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Thursday
Jan042018

Months of Meryl: A gossipy debut in Julia (1977)  

Presenting a new weekly series that we know you'll love since Meryl always perks you up. This one is modelled after Anne-Marie's "A Year with Kate" series (Anne-Marie will be back soon with a new series) so it's extra delicious that Meryl's first movie character was named Anne Marie! And now I turn you over to John and Matt. -Nathaniel R

Hi, we’re John and Matt and we are watching every single feature film starring Meryl Streep.

Meryl Streep is the Greatest Actress of All Time. Even those who have never seen a single performance of hers know this woman as, perpetually, the Best Actress. Her career is staggering. Her talent limitless. Her influence infinite. We don’t need to sell these claims, especially here. Dissenters there may be, but the choir roars. We kneel at her altar.

Meryl has acted in 52 feature films. If ever there was ever a body of work that deserves a thorough and complete look, we can think of few others than Meryl Streep’s filmography. Thus, Months of Meryl!

Now, there are a few stipulations. We are choosing to exclude her television projects, which includes Emmy-winning performances in the miniseries Holocaust (1978) and Angels in America (2003). And while we are aware that voice acting is, indeed, acting, we won’t be writing about A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), The Ant Bully (2006), or Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), among others. That doesn’t mean we won’t be watching these performances, but the project works quite beautifully, and evenly, when only considering her 52 live-action film roles, one per week.

Meryl made her screen debut opposite a total icon and Oscar darling. Fitting, that.It’s important to note that in her first few moments ever on screen, Meryl Streep — modern-day acting heroine, patron saint of thespians, Greatest of All Time — gets as cold a shoulder as one can humanly imagine.

#1 Anne Marie, a prodding New York socialite.

JOHN: Fred Zinnemann’s misty 1977 drama Julia chronicles a heroically daring yet factually dubious mission made by Lillian Hellman (played with unusual indecisiveness by Jane Fonda), in which the legendary playwright manages to outwit the Nazis and smuggle thousands of dollars to her lifelong friend Julia (the otherworldly, Oscar-winning Vanessa Redgrave), an incurable radical attempting to save as many lives as possible in fascist Europe.

As Anne Marie, a gossipy Manhattan socialite, Meryl appears at the midpoint of Julia, just as Hellman gets her first taste of professional triumph with the 1934 Broadway premiere of The Children’s Hour, a success that will soon become eclipsed by (unseen) creative failures and Julia’s pivotal mission.

MATTHEW: Meryl was barely two years out of the Yale School of Drama and had little more than a TV movie about a tragic hockey accident under her belt at the time of Julia’s production. Evidently green and unaccustomed to the technical particulars of film acting, she was literally taught how to hit on-camera cues from a peak-era Jane Fonda, who saw a future legend standing in her frame and preached The Gospel of Streep around Los Angeles upon returning home from Julia’s British shoot. (Fonda also famously fought — without success — to get Meryl cast in her Vietnam drama of 1978, Coming Home, in the eventually Oscar nominated part of the good-time gal that would go to Penelope Milford. I cannot even remotely envision Meryl in such a tart and blowsy role, but her brush with the movie remains a delectable story regardless.)


JOHN: Meryl’s memories of filming Julia are much more fun than the wispy performance itself, though I do admire that in her first, tiny part, Meryl basically refuses to be cast aside. A frivolous foil to Jane Fonda’s selfless socialite, Anne Marie stands in for a posh upper crust too preoccupied to interfere with the horrors of World War II. Is it unfair to pile all that contempt onto one woman? Probably. Meryl is loud and ditzy and wears a large hat and decides that making an impression, any impression, is better than slipping by unnoticed. It’s a quick, thankless role for her to play with, even if the performance itself might read, occasionally, as too broad and gimmicky. It’s prophetic that in her first-ever film scene, Meryl is congratulating another woman on her success. What incredible fortune, also, to have your debut be an Oscar juggernaut, alongside two of filmdom’s finest actresses.

MATTHEW: We first catch Meryl in long shot, attached to a witchy black wig that never quite looks natural. She ducks in and out of the applauding group of theatergoing cognoscenti crowding the tables at Sardi’s as Lillian finally makes her arrival, palpably unnerved by the eager ovation. As she passes through the throng, Meryl’s Anne Marie darts up and latches on to the woman of the hour with embarrassingly gauche enthusiasm. Who the fuck is this woman? Eve Harrington without the talent or mystery? Meryl blabbers some good wishes, only to find her moment interrupted as Lillian, frozen with disdain, nonchalantly strolls away, aided by some hangers-on who seem to all but rip Fonda and Streep apart, without even a word exchanged between the two. What follows next is probably the finest moment of this condensed debut as Meryl lifts her hand to her hip and taps a skittish finger on her lips, tracing Lillian’s path yet standing in her wake in such a deliciously specific embodiment of mortified nonplus.

In all honesty, I’m not sure Julia necessarily needed this untested stage actress with the name that everyone apparently found so unusual. Meryl’s first film would be a source of fascination even if it was ABBA: The Movie, but I can’t say for certain that I would have particularly remembered this performance had I been a regular, unacquainted filmgoer circa 1977. She doesn’t cast an imposing shadow over the rest of the movie, or even the ensuing scenes, although this is more a fault of Alvin Sargent’s difficult and prevaricating screenplay, which prohibits even some of Julia’s more focal performers from achieving complete characterizations, aside from the magnificent, movie-making Redgrave. Even so, I don’t immediately see the signs of a an unrevealed force of nature or a bravura natural with an immediate feel for cinematic interpretation in Meryl’s few minutes of screentime. She definitely squeezes as much juice as she can from her second and final scene, standing at a bar with Fonda and making lots of flimsily-veiled insinuations about Julia and her like-minded progressives, impetuously running off to fight alongside the Spanish revolutionaries. She’s catty but soft-jawed, a flibbertigibbet without filter. Meryl imbues the exchange with a credibly opposing perspective and she manages to level the playing field with her superstar scene partner — no small feat for a nervous first-timer — but it’s telling that the most interesting thing we learn about Anne Marie comes much later in the picture, in a luridly-detailed scene where Meryl doesn’t even appear!

JOHN: In a flashback, Anne Marie’s brother Sammy brags about having sex with his sister, to Lillian’s shock. He then accuses Lillian and Julia of being romantically intimate, to which Lillian slaps him, overturns a table, and storms out of the bar. Can you imagine what a different film Julia would be if Anne Marie and Sammy had more screentime, or if the film actually confronted this unspoken dimension of Lillian and Julia’s relationship? Meryl’s ditsy routine seems, in retrospect, just the tip of some insane sexual iceberg, sadly obscured from our view. I blame a cagey script and timid direction for this sprightly but superficial debut. In her first role, Meryl certainly did not possess the self-assurance nor opportunity to flesh out an underwritten part with her own colorful interior, a feat she would pull off very shortly.

Reader, do you remember Streep’s first appearance on the silver screen? Will you play along with the series? Which films are you most looking forward to either watching or re-watching?

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Reader Comments (36)

WOWEE!!! This is going got be a fun and interesting series.

January 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commentergrrr

Thank you John and Matt for creating this weekly series! What w welcome addition to 2018 and the Film Experience. I am a huge Streep fan ( as many on this site are aware) and am very happy that Streep’s filmography will be discussed and analyzed.

A couple thoughts on Julia-
Love how Streep seems to be on equal pairing with Fonda in that scene and how so much is communicated through Stree’s physicality- the scene is short but memorable.
Love Redgrave is this film-
I also admit that I only caught the incest conversation the last time I saw the movie and I actually thought I had confused what had been said between him and Fonda.

January 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Memory is elusive but I thought Streep was disappointed that her scenes were cut up and presented out of order, but she loved Jane who answered her questions about screen acting. The scene in Julia with Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda where Lillian learns Vanessa named her daughter Lily is classic.

January 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarie

Thank you guys!!! Now I have something to really look forward to every week! Absolutely perfect!

January 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

I LOVE YOU MERYL!
As good as she is, Julia belongs to the one and only Vanessa Redgrave in one of the best wins ever for Best Supporting Actress.
Isn't it weird that the titular character is actually a supporting role?

January 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

This series is the best present ever !! Thank you for undertaking this review of the fabulous Meryl Streep. I love the idea and will definitely be following every week.

I saw "Julia" in the theatre and only had eyes for Fonda & Redgrave. It was the scenes with Redgrave which were the best. I had no real impression of Streep as an actress, she was merely an irritating character I disliked.
However Jane Fonda did an major interview with Ms. magazine where she complimented Meryl Streep by name. That was gracious of her and was the first indication of the talent that would burst on the scene.

January 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

While I don't think she's the greatest actress of all time (an impossible thing to judge anyway) she is often a very fine one and this will be an interesting series to follow.

I'm looking forward to the weeks of her less publicized films such as Plenty and The River Wild more than her big ticket titles which have been well examined already.

I do remember her scenes from this. I saw it in the theatre on its initial release and by the time it came out Meryl was being touted as one of the hot new Bright Young Things and her role in this referenced frequently in articles. The role didn't ask much of her and I wasn't bowled over especially with Jane Fonda and especially Vanessa Redgrave both making such a magnetic showing in the film.

January 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I'll enjoy this series too. Thank you for this first installment!

January 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I agree with you that the Greatest Actress of All Time appears in Julia but you've got the wrong one. ;)

Over the years, too much has been said about Meryl's debut in Julia. To the point that it can only underwhelm. If you've never seen Julia, keep your expectations *very* low and you'll enjoy Meryl's star-is-born moment. She's fine but the part is...not much.

Too much can *never* be said about Redgrave here. It's a performance touched by god.

Fonda, on the other hand, doesn't get the credit she deserves for this performance. It's the epitome of everything she does well onscreen—and she carries every frame.

January 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

Death Becomes Her and She Devil.

January 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

This should be fun, and I too, look forward to her "lesser" works, like "Still of the Night", "Death Becomes Her", and "One True Thing".

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

I've never seen this film. I look forward to reading about works I am not familiar with, which is most of her '80s Oscar noms. (What the hell is Ironweed?)

Looking forward to the Nora Ephron movies and She-Devil. A friend and I watched it last month and it was SO BAD yet had so much potential.

Does this mean Pfeiffdom will come back too?

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

This is a very brief debut. Meryl is good. But she's in a movie with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave doing some of their greatest work. The next year, in the TV miniseries Holocaust, Meryl truly got the chance to get audiences thirsty for her role in The Deer Hunter. She's great in that series.

Please focus an episode on One True Thing, one of her most layered performances. She's had many MANY Oscar nods that were undeserved. This, which has eluded discussion, is not one of them.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I am not at the Trump Wagon, but in one thing he is right: Meryl is so overrated at these days!!! I love the younger Meryl, but for me she is not embodying her charakters anymore, she is acting them. For that is not the definition of the greatest actress alive. And in such a compative actress field this and last years its a shame, she is always nominated and it looks like bette davis, katherine hepburn & Co. doesnt have existed. Meryls Record come totaly insane.

I know I will get some haters here, cause i am in the minority of that opinion, but so it is. ;-)

But I think this series will be intersting, but I so hope that the academy give other actresses a shot this year.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

Meryl knew
and she took the Oscar

Hillary knew
and she took the check

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMaya Angelove

Very excited for this series. I'm a fan of hers but I saw the film and completely forgot she was in it and didn't even notice her in it. Not a great performance but doesn't matter, she'd have a handful waiting in the wings.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSteve_Man

I would have preferred a Holly Hunter appreciation
or a Vanessa Redgrave
or a Celia Weston

or anyone else.

Maya you inspire me, girl!

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I'm glad a few people here mentioned One True Thing. When it first came out here, almost every local critic thrashed her performance saying it was bland and nothing out of the ordinary. I even recall another critic said her Oscar nom was given to her out of pity that her career was on the decline (I hate that critic anyway...he's a misogynist). But I thought it was one of her nuanced performances, sublime, moving, restrained when it needed to and explosive when warranted. In fact, I voted her second only to Cate Blanchett for Elizabeth during that Oscar year. By the way, I just watched The Post and I must say she has given one of more quiet portrayals in years. I like Meryl when she plays understated like in One True Thing, The Post and Bridges of Madison County.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJans

One True Thing will always make my Top 5.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

This is good but I want Nat's Pfeiffer reviews.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDONUK

Even though we've had Meryl examined quite a bit, I'll Meryl-ly go with this series over Pfeiffer Pfest (don't care to look up the title) which gave me Pfatigue faster than expected.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLana

Caught this a few years ago, and this is the only time I've seen a Meryl performance where you can see the wheels turning, can see her thinking about what to do next. It's effortful, when usually her performances are so effortless. (Not to say this is a bad thing, just a radical departure from what I'm used to with her.)

Looking forward to the series!

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJames from Ames

Wow! This is an exciting new series. Looking forward to read about my two favorite Streep performances, Death Becomes Her and Postcards from the Edge!

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterHemingaway

Mark -- i hope to return to them but the last quarter of 2017 proved one of the most challenging times of my entire life.... life has not been kind to me of late so we'll see if i can get back on my feet! I miss being a fully functional productive creative busy person.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'm very excited for this project! I have seen almost all of her films - I guess I should get cracking on the ones I haven't seen. (Mamma Mia, unbelievably, Suffragette, Dark Matter, A Series of Unfortunate Events.)

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Cannot wait for your thoughts on SHE-DEVIL! :)

As for JULIA, I absolutely adore the film (and think Fonda should've won Best Actress) but Streep in it has never left much of an impression on me. It's a fleeting and forgettable turn.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

Maya- would love to hear your evidence that Streep knew?

Peggy Sue- I think Streep’s longevity and ground-breaking career deserve a series to discuss/analyze? I think more people on this site are excited for the series than those who are not.

One thing that can always be counted on- if the post or article or podcast is about Streep- the haters just have to comment and come out to bring her down. :)

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

So excited for this series! Can't wait to dive in to both her HUGE performances and the performances that are not often talked about besides by cinephiles.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTD

I first saw JULIA in the early 80s (and, to be frank, haven't seen it since), so post-Sophie's Choice, but I thought Streep owned those scenes, and kind of in a scene-stealy way. But I loved her in it.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDan O

Thanks for doing this. I will enjoy for sure.

Looks like the HATERS are going to HATE.

January 5, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

"Death Becomes Her" is a such a classic horror comedy- I can't stop watching it every time it's on

January 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I would haver preferred Julianne Moore.

January 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJuanita Moore

It's actually kind of cute and relatable that in Meryl's film debut is a throw-away performance that's not really memorable at all. In this film, she's definitely a stage actress unacquainted with the intricacies of film acting.

But Vanessa Redgrave is stunning in this film. One of the greatest winners ever in supporting actress - it's almost as if she's been possessed by the spirit of Julia. Also, it's never mentioned, but Jason Robards is also terrific (and Oscar-winning) in this film.

January 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

This is a nice filmography to work on. There are dull moments but there aren't as many as with other actresses. And the only problem that I have with the 52 films is that they fit so nicely for a once a week thing that it turns to be annoying only because I want more than that each week. There's always something nice to read on this site so more than once a week would've been cool. But I understand.

Anyway, I remember seeing her in Julia when I saw the film many years ago. I knew going in it was her debut. Of course I don't remember a single thing. But it really doesn't matter as she took off right the next year so this is the one time you can say "I don't remember her in that" other than her voice over work in A.I.

January 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBD

This is a nice filmography to work on. There are dull moments but there aren't as many as with other actresses. And the only problem that I have with the 52 films is that they fit so nicely for a once a week thing that it turns to be annoying only because I want more than that each week. There's always something nice to read on this site so more than once a week would've been cool. But I understand.

Anyway, I remember seeing her in Julia when I saw the film many years ago. I knew going in it was her debut. Of course I don't remember a single thing. But it really doesn't matter as she took off right the next year so this is the one time you can say "I don't remember her in that" other than her voice over work in A.I.

January 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBD

Streep was considered for the title role in this film, but the director went with Vanessa Redgrave. Casting Streep would have been a travesty in the light of Redgrave's uncompromising performance, but the very idea that she almost scored such an iconic role is integral to her participation. Obviously Fred Zinnemann sensed what the rest of the world would soon experience. The role of Anne-Marie must surely rank among the shortest "paying her dues" experiences in film history. Much later, Meryl gave an interview about her participation in this movie, recalling that she sometimes shared a car to/from the set with Redgrave, during which they had some influential conversations. The influences of both Redgrave and Fonda were at work on Meryl's future in this production, in strangely meta ways. It's a rich brew that continues to flavour the careers of Streep, Redgrave and Fonda. Don't let the small role, or the debate over the story's veracity, prevent you from watching Julia, it's a riveting film.

April 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Burge

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