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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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My Year With Meryl: A Cry in the Dark (1988)

“The dingo took my baby!!!!” Or “The dingo ate my baby” as it’s better known now, even though that second line is never actually uttered in the movie. How often have we heard these phrases? When I was an intern at Phoenix Pictures in 2006, I asked one of the executives why his AOL screen name was thedingoatemybaby. “If you have to ask,” he said, “you don’t deserve to know the answer.”

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Naturally I looked into the matter and discovered that the phrase stemmed from a real life tragedy that took place in Australia in August 1980. A nine-week-old girl, Azaria Chamberlain, was taken by a dingo near Ayers Rock and killed. Her mother Lindy was later wrongly convicted of murder, and she served three years in jail. She was finally found innocent when the baby’s jacket was found in a dingo den, and it wasn’t until June 12, 2012 (!) that the cause of Azaria’s death was officially listed as a dingo attack. It’s a sad event that unfortunately has turned into a funny one-liner over the years—even Nora Ephron cracked a joke about it at Meryl’s AFI Lifetime Achievement ceremony—but it fortunately also spawned a compelling 1988 film, A Cry in the Dark, re-uniting Meryl with her Plenty director Fred Schepisi and co-star Sam Neill.

Despite my love for Meryl, before starting this project there had been a few of her movies that I’d missed, and one was A Cry in the Dark (also released as the awkwardly titled Evil Angels in Australia). Therefore, it was thrill to finally check it out, the last of the films that Meryl received an Oscar nomination for that I hadn’t seen. Despite some slow stretches, and a few overlong court scenes, A Cry in the Dark is the most engaging of the four dramas Meryl made between 1985 and 1988, with a true-life story that offers sometimes more questions than it does answers. Director Schepisi’s matter-of-fact storytelling, which hindered the slowly-paced Plenty, works much better here, showing the ups and downs of two parents who not only have to deal with their loss of their young daughter, but untrue allegations made about them that ultimately land Lindy in prison.

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At the start of the film, only smiles are to be had on the main characters’ faces. Lindy (Meryl) and her husband Michael (Neill) take a camping holiday in the Outback with their two young sons and their new baby girl. One night, the family is enjoying a barbecue, as the baby sleeps in the zipped-open tent. Lindy returns to the tent to see a dingo running out of it, with something in its mouth. When she discovers her baby girl missing, she screams the immortal line: “The dingo took my baby!” Everyone at the camp joins forces to search for the baby, to no success. Michael is a religious man, and that night he questions God’s intentions, asking why he would bestow onto them to gift of a daughter, only to snatch her away mere weeks later. As Lindy and Michael deal with their immense grief, the allegations begin: the story about the dingo is made-up, the last name Azaria means “sacrifice in the wilderness,” the parents decapitated their baby with a pair of scissors as part of a religious rite. After initially being discharged from any wrongdoing, Lindy is pulled back into an investigation about Azaria’s disappearance, and is eventually found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

A Cry in the Dark is maybe not as well shot as Out of Africa or has the attention to detail in the production design of Ironweed, but it is certainly the most riveting, easy, of these three films. Even though I was aware of the outcome of Lindy and Azaria’s story upon sitting down to watch this movie, it still had me in its grip for most of the running time. Sam Neill is always excellent, and it was a joy to see him and Meryl together in a second project. His part is just as complex as Meryl’s because he is playing a man totally committed to his religious faith, yet, like Mel Gibson’s character in Signs, a tragic accident occurs that makes him question what he believes. His commitment to his wife, even in the most trying of times, is also a refreshing change of pace, considering that their marriage, for dramatic purposes, could have been played more strained and contentious.

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One of the main joys of watching a Meryl movie week after week is seeing how she will surprise me next. She’s so gifted at creating wholly original and three-dimensional characters on the screen (even in lesser material), and her performance as Lindy has to be considered one of her most astonishing. With her black bob of a haircut, she looks almost unrecognizable, and, even more impressive, her Australian accent is so spot-on that within minutes of the movie you naturally assume that’s how she talks, no questions asked. Meryl is famous for her accents, and she delivers one of the best in A Cry in the Dark. But going deeper than that, she hits so many notes with Lindy, playing hysterics, grief, anger, resentment. One of her best scenes comes toward the end, in her revealing court scene, when she doesn’t play on the jury’s sympathy about the loss of her baby girl, but instead appears emotionless on the stand, tired of all the allegations and the rumors and wanting nothing more than to get the trial over with and move on with her life. Courtroom scenes are so common in the movies, but Meryl manages to make this one a truly original and captivating moment.

A Cry in the Dark closed out a remarkable run in the 1980s of dramas that scored her a whopping six Oscar nominations, her last of which pitted her up against Glenn Close for a second time, ultimately losing to Jodie Foster for The Accused. She was also nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, and won the New York Film Critics Circle and Australian Film Institute awards for Best Actress. When the film was taken to the Cannes Film Festival in May 1989, not only was it nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or, but Meryl won the Best Actress award of the entire festival, six long months after A Cry in the Dark’s US release. By 1989, Meryl had proven her worth to audiences all over the world, so maybe it was Meryl herself who decided to give some other actresses a shot at the limelight, while she concentrated on a brand new genre few would have ever expected her to tackle—comedies!

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My Year With Meryl: Silkwood (1983)

After winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep could have done anything she wanted. She could have taken a break. She could have sold out and made a summer blockbuster. So what did she do? Just two and a half weeks after she wrapped Sophie’s Choice, she started filming Silkwood, the acclaimed 1983 drama co-starring Cher and Kurt Russell. That brief hiatus between movies was probably stressful on Meryl, but she couldn’t have picked a better follow-up to Sophie’s Choice. With Silkwood, she began her close working relationship with the Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols, who would go on to direct her in Heartburn, Postcards from the Edge, and the HBO mini-series Angels in America. She also stunned in another lead performance, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress her third year in a row.

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While much of Sophie’s Choice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman featured Meryl in period roles, Silkwood allowed Meryl to stretch her muscles in a wholly modern story, one based on true events. She plays Karen Silkwood, a metallurgy worker at a plutonium processing plant. She makes plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors, where she deals with possible exposure to radiation. She doesn’t love her job but does what she have to to stay afloat. She has a steady relationship with her boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell) and loves spending time with her best friend Dolly (an almost unrecognizable Cher)—it doesn’t hurt matters that they both work at the same plant. When Karen and others become contaminated by radiation, plant officials blame her for the incident, and she begins an investigation into the various wrongdoings at the company. But before she is able to make it to a New York Times reporter with her findings, Karen dies in a mysterious car crash.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Alice Arlen and Nora Ephron (who would go on to direct Meryl twenty-five years later in Julie and Julia) is delicate in its handling of Karen’s controversial death. While the film doesn’t offer any answers, it also doesn’t glorify the death in any way or use it in a tacky manner just to create tension. Other directors might have used the car crash as a wrap-around to the central story, possibly opening the movie with the accident and then coming back to it in the end. Director Nichols and screenwriters Arlen and Ephron are much more interested in Karen’s human story, and the film plays out much more like a drama than a thriller.

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Like Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood is a two-plus-hour slow-moving picture, one that has as many moments developing the characters and their relationships as it does scenes that propel the narrative forward. Nichols is concerned with allowing the viewer to really get to know these people, and this town, all of which are on the brink of collapse. The movie is a little slow at times, and, like Sophie’s Choice, could have been cut down by twenty to thirty minutes. But the film pulls you in from the beginning and keeps you engaged because of all the superb performances. Nichols has always been a genius when it came to directing actors, and he cast Silkwood with a fantastic ensemble that include the aforementioned Russell and Cher, as well as Craig T. Nelson, Fred Ward, Diana Scarwid, Ron Silver, Josef Summer, and a young David Straithairn, who would go on to play Meryl’s estranged husband in the action adventure The River Wild.

The most significant actors in the film are the main trio—Meryl, Cher, and Russell. Up to this point, Russell was more known for his action roles in the John Carpenter cult classics Escape From New York and The Thing, and not so much for his dramatic chops. He gets few explosive moments in Silkwood, but Russell proves here that he can hold his own with someone like Meryl. Russell’s real life partner Goldie Hawn would go on to battle Meryl mano a mano in the visual effects black comedy Death Becomes Her ten years later, but Russell had an opportunity in Silkwood to play a much quieter character than he was used to, one who sticks by his girlfriend’s side, even when she’s panicking about the levels of radiation that might be eating its way through her body.

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Cher, in her second significant role on film following Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, effectively loses herself in a plain, make-up free lesbian character Dolly and proves, just like she did in 1987’s Moonstruck, she can be a commanding film actress when given the right material. She won a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for her performance, and it wasn’t just because she shed her singer image; she is a revelation in this movie, her character so effectively underplayed that she feels like a real person right from the beginning. Very few directors at the time would give Cher a chance, but Nichols, who gave the unknown Dustin Hoffman a chance on The Graduate, obviously saw something in Cher that he knew would work beautifully for this character, and it did.

From the beginning of her career, Meryl kept topping herself, year after year. The Deer Hunter, Kramer Vs. Kramer, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Sophie’s Choice—the performances just got richer and richer. While nothing she’s done since Sophie’s Choice can outdo the brilliance of her performance in that movie, Silkwood can be considered another show-stopper because Meryl really does become Karen Silkwood, and somehow, almost unfathomably, makes us forget about those memorable characters she had played before. After Sophie’s Choice, Meryl might have been pigeonholed into period roles, ones like she would go on to play in Out of Africa and Ironweed, but Silkwood showed that she could play a complex leading role set in the modern era.

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As Karen, Meryl speaks her mind, shows her emotion without abandon, and manages to make a sometimes unsympathetic character one we are always rooting for. The film offers Meryl lighter moments—her playfulness in early scenes at work, and her priceless reaction to a joke told by Fred Ward—as well as terrifying ones—each subsequent body scrub down looks to be rougher, harder. The hope she exudes when the doctors tell her the amount of radiation in her body does not exceed the maximum safety amount shows her willingness to live, and the speck of fear in her eyes when she sees the headlights behind her car as she driving to the reporter shows the growing panic that all might not end well. The film also gives Meryl a chance to sing, which is always welcome. In Silkwood, she quietly performs “Amazing Grace” while driving back home after seeing her children, and the song repeats at the end, in a haunting manner, as Karen’s fate is finally met in the tragic car accident. Some great actors don’t have great singing voices, but Meryl’s is enchanting, and rarely has it been used in a more effective way than in Silkwood.

Meryl would next go on to make two questionable film projects — the entertaining but forgettable Falling in Love and the well-acted but lackluster Plenty — but with Silkwood she capped an extraordinary five-year run of great films that started with The Deer Hunter. She had this early in her career already impressed audiences the world over with her diverse performances, her impeccable accents, her almost unhuman-like ability to lose herself in her characters. In 1984, Meryl lost the Best Actress Oscar to Shirley Maclaine for Terms of Endearment, but at this point, she had already won.

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