s going to infuse even the most routine of scenes with authentic emotion and the utmost humanity. Unlike the unbearable The House of the Spirits, Before and After is never boring, with an early sequence involving Neeson burning evidence that does have a bit of tension. But unless you’re a diehard Meryl fan, or are revisiting some older Neeson movies, or are the one person left who still has a mad crush on Furlong (hey, don’t be ashamed), Before and After is easy to skip. Meryl made much better movies in the ‘90s, even in the very same year this film was released. If you want to see a great 1996 Meryl drama, pass on Before and After, and look no further than the funny and very moving Marvin’s Room.

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My Year With Meryl: The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

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A quiet romantic film released in the midst of summer, starring, of all people, Clint Eastwood? The Bridges of Madison County was, like the runaway novel bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code and The Help, always going to be made into a movie—Sydney Pollack circled the project with Robert Redford as his lead, and even Steven Spielberg briefly considered taking it on—but what kind of a movie was it going to be? Would it be too melodramatic? Would the two leads have any chemistry? When Eastwood—who in 1995 was most known for playing Dirty Harry, an action hero, and for directing Unforgiven, a dark western—was announced to be the co-actor and director of The Bridges of Madison County, there were likely a few eyebrows raised. Approaching age 65, he was an unlikely romantic lead as the handsome photographer Robert Kincaid, but what’s even more surprising is that the higher-ups at Warner Bros. wanted an actress far younger than what the part called for.

The pretty and complex Italian housewife Francesca Johnson, age 45, could have been played by many actresses at the time, both old and young. Jessica Lange and Isabella Rossellini were in contention for the lead, and the stunning French actress Catherine Deneuve (in her early 50s at the time) auditioned for the role. Younger actresses likely considered were Michelle Pfeiffer, Demi Moore, Rene Russo, and Kim Basinger, but Eastwood didn’t want to hear any of it. He made one phone call, to a beloved actress who hadn’t had a role this layered and deep since playing Lindy Chamberlain in A Cry in the Dark. Meryl didn’t so much care for the book, but she loved the script, and she signed on immediately, making The Bridges of Madison County her first significant role in a drama in seven years. And while she’s been nominated for an Academy Award eighteen times and counting, her Oscar-nominated performance as Francesca is easily one of her five greatest performances in her illustrious career. She is so quietly heartbreaking in this that she basically overshadows everything else in a flawed but effective film, one of Eastwood’s best.


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The story is simple. Living in small-town Iowa, Francesca has a rare four days to herself, when her husband and two children leave to attend the Illinois State Fair. On day one, an attractive photographer arrives at her doorstep, asking for directions to a nearby bridge he has been commissioned to take pictures of. She shows him how to get to his destination, and from that moment on, they start spending more time together. They have dinner and drive to more bridges and talk about their histories, and potential futures. By day two, it’s clear that Robert and Francesca are smitten with each other, but is it even possible that they have a happily ever after? Francesca has a life in Iowa, while Robert is constantly on the move, never settling in one place. In the end, he asks her to run away with him, and be the adventurous woman her current husband never allowed her to be. The decision she finally makes, in the film’s haunting and most famous scene, is one that resonates with the viewer for days.

Eastwood supplies The Bridges of Madison County with just the right tone. The same leisurely way he paced his Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, he gives this film a quiet authenticity that keeps it from ever becoming too heavy-handed. Another director might have filmed too many scenes of Robert and Francesca gazing into each other’s eyes while the music swells and the camera spins around them so many times you get dizzy. There is, of course, a tender scene where the two just stare at each other for a moment, but it’s done in a subtle, non-cheesy manner, with the music coming from the nearby radio. And while the two fall in love in—oh—two days, the slow pacing allows the viewer to buy that these two lost souls could fall for each other so fast. The pairing of Meryl and Eastwood seems like an unlikely one, especially for a romance, but their chemistry is electric, the kind that is rarely seen in movies. Unlike so many forced romantic pairings, they actually feel right together, and their attraction for each other from the get-go feels natural and earned.

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One of the great surprises of the movie is Eastwood’s performance. While it’s difficult to watch him in any movie and forget you’re watching thee Clint Eastwood—unlike Meryl, who so easily disappears into each role she plays—he shows a different, more vulnerable side to his personality in The Bridges of Madison County. This is probably his sweetest performance ever captured on screen, and one of his most natural. Not too many actors could say the line “This kind of certainty comes but just once in a lifetime” with a straight face, let alone pull it off as an authentic movie moment, but somehow, he does. In addition, the image of Eastwood standing in the rain at the end, forever alone, clinging onto a false hope that Francesca will run away with him, is a beauty.

But as fine as Eastwood is, he as the director wisely made this Francesca’s story, and Meryl’s movie. The Bridges of Madison County is probably Meryl’s most stellar dramatic performance of the 1990s. Every choice she makes is a good one, both the big and the small. Her Italian accent is without fault, but Meryl went much farther to bring this character to life. She reportedly gained fifteen to twenty pounds, which gives the character a specific look, one of a woman who, while pretty, has been beaten down a bit by a sedentary life. Just the way she walks, the way she holds herself, suggests a person who rarely feels joy. But when Robert comes around, her body language changes. She moves a bit quicker, with more jubilance in her step. One of my favorite gestures Meryl makes in the whole movie is when she claps her hands together, after Francesca agrees to meet with Robert to go sightseeing. It’s a lovely moment that tells so much with so little.

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The role has endless layers. She gets to play goofy, sad, lonely, in love, desperate, at peace. Almost every new scene gives Meryl a new note to play. Just the way she laughs in a handful of scenes—especially the one in which Francesca jokes that the flowers Robert gives her are poisonous—are perfectly modulated. She’s great all the way through but, of course, it’s the hauntingly constructed scene at the end, in the truck, in the rain, that pulls at the viewer’s heartstrings the most. She doesn’t just long for Robert. She has an out-of-body experience as she tugs on that door handle. She knows in her heart she can’t go, but she still doesn’t want to give up the dream. With no words spoken, Meryl tells us in her eyes exactly what she’s feeling. It’s a marvelously acted scene that is probably one of the most famous moments of any romance film ever made. Meryl was nominated for her tenth Academy Award for her performance but lost to Susan Sarandon, for Dead Man Walking; in a less competitive year, she likely would have won her third Oscar.

The Bridges of Madison County is not without its flaws. The awkward wrap-around story is too amateurishly acted, and the scene in the truck at the end is so powerful that the final ten minutes, which shows Francesca at an older age, seems unnecessary. But overall, it’s grand entertainment, the kind of film Hollywood used to make all the time in the ‘30s and ‘40s but rarely in the ‘90s. The book might not have been the finest piece of literature ever written, but Eastwood was able to translate these two unique characters and winning themes into a movie that works far better than it should have. Best of all, Meryl, after a seven-year hiatus from leading roles in dramas, rose to the challenge of playing a very complex character, a housewife in her forties who still has dreams and ambitions that go beyond her tiny farm in Iowa. While Meryl would go on to star in six more dramas in the second half of the decade, none of her performances in those movies would match the beautiful work she does in The Bridges of Madison County.

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