“Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep”
By Michael Schulman
304 pages, $26.99
By Susan Wloszczyna
Which phase of Meryl Streep’s illustrious big-screen career is your favorite?
Could it be her willowy diva-in-training years in the ’70s and ’80s where she glided among such diverse roles as a small-town sweetheart (“The Deer Hunter”), a Polish survivor of Auschwitz (“Sophie’s Choice”) and a Danish author living in Kenya (“Out of Africa”) with chameleonic ease?
Maybe you prefer the transitional ’90s, when she tested out such genres as comedy (“She-Devil,” “‘Defending Your Life”), CGI-enhanced big-budget fare (“Death Becomes Her”), an action thriller (“The River Wild”) and mainstream tearjerkers (“One True Thing,” “Music of the Heart”).
Or perhaps it was her character-actor-tinged forays starting in the early 2000s, when Streep handily assumed the personas of a writer on a bizarre drug-and-sex binge (“Adaptation”), an imperious fashion-mag editor (“The Devil Wears Prada”), a stern Mother Superior (“Doubt”) and a world-famous TV chef (“Julie & Julia”).
However, little of this impressive filmography made its way into Michael Schulman’s book, “Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep.” Instead of probing who his subject is now – namely, what many believe is our greatest living actress, a title that she herself routinely pooh-poohs – Schulman, a contributor to the New Yorker, concentrates on investigating what this singular talent was before she set the Oscar-branded standard for her profession. Many of the details are supplied in Streep’s own voice, thanks to the author’s dogged quote borrowing from early newspaper, magazine and TV profiles. Insights also are provided by the nearly 80 or so acquaintances, including former boyfriends and school chums, interviewed by the author.
Yes, this is the early Meryl, when she was just a fledgling imitator of innumerable accents. And the less you know about her past, the more you are likely to be absorbed by what is revealed here. You will learn about her WASP-y postwar suburban childhood spent in Bernardsville, N.J., and how her first acting role came about when, at age 6, she played the Virgin Mary as part of a family nativity scene. It might have influenced her preference for the term “church” when describing the process she undergoes while exercising her craft.
You will discover that it was in her high school years that a 14-year-old Streep gave one of her most masterful performances after she traded in her eyeglasses for contacts, ditched the braces, and smoothed and peroxided her frizzy dull hair while reinventing herself into a glossy-magazine version of adolescent perfection. As she herself once noted, “I worked harder on this characterization, really, than anyone that I think I’ve done since.” As a result, she became the all-American teen dream – cheerleader, homecoming queen, the lead in every high school musical, someone who held numerous class offices – complete with football player beau.
Her horizons and ambitions would greatly expand, both as a bookworm scholar and as a budding second-wave feminist who now opted for more bohemian garb, once she arrived at Vassar College in 1967, just as the institution was on the verge of losing its student body’s all-women status. It was also when she truly embraced her calling as an actress after starring in August Strindberg’s incredibly challenging “Miss Julie.” She proved to be a natural and paid her dues in summer stock before heading to the high-pressure Yale School of Drama, where her innate skills constantly frustrated many of her older male teachers (basically, she didn’t need their patriarchal input) and awed such fellow students as Sigourney Weaver as well as playwrights Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein. Schulman invests as much energy into detailing the internecine conflicts at the school as he does outlining Streep’s Yale triumph as a crusty 80-year-old crone in a wheelchair who served as a narrator in a spoof of “The Brothers Karamazov.” Those who enjoy such behind-the-scenes drama will be enthralled. Others will be less so.
Destiny would swiftly lead Streep to Manhattan, where she wowed audiences in New York Shakespeare Festival productions of “Henry V,” “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Measure for Measure” before heading to Broadway in the musical “Happy End.” From there, it was a short leap to her movie debut in 1977’s “Julia” and to the 1978 TV miniseries “Holocaust,” the source of her first Emmy. Her 19-and-counting Academy Award nomination streak would begin with a supporting nomination for the 1978 best-picture winner “The Deer Hunter.”
While Schulman adds juicy context to Streep’s back story, her rise through the acting ranks reeks of success, not struggle, and the lack of adversity does not exactly make for a page turner. Anecdotes such as how, during an audition for the female lead in his 1976 remake of “King Kong,” film producer Dino De Laurentiis said to his son in Italian, “This is so ugly! Why do you bring me this?” – a comment Streep understood after studying the language at Vassar – are well known. Also common knowledge are her conflicts with Dustin Hoffman during 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” when they both won their first Oscars.
But the emotional heart of the book – one that elevates the readability of “Her Again” considerably – arrives about halfway through when Streep meets the first great love of her life, actor John Cazale. As the Angelo to her Isabel onstage in ‘Measure for Measure,” he was as far away from a matinee idol as you could get. Schulman describes him thusly: “Spindly frame, honking nose, forehead as high as a boulder, bisected by a throbbing vein. When John set his sunken eyes on something, he could look as wounded and desperate as a dying dog.” His lean and hungry look, the sort that was valued in the gritty ’70s, would serve him well in such roles as the weak-willed Fredo in “The Godfather” and “The Godfather: Part II” along with his turn as Al Pacino’s soft-spoken partner in crime in “Dog Day Afternoon.”
He and Streep’s time together would be brief after he was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer. But they continued to live and even work together – she was determined they would both appear in “The Deer Hunter.” Her unwavering devotion and support for this shy and gentle man who would die at age 42, two years after they met, is worthy of a book all of its own. Amazingly, all six feature films that Cazale would act in would be nominated for best picture.
She would marry sculptor Don Gummer just six months after Cazale’s death. But as Pacino, Cazale’s best friend, said of Streep, “When I saw that girl there with him like that, I thought, ‘There’s nothing like that. I mean, that’s it for me.’ As great as she is in all her work, that’s what I think of when I think of her.”
Now that is one rave review.
Susan Wloszczyna is a Buffalo-raised former film critic and interviewer at USA Today. She now writes for Roger Ebert.com.