Karina Longworth talks how to write a book about Meryl Streep

Karina Longworth is a film critic whose latest book is "Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor." Credit: Provided
Karina Longworth is a film critic whose latest book is “Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor.”
Credit: Rian Johnson

As a film critic, Karina Longworth has devoted much of her work to the outsiders: tiny independent films, cult figures and those who need the attention. But the titans need attention, too. With “Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor,” Longworth — who’s written for LA Weekly, the Village Voice, New York Magazine, SpoutBlog and Cinematical — takes deep reads on 10 titles from the legendary performer’s career, from “The Deer Hunter” to “The Iron Lady.” (She’s also written books on George Lucas and Al Pacino.) What emerges is a fresh look at someone whose career has been, in a sense, a long con: By playing modest, Streep has been able to survive and, starting with “The Devil Wears Prada,” become more popular than ever.

Why Meryl Streep?

To be honest, I didn’t want to write this book. I thought that everything that you could say about her had been said, that everything had been written and there was nothing for me to add. So I started doing just enough research to make an argument as to why I didn’t want to do it. And in doing that I realized just how little had been written about her in terms of the whole arc of her career. I always thought of her as the mom of Hollywood. In writing the book I realized how wrong I had been about her.

You have an interesting take on “The Deer Hunter,” showing how she singlehandedly adds a feminist perspective to a very male movie.

“The Deer Hunter” was never a favorite movie of mine. It’s  incredibly, problematically conservative. When you re-watch something like that, looking specifically at one performance, it becomes a different movie. It was exciting to see her as a beacon of hope within this pretty dismal epic piece of work.

“Kramer Vs. Kramer” is very problematic, too. She has to work very hard to not make her character seem like the villain.

It’s a movie that’s banging the drum for “Reagan America.” It feels so early ’80s. It’s part of a propaganda wave. [Her character] has one chance to tell her side of the story, which is the courtroom scene, and it’s really powerful. I didn’t know before I wrote the book that she had been asked to write that scene herself, because everybody was like, “We have no idea what a woman would think about in that situation.” Robert Benton [the director] basically admitted his inability to take on a female perspective.

And that happens in “Out of Africa” as well.

One thing that came up a couple of times when I was doing this was guys like Benton and [director] Sydney Pollack saying, “I’m a feminist, I absolutely believe in rights for women.” And then they would do things that would belie that claim. They would make movies that are incredibly paternalistic in their perspective. It’s not like these guys are doing it because they’re bad. They don’t understand how belligerent their own perspective is. A lot of that is generational and cultural. Some of it is a lack of self-awareness.

Were there films that really surprised you when you revisited them?

This wouldn’t have been my favorite before I wrote this book, but I really came around on “Silkwood.” I think I just thought it was boring before, but while writing about it, I kept returning to it. I think that it’s really unlike any of her other screen presences that she’s put across. It’s a movie that’s emotionally moving while at the same time intellectually vigorous.

One of the arcs in the book is how Streep went from a very serious, very prestigious actress of serious fare to someone who could be funny and loose.

There were magazine editorials with headlines like, “Will Meryl Streep ever lighten up?” There was this sense in the Hollywood trades that she had been over-praised, that she still couldn’t open a movie. She does “lighten up” in the late ’80s and early ’90s where she made a series of comedies, like “She-Devil,” “Heartburn,” “Death Becomes Her,” “Postcards From the Edge” and “Defending Your Life.” But almost all of those movies are comedies that are incredibly acerbic about women’s roles. “Death Becomes Her” is a satire about how ghoulish the film industry is when it comes to aging women. So she’s lightening up, but in a way that makes people incredibly uncomfortable.

“Defending Your Life” is notable because she plays the person who actually calms down Albert Brooks. He’s no longer neurotic when he’s with her.

She’s playing the ideal woman of Albert Brooks. It’s very different from the Hollywood ideal woman, but its still a kind of caricature.

Were there films that almost made the cut?

There were ones that, if it wasn’t that I had commited to writing 5,000 words about them, I would have considered them a little bit more. Something like “Ironweed” is really strange, and nobody talks about that. “The River Wild” is her only action movie. She probably just had a mortgage payment. Then “Angels in America” is a really epic piece of work that’s deserving of much more text than I was able to give it.

You’ve been screenings of some of these films in Los Angeles, like pairing “She-Devil” with “Death Becomes Her.” What else would you like to show?

My dream Meryl Streep double feature would be “Silkwood” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” First of all, they’re ripe for rediscovery. And second of all, they’re both radically different visions of what it’s like to be a woman in rural America during this very specific time when your options are almost zero.

It seems like you enjoyed writing about “The Iron Lady” more than you enjoyed watching it.

I’m probably the most critical of any film in the book of “The Iron Lady.” Those Phyllida Law movies, “The Iron Lady” and “Mamma Mia!”, are these weird kaleidoscopic visions of the 20th century that don’t make a lot of sense. There’s something to be said about them in a book that isn’t chiefly about Meryl Streep. There’s something to be said about her style of conflating all of culture and history into montage.

You dig up a lot of quotes from her over her entire career, and she’s unfailingly modest.

A lot of her public persona is “nothing to see here, I’m just a mom of five kids, there’s nothing magical going on.” It’s a way for her to protect her business, and her aggression of knowing what she wants to be and how she’s going to do it. And she swears a lot.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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