Wednesday, June 1, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: HER AGAIN - Becoming Meryl Streep

The early years of Wonder Woman...I mean Meryl Streep 
by Don Stradley

Until she appears in a movie as memorable as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, I’ll withhold any declaration that Meryl Streep is our Greatest Living Actress.

Though Streep has always brushed aside such accolades, Michael Schulman’s Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep certainly wants to argue the case in her favor. Schulman spends more than 200 pages depicting Streep, as the late Raul Julia once said of his Taming of the Shrew co-star, as if she were “an acting factory.”  

But if Schulman stops short of hailing Streep as the greatest living anything  – and his book is wonderfully researched and his points cogently stated – he’s certainly smitten with his subject, showing her as a sort of savant who made the unlikely leap from her high school swim team in Bernardsville, NJ to a become a kind of uber-feminist,  an instinctual artist who was not only comfortable playing  hags at the Yale Rep, but also wielded  an almost preternatural beauty that no man could resist. Though it’s doubtful that any teenage boy ever saw The Seduction of Joe Tynan and promptly wallpapered his bedroom with posters of Streep, Schulman can almost convince a reader that Streep was/is a kind of mouthwatering earth mama - the words “beauty” or “beautiful” appear 39 times in the book, as if Schulman wants the idea to penetrate our subconscious.

When not pushing Streep as ‘Venus on the Half Shell,’ Schulman presents her as a kind of smiling mercenary, giving great portent to a journalist who interviewed her in 1979 and wrote, “There is something in Meryl Streep of the killer.” 

Before she became the beautiful assassin of Schulman’s dreams, Streep had been a quirky, bossy girl. She’d tried various personas during her high school years – at one time she was seriously studying opera – before settling into her first “role,” that of a perky cheerleader who would eventually be crowned homecoming queen. For Streep, it was all calculated – she’d wanted the attention of boys, and decided the only way to get it was to become a blond rah-rah girl. So she rinsed her hair in lemon juice and started laughing at jokes told by the wits on the football team. Fortunately, by the time she found herself at the Yale School of Drama, she’d chucked her pom-poms and embraced the women’s liberation movement.

Though many women did exactly what Streep did in the early 1970s, resigning their pasts for something more meaningful, Schulman sees Streep’s morphing into a feminist as having major significance, like Keith Richards hearing his first Muddy Waters record. Of greater interest is that Schulman dispels the mythology around Streep’s time at Yale, which included classmates Sigourney Weaver, Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang and others, as a golden era of creativity. In truth, they were just a bunch of neurotic, moody kids, and the Yale system wasn't nurturing. Streep worked hard, but didn't exactly soar at Yale.  She came up against some snotty instructors who dismissed her obvious ability, perhaps out of jealousy. That her interest in acting remained intact in such an unhealthy atmosphere is a testament to an inner toughness that, more than any number of putty noses and wigs, helped her to have a long career in movies.

Though he relies too much on effete windbags like Robert Brustein (Yale’s dean of actors) and Israel Horovitz (dull playwright of the 1960s), Schulman finds interesting sources elsewhere: old boyfriends, other actors, teachers, directors. In all, more than 80 people agreed to be interviewed for the book. Producer Joe Papp comes off as a selfless hero and daddy figure; Dustin Hoffman, an obnoxious twerp. Don Gummer, Streep’s husband since 1978, is a wallflower in his own wife’s bio, getting only slightly more ink than Streep’s hairstylist, Roy Helland. Meanwhile, John Cazale, Streep’s first serious love who died of lung cancer at 42, looms over the story like a thunderhead. This is understandable – Cazale, the tragic dead lover, gives Streep an aura of melancholy, and allows a romantic like Schulman to unload some of his best prose. He writes about Cazale and Streep as if they were star-crossed lovers, “like two exotic birds, or like Pierro della Francesca’s portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino.”  If only he’d stopped there.

As if Cazale’s death isn’t enough, Schulman has a sugary habit of injecting drama where it’s not, from Streep battling New York traffic to get to an audition, to – my God! How did she do it?! - braving uncertain weather for an outdoor production of Measure for Measure, all to reinforce his image of Streep as “the Iron Lady of acting: indomitable, unsinkable, inevitable.” At heart, Schulman is a stage door Johnny, and after a while the book is less about Streep than about Schulman’s love for her. Such incidental moments as Streep reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at Vassar are treated like events we should mark on our calendars.

Even Cazale’s deathbed scene gives Schulman a chance to turn Streep into Wonder Woman. Apparently, when doctors informed her Cazale was dead, she started pounding Cazale’s chest, which momentarily revived him. With his last breath, he told her not to worry, and then he died. This would’ve been a fine and sad scene on its own, but Schulman has to interject his own nonsense. He writes, “What was it that brought him back? A final rush of blood to the brain? Her sheer force of will?” 

Right. Along with mastering European accents, Streep has power over the newly dead.

There are thoughtful accounts of Streep’s work in The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs Kramer, but Schulman is so adamant about portraying her as “an unstoppable star” that her occasional setbacks – a failed interview at Bennington, the time Dino De Laurentiis called her ugly – come as a relief. Schulman sets the tone early, breaking down Streep’s 2012 Oscar speech as if it were a Shakespearean sonnet, but there’s something off-putting about his fanboy enthusiasm. “The thrill of it was metamorphosis,” he writes of Streep jumping from one character to another, as if Streep invented acting. He praises Streep for rendering Joanna Kramer as “not a dragon lady, but a complex woman,” when any good performer would’ve done the same, whether or not they possessed Streep’s “alien precision.”   

Schulman is an editor at the New Yorker, and at times Her Again feels like a long New Yorker article under David Remnick’s watch: informative but dried out, tasteful the way an old lady on her way to church is tasteful. Still, where Schulman succeeds grandly is in recreating the period when Streep burst upon the scene, the time Mel Gussow once described as “the season of Streep,” the magical months between 1978 and 1980 when she couldn’t take a wrong step, a time when, as Streep herself put it when the frenzy died down, “it was either me or the Ayatollah on the covers of national magazines.”

It was, in retrospect, a hell of a time. Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, despite the author’s gushing, may make you wish you’d been there to see a new kind of movie star in bloom.

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