After winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep could have done anything she wanted. She could have taken a break. She could have sold out and made a summer blockbuster. So what did she do? Just two and a half weeks after she wrapped Sophie’s Choice, she started filming Silkwood, the acclaimed 1983 drama co-starring Cher and Kurt Russell. That brief hiatus between movies was probably stressful on Meryl, but she couldn’t have picked a better follow-up to Sophie’s Choice. With Silkwood, she began her close working relationship with the Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols, who would go on to direct her in Heartburn, Postcards from the Edge, and the HBO mini-series Angels in America. She also stunned in another lead performance, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress her third year in a row.
While much of Sophie’s Choice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman featured Meryl in period roles, Silkwood allowed Meryl to stretch her muscles in a wholly modern story, one based on true events. She plays Karen Silkwood, a metallurgy worker at a plutonium processing plant. She makes plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors, where she deals with possible exposure to radiation. She doesn’t love her job but does what she have to to stay afloat. She has a steady relationship with her boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell) and loves spending time with her best friend Dolly (an almost unrecognizable Cher)—it doesn’t hurt matters that they both work at the same plant. When Karen and others become contaminated by radiation, plant officials blame her for the incident, and she begins an investigation into the various wrongdoings at the company. But before she is able to make it to a New York Times reporter with her findings, Karen dies in a mysterious car crash.
The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Alice Arlen and Nora Ephron (who would go on to direct Meryl twenty-five years later in Julie and Julia) is delicate in its handling of Karen’s controversial death. While the film doesn’t offer any answers, it also doesn’t glorify the death in any way or use it in a tacky manner just to create tension. Other directors might have used the car crash as a wrap-around to the central story, possibly opening the movie with the accident and then coming back to it in the end. Director Nichols and screenwriters Arlen and Ephron are much more interested in Karen’s human story, and the film plays out much more like a drama than a thriller.
Like Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood is a two-plus-hour slow-moving picture, one that has as many moments developing the characters and their relationships as it does scenes that propel the narrative forward. Nichols is concerned with allowing the viewer to really get to know these people, and this town, all of which are on the brink of collapse. The movie is a little slow at times, and, like Sophie’s Choice, could have been cut down by twenty to thirty minutes. But the film pulls you in from the beginning and keeps you engaged because of all the superb performances. Nichols has always been a genius when it came to directing actors, and he cast Silkwood with a fantastic ensemble that include the aforementioned Russell and Cher, as well as Craig T. Nelson, Fred Ward, Diana Scarwid, Ron Silver, Josef Summer, and a young David Straithairn, who would go on to play Meryl’s estranged husband in the action adventure The River Wild.
The most significant actors in the film are the main trio—Meryl, Cher, and Russell. Up to this point, Russell was more known for his action roles in the John Carpenter cult classics Escape From New York and The Thing, and not so much for his dramatic chops. He gets few explosive moments in Silkwood, but Russell proves here that he can hold his own with someone like Meryl. Russell’s real life partner Goldie Hawn would go on to battle Meryl mano a mano in the visual effects black comedy Death Becomes Her ten years later, but Russell had an opportunity in Silkwood to play a much quieter character than he was used to, one who sticks by his girlfriend’s side, even when she’s panicking about the levels of radiation that might be eating its way through her body.
Cher, in her second significant role on film following Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, effectively loses herself in a plain, make-up free lesbian character Dolly and proves, just like she did in 1987′s Moonstruck, she can be a commanding film actress when given the right material. She won a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for her performance, and it wasn’t just because she shed her singer image; she is a revelation in this movie, her character so effectively underplayed that she feels like a real person right from the beginning. Very few directors at the time would give Cher a chance, but Nichols, who gave the unknown Dustin Hoffman a chance on The Graduate, obviously saw something in Cher that he knew would work beautifully for this character, and it did.
From the beginning of her career, Meryl kept topping herself, year after year. The Deer Hunter, Kramer Vs. Kramer, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Sophie’s Choice—the performances just got richer and richer. While nothing she’s done since Sophie’s Choice can outdo the brilliance of her performance in that movie, Silkwood can be considered another show-stopper because Meryl really does become Karen Silkwood, and somehow, almost unfathomably, makes us forget about those memorable characters she had played before. After Sophie’s Choice, Meryl might have been pigeonholed into period roles, ones like she would go on to play in Out of Africa and Ironweed, but Silkwood showed that she could play a complex leading role set in the modern era.
As Karen, Meryl speaks her mind, shows her emotion without abandon, and manages to make a sometimes unsympathetic character one we are always rooting for. The film offers Meryl lighter moments—her playfulness in early scenes at work, and her priceless reaction to a joke told by Fred Ward—as well as terrifying ones—each subsequent body scrub down looks to be rougher, harder. The hope she exudes when the doctors tell her the amount of radiation in her body does not exceed the maximum safety amount shows her willingness to live, and the speck of fear in her eyes when she sees the headlights behind her car as she driving to the reporter shows the growing panic that all might not end well. The film also gives Meryl a chance to sing, which is always welcome. In Silkwood, she quietly performs “Amazing Grace” while driving back home after seeing her children, and the song repeats at the end, in a haunting manner, as Karen’s fate is finally met in the tragic car accident. Some great actors don’t have great singing voices, but Meryl’s is enchanting, and rarely has it been used in a more effective way than in Silkwood.
Meryl would next go on to make two questionable film projects — the entertaining but forgettable Falling in Love and the well-acted but lackluster Plenty — but with Silkwood she capped an extraordinary five-year run of great films that started with The Deer Hunter. She had this early in her career already impressed audiences the world over with her diverse performances, her impeccable accents, her almost unhuman-like ability to lose herself in her characters. In 1984, Meryl lost the Best Actress Oscar to Shirley Maclaine for Terms of Endearment, but at this point, she had already won.