Shadows of a Face Compared to Meryl Streep, all the rest are just actors
BY FRANK PITTMAN
The magic of the movies isn't the breaking glass and crashing cars that keep audiences awake as they sit in the dark, but the miracle of faces blown up so huge and expressive that we can see what's being felt or thought. Maybe Gloria Swanson explained it best in Sunset Boulevard, when she said, describing the artistic superiority of silent movies, "We didn't need dialogue, we had faces."
This summer, soaring above the special effects of the noisy blockbusters was Meryl Streep's tour de force doubleheader in widely divergent comedy roles, A Prairie Home Companion and The Devil Wears Prada. What dazzled us weren't just the two performances, but the contrast between them--two examples of how a brilliant actress can make us care deeply about the shadow of her face on a screen.
Nobody can do what Streep can do. To paraphrase what Ilie Nastase once said about tennis star Bjorn Borg, "The rest of them are acting; she's doing something else." She makes us aware that most other actors just get up there and do their beloved-star turns. We sit back in comfort as Robert DeNiro, Bette Davis, or Katharine Hepburn play their familiar characters. Almost any movie star, from Paul Newman and Liz Taylor on down, gets typecast early in their career and ends up giving the audience what it cheers for--the same old character, occasionally varied just enough to win an Oscar.
By contrast, what Streep does isn't acting in the ordinary sense. Instead, she specializes in surprising us (and maybe herself) by discovering some new emotional repertoire within her own temperament each time she appears on screen. She doesn't just offer a performance; she finds the character in herself and we get to watch the internal conversation as she invents a new person before our eyes. But we never see the work, just the essence. What she brings to us isn't the "look at me" narcissism we find in Dustin Hoffman or the endgame Sir Lawrence Olivier when they concoct characters they've never played before. Rather, the subtlest kind of curiosity seems to drive her--the need to understand and experience the inner world of another soul and then share it with us while putting her own self aside.
She first captured our attention in a series of painful, complex dramas at the beginning of her career: Holocaust, Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, French Lieutenant's Woman, Sophie's Choice. All were studies of ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances, and she played them with a level of intensity not seen since Garbo. In all these roles, Streep was someone at the edge, at the mercy of forces beyond her, and she made us feel the pain of a character having to decide whether to give up or give in or walk out or die.
Since then, she's kept expanding her range. She can sing (Postcards from the Edge ) or dance (Dancing at Lughnasa ). She can be a muscular hero (The River Wild ) or an incestuous villain (The Manchurian Candidate ). We've seen her bully suicidal Ed Harris into living in The Hours, and we've watched her die limp and bloodless in One True Thing. No actor has ever brought to life so many different characters with such varied temperaments, or carried us so far into the depths of
human suffering. In the first films, we mostly saw her pain, and many moviegoers, recoiling from all that raw anguish shown on screen, still avoid her. But more than her ability to convey a character's suffering was her attunement to whoever shares a scene with her. Even in silence, she listens more responsively than any other giant face on the screen.
Thus Streep in pain can't compare with Streep in the depth of her passion. Her ability to fixate totally on a man makes us want to be loved like that. There are moments in Out of Africa (she and Robert Redford flying over Africa together holding hands) and The Bridges of Madison County (she and Clint Eastwood peeling carrots at the sink) where she makes a simple gesture and uses it to convey the essence of passion. …