Meryl Streep's flaw

The great actress's problem is that she shows you how she's doing it - there's no magic

This blog post has almost nothing at all to say about the Oscars. What can there be to grumble about when justice was done in most of the main categories? Best Picture (The Artist), Best Foreign Language Film (A Separation), Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist), Best Actor (Jean Dujardin, The Artist), Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer, Beginners) -- I'm happy. So happy that I'm not even going to demand a recount in the Best Original Screenplay category (where Midnight in Paris beat A Separation and Bridesmaids, if you can believe it).

I can't comment on the Best Actress award, which went to Meryl Streep, as I still haven't seen The Iron Lady. I'd attributed my oversight to various circumstances beyond my control (missing the early previews due to illness, followed by Douglas Hurd covering the movie in the NS). But having read Charles McNulty writing in the Los Angeles Times about what he calls his "Streep problem", I wonder if some symptoms of that disorder hadn't also influenced my own lack of urgency in seeing The Iron Lady.

McNulty says of Streep:

"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... But her characterizations are so well calculated that they call attention to their own artistry. The dancer is always distinguishable from the dance."

This is a common charge levelled at Streep. McNulty quotes from some of Pauline Kael's analyses of the actress as a master technician rather than an interpretive artist. Reviewing The House of the Spirits in the Independent in 1994, Adam Mars-Jones remarked that "you find yourself thinking, as so often with Streep, not how real or how right or how true, but how clever, how resourceful..." He returned to this theme the following year in a review of The Bridges of Madison County:

"Once or twice you think that what's inside Streep's head isn't 'I don't know what to do with my hands' or even 'I am a woman who doesn't know what to do with her hands' but 'My character is a woman who doesn't know what to do with her hands.' Streep's controlling intelligence would be even more impressive if she could make it invisible."

So the general complaint with Streep is that we can see what she's doing -- she's a magician who has allowed the skill of the trick to eclipse the trick itself. Even the most sophisticated among us ask to be immersed in film: we want to be told stories in an unforced manner that makes the suspension of disbelief no more strenuous than lifting a piece of popcorn to our lips. It's a lot that we ask of our stars, even those who are essentially character actors for whom celebrity is an unasked-for by-product: be as fine and insightful as you were in those performances that made us admire you, but attain that standard of excellence while also making us forget that it's you. An actor could go mad. (Daniel Day-Lewis in 2009: "People always ask me: 'Isn't it strange that you have to do this or that to prepare for the work?' But really: what could be stranger than the work itself?") Then again, so could a viewer.

The obvious answer to our impatience with actors whose skill gets in the way of our enjoyment is to do away with them altogether, to cast exclusively from non-professionals. Here is Lance Hammer, director of the exceptional Ballast, discussing the process of working with an inexperienced cast:

"It really wasn't about bringing something out; it was about preventing them from putting something out there that wasn't them. So my singular goal in the direction of actors, was to have the actors behave as they are at all times...I wanted them. This is straight out of Robert Bresson -- you cast people for them. It's not acting. I don't want them to act."

Ah, Bresson. Now we're talking. Here's his take on the role of the actor in his films:

"In a film, each shot is like a word, which means nothing by itself, or rather means so many things that in effect it is meaningless. But a word in a poem is transformed, its meaning made precise and unique, by its placing in relation to the words around it: in the same way a shot in a film is given its meaning by its context, and each shot modifies the meaning of the previous one until with the last shot a total, unparaphrasable meaning has been arrived at. Acting has nothing to do with that, it can only get in the way. Films can only be made by bypassing the will of those who appear in them; using not what they do, but what they are."

The Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, director of the visionary Touki Bouki and Hyènes, maintained that cinema was "magic in the service of dreams" and that the repeated use of an actor could only dispel that magic, stir us from that dream:

"The professional actor does not exist. Economically, yes, but basically, no. Professional actors break the magic of the dream and the magic of cinema. I say that as a creator and manipulator of character and event. I do not want to use an actor again once we have worked together. Once we have worked together, it seems to me that the actor has already given everything, because I have already asked everything of him or her. So we leave each other in the fullness of our first meeting. When I was young, when I went to the movies, I was always angry when I saw an actor who had died in one film appearing in another film alive. That broke the magic of cinema for me. It is very important to preserve the magic of cinema."

 

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.