My current Top 5

My current Top 5

8/06/2010

Best Actress 1988: Meryl Streep in "A Cry in the Dark"

In 1988, Meryl Streep completed her domination of the 80s with her 6th Best Actress nomination during that decade. It seems just as impossible to find a Best Actress year back then without her as to find a nominated performance of hers without one of her famous accents. This year she discovered her inner Australian to play the real-life character Lindy Chamberlain, an unusual, apparently unemotional woman who claims that her baby was killed by a dingo in the Australian outback.

It’s always dangerous to see a performance for the first time when a certain part of that performance has already been parodied countless times – Lindy’s famous expression “The dingo’s got my baby!” and all its different variations are always good for a laugh and so it may be hard to appreciate the actual drama and tension in this moment. But there was certainly no need to worry – Meryl Streep's emotional devastation that she portrays in the few seconds when she searches the tent for her baby in panic is one of the most shattering moments in her career and ever captured on the screen. Her desperation and shock are played in a highly tense way, as if she is waiting to wake up, waiting for a deliverance that won’t happen, moments of fear and panic followed by grief and what seems to be to soon acceptance. Right from the beginning Meryl Streep crafts a woman who seems both very real and a product of stylized movie making but she knows how to invest her with a great deal of emotional honesty while also preserving an aura of mystery and inexplicability. She is able to lay a foundation of a warm and caring woman, a woman who naturally and obviously loves her children and her husband – basically, a typically ordinary woman who enjoys her life. That she and her husband are very religious and members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and looking for God’s reasons in everything that happens to them will ultimately turn their lives for the worst very soon.

As the movie audience we have an undeniable advantage over the people who actually witnessed the case themselves – we know that Lindy is innocent as the cameras shows us a dingo running away and Lindy frantically searching for her lost baby. This means that Meryl Streep actually gets to play a part that has ‘sympathy’ written all over it – a woman who wrongly gets accused for a crime she didn’t commit. But instead of simply going up a few steps on the acting mountain and then resting on the little hill called ‘sympathy’, Meryl Streep backpacked all her talent and bravely went up to the top because instead of letting the audience pity her and immediately take her side, Meryl Streep plays a mysterious, distant, cold and sometimes dislikeable side for both the other characters in the story but also the viewer at home. The other characters in the story don’t know if Lindy is innocent or not but her behaviour surely doesn’t win her any friends. The audience knows that Lindy is innocent but Meryl Streep kept this cold behaviour throughout the entire running time and that way even alienates the viewers from her character. When Lindy is lying in a hotel room, just hours after her baby was taken, she complaints about the cold in the room and takes a sleeping back even though her husband warns her that is has blood stains on it – blood stains from her own baby but Lindy doesn’t mind and covers herself with it. It’s moments like this that Meryl fills with an undeniable strange charisma that makes her character a complete mystery, a woman who is as fascinating as she is off-putting. Meryl also doesn’t use scenes when she is alone with her husband and away from the hunger of the media to show another side in Lindy – there is no devastated break-down about the death of her baby, no teary pledge for her innocence. Lindy is a very independent woman who doesn’t care about the media and who even begins to see humour in her situation – when a woman spits at the phone booth that Lindy is using, she is only laughing about it, not a fake laugh that hides her fear and worries but a real laugh that shows how ridiculous the whole situation is for her.

Meryl Streep knows how to project a character than can be seen as guilty of everything she is accused of, who knows about the possible consequences while at the same time completely unaware of them. She perfectly executes the scenes when Lindy is talking to the media as she constructs a woman who thinks she is doing the best in her situation while actually ruining her reputation by behaving so completely abnormal – at least for the public. The viewers are, to some extent, able to understand this woman, that this is simply a part of her character and since we know that she is innocent, we take a completely different look at anything she does but Meryl Streep makes it both understandable how Lindy acts and why the other movie characters would think different than the viewers at home. It’s an all around stunning achievement as Meryl Streep crafts a character with multiple layers and gives various interpretations of this woman at all kind of target groups, all at the same moment. It’s a performance that, like most of her works, seems carefully prepared and thought-through but Meryl Streep is a master in this technique and that way gave an intense and fascinating performance that easily ranks among the best she has ever done.

Meryl Streep plays a part that is similar to one that she would play later in her career – the strict, unforgiving nun in Doubt. Of course the characters aren’t similar in an obvious way but both don’t act like society expects of them and that way all their actions and doings become suspicious. It’s this character of Lindy which Meryl Streep brings to life with a frightening clearness for the viewer while making her a confusing mix of sympathy and dislike for the other characters. Lindy Chamberlain is a woman who accepts things as they happen to her. She and her husband believe that God does everything for a reason and if God decided to take their baby then it must have happened for a particular reason they both may be not able to understand but have to accept. But Lindy’s husband is still the more emotional part in the relationship who shows more grief and sorrow, not only over his child’s disappearance and death but also over the following events while Lindy keeps a cool, logical façade, a woman who seems to be both a victim and a perpetrator. This difference in characters is also what later causes a temporary rift in their relationship as even the husband cannot understands his wife’s intentions. But Meryl Streep clearly and thrilling builds a character who is not willing to change her behavior for the sake of the media or a jury – which is basically the reason why it came to suspicions and a condemnation at all. A Cry in the Dark is mostly a story about the power of the media and prejudices. The media and the public expect a crying mother, a likeable woman who movingly mourns the loss of her child and Lindy does not meet these expectations. Meryl Streep has to turn Lindy Chamberlain into a kind of woman who can evoke the most fervid discussions, a woman who can keep a whole country on the edge while never putting an end to any discussion because her character seems to allow all kinds of interpretations by the media and the public. Lindy doesn’t play by the rules of society and so becomes a woman one loves to hate, a welcome prey for the media who loves nothing more than knocking somebody down for the sake of a great story. Meryl Streep perfectly portrays this woman and makes her believable at every step of the story. When she is condemned for murdering her child, the reaction of two women in the jury perfectly sum up what Meryl Streep had carefully constructed – they cry out of guilt for having found her guilty which perfectly underlines how conflicting the character is.

The scenes on the witness stands surely belong to the best Meryl Streep has ever done in her career. When she talks about what happened that night with a mix of grief for her child but also anger for the lawyer and the whole court, a subliminal fury, it seems to be the first time that she is not sure what to think or do anymore, as if she is overwhelmed by the whole situation even though she does her best to tell what’s on her mind. It’s shown how much the whole court is already against her as the lawyer is asking her questions in the most insensitive way which Lindy has to but is also willing to endure just to bring the whole affair to an end. In these scenes, Meryl Streep is able to be both incredibly moving while also so complex and fascinating that it’s almost impossible to feel anything while watching her except a radical tension.

Glenn Closes’s Marquise wants the viewer’s respect but enjoys to throw it back in their faces – Meryl Streep’s Lindy doesn’t care for respect nor the viewers themselves. Like Greta Garbo, she would like to be left alone but at the same time she has no problem to face the spirits she called. In the beginning of the story, Meryl Streep found the right tone to show a believable naivety in Lindy that is not overdone to become a plot device but a realistic result of shock and grief when she allowed the media to enter her life, an invitation they greedily accept. Meryl Streep shows a strong side in Lindy that doesn’t cover and signs of weakness but rather are an undeniable part of her which seems to be a blessing and a curse for her own good. It’s this constant mix of all kinds of different emotions that turns Lindy Chamberlain in one of the most interesting and perplexing movie characters of all time.

Meryl Streep herself stated that this is the performance she is the most proud of. And even among the high standards of Meryl Streep, this performance is a stunning achievement that naturally gets

9 comments:

Sage Slowdive said...

Wow, kinda surprised...

Fritz said...

lol, why?

Sage Slowdive said...

lol, I shouldn't have been so vague.

It seems this performance gets a lot more love then I've personally seen through people. Most people (film buffs, that is) thinks it's too technical to appreciate. Just surprises me that a lot of people on the internet love it.

Fritz said...

Mmh, most people I talk to think that this is one of Streep's best. She won Best Actress in New York and in Cannes, so it is one of her most acclaimed works but I understand if people think it's too technical. It IS technical but in this case, Streep was able to use her methods to turn it into gold (for me, at least).

joe burns said...

I'm kind of surprised too, I thought this would be a 4/5, or 4. Anyway, great review! I think she or Glenn will win, I doubt that you'll go with Weaver.

Fritz said...

Thanks Joe! Well, it's nice that I can still surprise you! :-)

dinasztie said...

Great review, a 4.5 from me probably. I think she will be your pick, but I'm hoping that it's gonna be Glenn after all.

Fritz said...

Thanks, dinasztie!
I don't know yet when I will have time to write about Sigourney but I will finish this year hopefully soon.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Meryl Streep gives a very technical performance in A Cry in the Dark, but she is riveting creating a character and portraying a real person. I think she gave the best performance that year, followed very, very closely by Jodie Foster in The Accused.

Eddie.