Monday, January 9, 2012

Why I'm Just Not That Into Meryl Streep's 'Iron Lady'

You'd better sit down, kids.

I'm about to make a declaration that's certain to leave my dear readers gasping or shouting "Blasphemy!" in unison at the computer screen.

Meryl Streep doesn't walk on water every time she reports to work.

There! That wasn't so hard. Now hold the sticks and stones, and hear me out.

Had Streep won her third Academy Award way back when she truly deserved to (for 2002's Adaptation, or 2006's The Devil Wears Prada), she might not even be in the Oscar discussion for The Iron Lady, the new biopic in which she steps into the heels and wears the bouffant hairdo of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She certainly wouldn't be the presumed frontrunner in a year during which Kirsten Dunst, Viola Davis and Kristen Wig all have brought vivid, memorable women to life, from scratch.

But of course, for years now, just about every time Streep shows up onscreen, the speculation begins: Will this be the film that finally snags America's greatest living actress her third Oscar? Streep was already considered a frontrunner -- or at the very least, a lock for a nomination -- months before anyone had even seen The Iron Lady, pretty much on the strength of the teaser poster.

Like Julie & Julia, her 2009 imitation-of-Julia Child Oscar bid, The Iron Lady actually seems to have been made as much for your entertainment as for the final fulfillment of Streep's Oscar triple. I secretly wish Oscar would just go home with her again, and get that inevitable third win out of the way, so she can stop cluttering the race every other year or so the way Judi Dench did in the late '90s and early to mid '00s with stuff like Mrs. Henderson Presents, which probably wouldn't even warrant a Golden Globe nomination in 2012!

As impersonations go, Streep's Thatcher is pretty spot on. She nails the accent, the carriage, the haughty demeanor. But a biopic should not strictly be about impersonation, and Oscars should not be awarded for skilled imitation. The re-creation of an actual person, living or dead, should be revelatory. Alas, Streep's Thatcher falls somewhat short in that regard. I don't know much about Margaret Thatcher other than the images I remember seeing on the nightly news in the '80s, and I feel like I didn't know her much better when the end credits rolled than I did before the film's opening frame.

Interestingly, before the movie, there was a coming-attractions preview of My Week with Marilyn, and in the bits and pieces of Michelle Williams' performance that it showed, I saw everything that makes for a satisfying biopic. (We'll see whether the trailer is misleading when the movie opens in Australia.) It's not about impersonation or imitation. For the star, it's about creating a character who happens to be a real person, getting under his or her skin as well as inside of it, but not necessarily trying to become him, or her. In the end, the character must be able to work as both the icon and, for those unfamiliar with the real-life persona, as an original entity.

I'm certainly not saying that Williams is a better actress than Streep (now that would be blasphemy, considering that Streep has rocked playing real people before, particularly in Silkwood and A Cry in the Dark), but Williams may have ended up in the better film. Plus Williams doesn't have all that pressure to just hurry up and win an Oscar already, so we can enjoy her performances without Oscar hanging over her head, without every sudden gesture and emphatic line reading feeling like Oscar-baiting. It's hard not to wonder if Streep didn't overdo the imitation, hamming it up with such wild abandon, because she wants to snag that third Oscar just as badly as we want her to.

And no, the movie itself doesn't do her any favors. Like too many films this Oscar season, it relies on the old flashback set-up, going back and forth in time. But The Iron Lady spends too much of its running time in the present when it should have stayed in the past. There's too much old-lady Thatcher, and Streep, 62, is less convincing as a woman in her eighties than Leonardo DiCaprio, 37, was as the elderly title character in J. Edgar, and the contemporary sequences, which are saved by the dry wit of Jim Broadbent, an Oscar winner who deserves so much more than constantly being cast as the devoted spouse, are too dreary to be interesting. Meanwhile, the portrait of Thatcher as a young woman that the old lady occasionally flashes back to is too generically sketched.

The movie would have benefited greatly had it stuck to Thatcher's key political years. That would have allowed Streep to flesh out the character in her prime. As is, the transition from stubborn but surprisingly rootable politician with misguided convictions into a cold-hearted witch not unlike Miranda Priestly (during the cabinet meeting, the movie's most electric scene) is too abrupt. After the Falkland triumph there is no real sense of what led to the personality transplant that resulted in her inner circle's rapid abandonment. Had her ego tripled in size? If so, it's a growth spurt that shouldn't have happened off screen.

Also, how did her position affect her relationship with her family? Thatcher's daughter figures prominently into the present-day scenes, and her husband Denis appears mostly as a ghost. Showing more of what Thatcher in power was like off the clock might have given the film and the character the extra dimension that they so sorely lacked. It also would have helped make the film seem less like a series of disjointed historical incidents with Streep, at center stage, blowing us away with her gift of mimicry.

And therein lies the main problem with The Iron Lady. It's all about Streep's gift of mimicry. The filmmakers (specifically, director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan) must have been so focused on winning their star the grand Hollywood prize, that they didn't bother telling a coherent, fully realized story with a multi-dimensional centerpiece character. At the end, I found myself wishing I'd been able to spend a week with Marilyn instead of an hour and 45 minutes with Maggie.

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