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


“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.


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.


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)


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.


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.


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.


My Year With Meryl: One True Thing (1998)


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.


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.


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.


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)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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?




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.


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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My Year With Meryl: The Bridges of Madison County (1995)


A quiet romantic film released in the midst of summer, starring, of all people, Clint Eastwood? The Bridges of Madison County was, like the runaway novel bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code and The Help, always going to be made into a movie—Sydney Pollack circled the project with Robert Redford as his lead, and even Steven Spielberg briefly considered taking it on—but what kind of a movie was it going to be? Would it be too melodramatic? Would the two leads have any chemistry? When Eastwood—who in 1995 was most known for playing Dirty Harry, an action hero, and for directing Unforgiven, a dark western—was announced to be the co-actor and director of The Bridges of Madison County, there were likely a few eyebrows raised. Approaching age 65, he was an unlikely romantic lead as the handsome photographer Robert Kincaid, but what’s even more surprising is that the higher-ups at Warner Bros. wanted an actress far younger than what the part called for.

The pretty and complex Italian housewife Francesca Johnson, age 45, could have been played by many actresses at the time, both old and young. Jessica Lange and Isabella Rossellini were in contention for the lead, and the stunning French actress Catherine Deneuve (in her early 50s at the time) auditioned for the role. Younger actresses likely considered were Michelle Pfeiffer, Demi Moore, Rene Russo, and Kim Basinger, but Eastwood didn’t want to hear any of it. He made one phone call, to a beloved actress who hadn’t had a role this layered and deep since playing Lindy Chamberlain in A Cry in the Dark. Meryl didn’t so much care for the book, but she loved the script, and she signed on immediately, making The Bridges of Madison County her first significant role in a drama in seven years. And while she’s been nominated for an Academy Award eighteen times and counting, her Oscar-nominated performance as Francesca is easily one of her five greatest performances in her illustrious career. She is so quietly heartbreaking in this that she basically overshadows everything else in a flawed but effective film, one of Eastwood’s best.


The story is simple. Living in small-town Iowa, Francesca has a rare four days to herself, when her husband and two children leave to attend the Illinois State Fair. On day one, an attractive photographer arrives at her doorstep, asking for directions to a nearby bridge he has been commissioned to take pictures of. She shows him how to get to his destination, and from that moment on, they start spending more time together. They have dinner and drive to more bridges and talk about their histories, and potential futures. By day two, it’s clear that Robert and Francesca are smitten with each other, but is it even possible that they have a happily ever after? Francesca has a life in Iowa, while Robert is constantly on the move, never settling in one place. In the end, he asks her to run away with him, and be the adventurous woman her current husband never allowed her to be. The decision she finally makes, in the film’s haunting and most famous scene, is one that resonates with the viewer for days.

Eastwood supplies The Bridges of Madison County with just the right tone. The same leisurely way he paced his Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, he gives this film a quiet authenticity that keeps it from ever becoming too heavy-handed. Another director might have filmed too many scenes of Robert and Francesca gazing into each other’s eyes while the music swells and the camera spins around them so many times you get dizzy. There is, of course, a tender scene where the two just stare at each other for a moment, but it’s done in a subtle, non-cheesy manner, with the music coming from the nearby radio. And while the two fall in love in—oh—two days, the slow pacing allows the viewer to buy that these two lost souls could fall for each other so fast. The pairing of Meryl and Eastwood seems like an unlikely one, especially for a romance, but their chemistry is electric, the kind that is rarely seen in movies. Unlike so many forced romantic pairings, they actually feel right together, and their attraction for each other from the get-go feels natural and earned.


One of the great surprises of the movie is Eastwood’s performance. While it’s difficult to watch him in any movie and forget you’re watching thee Clint Eastwood—unlike Meryl, who so easily disappears into each role she plays—he shows a different, more vulnerable side to his personality in The Bridges of Madison County. This is probably his sweetest performance ever captured on screen, and one of his most natural. Not too many actors could say the line “This kind of certainty comes but just once in a lifetime” with a straight face, let alone pull it off as an authentic movie moment, but somehow, he does. In addition, the image of Eastwood standing in the rain at the end, forever alone, clinging onto a false hope that Francesca will run away with him, is a beauty.

But as fine as Eastwood is, he as the director wisely made this Francesca’s story, and Meryl’s movie. The Bridges of Madison County is probably Meryl’s most stellar dramatic performance of the 1990s. Every choice she makes is a good one, both the big and the small. Her Italian accent is without fault, but Meryl went much farther to bring this character to life. She reportedly gained fifteen to twenty pounds, which gives the character a specific look, one of a woman who, while pretty, has been beaten down a bit by a sedentary life. Just the way she walks, the way she holds herself, suggests a person who rarely feels joy. But when Robert comes around, her body language changes. She moves a bit quicker, with more jubilance in her step. One of my favorite gestures Meryl makes in the whole movie is when she claps her hands together, after Francesca agrees to meet with Robert to go sightseeing. It’s a lovely moment that tells so much with so little.


The role has endless layers. She gets to play goofy, sad, lonely, in love, desperate, at peace. Almost every new scene gives Meryl a new note to play. Just the way she laughs in a handful of scenes—especially the one in which Francesca jokes that the flowers Robert gives her are poisonous—are perfectly modulated. She’s great all the way through but, of course, it’s the hauntingly constructed scene at the end, in the truck, in the rain, that pulls at the viewer’s heartstrings the most. She doesn’t just long for Robert. She has an out-of-body experience as she tugs on that door handle. She knows in her heart she can’t go, but she still doesn’t want to give up the dream. With no words spoken, Meryl tells us in her eyes exactly what she’s feeling. It’s a marvelously acted scene that is probably one of the most famous moments of any romance film ever made. Meryl was nominated for her tenth Academy Award for her performance but lost to Susan Sarandon, for Dead Man Walking; in a less competitive year, she likely would have won her third Oscar.

The Bridges of Madison County is not without its flaws. The awkward wrap-around story is too amateurishly acted, and the scene in the truck at the end is so powerful that the final ten minutes, which shows Francesca at an older age, seems unnecessary. But overall, it’s grand entertainment, the kind of film Hollywood used to make all the time in the ‘30s and ‘40s but rarely in the ‘90s. The book might not have been the finest piece of literature ever written, but Eastwood was able to translate these two unique characters and winning themes into a movie that works far better than it should have. Best of all, Meryl, after a seven-year hiatus from leading roles in dramas, rose to the challenge of playing a very complex character, a housewife in her forties who still has dreams and ambitions that go beyond her tiny farm in Iowa. While Meryl would go on to star in six more dramas in the second half of the decade, none of her performances in those movies would match the beautiful work she does in The Bridges of Madison County.



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My Year With Meryl: The River Wild (1994)


the-river-wild-movie-poster-1994-1020210524I miss the ‘90s. I miss Super Nintendo, and my best friend Brandon, and my second grade teacher Mrs. Uribe. I also miss that magical period when action blockbusters relied not on special effects but on actual suspense, and performances that delivered. Christopher Nolan understands that audiences are hungry for big-budget movies that don’t just shove CGI down your throat every second for two hours. 1994 was an excellent year for action movies, with Speed and True Lies making big impressions, and The River Wild, released that September, was one of the most exciting releases of all—and not just because visual effects don’t drive the film. The film has a solid story, characters that make sense, and a breathless climax. It also remains the one and only action movie that Meryl ever made.

Death Becomes Her had been Meryl’s most surprising and daring film yet, but The River Wild was an even more unlikely choice, a project that allowed her to flex both her acting and physical muscles. Following in the footsteps of Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton, Meryl took on an action movie with so much zeal and gusto that it’s a shame she hasn’t returned to the genre since. She commits one hundred percent to every character she takes on, so of course to play Gail Hartman, a skilled rafting expert, she trained for weeks and weeks leading up to production, and got herself in the best physical shape of her adult life.


As the film opens, she is not in the best place. Her husband Tom (David Strathairn) is a workaholic who spends little time with his wife and kids, and so she doesn’t expect him to tag along for the family summer rafting trip. Therefore, Gail is stunned when he shows up to take the journey, and to save their crumbling marriage. The family adventure down the river begins calmly, with impressive views all around, but a trio of men in a separate raft begin impeding on the family’s vacation almost immediately, saying a harmless hello at first but soon asking for more and more help. Soon the trio is mysteriously cut down to two, and the more charismatic of the two—Wade, played by an effectively chilling Kevin Bacon—convinces Gail and her family to let them board their boat. Of course, no movie like this exists without a villain, so Wade and his buddy Terry (John C. Reilly) eventually take the family hostage and demand that Gail bring them past the checkpoint and into the Gauntlet, a dangerous part of the river that has been off-limits to rafters for years.

Although Meryl and Bacon both received Golden Globe nominations for their performances, The River Wild was not well-received by some critics at the time. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the film two thumbs down on their show, neither one impressed by what they felt was a lackluster story that had a lack of surprises. While I don’t disagree that the story is a little thin, part of the charm of movies like these—Breakdown, starring Kurt Russell, is another ‘90s movie that comes to mind—is a story stripped to the bare bones to offer the maximum suspense possible. Is The River Wild predictable at times? Does the good guy win and the bad guy lose in the end? This movie isn’t trying to redefine a genre. As entertainment, it works, all the way through.


Curtis Hanson, who had previously directed the cheesy thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, gives The River Wild just the right pacing. If Bacon’s character went off the rails ten minutes in, half the fun would be lost. Anyone who’s ever seen a movie before knows from his introductory scene that he is going to be bad, but the joy of the film’s first half is watching and waiting for when he’ll strike first. This is not an action movie along the lines of Speed by any means, considering that the only true action sequence comes at the end, but the brewing tension that builds and builds is very effective. Take for instance the scene when Gail skinny dips, and discovers Wade watching her from up top the mountain. Or the extremely tense scene where Gail and Tom try to escape from Wade before he finds out. As the viewer, you constantly put yourself in each scenario, wondering what you would do. Do the protagonists always make the right decisions? Not always. But again, that’s the charm!

The River Wild is notable as one of the few movies my mother stayed in her seat all the way through the credits for, and I’m guessing thousands of people did the same thing upon its release, not to find out what the character names were or to see who the second assistant director was, but to find out where the movie was shot. The film’s cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) is stunning, and no matter how wrapped up you get in the narrative, that burning question nags at you constantly: “Where was this filmed?” Most of the movie’s whitewater scenes were filmed on the Kootenai River In Montana, while some additional photography was done on the Rogue River in Oregon. If shot today, the producers would probably cut corners and shoot bits and pieces on a water stage, or—gulp—use special effects water. But what you see in The River Wild is always real, and this element brings a much-needed sense of menace to the proceedings.


The performances are excellent all around. Meryl’s Plenty and A Cry in the Dark co-star Sam Neill was asked to play her husband Tom—he turned the part down—but Strathairn was ultimately the best choice, a perfect mix of nerd and hero. Joseph Mazzello, as Gail’s son Roarke, is not the typical annoying movie kid, and, the same way he did in the previous year’s Jurassic Park, makes for a compelling character all his own. Reilly is the appropriate villainous sidekick, and Bacon, who up until 1994 was more known for playing a hero than a villain, was ingeniously cast against type in this as an unpredictable and threatening bad guy, to great effect. His intense chemistry with Meryl is one of the film’s best qualities.

The role of Gail could have been played by many actresses at the time—Julia Roberts, Geena Davis, and Sharon Stone were likely considered—and Meryl, despite all her Oscar nominations, probably wasn’t an obvious choice. She had appeared in one suspense film before—the lame Still of the Night—but had never taken on a role in an action movie. Whether it was Meryl who pursued the project or Hanson who thought of her for the role, her casting in The River Wild was a masterstroke. It’s always a thrill to see a strong, independent, capable woman on-screen, especially in a big-budget action movie, and Meryl makes what was already a good movie into something even greater. She had shown so many layers on screen before, but never had she shown this tremendous physical side. Meryl did most of her own stunts throughout the movie, but what’s most impressive of all is how she is able to balance humor, terror, and a love for her family with all the strenuous physicality.

The River Wild may be Meryl’s one and only action movie, but at least we have the one—it’s better than nothing. She would have looked silly in the ‘90s appearing in something like Independence Day or Armageddon, but The River Wild was the right choice for her, in a movie of this magnitude. It’s one that tells an exciting, fast-paced story, without unnecessary special effects, and instead with tension and suspense, and that awesome finale that takes Gail and Co. down the Gauntlet. She must not have loved shooting this movie, since the following year she returned to drama with The Bridges of Madison County and stayed in the genre for the rest of the decade. Yes, any fun she showed, any big smiles or winks to the camera she displayed on screen between her risk-taking years of 1989 and 1994, were over—at least for a little while.


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My Year With Meryl: The House of the Spirits (1993)


Has Meryl appeared in any bad movies? Meryl herself has said in an interview with Andy Cohen that Robert Benton’s Still of the Night is not one of her better efforts. Some may argue that Heartburn and Ironweed have major flaws and that the more recent Lions for Lambs and Rendition don’t work at all. Before and After, a 1996 bomb co-starring Liam Neeson, is probably her most critically ravished movie of all. But there was another 1990s movie, one released between her special effects extravaganza Death Becomes Her and her taut action thriller The River Wild, that also received a harsh beating from the critics. It has one of the most astonishing ensemble casts of any movie she’s appeared in. It features sumptuous cinematography, superb editing, and an epic family story that spans decades. But with all its stellar attributes, The House of the Spirits, directed by Billie August (Pelle the Conquerer), may be Meryl’s worst film of all, a bloated, never-ending mess that features one of her most phoned-in and least inspired performances.


I can almost hear the chat she had with her agent, probably sometime around 1992. Meryl had appeared in four comedies in a row, including a box office bomb with Roseanne Barr, and her agent likely wanted to get Meryl back into the business that wins her awards—dramatic work. I can see him waving the script for The House of the Spirits in her face, boasting about the acclaimed director, and the beloved novel, and the amazing cast that had already been assembled, insisting she sign on if she still wants to be considered a serious actress. While Meryl has often been smart and selective in her choosing of projects, bouncing around different genres and surprising us with new shades of what she’s capable of, there is nothing fresh about The House of the Spirits. This feels all the way through like a movie made just to win its actors and craftsmen awards, not to tell a story anyone particularly cares about.


The cast is astonishing. Meryl, in a supporting role, is joined on-screen by such powerhouse actors as Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, and Vanessa Redgrave, along with a young and pretty Antonio Banderas and a young and creepy Vincent Gallo. (Meryl’s daughter Grace Gummer also plays her character at a young age, in a bit of inspiring casting.) The pairings in the film are significant in a few ways. One, Meryl re-teamed with her The French Lieutenant’s Woman co-star Irons and her Julia co-star Redgrave. Two, Close and Irons reteamed after their successful pairing in Reversal of Fortune, which won Irons an Academy Award. Lastly, and most interesting to Meryl fans, this is to date the only movie that she and Close have appeared in together. Often thought of as two of the finest actresses of their generation, and having competed for Best Actress in three Oscar races—in 1988, 1989, and 2012—they certainly have a history together. Therefore, it is unfortunate that they would only share screen-time in a dramatically inert movie like this one.


Meryl plays Clara, the wife of Esteban Trueba, a man who grows up poor but eventually becomes a powerful conservative in twentieth century Chile. She first appears about a half-hour into the movie, ages close to fifty years over the course of the narrative, then exits long before the film is over. Yes, this is one long movie. At about two hours and twenty minutes, The House of the Spirits feels an hour longer. It has scenes of joy, and sadness, and romance, and great tragedy—but Titanic this is not. When Close cries in a scene of grim truth-telling, no tears from the viewer are shed. When an older pair die in an unlikely train collision, little care is expressed. A willing cast does what they can, but the story lacks depth and emotion, with only Ryder coming through in the end with a character that keeps us engaged. Meryl is given a rare role in her career that pretty much any actress her age could have played. She often appears bored, probably counting the days until she can leave the production, and suit up for the more exciting and physically demanding The River Wild.

Not everyone is able to make a good movie each time out, not even Meryl. Classic stars like Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman made the occasional flop, and even respected modern Oscar winners like Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett have made tired clunkers, some of which were never released to theaters. Meryl has appeared in more terrific films than any actress of her generation, so it’s understood that once in awhile she may offer her talents to a film not worthy of her. Some may argue that The House of the Spirits, with its amazing cast, its acclaimed source material, is nowhere near her worst movie, but if I had to pick one film she’s ever starred in to never watch for the rest of my life, it’s this one.


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My Year With Meryl: Death Becomes Her (1992)


“Meryl, you are a special effect,” Goldie Hawn said at Meryl’s 2004 AFI Lifetime Achievement ceremony, and while the line got a laugh, some might argue that what Hawn said is true. Meryl has appeared in, on average, one film per year, and decade after decade she continues to impress us with her incredible transformations. Best of all, she continues to surprise us, not just in her choice of roles, but in her choice of genres. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she moved away from dramas to have a bit more fun, in four comedies ranging in scope and broadness. Her fourth and final comedy for a long while—she wouldn’t return to anything close to the genre until 2002′s Adaptation—is also the only film Meryl has made in her entire career that relies heavily on special effects. The splendidly entertaining and endlessly imaginative Death Becomes Her, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), may not be one of Meryl’s most important films, but it’s easily one of my five favorites she has ever appeared in.

More than any movie I’m discussing in this series, Death Becomes Her is the one I have a long history with, and such great affection for. It is the first film starring Meryl I ever saw in a theater. It was at the United Artists Sunrise Mall in Roseville, California, in the summer of 1992. Why my mom thought I, at seven years old, would enjoy a black comedy about youth, beauty, and death, I’ll never know, but I have a clear memory of sitting in the theater enraptured in the film from beginning to end. I spent many hours the rest of that year writing my own version of the story down on paper, as well as a sequel starring myself and two of my best friends called Death Becomes Him. When the movie was released on VHS, my mom bought me a copy for Christmas, and for the next year, I played it over and over and over again. I remember as late as high school bringing friends over to screen the film—”You haven’t seen Death Becomes Her? Then your life is not complete. Sit down!” was basically my pitch—but when I screened it again for this series, it had been a few years, at least ten or more.


So being such a fan more than twenty years ago, how does Death Becomes Her hold up after all this time? It is definitely an uneven film, and, I’m sad to say, some of the special effects, so revolutionary at the time—they won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects that year—look a bit phony. The scene of Madeline talking to Ernest after her fall down the stairs looks particularly dated. What hasn’t aged, and what still puts a smile on my face, is the sharp script by Martin Donovan and David Koepp, and the memorable comic performances by Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, and, of course, Meryl. Considering that Meryl had never worked closely with visual effects before, her turn here is particularly inspired, with her comfortable in the skin of one of her most self-obsessed and nasty characters this side of Miranda Priestley, and with her game for everything the special effects wizards throw at her.

The story begins in 1978, where Ernest Menville (Willis) and Helen Sharp (Hawn), a loving couple, go to see the latest Broadway production starring the critically panned Madeline Ashton (Meryl). Most of the audience walks out, but Ernest sure likes the show, and is delighted to meet Madeline backstage. Soon enough, Ernest and Madeline are married, and the scorned Helen spends the next seven years fattening herself up and hating on Madeline. Another seven years pass, and Madeline is losing everything—her looks, her career, the love of her husband. So she turns to Lisle Von Rhuman (a stunning Isabella Rossellini), an eccentric but gorgeous woman living in a Vincent Price-esque castle who bestows onto Madeline a potion that promises immortality and eternal beauty. Madeline is delighted by her newfound youthful appearance; however, when Ernest pushes her down the stairs, causing her to break her neck, havoc ensues. She and Helen, who we also come to learn has been basking in the glory of the potion for many years, can’t die, so it’s up to Ernest to ensure that these two diva broads will stay beautiful forever—unless, that is, he wants to find a way out.


It’s interesting to note that Meryl preceded this film with Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life because it is another comedy, albeit more subtle, about death, and the ramifications of both good and bad decisions one makes in his life. Of course, that’s where the comparisons end; if one would describe Defending Your Life as a studious high school freshman, Death Becomes Her is like its nasty, constantly drunk, college-bound older brother. Death Becomes Her didn’t do well at the time because black comedy has always been a hard sell when it comes to theatrical motion pictures, but anyone involved with the film had to have known that it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. None of the three main characters is likable. The movie touches on themes of fleeting beauty, wrecked marriages, animosity toward old friends, fat people as lazy and disgusting. The list goes on and on. This is not a movie your conservative grandmother will appreciate, but if you’re in the right state of mind, it is one of Meryl’s all-time most entertaining films.

When Meryl read the script, she originally thought director Zemeckis wanted her to play Helen, the intellectual writer, and was shocked when she discovered he wanted her for Madeline—of course, in watching the movie today, it’s near impossible to imagine the two actresses’ roles flipped. Hawn’s choice of material over the years was sometimes questionable—I can’t imagine too many are revisiting films like Bird on a Wire, Deceived, and Town & Country these days—but Death Becomes Her offered her one of her most unique and inventive characters to play. The two transformations she has at the beginning of the movie are incredible by themselves, but when Helen finally goes mano-e-mano with Madeline’s character at the mansion, Hawn truly revels in the outlandish qualities of her character. Willis was an unlikely choice at the time for Ernest, considering he was a huge box-office action star in the Die Hard movies, and of the three leads, he might be the one who disappears the most into his character, playing a depressed alcoholic dweeb who looks so unlike the handsome Willis that it takes the viewer a few minutes to recognize that it’s even him.


Meryl, however, looks to be having the most fun of all. She is the main character in the movie, a woman who obsesses over her image so much that she is incapable of feeling anything resembling love for her husband, and anything but animosity toward younger, more beautiful women than she. Of course Meryl was, and still is, a stunningly gorgeous person, so the make-up artists had their work cut out for them when they needed to make her appear less than flattering in the two scenes that lead up to Madeline’s taking of the potion. Meryl is more known for her dramatic work than her comedic work, but her performance in Death Becomes Her has to be considered one of her most hysterically funny of her career, and absolutely worthy of her Golden Globe nomination she received in early 1993. The role allows her to play all sorts of different colors. She gets to sing and dance in the film’s stupendous all-in-one-take opener. She gets one zinger after another throughout the movie, with more than a few particularly memorable—just the way she says the line, “NOW a warning?” is a classic. And she also had the opportunity, for the first time, to work with special effects. While Meryl has commented in a later interview that she didn’t particularly enjoy working with all the innovative and time-staking effects in Death Becomes Her, it is a treat for the viewer to see Meryl, so known for her dramas, express great delight in surrounding herself with the most inventive special effects of the time.

There’s not much left to say about Death Becomes Her, except, where’s the special edition Blu Ray? Zemeckis, whose celebrated films like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump have all received special edition releases with generous supplements, has not yet contributed toward such a release for Death Becomes Her. And it’s not to say there are no supplements in existence. There are surely many neat behind-the-scenes featurettes that could be made about the visual effects process, and even more enticing, in what is one of the holy grails of lost footage from a modern classic, the original ending was excised and a whole subplot involving Meryl’s Plenty and Into the Woods co-star Tracey Ullman was completely removed (you can see hints of her character in the film’s theatrical trailer). As of this writing, there is no special edition, no Blu Ray release, and only an old DVD release from January 1998 that offers merely a full frame presentation. Here’s hoping Universal will eventually give fans of Death Becomes Her the release the film deserves.


Death Becomes Her marked the end of Meryl’s momentary hibernation into the world of comedies. She returned the following year with the critically panned drama The House of the Spirits, and spent the rest of the 1990s appearing in more serious work, most of them acclaimed and well-respected. While it is easy to admire Meryl’s work in a movie like The Bridges of Madison County or One True Thing, it’s comedy that most actors say is the hardest of all, and what Meryl does in Death Becomes Her has to be considered one of her most challenging and groundbreaking performances of her entire career. She manages to make us sympathize with a mostly unsympathetic character, and gets us to laugh time after time, even though the material itself is extremely dark and frequently demented. Death Becomes Her is one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures, a movie I can return to again and again. I’m already looking forward to the next time I give the disc a spin in my player, if only to hear Meryl one more time say the immortal line, “Ernest… my ass… I can see… my ass!”


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