Why Is Meryl Streep Always the Best Thing in Every Movie She’s In? A New Book Actually Explains.

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 8 2014 6:45 AM

Disenchantment Artists

A new series from Cahiers du Cinéma tries to unearth how movie stars like Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson create their art.

Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer.
Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Film acting is the last great mystery of the contemporary cinema. We talk about the “genius” of the auteur filmmaker, but we know precisely how directors can employ different shot compositions, narrative structures, or even film stocks to make that inspiration material. And we talk about the transformative magic of special effects in Avatar or Gravity, but we also have in-depth DVD extras to reveal to us the (often unbearably boring) nuts and bolts behind those spectacular worlds.

The film actor, however, creates a role through “presence,” “gravitas,” or simply the application of a mysterious, and innate, “it” factor. Celebrity actors may have human foibles, but they also possess an indescribable aura that is constitutive of their power over us. Even Stanislavski’s infamous “method” approach is suffused with the language of “magic” and “illusion.” We know that there are processes involved in the creation of a screen performance, but, more often than not, even the process stories we tell about actors are about a kind of prestidigitation—Daniel Day-Lewis becomes possessed by Abraham Lincoln or Charlize Theron disappears within the grotesque visage of a serial killer. We know how acting works, but there is a horizon beyond which the craft remains opaque, even mystical.

Phaidon Press’ Anatomy of an Actor series aims to look past the magic, to think critically about the art, craft, and even labor of film acting. This series—appropriately produced under the aegis of Cahiers du Cinéma, a publication as responsible for the beatification of Bogart as it was for the canonization of Truffaut—shifts the center of gravity, turning our critical gaze to the individual performance. So much film criticism—and, recently, television criticism—is bound up in auteur theory, in the deconstruction of directorial genius or folly. (Indeed, Phaidon’s last collaboration with Cahiers du Cinéma was on a series of books about prominent directors entitled Masters of Cinema.) This mode doesn't exclude actors, but rather situates performances as tools—if often blunt or brilliant ones—in a director's toolkit. A miscast Leonardo DiCaprio can tank Martin Scorsese's epic imagination just as a transcendent Jennifer Lawrence can elevate an otherwise dumpy or spastic David O. Russell.

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The Anatomy of an Actor series seems largely interested in considering the tools in an actor’s own toolkit. If the creation of a character is a magic trick, what are the mechanisms behind it?

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The books are, in essence, critical biographies—narratives of an artist told through close attention to 10 of his or her films. The danger of a project like this is that, by spending this kind of time alone with a star, the critic might become star-struck. In other words, the idea of Anatomy of an Actor is a laudable one, but, especially given the A-list subjects under consideration (so far: Pacino, Brando, Streep, Nicholson), it’d be all too easy for one of these studies to lose its critical edge. There are plenty of disposable star biographies on the market, works that voyeuristically provide insight into the personalities, secret lives, and on-set hijinks of our most beloved thespians. Anatomy of an Actor aims to transcend that form—to take film actors seriously as artists, myth-makers, and theorists of film in their own right, not simply to presume and then reify the idea of their greatness.

The two newest releases in the series provide case studies in the pitfalls and possibilities of a project like this. Beverley Walker’s Jack Nicholson is, in many ways, a sharply written, phenomenally well-researched fan’s account of the actor’s career. It is full of fascinating production anecdotes and makes use of deep archives to detail the actor’s engagement with the creative process. But, at the same time, the book retains a kind of reverence for its subject that can be frustratingly repetitive.

Beverly Walker.
Author Beverly Walker.

Courtesy Beverly Walker

Walker too frequently defers to the ineffable magic of acting—and, beyond that, the legend of Jack, the icon in the sunglasses in the front row of the Oscars—as the central motor force of the actor’s career. It’s true that any serious book about Nicholson must first establish that Nicholson himself is serious. And while the actor’s outsize off-screen personality threatens to become the story, Walker is careful always to present Nicholson as a craftsman. But that craft remains an occult one to the reader. “There is a mystery at the center of the actor’s art,” Walker writes, “an indefinable something we can’t quite put our finger on.” But I want the Anatomy of an Actor series to solve, or at least complicate, that mystery, not simply to marvel that it exists.

Karina Longworth has a much less rascally or showy celebrity persona to deal with in her book Meryl Streep, and, perhaps in part for that reason, it resists the play of mystification and demystification that occupies much of Walker’s study. Longworth, working with pages upon pages of Streep’s extemporaneous comments on her art, has fashioned a book that is as much a study of the actress’s idiosyncratic career as it is a treatise on the state of feminism in contemporary film.

Author Karina Longworth.
Author Karina Longworth.

Courtesy Karina Longworth

Longworth’s great strength is as a close reader—of individual scenes, of Streep’s loopy theorizations about acting and feminism, of relationships between Streep and her collaborators. And as much as all of these passages forward a narrative of the actress’s creative evolution, they also provide the springboard for well-earned arguments about the cultural impact of Streep’s ascendance. In her opening chapter on The Deer Hunter, for instance, Longworth writes about the layers of Streep’s performance in a thanklessly written role: “In making the pain and frustration of powerless women real and visible in a vehicle that otherwise spoke to an increasingly conservative public, [the role] critiqued the mainstream while participating in it—an act of subversion that passed as submission.” In other words, especially in her early career, Streep fought to give real texture to the anonymous female roles that were the only ones available to her. To think about the experiences of characters who were treated as afterthoughts in the script was, to Streep, a political act.

So from the very beginning, this dynamic—Streep struggling to develop an artistic voice from within a masculine and often misogynist creative culture—becomes our central object of concern. And it is frankly shocking, as well as inspiring, to read about the number of times Streep forced herself to intervene in order to give a sense of agency or even human complexity to characters she had agreed to play. Streep insisted, for instance, that her role in the divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer—a role she took only a year after her breakout success in The Deer Hunter—be rewritten in order to allow her character’s perspective into the space of the film. She established herself as such a force on set that, when they came to the scene in which her character finally articulates her argument for why she should retain custody of her son, the filmmakers let Streep write the dialogue herself. If you’ve ever thought that Meryl Streep is often the best thing in a given film, this book is a play-by-play account of why that is.

Longworth’s book functions as both a biography of a star and a theory of stardom. It is a nuanced, enviably readable work of cultural studies. Film critics today are intensely knowledgeable about process, from distribution and marketing to form and style. This is a knowledge that extends to the filmmaking process but sometimes stops short at the actor. By stripping away some of the mysticism that surrounds the actor’s craft, Anatomy of an Actor opens a window to the material conditions and intellectual negotiations behind film acting and even of stardom itself. In Longworth’s and Walker’s books both, the most telling stories are about choices made by their subjects. Neither pawns of the director nor avatars for divine intelligence, Streep and Nicholson here are agents, actors in the most general sense of the term. To offer an account of how their choices translate from set to screen, how they resonate for viewers in the dark of the theater and in the light of day, is not to destroy the magic we associate with movie acting. Rather, the best of these books provide us with a kind of agency ourselves—to be not passively captivated but actively engaged by this mysterious craft and its practitioners.

Phillip Maciak is a professor at Louisiana State University, and he writes the "Dear Television" column at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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