Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Meryl Streep

Head of the class

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Meryl Street at the Democratic National Convention

The Democratic National Convention was filled with striking moments, but the one that lingered in my mind the most was the speech given by Meryl Streep, which was memorable less for what she said than for what she represents. Streep is undoubtedly the most acclaimed actress of our time, maybe of all time. At the peak of her career, she could come across as artificial and mannered—Pauline Kael once quoted a friend who called her “an android”—but she almost glows these days with grace and good humor. Even if this is just another performance, it’s a virtuoso one, and she maintains it with seeming effortlessness as she continues to rack up awards and nominations. Streep, in short, doesn’t need to be jealous of anybody. But as an article in the New York Times points out, there’s at least one exception:

Meryl Streep, the most accomplished, awarded and chameleonic actress of her generation, once confessed something approaching envy for Hillary Clinton: For women of her age, Ms. Streep said, Mrs. Clinton was the yardstick by which they inevitably measured their lives—sometimes flatteringly, sometimes not.

The idea that Meryl Streep, of all people, might bite her hand a little when she thinks of Clinton made me reflect on how each generation settles on one person who serves as a benchmark for the rest. And it’s often either the first to win the presidency or the first who might have a good shot at attaining it. It’s no accident that one of the earliest biographies of Bill Clinton was titled First in His Class.

I’m at a point in my life when people my age have just reached the point of eligibility for the Oval Office, and there isn’t an obvious frontrunner. (As a friend of mine recently said at an informal college reunion: “I guess nobody we know is going to be president. By now, we’d know it.”) But it’s still something I think about. One of my favorite examples of the role that a president—or a candidate—can play in the inner life of an ambitious novelist is Norman Mailer’s obsession with John F. Kennedy. Judging from how frequently he returned to the subject, it was second only to his fascination with Marilyn Monroe, which in itself was probably an outgrowth of his interest in the Kennedys, and he revisited it in works from “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” to Harlot’s Ghost. In An American Dream, he puts Kennedy right there in the opening sentence, which is like inviting a guest into the holy of holies:

I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946. We were both war heroes, and both of us had just been elected to Congress. We went out one night on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me…Of course Jack has gone on a bit since those days, and I have traveled up and I have voyaged down and I’ve gone up and down…The real difference between the President and myself may be that I ended up with too large an appreciation of the moon, for I looked down the abyss on the first night I killed: four men, four very separate Germans, dead under a full moon—whereas Jack, for all I know, never saw the abyss.

Mailer isn’t speaking as himself, but as a fictional character, but it’s hard not to interpret these lines as a conjuring of an alternate life in which he was friends with the man whom he had missed, by just a few years, at Harvard.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy and Mailer did meet briefly, and it resulted in a moment that speaks volumes about the uncanny prominence that a presidential candidate our own age can take in our thoughts. In “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Mailer writes:

What struck me most about the interview was a passing remark whose importance was invisible on the scale of politics, but was altogether meaningful to my particular competence. As we sat down for the first time, Kennedy smiled nicely and said that he had read my books. One muttered one’s pleasure. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve read…” and then there was a short pause which did not last long enough to be embarrassing in which it was yet obvious no title came instantly to his mind, an omission one was not ready to mind altogether since a man in such a position must be obliged to carry a hundred thousand facts and names in his head, but the hesitation lasted no longer than three seconds or four, and then he said, “I’ve read The Deer Park and…the others,” which startled me for it was the first time in a hundred similar situations, talking to someone whose knowledge of my work was casual, that the sentence did not come out, “I’ve read The Naked and the Dead…and the others.” If one is to take the worst and assume that Kennedy was briefed for this interview (which is most doubtful), it still speaks well for the striking instincts of his advisers.

I like this story best for what Mailer called its significance “to my particular competence.” A favorable remark, even in passing, from the man who had ascended to a level that no writer could ever hope to achieve was one that Mailer would savor forever. And then it was over.

Most of us never get that close, but it doesn’t matter: even from a distance, a president or a candidate makes everyone’s imagination follow a similar track, like a magnet acting on iron filings. That particular mixture of envy and admiration is especially visible among products of the Ivy League. A writer for The Simpsons once noted in an audio commentary that if the writing staff loved to write presidential jokes—like the one in which Grandpa Simpson claims to have been spanked by Grover Cleveland on two nonconsecutive occasions—it’s because the ones who went to Harvard can’t quite get over the idea that they could have been president themselves. You can feel the same sense of agonizing proximity in Mailer, who attended Harvard at a time when his Jewishness made him an outsider among heirs to power, and who later channeled that need into an absurdly unsuccessful candidacy for mayor of New York. As he later wrote:

Norman was lazy, and politics would make him work hard for sixteen hours a day for the rest of his life. He was so guilty a man that he thought he would be elected as a fit and proper punishment for his sins. Still, he also wanted to win. He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.

He concludes: “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” But the memory of Kennedy lived on. Mailer wrote these lines in Of a Fire on the Moon, which chronicled the Apollo mission that Kennedy had set in motion. Kennedy would alter the future, and Mailer would write about it, just as Streep might play Clinton someday in a movie. But we’re all writing or acting these roles in our minds as we measure ourselves against the head of the class, even if we’re not sure who it is yet.

Quote of the Day

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Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice

I asked [Meryl Streep] how she plays a character in the dark about her fate when, as an actress, she knows the terrible scene is coming…She said she was not sure that her approach was conscious and deliberate, but she only read the screenplay once, and she did not look at the scene again until the night before it was shot. She said she read the scene, had a glass of wine, and went to bed. The scene was not really rehearsed, and when the camera rolled, she was as shocked and horrified as any innocent reader. She told us they shot the scene only once. For me, that is a stunning insight into the ways in which the actor’s art is also the art of storytelling.

Frank Galati, to Stay Thirsty

Written by nevalalee

March 18, 2016 at 7:30 am

The starlet’s dilemma

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Madeleine Stowe in Revenge

Over the past week or so, while spending a lot of quality time with our newborn on the living room couch, my wife has burned through the entire first season of Revenge on Netflix. It’s a great, trashy show that moves swiftly and doles out surprises at a satisfying rate, and it benefits enormously from the presence of Madeleine Stowe. Stowe, as those of us old enough to remember can attest, is talented, charismatic, and still a knockout, and although she was never quite a major star, she was notable enough to be granted an entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. Then, for close to a decade, she disappeared. And as tempting as it is to wonder where she’s been all this time, her long absence isn’t hard to figure out: it’s simply one of countless illustrations of the fact that an attractive woman’s options for starring roles in Hollywood dry up sometime before she turns forty. Stowe is currently lucky enough to be anchoring a hit series, but she’s a notable exception. As a glance at her fellow cast members in Bad Girls is enough to confirm, it’s far more common for promising young actresses to simply disappear, unless they’re smart or fortunate enough to make good, hard career choices at a time when they’re most vulnerable to being thrown away.

This, in a word, is the starlet’s dilemma—the complicated series of obstacles that an actress needs to navigate if she wants to have a career past her early thirties. And although it may not seem to hold many lessons for the rest of us, it fascinates me largely because it’s only the most visible example of a predicament that every artist faces sooner or later. Even the most successful and prolific career in the arts boils down to a finite number of choices: you can’t take more than one starring part or write more than one novel at a time. We make these decisions using all the information available to us at the moment, but it’s often not until after years have passed and we look back at our body of work that we start to see what the real shape of our lives has been. Throughout it all, we’re haunted by the fact that our work may cease to be marketable overnight, and that there are plenty of bright young things eager to take our place. Making the kinds of choices that result in a sustainable career requires a maturity and tactical intelligence that few of us have at twenty, thirty, or even forty. And as Stephen Rodrick’s wonderful New York Times piece on Lindsay Lohan and Paul Schrader reminds us, even beauty, talent, and early luck can’t prevent a promising career from being derailed beyond hope of return.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

Which brings us to Jennifer Lawrence. At first glance, Lawrence is in an enviable position: she occupies the center of one enormous franchise, serves a valued supporting player in another, and has the talent to take on a wide range of projects. At twenty-two, she’s made all the right choices. Yet her career over the next ten years is likely to resemble a sort of Hunger Games in itself, as she accepts or turns down roles while fending off the incursions of the next wave of talented newcomers. Personally, I can’t help but wonder how she felt watching Jodie Foster at the Golden Globes on Sunday, shortly after claiming an award of her own. Foster’s speech—the most riveting I’ve ever seen at an awards ceremony—stands as a reminder of the tremendous odds against any actress, Lawrence included, having the chance to occupy such a podium under similar circumstances. A few have carped at the fact that Foster, at fifty, seems too young to be receiving a lifetime achievement award, which ignores the fact that any actress who is still bankable at such an age deserves a prize. Actresses face the same pressures that all creative professionals do, except at a drastically accelerated rate, and in public, and the fact that so few make it this far only underlines the impossibility of the task. And even for someone as talented as Lawrence, the clock is already ticking.

Faced with this situation, young actresses have three possible options. They can trust in their talent and continue to seek out challenging lead and supporting parts, potentially in smaller movies or television; they can move into producing or directing; or they can extend their viability for a few years by engaging in various forms of cosmetic enhancement. Given the daunting odds against the first two courses of action, it isn’t surprising that most choose the third. It’s the same choice any artist makes when he or she decides to stick with the safe and familiar—the only difference is that starlets wear their decisions on their faces. And while trading away their looks in the long term for a few extra seasons of bankability may seem shortsighted, it takes an exceptionally resourceful personality to take the harder road. Which is part of the reason why our best actresses tend to age more gracefully. You can say that Meryl Streep has continued to look great well into her sixties because it was clear that she had the talent to remain a commanding actress without resorting to desperate cosmetic measures, but I’d like to think that the causal arrow runs in the other direction: a woman so smart in her acting is likely to be wise enough to avoid plastic surgery, or at least intelligent enough to be subtle about it. In any case, I don’t think it’s an accident that Hollywood’s smartest women tend to age almost preternaturally well—call it the Kathryn Bigelow effect. And it’s a reminder to the rest of us, as if we needed it, that in the long run, smart is the only kind of sexy that counts.

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2013 at 9:50 am

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