The reappraisal of Merrill Streep that’s occurred over the last month or so has been fascinating. It seems to have started with A.O. Scott, who wrote the following in his review of August: Osage County.
“Another way to think of “August: Osage County,” which was directed by John Wells and adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play, is as a thespian cage match. Within a circumscribed space, a bunch of unquestionably talented performers is assembled with no instructions other than to top one another… It goes without saying that nobody can beat Ms. Streep at this game. Remember Amy Adams in “Julie and Julia”? Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada”? Anyone at all in “The Iron Lady”? Of course not. Here Ms. Streep smokes, rants, bites her fingers, slurs her speech and spews obscenities with the gusto of a tornado laying waste to a small town.”
Suddenly, Meryl Streep was, above all, a ruthless scene stealer, someone more interested in capturing attention than in embodying a character or exploring the subtleties of a scene. I’ve heard this sentiment echoed everywhere — at my in-laws, on Grantland. It’s the new generally accepted take on Streep. It’s as if Scott managed to say something we all recognized but never quite understood.
But before we just accept this indictment, let’s look at the examples Scott lays out. In “Julie and Julia” Streep never shared the screen with Adams. And her scenes with Stanley Tucci were tender and heartfelt. She can’t be faulted for the anemic writing put in Adam’s mouth. In “The Devil Wears Prada” her character was enormous — her job was so be larger than life — bigger, more dominant in every way than Hathaway’s character. It’s worth remembering here that Emily Blunt came across as the far more charismatic than Hathaway in that movie. Do we really want to fault her for being outsized in a move with the title “The Iron Lady?”
Finally there’s “August: Osage County.” This is Tracy Letts we’re talking about. His performances don’t exactly call for subtlety.
Streep takes big roles and plays them big. There’s nothing wrong with that. In some of the recent romantic comedies she played well with Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, without any detectable desire to treat performance as a bloodsport. So let’s get off the Streep-as-upstager tract and move on. She’s a great actress — always has been.
That said, this is a Sondheim blog, and I’m chiefly concerned with examining her fitness for the role of the Witch in the upcoming movie of Into the Woods. Let’s start with this hopeful thought: she can sing a bit.
Obviously, these clips don’t showcase a musical theater voice, and there don’t appear to be any examples of Streep attempting that style, which is a little worrisome.
But for most of the first act, the Witch’s songs are half-sung, half-spoken. I have no doubt that Streep can sell a song such as Witch’s Rap, performed with great theatricality by Bethany Moore in the video below.
I can easily image a landscape in which Streep kills this song and gives an overall performance that delivers menace and comedy in interesting proportions.
The real concern comes in the second act. Take a moment to re-listen to “Lament,” as sung by Bernadette Peters.
When done well — when in the hands of a performer of Peter’s ability — the song captures a truth that all parents face: you do what you can, but often it’s for naught. You’re children are gorgeous and wondrous, but can be confounding and saddening. There’s a lot unpack in those lyrics, and it can’t be done fully if the voice isn’t transcendently beautiful. I don’t believe this is within Streep’s ability.
Will she play nicely with others and put in a good performance? Absolutely. Will she fully express all that’s expressible with this character? I seriously doubt it.