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Jeff Simon: 'Big Little Lies' finally showed us why you hire Meryl Streep

Jeff Simon

Forget Mies van der Rohe. Sometimes you have to listen to Cecil B. DeMille. In other words, less isn't always more; sometimes only more is more.

If HBO was going to force a whole new season out of the Emmy-winning "Big Little Lies" -- as the premium cable grandees did with original novelist Liane Moriarty and all the principals in front of and behind the camera -- they knew they needed a big, juicy new ingredient to make it work.

Voila. To what was already a terrific, all-star cast of TV and movie actresses, they got the godmother of them all, Meryl Streep, to join Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz. As almost anyone might say, "Now it was a party."

They gave Streep the newly conceived and written role of Mary Louise, the California welterweight champion of passive aggression and the mother of the marital monster who used to beat Kidman's character until one of her friends pushed him down a flight of stairs to his much-applauded death.

I love it when virtuoso actors are hired to play characters whose most obvious qualities are behavioral reserve and lacerating self-control. Think, in years past, of Olivier in "Term of Trial," and Anthony Hopkins in "The Remains of the Day."

So Streep arrived in the cast of "Big Little Lies" as the mother of the mini-series' now-dead major villain -- the fellow who didn't just indulge in rough sex but who made regular beatings an uxorial habit. All of us "Big Little Lies" fans at home immediately asked ourselves, "What kind of mother raises a grown man like that?"

So the show's answer in the second season that acclaim and popularity forced was Streep.

Whose performance started right out to be a virtuoso turn of passive aggression -- close-in but aggrieved and insistent on making someone, anyone at all if not everyone -- pay for her unlamented son's death, even if he often acted privately like the Godzilla of Monterey, Calif.

But, but, but ...

Anyone who has ever seen a movie knew you don't hire Streep without getting a scene before the thing is over. You know -- a little bit of pyrotechnics so the great woman can, in effect, echo the declaration first made by Chevy Chase on "Saturday Night Live": "I'm Meryl Streep and you're not."

In this particular high-octane sorority, they all waited for the moment when Streep would roar.

Of course, we all did during a face-off between Streep and Kidman, whose turn previously won her an Emmy. Streep was playing the creepy grandmother trying to wrest custody of her twin 5-year old grandkids away from daughter-in-law Kidman, the lawyer whose major sin was that she couldn't keep her brutal psychopathic husband alive.

Kidman, you see, was allowed to question Streep on the witness stand. A professional woman, then, was arrayed against an older woman who had only been a mother in life and clearly had done a godawful job of that.

Before the big scene was over, there it was -- a few seconds of breakdown on the stand where a truly great actress allowed us to see what happens when a concrete behavioral wall 3 feet thick allowed a sudden crack to turn, briefly, into a window on the violent and miserable hell within.

That's what people pay Streep the big bucks for.

Along with that, though, there was a subtext. I didn't really register it until I read a tweet by the great omni-critic James Wolcott who was, at the Village Voice, one of the best TV critics America ever had.

He took a good hard look at Streep's appearance in "Big Little Lies" -- hair style, scarf worn demurely amid a community of outrageously conspicuous consumption -- and pronounced her a ringer for the late film critic Pauline Kael, the sympathetic but not always faithful player on Team Meryl (Kael once said Streep had made a career out of always seeming to overcome being miscast).

Leave it to one of the great TV critics to take note of subtleties in Streep's performance most would be likely to miss.

As much as I couldn't resist the climactic Kidman-Streep face-off we all waited an entire mini-series for, I was much more impressed by another moment in "Big Little Lies:" when one of the mini-series' great plot revelations -- a stupid husband's secret long-term love affair with the family's young nanny -- was revealed by her when she was standing in the rear of a crowded bankruptcy court listening to all the claimants to the money he owed from the court's adjudicator.

The camera didn't rush in for a big "hey look at this" dramatic closeup -- not of the young nanny claimant or of anyone else. It kept her at a distance in the short run to let the fact of what she was saying sink in to reveal what a mega-jerk that husband was.

Then, after a few seconds when everyone privately did the math and connected the dots, came a quick cut and the subsequent marital explosion in the car ride home where wife Laura Dern became the one actress in the entire mini-series allowed to have a high-test marital tirade.

In closeup -- unlike the revelation that caused it, which never altered from being glimpsed on the fly a large room away.

It was that sort of slyness that made the sequel to "Big Little Lies" as good as it was.

. . .

Speaking of slyness, CBS' running of "The Good Fight" on its conventional network Sunday schedule is slyly allowing loosened sexual content to pass by with no italicizing whatsoever. The show -- whose predecessor, "The Good Wife," was created by the husband and wife team of Robert and Michelle King -- was always bound to share its forerunner's attitude toward sexual variety in marriage and other male-female encounters.

What is unusual in "The Good Fight" is the show -- which was originally designed for streaming -- is using, in passing, street colloquialisms for activities most network shows prefer not to know about.

It's an interesting example of what happens when women are prominently involved in executive capacities as opposed to what Emily Nussbaum calls in "I Like to Watch" the purveyors of "male genius TV" (e.g., The Three Davids of HBO -- David Simon, David Milch and David Chase, along with grand wizard Norman Lear, who always preferred their content liberations were accompanied by brass bands, defensive news conferences and arguments on morning television).

The whole point of being a grown-up after all is that you don't have to thump your chest and stand on top of your desk to prove the worth of innovation. You just communicate quietly with other grown-ups and watch to see innovation spread, as it almost always does.

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