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Taking Turns Just for Laughs : In three new films, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro and Paul Newman find comedy is no stretch at all : COMMENTARY

Usually when a comic actor gives a “serious” performance, the make-over is hailed by critics and honored by the Academy. Whenever a “serious” actor gets comedic, the results are often downplayed by critics and ignored by the voters.

The notion that comedy is not the stuff of art is impacted in the subsoil of our Puritan culture. Art isn’t art unless it strains to make you a better citizen. This despite the fact that Hollywood has certainly contributed more lasting works of art in the carefree, comedic realm than in its morality-play mode--with all those socially conscious stinkers that gurgle down the sinkhole of oblivion the day after Oscarfest.

Several actors known primarily for their serious accomplishments are in movies right now that might, according to strict definitions of comedy and drama, be considered a stretch for them: Robert De Niro in “We’re No Angels,” Meryl Streep in “She-Devil,” and Paul Newman in “Blaze.”

Only one of these performances, Streep’s high-camp turn as an ultrafeminine trash romance novelist, can properly be considered deliberately depthless; the role is conceived as a jape, and Streep’s only aim is to make it the best jape possible. She avoids psychological richness as scrupulously as she courts it in her trademarked suffering lady roles.

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In general, however, the critical parlor game of dividing comedy and drama into separate fiefdoms is misguided. It neglects the meld of moods that has given rise to many of the most exciting and emotionally complex movies of the past several decades. It is precisely the films that are uncharacterizable as comedy or drama that are the most provocative and controversial for modern audiences. Regardless of whether you loved or hated them, the definition of comedy is enlarged by such movies as “Blue Velvet,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The King of Comedy,” “Carrie,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Nashville” and “The Right Stuff.”

If the jumble of emotions in these movies is characteristic of the most progressive modern films, then such a jumble has demanded actors with the intuitive gifts to inhabit the exalted oddness of their director’s visions. “Carrie” required Sissy Spacek. “Blue Velvet” required Dennis Hopper. New kinds of movies require new kinds of acting.

In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, when the movies were still in a state of healthy ferment, Robert De Niro was the most exciting American actor because he embodied modern psychological ambiguity. He recognized instinctively just how blackly comic that ambiguity could be, and the result was a classic rogue’s gallery of characters from Martin Scorsese films: the hot-head Johnny Boy in “Mean Streets,” the loner assassin Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull,” the obessesive fan Rupert Pupkin in “The King of Comedy.”

None of these performances fit the strict definition of comedy. They do not exist solely to make you laugh. And yet, all are funny in ways that make you gasp. De Niro was able to express the ghastliness of being obsessed, out-of-control. He located the death’s-head humor in his characters’ enraged hopelessness. De Niro was funny in these films, but he wasn’t simply funny. Even in his earlier, pre-Scorsese films, like Brian De Palma’s “Hi Mom,” where he played an aspiring porno-peep-show movie director, or in his romantic turn in “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” his comic presence had a swacked, edgy quality. His goofy, cretinous grin was laced with malign mirth.

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When the fever dropped in ‘80s movies, De Niro could find no locale for his intensity. Perhaps he had had enough of being intense anyway. He was fine as a Jewish mobster in “Once Upon a Time in America,” but there was something slightly vacant in the performance. The film’s dreamy, epic longeurs brought out a wan meditativeness in him. He seemed blissed-out on blankness. Slogging through “The Mission” didn’t do any wonders for him. “Falling in Love,” where he played a suburban nice-guy, didn’t either.

It is only in comic roles that De Niro has come alive in the ‘80s. If the performances have not been as inflammatory as his great earlier work, that’s probably because the movies themselves are not as inflammatory. His cameo as the terrorist in “Brazil,” his Al Capone in “The Untouchables,” his bounty hunter in “Midnight Run,” and, now, his escaped-con posing as a priest in the lovely “We’re No Angels,” are all highly entertaining caricatures. They can be enjoyed without much discomfort because De Niro is not trying to express warring impulses anymore. The war is over.

In “We’re No Angels,” De Niro is, in effect, making himself laugh. He tricks his character up with nods and yocks and leers. Part of the fun of seeing De Niro in movies like “Midnight Run” and “We’re No Angels” is that he uses the same actor’s arsenal as in his earlier films, only now the black intensity has turned goofball. That’s also part of the disappointment of these performances. De Niro is one of the few film actors who has radically altered our ideas about what’s funny. His current comedic work, as enjoyable as it is, doesn’t enlarge his creative possibilities, it domesticates them.

Meryl Streep’s intensity has always seemed much more studied and controlled than De Niro’s. It’s the sort of intensity that connects with an earlier era of movie acting, before performers like De Niro came along to shake things up. Streep has achieved her greatest acclaim in such “old-fashioned” movies as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Out of Africa"--big, costumey period films featuring tragic great lady heroines. Good as she was she was in these films, the suspicion lurked that all that suffering was ultimately more inhibiting than liberating to her gifts.

Streep has played comedy on the stage. She was funny in the 1979 “The Seduction of Joe Tynan,” playing a lawyer having an affair with a senator played by Alan Alda. It’s perhaps no accident that she has never been sexier than she was in that film. Comedy brought out in her a sensual slyness. If Streep had built on “Joe Tynan” and created a dual-track career, she might have become our finest comedienne/tragedienne.

“She-Devil” suggests that’s it’s still not too late. The performance is not much more than cotton candy, but Streep looks radiantly swoony. Her character, Mary Fisher, writes the sort of doomed-love stuff that’s the romantic pulp equivalent of what Streep herself has often appeared in. There’s an element of giddy self-mockery in her cooing and weeping here. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that an actress as proficient as Streep should approach comedy with the same frontal attack as she approaches drama. But does comedy come naturally to her?

It’s probably true that genuinely funny performers are funny at their core, but Streep is such a consummate actress that who knows what her core is? She keeps remaking it. What Streep hasn’t quite achieved yet in the movies is a fusion of moods. Her serious performances are for the most part resolutely ungiddy; her comic work in “She-Devil” is resolutely weightless. If she ever puts it all together, people may stop harping about what a great actress she is and start talking about what great characters she’s played.

Paul Newman’s comic talents are evident in almost everything he attempts, yet he has appeared in few outright comedies. In Ron Shelton’s spirited, uneven “Blaze,” Newman plays Earl Long,the Louisiana governor who in the late ‘50s had an affair with the 25-year-old stripper Blaze Starr. It’s probably the most ripsnorting performance Newman has ever given, but it also demonstrates why Newman hasn’t tried comedy more often. The exhibitionism of comedy seems to put Newman off; he always appears to be watching himself cutting up in front of a mirror, and not really approving of what he sees.

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In the past, whenever Newman has had to play an imperial rascal, whether it be Judge Roy Bean or Buffalo Bill, he’s drastically overscaled the performance, as if all that folkloric caricaturing could disguise his discomfort.

Still, Newman’s Earl Long is a triumphant creation. Shelton has a knack for bringing out the hellraiser in normally reticent performers (like Kevin Costner in “Bull Durham”). It’s great watching Newman having a high old time as Earl Long. But the performance goes deeper than that. Beneath all the cornpone bluster, Earl’s yearning for Blaze has a lyric, beseeching quality, and Lolita Davidovich, the young actress who plays Blaze, brings out in Newman a trouper’s generosity. His smittenness seems genuine. Earl is aghast at Blaze’s beauty; even when he’s looking away from her, he can’t keep his eyes off her.

There are moments in the film when we can see right through Newman’s ornery coot’s facade to the handsomeness of his youth. Newman is playing Earl as a cartoon of old age, but he also wants to show the reserves of strength and guile inside that cartoon. He wants to show why Earl Long was a folk hero to Louisianians.

Newman is 63 now, roughly the same age as Earl Long in the movie. Even though he’s been made up to look quite a bit less well-preserved than he really is, it’s clear that the role’s senior citizenship is a shift for him. Playing an old-timer may be almost as much of a shock to him (and to us) as playing comedy is. His antic energy in the film is his actor’s solution to the double problem of being ornery-old and uproarious.

It’s an heroic, deeply funny attempt. How many actors are there whose idea of mellowing is to come on like a cross between Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner?


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