At this juncture, we see a significant shift in the pattern of Meryl’s screen choices. Her work during the period of the late 80s/early 90s, as stated in the introduction to this filmography, was the catalyst for my decision to explore the question of what could’ve been. An article in the New York Times from 1994 by Bernard Weintraub and another on wordpress.com by writer Michael Burge from 2012 provide some insight into the circumstances which led to this altered trajectory.
The story starts in 1989. By this point Streep, pushing 40, had begun to feel the pressure to live up to her sizable asking price. Not accounting for Out of Africa, the five films she made between 1984 and 1988, while at times lauded for their performances, on average barely made back half their budget. Critics, as Weintraub writes, were saying “lighten up” and Meryl, ever the astute soul, was all too aware of these issues and subsequently decided to change course. Evita may have been a good start.
It’s well-known that after almost a decade of attempts, a film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical was approaching fruition, with Meryl in place for the title role as the Argentine first lady and Oliver Stone set to direct. Unfortunately, filming location and funding issues repeatedly postponed the project until Meryl ultimately dropped out due to “exhaustion.” Had filming been able to go on as planned in early 1989, they would’ve been able to meet their expected late December release of that year. Alas, it never happened. At least with Meryl it didn’t. The film was eventually pulled together in 1996 and earned Madonna a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. In Evita’s stead, Meryl teamed with Roseanne Barr to star in the Hollywood-based dark comedy She-Devil. A bit of a switch from sharing the screen with Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford.While Madonna’s version of Evita neared $200 million worldwide, She-Devil struggled to approach $20 million and scored a tenuous 41% on Rotten Tomatoes.
She-Devil sparked a four year span in which Meryl uncharacteristically remained in Hollywood for a succession of comedic portrayals. Of the four films she made over this period, only 1990’s Postcards from the Edge makes the cut for my filmography. Streep starred alongside Shirley MacLaine in the semi-autobiographical adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s novel of the same name. The film was well-received critically, made back its budget for a change and procured for Meryl a ninth Oscar nomination.
Here’s where I get a little inventive. With the understanding that the early 90’s were cinematically, as Michael Burge described, Meryl’s “wilderness years,” I’ve considered how compelling it would’ve been to see her in the role of Stands With a Fist in Dances With Wolves. The cruel irony in this period of Streep’s career is that her effort to be more appealing at the box-office resulted in a string of mostly flops. After Evita fell through with She-Devil as the unfortunate alternate, a film that drew significant attention would’ve been even more necessary to provide Meryl some sway when it came to continuing her status as the most sought-after actress in the business.
Any success from Evita wouldn’t be enjoyed until after its release in late 1989, so if Meryl were to have an attachment to Dances With Wolves, it would not be because of any recent box office attention. Imagine if first-time director Kevin Costner, worried about the possibilities of a ballooning budget, the risk of box office failure and pressure from the studio to hire someone well-known, had reached out to a star lauded for her character acting and proficiency in different languages. Meryl could be the welcomed draw for an uncertain production. Of course, we know such a move wouldn’t have been necessary, as the great Mary McDonnell was outstanding as Stands With a Fist (earning an Academy Award nomination in Supporting) and the film itself did remarkably well at the box office, not to mention the Oscars.
But Meryl was too old for that part, right?! Filming would’ve begun just after she turned 40 and Costner at the time was 34. Not the typical spread for a leading man and his onscreen love interest. Well McDonnell, while younger than Streep by just under three years, was still older than Costner and in fact older than her onscreen adoptive father, Graham Greene. Moreover, Costner has said he wanted the character portrayed by “someone with lines on her face.” I imagine Meryl would’ve had little trouble portraying Stands With a Fist with an almost childlike quality at times, similar to what McDonnell was so effective at conveying. This, coupled with Streep’s physical appearance which has always left her capable of convincingly playing characters even a decade younger than herself, would in my opinion make any age difference between her and the originator of the role a negligible change to the film’s potential success and authenticity.
Another possible snag about starring in Dances with Wolves would’ve been the fact that its filming schedule overlapped with that of Postcards from the Edge. Assuming Streep had been involved in Dances, filming would be complete by November 1989. I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to suggest that a Postcards from the Edge shooting schedule could’ve been pushed back to early 1990. With a February-April timeline for filming in Los Angeles, I see no issue with the possibility of a fall 1990 premiere. In this scenario, both films would have maintained their original 1990 release, and who knows, perhaps even secured for Meryl her first double Oscar nomination.
Regrettably, 1991 is the biggest missed opportunity to date. Streep and her friend Goldie Hawn had met with director Ridley Scott to discuss the possibility of starring in Thelma & Louise. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons this project never came together for Meryl and Goldie. Susan Sarandon was hired for the role Meryl would’ve played (Louise), with Geena Davis taking on Thelma. Both earned Oscar nominations, the last time a single film was recognized with two Lead Actress nods.
Along with the box office and critical success of Thelma & Louise, the film sparked controversy in some circles for its apparently overt feminist tone. As Melissa Silverstein recalled of the film from a Women and Hollywood piece in 2011, “...change was in the air. Eight years of Ronald Reagan led to four years of George Bush and progressives were ready for a change.” This seems so up Meryl’s alley. However, Streep’s teaming with Hawn would have to wait a year and in 1991 we instead saw her star alongside Albert Brooks in the comedy-fantasy film Defending Your Life, a good movie but one that in my opinion did not require Meryl’s talents.
1992 topped off a four year period of Hollywood-based films for Meryl which was bookended by She-Devil and the even campier plastic surgery dark comedy Death Becomes Her. I may get a bit of backlash for wanting to delete this film from Meryl’s catalogue, as it’s kind of turned into a cult classic for many. Nonetheless, had Streep ended up pairing with Goldie Hawn for Thelma & Louise instead of Death Becomes Her, I feel we would look back today and scoff at the idea of the latter being a better option. And it wasn’t. Despite a Golden Globe nod for Meryl, the film lost money domestically and convinced Meryl that she would never again do a film that required her to work with special effects.
Time to get (more) greedy. Assuming Streep had the filmography I’ve substituted between 1989 and 1991, her prestige as a bankable star may have opened the door to anything and everything out there. 1993 provides three Oscar-nominated roles for which Meryl at some point was considered. Shadowlands, starring Debra Winger as American poet Joy Gresham and Anthony Hopkins as her husband C.S. Lewis, is the movie I’ve chosen to fill the void left by nixing Death Becomes Her from 1992. This obviously means I’m moving the filming schedule up one year from spring ‘93 to spring ‘92. Not a problem in the absence of Death Becomes Her. Richard Attenborough had replaced Out of Africa director Sydney Pollack on Shadowlands, so I wonder how close Streep ever got to negotiations on the project. Unfortunately, Attenborough had Winger in mind for the role from the beginning.
But what next? Were filming complete in England for Shadowlands by early summer 1992 (assuring a late ‘92 release), perhaps Meryl could’ve kept the family in the area to begin shooting The Remains of the Day in late summer/early fall. The history behind why Meryl was replaced by Emma Thompson in the role of Miss Kenton for this film has been described in some detail. The important point is that Streep was indeed replaced, as Mike Nichols, the original director attached, didn’t feel she and her proposed co-star Jeremy Irons were suitable after a screen test. This particularly stings, as Remains turned out be a fantastic film, earning eight Academy Award nominations and a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
If Nichols or eventual director James Ivory had found Streep suitable for The Remains of the Day, it may have been less likely that she would’ve signed up for 1993’s forgettable The House of the Spirits. Yes, its early ‘93 filming schedule technically would’ve worked out with the other changes I’ve made thus far. Spirits however, while baity on paper, was an absolute bore to critics and moviegoers. The only interesting aspect when comparing it to the rest of Streep’s filmography (aside from getting to work with Glenn Close and Vanessa Redgrave) was that it portrayed a Chilean family, something Meryl certainly hadn’t done up that point. Strangely, the film was cast with mostly white, English-speaking actors who all sounded either American or British. This was the only case I can think of where Meryl, in a feature film, chose not to indulge in an accent when portraying a woman whose first language would not have been English. And hey, if Evita had worked out, a South American character (and likely Spanish accent) would’ve already been covered four years prior.
Some may find it strange that I’m keeping The River Wild in 1994, but it’s her only true action film. It was also a fine movie that at the time ignited some needed box office buzz for Streep. She earned both a Golden Globe and SAG nomination (in the SAG Awards inaugural season) for her performance. The film also provided Meryl a chance to show off a few new skills, the acquisition of which she is obviously quite fond. White water rafting and the physical strength required for it are one thing, but it’s the only film where Meryl portrays someone who knows and utilizes American Sign Language. Although she uses it on only a handful of occasions in the movie, I wager she went beyond the minor requirements for the film and became semi-fluent. Streep has reportedly stated that she “emerged from The River Wild with a lot of metaphors for living.” Far be it from me to alter that.
It’s been suggested that Meryl was interested in starring in Six Degrees of Separation, the third of my three poached roles originally from 1993. This is the perfect project to insert for a late 1994 release. Pushing back a spring ‘93 to ‘94 shooting schedule for said film would allow for her to have The River Wild released in summer 1994 with Six Degrees released later the same year.Streep would’ve played New York socialite Ouisa Kittredge, a role originated on stage and in the film by Stockard Channing. Fred Schepisi, who had directed Meryl in both Plenty and A Cry in the Dark, was set to helm the picture. We also would’ve had the chance to see Streep team up with former stage colleague Mary Beth Hurt, with whom Meryl starred in her first Broadway play in 1975, Trelawney of the Wells (for which Hurt received a Tony nomination). Despite these connections, Channing landed the part and did a marvelous job as Ouisa in a film I thoroughly enjoy.
Still with me? To put this somewhat stagnant period of Meryl’s career in perspective with the changes I’ve made, the four films I’ve removed have an average “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 52% and an average domestic box office return of $24 million. In sharp contrast, the four films I’ve substituted (and two additional) have an average rating of 85% and scored an average domestic return of $56 million. Yes, there’s no way to know for sure whether or not these films would’ve been as critically or commercially successful with Meryl starring in place of the other fine actresses. At the same time, there’s not necessarily a reason to think they couldn’t have been even more successful. For this second section of my reimagined filmography the list is as follows (again with changes to Streep’s actual filmography shown in parentheses):
1989 Evita (replaces She-Devil)
1990 Postcards from the Edge
Dances with Wolves (additional)
1991 Thelma & Louise (replaces Defending Your Life)
1992 Shadowlands (replaces Death Becomes Her)
1993 The Remains of the Day (replaces The House of the Spirits)
1994 The River Wild
Six Degrees of Separation (additional)
part 3 in one week