Critic's Notebook: My Meryl Streep problem

A funny thing happened whenever I set out to see Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady.” I'd invite one of my moviegoing pals to join me and then find myself later that evening at “Shame,” “My Week With Marilyn” or the glorious “Pina.”

The reviews for “The Iron Lady” weren't all that glowing, but Streep came in for her usual chorus of hosannas. For some reason, this wasn't proving to be much of a lure. Even after the Oscar nominations came out, with two-time winner Streep making history with her 17th nomination, “The Iron Lady” was still a no-go with them.

Surely this was an aversion to Margaret Thatcher, I thought. But after I investigated their reluctance a bit further, I discovered that several of my well-read, culturally engaged, Pinot Noir-sipping friends are not just indifferent to Streep's greatness — they're actually put off by it. This was shocking news, and they were rightly ashamed to confess it, whispering their secret as though disclosing some white-collar crime they had gotten away with years ago.

Should a drama critic be associating with such a crowd? I could feel what I assumed to be my gorge rising. But after reflecting on Streep's recent spate of box-office hits — “The Devil Wears Prada,” “ Mamma Mia!” and “Julie & Julia” — I had to admit that, much as I may have been amused by her outsize portrayals in these films, I found them either too cartoonish or superficial (in that trading on personality way) to leave a lasting impression.

Yes, I guess I need to come clean: I too have a Streep problem.

Lately, it seems as if her acting comes in two varieties: artful drag burlesques (the Anna Wintourish tyrant Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada,” the cluck-clucking Julia Child in “Julie & Julia” and the holy terror nun in “ Doubt”) and relaxed diva charm-fests (aging hippie Donna of “Mamma Mia!” and the spurned Santa Barbara divorcée rediscovering romance in “It's Complicated”). And in both these modes the overriding effect is one of elaborate imposture. She's either impersonating a character quite unlike herself (ah, Streep the magician!) or one who bears a teasing resemblance to her starry middle-aged persona (oh, that lovable grande dame!).

Sadly, it seems that even the greatest actors have difficulty not falling into the self-parodying trap memorably summed up by Stephen Sondheim in “I'm Still Here”: “First you're another / sloe-eyed vamp / Then someone's mother / then you're camp.”

Her performances are always marvels of technical virtuosity, and her mimicry can indeed be dazzling. One senses her own delight in capturing the likeness of another. Perhaps this is why as she has gotten older she has tended to favor comic masks over tragic ones. But then comedy, which allows her to build a role through selected exaggeration, plays better to her strengths. She can zero in on a defining vocal or physical mannerism and thus flex her muscles as a talking mime.

Dramatic characterizations, on the other hand, tend to become lifeless when overly conceptualized. The psychology, if it is to resonate with our own, needs to be embodied rather than anatomized. Of course there's still interpretive emphasis, but an actor's choices should create a coherent inner life. This isn't Streep's strong suit. Drama critic Gordon Rogoff once referred to her as “that scholar of emotions, burrowing in the archives for card-indexed feeling.” Yet the issue isn't really one of authenticity. Streep can be piercing in grief, as her searing Oscar-winning performance in “Sophie's Choice” attests. But her characterizations are so well calculated that they call attention to their own artistry. The dancer is always distinguishable from the dance.

It may be hard to recall, now that Streep has become our thespian in chief, that her acting hasn't always been universally acclaimed. One famous detractor, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, found Streep's studied perfection bloodless. “[A]fter I've seen her in a movie,” Kael observed in her “Sophie's Choice” review, “I can't visualize her from the neck down.”

By the time “Out of Africa” came around, Kael had had enough of the foreign accents. But her biggest gripe with Streep in this sweeping epic — and the cornerstone of her critique of Streep's acting — is that “her character doesn't deepen” or “come to mean more to us.”

Streep told the Guardian in 2008 how she felt about this rejection: “I'm incapable of not thinking about what Pauline wrote. And you know what I think? That Pauline was a poor Jewish girl who was at Berkeley with all these rich Pasadena WASPs with long blond hair, and the heartlessness of them got her.”

Streep's cool, self-protective analysis — wrongheaded, in Kael biographer Brian Kellow's view — is somehow telling. It reveals emotion yet deflects it fairly quickly with provocative speculation. It's the same cerebral pattern of her performances, which have a striking way of depicting pain without risking much personal exposure.

Not that this has held her back in the least. At 62, her star has never been higher, which is quite a testament to her gifts when you consider the paucity of meaty roles for middle-aged actresses. And she has generously attempted to use her box-office clout to advocate for a renaissance in moviemaking thinking, championing the work of her peers, young and old, and lightly pressing movie studios to recognize that grown-ups buy movie tickets too and that women in particular have been underserved by them.

Since playing fashion industry despot Miranda Priestly and proving that she can hang with the big boys in the $100-million-and-over club, Streep has taken great pleasure in portraying characters whom men can identify with. Her latest addition to this gallery of female firebrands is perhaps the fieriest of all. Her depiction of the unvacillating Thatcher, Britain's conservative former prime minister, has been heralded on both sides of the pond. (She won for lead actress at the BAFTA Film Awards this month in London and has a shot at the Oscar, though Viola Davis, star of “The Help,” is widely considered the front-runner.)

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) and written by Abi Morgan, “The Iron Lady” isn't just built around Streep's uncanny impersonation but panders to it. The film is a montage of photo ops strung together with Wikipedia factoids. Jumping back and forth in time, it contrasts the widowed Thatcher wandering at home in a haunted senility with the ambitious young politician who put her career before her family and became the formidable historical personage with the steely nickname.

All that's missing is a driving dramatic perspective. Worried about taking political sides, the movie pussyfoots around Thatcher's divisive policies and tries to cover up the interpretive black hole at its center by throwing out thematic parallels to “King Lear,” which are irrelevant because Shakespeare's tragedy is fundamentally about self-knowledge and Thatcher's dementia makes this leap in consciousness all but impossible.

Streep's simulation of agedness, aided by prosthetics and hair and makeup wizardry, is undeniably astonishing. The tottering carriage she adopts as she shuffles from room to room or rinses out a teacup with arthritic deliberateness sets a new standard for realism.

Less impressive is her portrayal of Thatcher's rise from political nobody to royal battleship. She leans too heavily on Thatcher's fancifully monarchical speech pattern and helmet hairdo. Morgan's screenplay doesn't give Streep much to work with, but the performance is almost purely presentational. Thatcher's bearing and unswerving determination may have isolated her, but the other characters come off as ciphers. All Streep has to do is masquerade as an eccentrically styled figurehead.

Such a star turn may earn her more bric-a-brac, but it certainly won't enrich her talent. There's no denying her authority, yet even legends need to return to interpersonal basics. Perhaps by the time Streep no longer has to cake on the makeup to play a senior, she'll be given a role that will allow her to intimately inhabit the private human drama she has long been second to none at illustrating.

What do you think? Watch one of Streep's key scenes in "Iron Lady"

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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