A few years back, I finally caught A Cry In The Dark, the Meryl Streep movie where she plays Lindy Chamberlain, an Australian woman whose daughter was taken by wild dingoes. It's the "Dingoes Took My Baby!" movie. I'd avoided it in theaters, my own moment of Meryl overload - too many accents, too many weepy dramas, all of that.
That was silly - A Cry in The Dark is a fine film, and Streep is, naturally and predictably, quite good in it. It's also less deliberately tragic than some of her earlier efforts, more about the sensational trial Hemmings went through than the event itself.
What struck me more, and stayed with me, is how seamlessly Streep inserted heself into an ensemble cast, not being bigger than the film or her costars, but one of them, and part of the film.
Streep has had a fascinating career as America's Greatest Living Actress; it's an assessment that got made very early in her career, and the remarkable thing, really, is that she has lived up to that rep, pretty much unbroken, ever since. Yes, even with Death Becomes Her on her resume.
The other interesting thing, though, when I thought about it, is how Streep has made her name playing, in essence, smaller parts. Nearly every film she's made is an ensemble piece. She's rarely the sole, or central, point of attention. She's played wives and mothers, and committed professionals, most of them part of a group, a family, or a team. And that, I think, is what complicates her history as an Oscar nominee - her chances hinge on the strength of the ensemble, and how one takes the whole film. Which is why, for instance, she wouldn't win for A Cry in the Dark - she's the best thing in an okay film.
My point is, really, that Streep has redefined what it is to be a star, largely on her own terms; which, by now, it should be clear are pretty feminist. Streep is a proponent of women's lives and women's roles, and a woman's approach to making film and art. What's remarkable, really, is how she's been able to chart a course doing largely that in a business often aligned against anything of the sort.
All of which is why The Iron Lady may well be a breakout chance for Streep to win an Oscar (or not - apparently the Gods are smiling on Viola Davis). Playing Margaret Thatcher may well be Streep's first real turn in a "Great Lady" part, the central role in a film built entirely around her character. I don't think Streep has ever made herself the central star of a biographical picture, ever. But of course, The Iron Lady is not like other biopics. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, The Iron Lady asks a question not usually asked of biographical subjects: what happens after the most important thing you've ever done?
The Iron Lady is a fascinating look at what it means to age, and to age out of the spotlight that once you held. Some have compained that the film is an injustice or an insult to Thatcher; I'd disagree. Lloyd hits the high notes of the Thatcher period in Great Britain, and doesn't give any easy answers about Thatcherism, either. But by showing an elderly woman dealing with what it means to be past your prime, Lloyd, and Streep, illuminate aging and confronting mortality with more light than I think I've seen in, like, ever.
Margaret Thatcher, of course, is a strong, indomitable figure to portray, and Streep goes at it with gusto. Thatcher was the first, and one of the few, women to serve in Parliament, the first to rise through the ranks of the Conservative (Tory) Party, and the first woman Prime Minister. Because she is a peer of Ronald Reagan and carried strong views, conservatives here and in England tend to lump a lot of what happened in the eighties into one big right wing ball. But Thatcher was very much her own creature. Her sense of conservatism was, to her, a kind of common sense. She grew up a grocer's daughter and believed, firmly, in the value of hard work and a sense of purpose. Her rejection of government ownership and social welfare came out of her belief that both things held back individual ambitions.
It would be easy to make a political biograpy of this; Thatcher herself did, over several volumes, discussing her time as Prime Minister. But Lloyd is more interested in the drive and ambition of the actual woman, the details that make a personal life. The film focuses on the support and care Thatcher got from her marriage; her husband Denys being her chief cheerleader and rock of support. When Thatcher's hotel was bombed by IRA separatists, she was in her suite of rooms with Denys, and her initial response wasn't about about strength or justice... it was trying to find her husband.
In the film, Thatcher is hauunted by the presence of Denys, still nattering aorund, offering advice, refusing to leave, even though he's already passed. This allows for a framing device that brings in flashbacks to Thatcher's rise and eventual success as prime Minister, and also to look at the questions of aging and dementia (which Thatcher's daughter has alluded to in interviews). But the film is not a tragedy, nor is Thatcher protrayed as simply weak and decaying in her senior years. Instead, we see Mrs. Thatcher ultimately apply to herself what she always believed: that there is no point to wallowing. One has to get up, get tough, and soldier on. In this case, alone.
This is great lady stuff, Katharine Hepburn stuff, and Streep, as usual, disappears into the role, carrying off not just the accent, but the sense of what it is to be such a commanding, determined presence. When she gives her doctor a long lecture on how one's hopes and beliefs becomes one's character, she is authoritative, yet also immensely human and true. One can debate the ultimate value or success of Thatcher's policies, but in another sense, we hold the debate on her terms: the world we have, post-Privatisation and after Thatcher ended or changed much of the social welfare structure of Britain, is a world that it is not nearly as apocalyptic as her worst critics insisted it would be. And that, in some sense, proves her right.
Lloyd hasn't delivered the sort of pure, unvarnished ode to Thatcher's commanding greatness that many wanted or expected, and there is, surely, a time and a place for that film. But this film, which captures and dissects what it is to age, and how we, as a society, determinedly look away from the hard parts of the final aspects of aging, is a remarkable, and worthwhile, effort. And I suspect, over time, the value of The Iron Lady will become clearer, and another Streep performance will get its due.
Or we could just give her the Oscar and get it over with.