Pushed to the wall, I’d have to say that the best actor in movie history is Meryl Streep. (Forget “-tress.”)
She’s a Natural.
Clive James has it right about actors, I believe, when he favors the Naturals. Here there are Tracy, Stanwyck, Garner, Plowright, Day-Lewis and, yes, and in spite of the immortal “Yonder stands the castle of my faddah,” Tony Curtis, to name some. (Watch again The Sweet Smell of Success and see Curtis destroy any sense the movie is distinct from your own real world.)
All manner of wonders fall to the next level such as March, Davis, Brando, DeNiro, Swank, Penn. Great though they are, their triumphant acting itself perhaps too often trumps the vehicle at hand: Bette Davis and Robert DeNiro, for example–you consciously notice and marvel at their acting in real-time; assuming the vehicle is engrossing and important, better that you didn’t.
You worry that at the highest levels of greatness the tendency to rank people is some lingering, vital but disheartening product of natural selection among us primates.
But (naturally) I believe here, and with regard to Streep, that the tendency is instructive.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched again a handful of her movies–Doubt, Plenty, Dancing at Lughnasa, The House of Spirits and Death Becomes Her. Not too long ago, I suffered (except for Streep’s performance) through The Iron Lady.
Even Streep cannot salvage stinker-scripts like Abi Morgan’s The Iron Lady and such directorial disasters as Robert Zemeckis’s Death Becomes Her. I’d say that in a better world Morgan and Zemeckis would be working together in a small rural hardware store and hating each another.
Obviously genius is mysterious. But surely great acting depends on a certain awareness of a deep theme in human experience. It has been said that there is but one story–the drama of understanding yourself, or learning “who you are” to use a dreadful current expression. But true as that seems to be, it may not be the most fundamental experience itself, merely an accurate generality about our basic storyline. The great Joan Didion says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She writes wonderful sentences and, in her relentless piercing of hypocrisy, has few equals. But she’s not very good talking about movies: for example, she sees Dr. Strangelove as just a running gag about the difference between conventional and nuclear war. So here with Kubrick’s disturbing but dead-end classic about not only the Cold War but what Didion sneeringly calls “the Atomic Age” (she rightly thinks it’s a silly, too-confining characterization), Nasty Joan simply categorizes but does not become Fundamental. (She is possessive as an “insider” about Hollywood because of her screenwriting and likes to be tough [and thank goodness she does!].) Dr. Strangelove is about whether natural selection has produced a species, Homo sapiens, whose proclivities to love weaponry and violence will lead it to destroy itself, as proclaimed by Kubrick’s intellectual mentor, Robert Ardrey, he of “territorial imperative” fame who believes our descent from “killer-apes” will end civilization as surely as the sun will burn for many more centuries.
Well, Streep doesn’t categorize, she sees the Fundamental.
What is it? To borrow from Thomas Wolfe (supposedly–it’s difficult to nail down this attribution), Streep seems always aware of “the pathos of temporality.”
Doubt: Sister Aloysius wants to stand athwart the flood of History, Change itself.
Dancing at Lughnasa: Kate Mundy is “inconsolable” about Change. She stands athwart it, or tries to do so. Inevitably, the centre doesn’t hold.
The House of Spirits: Clara, despite her magic, is swept away as Chile is overwhelmed by dark History.
Death Becomes Her: Although it’s silly, it’s about chasing after immortality.
Plenty: Susan Taherne is destroyed by a spiritual fall from youthful and circumstantial experiential grace, grace obtained through the consuming risk–the all-up life–of working with the Resistance as a young SOE agent in World War Two France, and which dwindles with a maddening disillusionment in postwar burnt out Britain.
The Iron Lady: Although it’s infected by the global entertainment sickness of victimology (hence the dementia is stage center and the Centre of Thatcher’s dramatic life has fallen apart in the background), it’s about the regret of fading.
There’s no reason to talk more about the peerless Streep. Just watch these movies again, especially Doubt, Plenty (an underrated movie in which Streep is simply miraculous and, like Doubt, originally a stage play) and Dancing at Lughnasa (also originally a stage play) and see whether you don’t come to hear just what Streep hears all the time, Time’s winged chariot. If there is one story, maybe that’s as good a realization of it as we might have. Streep will convince you that it well might be.