By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
A funny thing happened whenever I set out to see Meryl Streep in âThe Iron Lady.â I'd invite one of my moviegoing pals to join me and then find myself later that evening at âShame,â âMy Week With Marilynâ or the glorious âPina.â
The reviews for âThe Iron Ladyâ weren't all that glowing, but Streep came in for her usual chorus of hosannas. For some reason, this wasn't proving to be much of a lure. Even after the Oscar nominations came out, with two-time winner Streep making history with her 17th nomination, âThe Iron Ladyâ was still a no-go with them.
Surely this was an aversion to Margaret Thatcher, I thought. But after I investigated their reluctance a bit further, I discovered that several of my well-read, culturally engaged, Pinot Noir-sipping friends are not just indifferent to Streep's greatness â they're actually put off by it. This was shocking news, and they were rightly ashamed to confess it, whispering their secret as though disclosing some white-collar crime they had gotten away with years ago.
Should a drama critic be associating with such a crowd? I could feel what I assumed to be my gorge rising. But after reflecting on Streep's recent spate of box-office hits â âThe Devil Wears Prada,â â Mamma Mia!â and âJulie & Juliaâ â I had to admit that, much as I may have been amused by her outsize portrayals in these films, I found them either too cartoonish or superficial (in that trading on personality way) to leave a lasting impression.
Yes, I guess I need to come clean: I too have a Streep problem.
Lately, it seems as if her acting comes in two varieties: artful drag burlesques (the Anna Wintourish tyrant Miranda Priestly in âThe Devil Wears Prada,â the cluck-clucking Julia Child in âJulie & Juliaâ and the holy terror nun in â Doubtâ) and relaxed diva charm-fests (aging hippie Donna of âMamma Mia!â and the spurned Santa Barbara divorcÃ©e rediscovering romance in âIt's Complicatedâ). And in both these modes the overriding effect is one of elaborate imposture. She's either impersonating a character quite unlike herself (ah, Streep the magician!) or one who bears a teasing resemblance to her starry middle-aged persona (oh, that lovable grande dame!).
Sadly, it seems that even the greatest actors have difficulty not falling into the self-parodying trap memorably summed up by Stephen Sondheim in âI'm Still Hereâ: âFirst you're another / sloe-eyed vamp / Then someone's mother / then you're camp.â
Her performances are always marvels of technical virtuosity, and her mimicry can indeed be dazzling. One senses her own delight in capturing the likeness of another. Perhaps this is why as she has gotten older she has tended to favor comic masks over tragic ones. But then comedy, which allows her to build a role through selected exaggeration, plays better to her strengths. She can zero in on a defining vocal or physical mannerism and thus flex her muscles as a talking mime.
Dramatic characterizations, on the other hand, tend to become lifeless when overly conceptualized. The psychology, if it is to resonate with our own, needs to be embodied rather than anatomized. Of course there's still interpretive emphasis, but an actor's choices should create a coherent inner life. This isn't Streep's strong suit. Drama critic Gordon Rogoff once referred to her as âthat scholar of emotions, burrowing in the archives for card-indexed feeling.â Yet the issue isn't really one of authenticity. Streep can be piercing in grief, as her searing Oscar-winning performance in âSophie's Choiceâ attests. But her characterizations are so well calculated that they call attention to their own artistry. The dancer is always distinguishable from the dance.
It may be hard to recall, now that Streep has become our thespian in chief, that her acting hasn't always been universally acclaimed. One famous detractor, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, found Streep's studied perfection bloodless. â[A]fter I've seen her in a movie,â Kael observed in her âSophie's Choiceâ review, âI can'