Meryl Streep, Ironweed

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Andrew Sarris

[One of Andrew Sarris's New Year’s resolutions for 1988:]

"I will make up with Meryl Streep unilaterally after her stunning and universally underrated performance in Ironweed."

Andrew Sarris
"Resolutions With a View",
Village Voice, January 9, 1988 ?

Also, see his quote about his hypothetical votes for the 1987 Oscars (in Diane Keaton, Baby Boom)

David Ansen

"Meryl Streep plays the down-and-out Helen, the woman he's been hanging out with for nine years. You've seen women like this on the streets and averted your eyes: pale, red-eyed crazies muttering angry curses. Helen, an aspiring pianist in her youth, cloaks herself in the illusion of gentility: she's a bum with pretensions, measuring the steps of her degradation by the tenets of her Roman Catholic upbringin, clinging to pride as she clings to the keepsakes from her once promising past. Streep's astringent performance is a marvel: she's never had a less glamorous role or exuded such charisma. In the movie's greatest scene, half real and half fantasy, she takes the stage of a saloon in her shabby coat and belts out a song, showing you the Helen who might have been. It breaks your heart...."

David Ansen
Newsweek, December 21, 1987

Stanley Kauffmann

"Here's an interesting test. Think of an actor's name, and see what flashes into your head. When I think "Jack Nicholson," immdediately I see a fce, hear a voice, sense a feeling. But when I think "Meryl Streep," I think, "Well . . . which picture?" With Nicholson, the immediate recall is person and personality. But it's harder to think of Streep apart from the roles she has played.

"This, heaven knows, doesn't mean that Streep has no personality or that, heaven also knows, Nicholson can't act. Still, there are actors in whom personality and talent are fairly evenly divided (Bette Davis) and others (Alec Guinness) in whom talent predominates. I'm obviously leaving out actors who chiefly sell personality and those who are almost anonymous "character" actors. Some excellent acting--Nicholson has done a lot of it--comes to us throught the medium of a strong personality. With Streep, even though there's always the contrapuntal pleasure in the presence of Streep herself, the foreground is the woman she is playing.

"Oddly, this could make Nicholson seem the lesser of the two. In Ironweed both Nicholson and Streep play alcoholic bums (the script's term), and both give performances that originate deep within, that are ruled by truths, not by cliche [accent gr.] or exhibitionism. But to some, Streep might seems to be more successful because we're less aware of Streep. This is unfair to Nicholson. He has a narrower range than his co-star, but within that range, which he keeps trying to widen, he works just as validly. He oughtn't to be rated lower just because of that little game I mentioned at the outset.

"Not that their roles in Ironweed are so difficult. Extremities of character are easier than subtle shadings. Christine Lahti's role in Housekeeping is harder than Streep's here. The two Ironweed parts are, for good actors, so easy that they have to be careful: not to score effects but to create people. (Any cutup at a party can "act" a rolling drunk.) Nicholson legitimizes his performance. . . . As for Streep . . ., you can hear what booze has done to a cultivated voice, you can see the evidence of shame--not apparent in Nicholson--in her twitching mouth and shifty eyes. She can't even look St. Joseph straight in the eye when she prays to him.

"Good work from the two stars, then, if not especially taxing for them; but what for? Very little purpose. The whole film is an elaboration of a state that exists when it begins. . . .

"Kennedy's Romeo and Juliet of gutters and cheap bars wander--in 1938--around the city where they grew up, Albany, New York. . . . Supposedly implicit in this story is either social-psychological pressure that the pair can't withstand or a scabby integrity in clinging to life at tis lowest available level; or both. In my view, neither.

"Nicholson is given reasons for his condition . . .; and his background is plentifully daubed in. Streep's character gets less background than his in the novel and even less in the film: we know mainly that she was a musician and comes from middle-class quality. . . . The result is that . . . Streep is in limbo. But both characters are sentimental aggregates of attitudes, rather than individuals.

".... [W]hen the film finishes, we're not much further along with Nicholson's character or Streep's than we were after the first 20 minutes."

Stanley Kauffmann
New Republic, date ?

David Denby

".... Even the formidable Meryl Streep, as a well-born woman who has drigted to the bottom, is stymied. Streep uses a coarse, low, washboard voice and a lurching walk, and she sings, in a bar, with game, tuneless determination, but she can't pull the courageous acting flourishes together into something that seems like a person. Babenco doesn't frame her performance and bring her out. The aura of hopelessness that hangs over Ironweed derives as much from the inept moviemaking as it does from the aimless, dream-tormented lives of the alcoholic bums onscreen."

David Denby
New York, January 4, 1988

David Thomson

. . . . [Regarding Postcards from the Edge,] Streep is not easily small, abject, or a discard . . . . Indeed, given the assignment, she may magnify failure until it becomes magnificent and operatic--for example, Ironweed . . . She has such problems now with seeming natural.

. . . . Ironweed might have worked on stage--on film it felt dead and studied.

[In the entry on Hector Babenco, Thomson wrote, "[G]iven William Kennedy's Ironweed, he went for exactly the wrong starry cast and blurred the implacable firmness in Kennedy's book."]

David Thomson
A Biographical Dictionary of Film,
Third Edition (1994),
pp. 722-723, p. 36

Pauline Kael

"Nicholson drops his voice down so heroically low he even has to talk slowly. And Meryl Streep, who is Francis's hobo crony Helen, forces her voice down deep, too. The only moments of reprieve from the reverential slowness come when Streep sings "He's Me Pal" in the all-out, sentimental-Irish manner of a balladeer of a decade or two earlier. It's a spectacular re-creation of the old technique for "selling a song," and Streep's vibrancy lifts the film's energy level. The moviemakers immediately lower it when the song is revealed to be Helen's fantasy. (The "reality" we're given is too bitter, too crude; it would have been far more effective if something of Helen's former skill still came through.)...."

Pauline Kael
Hooked, pp 420-421

David Edelstein

"Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson evidently like each other a great deal, but they shouldn't act together any more because their styles don't mesh. Streep makes a point of going to a role, and making you well aware of the distance between her and it [I disagree]--and, thus, of the prodigiousness of her feat. Jack Nicholson brings a role to himself; you watch him and say, "That's Jack," even if the role he's playing differs substantially from other roles he has played. Watching the two of them in a scene, you have to refocus constantly to make them fit together: you look at Nicholson, and you want to be close enough to study his face; then you look at Streep, and you want to leap back to the second balcony, the better to savor her formidable theatrics.

"A good director might have minimized these differences--or even acknowledge them and made them a source of comedy--but in Ironweed the two have been left to their own devices, and as performers, they flail and expire...."

[I don't have second page of review]
David Edelstein
Village Voice, December 22, 1987