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« Blueprints: "Psycho" | Main | So many questions about the next Best Actor race »
Thursday
Apr052018

Months of Meryl: Ironweed (1987)

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

 #14 — Helen Archer, a dying homeless alcoholic.

JOHN: Behold, the most devastating sequel to Heartburn imaginable. Directed by Hector Babenco and adapted by William Kennedy from his own Pulitzer-winning novel, Ironweed follows Francis (Jack Nicholson) and Helen (Streep), two homeless drifters biding their time and eking out their lives in Depression-era Albany. At nearly two and a half hours long, Ironweed is a bleak, wrenching study of poverty with nary a promise of redemption in sight. We’re talking about a movie whose most uplifting and musical scene is chased with a crushing dose of hopeless reality, a movie in which dogs assail a woman’s frozen corpse outside a church, digging graves is considered a good day’s work, and ramshackle vagrants pray they drink enough liquor to die in their sleep. It’s a tough sell and an even tougher sit, but Ironweed features one of Streep’s most spellbinding transformations.

Helen Archer does not make her entrance for a good twenty minutes. First we watch Nicholson’s Francis dig graves, slug whiskey, and fecklessly address the headstone of his deceased infant son, who he dropped and killed in a drunken daze. In the basement of a church serving free hot meals for the homeless, Helen slips through the door, a regular who, after some time away, returns to more of the same, reuniting with her moribund companion Francis. Streep’s Helen is shrewd enough to get herself warm and fed, but something about Helen suggests that she isn’t entirely there; it’s almost as if she is suspended halfway between life and death, past and present.

Helen, who we will come to learn is a former singer and concert pianist, constantly recollects the glory of her dashed dreams with utmost clarity, as again Streep is able to conjure a memory so expressively that one believes it to be as true as fact...

Helen can’t get any food down, so she’s practically surviving on her fantasies, nursed not by the hope of a dream soon to be renewed, but purely by the peaks of her past. The genius of Streep’s performance makes it entirely plausible that this is all fantasy, simply the mad ravings of a lunatic drunk, and yet when Helen tells an old acquaintance that she traveled abroad to play piano in Paris and Vienna, I nodded in full agreement.

In Ironweed, Streep sheds her characteristic poise and warmth for the cold shell of a destitute and miserable woman on death’s doorstep. With her awkward gait, glassy eyes, and weathered voice, Helen completely conceals any marks of her interpreter while drumming up a soulful quality that some viewers find lacking in Streep’s work. The result is a downright disturbing performance that proves the tremendous gifts of the actress without a hint of condescension to her character. In one particularly bleak sequence, Helen is escorted to sleep at night in a rundown truck with two other men, who demand sexual favors as recompense. What follows is cinema’s most somber handjob, the residue of which Helen washes off in the holy water of a local church. Helen kneels down to confess her sins to a statue, rattling off the valleys, missteps, and unfair hands she has been dealt, and Streep manages to suffuse this morbid sequence with uncommon grace, becoming an open book of complete agony. Can you recall a more wretched moment of Streep’s performance in Ironweed, or of her filmography in entirety? Can you believe that this movie opened during Christmas ?!?

 

MATTHEWTake that, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo! Streep directly sought out the part of Helen Archer not long after Kennedy’s novel claimed the Pulitzer and, having now seen Ironweed three times (an amount that boggles even my mind), it’s easy to understand why. At the time of its Yuletide release, Ironweed signalled Streep’s most chameleonic transformation yet, in a challenging role with ample opportunity for eccentrically-embroidered character-building. The film unquestionably lives or dies by the grit and gravitas of its two leads, whose collective star power is not so much diminished here as it is subverted and channeled towards stranger ends.

Then again, Helen is not entirely the foregrounded presence that Streep’s Best Actress nomination might indicate; this is very much Jack Nicholson’s show. Streep occasionally pulls focus but she, like Helen, is mainly content to hover in or around his spotlight, with some key exceptions. Her delayed arrival into the picture, preceded by at least three queries from Nicholson of “You seen Helen around?”, would seem to augur a star’s entrance, but Streep rather brilliantly evades this impulse. The foggy, heavy-eyed, half-there way in which Helen just sort of wanders into that church dining hall is a striking bellwether for the performance to follow, which, like the production that surrounds it, connotes a vivid sense of time and place without necessarily rooting itself in the level of realism one might expect.

I think it's maybe the single Streep performance that merits the same breathless acclaim usually reserved for the likes of Sophie Zawistowska, Karen Silkwood, and Francesca Johnson. But I’ve frequently struggled to pinpoint the quality that makes this performance so exceptional and affecting. On a sheer technical level, it’s free of so many of the personalizing stamps that had come to define and popularize Streep's star persona. There’s a certain remoteness to this performance that remains utterly arresting but also unlike anything witnessed in Streep’s work, before or since. When I say “remoteness,” I don’t mean “spiritually distant” or “emotionally removed.” Helen’s daylong odyssey through old haunts and familiar faces, all leading up to her last stay in the hotel that will mark her final destination, shatters me with the same, unfailing potency of Sophie’s confession and Karen’s farewell drive.



What's different in Helen is the absence of emotional candor. As Nicholson’s Francis contends with his unshakable guilt and the recurring, materialized ghosts of his past, Streep’s Helen battles her mostly invisible and unknowable demons internally. We receive glimmers of Helen’s past artistic glories, as you’ve mentioned, but they remain only glimmers. I never leave Ironweed feeling like I know Helen with the same intimacy or wholeness with which I recall Karen or more enigmatic figures like Sophie or Joanna Kramer, even though we often act as witness to many of Helen’s most painfully private moments: retching into her hand outside a tavern in broad daylight, massaging her body after a shower in the final minutes of her life, and, of course, performing a glorious barroom rendition of “He’s Me Pal” that exists only in her mind. Throughout all these moments, Streep retains a flintiness that bolsters Helen, whose eyes are always narrowed, her face often unyielding, even at its softest and most sympathetic. Helen’s shell is brittle and breaking, but it still protects her from many a hardship: a declining immune system, a line of predators who seek to exploit her frailty, and a relationship full of love and history that is nonetheless beset by problems. What astonishes about Streep’s performance is not so much that she maintains this physical hardness but that she still earns our emotional investment without ever completely letting down Helen’s rough, self-preserving facade, which essentially allows her to hide from us in plain sight. 

JOHN: I agree that the unknowability of Streep’s Helen, as compared to the meticulous performances Streep gives in her less disguised roles, at first reads like an odd paradox. The detailed personality of the role is not necessarily parallel to that of Streep's most lauded star turns, but in its own way, Streep’s stripped-down performance becomes an elemental portrait of a soul completely disarmed and turned inside-out.

With director Hector Babenco on set.

In a delicious 1987 Time profile, Streep elaborates on how she created Helen with characteristic clarity and poetry:

'I had a lot of things to prepare. Secret things that no one else would know. And that intrigued me because that's how we encounter people who live on the street. We don't know anything about them except how they look. So I see Helen as a shadow, like a lot of those people are. They're just souls, stripped of all the things that most of us carry around. And they drift around like souls in purgatory. All these people have are their dreams. That's their real world. And their past, which they change into dreams, to make it better. They illuminate their ruins, because ruins are all they have. And drink comes into this. Alcohol is the fuel for these sputtering engines.'

'Helen,' she goes on, 'has none of the things most people covet—possessions and accomplishments and children. All she has are the purest impulses—fidelity and pride and resilience. I liked playing a stripped-down character. Even her age was a mystery. I located one for purposes of reality but then I threw it away. People who live on the edge don't know how old they are. The young ones look ancient and there's something about the oldest ones that's childlike. So Helen is sort of an ember in this. We just get the last glow, and then she goes.'

This is all one really needs to know about Helen Archer, a sputtering engine rendered sublime. Streep’s body becomes a perfect instrument that plays out the last glow of this inscrutable yet total character, transmitting a host of dismal emotions on an almost telepathic level from actor to viewer.

Helen on stage

But singing all these abstract praises risks underselling the masterful theatricality of Streep’s Helen. Whether it’s Helen moseying down the road as she babbles to herself, yelling “Thieves!” to nobody particular in an empty bar, or inconspicuously sitting in a library chair, pretending to read while clearly asleep, Helen is a high-wire and utterly stagy creation that never tips into ostentatious mugging. Many an actor has used the easy facade of drunkenness to pass off some broad caricature, but Streep’s inebriated performance instead relates the absolute abandon and unintelligible misery of a woman who frequently finds herself at the end of the bottle, and who can’t be bothered to swim back up to the surface and act the hammy fool.

The film’s most delusional and theatrical moment is the well-known "Me Pal," number, in which Helen performs a rousing rendition onstage at a bar for a rapt audience, only to have the scene swiftly revealed as occurring entirely within Helen’s head. If this number doesn’t convey to you the magnificence of this performance, and really of Streep’s gifts as a performer in general, I can’t help you. Both hardboiled and heartbroken, Helen ekes out a passable tune about camaraderie and friendship while still signaling Helen’s so-so singing abilities, her poverty (notice how she brings her purse onstage even within her own fantasy), and her proud, thick-skinned persona, shattered by the harsh reveal of her immense loneliness. How on Earth did this number manage to be the centerpiece of Streep's Kennedy Center Honors tribute? Maybe Anne Hathaway should have paid Ironweed tribute by vomiting on a piano, or by looking at herself in the mirror and uttering, 'Who cares if I drank too much wine?'

MATTHEW: There is a florid theatricality to just about all of the performances in Ironweed that comes to fullest fruition in Streep’s interpretation. Her line readings are often thunderclaps, her voice harsh and booming, as if each sound and syllable is borne from the gut. And Helen’s limbering, stiff-jointed gait is unmissable, evident from Streep’s first few seconds on-camera. Choices as pronounced as these might initially seem excessive for the screen; in truth, I don’t think the performance would need to be heightened in the slightest for the stage. But this is all in keeping with Babenco’s mannered vision of Kennedy’s curious tale, with its oddly halting musical numbers, traveling trio of chalk-white ghosts, and gauzy, utterly unnatural flashbacks. It would be easy to accuse Streep’s characterization of eliding nuance or indulging in overstated gestures, but to do so is to willfully misunderstand the very intention behind this affected performative register. Every intensified, boldfaced moment of Streep’s work in Ironweed is empathically in the service of a character in constant struggle to be seen and retrieve her rightful place in the world, however hopeless such tasks may be.

The film’s musty, Hopperesque interiors are never more striking or soulful than when Helen inhabits them. Streep doesn’t fully dig into the character’s psychology, boldly leaving such qualities as Helen’s petty jealousies and dependence on drink underexplored, treating them like the facts of life that they are, rather than curable afflictions. There are no cures in sight for the things that ail Helen. Streep understands this and stakes her distance early on, refusing to moralistically play a case study, as opposed to the coarse, aching, flesh-and-blood human being known all too briefly by those watching and living with her. Helen's tragic unknowability is truly the key to Streep’s achievement, which is ultimately more impressionistic than immersive.


And that’s fitting, especially for this character!

Not every performance needs to puncture the surface, so long as the performer finds a way to reach us internally. Watching Helen float in and out of stages of engagement and disengagement, briefly nursing visions of the renown she might have attained in a different life, I am mesmerized and moved by the profundity of Streep’s character-inhabiting powers. Ten years into one of the most important, paradigm-shifting acting careers in film history, Streep showed in Ironweed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that her rare and resourceful talents are as inexhaustible as they come.

What’s your take, readers? Does Helen Archer belong in the Streep pantheon beside Joanna, Sophie, and Karen? Sound off.

previously on Months of Meryl

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Reader Comments (30)

I think Carroll Baker steals the entire film and is leaps and bounds more interesting than everyone in the '87 Supporting Actress line-up.

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

It's such a depressing movie

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Another great piece of writing. I do remember feeling like the character she played was kind of wearing away and halfway gone - temporarily suspended between life and death. I think the daydream singing scene is classic and genius. Don't forget the rumor that when Jack Nicholson watched her belt out He's Me Pal, he said, "Finally, I'm f*cking someone with talent." Whether true or not, it's great movie folklore. I would be very interested, once this series ends, to know what your respective opinions are on her ten best films.

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

Baker is totally minimal to the movie... did we see the same movie????

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered Commentergrrr

John & Matthew - I was thrilled to read such a positive take. I've long maintained that her work in 87-88 is just as strong as her more celebrated work in the late 70s or early 80s and "He's Me Pal" is one of her all time greatest scenes.

but those two movies back to back (this and a cry in the dark) seem to have soured people on her for a time (too depressing double feature?) since she had a minibacklash thereafter.

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Any plans to publish this series into a book when it is completed? Such a depressing movie to sit through. Love your analysis of Helen. I thought I had also heard that one of Streep’s inspiration for her character came from her grandmother?
In other Streep news, Kidman just shared their first on set pic together on the set of Big Little Lies!

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I know Streep is the focus here, but I must say that Nicholson's work is absolutely devastating. His best performance ever?

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I wish I could've seen this film before reading this. On the bright side, this is a damn good write-up and now I'm even more excited for this bleak, bleak feature.

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNick T

A terrific look at a movie that is an extremely hard view. A film that is obviously geared to be appreciated rather than enjoyed but loaded with deep insightful work from both leads. I also thought Carroll Baker was strong even though her role was small compared to the main pair.

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Those who dismiss Meryl as a great actress should watch this film. Her performance was devastating to say the least. But it's depressing to sit through more than two hours of soul-crushing self-perception caused by abject poverty and homelessness.

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMande

gentlemen, i'm loving your meryl series. so inspired and intelligent. congrats on the great writing. i haven't seen this film for 30 years on my initial viewing and you got me itching to sit through this misery once again...no easy feat. excited to see the forthcoming chapters!

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

This weekly jerk off is boring me to tears.

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterM. Leo

She does jerk off a dude

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKirkland

This is one performance when I feel she took away a spot from meatier and better competition plus it's a supporting role were she would be welcome in 87 but not the Lead race.Nicholson should have had his 3rd Oscar for it though.

Bette Davis,Emily LLoyd,Christine Lahti,Lillian Gish,Barbra Streisand,Faye Dunaway and Maggie Smith where all much more deseving,a one last hurrah 12th nomination for Bette would have been so cool,she's devasating in so many ways in The Whales of August

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I agree with Nat about this,she seemed to fall into a rut of unlikeable characters and then a needless nomination for Ironweed and the backlash started,she was not GG nomianted for it either,which is a surprise,so maybe to the wider public it seemed they'd nominate her for anything and leave other worthier people out,I do agree that "He's mi Pal" is one of her best scenes,I just think it's a true supporting role.

I like in depth look at the roles in these write ups,they do make me want to revisit this film.

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Please let everyone know that Brazil is unjustly arresting its most popular president, LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA. Coup d'etat, happening TODAY.

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFernando

I would say Ironweed feature my favorite performances from Nicholson and Streep
LOVE THIS ONE

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEd

I do echo the "it's hard to watch" Sentiments. I had to broke up several times watching it.
I still try to rewatch it, but it's still hard....
Nevertheless the He's Me Pal Scene id definitely one of her best singing numbers and sealed the deal for an Oscar nom (even though I would personally put her in Supporting, because this is Nicholson's film through and through). Really really great.

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Also, her reaction to Cher winning!!!

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

The reactions to losing are some of Meryl's greatest acting.

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

@markgordonuk you utterly continue to kiss ass on this site

@ M. Leo then do not read the items these very good writers leave for us

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commentergrrr

For how much everyone seems to agree on the fact that this is a good film, why didn't it do better in nominations?

Has it gained more respect over time? Or was it simply too dark / heavy for most back then?

For all the love being stated here, it seemed to have a meager year at awards... only really garnering regular attention for Nicholson and an out of nowhere (based on precursors) nomination for Streep.

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrendan Lynch

It was very dark and difficult to take in ... especially during the Xmas season!

April 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commentergrrr

An extremely difficult film to watch because it is so devastating. But you watch for the performances, which are sublime. Probably Streep's most underrated performance, totally Oscar worthy. 'He's Me Pal' is just crushing, easily the best scene in the film. Enjoyed seeing Fred Gwynn as the bartender.

April 7, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

grrr!!!! at you too.

April 7, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I'm torn between Streep (Ironweed) and Close (Fatal Attraction) for Best Actress. Amazing performances.

April 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

This is one of the last Meryl Streep Oscar-nommed performances I've seen, and I've felt so down seeing her character reach the lowest of human conditions. Haunting, haunting work. Her Oscar nomination for this one isn't a fluke; it's in my top 5 of her Oscar-nominated works.

April 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

markgordonuk -- Agree. She couldn't be phonier.

April 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJane Craig

Days you!!!!!

April 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commentergrrr

@markgordonuk @Jane Craig because you know her personally and all....

May 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEva

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