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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."