Monday, December 30, 2013

“Acting” and Acting - August: Osage County & Philomena

In the first five minutes of August: Osage County, John Wells’s film of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts family drama, Meryl Streep devours so much scenery that it’s a wonder there’s anything left but the foundation of the Oklahoma ranch house where Violet and Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) play out their bitter final encounter. Staggering down the stairs, her hair shorn and ragged – Violet, who has been treated for mouth cancer, has an ugly wig that she pulls off her head continually through the course of the picture – she moves from a blinking, befogged state caused by the pills she knocks down her gullet like Tic-Tac to sashaying raucousness to laughter bordering on hysteria. Her braying insults to her reflective, sweet-souled poet husband aren’t sly or compulsive with an undercurrent of ruefulness; nor are they uproarious but horrifying. That is, they aren’t complex in any way; Streep delivers them as if she were wielding a two by four. She may think that she’s channeling Bette Davis or maybe Tallulah Bankhead but she’s a lot closer to Joan Crawford here, with a touch of Claire Trevor as the alcoholic gangster’s moll in Key Largo. This is a disgraceful piece of acting, and it gets worse as the movie goes on: by the end she’s dancing by herself, yelling out the names of the family members who have finally abandoned her, weeping forlornly at the breast of the compassionate native American housekeeper (Misty Upham) who’s the only other person left on the place. Of course, Streep doesn’t need other actors around. She’d probably relish the chance to play all the roles herself.

Am I the only moviegoer who’s fed up with Streep’s queenly, commandeering attitude in her recent movies? Mostly what I got out of watching her in August: Osage County was that she’s miffed that no one has cast her as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night or Regina in The Little Foxes, so goddamn it, she’s going to make sure she gets them all into this performance. (To be fair, Letts borrows from all three of those plays, as well as from Shepard’s own Fool for Love.) She puts her stamp on virtually every available major stage role, though she’s not really right for any of the ones she’s grabbed up; she’s like a mob boss hanging around for her cut of every deal. And no matter how awful she is she’s rewarded with bedazzled testimonials from the critics and awards. I can’t think of a star in movie history who’s bamboozled as many critics – not to mention Oscar voters – as Meryl Streep; she’s made them into her enablers. When she played the resolute nun in Doubt she swanned about in that enormous wimple like Harvey Fierstein in drag but people took her very seriously. When she played the free-spirited single mom on her Greek island in Mamma Mia! it was embarrassing to see her bouncing and leaping and struggling to execute that moronic ersatz choreography. But instead of asking what the hell she thought she was doing, reviewers praised her for her versatility. Now these aren’t exactly magical parts – I can’t think of anyone I’d want to see in Mamma Mia! – but isn’t there some high-profile property that she doesn’t think is in her rightful domain? Her preposterous caricature of Margaret Thatcher, perhaps the worst acting of her career (even including The Hours, though it’s a close call) has been singled out as her crowning achievement thus far. She’s the Teflon movie star.

Julia Roberts & Meryl Streep
It’s not that Streep isn’t gifted; she was terrific as Julia Child in Julie & Julia, and she tends to be at her best when she’s not watching her own moves in the mirror. Working with the master Australian director Fred Schepisi in the 1988 A Cry in the Dark, she succeeded in immersing herself fully in the role rather than making a meal of it, and though the movie never got the attention it deserved and has now been forgotten, she gave one of the finest performances of that decade. I loved watching her in Death Becomes Her and The Devil Wears Prada and parodying a silent-movie cliffhanger heroine in The River Wild. But the perpetuation of the myth that she’s as great as Davis or Garbo or Katharine Hepburn seems to have more to do with a need to believe in an infallible screen goddess than with common sense. Common sense tells us that in the amazing generation of actresses to which she happens to belong there are many women who are far more remarkable: Blythe Danner, Lily Tomlin, Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton, Anjelica Huston, Michelle Pfeiffer, Debra Winger, Sissy Spacek, Sigourney Weaver. But they don’t announce that they’re acting – they just do it.

Deanna Dunagan, who played Violet in Chicago and on Broadway, slipped razors into her line readings, and she was funny. On stage August: Osage County was three and a half hours long (including two intermissions) – Letts’s screenplay trims it down to just under two – and the earthy Steppenwolf ensemble was enormously entertaining. It was like watching four good episodes of Desperate Housewives back to back; it had a kind of holiday-marathon feel. (The theatre should have sold pizza and beer during the breaks.) But no one in his or her right mind would have confused what was on the stage with Long Day’s Journey into Night. I wasn’t surprised that it won the Pulitzer, but it was a scandal that it won the Tony, considering that the Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, a play of authentic depth, showed up the same season. John Wells directs the movie as if it were O’Neill, so of course all you can see are all the ways in which it isn’t – in which it’s derivative and melodramatic. This is a predictable error that doesn’t mark out Wells as a bad filmmaker. I watched Wells’s TV series ER, which he often wrote and occasionally directed, with pleasure for many years, and I thought he did a nice job with his movie debut, The Company Men, about executives flailing in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, in which at least half a dozen actors gave distinguished performances. (Its main shortcoming was that it was conceived too narrowly – more like a TV show than a feature movie.) But August: Osage County carries the stale odor of a prestige picture culled from another season’s Broadway conversation piece.

Meryl Streep, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis
The cast, as the damaged family that gathers when Beverly disappears and in greater force when his body is located, manages fitfully. Julia Roberts plays Barbara, the eldest of Vi and Bev’s three daughters, who has inherited her mother’s need to prove she’s the strongest figure in any room and even her taste in men; her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), is a somewhat retiring academic who has finally run away from her bullying, to the arms of a younger woman. Barb and Bill come together from Colorado, with their sullen, reluctant fourteen-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), though in truth they’re separated. Roberts is cast right but she sticks to one fuming, resentful note, and it grows tiresome. McGregor arrives with his natural reserve of sweetness but the role of Bill doesn’t give him much latitude. As Ivy, the youngest – the daughter who stayed close by, the patient one - Julianne Nicholson, whose conviction and backbone have made something interesting out of the potentially masochistic role of a dying cancer researcher on Showtime’s Masters of Sex, gives a clear, intelligent performance. Opposite her, Benedict Cumberbatch is bizarrely miscast as the chronically misstepping, always apologetic first cousin with whom she’s carrying on a clandestine affair. Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale – two actors who never disappoint – anchor the cast as his parents, Vi’s sister Mattie Fay and her brother-in-law Charles; within their first two or three minutes on screen they completely persuade us that they’ve been married for nearly forty years. Cooper is just splendid – the best thing in the movie.

If you haven’t seen Juliette Lewis in some of the pictures she’s shown up in over the past few years (like Whip It and Conviction), her work here may come as a revelation. Lewis gave so many manic performances early in her career that I used to cringe in anticipation when I saw her name in the credits of a movie, but she was really young and untutored when she started out, and she probably shouldn’t have trusted her instincts. Now forty, she’s turned into an excellent character actor. She plays Karen, the middle daughter, who’s been successful at pretending that her family isn’t the nightmare that Barb knows it is and that Ivy understands how to negotiate (most of the time) – a success predicated, presumably, on the fact that she lives as far away as she does, in Miami. Lewis would have been right at home with the Steppenwolf cast; she gets Letts’s style. Her slightly overripe baby-doll Karen is funny, and the poignancy in the last scenes comes straight out of the comedy. Karen comes encumbered with a fiancé named Steve (Dermot Mulroney, nicely relaxed in a not-so-great part) who turns out to have a taste for adolescent girls, an unappetizing fact that Karen, the eternal ostrich, refuses to acknowledge as an obstacle to the happy future she’s mapped out for herself with him.

actor/playwright Sam Shepard

While Letts was editing his play for the screen, he might have got rid of the tough-maternal native housekeeper whose only apparent functions are to provide unconditional caring for Vi after Bev’s demise and to “tune up” Steve with a shovel when he gets out of line with Jean. In the play she’s also meant to be the representative of a contrasting, functional family dynamic, but since Letts has excised those details, he might as well as omitted her altogether; someone else could easily have wielded that shovel. On the other hand, it’s a pity Sam Shepard bows out of the movie so early, since his wry understatement is a pleasure. He’s always good, isn’t he? I liked him in Mud, despite the fact that his hair looked like it was being held up by invisible steel rods. It was the most horrendous haircut I think I’ve ever seen in a movie; anyone who can triumph over a coiffure like that deserves a special award. Shepard is so unforced in August: Osage County that when he ducked out and didn’t return I amused myself by imagining that it wasn’t just the character who couldn’t bear another day of life with Violet but the actor who couldn’t wait to get the hell out of range of Meryl Streep’s grandstanding.

Judi Dench & Steve Coogan in Philomena

The great Judi Dench didn’t make the shift into movie acting until she was fifty, and the precarious state of her vision makes it uncertain how much more we’ll see of her on the screen or the stage, so a new movie in which she plays the starring role is de facto an unmissable event. In Stephen Frears’s Philomena she plays the title character, a real-life Irish widow who finally tells her grown-up daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) about the illegitimate child she bore as a teenager, when she was a student (played by Sophie Kennedy Clark in flashbacks) at a convent school. The nuns treated her like a sinner who needed to be punished: they isolated her with other unwed expectant mothers, put her to work, let her give birth without anesthetic (and it was a breach birth), and sold her baby to adoptive parents, along with that of another girl whom she’d bonded with at the convent. Philomena’s daughter’s response to the story is to approach a journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who’s recently lost his job as a TV news anchor and ask him to write her mother’s story. Reluctant at first, he finally agrees and gets a magazine to agree to take the story and bankroll his and Philomena’s trip to the U.S., where his research leads him, in search of her lost son.

director Stephen Frears
The script, which Coogan and Jeff Pope adapted from Sixsmith’s own account, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, is lumpy and somewhat sentimental, but there are worse offenses in a movie, like emotional extortion (12 Years a Slave) or heartless glitz (American Hustle). And the sentimentality doesn’t extend to Frears’s direction, which is canny and precise and, typically, buoys up the actors. (Frears is having a good year: he also directed the HBO movie Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, about the Supreme Court’s landmark handling of Ali’s appeal of his conviction for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. It’s an engaging little picture, with a lovely performance by Christopher Plummer as the dying Justice John Harlan, whose change of heart pivots the reversal.) The only weird thing about Philomena is that neither Coogan the screenwriter nor Coogan the actor can figure out how to strike a plausible tone for Sixsmith, who sometimes seems like an Algonquin Table wit who can’t stop being ironic and other times like an angry crusader. Philomena’s treatment at the hands of the convent nuns, especially the aging Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), who made her life hell when she was a girl, enrages Martin, an atheist who can’t understand why she’s never blamed the church and has instead lived her life as a devout Catholic. But he’s also a snob who’s embarrassed by her lack of sophistication and her upbeat attitude, and the Sixsmith who emerges in those scenes belongs in a fish-out-of-water comedy.

The raison d’être of the movie is obviously Dench, who gives a sensational performance. Dench has a natural elegance that fits her for playing queens and other sorts of leaders (her portrayal of M in the last three James Bond pictures is a small classic of camera acting), yet she’s also incapable of pretension. The keynotes of her Philomena are modesty and a discreet balance of emotional restraint and emotional openness. Dench can make modesty dramatically interesting, and she plays the high points so directly and matter-of-factly that they make rents in the fabric of the scene through which the feeling simply flows – as when Philomena forgives the unrepentant Sister Hildegarde at the climax of the picture. I didn’t believe one moment of Meryl Streep’s performance in August: Osage County; I never stopped believing Judi Dench’s in Philomena for a micro-second.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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