Meryl Streep: A Tough Act to Follow

Meryl Streep, the best dramatic actress of her generation, talks about the drawbacks of getting so many oscar nominations, why she's never worked with Al Pacino and what a nice guy Bruce Willis is.

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Goldie Hawn's sister, Patti, looks worn out. She's the unit publicist for Universal's Death Becomes Her, which stars Goldie, Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis and Tracey Ullman, and is directed by Robert Zemeckis, whose Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Futures make him a curious choice to direct this blackest of black comedies. Given this cast, Patti's job has become harrowing these last few weeks of shooting. One movie magazine wants to put Streep, Hawn and Willis on their cover. The New York Times wants to hang around the set for a piece. Vogue is focusing on Meryl. And here I am at 10 a.m. waiting patiently for whatever moments Queen Meryl will grant.

That Streep, 43, has started talking may be indicative of where the pendulum has been swinging in Hollywood-- away from actresses over 40 and towards the younger ladies.

For most of her career, Meryl Streep has kept herself out of publicity's glare. With rare exceptions, she wasn't out hawking her brilliant work in Sophie's Choice, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Silkwood or A Cry in the Dark. Her work was her calling card. But her films weren't always seen by as many people as she would have liked. And, while she was paid in the millions, she wasn't the box-office attraction studios had hoped she'd be. Slowly, she became aware that she'd have to give a little more, that she'd have to start talking to the press. The studios had pushed Pacino and De Niro into talking. Even Streisand and Beatty had begun pushing their product. So when Postcards From the Edge was in the can, Meryl Streep demonstrated her talent to strangers of another profession. She flashed her radiant smile at the press, she laughed, she was friendly.

And again when She-Devil was done, there she was on the cover of magazines with Roseanne Barr, of all people. Gone was the otherworldly look she assumed when she graced covers as The French Lieutenant's Woman. Here was Mother Meryl, happy and confident. So glad to meet John and Jane Q. Public.

Still, there were conditions. She'd talk, but not at home. She'd hold forth, but on the set. Reporters would have to wait for their time with her, between takes, during lunch breaks. There'd be no extended time for in-depth explorations. Let Sean Young do that. When she wanted a forum to vent her concerns, she chose to testify before Congress against the use of Alar, a chemical used in growing fruit, which was eventually banned. And two years ago she delivered a scathing address to the Screen Actors Guild prophesying that, with the way movies were going, women would be eliminated altogether by the year 2010.

I stood watching Meryl for hours. She was sitting very still on a hospital gurney as Sydney Pollack, her Out of Africa director, played a doctor examining her. Pollack was in just for the day, and it was his scene. Prior to this moment, Bruce Willis, playing a wimpy plastic surgeon who leaves his girlfriend (Goldie) to marry her friend (Streep), has pushed Meryl down a flight of stairs in their home. But Meryl, as 52-year-old Madeline Ashton, has drunk a magic potion that will allow her to live forever, even though her neck is twisted grotesquely and her wrist flaps in every direction and she should be dead. This, of course, shocks Dr. Pollack, who will also discover that she has no heartbeat and that her temperature is below 80 degrees.

Now, if this sounds patently silly, it is. And to watch grownups playacting in this way can be fun at first. But not take after take. I mean, they're all taking it so seriously! Yet one can't help wondering whether it just may turn out to be a crowd-pleaser. That is, if crowds want to see Meryl playing bitchy, Goldie Hawn wearing a fat suit and Bruce "Die Hard" Willis portraying a nerd. Who knows, it just might make more money than all nine of the films Streep has gathered Oscar nominations for. But it's very doubtful that she'll be remembered for Death Becomes Her.

This comedic period of Streep's--which includes Postcards, She-Devil and last year's Defending Your Life--might be somewhat analogous to Marlon Brando's films in the '60s. Some were interesting because Brando is always an interesting actor. But there was also a sense of sorrow about them because you knew what he had done in the '50s. And you wanted that back. And just as Brando later returned with a vengeance with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, so undoubtedly will Meryl Streep come back to the powerhouse acting that made directors as diverse as Pollack, Hector Babenco and Mike Nichols dub her the best in the business.

I tried to find out about her switch from heavy dramas to lighter comedies when we finally got together in her trailer during her lunch break. We talked again when shooting was over for the day and she had to sit in the makeup chair to have the latex around her neck carefully removed.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: Do you have a problem doing interviews? You've said before that it's a waste of time.

MERYL STREEP: I don't think that they're a waste of time at all. Bob Zemeckis said, "Meryl, if you want to be in movies, you have to be your own marketing person."

Q: Robert De Niro feels that if people are going to see his movies they'll go whether he does publicity for them or not. He isn't happy talking to the press. Do you feel the pressure?

A: Yeah, there is a pressure to publicize it. And you can sympathize because there's just so much product out now--how do you make this one stand out among all the others?

Q: Death Becomes Her is a zany picture. Were you interested in it immediately?

A: Yes I was, but I did think I was being offered the other part. [Laughs] I had no idea that the song-and-dance lady was supposed to be me. But I like what it's about, and I like the humor of it.

Q: Do you watch dailies?

A: Yes. But not always, because I've been sick. What I've seen I really like.

Q: What happens when you see something that you don't like?

A: I tell them! [Laughs] And ask them if they could reshoot it.

Q: And do they?

A: No [laughs again]. But I don't usually--I'm not that critical.

Q: Hector Babenco said when you made Ironweed that you showed him how to direct. What did he mean?

A: Mmm. I don't know, maybe he was just being cryptic. You mean I was there yammering at him in rushes?

Q: Did you know Goldie Hawn or Bruce Willis before this?

A: Yeah, Goldie was a friend. So was Tracey [Ullman]. But I didn't know Bruce at all. All I knew was what I read--and what I read was completely untrue. He just came to this thing with so much energy and willingness and lots of ideas, good-natured. Except for maybe Zemeckis and Scorsese, he's also seen more movies than anybody I've ever met. He has a lot of references.

Q: When did your movie references begin? Did anything you saw at an early age leave some indelible mark?

A: I remember the moment when I got it about Shakespeare and great literature. It was through Marlon Brando and audiovisual aids in high school. I was a sophomore and they showed us Julius Caesar. That whole production with James Mason, Gielgud, was unbelievable, fantastic. And I really heard the words. Before that I never paid attention because it was all so boring out of the mouth of the teacher.

Q: Was that the first time you saw Brando act?

A: Yeah. Then I searched his work out. I saw Streetcar and was a big fan.

Q: Is it true that your image of a movie star was Sandra Dee?

A: Yeah, when I was a little girl. She wasn't my idol, but that's what I thought a movie star was.

Q: Did you have any idols?

A: No, I didn't.

Q: In your Screen Actors Guild speech you said that if girls don't have role models they don't have dreams.

A: Yeah, but that's different from idols. I watched those ladies on the four o'clock movie with keen interest. All of them. And I do believe that it's important for there to be women of substance that are in that kind of hyperbolic fictional setting for little girls to look up to.

Q: You certainly qualify as a woman of substance. While many admire your work, how do you feel? Have any of your films surpassed your expectations?

A: They always surpass my expectations. There's such a time lapse from when I finish shooting and when I eventually see the movie--it's like not seeing somebody who you've been very close to for a long time, and then seeing them again. Immediately you're intimate with them, but something is different in the immutable distance and time that it's somehow changed. So that I'm never prepared for the movie that I see.

Q: Are you affected by the box-office mentality?

A: Oh, I'm horribly disappointed when people don't see what I consider some of my best work. Yeah, I'm very sad. But I know that I have a video life. Most of my fans are home with their children waiting for my films to come out on video. But I'm disappointed because certain things should be seen on the big screen. I was very proud of A Cry in the Dark, but it wasn't distributed widely enough for people to have seen it on the big screen.

Q: How does it affect your career when you put out a picture that gets critically acclaimed, as that one did, and doesn't do well commercially?

A: It doesn't affect my career choices. What affects your career choices are the three interesting scripts you get in a year, two of which you're wrong for, one you think you might want to do if you're real lucky. You can't possibly plot what's going to be available, what's going to be written, who's going to think of it, and if it will come to you or not. So thinking about what happened to the last film is not going to affect my choice next time, it really doesn't. I always think everything is going to be wildly successful no matter what. [Laughs] I didn't think Ironweed was going to break any box offices, but I knew it would have a life.

Q: Why is it actors never seem satisfied doing what they're really good at? Barbra Streisand excels in light comedies but prefers heavier drama; Al Pacino's strength is drama but he wants to do comedy...

A: He's right. He's very, very funny. American Buffalo was the perfect thing for him, that blend. He should do that as a film, he was so great. I saw him and Duvall do that--it was one of the best things I've ever seen. Ever. He's funny even in his most serious roles. He's always putting a twist on something. Look at Dog Day Afternoon. Fantastic. That's an actor's dream, to be able to find something where you get laughs and it's excruciatingly moving at the same time.

Q: What have you done like that?

A: Well, I thought that Sophie's Choice was kind of funny. Yeah, I did, in the lighter part of it. I've always liked to put a spin on a tragic thing, or find the pathos in a comedy. Postcards was the closest I came to finding a nice blend.

Q: What happened with Man Trouble? Didn't you and producer Bruce Gilbert go to see Pacino about doing it?

A: Yes. Al just didn't want to do it.

Q: Was it because he didn't think it was the man's picture?

A: [Laughs giddily] Oh God, wouldn't that be depressing if that was the reason?

Q: Isn't that sometimes what happens?

A: I don't think that was the reason. Because the part is pretty great. It's pretty equal. The woman has more problems but the man is the flashier character. Very funny character. Perfect for him.

Q: Laurence Olivier once said: "Acting is a masochistic form of exhibitionism. It is not quite the occupation of an adult."

A: I think that is something that men feel more than women. Because women don't have as much a problem revealing their emotions, which is what it is about most profoundly. [Pauses] That exhausted me, that answer. [Chuckles] But I think it is masochistic. Sometimes I look up and think that I'm putting myself through the meat grinder for the sixteenth take in an emotional scene, and it's a precarious land you inhabit where everything is real for you and yet if you peel back the scales from your eyes you'd see people smoking and yawning and asking when is lunch. And you have to create the emotional moment. And it is very masochistic. But it's very satisfying at the same time, because you exercise some major thing during the day that a lot of people who are looking at their watches or yawning don't. And that's great to flex your emotional muscle. It's a catharsis.

Q: I was watching you between takes this afternoon, how you sat perfectly still on the gurney for four hours.

A: I tried to keep my back straight, did you notice?

Q: It was more impressive than the work.

A: Stamina, that's the other thing. That's Olivier, too. He said that stamina is the major component in acting.

Q: Have you ever been in the middle of something where you realized it's a mistake?

A: Yes.

Q: But you wouldn't want to mention what?

A: [Laughs] Absolutely not!

Q: More than once?

A: Yes. More than twice!

Q: I must admit it's a bit disconcerting talking to you with that bulge on your neck. Every time you laugh I think your head might fall off. Is this the most extensive makeup you've had to endure?

A: Never so much and not every day, but I had a bigger makeup for Out of Africa, when I had to play an old woman with pouches and eye bags. That took about four hours.

Q: Did you like the way you looked as an old lady?

A: I looked like my dad, which was sort of a shock. Because I always thought that I would look like my grandmother.

Q: Was your father Jewish and your mother a Quaker?

A: [Laughs] No. Streep was a name taken by Jews in Holland in the fifteenth century. Then they came to this country and became all sorts of people. Some of them in Holland became Catholics, some of them stayed Jews, some became Protestants over the centuries. He was raised Episcopalian or Protestant when he was a child. My mother's father's family were Quakers. Her mother's family were Swiss/English. Wolf was her maiden name. Mother's name was McFadden, Irish.

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