A Spinal Tap song turned up to 11 isn’t as noisy as Meryl Streep‘s first appearance in August: Osage County. Appearing onscreen in director John Wells’ faithful film of Tracy Letts’ acclaimed play, the actress’s performance and affect all but shout, “Watch me! Note my new tics (so cunning) and accent (spot-on)! Examine the coiffure and makeup I chose this time!” Is that Magic Meryl under that mane and paint? Yep. Give another Academy Award to that woman — Streep or her hairstylist.
In August: Osage County, which launched its Oscar campaign at the Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF (the movie will open in theaters on Christmas Day), Streep plays Violet, the cancer-ridden wife of hardscrabble Okie poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard). She enters the room, her gray hair sparse from chemo treatments, her face chalk white. The camera closes in to inspect Streep’s getup and attitude; she could be Mary Tyrone, the drug-addled mother in Eugene O’Neill‘s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, after getting bitten by Nosferatu. She mumbles to Bev through her dope haze, sucking in his perplexity and the viewer’s attention. Later, wearing a black wig and sunglasses, she resembles an ancient pop star — Bob Dylan or Tom Waits — in glorious late-career desiccation.
She is not Vi; she is Meryl Streep doing another of her fabulous impressions. Her Julia Child in Julie & Julia and her Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady were acute parodies that found some emotional grounding in those famous personalities. If PBS had its own refined version of Saturday Night Live, Streep could be a permanent guest host. But when she turns her considerable talents to fictional roles, like the mother in Mamma Mia! or the nun in Doubt, or here with Vi, she tends to go way too big, diverting the audience’s focus from the character to the performer.
Writing August: Osage County, Letts had his own big agenda: he turned some of the landmark family dramas of 20th century theater — Long Day’s Journey, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — into bitter, biting hilarity. He also detonated nearly as many unexpected deaths and sexual surprises as you’d see in a Mexican telenovela; the story has everything but evil twins and amnesia. Osage County, which richly earned a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Best Play in 2008, is superb theater but not a cathartic tragedy. The play scalds but does not purge; it’s just a monstrously entertaining spectacle.
So maybe the movie adaptation is a suitable showcase for Streep’s meticulous overplaying. What’s telling, though, is that most of the other actors — Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis — manage to nail their roles, to draw all the wit and pain out of their characters, without showboating.
Shepard’s Bev, for example: the patriarch of the Weston family and, we infer, for nearly 50 years the endurer and arbiter of Vi’s venomous sarcasm. “My wife takes pills. I drink,” Bev explains to Johnna (Misty Upham), the Native American woman he has hired to care of Vi. “That’s the bargain we struck.” In Shepard’s interpretation, Bev is a figure of such manly grace and weariness after living with Vi and raising their three daughters that the viewer warmly anticipates spending an evening with him. But he gets just one scene and he’s gone — dead, a suicide.
Bev’s funeral gathers the splenetic Weston clan for an emotional summit most of the members would just as soon sit out. From Colorado comes eldest daughter Barbara (Roberts) with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Middle daughter Ivy (Nicholson) had stayed in Oklahoma to tend to her parents and warmed up to Little Charlie (Cumberbatch), the son of Vi’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Cooper). Youngest daughter Karen (Lewis), who has come from Florida with her raffish fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney), is a relentless saleswoman of her own flighty charm, ever seeking the bright side to a dark family. “You gotta tip your hat to a couple who stayed married so long,” she says of her parents — forcing Ivy to whisper, “Karen, he killed himself.”
Like a master accordionist, Letts expands the Bev-Vi duo to 10 family members at a raucous funeral dinner, then gradually strips the party down to a mother and two daughters (Barbara and Ivy) for a session of Truth or Dare, Truth and Scare. Vi is the prime, rabid truth teller, reminding her children of their easy lives compared with the travails that she and Bev faced. Her throat cancer affords Vi another link to Bev: the dying get pride of place in mourning the dead.
Wells, who wrote and directed the excellent job-loss drama The Company Men in 2010, opens and closes his new movie with the landscapes of Pawhuska, Okla., where the play is set. The on-location shooting gives the film an arid, sprawling visual correlative to Barbara’s observation that Osage County isn’t the Midwest, as Bill believes. “This is the Plains,” she says, “a state of mind, right? Some spiritual affliction, like the blues.” Roberts and Lewis sport the parched, weathered skin of women who grew up on the Plains and, though they moved away years ago, still carry its brand on their faces.
In The Company Men, Wells was the auteur; here he’s the director of the script that Letts adapted from his play. As he said at the TIFF premiere, bursting with a kid’s astonished pride, “I got to work on Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County.” Wells didn’t set out to transform the piece but to translate it, with delicacy and vigor, to film. So although the characters occasionally have conversations in the yard of the Weston home, most of the movie takes place inside, with the window shades drawn to shelter Vi from knowing whether it’s night or day.
In the play, the family was essentially locked inside that haunted house; the stage announced, by the confines of its proscenium, that there was no escape from the dirty secrets to be revealed. Watching the second act’s explosive dinner scene, the playgoer could choose which of the Westons to watch. Wells might have tried the huge challenge of shooting this long sequence in a single extended take, as Alfonso Cuarón did in the 13-minute opening shot of Gravity (at Venice this year) or director Steve McQueen did in a couple of 10-minute shots in another TIFF entry, 12 Years a Slave. Instead, he follows the Hollywood norm of reaction shots, cutting from the speaker to the listener. This formula allows for more narrative and behavioral information to reach the viewer, but it dices and dilutes some of the crackling tension among 10 family members who are metaphorically chained to their seats.
Then again, Wells had all those stars to photograph and please. The Broadway production, which originated with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Co., was bereft of marquee names (though Amy Morton, who played Barbara, returned last year as Martha to Letts’ George in the Tony-winning revival of Virginia Woolf). Among Wells’ actors, six have earned Oscars or Oscar nominations, and most of the others deserved to somewhere along the line. As a company, they’re swell here. (Only McGregor, submerging his natural charisma in a cramped character with a peculiar multiregional accent, seems miscast and ill-used.)
Cooper plays a man so gentle as to be considered weak, until he explodes to defend Little Charlie against a mother who constantly demeans him. Cumberbatch, who rose from his Sherlock Holmes TV role to play the supervillain in Star Trek Into Darkness, is in three TIFF films this year. Sweet, sad Little Charlie is far removed from Cumberbatch’s Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate and from his plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave — both are masters, while Little Charlie dwells in family servitude, the unfair butt of almost everyone’s jokes — but the actor invests the role with pathetic dignity.
Nicholson, from Law & Order: Criminal Intent and indie films like Brief Encounters With Hideous Men, plays Little Charlie’s soul mate and equivalent in the Weston family: a plain Jane whose goodness is ignored or taken for granted. If there is a heroine among Vi’s daughters, she’s it; and Nicholson gives full emotional value through the subtlest glances and silences — up to and including her big blow-up scene. (Practically every character gets one.) You can also see Ivy’s kinship to Barbara, for Nicholson and Roberts complement each other as siblings who took different routes to maturity: one by dutifully staying home, the other by bolting to a hoped-for liberation.
In her Oscar-winning performance as Erin Brockovich, Roberts was a little too strutting, too sure of her superiority to her adversaries (as the film was). Her Barbara is a victim who uncomfortably returns to the scene of the crime — Vi being the perpetrator — and tries not to acknowledge how much she may have in common with her hated mother. It’s Roberts’ deepest, strongest, liveliest film work, which may well put her in the Best Actress competition against Streep. On Oscar night, mother and daughter could fight it out yet again.
So who should have played Vi? I’d start with Melissa Leo, an Oscar nominee for Frozen River (in which she was paired with Upham, the Osage County maid) and a winner for The Fighter (in which she presided over another contentious family). Leo, who sneaks in and takes over the TIFF drama Prisoners, could have been great as Vi, spitting out her curses without getting everyone wet. But with a cast of top stars, Wells may have figured he needed the much-laureled Meryl to preside. No question, Streep does gradually lasso the character, locating a good deal of the fun Vi has in spreading her pain around. But she’s still Meryl Streep doing, not being, Vi. It’s the difference between acting and what Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian on SNL used to call “Acting!“