Author Michael Schulman, a contributor and arts editor for The New Yorker, became particularly intrigued with Meryl Streep because of her self-effacing acceptance speeches. How, he thought, can the foremost actor of our generation (not, his, he’s younger), be surprised at and humble about her success? “To be called the greatest living actor, something even my own mother wouldn’t sanction is a curse…” the actor has said. “When I heard my name, I could hear half of America saying her again?!” (her Oscar acceptance speech for The Iron Lady)
Was she ever just a struggling, 20-something performer, Schulman asked himself? Did she arrive from Yale in full bloom, preternatural talent ripe? “When most actresses have reached their sell-by date, she continues to carry movies…so little is known about the early days…The book is not a soup to nuts biography, it’s about her origins.” The author met the very private Streep only once, for a Talk of the Town piece, not this later volume. He interviewed 80 of the artist’s friends and associates, dug through archival material and viewed performance on film and video.
This thoroughly entertaining glimpse at Schulman’s book begins with Mary Louise Streep of Bernardsville, New Jersey, “a brassy bully who didn’t care how she looked.” In fact, the preteen photo resembles a librarian. She studied singing with an opera coach (I hear a few ah has out there), but changed priorities upon discovering boys.
“Essentially, she decided to be another person.” Streep studied the girls in Seventeen and Mademoiselle Magazines. She actually said/wrote that she practiced giggling and became purposefully deferential so boys would appreciate her. She went blonde. The next photo we see projected is the fair haired young woman as a cheerleader. She was Homecoming Queen. “They liked me better and I liked that, but this was real acting.”
“Super Hero origins are all about their learning to apply their powers.” This heroine’s journey began at Vassar when it was an all girls school. She stopped “faking her way” and found herself making lifelong friends. “My brain woke up” (Streep) Schulman reads excerpts from letters she wrote to an earlier high school boyfriend then stationed in Vietnam. Streep was searching for something that took her out of herself. Even after her first appearance starring in Strindberg’s Miss Julie, she was ambivalent. Still, she applied to Yale- because the admission fee was $25 less than Julliard.
Schulman tells us about early New York roles featuring humor and character, not as an ingénue, calling out the artist’s lack of vanity and fear as well as obvious empathy. He shows us photographs from Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawney of the Wells (at Lincoln Center), and Happy End (Weill/Brecht/Lane.)
Streep’s breakout appearance, he suggests, was in the tandem Twenty Seven Wagons Full of Cotton (Tennessee Williams) and A Memory of Two Mondays (Arthur Miller.) In one of several wonderful descriptions of auditions shared by fellow thespians, John Lithgow describes her chatting amiably with director Arvin Brown as she took down her hair, changed her shoes, and stuffed her brassiere with tissues.
In the first play, Streep played a languid, brassy, southern sexpot; in the second, a steely, urban secretary that was so different, people didn’t recognize her. I can testify to that. I was there with my mother who double checked her program. We both felt in the presence of astonishing talent.
Joe Papp’s production Measure for Measure in Central Park introduced Streep to John Cazale who was older, an established film actor, and by all reports, extremely eccentric. (Cazale played Fredo in The Godfather.) The two fell madly in love and moved in together. Tragically, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. At 28, Streep dropped everything to join the cast of The Deer Hunter in order to be with Cazale during his last film. “They needed a girl between two guys and I was it.” Al Pacino was floored by her devotion which is, he says, the first thing he thinks of upon seeing Streep. Cazale died shortly after. He never saw the film.
“She got into movies despite herself,” Schulman tells us. “This was the first of 19 Academy Award nominations. Six months later, Streep married sculptor Don Gummer, the second great love of her life. They have three daughters.” Then came The Taming of The Shrew in Central Park, Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Kramer vs. Kramer the film that arguably made her a star (and garnered her first Academy Award.) Schulman says he writes quite a bit about the pivotal juncture, ending with it.
Apparently Streep’s recollection of that audition was diametrically opposed to those others present. She recalls telling the men that as written Joanna was “an ogre, a princess, an ass,” further informing those who might hire her that the character was a reflection of the struggle women go through all across the country; that she had a reason for leaving and a reason for coming back. If she was to be hired, rewriting must take place. (Streep actually ended up rewriting parts of the role, including courtroom testimony. “Once she applies her sense of empathy,” Schulman comments, “characters that were villains become heroes…think of The Devil Wears Prada.”)
Director Robert Benton and Dustin Hoffman remember the audition being a disaster, Streep’s hardly saying anything. Hoffman wanted to hire her because of Cazale, because he felt she could draw upon fresh pain. During the shoot, he taunted and even once slapped her to evoke what he felt necessary in the only method acting way he knew how. “He’s bragged about this since….” The floor opened to questions after Schulman’s talk.
Michael Schulman speaks to Streep’s feelings about service, sacrifice, femininity, feminism, and empathy with some insight. By focusing on a particular, lesser known period, he illuminates and entertains. All the chapter heads call out a major role except one entitled Fredo. This is likely a very good book.
Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep by Michael Schulman
Harper Collins, Publishers
Daytime Talks at The 92nd St. Y (at Lexington Avenue)
May 13, 2016
Top photo: Meryl Streep attends The Iron Lady photocall during the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival at the Grand Hyatt on February 14, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. Big stock photo.