For whatever reason, it came to mind last week to re-watch Ironweed. I had originally seen it when I began my Meryl obsession in 2003, and then again sometime within the past five years. Having had difficulty remembering the full plot of the film, it was a good one to review. I'm glad I decided to, as there were multiple things that seemed new to me in the movie.
The film itself is based on William Kennedy's 1983 novel of the same name, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I happened to find some background info on the making of the film from Kennedy's perspective which can be read in full here. Of interest, Meryl was the only person considered for the role of Helen Archer, having requested the script and agreeing to join three days later.
Set in Depression-stricken Albany, the film tells the story of Francis (Jack Nicholson), a former professional baseball player who, after dropping his infant son twenty years ago (causing his son's death) returns to his hometown and to the family he left behind. Helen (Streep), a former singer/pianist, is one of Francis's drinking pals and seemingly a love interest. Helen is terminally ill without an undisclosed ailment, and having met back up with Francis at a soup kitchen, we learn of the pair's friendship while bits of Helen's past are revealed through Meryl's astute characterization. Throughout the picture we are regularly exposed to the hallucinations Francis experiences in seeing visions of individuals whose death he had been responsible for (totally had spaced this from previous viewings). The whole story unfolds over the course of just a few days, with the overarching theme being the collective experience of "bum" life during a destitute period of American history. When Francis returns to the family he abandoned, we get a brief sense of the possibility of redemption. But when he declines his wife's offer for him to return home permanently, we learn that he may not really be interested in returning to his former life.
This was an area of the movie that seemed a bit of a stretch to me. Maybe it's how people would've behaved at the time, but Francis's wife seemed a tad too calm when he returned. She just welcomed him in, started preparing the turkey Francis had offered and introduced him to his grandson. The silent sufferer-type, I guess. The daughter's reaction was a bit more of what I'd expect, but even she got over it relatively quickly.
Now let's get to Meryl. Continuing her delightful string of varied characters, Streep once again does a fantastic job convincing us she's someone else. Particularly in this role, which was an invented one, Meryl succeeds in establishing a sense of history for Helen. Every time she was on screen I got a sense of what a great loss it was, in that she had been such a successful musician and ended up an impoverished alcoholic. Her fall from grace is best captured in the wonderful scene in which she sings a tribute to her "pal" Francis:
I'm pretty sure this is the first time Meryl really sang in a film role. She sang in Silkwood but not really as part of the character, just in the background. Helen eventually succumbs to her illness, alone in a hotel room with and old favorite record playing on a phonograph. Is it bad that I couldn't help feeling relieved for her? Also I was so pleased when she finally got to shower, only to watch her expire on the floor minutes later.
Homeless, alcoholic, terminal disease, accent...those things on paper these days of course scream Oscar bait. Of course Meryl did indeed receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (Nicholson also nominated), her overall seventh. Astonishingly, this was her fifth of six nominated roles in the 80's, the last coming in 1988's A Cry in the Dark.
Overall, this is a well-made film, albeit depressing. Several reviews on Rotten Tomatoes basically blast it for being grim, painful and a film without an audience. They may be right about all but the last comment, as not every story needs to end happily or make us feel warm inside. Sometimes there is enjoyment to be had in simply witnessing an authentic human experience, despite how disturbing or upsetting that experience may be.