Everyone loves a good villain. Actors often say that it’s boring to play the hero and that it’s a lot more fun to be the bad guy—therefore it’s surprising to note that in more than fifty motion pictures, Meryl has rarely played evil. She plays flawed characters each time out, but rarely the kind of person you run away from when you see her coming toward you. She has some nastiness in her in Death Becomes Her, and plays the boss from Hell in The Devil Wears Prada. She’s horrible to her kids in August: Osage County, and plays a witch in Into the Woods. Arguably, however, the most villainous role that Meryl has ever played is the Lady Macbeth-like Eleanor Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate.
Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of the classic 1962 film—the older movie having been directed by John Frankenheimer and starring such powerhouse actors as Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh—received criticism from movie fans everywhere before it even went into production. Remakes have always been a sore subject for people who love film because almost always, that original film shouldn’t be touched, and doesn’t need to be modernized. Demme had just directed another remake—the critically maligned box office bomb The Truth About Charlie, an update of Charade—and the original Manchurian Candidate is so beloved than many were dumbfounded in how a remake could improve on it. Meryl must have agreed in some respect—to this day, this film remains her only remake—but the bigger-than-life character of Eleanor had to have been too hard to pass up.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Demme recruited several terrific actors. Denzel Washington came on board to play the lead Ben Marco, one of many soldiers in the Gulf War who were kidnapped and brainwashed to further the malevolent plans of others. He’s magnetic in the film, as always, although it seems a missed opportunity to not have give one of our finest actors more screen-time with one of our finest actresses. Jeffrey Wright, Meryl’s Angels in America co-star, plays a small but pivotal role as one of the other soldiers, and Jon Voight is effective as a senator who believes Ben’s story and wants the truth to come out. Liev Schreiber was hand-picked by then Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing to play Eleanor’s son, Raymond Shaw, an ambitious political figure, and Kimberly Elise is strong as Rosie, a potential love interest to Ben who turns out to be more than we thought. Demme even cast newbie actors in small roles who have gone on to do bigger and better things—Vera Farmiga, Pablo Schreiber, Ann Dowd, and Anthony Mackie, to name a few.
And then there’s Meryl, in a supporting role that almost steals the movie. One might think that Angela Lansbury, who played Eleanor Shaw in the 1962 film, would have taken to the idea of an actress of Meryl’s stature giving a new spin on her memorable character, but Lansbury reportedly had displeasure at the idea. Lansbury probably didn’t believe that such a special film, one that earned her an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe award, should have been remade, but she also probably knew in her heart that Meryl was going to make the juicy character even harsher, meaner, and more memorable. And, yes, she would have been right. The 2004 remake is serviceable entertainment, a good but not great film, with plenty of suspense and fine acting throughout. It’s Meryl’s harrowing performance that makes the movie stand out.
She said in an interview that she never saw Eleanor as a villain. Really, how could she? An actor will be one-note on screen if he or she plays a character as purely evil. Every character, good or bad, has a motivation, something he or she believes in, and Meryl viewed Eleanor as someone who is strong and passionate about her wants and needs, especially when they come to her son. She modeled the character after several major political figures at the time (but not Hillary Clinton, according to Meryl), and she watched hours of talking-head political commentary. So reserved and soft-spoken in many of her films at the time (The Hours, in particular), The Manchurian Candidate shows a delectably sinister side to Meryl that is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but most often chilling.
Her screen-time is limited, but she makes the most of every scene. Her first thirty seconds on screen immediately tell the viewer the kind of woman she is—that layered brown hair, the lime green business suit, those awful pearls hanging around her neck. Her constantly on-the-move body language is feisty and uncompromising, and the way she shoots a glare at her son gives the viewer an immediate sense of unease. Her monologue to a room full of political figures early in the film is the kind of awe-inspiring moment that wins awards. It’s a little calculated to be sure, but it’s also Meryl at her commanding best. Toward the end of the movie, the way she stops Raymond from walking out of the room is probably the scariest Meryl moment ever captured on film, and the disturbing kiss she shares with her son just might be the runner-up. Meryl is such a sweet person in real life, but in The Manchurian Candidate, she’s the opposite, a tyrannical mother who will let nothing and nobody stand in her way.
Meryl won the AFI Lifetime Achievement award in the summer of 2004. It’s an award that had been previously given to people like Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford, actors and directors at the end of their career with little else to offer audiences worldwide. Of course, in 2004, Meryl wasn’t near the end at all—she was just getting started, with dozens more movies still to come, starting with The Manchurian Candidate. While the film might not be one of Meryl’s best, and it’s disappointing that she and Washington don’t spend more time on-screen together, she soars, in her most villainous role to date.