Starring in a high-profile adaptation of one of the best-selling books of all time, Meryl had some big shoes to fill in playing Francesca Johnson, the heroine of Robert James Waller‘s novel The Bridges of Madison County. Luckily, with her consistently superior accent work and the able direction of co-star Clint Eastwood, the film is a successful subdued romance. Streep plays an Italian woman, married to Iowan farmer, who has grown restless in her life as a wife in Winterset in Madison County. But when her husband and children leave for four days for the state fair, Streep encounters a traveling photojournalist named Robert (Eastwood) who sparks her youthful interest like it hadn’t been in years.
Though the story moseys along at a fittingly slow gait (we are talking about Midwestern farm country!), and it makes the four-day romance all the more telling of just how much Streep’s character has suppressed by becoming a housewife and giving up some pieces of her identity. Seeing the film, I can imagine how it was successful as a novel. Painting the covered bridges of the countryside as pieces of great art would make for a great descriptive read. Through her dowdy house dresses and mussed-up 1965 hairdo, Streep is radiant, as Francesca’s yearning for romance and intrigue shine through every time she looks at Robert.
Aside from the exceptional performance from its leading lady, the movie is exquisitely shot. Its only major flaw may be in its flashback elements. The story is told through the eyes of her now-grown children as they go through their late mother’s belongings and happen upon a journal of the four day’s events. The realizations that the children go through by reading about their mother’s escapades seem a bit forced. The narrative may’ve been better off without the jumping back and forth between 1965 and the present day.
Meryl’s Performance: A-
The Film: B+
Bolstered by a fantastic and decidedly un-Disney, dark score and soundtrack, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one forgotten ’90s Disney gem that I can’t help but love. Though some of the silliness is unnecessary in Disney’s take on Victor Hugo‘s dark tale of the bell-ringer Quasimodo and his gypsy love interest Esmerelda, when the film dares to be melancholy, it truly excels. From the sweeping opening song over an aerial shot of Paris and the parting clouds to the dastardly and smoldering number sung by Frollo as he plots, it’s a dramatic piece of work that, surrounded by the likes of 1997’s Hercules and 1994’s The Lion King, seems an unfitting kids’ flick. But luckily its appeal as a “beating the odds” adventure for an unlikely hero makes it a fitting tribute to the downtrodden of the world. Finally, I can safely say that “God Help the Outcasts” not only can still choke me up more than ten years later, but it’s easily one of my favorite film songs ever.
A change of pace for Meryl Streep came in the form of 1999’s Music of the Heart, in which she played Roberta Guaspari, a real-life music teacher who went to Harlem and started a violin program in an inner-city elementary school. Frankly, I’m pretty used to seeing the actress playing formidable and strong women, so it was almost unnerving to see her break. When Roberta’s husband asks for a divorce, when she struggles through a rocky relationship with a former high school classmate (played by Aidan Quinn), when she can’t keep her composure when explaining to her eldest son (played by Will and Grace‘s Michael Angarano) what it means to be separated in a marriage — she’s showing a vulnerability and a set of flaws that aren’t in her typical performance.
So let’s just make one thing perfectly clear — I’m a sucker for a teacher movie. A big one. I’m an even bigger sucker for a music teacher movie, with the sweeping orchestrations and everything. Now tack on the fact that she teachers violin, possibly one of the most tears-inducing instruments you can play. So though the plot was somewhat formulaic, I couldn’t help but gush over the adorable underdog kids learning to play like true maestros and the cynical, unlucky-in-love school teacher growing to love them. Plus, it’s hard not to be impressed by the screen presence of Angela Bassett, who played the formidable principal of the little-engine-that-could school.
Perhaps I was pretty unimpressed with the Streep-Quinn romance subplot (underdeveloped much?), and the high billing of Gloria Estefan‘s teensy second-grade teacher role was a little confusing, but one thing’s for certain. A ragtag group of possible prodigies led by the incomparable Streep is tough to fight with. So though Mr. Holland’s Opus may’ve done it better, cleaner, and with a more riveting ending, this inspiring tearjerker is nothing to sneeze at. Thank goodness for that Streep-Bassett pairing. Oh, and can we all just take a minute to give a collective “WTF?” to the fact that horror-master Wes Craven directed this movie? Did he get lost on the way to the set of the next Elm Street flick?
Meryl’s Performance: B
The Film: B
Whether admiring the that simple yet impossibly catchy score or reminiscing about the first time you saw that first famed skinny-dipping scene, Jaws is a movie that sticks with you and is impossible to recreate. Though many have tried to make equally terrifying shark movies, nothing quite clears the beaches like this 1975 original. The effects may have dated it in the past nearly 35 years since its release, the animatronic Bruce (which the shark in Finding Nemo is aptly named after) who was the star of this classic can still terrify the best of us when he leaps out of the water (and then there’s that whole incident with the floating corpse). Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss are wonderfully silly in their 1970s garb, and Steven Spielberg‘s first big break is one of the few exceptions to the Oscars’ anti-blockbuster rule — it managed a nomination for Best Picture and won three other technical categories.
As part of the tributes series (see: the ongoing Jack Nicholson Tribute) and to honor my other favorite living film actor, Journalistic Skepticism will be taking a look at the on-screen work of Meryl Streep. Though choosing to begin with 1994’s The River Wild is a tad unconventional, it’s also a good jumping off point as it seems to be a good in-between for what has become Prestige Meryl vs. Mainstream Meryl. Since 1995’s The Bridges of Madison County brought Streep into the spotlight as a popular actor as opposed to her early years in awards-laden prestige films such as Sophie’s Choice, I feel that starting smack dab in the middle, in Meryl’s strange stage as an apparent action star, is an ideal option.
In The River Wild, Meryl plays Gail Hartman, a former river guide who’s taking her young son (played by Jurassic Park‘s Joseph Mazello) and her nerdy husband (David Strathairn) on a rafting trip in order to keep her rocky marriage together. In clear action-thriller fashion, the family meets two shady hicks (played by Kevin Bacon and a young John C. Reilly) who eventually cause them a heap of trouble. All right, though the movie is fairly predictable (as most similar thrillers fall victim to), it’s acceptably entertaining. There’s no denying that Streep is out of her element in an action movie, but she brings a sensitivity and nuance to the performance that most muscled-up, machine-gun-toting male stars are unable to.
Bacon and Reilly are dull villains for the most part, but their antagonism fuels Streep’s formidability. It’s clear that she’s the best in the cast by a long-shot. The visuals are impressive, shot on actual rivers in Montana and Oregon, and the action is ultimately satisfying. Strathairn is underused as the quiet nerdy dad who has something to prove, but it’s Streep’s show, and he’s left with the debris she leaves behind. The ultimate lesson to be learned from The River Wild — throw an ill-fitting baseball cap on the unlikeliest of thespians and she can still carry the movie.
Meryl’s Performance: B+
The Film: B-
Before Titanic came along and stole major thunder as the most noted film romance of the 1990s, there was The English Patient. Jam-packed with performances from a host of film stars who I now wonder where they’ve run off to (Juliette Binoche anyone?), the movie is a feast all around. With impeccable leads played by the now-barely-seen Ralph Fiennes and the French-film-bound Kristin Scott Thomas (did anyone other than me notice how good she was in Tell No One?) and an unbeatable performance from Binoche (that won her the Oscar that year), the film hardly needed anymore assistance. And then there was the Academy Award-winning score from Gabriel Yared, cinematography from John Seale (The American President), and costuming from Ann Roth — all of which were impressive in their own right, let alone tacked onto this epic wonder.