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Thursday
Oct042018

Months of Meryl: Doubt (2008)

John and Matthew are watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep. 

 

#40 —Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a nun and Catholic school principal who wages battles with a suspicious new priest.

JOHN: Arriving at John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt felt like stumbling upon a waterfall in the desert. After a fallow period marked by smallish, adequate performances in dull-to-dreadful films, Meryl Streep finally inherited a meaty, challenging role in a tony adaptation well worth her time and talent, and alongside fellow acting titans at that.

In Doubt, it is 1964, and Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) is the harsh and unforgiving principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx. Feared by most students and routinely respected by her fellow nuns, especially the younger, guileless Sister James (Amy Adams), Sister Aloysius comes to believe that a heinous crime has been perpetrated under her roof...

Sister James informs Aloysius that the affable new priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) might be inappropriately involved with her student Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the first and only black student to be admitted into their school. Flynn phones James during class to ask for Donald to meet with him alone in the rectory; Sister Aloysius is immediately convinced of Flynn’s untoward advances on the child and becomes determined to prove his misconduct and expel him from the parish.

on the set with writer/director John Patrick Shanley

In its speculative and allegorical nature, Doubt offers a demanding assignment for its actors, who are required to propel the dramatic currents of a loaded scenario with exact and precise timing, constantly revealing and reacting to changes in their perceptions of other characters. Moreover, Shanley has also conceived his characters as symbolic embodiments of historically specific upheavals in the Catholic Church, namely the progressive reforms of the Pope’s Second Vatican Council and an early wave of sexual abuse accusations in the mid-1960s. Shanley’s characters are figureheads in a timeworn battle between modernity and conservatism, compassion and discipline, and the uncertainty and conviction inherent in faith. As Sister Aloysius, Streep must represent a strict and censorious strain of traditional Christianity while also leading her righteous, steadfast cause to expel perceived abuse. The film tramsits its allegiance to Sister Aloysius so flagrantly — Shanley and cinematographer Roger Deakins make sure to frame Flynn as an inviting yet ultimately guilt-ridden and dubious character — while also scorning her as a conniving and terrifying Mother Superior. Streep’s Aloysius becomes something of a moral monster, firmly maintaining her belief in Flynn’s misdeeds even as the filmmakers fashion her as a severe, almost gothic presence.

On a more tactical level, Streep has other hazards to conquer. She must rely entirely on the faculties of her face and the clipped visibility of her hands as her entire body remains cloaked in a full-length habit that scrunches her mug back like a plastic-wrapped lemon. She dons small, wiry glasses. Her Bronx accent, unstoppable in its pitch and range, doesn’t help us take seriously a characterization often prone to ridicule and caricature. Streep heavily leans into the theatricality of her role, abandoning subtlety as Adams has steadfastly abandoned her intellect, flamboyantly vanquishing anyone who dares to question or curtail Aloysius’ mission or challenge her authority. It’s thrilling, if not exactly edifying, to watch Streep and wonder just how far she will take any given moment. How much higher will she raise her voice, and to what decibel? How strenuously will she arch her brows or tighten her lips? How awkwardly will she rattle her stillness? In spite of the overall absurdity of her performance, there is immense pleasure to be found in Streep reacting as if Hoffman has configured a bomb when he requests not one, not two, but three cubes of sugar for his tea, or when she joylessly, even militantly shoots down Adams’ suggestion that the students sing “Frosty the Snowman” at the Christmas pageant.

a wonderfully silly promo shot for a serious film

Do you share similar concerns or affection for Streep’s formidable, if limited, performance? Where do you see the actress making her own smart choices, and how else does Shanley sabotage his leading lady? 

 

MATTHEW: Placing Streep on the same screen as Hoffman, the Konstantin to her Irina in Mike Nichols’ 2001 Shakespeare in the Park production of The Seagull and a rare Streep costar of equivalent mastery, should have easily resulted in some of the most commanding film acting in recent memory. But Streep is inhibited, like everyone on screen but Hoffman, by the rigid, portentous solemnity of Shanley’s directorial vision, with its endlessly canted angles of open windows and booming telephones, and his silly, Screenwriting 101 symbols. Streep is let down not only by her director, who seems to have spent half of his budget on wind and rain machines, but by Adams, an actress I wholeheartedly adore but who is pushed here towards radiant dullness, dredging up doe-eyed whimsy in all the wrong places and playing an unambiguous innocent rather than the murky co-conspirator that the script sets her up to be. Then again, very rarely in Doubt is our gaze drawn to anyone other than Streep.

It’s clear from Aloysius’ star entrance, slinking down a church aisle during Sunday mass to snap a sleeping pupil out of his early morning stupor with God-fearing vehemence, that Streep is working from a heightened register befitting the theatrical origins of Shanley’s parable. Doubt premiered on Broadway in 2005 and quickly nabbed a slew of awards, many of them reserved for leading lady Cherry Jones, who might have worked wonders if permitted to reprise her stage triumph on the big screen. Streep is nonetheless inventive in her baroque approach, crafting a fully-realized physical identity for Aloysius, defined by a restless mouth which always seems to be either twitching, creasing, or pursing its lips, as well as those judgemental owl eyes that peer out from a perpetually taut and stern countenance. In her every frame, Streep evinces the cynical wisdom of a life spent in the service of the church. When Adams opens her mouth with a statement of cockeyed naïvete, the impatient, disbelieving coldness of Streep’s rejoinders could ice over every inch of the Grand Concourse. Streep’s Aloysius simply has little time for dimwitted distraction or personal deficiency, especially when it comes to the matter of the school’s first black student and the parish’s star priest, which the nun determines is a matter only she can settle. I love when Streep lets the beginning of a grin creep across her lips at the idea of being the cat called upon to catch the mouse in her house; it’s the rare note in Streep’s performance where we can see Aloysius palpably attracted to the role of avenging angel, even taking a sort of sadistic pleasure in this newfound calling.

Yet Streep’s instincts are far from unimpeachable, and the performance abounds with missed opportunities as Shanley’s plot thickens. Streep seldom allows herself to just be the character; her acting insists on calling attention to its own affects so that the acting itself takes precedence over the character’s crusade. The sheer flash of her style renders the characterization devoid of the emotional shadings that exemplify the very best of Streep’s other tour de forces, and the moments in which she decides to restrain her own intensity feel oddly misjudged. She clings to the ropes during her throwdown with Viola Davis, whose heavy moroseness and unspeakably strange compliance in her breakout role as Donald’s mother are utterly indelible. Streep’s decision to play a chastened listener rather than the fierce opponent we’ve seen prior to this is an admirable gesture of actorly generosity, one that paves the way for Davis’ psychologically complex feat, but it also diminishes what should by all means be an equal playing field. The scene could have certainly benefited from some more of the adamancy that Streep draws forth with volcanic might in the confines of the school.

And yes, it can be momentarily exhilarating to watch Streep throw up the crucifix that is Aloysius’ shield with righteous, lunatic conviction in the face of Father Flynn’s cagey refusal to play by her rules or fervently bemoan the use of ballpoint pens in the classroom. (“Ballpoints make them press down, and when they press down, they write like monkeys,” she quite literally growls at Adams.) But choices like these don’t contain and thus cannot reveal the depths of motivation that the performance and the character live or die by.

It makes sense why actors, in particular, savored Streep’s approach in all its ostentatious, effortfully pronounced idiosyncrasies. (She claimed that year’s Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress.) But, to my mind, it’s Hoffman’s dapper embodiment, with its white-faced pseudo-sincerity and slick conviviality, that fares best of all in Doubt. Hoffman’s is a performance neither completely naturalistic nor fully mannered. Instead, the actor occupies an inspired middle-ground of stylized realism that enables us, the viewers, to find the stomach-churning ambiguities and open-ended questions integral to Shanley’s central mystery within the holes of Hoffman’s mercurial demeanor. This dearly-missed actor can match Streep’s room-shaking roar decibel for decibel, but his effects always arise from a complete human being who remains resolutely three-dimensional, even in spite of his accumulating enigmas. Streep’s effects, on the other hand, are a staggering smokescreen for inner intentions never made manifest. Her screams and swoops thrill in the way that only a true master of the craft can thrill, but they’re still only grandstanding parts of a performance made up of little more than grandstanding, a holy power with few flickers of any real holy spirit.

 

Catch up with 'Months of Meryl' 

  1. Julia (1977)
  2. The Deer Hunter (1978)
  3. Manhattan (1979)
  4. The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)
  5. Kramer vs Kramer (1979)
  6. The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)
  7. Still of the Night (1982)
  8. Sophie's Choice (1982)
  9. Silkwood (1983)
  10. Falling in Love (1984)
  11. Plenty (1985)
  12. Out of Africa (1985)
  13. Heartburn (1986)
  14. Ironweed (1987)
  15. A Cry in the Dark (1988)
  16. She-Devil (1989)
  17. Postcards from the Edge (1990)
  18. Defending Your Life (1991)
  19. Death Becomes Her (1992)
  20. The House of the Spirits (1993)
  21. The River Wild (1994)
  22. The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
  23. Before and After (1996) 
  24. Marvin's Room (1996)
  25. Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)
  26. One True Thing (1998)
  27. Music of the Heart (1999)
  28. Adaptation (2002)
  29. The Hours (2002)
  30. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
  31. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
  32. Prime (2005)
  33. A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
  34. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
  35. Dark Matter (2007)
  36. Evening (2007)
  37. Rendition (2007)
  38. Lions for Lambs (2007)
  39. Mamma Mia! (2008)

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Reader Comments (30)

Meryl's work in "Doubt" is thoroughly brave and excellent.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDg

I think both of you are right,she's doing too much and not giving us character work
"I have Doubts" at the end and " This will not do" with Mrs Miller give no insight into her character at all,they must be 2 of the worst line readings she's ever given in a major role in a major film with other major talent.

She is probably too far removed from this woman in real life to be truly believable,she is set up as the villain far too early and never breaks out from that habit,it's like it's restricting her acting choices so she does lip acrobatics and wavey fluttery hands,it's astonishing also that 2 of the Best Actresses of their respective generations Streep & Winslet were the frontrunners for the 2008 Oscar in their most misconceived stilted mannered roles in over directed dull films.

My list for 2008 belongs to Hawkins,Hathaway,Leo and Knightley in The Duchess and Winslet for Rev rd.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Sorry Hoffman is major miscasting,we have no doubt from the get go a Norton or Phoenix or even a Ledger would have worked wonders for that role

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Sorry Hoffman is major miscasting,we have no doubt from the get go a Norton or Phoenix or even a Ledger would have worked wonders for that role

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

oh please! Amy Adams is wonderful in this movie!

As of Streep, inhibited or not, this is definitely one of her most memorable performances. It has aged well and together with the iconic Prada (2006) and absolutely adorable Julie & Julia (2009) it's a grand master trio compared to her less impressive efforts in the 2010s.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

Sounds like you both are almost as down on the play as you are on Streep! I think you are too hard on both.

Having seen both the play on stage (with Cherry Jones) and this film adaptation, each only once, I can say the following:

-The play is very powerful on stage, perhaps one of the most powerful I've seen.

-Agree that Adams did not transfer it effectively to the screen. As we all know, that is a hard thing to do generally (stage to screen), and this play in particular is so much a play of *ideas* that I think it was never going to transfer well.

-Yes, Cherry Jones was sensational, but I think Streep was very good. I've never understood why this performance seems to get so little love from people who normally admire her. I do not see the hamming or the caricature-like qualities you seem to. Or at least I didn't when I saw it, admittedly 10 years ago now.

-Hoffman was miscast. They should have cast someone who was more charming, and less obviously morally compromised...ok, that sounds hard on PSH, but I mean someone whom he audience would be instinctively inclined to like and trust, just to make the outcome less telegraphed.

-Count me in the minority that was not completely bowled over by Viola Davis. She was good, don't get me wrong. But if you think Streep lacked subtlety, I don't think Davis was any more so. Adams was fine but forgettable; I certainly wouldn't have given her an Oscar nomination.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

Streep is a hoot, Davis is devastating and I happen to think Hoffman should've taken that Supporting Actor prize.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

All 4 actors in Doubt were outstanding, especially Hoffman, who elevated every film he was in.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

It's all artifice. Impressively embellished, but artifice nevertheless. As rightly noted, PSH was best in show.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commentereegah

Love the play, love the movie.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

OMG

To me Streep was miscast. As hard as she tries to be a villain or not, her face is almost the same during the entire film. I truly believe that Glenn Close would have been a MUCH better choice. Streep tries too hard here.

Adams is good enough but not great. Michelle Williams would have been outstanding in this

PSH is such a force of nature, but not in this movie. Paul Bettany, Stephen Dillane, Idris Elba are my candidates

Viola Davis was a hoot!!

So according the fab me, the cast would have been:

Glenn Close
Michelle Williams
Stephen Dillane
Viola Davis

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

Pretty privilege is real from the remarks against Hoffman's casting.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Some IMDB trivia that I'm just going to repeat like its gospel: apparently Frances McDormand and Natalie Portman were the first choices and Oprah lobbied hard but Shanley wouldn't even let her read for it.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Frances would have probably leaned on the comedy aspect too much.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

As much as I adore Streep, this performance was good, but not great.

I think the director should not have directed his own play. None of the characters did it for me .

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRdf

Doubt was to me one of those perfectly fine Oscar season movies that I enjoyed at the time but then forgot about a few months later. I'd basically give it a B at best or B- at worst. I was not terribly impressed with Streep, Adams, or Hoffman - perhaps none of them were perfectly cast (esp Adams) - but I thought Davis was moving in a pivotal role.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

If we are recasting Meryl Streep now, then my only answer is Cherry Jones. Not Frances, not Glenn, not Kathleen. I know I'm a minority, but I don't need to see my favorites actresses in every single project.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Hmm. I think I saw a different movie than you did. It's great because of writing, actors and yes, direction. It's really beautifully shot, and really difficult to successful move a play from stage to screen. It's must watching for film lovers - all four actors deserved their nominations. And it's a great performance by Streep. I totally believed she was a nun in the 1960's, given some power but not really in charge because nuns are always below priests. A classic film.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

I wish Anjelica Huston had played Meryl's role in this.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

This movie really benefits from a repeat viewing. Everyone is sensational in it!

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

I only saw this movie because I did the Supporting Actress Smackdown that year! And I love Meryl's SAG win, in which she high-fives her way to the stage like a Price is Right contestant.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

Loved this film and the entire cast. I also thought the final scene was the best ending ever! And I agree it's a classic film.

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

I'm late to this discussion which makes it easier in a way. I co-sign Lylee opinion that Streep is very good in this, and that you are being too hard on the film. I did not have the advantage of seeing the play, so I cannot speak about Cherry Jones.
However, I thought Streep brought to life the self-righteous, narrow minded character of the "Old guard" typical in the catholic church back in the 60's. I also thought that Hoffman didn't really do the "Pope John" Liberal character justice at all. He lacked the grace and natural appeal that the modern priest should have had. IMHO, they should have cast someone younger and more appealing in that part.
Also, I thought Viola Davis was good, but I wasn't swept away by her performance here. I mean no disrespect, just simply saying that I see it as 2 equals, not her blowing away Streep.

Let's all be honest, the most memorable thing in this movie is the costume design of those ugly nun's habits. That bonnet is atrocious. (Eileen Atkins refused to wear that bonnet when she did the role on the London stage- she's a very smart actress).

October 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

In my Top 5 performances from all 4 actors, though my personal rankings tell me that only Hoffman deserved a nomination - Leading Actor was a tad weaker in 2008 than Leading Actress (Streep and Adams, in that order) and Supporting Actress (Davis).

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterkermit_the_frog

By the way, I remember reading that Oprah lobbied hard for this film but that SHE declined to read for it (and Shanley wouldn't consider anyone who didn't audition).

Something makes me suspect that Streep and Hoffman weren't required to read for their parts...

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterkermit_the_frog

I think Shanley just thought that having such a big name celebrity like Oprah would be distracting and take something away from the role?
I think the movie suffers most from Shanley’s decisions as director but am in love with all the performances.

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

It's arare case in wich I love the movie more than a specific Performance. I like the suspence of it all. You just don't know what REALLY happened and that's great imo. You can watch it every time and might see (or bieleve to see) something new.
Comparing stage to film work is compairing apples to oranges. I think the film work really well, didn't find it stagegy at all.
IF I had to single out a Performance as MVP, I'll always say Amy Adams. I think Sister James is obviously naive, but also quite torn inside and Adams displayed it great. A better winner than Cruz in VCB, who didn't do anything special imo.
Meryl was good, not great, but not bad also. Maybe a bit "hammy" at the end, but I didn't care much. The SAG win reaction was definitely one of her best winning reactions ever. *lol*
I'm also not so high on Viola Davis. She was good, but didn't overshadow anyone.

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

The play was stellar! Worthy of all its accolades. It was Shanley's shitty, knock-u-over-the-head film direction that sank this film. It's crazy that the the man who wrote this brilliant work could direct the screen adaptation so poorly. Was okay with all four ensemble nominations at the time. No to Streep winning for this overdone role. Adams was mainly a cipher character who many actresses would have struggled with, so I'm more lenient with her. Miss PSH dearly, but this wasn't one of his best performances. Fine for the Oscar nod, but that's it. Viola is still my personal winner that year by a hair over Cruz, though no real problems with her win either.

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterReynolds

There are so many things wrong with this movie and I mostly blame Shanely for them. Adams emerges as the best performer. My impression of Streep in this movie is the same I had in AOC- that she was still somehow in rehearsal and was just throwing things at the wall to see if it would stick. That gives us moments of brilliance but also some indefensible moments as well.

October 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom G.

Up there with Sophie's Choice, Ironweed, and The Iron Lady as some of her finest work.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJuan Carlos Ojano

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