Monthly Archives: December 2014

My Year With Meryl: Into the Woods (2014)

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With Into the Woods, we come to the end of My Year With Meryl, and what a great film to go out on. This funny, fast-paced movie musical that is dark enough for adults to appreciate, while toned down from the stage version enough to appease children, is uneven at times, with a supremely weird third act that throws one surprise at the viewer after another. But the film is an entertaining romp all the way through, with a terrific ensemble cast that features Chris Pine in his most scene-stealing role to date, Emily Blunt in a bravura performance, and Meryl looking like she’s having some of her most fun on-screen in four decades of filmmaking.

Meryl has said in interviews that for decades she had vowed to never play a witch on screen, because as soon as she turned forty, she received offers for three witch parts in one given year (she turned forty in 1989, so the Anjelica Huston role in 1990’s The Witches seems like it could have been one of them). She didn’t like what a witch represents: an older woman, ugly, isolated, with no wants or desires except to bring misery to those around her. Thankfully after nearly twenty-five years she put a hold on that rule just this once to play the Witch in Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), written by James Lapine, and based on the 1987 Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd). Winning Tonys for Best Score and Best Book, among others, Into the Woods ran for 765 performances over nearly two years, and has received national tours, numerous revivals, school productions, and reunion concerts. Now the film adaptation has finally arrived, and while it’s not perfect, it is one of the better movie musicals of the last ten years, and certainly Marshall’s best movie since his Academy-Award-winning debut, Chicago.

Fairy tale adaptations are definitely in right now, with Maleficent a recent blockbuster, and Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella likely to enchant audiences everywhere. Into the Woods is such a welcome delight in that it, like the ABC hit Once Upon a Time, blends numerous fairy tales all into one story. The characters of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel are all represented here, in an original story about a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Blunt) who are unable to start a family of their own, until one day the next-door Witch (Meryl) places a curse on them, forcing them to set out on a quest that could make a baby a reality. The duo ends up finding Jack’s cow, Rapunzel’s hair, Red Riding Hood’s cape, and Cinderella’s slipper, but will that be enough to appease the Witch? It’s not an easy adventure for anyone involved, what with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) climbing up and down the beanstalk, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) being locked away from life and love, Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) trying to evade the hungry Wolf (Johnny Depp), and Cinderella (a perfectly cast Anna Kendrick) fleeing from the ball on a nightly basis.

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All of these stories and characters being tossed around a single movie might have been chaotic or confusing, but Marshall’s assured direction and Wyatt Smith’s skillful editing keep everything clear from the first scene to the last. The major actors in the film all get at least one stand-out moment (with only Depp being underutilized), and the songs do a terrific job furthering the story and showing the hope and heartache in the characters, rather than ever stopping the movie cold. One element the film handles especially well is understanding that most viewers know these classic fairy tales through and through and don’t need every moment of them visualized on-screen; Marshall wisely avoids showing Jack up in the Giant’s castle or Cinderella dancing in the castle with the Prince (a delightfully goofy Chris Pine) and instead gives us the essentials that are needed for this particular story. Some have complained that the last thirty minutes or so of the movie, which more or less represents the controversial Act II of the stage musical, take the narrative in a misguided direction that feels strained and unnecessary. However, it’s this stretch of the film that the most interesting things actually happen, with the fairy tale endings we know by heart flipped on their heads and often cruelly ripped apart to create a dark, original ending that is in every way unexpected. Not all of the third act works—it does hit a lull or two—but much of it breaks from the norm, making for a conclusion that feels fresh and exciting.

One of the great joys of Into the Woods is seeing great, likable actors in both big roles and small. Kendrick is one of the highlights of the movie, with her pitch-perfect singing and vulnerable characterization of Cinderella that rings true. Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch are sinister as Cinderella’s stepsisters, and Christine Baranski brings a welcome comedic touch to her Stepmother. Daniel Huttlestone is a likable find as Jack, and it’s always fantastic to see Tracey Ullman, who plays Jack’s mother, in a movie. Lilla Crawford is a bit shrill, unfortunately, in the role of Red Riding Hood (and Johnny Depp gets almost nothing to do), but Mackenzie Mauzy is an effective screen presence as Rapunzel. Billy Magnussen is handsome and debonair as Rapunzel’s Prince, but it’s Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince who steals the show; Pine is hilarious and appropriately charming in the role, and his rendition with Magnussen of “Agony” is one of the film’s most memorable moments. James Corden is fine and tender as the Baker, but it’s Emily Blunt who truly shines, with an emotionally rich, tour-de-force performance that allows her to sing, beautifully, for the first time on film. She’s stunning in this.

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And then, lastly, there’s Meryl. Into the Woods marks her third and last supporting role in a 2014 film, and after appearing in underwritten, disappointing parts in The Giver and The Homesman, Rob Marshall’s musical finally gives her great things to do as the Witch, who is given depth, power, and fragility in her perfectly placed moments. Like Heath Ledger’s the Joker in The Dark Knight, the character of the Witch is in Into the Woods just the right amount, with Meryl freakishly good in a role that really amounts to two different people. The first is a wounded, bitter, outrageous old witch, with shaggy gray hair, scars and wrinkles on her face, and crusty, yellow fingernails. Meryl has rarely played a character this ugly before, but it’s the Witch’s love for her daughter Rapunzel that makes her far more than a one-dimensional villain. The Witch slowly becomes someone we’re rooting for just as much as the Baker and his wife. The second character is the post-transformation Witch, a stunning beauty with curly blue hair and a regal blue gown that is alternately Meryl’s most gorgeous minutes on film. She is a hoot in the third act, with winning moments of both humor and raw emotion.

The number one joy of this movie, though, is getting to hear Meryl sing on-screen once again. She has show-stopping numbers in Ironweed, Postcards from the Edge, A Prairie Home Companion. She danced all around Greece in the musical blockbuster Mamma Mia, still to date her most successful movie. And now in Into the Woods we get three fleeting but extremely effective Meryl numbers that may mark the best her voice has ever sounded in a movie. Maybe behind all that crazy hair and make-up she felt more free, and maybe the fantastical, theatrical nature of this material convinced her to go bigger, but Meryl is a powerhouse singer in Into the Woods like she’s never been in a film before. Her “Witch’s Lament” is quietly haunting and only sad in that it doesn’t go on longer, and her emotionally powerful “Stay With Me” will likely be the clip that runs at awards shows. But it’s her final big number—“Last Midnight”—that impresses most of all, with Meryl big and alive like she rarely gets the chance to be on-screen anymore, having what looks to be, after four decades in movies, the ultimate time of her life.

There’s a scene toward the end of Into the Woods where most of the characters come together, and in one single frame Meryl stands with Christine Baranski, her Mamma Mia co-star; Emily Blunt, her The Devil Wears Prada co-star; and Tracey Ullman, her Plenty co-star. It’s not a majorly significant scene—all the characters are confronting the angry female Giant—but it was this moment, where Meryl stands with three previous co-stars, that it hit me: My Year With Meryl is finally over. What a privilege and a joy it has been for the last fifty-two weeks to watch this actress evolve, surprise, affect, and entertain. She is the best we have, the most awarded and nominated actress we have, the most incredibly talented movie star in the world, and in Into the Woods, she gives us yet another of her astonishing performances.

Thanks for an amazing year, Meryl. I will miss you.

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My Year With Meryl: The Homesman (2014)

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Throughout her long career, Meryl has bounced around in different genres, starred as the main character in some films and appeared in smaller parts in others, and given audiences something unique and surprising each time out. She has rarely, however, made an appearance in a movie that felt like anything other than a favor to the film’s director. There have been films that she appeared in mostly due to the director’s persistence—Wes Craven famously had to write her a heartfelt letter before she changed her mind and signed on to 1999’s Music of the Heart—and there have been films of questionable merit that she has showed up in—the Farrelly Brothers’ Stuck on You and an awful and stiff 1990 television monstrosity called The Earth Day Special, in which she played the character of Concerned Citizen. But not until Tommy Lee Jones’ gorgeous looking but dramatically inert 2014 western The Homesman has Meryl been given such a tiny, thankless role. Appearing in no more than five minutes at the end of the movie, she does what she can with an underwritten part that gives her almost nothing to do.

When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, The Homesman looked prime to be a major year-end awards contender. Jones had before directed two television movies and one theatrical feature film—the acclaimed The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, also a western—and in a career that included terrific performances in films like Coal Miner’s Daughter and In the Valley of Elah, as well as an Oscar for his supporting role in The Fugitive, Jones looked like he might have finally done what Kevin Costner did with Dances With Wolves: excelled as both actor and director in a handsomely made western. The film offers a fantastic leading female role in Mary Bee Cutty, a part which two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank plays brilliantly from the first scene on. The supporting cast is filled with impressive names, everyone from John Lithgow to Hailee Steinfeld, from James Spader to Tim Blake Nelson. Even Meryl’s daughter Grace Gummer shows up in a major role.

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Early reviews were positive, but while the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, who shot the similarly stunning Brokeback Mountain, is lush and gorgeous, The Homesman is a crushing bore, with little urgency in its sprawling narrative, and with only Swank in a solid performance, one that unfortunately is tempered with an unexpected (and unnecessary) plot twist. In 1850s Nebraska, Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), single and yearning for an adventure, elects to travel across the country to round up three young women who have gone crazy. Toward the beginning of her journey, she encounters an older man George Briggs (Jones) who has been left for dead. Begging to be helped, George convinces Mary to let him join her. The two fight cold winter weather, tired horses, and a scarcity of food, and along the way, Mary starts to wonder if George may be the one who will agree to marry her, when no man before ever has.

The Homesman begins strong, when it focuses on Mary’s uneventful life at home, but as soon as she sets out on her cross-country trip, the film slows to almost a halt, mainly because George never amounts to a credible or interesting character, and the three crazy women offer little more than occasional screams and tantrums. Despite the wide open terrain featured in many wide establishing shots, so much of The Homesman makes the viewer feel claustrophobic, particularly in that middle hour where little conflict is to be had and the quiet quest toward an indiscernible destination becomes the movie’s only focus. By the time that destination is reached, little feels learned and accomplished, and the movie’s final scene, which features unexpected dancing on a ferry, is particularly weird and unsatisfying.

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Jones’ Unforgiven this is not, but The Homesman is not all a missed opportunity. Jones and Swank have a nice chemistry together, and Swank is fantastic in her subtle performance, easily her best on screen since Million Dollar Baby. She creates a fully three dimensional character that the viewer fully understands from her first few scenes on—that is until she makes a decision later in the movie that feels wrong and manipulative; even if this big twist was featured in Glendon Swarthout’s novel, it could have been corrected in the screenplay. While some of the major actors appearing in small cameos are distracting—John Lithgow is a prime example—James Spader is effective as a wealthy wiseass named Aloysius Duffy who appears in a brief, enormously tense scene that offers one of the film’s few suspenseful moments. Tim Blake Nelson goes a little over-the-top in his cameo, but Hailee Steinfeld shares a nice moment with Jones at the end, and Jesse Plemons, from Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad, is so quietly affecting in his few scenes at the beginning that it’s a shame he didn’t get more screen-time.

Meryl plays Altha Carter, the woman who the three crazy women are ultimately turned over to in the film’s conclusion. She appears in three successive scenes that are so short that if someone goes to the bathroom right before she appears, he or she might not get back in time before her character disappears. It’s nice to see Meryl and Jones together again on-screen so soon after their delightful pairing in the comedy Hope Springs, and it’s especially unique to see Meryl share a scene with one of her daughters—Grace Gummer, who appeared in Larry Crowne and Frances Ha, and who also played Meryl’s baby in The House of the Spirits. However, Meryl here is given so little to do and say that almost nothing is discovered about her minor character, who ultimately could have been played by any actress over sixty. Altha obviously didn’t need to be the focus of the film, but she could have played a bigger role in the narrative in the film’s third act, rather than simply saying hello, thanks, and goodbye. The Homesman is a mediocre western with little to recommend about it, and anyone going to see it to catch a supporting turn by Meryl will unfortunately be sorely disappointed.

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My Year With Meryl: The Giver (2014)

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As Meryl continues to rack up awards and accolades, winning her third Academy Award for The Iron Lady and being nominated again for Osage: August County, one might assume she would stick to appearing in movies as the lead, and only the lead; after all, most people think of Meryl as a leading lady and not a supporting one. Despite winning the Supporting Actress Oscar for Kramer Vs. Kramer back in 1980, Meryl often plays the main female character in films like in Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, The Bridges of Madison County, and The Devil Wears Prada. Especially after the weirdly anticlimactic year of 2007, which brought audiences three underwhelming dramas with Meryl in lame supporting roles, it seemed likely that she would stick to lead characters. And she did—Mamma Mia, Doubt, Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated, The Iron Lady, Hope Springs, August: Osage County. All successful films, many of them highly acclaimed awards contenders.

And yet, Meryl is anything but predictable, which she proved yet again in 2014, when she gave us supporting turns in not one, not two, but three new movies, just like in 2007. She plays a cameo role in Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman, and The Witch in Rob Marshall’s musical epic Into the Woods. First up in the year, however, was the adaptation of Lois Lowry’s beloved 1993 novel, which features Jeff Bridges in the title role, cute-as-a-button Brenton Thwaites as the main character Jonas, and Meryl in an icy turn as the Chief Elder, who runs a utopian community that has taken pain and anger away from its inhabitants and in turn ripped everyone of their emotions. At a heavily attended youth ceremony, one eerily similar to the one that opens the similarly themed Divergent, Jonas is picked to be the Receiver of Memory, a person who spends time with the Giver to receive past memories. When Jonas learns about what people’s lives were like before the society became so bland—and black and white—he turns against the system.

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Bridges had been trying to make this novel into a movie for twenty years. In 1994 he famously attempted to get a movie made that featured his father Lloyd Bridges in the title role, and his name had been tied to the project ever since. It seemed like it would never get off the ground, but then came the popularity of young adult adaptations—everything from Twilight to The Hunger Games to the aforementioned Divergent. When studio executives finally saw the potential they had with The Giver’s story, the project was greenlit, although with some required changes: Jonas’s age was bumped up from 11 to 16, there would be more action than the book, and the role of Chief Elder would be significantly beefed up for the adaptation (at least the effective black-and-white element of the novel carried over to the screen). Lowry herself was dumbfounded when Meryl signed on to play a part that had very little time and weight in the book, and only later learned that the role had been expanded for the movie. Good for all involved, given that Meryl’s chilling performance is one of the few memorable elements of a mostly dull and uninvolving production.

If Bridges had gotten the chance to direct his adaptation in the ‘90s, the result probably would have been more pure and faithful to Lowry’s book. Unfortunately, the 2014 version was made after the young adult revolution, so too much in it, from the ceremony scene, to the high-tech action, to the unnecessary teen romance, feel familiar and false; it’s especially sad given that the book came out more than a decade before any of the others before mentioned. For those who aren’t familiar with Lowry’s novel, this movie will feel like been-there-done-that, which is a shame. But even if one hadn’t seen the other young adult adaptations, this film feels pedestrian all the way through, with a lack of energy throughout, an anticlimactic ending, and two weird casting choices that are distracting. Katie Holmes plays Jonas’s mother, who is so much of a stiff, endlessly saying things like “Precision of language,” that the role brings her short period of Scientology worship to mind. Also, Taylor Swift pops up for a couple of insignificant scenes that add no emotion or depth to the story, and she looks so unlike herself that it begs the question of why she is a part of this.

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On the positive side, most of the other actors do a fine job, especially Bridges in the title role. It took so long for the movie to be made that he became old enough to take the part he had originally envisioned for his father, and he is quietly effective as the Giver, with his scarred psyche and husky voice. Thwaites, who broke out in 2014 with roles in The Signal and Malificent, is likable as Jonas, with a boyish face that makes the character appear even younger than he is, and Cameron Monaghan, so great on Shameless, has a couple of exciting scenes with Thwaites, as the best friend who turns on him. Lastly, Meryl does what she can as Chief Elder, starting with giving her a long gray bob that is one of her most unflattering haircuts in all her decades of moviemaking, but it must be noted that this is her most insignificant role in a movie since she played Corrine Whitman in 2007’s Rendition. At least a third of the movie she appears as a hologram, and at least another third she spends her time behind a giant throne, looking down on the others as if she’s some kind of God.

When asked in interviews why she agreed to be in the movie, Meryl said that she likes to play boss—she is the mother of four kids, after all—and that throughout her entire career she had always wanted to work with Bridges. He had been in talks for the Tommy Lee Jones role in Hope Springs a few years back, and so she latched onto the opportunity to work with one of the greats; it’s of course their few select scenes together that give the film the most tension. When she whispers to the Giver about an unfortunate incident that happened to his former Receiver of Memory, there’s an immediate sense of history between them, and when she completes a hologram message to him later in the narrative and says, “He’s lying,” the deception felt in her character cuts deeply. She has a little bit here and there throughout the rest of the film, but it’s her last scene, where she explains to the Giver how important it is not to revert back to the way the world used to be, that is Meryl’s best in the film, one that finally shows the character’s vulnerability, and her strict desire for no more change. While the film only works halfheartedly, Meryl does what she can with this underutilized villainous role, similar to one the equally brilliant Kate Winslet downsized her talent for in Divergent, but thankfully, Meryl would return as another, more complex villain in a better movie a few months following The Giver’s release—yes, Into the Woods was on its way.

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My Year With Meryl: August: Osage County (2013)

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In the first scene of August: Osage County, Meryl appears at the bottom of a staircase, confused, pale, her hair stripped down to just a few short strands of gray. She looks as awful in this scene as she has ever looked on-screen, and immediately, just two minutes in, we know this film is going to feature Meryl in a very dramatic performance, the likes of which were only briefly seen in The Manchurian Candidate and Marvin’s Room. If Death Becomes Her features Meryl’s most over-the-top performance in a comedy, August: Osage County offers probably her most over-the-top turn in a drama. Some of her moments portraying the pill-popping, cancer-riddled, foul-mouthed Violet Weston—the matriarch of a large messed-up family—are effective and mesmerizing, and then there are other moments where she goes a little too big with all her vindictive yelling. She’s always entertaining, but there are shades of her trying too hard in August: Osage County, a mediocre movie that unfortunately doesn’t add up to much.

The film is based on the Tony-award-winning, Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by Tony Letts. Premiering in Chicago in 2007, the play went on to enjoy a long Broadway run that lasted 648 performances, as well as a run on the London stage. Reviews of the play were mostly enthusiastic, while reviews of the film were much more mixed. Sometimes plays have seamless transitions to the big screen—the magnificent 12 Angry Men and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are two perfect examples—while others struggle to find the same emotional power on the big screen—the dull Plenty, also starring Meryl, is a prime example. August: Osage County ran a whopping three-and-a-half hours on the stage, and by truncating its runtime to barely two hours for the movie, Letts, who also wrote the screenplay, had to lose strong character moments that made the play so engaging for audiences. While a few powerful moments remain in the film, there are so many characters to keep track of and so much angst and extreme hate that never seems truly earned that after awhile, the film feels more contrived than it should. Also, director John Wells, most known as a TV producer, and who had only directed one other movie—2010’s The Company Men—before this one, doesn’t give the film any discernable visual style.

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What helps this flawed film the most is the astonishing ensemble cast, one of the most impressive ever compiled for a Meryl movie. Julia Roberts is the other big star in the film, but also on board are Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, and the late Misty Upham, as well as Meryl’s First Do No Harm co-star Margo Martindale and her Adaptation co-star Chris Cooper. Any three of those actors headlining a movie would be something worth seeing, so to have them all in this production makes this mixed bag of a movie worth watching at least once. Everyone does a fine job, but the three most notable supporting performances from this group come from Nicolson, Cooper, and Roberts. Nicholson, so subtle and effective on Showtime’s Masters of Sex, gives probably the quietest performance in the movie, and she has a terrific moment at the end when she learns a horrific truth about the man she loves. Cooper has the most honest scene in the movie, when after minutes of hatred has been spewed from one character to another, he confronts his wife (Martindale) and demands that she show moe respect to their son (Cumberbatch). For a few years, Roberts had a string of bad performances in flop movies, starting with 2009’s Duplicity and ending with 2012’s Mirror Mirror, and thankfully the role of Barbara gave Roberts her meatiest role since Anna in Mike Nichols’ Closer. She is in many ways the heart of the film, and she has some nice, authentic moments along the way.

And then, of course, there’s Meryl, who initially didn’t want to play the role of Violet. In interviews she has stated that playing this character wasn’t exactly something she yearned for, particularly given Violet’s non-stop nasty attitude. She was ultimately persuaded, though, and she commits to this character’s vitriolic attitude with no restraint whatsoever. While the film is an ensemble piece, Meryl is in lots of the movie, with a moving moment when she gets out of a car and runs through a field, a startling scene outside in the cold where she talks about her late husband, a sad conclusion where she dances to a song and realizes none of her daughters plan to stay, and two memorably whacko dinner table scenes that bring out the craziness in everyone. A moment late in the film is most remembered for the ridiculous line, “Eat the fish, bitch!” that Barbara screams at Violet, but it’s also a well-constructed scene of fast-cutting and suspense that works well, especially considering how great of chemistry Meryl, Roberts, and Nicholson have together.

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The dinner scene with the entire group, though, is the true centerpiece of the narrative. It is here that all the characters come together and share their feelings and pains and morbid thoughts. Violet sits at one end of the table, barking at almost everyone nearby in the rudest ways imaginable: calling one of her daughters ugly, and yelling at her sister’s husband, “Blow it out your ass!” As hard as some of what she says here is to take, it’s important to remember that the character is in immense physical pain from her cancer and is reeling from the loss of her husband; she’s a mean-spirited person to begin with so to add in these two factors bring out the worst in her. Meryl could have played this scene with a bit more subtlety; sometimes she goes so big it feels like she’s projecting on a stage to reach everyone in an audience, and not in a movie, where she can dial it back a little. However, her commanding presence in a room full of great actors is felt beginning to end, and she does her best to make some of the more hollow lines of dialogue ring true. There are some inconsistencies to be found in her character’s anger—while she calls out her granddaughter (Breslin) for saying something demeaning to her mother, Barbara later screams atrocities at Violet, and yet Violet thinks nothing of it—but overall she is so steeped in madness that eventually anything crazy she does seems warranted. It would be hard for any actress to make a character like this seem three-dimensional, but Meryl does her best to give Violet sympathetic qualities, and not just turn her into a monstrous matriarchal caricature.

August: Osage County premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, was released in limited release on December 27, and then expanded nationwide in early January—obviously this was a movie that had Academy Awards written all over it. Many involved in the production and at the studio probably assumed this one was going to receive numerous awards, not just for Meryl and Roberts, but for Picture, Director, Screenplay, and possibly in some other acting categories. In the end, the film only received two Oscar nominations: one for Roberts, in Supporting Actress, and one for Meryl, in Lead Actress, marking her eighteenth nomination overall, yet another new record. While the film didn’t please audiences and critics as much as many might have expected, August: Osage County offered Meryl yet another fascinating, complex character to play in a performance that is constantly riveting, sometimes flawed, endlessly entertaining, a bit screechy at times, never boring—and always full of surprises.

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