As my first three film reviews were from the 80's, 00's and 70's, respectively, I thought I best round it out by reviewing a film from the 90's. One True Thing is a great familial drama in which Meryl plays Kate Gulden, a woman living with cancer. We don't immediately know this of course, but the main events of the film transpire based on the progression of her illness, and the ultimate necessity of a family coming together, however hesitantly.
It's great timing for me to review this film because I'm currently reading Howard Zinn's A History of the American People and am at a stage toward the end of this book that is focusing on the feminist movement of the 1960's and 70's. I don't think most people would immediately equate these ideas to Meryl's role in One True Thing, but I see in her character so much of what I'm reading now. I imagine the majority of audience members connect with the tragedy of a woman slowly deteriorating or of a family coming to grips with losing their wife or mother. Most people can likely relate to this concept. A far more interesting storyline of this film, in my opinion, is the relationship Kate's daughter Ellen, played by Renee Zellweger, has with her mother and the disdain she has for the sort of typical housewife life her mother has carved for herself.
Just outside the hustle and bustle of 1980's New York City and the dog-eat-dog world of journalism, we see a very sharp contrast between Ellen's day to day life and that of Kate's. One of the first scenes shows Meryl walking out of her house to greet her daughter dressed as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. She's throwing a costume birthday party for her literary professor husband, played by William Hurt. We see the disappointment yet passive look on Meryl's face when she concedes approval of her daughter refusing to wear a costume. Meryl's character actually reminds me a lot of my own mom. Very family-oriented, wants everyone to get along, and very hesitant to find any disapproval in anyone. While commendable, it can be an exasperating mentality, especially for Ellen (and my sister and me on occasion--Love you, mom!!). Ellen has a hard time acknowledging the validity of Kate's women's groups, arts and crafts and neighborhood get-togethers, while she is busting her ass to meet deadlines for her job.
Eventually Ellen is persuaded by her dad to move back in to help her mother during her illness. We finally start to see Ellen recognize the chinks in her father's armor, and the borderline misogyny with which he's been comfortable for so long. Meryl of course perfectly plays what we think is this sort of unassuming, agreeable partner to a man whose life can't be interrupted, even by his own wife's terminable illness. As Ellen's irritation shifts more toward her father's lack of participation (and suspected extramarital affairs), we see what I consider to be one of Meryl's all-time greatest scenes:
I absolutely love the change in character that Meryl is able to convey in Kate when she makes it clear to her daughter that there is nothing Ellen knows about her father that she doesn't already know and understand better. The look of quiet surprise on Ellen's face, with all her cynicism about her mom, revealing her understanding that she doesn't have everything figured out.
As Kate's health deteriorates further, we see more focus shift toward the family. It's more person-oriented, and I think it sends a good message (although I suppose a bit cliché) about family over career or ego. It seems Meryl's character has had it figured out the best and has been living it (in her way) all along. If I weren't an emotional robot I probably would've cried at this movie.
Oh, and Meryl of course received her 11th Academy Award nod for the film. Gwyneth Paltrow won for Shakespeare in Love (gawd). Cate Blanchett so deserved it for Elizabeth. At the Oscar ceremony when Paltrow's name was announced, Meryl has a bit of a smirk on her face and immediately looks in Paltrow's direction when Jack Nicholson utters the first consonant of her name. Meryl totally knew Gwyneth would win. Paltrow was very gracious onstage and said through tears that she didn't feel very deserving of it in Meryl's presence, and called her the "greatest one there ever was." You know I eat that shit up. Meryl did her best to act like "who me?" ;)