My Year With Meryl: The Homesman (2014)

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Throughout her long career, Meryl has bounced around in different genres, starred as the main character in some films and appeared in smaller parts in others, and given audiences something unique and surprising each time out. She has rarely, however, made an appearance in a movie that felt like anything other than a favor to the film’s director. There have been films that she appeared in mostly due to the director’s persistence—Wes Craven famously had to write her a heartfelt letter before she changed her mind and signed on to 1999’s Music of the Heart—and there have been films of questionable merit that she has showed up in—the Farrelly Brothers’ Stuck on You and an awful and stiff 1990 television monstrosity called The Earth Day Special, in which she played the character of Concerned Citizen. But not until Tommy Lee Jones’ gorgeous looking but dramatically inert 2014 western The Homesman has Meryl been given such a tiny, thankless role. Appearing in no more than five minutes at the end of the movie, she does what she can with an underwritten part that gives her almost nothing to do.

When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, The Homesman looked prime to be a major year-end awards contender. Jones had before directed two television movies and one theatrical feature film—the acclaimed The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, also a western—and in a career that included terrific performances in films like Coal Miner’s Daughter and In the Valley of Elah, as well as an Oscar for his supporting role in The Fugitive, Jones looked like he might have finally done what Kevin Costner did with Dances With Wolves: excelled as both actor and director in a handsomely made western. The film offers a fantastic leading female role in Mary Bee Cutty, a part which two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank plays brilliantly from the first scene on. The supporting cast is filled with impressive names, everyone from John Lithgow to Hailee Steinfeld, from James Spader to Tim Blake Nelson. Even Meryl’s daughter Grace Gummer shows up in a major role.

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Early reviews were positive, but while the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, who shot the similarly stunning Brokeback Mountain, is lush and gorgeous, The Homesman is a crushing bore, with little urgency in its sprawling narrative, and with only Swank in a solid performance, one that unfortunately is tempered with an unexpected (and unnecessary) plot twist. In 1850s Nebraska, Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), single and yearning for an adventure, elects to travel across the country to round up three young women who have gone crazy. Toward the beginning of her journey, she encounters an older man George Briggs (Jones) who has been left for dead. Begging to be helped, George convinces Mary to let him join her. The two fight cold winter weather, tired horses, and a scarcity of food, and along the way, Mary starts to wonder if George may be the one who will agree to marry her, when no man before ever has.

The Homesman begins strong, when it focuses on Mary’s uneventful life at home, but as soon as she sets out on her cross-country trip, the film slows to almost a halt, mainly because George never amounts to a credible or interesting character, and the three crazy women offer little more than occasional screams and tantrums. Despite the wide open terrain featured in many wide establishing shots, so much of The Homesman makes the viewer feel claustrophobic, particularly in that middle hour where little conflict is to be had and the quiet quest toward an indiscernible destination becomes the movie’s only focus. By the time that destination is reached, little feels learned and accomplished, and the movie’s final scene, which features unexpected dancing on a ferry, is particularly weird and unsatisfying.

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Jones’ Unforgiven this is not, but The Homesman is not all a missed opportunity. Jones and Swank have a nice chemistry together, and Swank is fantastic in her subtle performance, easily her best on screen since Million Dollar Baby. She creates a fully three dimensional character that the viewer fully understands from her first few scenes on—that is until she makes a decision later in the movie that feels wrong and manipulative; even if this big twist was featured in Glendon Swarthout’s novel, it could have been corrected in the screenplay. While some of the major actors appearing in small cameos are distracting—John Lithgow is a prime example—James Spader is effective as a wealthy wiseass named Aloysius Duffy who appears in a brief, enormously tense scene that offers one of the film’s few suspenseful moments. Tim Blake Nelson goes a little over-the-top in his cameo, but Hailee Steinfeld shares a nice moment with Jones at the end, and Jesse Plemons, from Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad, is so quietly affecting in his few scenes at the beginning that it’s a shame he didn’t get more screen-time.

Meryl plays Altha Carter, the woman who the three crazy women are ultimately turned over to in the film’s conclusion. She appears in three successive scenes that are so short that if someone goes to the bathroom right before she appears, he or she might not get back in time before her character disappears. It’s nice to see Meryl and Jones together again on-screen so soon after their delightful pairing in the comedy Hope Springs, and it’s especially unique to see Meryl share a scene with one of her daughters—Grace Gummer, who appeared in Larry Crowne and Frances Ha, and who also played Meryl’s baby in The House of the Spirits. However, Meryl here is given so little to do and say that almost nothing is discovered about her minor character, who ultimately could have been played by any actress over sixty. Altha obviously didn’t need to be the focus of the film, but she could have played a bigger role in the narrative in the film’s third act, rather than simply saying hello, thanks, and goodbye. The Homesman is a mediocre western with little to recommend about it, and anyone going to see it to catch a supporting turn by Meryl will unfortunately be sorely disappointed.

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My Year With Meryl: The Giver (2014)

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As Meryl continues to rack up awards and accolades, winning her third Academy Award for The Iron Lady and being nominated again for Osage: August County, one might assume she would stick to appearing in movies as the lead, and only the lead; after all, most people think of Meryl as a leading lady and not a supporting one. Despite winning the Supporting Actress Oscar for Kramer Vs. Kramer back in 1980, Meryl often plays the main female character in films like in Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, The Bridges of Madison County, and The Devil Wears Prada. Especially after the weirdly anticlimactic year of 2007, which brought audiences three underwhelming dramas with Meryl in lame supporting roles, it seemed likely that she would stick to lead characters. And she did—Mamma Mia, Doubt, Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated, The Iron Lady, Hope Springs, August: Osage County. All successful films, many of them highly acclaimed awards contenders.

And yet, Meryl is anything but predictable, which she proved yet again in 2014, when she gave us supporting turns in not one, not two, but three new movies, just like in 2007. She plays a cameo role in Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman, and The Witch in Rob Marshall’s musical epic Into the Woods. First up in the year, however, was the adaptation of Lois Lowry’s beloved 1993 novel, which features Jeff Bridges in the title role, cute-as-a-button Brenton Thwaites as the main character Jonas, and Meryl in an icy turn as the Chief Elder, who runs a utopian community that has taken pain and anger away from its inhabitants and in turn ripped everyone of their emotions. At a heavily attended youth ceremony, one eerily similar to the one that opens the similarly themed Divergent, Jonas is picked to be the Receiver of Memory, a person who spends time with the Giver to receive past memories. When Jonas learns about what people’s lives were like before the society became so bland—and black and white—he turns against the system.

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Bridges had been trying to make this novel into a movie for twenty years. In 1994 he famously attempted to get a movie made that featured his father Lloyd Bridges in the title role, and his name had been tied to the project ever since. It seemed like it would never get off the ground, but then came the popularity of young adult adaptations—everything from Twilight to The Hunger Games to the aforementioned Divergent. When studio executives finally saw the potential they had with The Giver’s story, the project was greenlit, although with some required changes: Jonas’s age was bumped up from 11 to 16, there would be more action than the book, and the role of Chief Elder would be significantly beefed up for the adaptation (at least the effective black-and-white element of the novel carried over to the screen). Lowry herself was dumbfounded when Meryl signed on to play a part that had very little time and weight in the book, and only later learned that the role had been expanded for the movie. Good for all involved, given that Meryl’s chilling performance is one of the few memorable elements of a mostly dull and uninvolving production.

If Bridges had gotten the chance to direct his adaptation in the ‘90s, the result probably would have been more pure and faithful to Lowry’s book. Unfortunately, the 2014 version was made after the young adult revolution, so too much in it, from the ceremony scene, to the high-tech action, to the unnecessary teen romance, feel familiar and false; it’s especially sad given that the book came out more than a decade before any of the others before mentioned. For those who aren’t familiar with Lowry’s novel, this movie will feel like been-there-done-that, which is a shame. But even if one hadn’t seen the other young adult adaptations, this film feels pedestrian all the way through, with a lack of energy throughout, an anticlimactic ending, and two weird casting choices that are distracting. Katie Holmes plays Jonas’s mother, who is so much of a stiff, endlessly saying things like “Precision of language,” that the role brings her short period of Scientology worship to mind. Also, Taylor Swift pops up for a couple of insignificant scenes that add no emotion or depth to the story, and she looks so unlike herself that it begs the question of why she is a part of this.

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On the positive side, most of the other actors do a fine job, especially Bridges in the title role. It took so long for the movie to be made that he became old enough to take the part he had originally envisioned for his father, and he is quietly effective as the Giver, with his scarred psyche and husky voice. Thwaites, who broke out in 2014 with roles in The Signal and Malificent, is likable as Jonas, with a boyish face that makes the character appear even younger than he is, and Cameron Monaghan, so great on Shameless, has a couple of exciting scenes with Thwaites, as the best friend who turns on him. Lastly, Meryl does what she can as Chief Elder, starting with giving her a long gray bob that is one of her most unflattering haircuts in all her decades of moviemaking, but it must be noted that this is her most insignificant role in a movie since she played Corrine Whitman in 2007’s Rendition. At least a third of the movie she appears as a hologram, and at least another third she spends her time behind a giant throne, looking down on the others as if she’s some kind of God.

When asked in interviews why she agreed to be in the movie, Meryl said that she likes to play boss—she is the mother of four kids, after all—and that throughout her entire career she had always wanted to work with Bridges. He had been in talks for the Tommy Lee Jones role in Hope Springs a few years back, and so she latched onto the opportunity to work with one of the greats; it’s of course their few select scenes together that give the film the most tension. When she whispers to the Giver about an unfortunate incident that happened to his former Receiver of Memory, there’s an immediate sense of history between them, and when she completes a hologram message to him later in the narrative and says, “He’s lying,” the deception felt in her character cuts deeply. She has a little bit here and there throughout the rest of the film, but it’s her last scene, where she explains to the Giver how important it is not to revert back to the way the world used to be, that is Meryl’s best in the film, one that finally shows the character’s vulnerability, and her strict desire for no more change. While the film only works halfheartedly, Meryl does what she can with this underutilized villainous role, similar to one the equally brilliant Kate Winslet downsized her talent for in Divergent, but thankfully, Meryl would return as another, more complex villain in a better movie a few months following The Giver’s release—yes, Into the Woods was on its way.

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My Year With Meryl: August: Osage County (2013)

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In the first scene of August: Osage County, Meryl appears at the bottom of a staircase, confused, pale, her hair stripped down to just a few short strands of gray. She looks as awful in this scene as she has ever looked on-screen, and immediately, just two minutes in, we know this film is going to feature Meryl in a very dramatic performance, the likes of which were only briefly seen in The Manchurian Candidate and Marvin’s Room. If Death Becomes Her features Meryl’s most over-the-top performance in a comedy, August: Osage County offers probably her most over-the-top turn in a drama. Some of her moments portraying the pill-popping, cancer-riddled, foul-mouthed Violet Weston—the matriarch of a large messed-up family—are effective and mesmerizing, and then there are other moments where she goes a little too big with all her vindictive yelling. She’s always entertaining, but there are shades of her trying too hard in August: Osage County, a mediocre movie that unfortunately doesn’t add up to much.

The film is based on the Tony-award-winning, Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by Tony Letts. Premiering in Chicago in 2007, the play went on to enjoy a long Broadway run that lasted 648 performances, as well as a run on the London stage. Reviews of the play were mostly enthusiastic, while reviews of the film were much more mixed. Sometimes plays have seamless transitions to the big screen—the magnificent 12 Angry Men and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are two perfect examples—while others struggle to find the same emotional power on the big screen—the dull Plenty, also starring Meryl, is a prime example. August: Osage County ran a whopping three-and-a-half hours on the stage, and by truncating its runtime to barely two hours for the movie, Letts, who also wrote the screenplay, had to lose strong character moments that made the play so engaging for audiences. While a few powerful moments remain in the film, there are so many characters to keep track of and so much angst and extreme hate that never seems truly earned that after awhile, the film feels more contrived than it should. Also, director John Wells, most known as a TV producer, and who had only directed one other movie—2010’s The Company Men—before this one, doesn’t give the film any discernable visual style.

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What helps this flawed film the most is the astonishing ensemble cast, one of the most impressive ever compiled for a Meryl movie. Julia Roberts is the other big star in the film, but also on board are Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, and the late Misty Upham, as well as Meryl’s First Do No Harm co-star Margo Martindale and her Adaptation co-star Chris Cooper. Any three of those actors headlining a movie would be something worth seeing, so to have them all in this production makes this mixed bag of a movie worth watching at least once. Everyone does a fine job, but the three most notable supporting performances from this group come from Nicolson, Cooper, and Roberts. Nicholson, so subtle and effective on Showtime’s Masters of Sex, gives probably the quietest performance in the movie, and she has a terrific moment at the end when she learns a horrific truth about the man she loves. Cooper has the most honest scene in the movie, when after minutes of hatred has been spewed from one character to another, he confronts his wife (Martindale) and demands that she show moe respect to their son (Cumberbatch). For a few years, Roberts had a string of bad performances in flop movies, starting with 2009’s Duplicity and ending with 2012’s Mirror Mirror, and thankfully the role of Barbara gave Roberts her meatiest role since Anna in Mike Nichols’ Closer. She is in many ways the heart of the film, and she has some nice, authentic moments along the way.

And then, of course, there’s Meryl, who initially didn’t want to play the role of Violet. In interviews she has stated that playing this character wasn’t exactly something she yearned for, particularly given Violet’s non-stop nasty attitude. She was ultimately persuaded, though, and she commits to this character’s vitriolic attitude with no restraint whatsoever. While the film is an ensemble piece, Meryl is in lots of the movie, with a moving moment when she gets out of a car and runs through a field, a startling scene outside in the cold where she talks about her late husband, a sad conclusion where she dances to a song and realizes none of her daughters plan to stay, and two memorably whacko dinner table scenes that bring out the craziness in everyone. A moment late in the film is most remembered for the ridiculous line, “Eat the fish, bitch!” that Barbara screams at Violet, but it’s also a well-constructed scene of fast-cutting and suspense that works well, especially considering how great of chemistry Meryl, Roberts, and Nicholson have together.

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The dinner scene with the entire group, though, is the true centerpiece of the narrative. It is here that all the characters come together and share their feelings and pains and morbid thoughts. Violet sits at one end of the table, barking at almost everyone nearby in the rudest ways imaginable: calling one of her daughters ugly, and yelling at her sister’s husband, “Blow it out your ass!” As hard as some of what she says here is to take, it’s important to remember that the character is in immense physical pain from her cancer and is reeling from the loss of her husband; she’s a mean-spirited person to begin with so to add in these two factors bring out the worst in her. Meryl could have played this scene with a bit more subtlety; sometimes she goes so big it feels like she’s projecting on a stage to reach everyone in an audience, and not in a movie, where she can dial it back a little. However, her commanding presence in a room full of great actors is felt beginning to end, and she does her best to make some of the more hollow lines of dialogue ring true. There are some inconsistencies to be found in her character’s anger—while she calls out her granddaughter (Breslin) for saying something demeaning to her mother, Barbara later screams atrocities at Violet, and yet Violet thinks nothing of it—but overall she is so steeped in madness that eventually anything crazy she does seems warranted. It would be hard for any actress to make a character like this seem three-dimensional, but Meryl does her best to give Violet sympathetic qualities, and not just turn her into a monstrous matriarchal caricature.

August: Osage County premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, was released in limited release on December 27, and then expanded nationwide in early January—obviously this was a movie that had Academy Awards written all over it. Many involved in the production and at the studio probably assumed this one was going to receive numerous awards, not just for Meryl and Roberts, but for Picture, Director, Screenplay, and possibly in some other acting categories. In the end, the film only received two Oscar nominations: one for Roberts, in Supporting Actress, and one for Meryl, in Lead Actress, marking her eighteenth nomination overall, yet another new record. While the film didn’t please audiences and critics as much as many might have expected, August: Osage County offered Meryl yet another fascinating, complex character to play in a performance that is constantly riveting, sometimes flawed, endlessly entertaining, a bit screechy at times, never boring—and always full of surprises.

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My Year With Meryl: Hope Springs (2012)

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After winning her third Academy Award, Meryl could have taken a much deserved break, but not only did she start shooting August: Osage County soon after her big win, she had another movie due for release later that summer—the David Frankel comedy-drama Hope Springs. Unlike The Iron Lady, which was the kind of prestige picture made specifically to win awards, Hope Springs is a quiet, sometimes funny, often sad movie that works more as a rainy day kind of entertainment. Meryl does a terrific job in Hope Springs playing a vulnerable, unsatisfied housewife named Kay, but it’s actually Tommy Lee Jones, who plays her repressed husband Arnold, who transforms his typical tough guy persona to create an emotionally resonant character.

Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay was originally titled Great Hope Springs and was for some time on the Black List, the list of most loved unproduced screenplays circulating Hollywood. It was Meryl’s enthusiasm over the project that got it officially rolling, and she turned to her The Devil Wears Prada helmer Frankel to take the directing reigns. He says in the DVD audio commentary that when Meryl boards a movie—any movie—a director essentially has his pick of any actors he wants for the other roles. Would Carell have taken the role of the therapist Doctor Feld if not for the opportunity to perform with two acting legends? Probably not. Would Elizabeth Shue, who back in 1996 was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars along with Meryl, have taken a brief cameo as a no-name waitress? Meryl is so respected that she attracts many fantastic actors to her projects, and together Frankel and Meryl decided on Jones for the pivotal role of her husband, Arnold.

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It’s easy to see what attracted Meryl to Hope Springs. How often do major movies get made, let alone movies released in the summer among superhero blockbusters, that are about two people over age sixty trying to put the spark back into their relationship? Very few, and even fewer that are made with wit and intelligence. The story is simple: Kay (Meryl) has been married to Arnold (Jones) for thirty-one years, but any emotion felt between the two has been lost. They sleep in separate bedrooms, they don’t talk about anything, they don’t even touch each other anymore. She realizes the marriage is doomed if she doesn’t do something to save it, so she drags Arnold to Maine to spend a week in intensive counseling with the renowned Doctor Feld (Carell). By opening up to the therapist and each other, they find what’s lacking, and what needs to be fixed, before one of them might decide it’s too late.

Hope Springs is not the most visually arresting movie—much of it takes place in one drab room with three people just talking to each other—but the performances are so great and the dialogue is so truthful that even when the movie feels like a series of one-act plays, it works. These scenes crackle with a perfectly timed rhythm that make them pure joy, to the point that some of them seem too short, even at eight to ten minutes. Meryl and Jones have a tremendous chemistry that makes them feel like a real couple, both when they’re in a bad place, and when they finally reach a better one. What works especially well is screenwriter Taylor’s insistence that Kay and Arnold not have an easy road toward an authentic reconciliation; until the last few minutes, it’s not clear if the two will be able to work through their problems. This element gives the film an effective level of unpredictability, even though in our hearts we know they’ll find love again. While Frankel lays it on too thick at times with some ill-timed pop songs—Annie Lennox’s saccharine “Why” toward the end of the movie is a prime example—and while the happy ending is a little too abrupt, Hope Springs is definitely worthwhile viewing.

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The performances are all solid. Carell has the most thankless role as Doctor Feld, simply because he plays a character with no backstory or depth of any kind (although the DVD includes a great deleted scene that shows in explicit detail his marital woes). This is a movie about Kay and Arnold, and to have gone into the history of Feld would have been inappropriate, but Carell is a welcome dramatic presence in a film that plays up his stone-faced strengths. Jones, the Oscar winner for the smart-talking Samuel in The Fugitive and Oscar nominee for the similarly cynical Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln, is wonderfully subdued as Arnold. He’s physically perfect casting for this role, a man who’s emotionally closed off from his wife and scared to reignite their intimacy, but it’s his deeply felt performance that truly makes this film worth watching. Over the years, Jones has had the tendency to go over-the-top in his movies (think Natural Born Killers, Batman Forever, and JFK) and this quieter guy, who resembles more his characters from No Country for Old Men and the recent The Homesman, which also co-stars Meryl (they also appeared in A Prairie Home Companion together), is Jones at his best, looking inward and trying his best to come out of his shell. Jones is a pleasure to watch in Hope Springs, and his performance should have received more accolades.

Meryl is appropriately dowdy as Kay, with a blonde hairdo and thick black glasses that cover most of her face, and unlike many of her previous characters, she is someone who doesn’t often speak her mind—it takes every ounce of courage inside of her just to ask her husband to come with her to the therapy sessions. Many might think this performance was a step-down after her bravura, Oscar-winning work in The Iron Lady, but the magic of Meryl is that she refuses to be predictable in her choice of characters and that she’s unafraid to take on someone who might not necessarily be the most outspoken. She followed up her frumpy therapist character in Prime with her Queen of Evil in The Devil Wears Prada; she followed up her dancing and singing in Mamma Mia with her quietly damaged nun in Doubt. To look at The Iron Lady and Hope Springs back to back is to see an actress completely in command of her craft, and not afraid to show her own vanity. She’s not expected to look like a bombshell in Hope Springs, and her mousy appearance only helps in making Meryl the person disappear into this character that surely millions of women can relate to. So much of her brilliance in this performance comes from moments when she doesn’t even open her mouth but instead just sits and thinks and reacts. Meryl doesn’t have to go big to be great; at this stage in her career, just watching her be is more than enough. Hope Springs is not a great movie, but it’s an endearing one, and it features two of our finest actors in top form.

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My Year With Meryl: The Iron Lady (2011)

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We have arrived at one of the more controversial films on Meryl’s resume, both how it depicts Margaret Thatcher in her later life and how Meryl finally won her third Academy Award, beating out the supposed favorite, Viola Davis. The Iron Lady, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is a strangely unaffecting movie that goes by far too slowly and features a weird hodgepodge of narratives that never mix together well. The greatest disappointment of the movie is that it could have been great, given that Meryl is sensational in it, playing Thatcher as ambitious in her early days, strong and willing to make touch decisions in her Prime Minister days, and losing the light in her later stage of dementia. Everything about Meryl’s performance is flawless and screams master class. It’s just a shame that little in the film measures up to her.

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The blame has to go to Morgan’s screenplay and Lloyd’s direction, which never finds a compelling point of view into who Thatcher really was. Abi, who wrote the 2013 feature The Invisible Woman and won an Emmy for writing the mini-series The Hour, seemed to think watching scene after scene of the elderly Thatcher getting false glimpses of her husband and marveling at the skyrocketing prices of milk would be fascinating for the viewer, but they’re not. If the film had merely begun and ended with the wraparound story of Thatcher as old, there might have been a point to be made about the pursuit of power and its consequences, but the film keeps cutting back to her in this stage, time and time again, to the point where any point to be made becomes lost. Lloyd, who previously directed Meryl in the musical extravaganza Mamma Mia, which is about as far removed from The Iron Lady as you can get, casted the movie well—Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Head is particularly good as Geoffrey Howe—and brings a polished look to the proceedings. Clearly, though, she didn’t have a handle on the themes of the movie either, because she allowed the odd shifts of narratives to play out the way they do.

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The same way that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln effectively examines not Abraham Lincoln’s entire life, but a small, important nugget of it, The Iron Lady could have been a tense, absorbing look into a short period of time in Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister, maybe focusing on a specific issue she contended with that brought great controversy onto her. Instead, there’s too much: we get glimpses of Thatcher as a young woman starting out in her career (Alexander Roach, uncanny as a younger Meryl), and Thatcher as the Prime Minister, and Thatcher as the old lady who’s slowly going mad. The film also tries to make us care about the love story Thatcher had with Denis Thatcher (an inappropriately wily Jim Broadbent in the older years and a more restrained Harry Lloyd in the younger ones). But since so little of the movie focuses on the older Denis when he’s actually alive, the emotional resonance of this relationship gets lost in the process. There’s so much going on at times, with rarely a scene that’s allowed to play out long enough to get us invested, that at a certain point it feels like an editor could’ve taken all of the scenes in the movie, thrown them in a blender, and come out with something that more and less represents the film as it stands now.

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All of these story and editing problems almost serve to try to weaken Meryl’s stellar performance, which represents probably her best dramatic work since The Bridges of Madison County. Fairly short at one hour and forty-five minutes—many famous screen biopics like Gandhi and Nixon have weighed in at over three hours—The Iron Lady should have given Meryl a lot more to work with, but she does her best with what she has to work with. She is intimidating, clever, and funny in her many scenes as Thatcher in her Prime Minister years, with true-to-life wardrobes, an impeccable accent, and subtle, masterful make-up and hair that won Oscars for Mark Coulier, and J. Roy Helland, the latter figure having worked with Meryl throughout her entire career. (When he picked up his Oscar, he said, “Thanks, Meryl, for keeping me employed for the last thirty-seven years. Your brilliance makes my work look good no matter what.”) Her make-up is even more convincing when she’s older, with cleverly hidden prosthetics and Meryl appearing believably like an old woman, and despite these scenes not working as well as they should, Meryl is brilliant at capturing the downfall of this once powerful figure.

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Even though just catching a glimpse of Meryl as Thatcher prompted everyone to assume Meryl would be nominated for another Academy Award, her likelihood of actually winning seemed uncertain leading up to the big night in 2012. While she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, Viola Davis had been picking up steam in recent weeks, winning the important Best Female Actor in a Lead Role at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, for her terrific performance in The Help. The only African American actress to have won a leading role Oscar was Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball, and it seemed possible that Davis would become the second. But in the end, the Academy decided that Meryl’s work in The Iron Lady, despite the film’s shortcomings, was worthy of the big award. It had been twenty-nine years since she’d won her last Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, after all, and she had lost a whopping twelve times since. She had gotten close with Doubt, and semi-close with Julie & Julia. It was time.

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The biggest tragedy of her winning, of course, is that in the far-off future, people may turn to The Iron Lady before they look at much better dramas she appeared in, like A Cry in the Dark, The Bridges of Madison County, and Marvin’s Room, the latter of which she wasn’t even nominated for. People might think that because Meryl won for this specific performance, it might also be the better movie. While Meryl is amazing in The Iron Lady, it’s arguably one of her weakest movies overall, and it’s sad, given the great opportunity of having Meryl play the powerful and polarizing figure of Margaret Thatcher, that the filmmakers couldn’t have produced a more entertaining and involving film.

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My Year With Meryl: It’s Complicated (2009)

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As another decade drew to a close, Meryl delivered yet another one of her sensational achievements: her portrayal of Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia. For this performance, she went on to win the Golden Globe award and receive her sixteenth Academy Award nomination. But Meryl, a borderline workaholic at this point with three releases in 2007 and three releases in 2008, had one more bonus film to finish the decade with, one that opened on Christmas Day: It’s Complicated, which, like Julie & Julia, was written and directed by a woman—Nancy Meyers—and featured Meryl in the role of a talented cook. Unlike Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated has a lazier, sitcom-y feel to it that slows the film down at points and doesn’t leave a lot to think about when the end credits begin rolling. But like in Meyers’ previous fluffy entertainments Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday, the enormously talented actors involved elevate the material considerably.

Meyers wrote the part of Jane Adler for Meryl specifically and said in the DVD commentary that she pictured Meryl speaking her words all throughout the process of writing the screenplay. Meyers had worked with such Oscar-winning heavyweights as Diane Keaton and Kate Winslet in her previous films, so it must have seemed only natural to pursue the most acclaimed actress of all. One of the few writer-directors in Hollywood, Meyers was able to breathe a sigh of relief when Meryl responded to the material immediately and signed on to the project. It doesn’t hurt that despite Jane being more like Meryl than most of her other screen creations, it’s a juicy role that’s featured in almost every scene of the movie and gives her lots to do in both comedy and drama. It also gave her the opportunity to act alongside funny men Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin for the first time, no minor achievement.

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Jane is a gifted baker and cook who has her own flourishing business in downtown Santa Barbara, but besides her job, not a lot is going well in her life. She’s still sad about her divorce from her ex-husband Jake (Baldwin), who left her ten years ago for a much-younger woman. Her youngest child has just moved out of her home, leaving her with an empty nest. And when she’s in New York for her son’s graduation, she gets drunk and has sex with Jake. She tries to put the incident behind her, but Jake keeps coming back for more, and despite her knowing that the affair is a bad idea, she keeps seeing him anyway. In the meantime, someone else pops up in her life, too: Adam (Martin), her architect who is helping her design a new wing of her house. She doesn’t think much of him at first, but when Jake stands her up, she invites Adam to a party, where they both smoke marijuana and have some of the most fun in their lives. Will Jane choose Jake or Adam? The film keeps the viewer titillated by the uncertainty.

It’s Complicated is an entertaining, breezy movie that is nothing special, and certainly not one of the films that will be heavily featured in any Meryl highlights reel. But it goes down easily, like vanilla ice cream, delicious while you’re tasting it, not much to think about when it’s over. The film is slowly paced, never in a rush, never trying to get to the next big joke. It takes its time and allows for the three central characters to be fleshed out, particularly Jane. The most joy in watching It’s Complicated comes from seeing Meryl interact with Baldwin and Martin, two funny actors who are also deft at drama, and who are perfectly matched for her in this film. Baldwin, who hadn’t been given a role this good since 2003’s The Cooler, has a magnetic chemistry with Meryl, especially in their quieter scenes (he received a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor). Martin, who hadn’t had a decent movie since 2001’s underrated black comedy Novocaine, shows a sweetness in the nerdy Adam character that he rarely displays in the movies. Too often relegated to flashy comedic characters in mediocrity like Cheaper by the Dozen, Martin has been effectively serious in films like Shopgirl and Grand Canyon, and to some extent the brilliant Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and his sensitive side thankfully gets played up in It’s Complicated. His chemistry with Meryl is different than Baldwin’s, more sincere and grounded. One of the best scenes in the movie has Meryl and Martin baking a fresh batch of chocolate croissants, and the romance developing between the two feels natural and earned.

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The character of Jane is one of Meryl’s least challenging roles, which, like Julia in Defending Your Life, mostly consists of traits of Meryl herself, as opposed to a creation like Julia Child that had to be molded from the outside in. She gets to show different shades all throughout the movie, the most fun one being a long stretch of time when she’s high off marijuana. She’s as loose in this sequence as she’s ever been in a movie, and the big comedic scenes in It’s Complicated show that Meryl is always up for something silly. As forced as the situations can sometimes be—the scene involving iChat stretches credibility a bit too far—Meryl sells them the best she can. She also has solid dramatic moments throughout, like when she gets stood up by her ex-husband and quietly turns out all the lights, and a scene toward the end when a look of unexpected rejection says so much with so little. She makes the viewer sympathize with her, despite the fact that she’s cheating with a married man, and lying to people over the phone. And she always makes the character grounded in reality, even when she’s living in a large dream-like house not even Meryl herself could probably afford, even when she’s laughing hysterically as she takes another hit of weed, even when writer-director Meyers is cramming illogical plot developments and the occasional contrived joke down her throat. Even when the movie itself isn’t wholly successful, Meryl, unbelievably, makes it work—at least to a certain extent.

Meryl received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in It’s Complicated, but 2009 was really the year of Julie and Julia for her, and by the end of awards season, It’s Complicated had mostly been forgotten. It was a success at the box office, making 112 million in the United States and over 200 million worldwide, showing that Meryl, 60 years old at the time of the film’s release, was a box office draw unlike any actor her age, male or female. She had impressed in movie after movie at that time, singing in Mamma Mia, crying in Doubt, laughing in Julie and Julia. But after It’s Complicated, Meryl was ready to take on a role that would be one of her most daring yet, and certainly her most challenging since any dramatic film she’d made since The Bridges of Madison County. Finally, after nearly three decades of superior work with endless nominations and too few wins to show for them, Meryl was about to pick up her third Academy Award.

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My Year With Meryl: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

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And now for something truly spectacular: Meryl in animated form! Almost every major Hollywood star has voiced a character in an animated film at one point in his or her career—Tom Hanks in Toy Story, Cameron Diaz in Shrek, Sandra Bullock in Minions—and Meryl is no exception. Voicing characters can be challenging, but most actors would say it’s a load of fun because it’s just you and the microphone, in your PJs, in a studio, with no make-up on, pure imagination at is peak. Woody Allen is famous for voicing his main character in 1998’s Antz in a mere five days, and Luke Skywalker himself Mark Hamill has made an entire career post-Star Wars doing voice work. Meryl is not an actor who necessarily seems an obvious choice to voice an animated character, but she’s done it more than once throughout her career.

During the 1980s, when Meryl primarily acted in lead roles in dramatic feature films, she lent her talents to one other arena—animation. She was the narrator—credited simply as Storyteller—for a series of video shorts based on Beatrix Potter’s famous children’s stories, starting with Rabbit Ears: The Tale of Peter Rabbit. In 1994, she lent her voice to The Simpsons, playing Bart Simpsons’ girlfriend Jessica Lovejoy, in the seventh episode of the sixth season titled “Bart’s Girlfriend.” In 1999, she played Aunt Esme Dauterive in the sixth episode of King of the Hill’s fourth season, “A Beer Can Named Desire.” She voiced Blue Mecha in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 feature A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and even lent her voice as the character of Jennie to the silliest title on her entire resume—Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life, from 2010. Her first animated feature that she voiced a character for was 2006’s The Ant Bully, a rare bomb in the animated world that cost an estimated 50 million but grossed only 28 million nationwide. She played the role of Queen and teamed with talent like her Prairie Home Companion co-star Lily Tomlin, her Adaptation co-star Nicolas Cage, and her August: Osage County co-star Julia Roberts, but all those big names didn’t do much to pull in audiences or bring credence to the voice-work she had been doing since 1987.

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All that changed, though, with Wes Anderson’s magnificently entertaining 2009 stop-motion animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox, which teamed Meryl with George Clooney, as well as Anderson regulars Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on Roald Dahl’s beloved 1970 children’s novel about a fox—aptly named Mr. Fox—who every night steals food from three grotesque and mean-spirited farmers, Walter Boggis, Nathaniel Bunce, and Franklin Bean. The men become fed up with Mr. Fox’s shenanigans, so they set out to destroy him—of course, they have no idea the fight they’re about to face. Clooney voices the protagonist Mr. Fox, and Meryl voices his wife Felicity, mother to little Ash and aunt to Kristofferson, a stern but loving character who wants only the best for her family, especially when it comes to her husband’s questionable safety.

Cate Blanchett was the first choice for Felicity, but she dropped out for undisclosed reasons, and Meryl took over the character. She proved to be an inspired choice. Her calm, breathy voice is perfect for Felicity, who has that desirable mix of truth-telling and sweetness, of no-nonsense and stability. A quick stare from her can put any other creature in its place, and so, while Felicity doesn’t get as much screen-time as Mr. Fox, her character leaves an indelible impression on the viewer. It’s unclear how many days Meryl worked on this film—with so much time dedicated to her 2008 and 2009 live-action features, it’s likely she completed her work on Fantastic Mr. Fox, which she reportedly did in Paris, in a week or two at most—but no matter her limited involvement, her casting was a masterstroke to this production, which offers similarly great voice work from Clooney, Murray, and especially Dumbledore himself Michael Gambon, as the awful Franklin Bean.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox marked Anderson’s sixth feature as a director, and the umpteenth movie to be made from Dahl’s books. While the 1971 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remains the all-time best (with 1990’s The Witches and 1996’s Mathilda close behind), Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the most entertaining and innovative takes on a Dahl story. The writer remains one of the finest children’s storytellers who ever lived, and his books live on well after his death in 1990, always inspiring new writers and filmmakers alike. Anderson admitted in the behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD that Dahl is one of his favorites of all time and that it was a dream come true to translate one of his books into a movie. Of course, live action would’ve been weird for this story, and the stop-motion, versus traditional and computer animation, was ultimately the perfect choice, because it gives a tangible quality to the characters and a bright, cheery setting that can only be achieved in camera. The book itself is short at 96 illustrated pages, so Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach had to expand the story, effectively adding a first act and a third act that give more backstory to the central characters.

Even more is given in the film version to the Felicity character, which thankfully, for her fans everywhere, allowed Meryl more to do in the storyline, and more scenes for her to appear in. While she has voiced numerous animated characters in multiple projects, Fantastic Mr. Fox remains her best work of animation she’s been involved in, and likely ever will. Released in November 2009, Fantastic Mr. Fox came out between her big hit comedies Julie and Julia and It’s Complicated. While 2008 was a stellar year for Meryl, with a smash musical success and an award-friendly drama, 2009 marked an even bigger high for her, because not only did her two live-action features net her award nominations and big box office, but she also lent her voice to a wickedly funny and subversive animated film. While it would be a treat for audiences everywhere if Meryl one day appeared in a live-action movie directed by Anderson, handing her talent over to this fantastic piece of animation is easily the next best thing.

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My Year With Meryl: Julie & Julia (2009)

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Julie & Julia is one of Meryl’s most enchanting movies ever, a supremely entertaining love letter to Paris, New York, food, and love. The late great Nora Ephron wrote and directed the film, her last, with wit and affection, and assembled a terrific group of actors who fit their roles perfectly and who infuse the movie with their own unique charms. Julie & Julia opened in August 2009, soon after Meryl’s smash hit Mamma Mia and her multiple-Oscar-nominated Doubt, so one could say that she was at the true height of her career in 2009, and her masterful performance as Julia Child gave audiences yet another excuse to fall in love with her all over again.

The film is based on two non-fiction books—My Life in France, by Julia Child, and Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell—and Ephron could have chosen to make either one into its own separate film. In interviews, however, she stated that from the beginning she was only interested in making a movie that blended the Julia Child story in 1949 Paris with the Julie Powell story in 2002 New York, since the parallels between the two were so similar. Both are about women hitting a crossroads in their lives and trying to find something that fills them with joy and gives them purpose. They are also love stories that feature two doting men who truly love their wives and want to see them succeed. It’s also, of course, about the love of food!

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The first, notably better, story in the movie details a few years of Julia Child’s life in Paris, where she moved with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) because of his government job. She considers hat-making lessons to give herself something to do with her free time, but she comes to decide food is her true passion, and she wants to become a cook. While in the beginning she struggles keeping up with the other more advanced men in her class, Julia quickly becomes adept at cooking, bring her own flavors and styles to her recipes, and she collaborates with two women to write the ultimate French cookbook for Americans, one that would change her life forever. The second story concerns a cubicle worker named Julie Powell (Amy Adams) who feels no sense of purpose in her life as she approaches turning thirty, but an idea pops into her head one day that she should try her hand at blogging. Her idea? 365 days. 524 recipes from Julia’s famous cookbook. As the year goes on, her blog explodes, and she and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) see their lives changing for the better, too. Ephron bounces back and forth between storylines every five to ten minutes typically, and finds just the right balance between the two.

Ephron had collaborated with Meryl twice before, on the superb Silkwood and the disappointing Heartburn, but both of those movies she only wrote—Mike Nichols directed them. Julie & Julia marked Meryl’s only film with Ephron that Ephron directed as well, which makes this being her swan song as a filmmaker particularly poignant. Of course it’s silly to suggest that a writer/director’s final movie has to be one of his or her better ones, but after the two unfortunate bombs Lucky Numbers, with John Travolta, and Bewitched, with Nicole Kidman, it’s a relief that Ephron’s last movie marked a return to form for the artist, who had achieved success with Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, and especially her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally, still one of the funniest and most delightful romantic comedy scripts ever written. Julie & Julia shows everything that makes Ephron wonderful—her attention to detail, her infectious sense of humor, her fantastic way with actors, and, of course, her obsession with food. And what better way to end a directing career to work with the best, Meryl Streep.

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While Meryl is a revelation in Julie & Julia, as she tends to be in at least every other film, the movie wouldn’t have worked if Meryl had been paired with the wrong actor to play her husband and lesser actors to portray Julie Powell and her husband in the modern day storyline. Thankfully, Ephron picked the very best for all four of the main roles, and even in some of the small supporting ones, too. Tucci enjoyed a terrific chemistry with Meryl in The Devil Wears Prada, but actual screen-time with her was limited in that movie. In Julie & Julia, he shares a multitude of charming scenes with her, some with cute banter, some with surprising sexuality, and all that show their great love for one another. He’s not the most obvious choice for this part, and it was Meryl herself who actually suggested him. It’s a masterstroke of casting that brings an extra special element to the movie. Adams, in her second film with Meryl in less than a year, is her typically likable self as the insecure and sometimes narcissistic blogger, and Messina is always a welcome face in any movie he’s in. Jane Lynch is a hoot as Julia’s sister, and Mary Lynn Rajskub has some funny lines as Julie’s friend Sarah.

Meryl received her sixteenth Academy Award nomination for this film, and if not for Sandra Bullock’s beloved performance in The Blind Side, she might have finally taken home her third Oscar. It seemed like every time she was nominated in the 1990s and 2000s, she came close—really close—to winning, but one other dynamite figure (Kate Winslet and Bullock particularly) managed to scoop that statue out from under her. She would finally win two years later for The Iron Lady, but her performance in Julie & Julia is one of her finest and most charming post-Adaptation, yet another example of Meryl playing a real-life figure and transforming her performance into something more than just impersonation—if the Julia Child character had been the focus of the entire movie, not just half of it, it’s likely Meryl would have won every award known to man.

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She looks the part in every way, with that curly brown hair and slightly aged look that makes her appear twenty years older than she did in Mamma Mia. Child was six-foot-two, but her shoes, as well as some clever camera angles, make the five-foot-six Meryl look much taller. She’s got that famously deep, iconic voice that has been parodied for decades, most memorably by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live (a sketch that appears in the movie), but Meryl manages to tread that fine line between goofy and realistic every time she opens her mouth. Everything about her character and performance ring true. The love she feels for her husband, her desire to have a child and her mixed feelings when she learns her sister Dorothy (Lynch) is pregnant, her adoration of cooking and excitement as she improves in her craft, and finally her desire for her long-in-the-works cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking to be published. These moments are all fascinating to watch, and Meryl makes the most of each.

Julie & Julia was the perfect movie for me to watch in this, my forty-forth week in My Year With Meryl. It was borderline creepy, in a good way, to be watching a movie about a woman who’s anxious to turn thirty, on the eve of my own thirtieth birthday, and to watch a movie about a woman who decides to blog her way through Julia Child’s cookbook one recipe at a time for a year, when I’m blogging through Meryl Streep’s filmography one movie at a time for a year. I enjoyed Julie & Julia even more than when I saw it opening weekend back in 2009, partly because I have a deeper appreciation now of Meryl’s artistry, but mostly because it spoke to me more at age thirty than at age twenty-five. This is a film about following your dreams and finding yourself and falling in love with great food one delicious meal at a time, and it works.

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My Year With Meryl: Doubt (2008)

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Has any actor or actress played two lead characters in two major films in the same year as wildly different as Donna in Mamma Mia and Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt? While Meryl often acts in more than one film in a given year, 2008 has to be considered one of her crowning achievements just in terms of showing her remarkable range. In Mamma Mia, she plays a sexy, independent woman dancing through Greece, making out with James Bond, and belting out ABBA songs. In Doubt, she plays a stern, demanding nun who hides behind a black veil and manages to scare the children at her Catholic school with merely a glimpse in the hallway. The first character is vibrant and full of life, and the second character is an internally damaged woman who thinks only the worst of others. These parts couldn’t be more different than each other, and yet Meryl commits to them so completely that both characters become fully three-dimensional, totally believable, unbelievably played by the same actress. That’s the magic of Meryl.

John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for his enchanting screenplay for 1987’s Moonstruck, adapted his Pulitzer-Prize winning play Doubt to the screen. Cherry Jones, who played the Sister Aloysius role on stage for more than a year and won the Tony award, might have seemed a likely choice to play the character on film, but Shanley didn’t direct the play, and he wanted to make a movie that stood separate from what millions of audience members had already witnessed on the stage. For example, scenes that took place in dark rooms in the theatre were shot outside in the movie, with exteriors of 1964 Bronx, New York giving the film a crucial cinematic feel. He uses dutch angles and a subtle music score to infuse in the audience a sense of dread. He also wanted powerhouse A-list actors to give his emotionally resonant story new life, both for those who had already seen the play and for those who were coming to the movie cold. With material this rich, he probably could have convinced any major actor to be in his adaptation, and thankfully, for him and for the viewer, he picked the best four actors he possibly could’ve.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an electric performance, plays Father Flynn, a priest with an actual sense of humor and joy for his students who unfortunately never refrains from rubbing the strict Principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl), the wrong way. She’s always looking for an excuse to get him to leave, and she finally finds that excuse when Sister James (Amy Adams), an innocent nun without a shade of dishonesty, tells Sister Aloysius that she suspects Flynn of spending too much time with Donald, the school’s first black student. Without a shred of real proof, Sister Aloysius immediately commits herself to the idea that Father Flynn is up to no good with this boy, and she confronts him about his alleged wrongdoing. When he doesn’t give her the answer she wants, she pursues the matter further, potentially ruining the lives of everyone around her.

Easily Meryl’s best drama since 2002’s The Hours, Doubt is an absorbing film that at one hour and forty minutes doesn’t overstay its welcome. Films based on plays can often be stuffy and long-winded, but despite most of the signature scenes running on for big chunks of time, sometimes ten to fifteen minutes a piece, the characters are so well drawn and the dialogue is at such a high level of intelligence that the scenes feel shorter than they actually are. Doubt presents the kind of unique story that allows each viewer to bring his or her own beliefs to the movie. There’s no handholding here, no easy ending to reveal to the viewer the core mystery at the heart of the film. Is Flynn guilty or not? The viewer is never explicitly told, and it’s a smart decision on behalf of Shanley because it provides fodder for debate and interpretation.

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This film features one of Meryl’s finest performances since The Bridges of Madison County, but it also that rare achievement where every major player is outstanding, always raising his or her game. Each of the four actors with significant roles received Academy Award nominations, with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman especially a joy to watch square off against Meryl in two long riveting scenes filled with tension and tears. Hoffman is perfect casting for his character because in a long and varied career he played more than a few disturbed individuals—Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead come to mind—and his slightly off-kilter quality makes guessing whether he’s guilty or innocent all the more difficult. He was one of the best actors of his generation, a true original who always took chances, and watching the two extended scenes where he goes toe-to-toe with Meryl is about as mesmerizing as movie scenes get. Adams is also a perfect choice here, genuinely innocent and trusting of those around her, but with an inner sadness when she believes that trust has been broken. And Viola Davis’s stunning one scene, where her character Mrs. Miller begs Sister Aloysius to keep the alleged transgression a secret, stuns and exhilarates. Any actress who’s able to upstage Meryl in a scene is worthy of applause, and Davis is spectacular here, in a single moment that took her career to great heights.

Doubt marked Meryl’s first major role in a feature film drama since the aforementioned The Hours, and for her performance she received a Screen Actors Guild award and her fifteenth Academy Award nomination. If Kate Winslet’s Oscar nomination in Lead Actress for The Reader had been placed in the Supporting Actress category, where it was placed at the SAG and Golden Globe Awards, Meryl would have certainly won her third Oscar for her raw, sometimes chilling performance in Doubt. This is a character we think we know everything about when we’re first introduced to her. She’s a disciplinarian, the wicked witch of the Catholic school who inflicts fear and pain on her students, especially the unfortunate ones who don’t follow the rules. She doesn’t take crap from anybody, and she’s suspicious of Father Flynn from the start. But as the film continues, the viewer starts to see cracks in her veneer, her lack of ever looking inward to see what’s made her so judgmental of others and so bitterly unhappy. When she explodes at Flynn in their second of two major scenes, she seems to be yelling less at him and more at her own frustrations in committing herself to only seeing the worst in people.

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It is not until the final scene that her character, finally having received her wish for Flynn’s removal from the school, allows her intimidating and demanding persona to crumble, when she tells Sister James that she has doubts. Her two lines at the end can be interpreted in more than one way. Does she have doubts that Flynn molested the boy? That she handled the situation correctly? That inherent goodness in humanity is on the way out? Or possibly her own faith in God? Like the core mystery of the movie, her own doubts are left for interpretation, which makes this ending both challenging and effective. It also gives Meryl one of her most memorable movie endings, probably her most emotionally draining since the last scene of Kramer Vs. Kramer.

Meryl followed up Doubt with her endearing portrayal of Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s enchanting 2009 movie Julie & Julia, which also co-starred Amy Adams. Soon after that, she starred in The Iron Lady, the film that finally, after nearly thirty years, won her an Academy Award, oddly enough beating out her Doubt co-star Viola Davis, who was nominated for The Help. Despite approaching sixty at the time of acting in Doubt, an age when most actresses have either ruined their face with plastic surgery or been relegated to one-dimensional mother roles or have abandoned acting altogether, Meryl found herself at the most exciting time of her career with one tremendous performance after another that continued to cement her status as our greatest living actress. Who else, after all, could go from a movie like Mamma Mia to a movie like Doubt and excel at both roles so significantly? Only the very best.

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My Year With Meryl: Mamma Mia (2008)

One of the great joys in watching a new Meryl movie every week is seeing her take chances not just on daring projects and unique characters, but on new genres. So many actors unfortunately get typecast in certain kinds of movies—think Hugh Grant or Cameron Diaz in romantic comedies—but Meryl continues to surprise with her genre choices. While drama is her number one genre of choice, she has not shied away from comedies, Defending Your Life, Death Becomes Her, and The Devil Wears Prada being three of her best movies ever. In addition, she has appeared in a suspense film (Still of the Night), an action movie (The River Wild), a children’s film (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), animated movies (The Ant Bully and Fantastic Mr. Box), and a western (The Homesman).

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One of the last major genres she hadn’t tackled before 2008 was the musical, which was odd given her beautiful singing voice. Meryl memorably sang in Ironweed, Death Becomes Her, and A Prairie Home Companion but had never led an all-star musical. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and Mamma Mia, based on the award-winning musical that premiered in London in 1999 and went on to be one of Broadway’s longest running hits, turned out to be the one that called her name. Meryl saw the musical in New York a few weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks and wrote a letter to the show’s producers telling them how thankful she was for their bringing much-needed happiness to theatergoers. Phyllida Lloyd, who directed the stage-show and was chosen to also direct the film version, never forgot about that letter; her first and only choice for Donna in the movie was Meryl.

It would have been understandable for Meryl to say no to this project. Not only is this the kind of lightweight entertainment she hadn’t pursued in a few years but pulling off a movie musical is difficult—for every Chicago, there’s Rent and The Producers—and singing ABBA songs, as any member in the cast can attest to, can be a challenge. But when asked, Meryl was shocked that she was even considered, and she agreed to star in the film without a moment’s hesitation. She reportedly was never allowed to sing in her house around her son and daughters, so she decided she’d get her mini-revenge by leading a movie musical. Of course, the exotic location, amazing ensemble cast, catchy songs, and simple, engaging story also had something to do with her decision.

Film Title: Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia tells of twenty-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a young woman living in Greece who is about to marry her equally young Prince Charming named Sky (Dominic Cooper). Before her big day arrives, however, she sends out three letters to her three potential dads, men her mother dated one eventful summer. They all unexpectedly show up, to Sophie’s great joy, and her mother Donna’s consternation. As the wedding ceremony draws near, Sophie questions if she wants to get married at all, and Donna wonders if she still has the capacity to fall in love again. This original story, written by Catherine Johnson for both the stage version and the film version, plays out with more than a dozen ABBA songs that fit seamlessly into the plot.

Well maybe not all seamlessly, but most. Viewed in the right frame of mind, Mamma Mia is grand entertainment from beginning to end, a movie that exists for no other reason to make the viewer smile and feel good. While at times the cinematography feels a little too phony and glossy—much of the film was shot on the Pinewood Studios soundstages—and while there are a couple musical numbers that slow down the film’s pacing—as fun as “Does Your Mother Know” is, removing it would not affect the plot in any way—for the most part this movie works. There’s one more key flaw—more on that in a moment—but overall, the film is loads of fun, with one delightful song after another (“Honey, Honey” and “Dancing Queen” are two of the best) and lots of great actors clearly having a blast on-screen and not taking the cheesy story too seriously.

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Pierce Brosnan reportedly signed onto the movie not even knowing what it was—only that it was being shot in Greece and that Meryl was the lead. At this point in her career, Meryl had the power to attract terrific actors the world over to movies she was attached to, and Mamma Mia was no different. Playing Donna’s best friends, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters were perfectly chosen, making the life-long friendships between the three women believable; Walters is especially a hoot in the most comedic role in the movie. Amanda Seyfried is luminous, and Dominic Cooper is at his most handsome and charming. Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard joined Brosnan as Sophie’s potential fathers, and all three actors brought welcome qualities to their roles, with Firth at his most confused and Skarsgard at his silliest. Brosnan is fine in his most high-profile role since he retired from the James Bond series, but the other huge flaw in the movie is his godawful singing voice, which is so bad that any emotion meant to be stirred up in the film’s sappy conclusion is tempered. While one has to give Brosnan credit for really going for it—his Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress is undeserved—it’s wise to assume he won’t be singing on-screen anytime soon.

Meryl had played such dour and reserved characters in her previous movies, like in Rendition and Lions for Lambs, and even The Devil Wears Prada to some extent, so to watch her be sexy and kid-like and totally uninhibited in Mamma Mia is a great pleasure for any Meryl fan. This was one of her most physically demanding roles since The River Wild, so much so that the then fifty-eight-year-old had to train for three weeks to get in proper shape—climbing a tall ladder while singing ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” takes a little stamina—and her exuberance really comes through, particularly in her early scenes when she’s dancing through the streets and doing cannonballs off piers. Meryl, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance, is absorbing in a central role that could have played one-note in the hands of a different actress. Despite the emphasis on entertaining musical numbers over moments of subtlety and character realizations, Meryl always finds time for genuine emotion, even when it’s just a quick look at Brosnan or a glimpse at Seyfried in the mirror.

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But the greatest thrill of all in watching Mamma Mia is to finally hear Meryl belt out not just a couple of songs, which audience members had been privileged to hear in a few of her previous movies, but multiple ones, each with its own tempo and flavor. It’s a little weird to watch Academy Award winner Meryl Streep sliding down a bannister and singing the silly but infectious “Dancing Queen,” and she’s unfortunately not given much help by Brosnan in the strained version of “S.O.S.” Her best songs are “Mamma Mia,” “Slipping Through My Fingers,” and her big, emotional showstopper, “The Winner Takes It All,” which allows her to just sing, without choreography, without any bells and whistles. If anything can prove that Meryl could record her own album and be taken seriously as a singer, it’s her goosebumps-raising rendition of “The Winner Takes It All.”

Mamma Mia opened on July 18, 2008, the same day as The Dark Knight, acting as the perfect counterprogramming to the Christopher Nolan juggernaut. Mamma Mia, while only making peanuts that weekend compared to the giant haul The Dark Knight pulled in, turned into a true blockbuster all its own, quickly besting The Devil Wears Prada’s stupendous box office take with 144 million nationwide and an astonishing 610 million worldwide. Given that Meryl doesn’t star in a Marvel movie (she did tell Jimmy Kimmel that she wouldn’t not consider being in a superhero movie), Mamma Mia will likely stand as her all-time highest grosser. And after having made four disappointing bombs in a row, this musical, her only until 2014’s Into the Woods, proved that Meryl was back on track.

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