Thursday, January 9, 2014

The One True Thing in "August: Osage County"

"I can't perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood anymore. We're just people. Some of us are accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells." -- Ivy Weston (Julianne Nicholson), August: Osage County

After spending two hours watching a group of people who claimed to love each another, if for no other reason than a shared genetic bond, eviscerating each other, Ivy's take on family was the one thing in August: Osage County that stuck with me most. Not Meryl Streep's latest "Oscar-caliber" performance. (She already got one Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing the cancer-stricken mom in 1998's One True Thing.) Not the talented cast, which included Chris Cooper and Dermot Mulroney, the leading men of Streep and costar Julia Roberts, respectively, in the movies containing my favorite of the two actresses' performances from the last 20 years (Adaptation and My Best Friend's Wedding, respectively).

I prefer Interiors' merciless take on the subject of family -- like the 1978 Woody Allen-directed masterwork, August featured parental suicide by drowning -- for the personalities of the earlier film's three daughters (played by Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt and Kristin Griffith) were more sharply drawn than those of August's trio of siblings (Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis, all intriguingly similarly first-named) as was the mother's reason for taking her own life. (Her husband left her for another woman, why else?) But then Best Actress nominee Geraldine Page, in one of my favorite female performances of the '70s, had the entire film to sketch her character's gloom, despair and agony.

Sam Shepard had but one scene in August to get his across. "Life is very long," his character, Beverly Weston, said in voice-over at the start of the proceedings, crediting T.S. Eliot. (I wonder if my former Us Weekly editor Bonnie Fuller was quoting Eliot when she told me "Life is long" after saying that she was certain our professional paths would cross again in her farewell-to-Us Weekly voice message to me.) When you've got a drinking problem and a pill-popping shrew of a wife with mouth cancer (Streep, offering spectacular individual scenes, particularly when she's recalling the worst Christmas present ever, but never quite digging to the core of this woman's monster within), to accompany you through the twilight years of that long life, I suppose a watery grave might appear to be the best option.

After seeing the family he left behind in action, I started to think that maybe Beverly went to a better place. Two of his daughters had removed themselves far from the family nest, leaving those they left behind to fester in their resentment. Meanwhile, the one who stayed close to home was so emotionally detached from her immediate family that she turned to her "first cousin" (Benedict Cumberbatch) for emotional and physical support when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer rather than telling her parents and sisters.

Watching the sisters reunite with their mother, maternal aunt and her smaller but equally dysfunctional immediate clan to bid their dad adieu sometimes felt like sitting through an interminable family dinner with a bunch of strangers, which, the movie seemed to be saying, is pretty much what families are. It also seemed to be saying that women drive familial dysfunction, passing down their harridan ways, while men are their long-suffering victims. If a successful writer like Beverly Weston took an early exit, of course, there was a woman to blame.

Family dramas, like family relationships, are hard. For all of the animosity and rancor that often drive them, there needs to be at least an undercurrent of genuine affection and love. Unfortunately for the characters in August and for the movie itself, the only love blowing through the hot Osage County summer air, ironically enough, ended up being the most forbidden one of all.
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