A Spinal Tap song turned up to 11 isn’t as noisy as Meryl Streep‘s first appearance in August: Osage County. Appearing onscreen in director John Wells’ faithful film of Tracy Letts’ acclaimed play, the actress’s performance and affect all but shout, “Watch me! Note my new tics (so cunning) and accent (spot-on)! Examine the coiffure and makeup I chose this time!” Is that Magic Meryl under that mane and paint? Yep. Give another Academy Award to that woman — Streep or her hairstylist.
In August: Osage County, which launched its Oscar campaign at the Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF (the movie will open in theaters on Christmas Day), Streep plays Violet, the cancer-ridden wife of hardscrabble Okie poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard). She enters the room, her gray hair sparse from chemo treatments, her face chalk white. The camera closes in to inspect Streep’s getup and attitude; she could be Mary Tyrone, the drug-addled mother in Eugene O’Neill‘s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, after getting bitten by Nosferatu. She mumbles to Bev through her dope haze, sucking in his perplexity and the viewer’s attention. Later, wearing a black wig and sunglasses, she resembles an ancient pop star — Bob Dylan or Tom Waits — in glorious late-career desiccation.
She is not Vi; she is Meryl Streep doing another of her fabulous impressions. Her Julia Child in Julie & Julia and her Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady were acute parodies that found some emotional grounding in those famous personalities. If PBS had its own refined version of Saturday Night Live, Streep could be a permanent guest host. But when she turns her considerable talents to fictional roles, like the mother in Mamma Mia! or the nun in Doubt, or here with Vi, she tends to go way too big, diverting the audience’s focus from the character to the performer.
Writing August: Osage County, Letts had his own big agenda: he turned some of the landmark family dramas of 20th century theater — Long Day’s Journey, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — into bitter, biting hilarity. He also detonated nearly as many unexpected deaths and sexual surprises as you’d see in a Mexican telenovela; the story has everything but evil twins and amnesia. Osage County, which richly earned a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Best Play in 2008, is superb theater but not a cathartic tragedy. The play scalds but does not purge; it’s just a monstrously entertaining spectacle.
So maybe the movie adaptation is a suitable showcase for Streep’s meticulous overplaying. What’s telling, though, is that most of the other actors — Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis — manage to nail their roles, to draw all the wit and pain out of their characters, without showboating.
So who should have played Vi? I’d start with Melissa Leo, an Oscar nominee for Frozen River (in which she was paired with Upham, the Osage County maid) and a winner for The Fighter (in which she presided over another contentious family). Leo, who sneaks in and takes over the TIFF drama Prisoners, could have been great as Vi, spitting out her curses without getting everyone wet. But with a cast of top stars, Wells may have figured he needed the much-laureled Meryl to preside. No question, Streep does gradually lasso the character, locating a good deal of the fun Vi has in spreading her pain around. But she’s still Meryl Streep doing, not being, Vi. It’s the difference between acting and what Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian on SNL used to call “Acting!“