There is a reason why, in 2008, Meryl Streep, after thirty years as a working actor, is doing her best work. She has allowed herself to evolve as a human being, a woman, deep lines and all, and an actor.¬† Actresses who prevent themselves from aging naturally do so at their own peril. Yes, by preserving their youth they will feel as though they‚Äôve beaten back age because, presumably, aging is a bad thing in our society. There is a billion dollar industry devoted to convincing women that they must fight the signs of time. And by doing so they erase who they are, what they‚Äôve lived through and all that they‚Äôve seen. Expressions wear on our faces – sadness, joy, anguish, frustration, anger, serenity – a beautiful face traces this journey.
It is one thing to be an ordinary woman with the marks of fighting back time evident on her face; it is something else entirely to be an actress and do it. Who are you, where do you fit if your face doesn‚Äôt match your inner complexity? This is illustrated to a magnificent degree with a few performances in recent years. Helen Mirren in The Queen, Annette Bening in Being Julia, and this year, Melissa Leo in Frozen River, Kristin Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You for So Long, and now Meryl Streep in Doubt.
Streep is known for being able to pull of a transformation. For a while there she was cursed with the ‚Äúwig and accent‚Äù gripe, an attempt to diminish a versatile actress who really was that good. Eventually, Streep lasted long enough to shut up those who doubted her abilities and has now lived long enough and acted well enough to have more than earned her place among the greatest actors of her time.
Even still, Streep has only earned one Best Actress win. That puts Hillary Swank, Sally Field and Jodie Foster ahead of her in terms of gold earned. Maybe that doesn‚Äôt matter; maybe it is enough to simply know what she‚Äôs capable of and leave it at that. Maybe her record of nominations is enough of an honor. It gives me pause, though, that Streep has not managed to win another. She may lose out this year to Kristin Scott Thomas or maybe Kate Winslet, who is long overdue, but I feel certain that Streep‚Äôs performance may be turn out to be the best of the year, male OR female.
What Streep does in Doubt is so expert, so stealthy, so intriguing it could be offered up on its own as a course in how to act. Where she got a brief negative mention by Todd McCarthy for not playing up the ‚Äúbig scene‚Äù the way Cherry Jones did in the stage play, she showed that an actor can reinterpret the material in such a way that it revives the work. Otherwise you are looking at something you‚Äôve seen before; Streep is too smart for that.
Her Sister Aloysius Beauvier is unlike anything she‚Äôs done in the past and she colors this character with vulnerability, which may undercut the power of the film‚Äôs final scene if only that it is constructed to be the first time we see her dissolve. However, Streep and director John Patrick Shanley‚Äôs choice to give the character more highs and lows makes the film on the whole better and the story more interesting.
While the film may have had more relevance back when the Catholic Church was in the news for its unforgivable behavior of closeting serial child molesters, it does have its place today in perhaps a more global sense; how does one reconcile faith in God with the horrors of this world, the ongoing, unacceptable tragedies happening every day all over the world, to say nothing of what has happened in the past.¬† Doubt in religion, doubt in the church – I find it difficult to imagine not having either. But I‚Äôve never been a religious person so perhaps it is something I‚Äôll never know.
Streep started out in The Deer Hunter, Julia and Manhattan. She was blonde and young and beautiful. She played the same aloof beauty is subsequent films, like Kramer vs. Kramer (her first supporting Oscar) but at some point, as the years wore on, she played characters who suited her age, which didn‚Äôt necessarily mean shutting down and playing grandmothers and evil nurses.
She doesn‚Äôt seem limited by anything – The River Wild and Mamma Mia are proof. Her truly brilliant turns have been few and far between, with Sophie‚Äôs Choice probably being right at the top of the list. Her work in Doubt may be better, or very nearly.
She is helped along by the fine enough Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davis but this is Streep‚Äôs show much the same way The Queen was Mirren‚Äôs show. And, like Mirren, Streep‚Äôs work seems poised to all but blow out the competition with two possible snags. One, many have written that Streep‚Äôs is too different from Jones‚Äô and those people seem to prefer Jones. Two, Streep has been nominated so many times and won twice voters might be more inclined to give it to someone who has never won before. And though I‚Äôll reserve judgment until seeing Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road, or Kristin Scott Thomas in I‚Äôve Loved You for So Long, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Streep‚Äôs may turn out be the best work any actor this year.
If the Best Actor race comes down to Frank Langella over Mickey Rourke or Sean Penn, and if it‚Äôs down to Streep and Langella, this will end up being the year of the grand showcase performance. Both are stage adaptations and character dramas. Both rely almost exclusively on one performance. It‚Äôs still too soon to know.