In Ricki and the Flash, now in theaters, Meryl Streep plays an aging rocker, managing in her fourth decade atop the star pile to once again give us a character unlike any she has played before. Raymond Durgnat attests that, “the stars are a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts its own image of itself…. The social history of a nation can be written in terms of its film stars.” So what does Streep’s capricious, unpredictable style reflect?
Although it may now be difficult to imagine, Streep’s predilection for altering herself from role to role caused anxiety early on in her career. While Molly Haskell, for example, welcomed her ability to give unprecedented dimension to characters outside traditional bounds of sympathy, she worried that audiences did not have access to the real Streep. “The aura of the old stars radiated out of a sense of self, a core identity projected into every role,” she wrote; “[h]owever varied the performances of Bette Davis, say, or Katharine Hepburn, or Margaret Sullavan, we always felt we were in the presence of something knowable, familiar, constant,” whereas “Streep, chameleon-like, undercuts this response…. Instead of merging with her roles, [she] metamorphoses, changing herself completely, tying up all the loose ends so that she is perfectly hidden.” Pauline Kael openly disdained Streep for similar reasons. When Silkwood was released in 1983, she complained that, “[p]art of being a good movie actress is in knowing what you come across as … [Streep] has been giving us artificial creations. She doesn’t seem to know how to draw on herself, she hasn’t yet released an innate personality on the screen.”
Haskell’s chameleon metaphor has stuck to Streep. Chameleons hide in plain sight, their exteriors mutable, visible and invisible at the same time. Why have critics wanted to think of Streep as camouflaging herself, or, rather, why does it matter that “Meryl Streep,” unlike “Humphrey Bogart” or “Katharine Hepburn,” lacks a clear referent? I know of no better place to look for an answer than Postcards from the Edge, a film that considers Streep’s effect on the stardom game, and one, not coincidentally, directed by Mike Nichols, with whom she has worked more than any other director. Streep has repeatedly cited Nichols as her most influential director, though theirs was not the muse/Svengali relationship one often hears about between actresses and male directors. By this time, the two had collaborated on Silkwood and Heartburn (and he prepared The French Lieutenant’s Woman before departing due to a scheduling conflict). They would later make Angels in America together, and were planning an adaptation of the hit play Master Class when Nichols died.
Adapted from Carrie Fisher’s rehab-to-riches novel/memoir, Postcards follows Suzanne (Streep), a recovering drug addict struggling with her acting career and her relationship with her mother, the aging — and alcoholic — Hollywood musical star Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine). Suzanne’s story can only resolve when she figures out how to separate from her mother and to be the actress she wants to be, aspirations that she must learn coincide. She triumphs in the end, winning a role as a country singer — a woman not at all similar to the other roles we have seen her play, or to Suzanne herself. The film marks this transformative performance as successful, opposing it to Doris’s old-fashioned stardom, which promises to display the essence of the performer. Rather than modeling the old injunction to be true to oneself, Streep/Suzanne fashion a more modern idea of being as becoming. Streep teaches us that potentiality and contradiction are not at odds with a workable notion of personal identity — and may even be necessary to it. They need not be excluded from realist performance, or from the individualities that become stars. Postcards argues for Streep’s mode, for versatility, for flux over stasis. Sundering actor from character creates distance between them, inspiring a desire to plumb the depths of these figures before us, and to ponder their relation.
While there were certainly actors before Streep who refused to disclose themselves or solidify into a type (say, Greta Garbo or Charles Laughton), it is testament to her influence that we now commonly applaud actors for departing from their previous expressions of ways of being. But Streep is not just important within cinema history. As the nation’s culture wars essentialized and politicized stable identities — that is, hypostasized kinds of experience as non-fungible commodities predicated upon certain types of bodies — she cracked open the epistemological identity of actor and character, of star and type, in America’s most prominent medium for thinking about personhood. In this way, Streep’s stardom indicates a public willing to think capaciously about personal identity, to ask difficult questions about individualism, selfhood and otherhood, the relation of self to self, and about the dangers of making becoming into a brand. Is it any surprise that she remains as relevant, as necessary, as ever?
Featured image: Meryl Streep in Ricki and The Flash. (c) Sony Pictures via rickiandtheflashmovie.com.