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My Year With Meryl: Hope Springs (2012)

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After winning her third Academy Award, Meryl could have taken a much deserved break, but not only did she start shooting August: Osage County soon after her big win, she had another movie due for release later that summer—the David Frankel comedy-drama Hope Springs. Unlike The Iron Lady, which was the kind of prestige picture made specifically to win awards, Hope Springs is a quiet, sometimes funny, often sad movie that works more as a rainy day kind of entertainment. Meryl does a terrific job in Hope Springs playing a vulnerable, unsatisfied housewife named Kay, but it’s actually Tommy Lee Jones, who plays her repressed husband Arnold, who transforms his typical tough guy persona to create an emotionally resonant character.

Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay was originally titled Great Hope Springs and was for some time on the Black List, the list of most loved unproduced screenplays circulating Hollywood. It was Meryl’s enthusiasm over the project that got it officially rolling, and she turned to her The Devil Wears Prada helmer Frankel to take the directing reigns. He says in the DVD audio commentary that when Meryl boards a movie—any movie—a director essentially has his pick of any actors he wants for the other roles. Would Carell have taken the role of the therapist Doctor Feld if not for the opportunity to perform with two acting legends? Probably not. Would Elizabeth Shue, who back in 1996 was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars along with Meryl, have taken a brief cameo as a no-name waitress? Meryl is so respected that she attracts many fantastic actors to her projects, and together Frankel and Meryl decided on Jones for the pivotal role of her husband, Arnold.

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It’s easy to see what attracted Meryl to Hope Springs. How often do major movies get made, let alone movies released in the summer among superhero blockbusters, that are about two people over age sixty trying to put the spark back into their relationship? Very few, and even fewer that are made with wit and intelligence. The story is simple: Kay (Meryl) has been married to Arnold (Jones) for thirty-one years, but any emotion felt between the two has been lost. They sleep in separate bedrooms, they don’t talk about anything, they don’t even touch each other anymore. She realizes the marriage is doomed if she doesn’t do something to save it, so she drags Arnold to Maine to spend a week in intensive counseling with the renowned Doctor Feld (Carell). By opening up to the therapist and each other, they find what’s lacking, and what needs to be fixed, before one of them might decide it’s too late.

Hope Springs is not the most visually arresting movie—much of it takes place in one drab room with three people just talking to each other—but the performances are so great and the dialogue is so truthful that even when the movie feels like a series of one-act plays, it works. These scenes crackle with a perfectly timed rhythm that make them pure joy, to the point that some of them seem too short, even at eight to ten minutes. Meryl and Jones have a tremendous chemistry that makes them feel like a real couple, both when they’re in a bad place, and when they finally reach a better one. What works especially well is screenwriter Taylor’s insistence that Kay and Arnold not have an easy road toward an authentic reconciliation; until the last few minutes, it’s not clear if the two will be able to work through their problems. This element gives the film an effective level of unpredictability, even though in our hearts we know they’ll find love again. While Frankel lays it on too thick at times with some ill-timed pop songs—Annie Lennox’s saccharine “Why” toward the end of the movie is a prime example—and while the happy ending is a little too abrupt, Hope Springs is definitely worthwhile viewing.

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The performances are all solid. Carell has the most thankless role as Doctor Feld, simply because he plays a character with no backstory or depth of any kind (although the DVD includes a great deleted scene that shows in explicit detail his marital woes). This is a movie about Kay and Arnold, and to have gone into the history of Feld would have been inappropriate, but Carell is a welcome dramatic presence in a film that plays up his stone-faced strengths. Jones, the Oscar winner for the smart-talking Samuel in The Fugitive and Oscar nominee for the similarly cynical Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln, is wonderfully subdued as Arnold. He’s physically perfect casting for this role, a man who’s emotionally closed off from his wife and scared to reignite their intimacy, but it’s his deeply felt performance that truly makes this film worth watching. Over the years, Jones has had the tendency to go over-the-top in his movies (think Natural Born Killers, Batman Forever, and JFK) and this quieter guy, who resembles more his characters from No Country for Old Men and the recent The Homesman, which also co-stars Meryl (they also appeared in A Prairie Home Companion together), is Jones at his best, looking inward and trying his best to come out of his shell. Jones is a pleasure to watch in Hope Springs, and his performance should have received more accolades.

Meryl is appropriately dowdy as Kay, with a blonde hairdo and thick black glasses that cover most of her face, and unlike many of her previous characters, she is someone who doesn’t often speak her mind—it takes every ounce of courage inside of her just to ask her husband to come with her to the therapy sessions. Many might think this performance was a step-down after her bravura, Oscar-winning work in The Iron Lady, but the magic of Meryl is that she refuses to be predictable in her choice of characters and that she’s unafraid to take on someone who might not necessarily be the most outspoken. She followed up her frumpy therapist character in Prime with her Queen of Evil in The Devil Wears Prada; she followed up her dancing and singing in Mamma Mia with her quietly damaged nun in Doubt. To look at The Iron Lady and Hope Springs back to back is to see an actress completely in command of her craft, and not afraid to show her own vanity. She’s not expected to look like a bombshell in Hope Springs, and her mousy appearance only helps in making Meryl the person disappear into this character that surely millions of women can relate to. So much of her brilliance in this performance comes from moments when she doesn’t even open her mouth but instead just sits and thinks and reacts. Meryl doesn’t have to go big to be great; at this stage in her career, just watching her be is more than enough. Hope Springs is not a great movie, but it’s an endearing one, and it features two of our finest actors in top form.

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My Year With Meryl: It’s Complicated (2009)

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As another decade drew to a close, Meryl delivered yet another one of her sensational achievements: her portrayal of Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia. For this performance, she went on to win the Golden Globe award and receive her sixteenth Academy Award nomination. But Meryl, a borderline workaholic at this point with three releases in 2007 and three releases in 2008, had one more bonus film to finish the decade with, one that opened on Christmas Day: It’s Complicated, which, like Julie & Julia, was written and directed by a woman—Nancy Meyers—and featured Meryl in the role of a talented cook. Unlike Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated has a lazier, sitcom-y feel to it that slows the film down at points and doesn’t leave a lot to think about when the end credits begin rolling. But like in Meyers’ previous fluffy entertainments Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday, the enormously talented actors involved elevate the material considerably.

Meyers wrote the part of Jane Adler for Meryl specifically and said in the DVD commentary that she pictured Meryl speaking her words all throughout the process of writing the screenplay. Meyers had worked with such Oscar-winning heavyweights as Diane Keaton and Kate Winslet in her previous films, so it must have seemed only natural to pursue the most acclaimed actress of all. One of the few writer-directors in Hollywood, Meyers was able to breathe a sigh of relief when Meryl responded to the material immediately and signed on to the project. It doesn’t hurt that despite Jane being more like Meryl than most of her other screen creations, it’s a juicy role that’s featured in almost every scene of the movie and gives her lots to do in both comedy and drama. It also gave her the opportunity to act alongside funny men Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin for the first time, no minor achievement.

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Jane is a gifted baker and cook who has her own flourishing business in downtown Santa Barbara, but besides her job, not a lot is going well in her life. She’s still sad about her divorce from her ex-husband Jake (Baldwin), who left her ten years ago for a much-younger woman. Her youngest child has just moved out of her home, leaving her with an empty nest. And when she’s in New York for her son’s graduation, she gets drunk and has sex with Jake. She tries to put the incident behind her, but Jake keeps coming back for more, and despite her knowing that the affair is a bad idea, she keeps seeing him anyway. In the meantime, someone else pops up in her life, too: Adam (Martin), her architect who is helping her design a new wing of her house. She doesn’t think much of him at first, but when Jake stands her up, she invites Adam to a party, where they both smoke marijuana and have some of the most fun in their lives. Will Jane choose Jake or Adam? The film keeps the viewer titillated by the uncertainty.

It’s Complicated is an entertaining, breezy movie that is nothing special, and certainly not one of the films that will be heavily featured in any Meryl highlights reel. But it goes down easily, like vanilla ice cream, delicious while you’re tasting it, not much to think about when it’s over. The film is slowly paced, never in a rush, never trying to get to the next big joke. It takes its time and allows for the three central characters to be fleshed out, particularly Jane. The most joy in watching It’s Complicated comes from seeing Meryl interact with Baldwin and Martin, two funny actors who are also deft at drama, and who are perfectly matched for her in this film. Baldwin, who hadn’t been given a role this good since 2003’s The Cooler, has a magnetic chemistry with Meryl, especially in their quieter scenes (he received a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor). Martin, who hadn’t had a decent movie since 2001’s underrated black comedy Novocaine, shows a sweetness in the nerdy Adam character that he rarely displays in the movies. Too often relegated to flashy comedic characters in mediocrity like Cheaper by the Dozen, Martin has been effectively serious in films like Shopgirl and Grand Canyon, and to some extent the brilliant Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and his sensitive side thankfully gets played up in It’s Complicated. His chemistry with Meryl is different than Baldwin’s, more sincere and grounded. One of the best scenes in the movie has Meryl and Martin baking a fresh batch of chocolate croissants, and the romance developing between the two feels natural and earned.

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The character of Jane is one of Meryl’s least challenging roles, which, like Julia in Defending Your Life, mostly consists of traits of Meryl herself, as opposed to a creation like Julia Child that had to be molded from the outside in. She gets to show different shades all throughout the movie, the most fun one being a long stretch of time when she’s high off marijuana. She’s as loose in this sequence as she’s ever been in a movie, and the big comedic scenes in It’s Complicated show that Meryl is always up for something silly. As forced as the situations can sometimes be—the scene involving iChat stretches credibility a bit too far—Meryl sells them the best she can. She also has solid dramatic moments throughout, like when she gets stood up by her ex-husband and quietly turns out all the lights, and a scene toward the end when a look of unexpected rejection says so much with so little. She makes the viewer sympathize with her, despite the fact that she’s cheating with a married man, and lying to people over the phone. And she always makes the character grounded in reality, even when she’s living in a large dream-like house not even Meryl herself could probably afford, even when she’s laughing hysterically as she takes another hit of weed, even when writer-director Meyers is cramming illogical plot developments and the occasional contrived joke down her throat. Even when the movie itself isn’t wholly successful, Meryl, unbelievably, makes it work—at least to a certain extent.

Meryl received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in It’s Complicated, but 2009 was really the year of Julie and Julia for her, and by the end of awards season, It’s Complicated had mostly been forgotten. It was a success at the box office, making 112 million in the United States and over 200 million worldwide, showing that Meryl, 60 years old at the time of the film’s release, was a box office draw unlike any actor her age, male or female. She had impressed in movie after movie at that time, singing in Mamma Mia, crying in Doubt, laughing in Julie and Julia. But after It’s Complicated, Meryl was ready to take on a role that would be one of her most daring yet, and certainly her most challenging since any dramatic film she’d made since The Bridges of Madison County. Finally, after nearly three decades of superior work with endless nominations and too few wins to show for them, Meryl was about to pick up her third Academy Award.

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My Year With Meryl: Doubt (2008)

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Has any actor or actress played two lead characters in two major films in the same year as wildly different as Donna in Mamma Mia and Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt? While Meryl often acts in more than one film in a given year, 2008 has to be considered one of her crowning achievements just in terms of showing her remarkable range. In Mamma Mia, she plays a sexy, independent woman dancing through Greece, making out with James Bond, and belting out ABBA songs. In Doubt, she plays a stern, demanding nun who hides behind a black veil and manages to scare the children at her Catholic school with merely a glimpse in the hallway. The first character is vibrant and full of life, and the second character is an internally damaged woman who thinks only the worst of others. These parts couldn’t be more different than each other, and yet Meryl commits to them so completely that both characters become fully three-dimensional, totally believable, unbelievably played by the same actress. That’s the magic of Meryl.

John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for his enchanting screenplay for 1987’s Moonstruck, adapted his Pulitzer-Prize winning play Doubt to the screen. Cherry Jones, who played the Sister Aloysius role on stage for more than a year and won the Tony award, might have seemed a likely choice to play the character on film, but Shanley didn’t direct the play, and he wanted to make a movie that stood separate from what millions of audience members had already witnessed on the stage. For example, scenes that took place in dark rooms in the theatre were shot outside in the movie, with exteriors of 1964 Bronx, New York giving the film a crucial cinematic feel. He uses dutch angles and a subtle music score to infuse in the audience a sense of dread. He also wanted powerhouse A-list actors to give his emotionally resonant story new life, both for those who had already seen the play and for those who were coming to the movie cold. With material this rich, he probably could have convinced any major actor to be in his adaptation, and thankfully, for him and for the viewer, he picked the best four actors he possibly could’ve.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an electric performance, plays Father Flynn, a priest with an actual sense of humor and joy for his students who unfortunately never refrains from rubbing the strict Principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl), the wrong way. She’s always looking for an excuse to get him to leave, and she finally finds that excuse when Sister James (Amy Adams), an innocent nun without a shade of dishonesty, tells Sister Aloysius that she suspects Flynn of spending too much time with Donald, the school’s first black student. Without a shred of real proof, Sister Aloysius immediately commits herself to the idea that Father Flynn is up to no good with this boy, and she confronts him about his alleged wrongdoing. When he doesn’t give her the answer she wants, she pursues the matter further, potentially ruining the lives of everyone around her.

Easily Meryl’s best drama since 2002’s The Hours, Doubt is an absorbing film that at one hour and forty minutes doesn’t overstay its welcome. Films based on plays can often be stuffy and long-winded, but despite most of the signature scenes running on for big chunks of time, sometimes ten to fifteen minutes a piece, the characters are so well drawn and the dialogue is at such a high level of intelligence that the scenes feel shorter than they actually are. Doubt presents the kind of unique story that allows each viewer to bring his or her own beliefs to the movie. There’s no handholding here, no easy ending to reveal to the viewer the core mystery at the heart of the film. Is Flynn guilty or not? The viewer is never explicitly told, and it’s a smart decision on behalf of Shanley because it provides fodder for debate and interpretation.

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This film features one of Meryl’s finest performances since The Bridges of Madison County, but it also that rare achievement where every major player is outstanding, always raising his or her game. Each of the four actors with significant roles received Academy Award nominations, with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman especially a joy to watch square off against Meryl in two long riveting scenes filled with tension and tears. Hoffman is perfect casting for his character because in a long and varied career he played more than a few disturbed individuals—Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead come to mind—and his slightly off-kilter quality makes guessing whether he’s guilty or innocent all the more difficult. He was one of the best actors of his generation, a true original who always took chances, and watching the two extended scenes where he goes toe-to-toe with Meryl is about as mesmerizing as movie scenes get. Adams is also a perfect choice here, genuinely innocent and trusting of those around her, but with an inner sadness when she believes that trust has been broken. And Viola Davis’s stunning one scene, where her character Mrs. Miller begs Sister Aloysius to keep the alleged transgression a secret, stuns and exhilarates. Any actress who’s able to upstage Meryl in a scene is worthy of applause, and Davis is spectacular here, in a single moment that took her career to great heights.

Doubt marked Meryl’s first major role in a feature film drama since the aforementioned The Hours, and for her performance she received a Screen Actors Guild award and her fifteenth Academy Award nomination. If Kate Winslet’s Oscar nomination in Lead Actress for The Reader had been placed in the Supporting Actress category, where it was placed at the SAG and Golden Globe Awards, Meryl would have certainly won her third Oscar for her raw, sometimes chilling performance in Doubt. This is a character we think we know everything about when we’re first introduced to her. She’s a disciplinarian, the wicked witch of the Catholic school who inflicts fear and pain on her students, especially the unfortunate ones who don’t follow the rules. She doesn’t take crap from anybody, and she’s suspicious of Father Flynn from the start. But as the film continues, the viewer starts to see cracks in her veneer, her lack of ever looking inward to see what’s made her so judgmental of others and so bitterly unhappy. When she explodes at Flynn in their second of two major scenes, she seems to be yelling less at him and more at her own frustrations in committing herself to only seeing the worst in people.

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It is not until the final scene that her character, finally having received her wish for Flynn’s removal from the school, allows her intimidating and demanding persona to crumble, when she tells Sister James that she has doubts. Her two lines at the end can be interpreted in more than one way. Does she have doubts that Flynn molested the boy? That she handled the situation correctly? That inherent goodness in humanity is on the way out? Or possibly her own faith in God? Like the core mystery of the movie, her own doubts are left for interpretation, which makes this ending both challenging and effective. It also gives Meryl one of her most memorable movie endings, probably her most emotionally draining since the last scene of Kramer Vs. Kramer.

Meryl followed up Doubt with her endearing portrayal of Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s enchanting 2009 movie Julie & Julia, which also co-starred Amy Adams. Soon after that, she starred in The Iron Lady, the film that finally, after nearly thirty years, won her an Academy Award, oddly enough beating out her Doubt co-star Viola Davis, who was nominated for The Help. Despite approaching sixty at the time of acting in Doubt, an age when most actresses have either ruined their face with plastic surgery or been relegated to one-dimensional mother roles or have abandoned acting altogether, Meryl found herself at the most exciting time of her career with one tremendous performance after another that continued to cement her status as our greatest living actress. Who else, after all, could go from a movie like Mamma Mia to a movie like Doubt and excel at both roles so significantly? Only the very best.

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My Year With Meryl: Mamma Mia (2008)

One of the great joys in watching a new Meryl movie every week is seeing her take chances not just on daring projects and unique characters, but on new genres. So many actors unfortunately get typecast in certain kinds of movies—think Hugh Grant or Cameron Diaz in romantic comedies—but Meryl continues to surprise with her genre choices. While drama is her number one genre of choice, she has not shied away from comedies, Defending Your Life, Death Becomes Her, and The Devil Wears Prada being three of her best movies ever. In addition, she has appeared in a suspense film (Still of the Night), an action movie (The River Wild), a children’s film (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), animated movies (The Ant Bully and Fantastic Mr. Box), and a western (The Homesman).

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One of the last major genres she hadn’t tackled before 2008 was the musical, which was odd given her beautiful singing voice. Meryl memorably sang in Ironweed, Death Becomes Her, and A Prairie Home Companion but had never led an all-star musical. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and Mamma Mia, based on the award-winning musical that premiered in London in 1999 and went on to be one of Broadway’s longest running hits, turned out to be the one that called her name. Meryl saw the musical in New York a few weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks and wrote a letter to the show’s producers telling them how thankful she was for their bringing much-needed happiness to theatergoers. Phyllida Lloyd, who directed the stage-show and was chosen to also direct the film version, never forgot about that letter; her first and only choice for Donna in the movie was Meryl.

It would have been understandable for Meryl to say no to this project. Not only is this the kind of lightweight entertainment she hadn’t pursued in a few years but pulling off a movie musical is difficult—for every Chicago, there’s Rent and The Producers—and singing ABBA songs, as any member in the cast can attest to, can be a challenge. But when asked, Meryl was shocked that she was even considered, and she agreed to star in the film without a moment’s hesitation. She reportedly was never allowed to sing in her house around her son and daughters, so she decided she’d get her mini-revenge by leading a movie musical. Of course, the exotic location, amazing ensemble cast, catchy songs, and simple, engaging story also had something to do with her decision.

Film Title: Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia tells of twenty-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a young woman living in Greece who is about to marry her equally young Prince Charming named Sky (Dominic Cooper). Before her big day arrives, however, she sends out three letters to her three potential dads, men her mother dated one eventful summer. They all unexpectedly show up, to Sophie’s great joy, and her mother Donna’s consternation. As the wedding ceremony draws near, Sophie questions if she wants to get married at all, and Donna wonders if she still has the capacity to fall in love again. This original story, written by Catherine Johnson for both the stage version and the film version, plays out with more than a dozen ABBA songs that fit seamlessly into the plot.

Well maybe not all seamlessly, but most. Viewed in the right frame of mind, Mamma Mia is grand entertainment from beginning to end, a movie that exists for no other reason to make the viewer smile and feel good. While at times the cinematography feels a little too phony and glossy—much of the film was shot on the Pinewood Studios soundstages—and while there are a couple musical numbers that slow down the film’s pacing—as fun as “Does Your Mother Know” is, removing it would not affect the plot in any way—for the most part this movie works. There’s one more key flaw—more on that in a moment—but overall, the film is loads of fun, with one delightful song after another (“Honey, Honey” and “Dancing Queen” are two of the best) and lots of great actors clearly having a blast on-screen and not taking the cheesy story too seriously.

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Pierce Brosnan reportedly signed onto the movie not even knowing what it was—only that it was being shot in Greece and that Meryl was the lead. At this point in her career, Meryl had the power to attract terrific actors the world over to movies she was attached to, and Mamma Mia was no different. Playing Donna’s best friends, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters were perfectly chosen, making the life-long friendships between the three women believable; Walters is especially a hoot in the most comedic role in the movie. Amanda Seyfried is luminous, and Dominic Cooper is at his most handsome and charming. Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard joined Brosnan as Sophie’s potential fathers, and all three actors brought welcome qualities to their roles, with Firth at his most confused and Skarsgard at his silliest. Brosnan is fine in his most high-profile role since he retired from the James Bond series, but the other huge flaw in the movie is his godawful singing voice, which is so bad that any emotion meant to be stirred up in the film’s sappy conclusion is tempered. While one has to give Brosnan credit for really going for it—his Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress is undeserved—it’s wise to assume he won’t be singing on-screen anytime soon.

Meryl had played such dour and reserved characters in her previous movies, like in Rendition and Lions for Lambs, and even The Devil Wears Prada to some extent, so to watch her be sexy and kid-like and totally uninhibited in Mamma Mia is a great pleasure for any Meryl fan. This was one of her most physically demanding roles since The River Wild, so much so that the then fifty-eight-year-old had to train for three weeks to get in proper shape—climbing a tall ladder while singing ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” takes a little stamina—and her exuberance really comes through, particularly in her early scenes when she’s dancing through the streets and doing cannonballs off piers. Meryl, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance, is absorbing in a central role that could have played one-note in the hands of a different actress. Despite the emphasis on entertaining musical numbers over moments of subtlety and character realizations, Meryl always finds time for genuine emotion, even when it’s just a quick look at Brosnan or a glimpse at Seyfried in the mirror.

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But the greatest thrill of all in watching Mamma Mia is to finally hear Meryl belt out not just a couple of songs, which audience members had been privileged to hear in a few of her previous movies, but multiple ones, each with its own tempo and flavor. It’s a little weird to watch Academy Award winner Meryl Streep sliding down a bannister and singing the silly but infectious “Dancing Queen,” and she’s unfortunately not given much help by Brosnan in the strained version of “S.O.S.” Her best songs are “Mamma Mia,” “Slipping Through My Fingers,” and her big, emotional showstopper, “The Winner Takes It All,” which allows her to just sing, without choreography, without any bells and whistles. If anything can prove that Meryl could record her own album and be taken seriously as a singer, it’s her goosebumps-raising rendition of “The Winner Takes It All.”

Mamma Mia opened on July 18, 2008, the same day as The Dark Knight, acting as the perfect counterprogramming to the Christopher Nolan juggernaut. Mamma Mia, while only making peanuts that weekend compared to the giant haul The Dark Knight pulled in, turned into a true blockbuster all its own, quickly besting The Devil Wears Prada’s stupendous box office take with 144 million nationwide and an astonishing 610 million worldwide. Given that Meryl doesn’t star in a Marvel movie (she did tell Jimmy Kimmel that she wouldn’t not consider being in a superhero movie), Mamma Mia will likely stand as her all-time highest grosser. And after having made four disappointing bombs in a row, this musical, her only until 2014’s Into the Woods, proved that Meryl was back on track.

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My Year With Meryl: Angels in America (2003)

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After a somewhat stuffy dramatic period in her career in the late 1990s, Meryl came roaring back in 2002 with two of her freshest, most creative endeavors ever—The Hours and Adaptation. These movies showed audiences that Meryl was not interested in appearing in more mediocre dramas made better only by her participation. Instead, they showed that she was willing to take chances with a pair of unique scripts, and two young directors who wanted to push Meryl into exciting new territories. A spark of this creativity must have stayed with Meryl when she chose her next project, a magnificent achievement that marked her third masterpiece in a row. The HBO mini-series Angels in America, which went on to win nearly every Emmy it was eligible for, is one of the most engrossing, fascinating, and important projects that Meryl has ever appeared in.

Before the project premiered on HBO—an event that spanned two Sunday nights that December—it was one of the most anticipated mini-series to have even been produced. Tony Kushner had adapted his incendiary Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, and Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols had assembled a brilliant cast of actors, both famous figures and brand new faces. Meryl was starring alongside the powerhouses Al Pacino and Emma Thompson, and she was reuniting with Nichols for the first time since 1990’s Postcards From the Edge (they also made Silkwood and Heartburn together). Most exciting for Meryl fans, though, may have been that she wasn’t playing just one role in Angels in America, but four! While none of the characters truly make up a lead performance, her range and talent shines all the way through this beautifully constructed and perfectly executed six-hour production.

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Set in New York City in 1985, Angels in America has many characters, plot threads, and themes. Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) is a gay man dying of AIDS, and having visions of an angel (Emma Thompson) descending to his bedside. His boyfriend Louis (Ben Shenkman) abandons him, unable to deal with his illness, and begins a relationship with a closeted gay Mormon named Joe (Patrick Wilson). Joe works for a closeted gay lawyer Roy (Al Pacino), struggles making an emotional connection to his wife Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), and eventually comes out to his mother (Meryl). The mini-series blends reality with flights of fantasy, some wild, some lyrical, always hypnotic. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (also Meryl) visits the dying Roy in the hospital, an irate Harper at one point finds herself trudging through snow in Antarctica, and there’s even a vision of Heaven (where Meryl plays yet another character).

Meryl is all over these six hours, popping up as one character you might expect, but also as three others you absolutely wouldn’t. With her cropped gray hair and pale white skin, Joe’s mother is the one who looks and feels closest to Meryl, although the arc this character goes on is one of the most moving in the entire mini-series. Without much to her in the beginning, other than traveling to New York to make amends with her adult son, she eventually transforms at the sight of something truly magical. Meryl is nearly unrecognizable as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, with her chubby cheeks and black, tight-fitted hair. These quiet, haunting scenes she shares with the great Pacino are electric. She is literally unrecognizable as a rabbi, who appears at the very beginning. Yes, after years of people probably making jokes about it, since most believe Meryl can play anyone or anything—she finally plays a man! More amazing, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick, with her long soliloquy being so mesmerizing and truthful that you forget you’re watching Meryl playing an old bearded guy. Meryl lastly plays a character at the very end—The Angel Australia—and who knows? Maybe she’s in more. Has anyone double-checked? No matter, she brings humanity and heart to each of the roles she plays, making this production one of the great tour-de-forces for an actress who has impressed us many times before.

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Despite focusing on the AIDS epidemic and showing various men hiding their homosexuality and trying to come to terms with who they are, Angels in America is never a condemnation of gay men. The play was produced and performed in the early 1990s, long before the majority of Americans supported homosexuals in all ways of life, particularly when it came to gay marriage. This play, alongside other milestones like The Normal Heart and the 1990 film Longtime Companion, broke new ground in showing that the love and heartache every gay person feels is just the same as anyone else, and that stories brimming with homosexual characters were just as compelling and important as any production featuring only straight ones. The mini-series itself premiered long before Brokeback Mountain, long before Milk. Receiving Emmy awards for Best Mini-Series, Best Director of a Mini-Series, and Best Screenplay of a Mini-Series (not to mention acting awards in all four of its categories, including a Best Actress statuette for Meryl), this adaptation of Kushner’s beloved play was another much-needed work of art that pushed the nation’s acceptance of gay rights even farther in the proper direction.

Angels in America actually marked the second project in a row for Meryl that dealt with gay themes. She even kisses a woman in both—Allison Janney in The Hours, and Thompson in this. It’s great that at this point in her career, with thirteen Oscar nominations behind her and really nothing left to prove, that she would appear in two gay-themed films, before they were more commonly accepted. But what’s truly remarkable about Meryl is her constant hunger for challenging herself as an actress, and appearing in projects that might not necessarily be fashionable or easy to digest. She has appeared in more than fifty productions and counting, but in the end, Angels in America will likely go down as one of the best decisions she ever made. It’s not just an HBO mini-series. It’s not just a great story well told. It is, and has been, a film that changes lives.

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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: Manhattan (1979)

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At the 2014 Golden Globe Awards, Diane Keaton said about Woody Allen, on the night he would receive (but not show up for) a lifetime achievement Cecil B. Demille award, the following: “It’s kind of hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that 179 of the world’s most captivating actresses have appeared in Woody’s films, and there’s a reason for this. The reason is they wanted to.” Allen writes fascinating female characters in his movies, from Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall to Hannah and both her sisters, to Alice and the wives in Husbands and Wives, and of course, to the bluest Jasmine. Think of your favorite actresses and it’s likely they have appeared in an Allen film. Julia Roberts? Jodie Foster? Elizabeth Shue? Winona Ryder? As Keaton said in her speech, the list goes on and on.

But unless you’re a diehard fan of Meryl Streep, you might not know that she appeared in an Allen film, one of his best and most famous. You might not know because the role came early in her career—she shot her part in early 1978, months before The Deer Hunter even opened—and the part is small, only three scenes long. Released in April 1979, Manhattan is Allen’s glorious love letter to his favorite city, shot in gorgeous black and white, with a stellar cast that includes Allen, Mariel Hemingway (in an Oscar-nominated role), Diane Keaton, and Michael Murphy. While not a huge hit at the time, it has gone on to be considered one of Allen’s all-time classic films, and it gave Meryl another leg up in her blossoming career.

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Meryl does the best she can with her few but memorable scenes in Manhattan, playing an ex-wife of Allen’s who is writing a tell-all book about their marriage. Her role as Jill marks her first contentious turn in a movie; the sweet girl from Holocaust and The Deer Hunter this is not. She is angry, conniving. You almost see the makings of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. In her first scene with Allen, she’s walking down a sidewalk, her long blonde hair blowing in the wind, a downbeat frown on her face. She is so confident in herself that she won’t even entertain the idea of not writing the book, and all Allen can really do is keep up with her as she tries to get away.

Meryl has played a lesbian on film twice, in The Hours, and in Manhattan. Despite her previous relationship with Allen, and the fact that they have a kid together, she is seen in the second scene sharing her home with a woman. She is a bit perkier this time, as she welcomes Allen into her home and offers him coffee. But as soon as he mentions the book she goes ballistic on him again. This scene, like her first, is played in one take; it obviously didn’t take Meryl long to shoot this movie. In a 1997 interview for a Premiere magazine article, she said, “I didn’t get to know Woody Allen, really. I had two days on the film, maybe three […] I think he just hated my character.” What she’s saying is probably right, since the character is fairly underwritten and doesn’t do much of anything but yell at him. In her third and final scene, she says the book is, yet again, “an honest account of our marriage,” and her closing line, “I’ve had some interest in this book for a movie sale,” is a little anticlimactic for her character, reducing her in a way to some kind of villain. She’s got that great icy exterior we would come to see from Meryl in many of her later movies—Doubt comes to mind—but it would have been nice for Allen to give her character more to do in this movie.

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The quality of Allen’s films has always been up and down, especially in the last fifteen years, but his output in the 1970s and 1980s is almost universally excellent. He made Annie Hall, Interiors, and Manhattan back to back—a true testimony to his genius—and in the next decade he made such winners as The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Manhattan is memorable for its hilarious dialogue—this is one of Allen’s best scripts—and its sumptuous photography that really makes New York look like a dream.  It’s also noteworthy for being one of the last on-screen collaborations between Allen and Keaton after a successful run of five films (they would appear together in one more movie—1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery). The one creepy aspect of Manhattan that harms it a little, especially watching it these days, is Allen’s relationship with a seventeen-year-old girl named Tracy, played by Hemingway. Not only is it weird to watch a forty-two-year old dating a girl still in high school; the details behind the scandal that broke up Allen’s marriage to Mia Farrow in the early 1990s is difficult to erase from your mind. If Hemingway had been written to be a twenty-year-old college student, the romance in the film probably wouldn’t come off so weird.

Not to say that Hemingway is bad in the movie; she is excellent in her role, natural in her acting and mature for her age. She made such an impression that she received Bafta and Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress. She ultimately, though, lost out to… Meryl Streep, for Kramer Vs. Kramer. Yes, Meryl had a tremendous 1979, appearing not just in Manhattan but also in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, with Alan Alda; and Kramer vs. Kramer, which won Meryl her first Oscar, and also won Best Picture of the year. Meryl’s work this year stood out so much that she received Best Supporting Actress recognition from the Los Angeles Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics, for all three of the films she appeared in. While Meryl gave her best and most well-rounded performance that year in Kramer vs. Kramer, she did terrific work in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, and Manhattan, her first and to date only collaboration with the great Woody Allen.

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