Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor FAQ (Updated 2/18/14)
Order the book from Amazon now!
Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor, a book commissioned by Cahiers du Cinema and written by me, was published on January 6 by Phaidon. It has received many nice writeups, and excerpts have been published by Vanity Fair and RogerEbert.com.
You may have questions. Here are some answers.
1. So, what’s the deal with this thing? Is it a biography?
I consider it to be a work of longform film criticism. I did a wealth of research to familiarize myself with Meryl Streep’s life and its relationship to her work, but it’s not a biography, authorized or otherwise. There are ten chapters, and each is essentially a long piece of film criticism focused on a specific performance in a single production, the period it represented in Streep’s life and career, and its impact on Streep’s own stardom and the wider landscape of opportunity for women in Hollywood. In short, it’s an analysis of Streep’s career, written by a film critic, in a fully-illustrated, coffee table-ready package.
2. What are the ten films?
3. What sets your book apart from the hundreds of other Meryl Streep books on the market?
Actually, there are not hundreds of other Meryl Streep books on the market; SimplyStreep, an incredibly detailed and frequently updated fan site, has a summary of the offerings, and if you’re looking for something in-print and in English, the pickings are slim.
That said, as far as I can tell, my book is the first lengthy study of Streep as a feminist artist. I chose these ten films in part because each represents a kind of historical fiction about women, and in the book, I make the case that Streep’s body of work often seems to function as a kind of alternative history of the 20th century from a female perspective. I argue that her choice of roles, her process and the results are frequently actually quite radical, even (or especially) when the projects themselves seem on the surface to be fully mainstream or even conservative in nature. So, there’s that.
4. Okay, you’ve sold me! How can I buy it?
Order the book now from Amazon. Or, even better, you could ask your local independent bookstore to order it. The publisher is Phaidon and the ISBN-13 is: 978-0714866697.
5. I’m a critic/journalist, and/or I have a blog/podcast/radio show, and I would love to get a free copy for review, and/or so I can interview you. What should I do?
That’s great! Email me at karina dot longworth at gmail dot com, with your mailing address and your outlet. I will pass your information along to my publisher, they will send you a review copy, and then you can email me again once you’re ready to talk about it.
6. I have a movie theater/screening series/bookstore/other place and I would like to show some Meryl Streep movies/host a book reading or Q&A/throw some kind of event or party in honor of your book release. Can we make that happen?
ABSOLUTELY! Email me at karina dot longworth at gmail dot com and I’ll help out in any way I can.
7. Can you introduce me to Meryl?
8. Who are you, anyway?
I used to be a full-time film critic, at the Village Voice and LA Weekly, and now I’m a freelance writer/researcher/journalist. Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor is my third book, and I have two others underway. Here’s more info about me.
This Week in Meryl-Mania
Exciting things have been happening!
This week, I talked about Meryl on Q, the Canadian radio program which is distributed in the US via PRI. I also recorded a segment for the Film School Rejects Broken Projector Podcast. Due to a scheduling mess-up on my end, I had to record the podcast sitting outside Cafe Vita in Los Feliz. On garbage day. Enjoy the ample background noise!
But the big event of the week was the series of screenings I programmed at the New Beverly Cinema, which went splendidly. It was super exciting to see and meet so many people who were excited about movies like She-Devil, Death Becomes Her and Postcards From the Edge. Talking about these types of forgotten or lesser thought-of moments in Streep’s career was a big motivation for me to write the book, and it was great to see that I wasn’t alone in wanting to hear these stories and rediscover these movies.
Also, there was this:
I’d love to do more of these types of events. If anyone out there is affiliated with a theater and would like to do some sort of Streep screening, email me at karina dot longworth at gmail dot com, and we can get something going.
Finally, right now I’m gearing up to talk about the book with my friend/Los Angeles Times critic and reporter Mark Olsen, at Book Soup on Tuesday. This is the last local event I have scheduled for awhile, so please come! We will laugh and chat and probably have drinks after.
Meryl Streep vs. Pauline Kael
I was asked to contribute an essay for an anthology about Pauline Kael to be published by Scarecrow Press. The editor of the book, Wayne Stengel, graciously allowed me to post the essay I submitted here. If it by any chance it piques your curiosity about Sophie’s Choice, come see the film tonight or tomorrow at the New Beverly Cinema.
The great, lasting gift of Pauline Kael’s body of work may be its unfailing ability to provoke debates and disputes, but there remain a few aspects of her film criticism that are indisputable. Without question, she was a great observer of performers, one who made her habit using her reviews to detail her ongoing relationship (not physical, maybe, but definitely emotional) to a star across their various movies. And, more than anyone else of her time (or maybe even any time), she was a critic who related watching movies to having a body and feeling desire. Look at the titles of her books: I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Going Steady. She called Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice “whorey” in the same breath as praising it as “the liveliest American comedy so far this year.” At a college-town lecture, she countered a question about her controversial review of Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart with a question of her own: “Do you remember your first fuck?” She fought unsuccessfully to review Deep Throat in the New Yorker, and later capped off her famous rave of the X-rated Last Tango in Paris by admitting Bertolucci’s film “has made the strongest impression on me in almost twenty years of reviewing.” She was forever drawn to performers and films which, as she put it admiringly of Henry James’ The Bostonians, had “sex right there at the center.”
As Kael’s biographer Brian Kellow put it, the critic “generally preferred actors “who conveyed some kind of ripe sensuality, inflected with a certain craziness or messiness.” Just as intensely as she praised an actor like Marlon Brando for his sexual presence on screen, Kael could sharpen her knives on performers who she felt didn’t use their bodies to the fullest. One actress whose physicality made her a Kael bete noir was Meryl Streep.
Kael first noticed Streep in The Deer Hunter, and actually singled the actress out for praise (calling her “a real beauty…[who] doesn’t do anything standard; everything seems fresh”) in what was otherwise an incensed pan of Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War film. In her 1980 essay “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers,” Kael went on to wholly dismiss two Streep films, Kramer vs. Kramer and The Seduction of Joe Tynan, as fantasies for “over-age flower children,” but waited until reviewing Karel Reiss’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman to consider Streep as a body on screen. The verdict? “She’s pallid and rather glacial,” Kael sniffed of the actress, who by this point had won an Oscar for Kramer (just her second major film role) and had occupied a cover of Newsweek in January 1980 under the headline “A Star for the ‘80s.” Kael went on: “Meryl Streep’s technique doesn’t add up to anything. We’re not fascinated by [her character]; she’s so distanced from us that all we can do is observe how meticulous Streep— and everything else about the movie— is.” Streep’s unsatisfactory physique came up again in Kael’s review of Still of the Night in 1982, in which she essentially compared Streep to a corpse, claiming the actress didn’t “resemble a living person; her face is gaunt, her skin has become alabaster.” But the piece de resistance — the moment when Kael’s scrutiny of Streep’s physicality no longer seemed happenstance or accidental — came with her review of the film that would net Streep her second Oscar in three years, Sophie’s Choice:
Meryl Streep = Katherine Hepburn + Kathleen Hanna
Vanity Fair's newly-relaunched Hollywood blog is running an excerpt today from my book, Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor, preceded by a brief Q&A with yours truly. In the excerpt (which is drawn from two different chapters), I try to explain why the film industry and the audiences weren’t ready for Streep’s first attempts at comedy (which included movies like Death Becomes Her, Heartburn, Postcards From the Edge and She-Devil, all of which are due for reappraisal), and then go on to detail what had changed by the late-00s, when the 60-ish Streep became Hollywood’s most reliable summer comedy box office draw. In the Q & A, I set the stage a little bit for the excerpt, and also justify the seemingly needlessly provocative title of this post. This was fun to do; the best thing about writing a book like this is when you finally get to talk about the things you’ve been thinking about for months alone in a room.
In more book news, I want to apologize to anyone who has pre-ordered or ordered the book from Amazon and not received it, and/or has received conflicting or confusing emails about the shipping status. If they ask you to confirm that you still want the book, please do so. My publisher says they’re working to fix the problem.
And/or, it looks like you’re going to be able buy the book in person at the New Beverly screenings next week. So come!
Meryl Streep, last night at the National Board of Review awards, interrupting her presentation of an award to Saving Mister Banks' Emma Thompson by taking Walt Disney to task for being a sexist and a racist.
This would be an incredible thing for any actress, especially one of Streep’s stature, to do. It’s especially extraordinary when considered as the endgame of an entire career that’s been devoted to being a vehicle so that female characters could speak as loudly and on the same level as their male counterparts. But as I argue in my book (available now!), for a long time, Streep’s (for lack of a better term) feminist activism was hidden from audiences; it took place behind the scenes, in the roles she chose, the way she approached them, and the fights she would undertake in defense of fair portrayal of her characters within an industry in which at least low-level misogyny is usually the norm rather than the exception. Only in recent years, having become both an elder stateswoman and an unlikely box office queen, has Streep really started to come out, as it were, as the rebel that she’s always been, to put forward a new persona as a crusader against a fucked-up male-dominated status quo that’s maybe better now than it was decades ago (in Disney’s day, or the beginning of Streep’s days), but by no means snuffed out completely.
And if you can find me a picture of Streep delivering this speech (allegedly whilst wearing a promotional trucker cap bearing the slogan “Prize Winner”), I will send you a free poster or t-shirt.
UPDATE: A transcript of Streep’s full speech is available at Vulture. Still no photos.