One of the best films Meryl ever made that she received no Oscar nomination for is Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, a haunting, gorgeous movie about three women’s lives that are intertwined despite the locations and decades between them. More accolades might have come Meryl’s way for The Hours, but the film community chose to acknowledge her equally strong work in Adaptation that holiday season. After a three-year absence from the screen, Meryl had not one but two fantastic films released in the same month—December 2002—and both were highly creative endeavors that played with the expectations of narrative and told of the power of books and hypnosis of writing. Both also featured Meryl not in the lead role, but as part of an ensemble.
And quite the ensemble The Hours is. Featuring Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman as the other two women, as well as a cast that includes Ed Harris, Miranda Richardson, Toni Collette, Jeff Daniels, and Claire Danes, among others, this film is a who’s-who of great actors. In one of the two DVD audio commentaries, director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Reader) said that he and the producers got their first choice for every single role, a rarity even in the most prestigious of Oscar-bait movies. It was producer Scott Rudin who suggested Meryl for the role of Clarissa, a woman living in 2001 New York who’s in a strained lesbian relationship and spends most of her time caring for her dying ex-boyfriend Richard (Ed Harris). Meryl was aware of the material before being offered the film—she had previously read Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, which featured Meryl herself as a small character. Many deemed the book unfilmable, but screenwriter David Hare managed to translate much of the interior monologues into a highly cinematic experience.
The Hours is about three different women who all have the essence of one soul. The first woman is the famous, troubled writer Virginia Woolf, working on her books and fighting her bouts of depression in Essex, England, in 1923. The film uses a mix of Woolf’s real words and Hare’s manufactured ones to show a woman at the height of her creative powers. Nicole Kidman, a surprising choice for the real-life figure, won an Academy Award for her subtle, effective work. With a fake nose and pale, almost lifeless cheeks, she completely disappears in the role like she has never done before or since in her long career. While it was purely a political move for Kidman to win her Oscar in Best Actress and not Best Supporting Actress—with less than thirty minutes of screen-time in a two-hour movie, it’s difficult to make the case for this being a lead performance—she delivers tremendous work for the little time she has.
Virginia Woolf wrote the beloved novel Mrs. Dalloway, which the film’s second major character Laura Brown, a sad ‘50s housewife, spends much of her time reading. Fighting the romantic feelings she has for another woman and weighing the pros and cons of abandoning her family for a better life, Laura is the most complex character in the film. Julianne Moore, who received an Academy Award nomination for her role and also starred as a ‘50s housewife that same year in the equally outstanding Far From Heaven, breathes life into a woman who has no life, who cares for her child when she barely cares for him at all. Of the three stories, this is one that could have existed as its own movie, but the way Laura’s story is tied into Virginia’s and Clarissa’s makes the experience all the richer.
Clarissa’s story has the most screen-time in the movie, at over forty minutes, but while Meryl gets a couple great moments, her character is surprisingly the least interesting of the three women. Talented actors surround her all the way through, and this is a unique part in that it’s to date the only gay character she’s ever played. However, unlike the other two lead characters, Clarissa seems to react more than do. In her two scenes with her dying friend Richard, Harris gets to chew the scenery (all the way to an Oscar nomination of his own), while she looks on. She reacts more than interacts with her partner Sally (Allison Janney) and daughter Julia (Claire Danes), and the film’s mesmerizing final scene that brings Clarissa and Laura into the same space is almost completely guided by a verbose Moore, as a quiet Meryl looks on. Usually Meryl is the star of a movie, taking charge of one scene after another, but The Hours makes for a rare scenario in which she takes a back seat to other more colorful characters. The one scene that does offer her a moment to shine takes place when she reunites with an old friend Louis, played by Jeff Daniels. She is put together at the beginning of their conversation, but then she has an emotional breakdown, right in front of him, one that sends her down to the floor and wrings out more than a few tears. In this scene—the longest in the movie, at almost nine minutes—Meryl commands the screen, showing the vulnerability of a woman who normally refuses to show a shred of it.
Meryl has said that the experience shooting The Hours was a lot different than shooting Adaptation. While the atmosphere on the set of Adaptation was usually light and fun, on The Hours it was more serious and difficult. The core trio joked later that the production should have been called The Long Hours. Daldry is one of the most acclaimed and sought-after filmmakers—the man received a Best Director nomination for each of his first three movies, a record—and with this kind of difficult subject matter, he needed to get the tone of his film just right. Casting great actors was only the first step; endless hours of rehearsal and long days on the set were the norm. Not that she was complaining about it, as Meryl said in one of the two DVD audio commentaries. She works extremely hard on each movie she does, and she said that sometimes the movie works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The Hours is one that really, really worked. Sometimes her performances are better than the movies they’re featured in, but in 2002, Meryl made the rare feat of appearing in not just one but two excellent movies, and The Hours, to this day, remains one of her very best.