My Year With Meryl: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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My Year With Meryl: Angels in America (2003)

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After a somewhat stuffy dramatic period in her career in the late 1990s, Meryl came roaring back in 2002 with two of her freshest, most creative endeavors ever—The Hours and Adaptation. These movies showed audiences that Meryl was not interested in appearing in more mediocre dramas made better only by her participation. Instead, they showed that she was willing to take chances with a pair of unique scripts, and two young directors who wanted to push Meryl into exciting new territories. A spark of this creativity must have stayed with Meryl when she chose her next project, a magnificent achievement that marked her third masterpiece in a row. The HBO mini-series Angels in America, which went on to win nearly every Emmy it was eligible for, is one of the most engrossing, fascinating, and important projects that Meryl has ever appeared in.

Before the project premiered on HBO—an event that spanned two Sunday nights that December—it was one of the most anticipated mini-series to have even been produced. Tony Kushner had adapted his incendiary Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, and Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols had assembled a brilliant cast of actors, both famous figures and brand new faces. Meryl was starring alongside the powerhouses Al Pacino and Emma Thompson, and she was reuniting with Nichols for the first time since 1990’s Postcards From the Edge (they also made Silkwood and Heartburn together). Most exciting for Meryl fans, though, may have been that she wasn’t playing just one role in Angels in America, but four! While none of the characters truly make up a lead performance, her range and talent shines all the way through this beautifully constructed and perfectly executed six-hour production.

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Set in New York City in 1985, Angels in America has many characters, plot threads, and themes. Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) is a gay man dying of AIDS, and having visions of an angel (Emma Thompson) descending to his bedside. His boyfriend Louis (Ben Shenkman) abandons him, unable to deal with his illness, and begins a relationship with a closeted gay Mormon named Joe (Patrick Wilson). Joe works for a closeted gay lawyer Roy (Al Pacino), struggles making an emotional connection to his wife Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), and eventually comes out to his mother (Meryl). The mini-series blends reality with flights of fantasy, some wild, some lyrical, always hypnotic. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (also Meryl) visits the dying Roy in the hospital, an irate Harper at one point finds herself trudging through snow in Antarctica, and there’s even a vision of Heaven (where Meryl plays yet another character).

Meryl is all over these six hours, popping up as one character you might expect, but also as three others you absolutely wouldn’t. With her cropped gray hair and pale white skin, Joe’s mother is the one who looks and feels closest to Meryl, although the arc this character goes on is one of the most moving in the entire mini-series. Without much to her in the beginning, other than traveling to New York to make amends with her adult son, she eventually transforms at the sight of something truly magical. Meryl is nearly unrecognizable as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, with her chubby cheeks and black, tight-fitted hair. These quiet, haunting scenes she shares with the great Pacino are electric. She is literally unrecognizable as a rabbi, who appears at the very beginning. Yes, after years of people probably making jokes about it, since most believe Meryl can play anyone or anything—she finally plays a man! More amazing, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick, with her long soliloquy being so mesmerizing and truthful that you forget you’re watching Meryl playing an old bearded guy. Meryl lastly plays a character at the very end—The Angel Australia—and who knows? Maybe she’s in more. Has anyone double-checked? No matter, she brings humanity and heart to each of the roles she plays, making this production one of the great tour-de-forces for an actress who has impressed us many times before.

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Despite focusing on the AIDS epidemic and showing various men hiding their homosexuality and trying to come to terms with who they are, Angels in America is never a condemnation of gay men. The play was produced and performed in the early 1990s, long before the majority of Americans supported homosexuals in all ways of life, particularly when it came to gay marriage. This play, alongside other milestones like The Normal Heart and the 1990 film Longtime Companion, broke new ground in showing that the love and heartache every gay person feels is just the same as anyone else, and that stories brimming with homosexual characters were just as compelling and important as any production featuring only straight ones. The mini-series itself premiered long before Brokeback Mountain, long before Milk. Receiving Emmy awards for Best Mini-Series, Best Director of a Mini-Series, and Best Screenplay of a Mini-Series (not to mention acting awards in all four of its categories, including a Best Actress statuette for Meryl), this adaptation of Kushner’s beloved play was another much-needed work of art that pushed the nation’s acceptance of gay rights even farther in the proper direction.

Angels in America actually marked the second project in a row for Meryl that dealt with gay themes. She even kisses a woman in both—Allison Janney in The Hours, and Thompson in this. It’s great that at this point in her career, with thirteen Oscar nominations behind her and really nothing left to prove, that she would appear in two gay-themed films, before they were more commonly accepted. But what’s truly remarkable about Meryl is her constant hunger for challenging herself as an actress, and appearing in projects that might not necessarily be fashionable or easy to digest. She has appeared in more than fifty productions and counting, but in the end, Angels in America will likely go down as one of the best decisions she ever made. It’s not just an HBO mini-series. It’s not just a great story well told. It is, and has been, a film that changes lives.

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My Year With Meryl: The Hours (2002)

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One of the best films Meryl ever made that she received no Oscar nomination for is Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, a haunting, gorgeous movie about three women’s lives that are intertwined despite the locations and decades between them. More accolades might have come Meryl’s way for The Hours, but the film community chose to acknowledge her equally strong work in Adaptation that holiday season. After a three-year absence from the screen, Meryl had not one but two fantastic films released in the same month—December 2002—and both were highly creative endeavors that played with the expectations of narrative and told of the power of books and hypnosis of writing. Both also featured Meryl not in the lead role, but as part of an ensemble.

And quite the ensemble The Hours is. Featuring Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman as the other two women, as well as a cast that includes Ed Harris, Miranda Richardson, Toni Collette, Jeff Daniels, and Claire Danes, among others, this film is a who’s-who of great actors. In one of the two DVD audio commentaries, director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Reader) said that he and the producers got their first choice for every single role, a rarity even in the most prestigious of Oscar-bait movies. It was producer Scott Rudin who suggested Meryl for the role of Clarissa, a woman living in 2001 New York who’s in a strained lesbian relationship and spends most of her time caring for her dying ex-boyfriend Richard (Ed Harris). Meryl was aware of the material before being offered the film—she had previously read Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, which featured Meryl herself as a small character. Many deemed the book unfilmable, but screenwriter David Hare managed to translate much of the interior monologues into a highly cinematic experience.

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The Hours is about three different women who all have the essence of one soul. The first woman is the famous, troubled writer Virginia Woolf, working on her books and fighting her bouts of depression in Essex, England, in 1923. The film uses a mix of Woolf’s real words and Hare’s manufactured ones to show a woman at the height of her creative powers. Nicole Kidman, a surprising choice for the real-life figure, won an Academy Award for her subtle, effective work. With a fake nose and pale, almost lifeless cheeks, she completely disappears in the role like she has never done before or since in her long career. While it was purely a political move for Kidman to win her Oscar in Best Actress and not Best Supporting Actress—with less than thirty minutes of screen-time in a two-hour movie, it’s difficult to make the case for this being a lead performance—she delivers tremendous work for the little time she has.

Virginia Woolf wrote the beloved novel Mrs. Dalloway, which the film’s second major character Laura Brown, a sad ‘50s housewife, spends much of her time reading. Fighting the romantic feelings she has for another woman and weighing the pros and cons of abandoning her family for a better life, Laura is the most complex character in the film. Julianne Moore, who received an Academy Award nomination for her role and also starred as a ‘50s housewife that same year in the equally outstanding Far From Heaven, breathes life into a woman who has no life, who cares for her child when she barely cares for him at all. Of the three stories, this is one that could have existed as its own movie, but the way Laura’s story is tied into Virginia’s and Clarissa’s makes the experience all the richer.

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Clarissa’s story has the most screen-time in the movie, at over forty minutes, but while Meryl gets a couple great moments, her character is surprisingly the least interesting of the three women. Talented actors surround her all the way through, and this is a unique part in that it’s to date the only gay character she’s ever played. However, unlike the other two lead characters, Clarissa seems to react more than do. In her two scenes with her dying friend Richard, Harris gets to chew the scenery (all the way to an Oscar nomination of his own), while she looks on. She reacts more than interacts with her partner Sally (Allison Janney) and daughter Julia (Claire Danes), and the film’s mesmerizing final scene that brings Clarissa and Laura into the same space is almost completely guided by a verbose Moore, as a quiet Meryl looks on. Usually Meryl is the star of a movie, taking charge of one scene after another, but The Hours makes for a rare scenario in which she takes a back seat to other more colorful characters. The one scene that does offer her a moment to shine takes place when she reunites with an old friend Louis, played by Jeff Daniels. She is put together at the beginning of their conversation, but then she has an emotional breakdown, right in front of him, one that sends her down to the floor and wrings out more than a few tears. In this scene—the longest in the movie, at almost nine minutes—Meryl commands the screen, showing the vulnerability of a woman who normally refuses to show a shred of it.

Meryl has said that the experience shooting The Hours was a lot different than shooting Adaptation. While the atmosphere on the set of Adaptation was usually light and fun, on The Hours it was more serious and difficult. The core trio joked later that the production should have been called The Long Hours. Daldry is one of the most acclaimed and sought-after filmmakers—the man received a Best Director nomination for each of his first three movies, a record—and with this kind of difficult subject matter, he needed to get the tone of his film just right. Casting great actors was only the first step; endless hours of rehearsal and long days on the set were the norm. Not that she was complaining about it, as Meryl said in one of the two DVD audio commentaries. She works extremely hard on each movie she does, and she said that sometimes the movie works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The Hours is one that really, really worked. Sometimes her performances are better than the movies they’re featured in, but in 2002, Meryl made the rare feat of appearing in not just one but two excellent movies, and The Hours, to this day, remains one of her very best.

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My Year With Meryl: Adaptation (2002)

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For the first time since she started making movies, Meryl took a hiatus from film acting. She wasn’t gone too long—Music of the Heart opened in late 1999, and she shot Adaptation in early 2001, a year and a half before it was released—but any Meryl fan will tell you that a year without her in a movie is never a good one. Aside from a scene of voice-over work as Blue Mecha in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (surprisingly the only time in her entire career she’s collaborated with director Steven Spielberg), she was absent from the screen for three whole years. Of course, she wasn’t going to be away for that long without returning to the screen with something fantastic, and in December of 2002, her fans were treated to not just one, but two excellent new Meryl movies, two of the strongest she has ever been in.

Adaptation, from the writing-directing team behind Being John Malkovich, was up first. One of the best films of 2002, Adaptation is still one of the most unique American movies of the last twenty years. It tells of a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) receives quite the impossible task: adapt the acclaimed but mostly story-free book The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean (Meryl), about her adventures with a kooky orchid hunter (Chris Cooper). Wanting to break free from the absurdist tone of his first film Being John Malkovich, Charlie attempts to construct a script out of small moments and little conflict, but he struggles a great deal, especially when his cocky brother Donald (also Cage) starts writing a script of his own, a silly action thriller. With no clue how to proceed, Charlie injects himself into his screenplay, as he tries to locate the real Susan and John, as well as the perfect ending for his movie.

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It’s interesting to note that the real Charlie Kaufman actually did receive the assignment to adapt Orlean’s book into a screenplay, and it’s remarkable that the endlessly creative, wholly unique script that came out of it actually became a major Hollywood production, with three of the finest actors around. Adapting a book into a movie is a difficult, highly intuitive process that had rarely been a source for narrative in a film before, and Adaptation succeeds in going a step further by making wise commentary on the three-act structure itself: do we abandon all the elements that make up what most audiences would consider a satisfying movie, or do we embrace it? Adaptation manages to do both, in a highly creative way. Most movies you walk into knowing exactly what to expect. You know where the necessary beats will be, what the twists will likely consist of. Adaptation loves surprising the viewer by taking him or her in different directions.

Most would agree that Meryl is one of our finest actors but some may also agree that she doesn’t take many chances when it comes to her choices in director and material. Too often, especially in the late 1990s, she picked good character roles in so-so movies, the kinds of dramas that might have aired on the Hallmark Channel if an actress of her caliber had turned the producers down. And Meryl is such a force to be reckoned with that maybe she makes an effort not to work with visionary directors (think Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Christopher Nolan) who might push her into realms we could never expect, and instead opts for the kinds of directors who stay out of the way (think David Frankel, John Wells, and Phyllida Lloyd) and let her do her thing. Adaptation was one of those rare occurrences where she teamed up with a young, creative team consisting of the great director Spike Jonze (who went on to win an Academy Award for Her) and the genius screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who won his Oscar for the brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

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As great as Meryl was in her dramas of the 1980s and 1990s, Adaptation shows a whole new side to the accomplished actress. For the first time since The Bridges of Madison County, she is allowed to be sexy on-screen, and to shed all her inhibitions. In the early scenes, she is an unhappily married journalist, trying to find meaning in the story she’s writing about the wacky orchid hunter, but when Kaufman’s imagination kicks into overdrive, Susan Orlean becomes a different person entirely, a cocaine-snorting, profanity-dropping, sexually-ravenous being who will gladly murder the snooping screenwriter of her bestselling book if she absolutely has to. Probably Meryl’s most famous and talked-about scene (one she has said in interviews she mostly improvised) takes place in a hotel room, when she takes one too many illegal substances and becomes obsessed with perfecting the sound of a dial tone. The light in her face, her complete freeness, is a delight to witness. She has such fun with her character that it’s a shame she doesn’t get more screen-time.

This brings me to the other interesting element about Meryl’s performance in Adaptation: it is very much a supporting one. The film is Cage’s all the way through, with Meryl and Cooper standout featured players. She was the star of almost every film she made in the 1990s, but in the new decade she more often took smaller roles in bigger ensemble pieces, usually to great success. Films like The Manchurian Candidate, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and A Prairie Home Companion allowed her to take on new dynamic characters without having to carry the entire film on her shoulders. All of the actors in Adaptation are outstanding—Cooper won an Oscar for his performance, Cage is at the top of his form and hasn’t been as good since, and Tilda Swinton and especially Brian Cox make big impressions—but it might have been Meryl who benefitted most of all for taking a chance on this unique film. For her performance, she won her first Golden Globe in two decades and received her thirteenth Academy Award nomination, cementing her status in the early twenty-first century as not only the most acclaimed actress of her generation, but also one who’s not afraid to take risks.

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My Year With Meryl: Music of the Heart (1999)

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“Meryl Streep replaces Madonna, acts with Gloria Estefan, and is directed by Wes Craven. It’s the end of the world as we know it.” I love Entertainment Weekly more than the average joe, but I rarely remember who was on the previous week’s cover, let alone a blurb from an issue released more than fifteen years ago. The 1999 Fall Movie Preview issue opened its entry about the awkwardly titled Music of the Heart with those perfectly worded two sentences, ones that set up a film that by all accounts could have been a disaster. Meryl is usually the first choice for a movie, not a second or third. She usually has talented, seasoned actors sharing the screen with her, not a Latina pop star making her film debut. And throughout her long career, despite belting out a couple screams in the disappointing thriller Still of the Night, she hasn’t come close to appearing in the kind of grisly horror films genre mastermind Wes Craven is so well known for. So what was this project exactly?

Meryl’s final movie of the twentieth century turned out to be a fairly standard biopic-drama, one that tells the inspirational true story of a violin teacher who changes the lives of her inner-city students. The film takes place in two time periods—1988 and 1998. In the first hour of the film, Roberta Guaspari is struggling as a single mother to two kids. Her husband has left her for another woman, and she takes a long-term substitute teacher position at a Harlem elementary school to make ends meet. Her positive influence on these kids—many from broken homes, most who live in less than ideal circumstances—is immediate, and violin playing gives them both confidence and a new creative outlet. Roberta doesn’t think she will make it through the first year, but a decade later she is still teaching, still inspiring the latest batch of young students. But when the school budget is slashed, and the violin program is excessed, Roberta faces potential unemployment, and no musical outlet for kids who desperately need it. She and the community band together to save the problem, and change lives in the process.

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Meryl initially didn’t want to be in the movie. She probably didn’t love the idea of stepping in after Madonna left due to creative differences with Craven—it’s well known that Meryl really wanted to play Evita in the early 1990s, a part that ultimately went to Madonna and earned the singer-actress a Golden Globe award—but instead Meryl didn’t think she could learn how to play a new musical instrument in the short window she had before production commenced. Not only was she promoting her two fall 1998 releases—One True Thing and Dancing at Lughnasa—but she also had to train for hours every day to convincingly play a violin teacher. Craven wrote her a heartfelt letter that told of his passion of the project and his insistence that she be the perfect person to play the real-life Roberta. Meryl gave in.

A horror director since the 1970s, Craven had wanted to make a non-genre movie his entire career, with no one ever giving him a chance to do something different. The success of Scream, though, finally gave him the opportunity he was looking for, and he chose Music of the Heart as his prestige project that would break him away from all the things that go BOO. One of the best, and worst, elements of Music of the Heart is its simplicity. This is an engaging story, well told, with Meryl in top form, as always. It makes you feel good from beginning to end, and while the film is a tad long at more than two hours, it is never boring. At the same time, while Craven makes the transition into making a true-life drama with ease—he’s a born storyteller, and could probably make a terrific film in any genre of his choosing—the complete lack of any directorial style or flourishes is a little disappointing. He didn’t need flashes of his horror movie roots—a knife-wielding maniac chasing Meryl through the elementary school would have been out of place—but it’s a shame that he couldn’t make any significant mark, visually or otherwise. He stays out of the way in this one, and lets the story and Meryl’s performance do most of the work.

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Music of the Heart may not be one of Meryl’s most memorable movies, but it’s the best one she made between Marvin’s Room and Adaptation, and she is certainly the best part about it. She is in almost every scene, commanding the screen by employing both her comedic and dramatic gifts, not to mention her musical chops. When she appeared on Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton, she said that if she hadn’t have become an actress, she would have loved to have been a musician, and in Music of the Heart she got to finally show what she’s made of. She is great in this movie, not just in portraying an emotionally distraught mother and a teacher who truly cares about her students, but as a failed musician who gets a second chance when she plays a sold-out concert in Carnegie Hall. Meryl is so convincing as a violin player that one would assume she had been practicing the instrument her entire life; in fact, she’d never touched the instrument until she signed on for this movie. Meryl received her twelfth Academy Award nomination in early 2000, closing out the century with one last magnificent screen performance.

1999 is often regarded as a significant year for movies, much like 1939, or any year of the 1970s. Now modern classics Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, Three Kings, and Magnolia came out within three short months of each other. Released at the end of October (Halloween weekend, ironic given Craven’s involvement), Music of the Heart may have been a little too ordinary to stand out from the crowd at the time, but it holds up today as a terrific inspirational story, and an important reminder that music should never be dropped from a school’s curriculum, no matter the economy’s hardships. Music teaches kids how to work hard, to be strong and empathetic, and to achieve something much bigger than themselves. Roberta Guaspari, whose story was also captured in the documentary Small Wonders, gave her students a reason to dream when no one else in their lives could, and Music of the Heart beautifully captures this woman’s stimulating journey. It also gave Meryl one more great character to play before she would take her first, and to date only, break from film acting. She wouldn’t appear in another movie for three long years, but when she came back at the end of 2002, she was ready to give us a new decade of brilliance that not even her biggest fans could have dreamed of.

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My Year With Meryl: Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)

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When I began My Year With Meryl, I was excited to watch a select few of her movies that I hadn’t yet seen. There was The Seduction of Joe Tynan, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Heartburn, and Before & After, as well as her 1978 mini-series Holocaust. My favorite by far of the ones I hadn’t seen is A Cry in the Dark, the fascinating, heartbreaking story of a woman accused of murdering her child. Dancing at Lughnasa is officially the last of her movies I hadn’t watched, and it’s one that up until now I knew next to nothing about. When it came to this production, I was only aware of two things—Meryl sports an Irish accent, and she dances around with gusto at some point during the movie.

Unfortunately, now having watched the movie, I struggle to explain much more I know about it than those two aforementioned nuggets. Meryl has appeared in more than fifty films, and Dancing at Lughnasa, adapted by Frank McGuinness and directed by Pat O’Connor (Inventing the Abbots), is one of her most inconsequential. It has some nice cinematography, solid performances, and Meryl once again sporting a truly remarkable accent. But there is little to maintain your interest here. When the most excitement in a movie comes when a man rocks a rowboat back and forth, you know something is off. It’s not just that this film is slow; the story lacks tension and is almost bereft of conflict. Watching Dancing at Lughnasa is equivalent to witnessing everyday life play out on-screen—in real time.

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Of course, it explains a lot that the film is based on a beloved stage-play. Sometimes movies can seamlessly make the transition from stage to screen (Meryl’s own Marvin’s Room is a prime example), but other times the material never really pops when it’s adapted for a major motion picture. The play by Brian Friel premiered in Dublin in 1990 and then ran on Broadway for more than a year, going on to win the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play. Watching the sisters interact on stage could potentially be an intimate and absorbing experience for the viewer, but on film, the story never comes to life. Set in 1930s rural Ireland, Dancing at Lughnasa tells of five sisters (Catherine McCormack, Kathy Burke, Sophie Thompson, Brid Brennan, and Meryl) who live together and go through various ups and downs in their lives, including falling in love and spending time with their elderly brother, a priest played by Michael Gambon. The film is told from the perspective of one of the sister’s young boys, a plot device that never amounts to much.

The most entertainment value in Dancing at Lughnasa comes from watching Meryl’s magnificent performance, which deserves a better movie. With her short black-and-gray haircut, lack of make-up, and dowdy clothes, she disappears into yet another role from her first scene on. It would have been possible for her to be distracting in an ensemble film like this one, given that it features four lesser-known actresses playing her sisters. The viewer could have gotten swept up in the stories of the other performers but not in Meryl’s, since she is American, not Irish, and she is a movie star. But these potential problems never come to pass, and Meryl makes her role of Kate Mundy, the stern older sister, her own.

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The synopsis makes it look like Meryl would have a mere supporting role in this film the same way she plays small roles in other ensemble works, like A Prairie Home Companion, Evening, and The Giver (not to mention her teeny-tiny part in The Homesman). But Meryl is front and center in a lot of Dancing at Lughnasa, and while the film rarely captivates, she has a few significant moments. One in which she stands in an empty classroom, grief-stricken at the possibility that she might never teach again, is the kind of tender acting moment that works beautifully on its own. And then there’s the scene where the five sisters finally dance, toward the end of the movie. There’s nothing particularly special about the way this scene is shot or choreographed, but the one memorable aspect has to do with Meryl herself, the way she refuses to get up and take part in the joy. For so much of the movie she is the one in charge, ultra-serious, never to give in to frivolous pleasures. The way she starts tapping her feet against the floor, failing to hide her growing smile, only to then leap into the air and start dancing around the room like she has about an hour left to live, is the key moment from Dancing at Lughnasa I will never forget.

I have now watched at least once every Meryl movie ever made (except for ones not yet released, of course!). I have my favorites of those I’ve re-watched and written about, and my favorites of those I look forward to watching again soon. In the end, Meryl has been in a lot of great movies, time and time again, and only occasionally does she appear in a misfire. Dancing at Lughnasa is not poorly made, and it has the best of intentions, but it is not one of her more compelling works. She made two films in 1998. The one worth watching is One True Thing.

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My Year With Meryl: One True Thing (1998)

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One True Thing completed an unofficial Meryl trilogy of disease movies that started with 1996’s Marvin’s Room and continued into 1997’s …First Do No Harm. It is probably a coincidence that Meryl made three movies in a row with a very sick character at the forefront (with only …First Do No Harm having an uplifting ending), but it’s worth noting, especially given that this period in the late 1990s featured the most serious projects of her career. From 1993 to 1999 she made eight dramas, many of which are about families, so maybe being a mother of four attracted her to this kind of material. It wouldn’t be until 2002’s Adaptation that she would lighten up and have some fun.

This is not to suggest that One True Thing, one of her two fall 1998 releases, is a bad film. While it’s certainly one of her most downbeat productions—you spend most of the two-hour-plus running time watching Meryl’s character Kate slowly die—it’s compelling all the way through, with three outstanding performances. While the more comedic Marvin’s Room typically shied away from showing the horror that cancer wreaks on one’s body, One True Thing shows the viewer every sad detail, not just in the physical realm, but in the mental one as well. When we first see Meryl, she is luminous, wearing a Dorothy Gale costume from head to toe, her hair in pigtails, her feet sporting ruby red slippers. By the end of the movie, she has withered away to almost nothing, a skeletal frame that houses only pain and anguish. One True Thing shows Meryl’s most astonishing transformation on film since Sophie’s Choice.

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As great as Meryl is, though, she isn’t technically the lead actor in this film. The story is told not from Kate’s perspective, but her daughter Ellen, played by Renee Zellweger. Ellen has no knowledge that her mother is ill; a busy, ambitious journalist, she is only heading home for the weekend to celebrate her novelist father George’s birthday. But when it is discovered that Kate has cancer, George asks Ellen to move home for a bit and help take care of her mother. Ellen always got along more with her father, with their shared writing interests, and from an early age thought her mother’s decision to be a homemaker to be outdated. Kate’s terminal illness, however, finally brings mother and daughter together, and shows Ellen the kind of her person she never thought she could be.

I saw this movie on opening weekend with my mom and aunt when I was thirteen, and I still remember the loud sniffles coming from all the women who surrounded me. One True Thing, after all, is a film designed to pull on your heartstrings and make you cry. Sometimes a tearjerker drama can feel manipulative, and there are moments in One True Thing, with the occasionally sappy music, and happy holiday settings, that hover right on the edge. Screenwriter Karen Croner adapted Anna Quindlen’s beloved 1995 novel maybe a bit too faithfully, and director Carl Franklin, the man behind the crime thrillers One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, doesn’t paint the sad moments with any unique colors.

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What saves certain scenes from turning too maudlin are the performances. This is the kind of movie that lives or dies by its actors, and with a different cast, the results might have been much different. But with the three actors chosen, magic often occurs. William Hurt has excelled in one role after another for nearly forty years, and while his character of George isn’t a big stretch for the actor, he imbues the man with the perfect balance of love for his family and disgust in watching his wife waste away. The character borders on being unsympathetic at times, but his humanity creeps in at just the right moments.

Renee Zellweger has rarely been more natural in a movie; while Hollywood gave her award after award for her flashier performances in Chicago and Cold Mountain, it’s her quiet, genuine performance in One True Thing that should have received more attention. The restraint she often shows elevate the movie considerably, like when her character rests her head on her mother’s shoulder when she sings “Silent Night” and the heartbreaking moment when George finds his daughter holding Kate’s hand on a tragic morning, her face not red with tears, but with a removed kind of numbness.

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And then there’s Meryl, who, after watching Diane Keaton get sick in Marvin’s Room and little Seth Adkins get even sicker in …First Do No Harm, finally got to be sick herself as the dying central character in One True Thing. Meryl said in an interview that when she heard that the book was being made into a movie, she contacted her agent to see if she could be a part of it. There’s no mystery in why she wanted to play Kate; this role is an actor’s dream. She’s full of life in the beginning, but then slowly disintegrates as cancer wreaks havoc on her mind and body. She has one emotional moment after another in the film’s final act, and one particular scene, where she tells her daughter that she’s sad because she won’t be able to help plan her wedding, is Meryl at her absolute best. Here’s a long monologue that could have felt overwritten or schmaltzy with another actress, but Meryl nails every beat, every gesture. This is the clip that was shown from the film at her AFI Lifetime Achievement award, and it’s likely the one that netted Meryl her eleventh Oscar nomination.

By 1998 Meryl had little more to prove in her acting brilliance, but One True Thing showed yet another side to her artistry. While the film isn’t always an easy watch, one superb element is that it doesn’t shy away in showing the painful realities of how cancer can attack a beloved member of your family. Meryl has never been one to turn against roles that show the not-so-pretty side of herself in movies—think her characters in Ironweed and August: Osage County—and in One True Thing she allowed viewers to see one of her saddest, most vulnerable sides of all. While the film has its flaws, Meryl’s ingenious performance stands out as one of her best of the 1990s.

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My Year With Meryl: …First Do No Harm (1997)

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Meryl has always been prolific in her career, often making one or two movies a year (sometimes even more), but she was really cranking films out in the second half of the 1990s, appearing in no less than seven in the span of just four years, between 1995’s The Bridges of Madison County and 1999’s Music of the Heart. While Before & After disappointed with critics, and Dancing at Lughnasa bombed at the box office, the film she made during this time that probably perplexed the most people was …First Do Harm, to date her one and only made-for-TV movie.

It’s not that Meryl always shied away from television. She appeared in a significant role in the epic 1978 mini-series for NBC, Holocaust, as well the acclaimed 2003 HBO mini-series Angels in America, which won her an Emmy. But for her to appear in a lowly TV-movie, one directed by the mastermind behind comedy spoofs like Airplane and Hot Shots and who had never attempted drama before, seemed a bit of a head-scratcher to people. But don’t let the fact that this isn’t some big Hollywood production deter you; …First Do No Harm is a riveting, first-rate film with excellent performances and a strong message about doing what’s right for your health, no matter the opposition. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges, with cinematography that can be wanting (too much shaky-cam at times) and a sometimes obnoxious musical score (especially when something really, really bad happens). But if you’re a Meryl fan, you owe it to yourself to seek this one out.

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Lori (Meryl) is happily married to Dave (Fred Ward), a truck driver, and is the mother to three children. She seems to have the ideal, stress-free life, when her youngest son Robbie (Seth Atkins) falls in the front yard and goes into a seizure. At the hospital he is diagnosed with epilepsy, and is immediately put on a variety of drugs, including phenobarbital, phenytoin, and carbamazepine. But the drugs only make him worse and worse, to the point that he’s completely bed-ridden and dependent and suffering at least 100 seizures a day. When the doctors can’t seem to solve Robbie’s problem, Lori starts researching epilepsy herself, and discovers a natural remedy and sometimes cure called the ketogenic diet that hasn’t even been brought up by the doctors as a potential option. Despite the misgivings of her doctor (an effectively cold Allison Janney), Lori stops at nothing to put her son on the diet, and stop his epilepsy for good.

Jim Abrahams, known for co-directing Airplane and Top Secret!, as well as directing the two Hot Shots movies, had never come close to stepping over that line between comedy and drama, but …First Do No Harm was a story he simply had to tell. Abrahams’ own son Charlie suffered from severe seizures and was cured after going on the ketogenic diet. Upset that the diet had never been presented as a possible treatment, Abrahams created the Charlie Foundation to promote it, and he directed and produced this film. His strong tie to the story probably had something to do with Meryl coming on board, given that this was a movie produced for ABC TV and not for cinemas; it’s not every day that a ten-time Oscar nominee headlines a project for the small screen. However, while many TV movies of the 1990s are practically unwatchable today—check out She Cried No, with Candace Cameron, for a hilarious example—First Do No Harm is compelling, important entertainment, no matter the medium it was made for.

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Abrahams assembled a stellar cast for this project, which includes faces still well known today and faces we haven’t seen much since, but they’re all fantastic. Ward is always a welcome presence in any movie, and he has powerful chemistry with Meryl, playing a man who loves his sick son but rarely knows what to do to make things right with his family. Margo Martindale plays Lori’s compassionate friend Marjean, making this the second of three times she shared the screen with Meryl (they share scenes in Marvin’s Room and August: Osage County). Janney wasn’t that well known in 1997, and this was one of her first substantial roles (later that same year she made impressions in Private Parts and The Ice Storm, on her way to The West Wing). Her performance as the boy’s stone-faced but sympathetic doctor is a standout. As terrific as all the adult actors is Seth Adkins, six years old when he played Robbie. His performance as the epileptic child is wholly convincing all the way through, and he rightly deserved his Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a TV Movie.

Of course, Meryl, who received Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for her performance as Lori, is as good here as she always is, and her stellar work raised the bar for acting in made-for-TV films. While she might have played one too many moms in the 1990s (pretty much everything besides Death Becomes Her), she obviously believed in this project from the get-go and committed to a multi-layered character who does anything she can to save her child, including removing her son from the hospital illegally and standing up to the narrow-minded authority. Scenes of her crying in desperation when she feels she’s out of options rip your heart out, and scenes toward the end when she discovers her son might actually pull through returns your heart to its proper place. She’s in almost every scene of the two-hour movie, and her performance makes an occasionally uneven film an absolute must-see. …First Do No Harm is proof that old TV movies aren’t necessarily lesser experiences than their theatrically released counterparts—but it also doesn’t hurt to have Meryl in the lead.

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My Year With Meryl: Marvin’s Room (1996)

 

If there’s one drama Meryl has made that she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for, but one I feel she absolutely deserved one for, it’s Marvin’s Room. Released at the end of 1996 to mostly great acclaim by critics, this endlessly absorbing film unfortunately stalled at the box office and received only a few significant awards nominations. While Meryl received yet another Golden Globe nomination for her performance, she was passed over at the Academy Awards, in favor of Diane Keaton, who earned a nomination in Meryl’s place. There might have been some confusion as to whether Meryl should have been submitted in the Lead Actress or Supporting Actress category, but no matter—her performance as Lee in Marvin’s Room is one of her best of the 1990s, and certainly one of her most entertainingly vitriolic. The film is also a real winner, one of my favorites of her entire career.

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Meryl originally didn’t want to play Lee. At her friend Robert De Niro’s request, she went to see the play by Scott McPherson in 1991, and instantly fell in love with the character of Bessie. The story of two estranged sisters who haven’t talked in twenty years but who come together when one is diagnosed with leukemia, Marvin’s Room features a terrific ensemble of characters, none richer than the sick but eternally optimistic Bessie. The actress playing this part gets the most emotional scenes and the most heart-wrenching moments, but by the time the film finally went into pre-production in 1995, Meryl had played a string of proper, good-natured characters, and she wanted a change of pace with the bad-tempered, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking sister, Lee.

When we first meet her, Lee is trying to get her life on track, the best way she can. She’s divorced and his two kids, her older son Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) a troublemaker who burns down their house and enters a psychiatric ward for observation. However, she is also about to receive her degree in cosmetology, so when her sister Bessie (Diane Keaton) calls to ask her if she and her two boys will come down to Florida to be tested for a possible bone marrow transplant, she isn’t exactly thrilled to go. She’s more nervous than excited to see Bessie after all these years, and she’s equally concerned at how well Hank will fit in with a house full of strangers. When she first arrives, there’s instant tension between her and her sister, but as the film goes on, and as Bessie becomes sicker, a bond forms between them that neither one could have expected.

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The film’s premise and differing personalities of the central characters give a wealth of complex scenes for the actors to play. While she shares about the same amount of screen-time with Meryl, Keaton is the heart and soul of the film. The beloved Oscar-winning actress had won over critics and audiences in The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Reds, but Keaton hadn’t received a real juicy dramatic role in more than ten years when Marvin’s Room came along. Any actress can go over-the-top when playing a character who’s dying of cancer, and the beauty of Keaton’s performance is that it is always understated, never going for that big showy moment. She is terrific throughout.

Equally impressive is DiCaprio, in his last major screen role before he made the fateful trip aboard the Titanic. Wonderfully crazed and manic in the first act, his character has many layers throughout, with an earned transformation toward the end. Robert De Niro, who also produced the film and developed it for many years from the stage to the screen, is hilarious as Bessie’s local doctor, and Gwen Verdon, in one of her last film roles, is a hoot as Bessie and Lee’s eccentric Aunt Ruth. Hume Cronyn, in his final theatrical film role, is quietly haunting as the film’s title character, saying so much by never uttering a word.

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Meryl, at the top of her game, hadn’t ripped into a showy, angry, resentful character like Lee since she played Madeline Ashton in the special effects comedy, Death Becomes Her. After a string of quieter dramatic roles, her best being Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County, Meryl probably had a blast inhabiting a showy role like Lee, one who provides some very funny moments as well as unexpectedly emotional ones in the third act. Her interaction with Hank’s therapist, Dr. Charlotte (Margo Martindale, who Meryl would share the screen with in 2013’s Osage: August County) is borderline goofy, and her initial interactions with Bessie feature awkward lines and moments that make the viewer laugh. But as the center core of her character comes through toward the end of the movie, the laughs drain away, and the true heart to her character finally starts beating. Just the way she hugs her sister in the final scene is enough to send any viewer into a crying fit. This is one of Meryl’s most unexpected performances, and also one of her most affecting.

The beauty of Marvin’s Room is the way that it treads the line between comedy and drama all the way through, and, somehow, almost impossibly, manages to succeed in both. Scott McPherson finished the screenplay mere weeks before he died (in November 1992, four years before the movie was released) and he clearly infused it with as much honesty and humanity as he could muster. The film is significant for featuring Keaton and De Niro in their first movie together since The Godfather Part II, and re-teaming Meryl and De Niro for the third (and to date, final) time, after The Deer Hunter and Falling in Love. It also is significant for being, like On Golden Pond and Driving Miss Daisy, one of the better modern stage-to-film adaptations made by a major studio. Marvin’s Room tells somewhat of a familiar story, but it remains one of my favorite Meryl movies. It teams half a dozen acting legends in one movie, and while Keaton ultimately received the Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Meryl, in yet another standout performance, was equally as deserving.

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My Year With Meryl: Before & After (1996)

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Not every actor makes perfect choices in his or her career, not even Meryl, and Before & After, a somber, mostly dull drama that offers few surprises, was one of her most peculiar choices of all. Released quietly in February 1996, Before & After died a quick death at the box office and was quickly dismissed by most major film critics. The film is competently made, watchable, includes a few effective scenes. But what about the mediocre screenplay attracted Meryl to this project? After a rare misstep with the dreadful The House of the Spirits, Meryl conquered action in The River Wild and a hauntingly beautiful love story in The Bridges of Madison County. She was at the height of her dramatic power in the mid-1990s, and Before & After, while not a terrible movie, is never worthy of Meryl’s talent.

The film plays out like a slow, dreary Lifetime TV-movie, the kind that would feature someone like Roma Downey in the mother role, not a ten-time-Oscar-nominated actress of Meryl’s stature. She plays a small town doctor who has what she thinks is a simple, normal life, with a husband who loves her and two kids at home. But everything changes one fateful day when a teenage girl turns up dead in the snow and her own son is accused of killing her. The film paints the son (an oddly distant Edward Furlong) as being guilty from the get-go, since he doesn’t show up until well into the movie’s second act. But did he actually kill her on purpose? And how will his parents react to the sentence their son is bound to receive in court?

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These questions are meant to keep us engaged all the way through the movie, but they do only to a certain point. While the movie has plenty of explosive acting scenes, probably three too many, to keep the viewer interested in the story, the movie ultimately flounders, for a few reasons. To start with, the script could have been tighter and more focused, with fewer scenes that ramble on and on. The direction by Barbet Schroeder is serviceable and yet without any interesting visual flourishes or passion on his part that shows he really cared about telling this story. Nominated for an Oscar for the fantastic Reversal of Fortune, from 1990, Schroeder has spent most of his career making B-list dramatic thrillers like Single White Female, Desperate Measures, and the Sandra Bullock starrer Murder by Numbers, to date his final American film. He shoots Before & After like he’s a director-for-hire, almost as if he’s counting the days until he can move on to another project.

There never seems to be much interest in telling this story from the actors either. Liam Neeson reportedly apologized to Gene Siskel at the 1996 Academy Awards for being in Before & After, which seems like a radical thing for an actor of his caliber to do—that is, until you watch this movie. He seems totally lost, almost always putting his character in a bad mood, sometimes for good reasons, and other times inexplicably. He also has no chemistry with Meryl and seems often like her mentally unstable younger brother (of course, this makes their unexpected sex scene halfway through the movie one of Meryl’s most awkward moments in a movie ever). Alfred Molina hams it up as the son’s smarmy lawyer (he even sports a thick, villain-like moustache!) and Edward Furlong, so great in films like Terminator 2 and American History X, appears so distant in the pivotal role of the son that it typically seems like he’s reading off cue cards.

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Meryl does what she can with a routine, underwritten role. This is not one of her most inspired performances; actually, this is one of her rare roles that could have been acted by any other actress of her generation, maybe even better. Meryl has such an intelligent, vibrant face that watching her dour expressions throughout this movie, listening to her utter one inane line of dialogue after another, becomes trying after awhile. A mother of four at this point in her life, she might have been intrigued to play the mother of a child accused of murder, but the script and direction are never worthy of her. Her son is missing for days, she doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead, and yet there never seems to be enough worry on her character’s part. Her profession in the film never rings true either, nor her relationship with her husband, nor the feeling ever that she is actually the mother of this unusual boy who trashes his room on a daily basis and hides secrets from everybody close to him. A decision the character makes to tell the truth late in the movie also doesn’t feel earned enough, so in the end, you’re left with Meryl doing all she can with a part that is easily one of her weakest ever.

This is not to say that Before and After is completely without merit. Meryl does have a few good moments, like when she defends her son to the sleazeball lawyer, and when she apologizes to the mother of the girl who died. It’s Meryl—she’s going to infuse even the most routine of scenes with authentic emotion and the utmost humanity. Unlike the unbearable The House of the Spirits, Before and After is never boring, with an early sequence involving Neeson burning evidence that does have a bit of tension. But unless you’re a diehard Meryl fan, or are revisiting some older Neeson movies, or are the one person left who still has a mad crush on Furlong (hey, don’t be ashamed), Before and After is easy to skip. Meryl made much better movies in the ‘90s, even in the very same year this film was released. If you want to see a great 1996 Meryl drama, pass on Before and After, and look no further than the funny and very moving Marvin’s Room.

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