Friday, March 14, 2014

My "reimagined" Streep filmography: Part 1

In early 2013, while working on a succession of posts for Word on the Streep I began to consider doing a comprehensive retrospective of Meryl’s screen career.  Numerous newspaper articles, online posts and recently even books have already done as much.  For my own interest however, undertaking such a venture would involve a modest divergence from the typical approach.  The twist would involve me looking back on a sort of “reimagined” history of her work, inserting Streep into projects for which she was in consideration or had shown interest, but ultimately did not participate…a “shoulda coulda woulda” of her entire career one could say.  
This idea originated from having always been a bit perplexed about a certain period of Meryl’s career.  After what was arguably the most acclaimed decade any actor has ever enjoyed on the screen, in the late 80’s Streep made a shift in her role choices.  The reasons behind this are still up for debate, but there are a few theories out there.  Researching the rationale for this deviation prompted me to speculate on how much more impressive Meryl’s career could’ve been (an audacious notion) without that interval of peculiar portrayals.

With this period as a starting point, I decided to address any similar situations in her career where I would have enjoyed seeing a slight change in her filmography.  As stated above, when “adjusting” her history, I made choices from a list of successful (whether critically and/or commercially) films that were produced without Meryl’s involvement, but for which she was at the very least rumored to have been attached, with three distinct exceptions: 1. one film for which I can find no evidence of Meryl ever having been considered for the role,  2. one film that was set to involve Meryl but was never ultimately produced, and 3. one film which became neither a critical nor commercial success.  Obviously this reimagined filmography will therefore be a very selective index of role choices from my own point of view.  A total of eleven films have been added, all of which have already been individually covered in my Shoulda Coulda Wouldas section.   I’ve deleted eight of her films, for a net increase of three projects over a span of nearly forty years.

Before I fully get into it, I’ll share a few guidelines I utilized for compiling this filmography.   I’ve chosen to designate at least one film/project for release every calendar year.  I enjoy the prospect of Meryl’s name being in the running for some variation of awards consideration annually, unless the film(s) serve some kind of direct personal or socially conscious purpose. This may seem unrealistic, in that there would undoubtedly be times where any actor may want an extended period of time off.  I assure you, however, that although each year will include a film, there will be more than one occasion where no filming would’ve taken place for at least a year’s time (particularly around the birth of her four children).  The term “unrealistic” is used a bit tongue-in-cheek I suppose, considering I’ve taken it upon myself to completely disassemble certain parts an actor’s career.  But it’s been an important aspect for me in this analysis to make the execution of this filming schedule as viable, if not probable, as I can.   Let us begin...

The first couple of years of Meryl’s screen history were rather impressive for a woman who up to that point had solely performed on stage.  1977 saw her get her start in a made-for-TV movie alongside Michael Moriarty entitled The Deadliest Season, which explores the dangers of professional hockey.  Later that year, Streep made her big screen debut in Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.  It’s been suggested that director Fred Zinnemann considered casting Meryl in the title role, but eventually decided on Redgrave, as Streep was essentially unknown at the time.  Ultimately, I think Meryl’s small role as socialite Anne Marie was a perfect introduction for her in a big Hollywood film which garnered eleven Academy Award nominations.

Next up in 1978, Streep would star in and receive an Emmy Award for the miniseries Holocaust, followed by Best Picture Oscar winner The Deer Hunter, for which she would go on to earn her first Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actress, starring alongside her ailing partner, John Cazale.  Cazale passed away in March of ‘78 after which Streep almost immediately began shooting The Seduction of Joe Tynan with Alan Alda.  Meryl has stated that she was on “autopilot” during filming.  Imagine if Streep had been spared that schedule and had until spring or summer before she began working again.  Had that been the case, filming Tynan could’ve waited until 1979 and the rest of her year could’ve gone on as planned, with the filming of Manhattan under the direction of Woody Allen, and Kramer vs Kramer, both released in ‘79.  Meryl of course received her second Oscar nomination and first win (Supporting Actress) for Kramer.  

Assuming The Seduction of Joe Tynan were to feasibly work for a 1980 summer release (in an election year not a bad strategy for a film basically about D.C. corruption), as I alluded above it would need to have been filmed sometime in 1979.  The only way that would’ve been possible is if it were done relatively early in the year, as Meryl would’ve been pregnant with her first child, Henry, the majority of that year.  As stated earlier, Tynan was originally filmed in the spring shortly after John Cazale’s death in 1978, so if we bumped filming to the following year, a March through May shooting schedule would likely have been necessary, albeit possible, for Meryl not to be “showing” much.

After testing the waters with Tynan in what would’ve been the closest Streep had come to a leading film role up to that point, 1981 through 1983 are no-brainers.  With three consecutive Lead Actress Oscar nominations, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (‘81), Sophie’s Choice (‘82) and Silkwood (‘83) will all remain firmly in place.  My first deletion of her history comes with the forgettable Still of the Night, a noir piece from 1982 which Streep herself called “a bad movie.”  It’s not a particularly memorable role either, so I doubt I’d miss it much. 

With 1984, I dare to make my first substitution.  That year she again starred alongside Robert De Niro in the romantic drama Falling in Love. The film wasn’t poor, but there was nothing particularly special about it, apart from the quality of its two stars.  Instead, this may have been a good opportunity to make the Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams, originally released in 1985. This was a role Streep had begged her French Lieutenant’s Woman director Karel Reisz for, but was turned down in favor of Jessica Lange, who went on to earn an Oscar nomination for her wonderful portrayal of Cline.  I mean no disrespect to Lange, or any future actors I mention in this piece whose roles I suggest Meryl usurp, but this would’ve been a great replacement for Falling in Love: a well-known country music icon, the possibility of singing, a Virginian accent.  Of course it’s a mystery if the film or performance would’ve or even could’ve been as good or better with Streep in the role (a question which can supposedly be raised with every change I choose to make in her filmography), but in my opinion it’s an improvement to a screen career which managed in a relatively brief period to acquire a reputation for nearly unparalleled variety.  We also have to assume there could’ve been a way for Reisz to be persuaded by Meryl’s impassioned request.

We’ll keep the two films from 1985 with one exception:  I’m pushing Plenty back a year to 1986, leaving Out of Africa, an epic Academy Award-winner for Best Picture and box office success, as the sole project for ‘85.  With Plenty moved to ‘86, that means I’m nixing Heartburn.  This one was a tougher call, as Heartburn isn’t a bad film and it paired Meryl with Jack Nicholson for the first time.  But it’s not a necessarily a good film either, and although I like that Meryl was able to work with Nora Ephron and Nicholson, we already had Ephron’s screenplay for Silkwood and future collaborations, and we’ll see Nicholson in 1987.  It was cute how Meryl got to have her daughter Mamie play her daughter in Heartburn as well, as the toddler was adorable and I’m sure it’s something special for the two of them to look back on.

In my opinion however, Meryl’s role in Plenty depicts a far more complicated and interesting woman than the virtually autobiographical one as Nephron in Heartburn.  I also believe that Meryl’s performance in Out of Africa and the grand scale of the film itself completely overshadowed any recognition she could’ve received for Plenty in the same calendar year. It’s reasonable to assume that a shooting schedule for Plenty in 1985 could’ve been done around the time she originally filmed Heartburn (late summer to early fall), similarly to the previously unmentioned expectation of substituting the filming schedule of Falling in Love for that of Sweet Dreams.  On paper, neither should’ve been impossible in regard to Gummer family planning, either.

By 1987, Streep had garnered six Academy Award nominations for an impressive variety of roles and films.  She took 1986 off from filming, giving birth to her third child, Grace.  In this reimagined history that’s still absolutely possible, as Ironweed, costarring Jack Nicholson, was filmed entirely in 1987 and released in December of that year.  No changes necessary there.  1988 saw her undertake a difficult Australian accent in Fred Schepisi’s biopic of Lindy Chamberlain in A Cry in the Dark.   Both films of course earned Meryl two additional Oscar nominations.

Streep had firmly established herself as the preeminent leading lady of Hollywood by this time. Her first decade in the business was likely the most critically-acclaimed of any actress in history.  Let’s collect ourselves and recap what we’ve covered thus far.  My reimagined filmography up to this point is as follows (with changes to Streep’s actual filmography indicated in parentheses):

1977 The Deadliest Season--TV
1978 Holocaust--TV
The Deer Hunter
1979 Manhattan
Kramer vs Kramer
1980 The Seduction of Joe Tynan (moved from 1979)
1981 The French Lieutenant’s Woman
1982 Sophie’s Choice (Still of the Night eliminated)
1983 Silkwood
1984 Sweet Dreams (replaces Falling in Love)
1985 Out of Africa
1986 Plenty (moved from 1985, replaces Heartburn)
1987 Ironweed
1988 A Cry in the Dark

part 2 in one week


  1. I am thrilled and intrigued by this Jeff. I never considered moving either Seduction or Plenty but your reasoning makes good sense. With only 2 films in 1979 I would have liked to see her role in Manhattan expanded a little.

    I actually quite like that Meryl was in a noir piece where she was portrayed as dangerous but I realise most people don't even know Still of the Night and Meryl herself has openly criticised it.

    I have no objections to losing either Falling in love or Heartburn (although she looked lovely with the hair in this!). Eagerly awaiting the second part which is the era most people criticise the most. I will be excited to see if you keep fan-favourite "Madeline Ashton" though. A real cap classic and the role I originally associated with Meryl as a child :-)

    1. Yeah, I like when Meryl tries a variety of genres, and while I don't mind Still of the Night as a film, I tried to keep the total number of films she does close to her actual count and I add a few in parts 2-4, so there were some obvious films on the chopping block.

      Yes, part two is kind of the reason I wanted to do the re-imagined history. I'll be posting it in a week!

    2. I have a similar mental wish list for Meryl but I am not as realistic as your list.
      I always dreamed Meryl would have the starring role in 1979's "The Rose" instead of Bette Midler (who won 2 Golden Globes and an Oscar nomination). This is fuelled in part because I wanted Meryl's first win to be for Lead as oppose to Supporting and it would also give her an amazing singing opportunity (and Grammy win).

      This would have been neat too as they could have awarded poor underdog Jane Alexander the Best Supporting award and Sally Field (who won for Norna Rae) would eventually win 5 years later anyway.