Saturday, 27 February 2010

Performances of the Decade (Female)

Not to rehash the obvious, but my thoughts on Meryl Streep are not a secret to you. Still, it’s not like I hate the woman and I do appreciate those moments when she impresses me. She has always had a knack for showing the utmost vulnerability and I do like her when her voice is unaccented. This performance marks my favourite of hers since her 1985 Karen in Out of Africa.
#13 Meryl Streep in The Hours (2003)
It’s no coincidence that her character’s name is Clarissa Vaughn; the similarities to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs (Clarissa) Dalloway are not accidental. With the exception of the resplendent Redgrave, Streep seems to be the perfect person to illustrate Clarissa (Vaughn’s and Dalloway’s) sereneness and composure even if that shot of her in front of the mirror is anything but serene. One of Streep’s selling points has always been the astute way she uses her face and I love that meeting she has with Eileen Atkins in the flower shop. She twists her face into an almost imperceptible scowl as Atkins speaks of Richard’s book. Subtlety at its best. But of course she really starts “acting” when she meets Richard’s flat. Strange that I say “acting” though, because the very reason I am so enamoured with this performance is because of Meryl’s fluidity here. When I look at her, I don’t see Streep in makeup or with an accent “acting” – I see Clarissa Vaughn – a real woman, through and through. From the most subtle of looks – like that look as she travels up the elevator, Clarissa is an enigma but still completely real.
Streep and Harris really do shine opposite each. It’s easy to write off the chemistry that the two share; a bit too much like the gay man and the straight woman (Will & Grace) but it’s not a cliché and seeing as thus ruins the beauteous rapport between the two. Like the entire ensemble, none are just saying lines to the other. Each word from Richard elicits a response – sometimes palpable, sometimes downplayed – from Streep and it’s all completely real. Clarissa’s motives do cause me to wonder though. What is the drive behind her devotion to him? Guilt? Love? Friendship? What makes the film so good is that the drive behind it is unimportant because whatever *it* is, it’s absolutely moving.
As autonomous as each story is, The Hours thrives on the similarities between each segment and the commonality of the visitor is potent in each. Virginia has Vanessa, Laura has Kitty and Clarissa is thrown by Louis. It’s hard to judge a performance so saturated with emotion, but this meeting is one of Streep’s strongest. She is so thrown by Jeff that we can’t help but sympathise with her, that moment of extreme vulnerability – uncommon for someone so composed – is especially moving. I love her reading of the line “Don't touch me.”. It’s this moment that throws her portion of the narrative in a different direction. The scars from this meeting are almost visible as she returns to Richard’s for that fateful final visit: which my favourite moment of hers and she sells it, completely.
She is already frazzled as she enters the room, and it’s difficult to remain indifferent to the obvious change in Richard. This doesn’t even seem to be the same man we saw earlier and Clarissa knows this. Her pleas with Richard are so profound and watching Harris’ gaunt figure at the window is all too ominous and the subsequent fall never fails to throw me. As I said, Streep’s Clarissa depends on reactions and Streep’s reaction is key here. Simply sublime. It is (of course) the peak of her performance, not in the literal sense but emotionally. She’s broken afterwards and continues the rest of the film dejectedly; only her portion has a twist the others don’t. She has a second visitor. It is Julianne’s moment but Meryl never takes the bait to be non responsive (but she never goes out of the way to make it too much) and that’s why her Clarissa works.
I can’t share the general love for Streep, though I continue to respect her for continued productivity and even though it’s rare that I adore a performance of hers, the one rare Clarissa Vaughn makes up for the Julia Childs and Sister Aloysius.
What were your thoughts on Meryl here? Is it a favourite of yours or do your prefer her other work?


CrazyCris said...

Not like Meryl Streep?! sigh! to each his own...

I haven't seen this one in years... you make me want to revisit it!

Jose said...

I know that to bring up Oscar whenever Meryl Streep is mentioned has become almost tacky but I will exert my right for tackiness by establishing that if the Academy ever wanted to give Meryl a third Oscar this should have been it.
Her performance isn't only the best in the film (sorry but Nicole is third best out of the three ladies)it's also one of the most underrated works in her entire career.
I think precisely because of what you mention: she's not trying too hard and using costumes and wigs and makeup and accents to define her character.
She is Clarissa because you believe that nobody else but Clarissa would move, talk and think like her.
I remember when I saw this movie in the theater, halfway through the flower shop scene you mention my dad turned to me with an incredulous look on his face and said "this fucker is great", I'd only seen him react like that to George C. Scott before.

Twister said...

Her work here is great, but in Adaptation her characterization feels more fleshed out and different what she had done before.

Did you like her performance as Susan?

Luke said...

Ah, at last. There she is. This makes me feel much better how much you give me grief for my unhealthy Meryl obsession. :)

Robert said...

Julianne Moore is really my favorite in "The Hours" but only by a millimeter. Meryl Streep is absolutely fantastic, and really, I think she has the hardest character to really play perfectly.

And yea for "Out of Africa" as well, one of my favorite performances of hers.

Alex in Movieland said...

This performance definitely should've been in Oscar's attention. fabulous character, terrific performance. That kitchen scene is for history.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Ah, one of my favorites. Although I chug from the Streep Kool-Aid -- she is, after all, my favorite after Maggie Smith -- I have to admit that 2002 was really the best year for Meryl. Both her performances that year are astounding, and I believe both to be among her best work. I wish she had been nominated, as her section is easily my favorite.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

crazy cris you should rewatch it, it's so lovely.

jose the thing is anything of meryl pre-1985 i love her in, but i don't like her that much post 90s. it's not tacky to campaign for those you love, if you don't do it: who will?

twister i really don't like adaptation. maybe a rewatch is necessary, though.

luke we all have our obessions. and i really do love this performance.

robert why do people hate out of africa?

alex the kitchen scene IS grand.

walter i can't choose favourites...i love the film too much. but meryl is probably my least, but still they're all good.

Heather said...

I never go to a movie to see it based on Meryl Streep headlining. She's a brilliant actress and I respect her body of work but that's where my affection ends.

Ed Harris on the other hand can do no wrong with me, and I'll watch any movie if he's in it.

Michele Emrath said...

Too many Meryl-isms here. Others deserved it here. Glad it went to Kidman this time around.