Someone has to say it, so it might as well be me.
Meryl Streep is not the greatest actress in film, nor is she the greatest actress alive, or even, as was adoringly posited in one way or another by nearly every speaker at the Film Society of Lincoln Center tribuite to her a few years ago, the greatest actress EVER.
What she is, besides being perfectly charming, down-to-earth and lovely off the screen, is a master technician, adept at mimicry and a welter of accents, who does all the work for anyone willing to be cowed into abject submission, as well as the confused apprehension that this is indeed genius emoting. Her performances are rife with physical gesture and aural detail, with every moment so strenuously underlined with acting that there is nothing left to discover in them, in the way one could be awed by the sheer gorgeous mystery of, say, Lillian Gish in THE SCARLET LETTER, Garbo in CAMILLE, Vivien Leigh in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Simone Signoret in ROOM AT THE TOP, Jeanne Moreau in JULES AND JIM, Katharine Hepburn in her greatest moment, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Edith Evans in THE WHISPERERS, or Angelica Huston in THE GRIFTERS and THE DEAD.
It is telling that Turner Classic Movies has been endlessly running an old tribute to Bette Davis which Streep did years ago, for it is that actress whom she most resembles for sheer mannered density and indefatigable focus-pulling. When Davis did an accent, whether it be Southern (HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE), British (her two Queen Elizabeth outings), or Bronx (THE CATERED AFFAIR), her effortful efforts often resembled the torturous pedanticism of Streep’s Polish (SOPHIE’S CHOICE), Aussie (A CRY IN THE DARK), Danish (the endless OUT OF AFRICA), and, most egregious, Italian (BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY) linguistics.
When equitably guided by a strong, intelligent director like William Wyler in JEZEBEL and THE LETTER, Joseph Mankiewicz in ALL ABOUT EVE, or Edmund Goulding in DARK VICTORY, Davis could deliver the goods brilliantly. But, all too often, paired with easily dominated helmers like Irving Rapper (whose next to last credit was, somehow fittingly, 1970’S THE CHRISTINE JORGENSEN STORY), Davis was allowed to indulge herself in the kind of florid posturing, resembling nothing human, which made her such catnip to female impersonators.
With her recent work in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, in which she was a terrifyingly steely version of Hilary Clinton, and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, in which she gave her best, most understatedly effective and funny performance yet (taking Mike Nichols as her character’s model), I finally succumbed to Streep’s talent, and was looking forward to the kind of new self-discovery and artistic breakthrough once enjoyed by Susan Sarandon and Barbara Hershey, who were mediocre bordering on inept before their respective work in ATLANTIC CITY and A WORLD APART.
Good Meryl (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA)
Ham Meryl (THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY)
But then she did MOTHER COURAGE in Central Park wherein she groveled in the mud (on a rainy night’s performance) and practically impersonated all Three Stooges in her Brechtian exertions, and MAMMA MIA, in which, in an effort to act agelessly young and full of life, she made Betty Hutton at her most manic seem like Duse as her most reposed.
And, yes, in JULIE AND JULIA, she’s back to her old stuff. Many will see the film and, once more, positively kvell over her inevitable virtuosity but I found her Julia Child a shallow impersonation, lacking one single moment in which she relaxed that fulsome, plummy delivery and lungingly big body language – Child was a giantess who once drunkenly nearly knocked me down on a snowy street in Cambridge – to allow a single human emotion to glimmer through. Everything is a huge, ornate gesture again, whether cooking alone in her kitchen (well before any TV cameras appeared), such a whipping about in aprons and juggling of utensils, or even merely grabbing a canape off a water’s tray at a cocktail party (“Oh, look!”)
Director/screenwriter Nora Ephron is her Irving Rapper here – along with all that haute cuisine, you can practically smell the worshipful incense being burned on the set, when she really should have told her actress, “Can we tone it down a little?”
A scene in which the film’s other titular character, the struggling writer, Julie Powell (played by the blandly perky Amy Adams), who worships Child to the point of tackling and then blogging about every recipe in her famous cookbook, watches Dan Ackroyd’s old, bloody French Chef takeoff on SATURDAY NIGHT LIFE is telling in the extreme. For one thing, in a fraction of this movie’s running time, he not only nails Child’s every nuance, but is twice as funny as Streep’s baroque go at the character.
Both Julia and Julie have been blessed with female wish-fulfillment dream men, respectively played by Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina, who are more like fan-waving eunuchs, ever indulgent and adoring of their more complex, demanding partners. They, of course, have little real lives of their own, with even the Messina character’s main problem being those times when Julie calls him too perfect and understanding. They’re like the stultifyingly dull good guys George Brent used to play in one Bette Davis film, after another: you could see why she liked to have them around, but they sure weren’t much fun from an audience standpoint.
The film has been gussied up glossily in true Ephron-fantasy world style, with modern day Queens coming off nearly as quaintly charming as post-WWII Paris. It’s diverting enough in the beginning but soon the cross-cutting between Streep’s floridness and Adams’ wan innocuousness begins to pall in this overlong film. Ephron’s presentation of the aspiring writers’ world represented by Julie has all the depth of a finger bowl, and Adams’ performance reminded me of Mary Tyler Moore in THE DICK VAN DYKE show, all ditsy, plate-dropping housewifery, lacking anything resembling the feisty spine it takes to make a go of it as a published scribbler. For all the puff pieces already media-splashed about the food, the food, here, Ephron’s gourmand propensities aren’t really conveyed. Delicious eats can be one of cinema’s most photogenic subjects, as in TOM JONES, BABETTE’S FEAST, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN and BIG NIGHT, and the movie would have contained more soul-satisfying artistry with more focus on both characters’ work in the kitchen. What you mostly see is the orgasmically delighted consumption of it at the table, which attains a certain monotony if not downright resentment on the part of the viewer.
Don’t you hate ’em all?