"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."
New Republic, date ?