Tag Archives: pulitzer prize

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: 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: 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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