My current Top 5

My current Top 5

10/11/2010

Best Actress 1985: Meryl Streep in "Out of Africa"

Another Best Actress line-up of the 80s, another nominated Meryl-Streep-performance, another accent. In 1985, she was nominated for her performance as Karen Blixen, a Danish woman who follows her new husband to Africa and experiences wild nature and wild romance in Out of Africa. The movie was certainly very popular with the Academy and its win for Best Picture elevated Meryl Streep into an elite circle of performers who have had prominent parts in 3 Best Picture winners.

Out of Africa is an opulent, romantic and, despite its length, very captivating epic that presents beautiful people in beautiful landscapes, supported by a beautiful score. Still, all these ingredients don’t turn Out of Africa into Gone with the Wind, another long epic that puts an unconventional female character in the center. But the comparisons to Gone with the Wind provide an interesting observation. Both movies seem to rest on the shoulders of the leading ladies who are present at basically every moment of the story, both characters are fighting for their land, for their existence and for their traditional way of life while realizing the changing times at the same moment. Of course, there are more differences between Scarlett O’Hara and Karen Blixen than similarities but the fact that these two epics seem so completely to depend on the work of the leading actresses is certainly fascinating because it appears only true at a first look. Gone with the Wind, even though a bombastic story, is still a character study that stands and falls with the character of Scarlett – her character and the movie itself are forever bonded together. Out of Africa is different. Sydney Pollack creates some overwhelming images but it seems that he was always more interested in the surroundings and the story itself than in the protagonists. Out of Africa is told through the eyes of Karen Blixen, it follows Karen Blixen and seems to worship Karen Blixen – but it somehow never depends on Karen Blixen. In Out of Africa, Karen is presented as a storyteller and even though she is a woman who takes her destiny into her own hands and is fighting for her own existence, she very often appears rather passive. The movie never really seems to be about what Karen did but rather what happened to her. Her character and the movie are never really bonded together and it seems that Out of Africa could also exist without the central character – Robert Redford gives a serviceable, but not outstanding performance but it doesn’t hurt the overall quality of the movie either and instead, like Meryl Streep, creates all the right emotions without any surprises that might damage the conventional flow of the story. But besides being trapped in a role that demands of her to carry the movie but never thanks her for it, Meryl Streep has another obstacle to overcome – the fact that she isn’t really a romantic lead. She has done tragic romance before and would do it again but it doesn’t really seem like her territory. But Meryl Streep wouldn’t be Meryl Streep if she wasn’t able to overcome all these barriers and still give a well-crafted and layered performance in which she is able to give another display of her undeniable talents.

She maybe doesn’t reach the passionate fascination of Kristin Scott-Thomas in The English Patient that could explain why men would be drawn to her nor the lyrical willingness of Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves that feels so completely uncontrolled and spontaneous but her, as usual, thought through and carefully developed performance still reaches to much higher levels than many other actresses could have. The part of Karen Blixen may appear more demanding and complicated than it actually is and Meryl Streep never makes any surprising or unexpected choices in her performance but she knows how to create her own character while blending herself into the beautiful images of Sydney Pollack. That way she builds a character who began an intellectual search for herself, a woman who likes to become part of the wild nature around her but also never gives up her European upbringings. Thankfully Meryl Streep never tried to turn Karen into a saint – she shows that Karen is not afraid to get in contact with the locals but Karen lives at a time where these locals are her servants and an apparent God-given superiority separates her from them and Meryl Streep isn’t afraid to show these traces of arrogance and superiority in her character without overdoing it. She may be amused about the natives fascination with her Cuckoo’s Clock but she never looks down on them for it. The same way she shows Karen’s determination to help an injured young man – she wants to help him but she doesn’t demand that he obeys any orders.

Meryl Streep begins her performance as a woman who is neither a romantic fool nor cold-hearted but instead as a character who is looking for a conventional life in unconventional manners – a husband and security in another land, even wild and exotic, like Africa. In Karen, Meryl Streep portrays a certain insecurity that she tries to hide between a frank directness and openness but too often her face carries her true emotions. Meryl Streep uses her technical abilities to shows these facets of Karen in a very convincing and interesting way that enables her to awaken the viewer’s interest in her during her first few scenes.

Meryl Streep plays her arrival and first moments on the dark continent thankfully not with girlish excitement or exaggerated fear but instead with a sense of curiosity mixed with uncertainty. She shows that Karen Blixen will never become a part of this world but she comes as close as possible for a woman in her situation. She is caught between two worlds but not helplessly or unwillingly but by choice and her own will. That way she tries to discover the best life for her. When she arrives with all her precious belongings from home, she doesn’t play Karen’s nervousness too dark or too light but instead finds the right tone to show a woman who is beginning a new life in a new country.

With her usual acting style that combines technical perfection with a good deal of honest emotions, Meryl Streep does her best to create a character who symbolizes both limits and potentials. That way Karen becomes appealing enough to keep that viewer’s interest she secured at the beginning over the complete running time of the story. Since the movie follows her character, everything that Karen experiences for the first time is also new for the viewer and Meryl Streep’s interesting approach to the part makes sure that Karen never slips too far in the background behind the exotic scenery. In Out of Africa, Meryl Streep chose a rather subtle approach to her character that still seems to proclaim ‘Look at me!’ but it is still very effective  and works in perfect harmony with Sydney Pollack’s direction.

Meryl Streep’s Karen Blixen also finds new sides in her own character without becoming a different person. Karen develops a strange sense of self-assurance that sometimes doesn’t seem to fit to her character – how she follows her husband to the frontline or other signs of independence but it becomes clear that Karen is a woman who is used to play second fiddle, even in her own life, but who has the courage and the strength to take charge of every situation if she has to. Karen is a woman who wants to be braver and stronger than she really is – only to find out that she is, indeed, that strong and brave, a trait in her character that was set free in the wild and free nature of Africa.

As mentioned before, the main characters and their actions sometimes appear strangely insignificant for the overall impact of the movie but Meryl Streep, despite appearing too cold from time to time, still infects Karen with enough warmth and inner charisma to make the romantic aspect of the movie work without letting it become too dominant. She also develops a very convincing and captivating chemistry with Robert Redford – they both seem like the most unlikely pairing but they succeed in showing their love and devotion to each other. Meryl Streep also becomes the dominant force of the relationship as she is also trying to control its direction – when she slowly changes from passionate lover to a woman who resembles a jealous wife, the transition is exciting and believable. The romantic part of the story, even though probably the central aspect of it, never feels too forced into the story nor does it feel undeveloped – just like Meryl Streep’s performance, it fits rights into the flow of the movie and goes along with it. Meryl Streep can play love, sorrow, passion and desire just as well as shock, strength and fear in other scenes. That way she finds enough moments to shine and show her talent for various emotions. Her scenes of love and anger towards Klaus Maria Brandauer, her shock to the news of her illness, her fight for her land and her own life and especially her speech at the funeral and her pleadings for the land of the locals are great moments that allow Meryl Streep to be very technical but also very honest.

One could say that Meryl Streep gives a ‘standard’ performance but for a woman of her talents, this still means high quality work. Combined with the interesting part of Karen Blixen in a beautiful and moving epic, she was able to give a multidimensional and thoughtful performance that catches a lot of different angles of her character without feeling too forced or dominating. For this, she gets

8 comments:

Louis Morgan said...

Well written review, I like the comparison with Gone With the Wind. I basically agree, although I think I liked her a little less. As for the movie I did not hate watching it when I did watch it, but I know I really could not really take watching it again. By the way since you did not mention it in your review, what did you think of her accent?

Fritz said...

lol, I had included one sentence about her accent at first but deleted it at the last minute. My problem is that I have no idea how someone from Denmark is supposed to sound when they talk English. I heard some negative things about it but at least the accent is consistent. I think Meryl does mostly exaggerated accents that are rather stereotypical and not completely representative for everyone. But I think she sounded good...

hey deanie said...

Such a fantastic review, Fritz. I'm so glad you're blogging again, I really missed your writing!

Sage Slowdive said...

It's nice too see you back!

The accent didn't bother me at all - it's expected and unusual, but nothing terrible.

Fritz said...

@Deanie: Thanks a lot! It's nice to be back again too such kind words!

@Sage: Thanks a lot, too! I promise I will start commenting again, too. :-)

Malcolm said...

Hey, glad you're back, and with this lovely performance!

I love Meryl, I love Out of Africa, I love Meryl in Out of Africa, so it's an easy 5 for me.

The performance was very technical, but doesn't seem forced, always feels natural, but not "no acting", graces the screen with subtlety and eroticism, invokes coldness but injects warmth..... I could go on all day!

I'm just glad that you really liked her! I was expecting a 3.5, but really glad you settled for higher. I just think people are throwing against this is that this is so technical.

Anyway, I'm excited to see Whoopi, who is the only other nominee that I have seen in this line-up. Can't choose between the two of them!

dinasztie said...

I'm glad that you're back, great review. I love Meryl in this one very much.

Fritz said...

Thanks a lot, dinasztie!