My latest — and possibly most controversial — column on AMC Filmcritic.com:
Meryl Streep has been raking in awards and nominations for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. But accolades for best picture, best director, or best script? Zip.
That’s the conventional wisdom on The Iron Lady: Streep deserves the Oscar for playing the British Prime Minister, but director Phyllida Lloyd does not craft a movie equal to the performance. That’s typically when someone snorts that Lloyd also directed the critically panned Mamma Mia! Reality check:
Not only did that musical showcase a bold, silly, sexy, singing Streep, it was also her all-time biggest money-maker, grossing $610 million worldwide.
No one expects that kind of global take for Streep’s current biopic. The Oscar winner is consistently so fantastic that when she channels Thatcher, political icon and real woman, audiences tend to be a little jaded about her talent. What can’t this actress do?
Still, as Thatcher, Streep faces steep resistance: Few liked Maggie — at least not publicly. She was the cod liver oil of politicians, nasty but effective. Working with Lloyd, Meryl creates a monumental woman in sensible shoes, from early ambition to late dementia. She takes this Tory tyrant and creates if not a feminist role model then a formidable woman who refused to wash the teacups of the lesser men around her, and boldly went where no Englishwoman had gone before: 10 Downing Street.
Streep herself defined the challenge inherent in playing a powerful woman onscreen: “There’s no part like this because there’s no woman like this. I’m going to turn that down because I don’t like her politics? My God,” Streep told Donna Freydkin of USA Today, “Part of what interested me about this whole thing was seeing why we are so uncomfortable on a certain level with women leaders and with their male partners feeling diminished. It’s an interesting thing for us to contemplate.”
More than 20 years after her political reign, Thatcher’s detractors remain impassioned. And her legacy is controversial. In 2009, Harriet Harman, the deputy leader of the liberal Labour government, released a fact sheet celebrating “Women in Power: Milestones.” Oops! The list omitted Thatcher’s name. Another reality check: Maggie was the longest-presiding British P.M. in the twentieth century, winning three general elections, as well as being the first woman to lead the Conservative Party and to become Prime Minister.
What we have here is a controversial woman in power (and a meaty character onscreen) whose rise was all the more remarkable because she was a grocer’s daughter who attended Oxford University, where she got an incredible education in both academics and class snobbery. Thatcher as written (and in reality) was a woman, wife, mother, and leader who drove her own destiny. She was a women’s libber role model without embracing the feminist movement.
Sophisticated audiences of both sexes would like to believe that they are undeterred by the prospect of a powerful woman. However, the cries that this movie should confront Thatcherite politics and her ideology miss the point. It’s a telling sign of resistance to a movie where a woman is unabashedly carrying the narrative.
Much like Stephen Frears’s 2006 Oscar-nominated The Queen, which delivered Helen Mirren a best actress Oscar, The Iron Lady constructs a very personal look back at a living legend’s private life and public career. In this case, it’s seen through the lens of a widowed, out-of-power Thatcher recalling the past subjectively through the lens of dementia. Nothing could make this chosen point-of-view clearer than the opening scene, when the elderly, anonymous Thatcher wanders out to buy milk and is shocked by the current price of a pint — and her disrespectful treatment by fellow customers. We meet this once-powerful character at a point of intense yet mundane vulnerability, and we empathize. The scene succeeds because Streep, too, seeks anonymity within the role. She disappears, humanizing the public figure in these private moments.
A parallel situation was the reception to Oliver Stone’s 2008 W. Critical reaction to this brilliant film with a terrific title performance by Josh Brolin as George W. Bush was filtered through writers’ understandable resistance to embrace the man and sacrifice political pieties. At Filmcritic.com, the DVD review led with politics: “As President Bush’s second term winds down and the race for 2008 spins at fevered pace, now is the time to make a statement — reflecting on the failures of the current administration and projecting our hopes for the next. Oliver Stone’s W. is not that statement.” The truth was: Stone wanted to give us the man and his psychology, not the straw man or the messiah. No Oscar there, but plenty of critical censure.
Resistance to The Iron Lady as a whole, rather than simply a single Streep performance, reflects
unspoken but existing conflicts. Liberal viewers are not supposed to like this woman, but if we get wrapped up in the story as we should, then we do. If we deny her humanity, what does that say about our own politics? If women can’t recognize her struggle to make a difference outside the home simply because her beliefs are at odds with ours, what does that say about our notions of inclusiveness? Love her or hate her, Thatcher was the rare decisive woman in power who fearlessly took unpopular and difficult stands that she thought right, darn the costs of popularity among voters, the media, and her colleagues.
In light of Stone’s W., it may also suffer from a gender-neutral problem in American politics, where we have become so polarized, and self-centered, that we lose sight of the humanity of the opposition — male or female — when they fail to confirm our own convictions.
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