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April Showers: Silkwood

The waterworks conclude with the month's last entry from abstew. And it's a doozy...

Although the most famous shower scene in the history of film may belong to Hitchcock's Psycho, no other cinematic shower has entered into pop culture, taking on a life of its own outside the film, in quite the same way as Silkwood. To take a Silkwood shower is even an entry in the urban dictionary (so you know it's legit.) But for something that has morphed into such an iconic cultural moment, it may be surprising to note that Meryl Streep only spends a little less than a minute in the film's entire two hour running time actually in the (invasive) cleansing waters. Despite its brevity, its emotional impact is palpable.

Director Mike Nichols' 1983 film is based on the true story of a chemical technician named Karen Silkwood, who worked in a nuclear power plant in Oklahoma during the 1970s. Silkwood became a whistleblower, consulting with officials in Washington, DC, when she began questioning the unethical practices of the company she worked for and what they deemed acceptable amounts of radiation exposure (um, that would be none). Once an individual becomes contaminated, they are taken away by faceless men in hazmat suits to be vigorously scrubbed clean. The first person we actually witness this happening to is Karen's co-worker Thelma (Sudie Bond).

Once Karen hears of her friend's situation, she immediately drops what she's doing (cautiously, I hope, she's handling radioactive material!) and rushes to be by her side. The older woman's screams are heard as Karen rushes into the shower stall. She's not worried about becoming contaminating herself, only concerned for Thelma's own safety. And the look on her face as she watches the men scrub is one of sympathy, but also a bit of relief that at least it's not Karen herself...

In case you couldn't tell from that very first picture where Karen is blowing a bubble while working with hazardous materials early on in the film, she doesn't take things too seriously. She really only works at the plant  because it's the only option she has. During a tour of the plant when she's called a highly trained technician by a higher-up, she can't help letting a mischievous grin spread. She's so unorganized that she doesn't even properly plan time off in advance to see her three young children that live elsewhere with their father. 

After a bit of goofing off with a birthday cake for a co-worker's birthday, Karen, who is reprimanded by her boss, returns to her work station after everyone has left to clean up the mess. After waving her hand against the monitor that detects radiation–just like she does every single day when she leaves–her worst fears come true: She is contaminated. All alone, she patiently waits for what inevitably comes next.

In contrast to the hysterics of Thelma in the earlier scene, Karen seems to have resigned herself to the treatment. Even as the men scrub harder, she never lets out a sound only mouthing the word 'ouch' when the pain gets to her. Although she is the victim here, she seems to feel guilt as if she brought this upon herself. Earlier she had been accused of perpetrating a contamination that shut down the plant for a few days. Perhaps her resistance in allowing the pain to register is in response to the inescapable torment she'll face from her co-workers. It is useless to fight at this point. So unfazed by it all, she's even able to smoke a cigarette after it's over. It seems almost post-coital, but I'm sure the experience was less than satisfying.

But the shower is the catalyst Karen needs to find out more about what exactly happened to her. Traditionally, showers are used in films to signal a washing away of the past and there's no doubt this once devil-may-care woman has been altered by this particular shower. She is now determined to expose the company for the damages it is causing. No longer content to sit back, she is taking action.

After the incident, Karen is transferred to another department. The company is trying to shut her up, but she won't be silenced and even her former colleagues don't seem to be on her side. After telling them off, she tries to leave, but...

Wiser to the fact that any exposure to radiation is harmful, she is now pissed. This time is different than before. No longer waiting with head in hand, accepting what is to come, she stoically seethes with rage. Her eyes tearing up with thoughts of the painful shower and what must be endured. She's been there before and knows what it's about.

But this time Nichols mercifully saves us from the horrifying site and cuts to Karen in her towel. This time around, no stunned look on her face, no cigarette dangling from her freshly scoured lips, nothing but a contemptuous glare. What exactly is going on with her? Why does this keep happening? She must prevent it it from happening to her or anyone else again. Never again will she experience the humiliation and pain of the shower. If only that were the case.

Throwing herself into her crusade against the company, Karen has started to make enemies. Little does she know what danger she's already in. Entering the building as she comes into work for the morning, the radiation detector sounds.

This is serious. No longer could it be a possible break in her rubber gloves causing the contamination from a brief contact to the materials. It is, without a doubt, inside of her. Everything in the film has built to this moment. Only this time Nichols' camera does not allow us to turn away from the terrifying brutality and horror:

For what seems like an eternity, the camera uncomfortably lingers in close up on Karen's face as she is blasted with water. It is powerful filmmaking that packs an emotional punch. Once you've seen that last shower scene, you won't soon forget it. You may even have to take a Silkwood shower of your own to get it out of your mind.

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Reader Comments (15)

One of my favorite Meryl performances.

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

The best performance from Meryl Streep after Sophie's Choice. Truly remarkable

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

A brilliant performance in an extraordinary film.

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterrick

As a kid, I saw three times over a weekend. I still love it. Meryl gives me the chills singing Amazing Grace.

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

this is maybe my favorite Streep performance of all time. and the shower scene is brilliant so great choice to highlight

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It's #4 for me of her best performances, only topped by Sophie, Lindy Chamberlaine and Susan Orlean.
The shower scenes are intense, almost unbearable to watch. She tries so hard to do everything right, fight for her rights, although it leads to trouble with her personal life.
Ugh, that porch scene with Cher is also heart breaking.
"I love you Karen."
"I know."
"No Karen, I LOVE you."
And yet, through all this drama, there are times for small scenes of humor.
(she chews gum and flashes a breast!)
Why didn't it win best screenplay??? Why wasn't it nominated for BP???

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Sonja -- i wish i knew? I'm still perplexed. That was the first year where i was aware of hte Oscars through the whole year but I wasn't aware enough to know words like "traction" or "precursors" haha... and i have no idea what prevented Silkwood from those top categories BUT i take haert that it's in great company for those director nominated non BP nominated pictures that always seem to be the best movies of their year (see also: Thelma & Louise, Hud, and They Shoot Horses Don't They)

May 1, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

after sophie's choice best meryl performance truly oscar worthy

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteramir

And co-written by the brilliant Nora Ephron. What a great pick for this segment. And also my favorite Streep performance. For the record, I saw this film when it came out in the theater in Oklahoma, where I was working in the O&G industry. I still call my tiny royalty checks "Silkwood money" (but I cash them anyway).

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I just love her in this,my 83 Best Actress pick for sure,she seems so relaxed here and blends so well with CHER of all people who is also good,i'm with you Nat.

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

it's amazing how she could be sophie zawistowski and then be so completely different and just as believable as karen silkwood just a year later! 5th Oscar nomination in just 6 years and she could have arguably won each time.

oh, and every time I typed 'karen' in this piece, I kept hearing violet weston saying it. streep Oklahoma-set double feature?

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

Hopefully we'll look back on Streep's AOC nom just as fondly.

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

@Mark I think we will ... she was amazing in AOC and was not overacting ( as she did in Doubt ) ... that was the character ... I saw it 2 times on the stage with the lady who won the Tony and with Estelle P{arsons ... that IS the role requirement!!!!

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterrick

I think she deserves all her noms. That she got that much in so less time is quite astonishing. And she always brings something in her performances, she's not just sitting around. Especiallly the last years her characters got more difficult, though even she doesn't get tour der force parts anymore that are so intense as those parts early in her career. It's so easy to judge her for picking "bad" directors, but it's also a sad fact that it was someone like Phyllida Lloyd who was willing to give her a one woman show as Margaret Thatcher. For every nom since the 2000's except for TIL, she was only half leading or borderline supporting.
I'm hopeful Jonathan Demme and Diabolo Cody will give her a new tour de force part in Ricky and the Flash. The slight description of Meryl's part, an aging rock star, sound so promising.

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

One of the rare times Meryl Streep actually appears.. natural on screen. Probably her best performance.

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJacob

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