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Months of Meryl: Marvin's Room (1996)

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


#24 —Lee, a frazzled single mom and aspiring hairdresser who reunites with her ailing sister.

JOHN: Marvin’s Room begins with a slow outward zoom of assorted pill bottles and other medical paraphernalia scored to whimsically upbeat music that immediately establishes the film’s split personality between dysfunctional family comedy and sentimental illness drama. We soon learn that the titular Marvin is the bedridden and near-death father of Bessie (Diane Keaton) and brother of Ruth (Gwen Verdon), three members of a looney Floridian family. No sooner than Marvin’s illness and medical routine is introduced, Bessie is herself diagnosed with leukemia by Dr. Robert De Niro (who also produced the film). He recommends that Bessie's family members be tested for a possible bone marrow transplant. This diagnosis is the film’s engine, reuniting her with her sister Lee (Meryl Streep) and nephews Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino), bridging a twenty year gap between this estranged family...

We’re first introduced to Lee as Hank torches a picture of her, tossing it onto a gasoline-doused pile in the middle of his bedroom, setting the house ablaze. Streep, clad in purple, her hair teased high, receives the news while working on a fellow beauty school classmate, calmly suggesting to her that “there’s no reason to be nervous, you just have to adopt a positive mental attitude,” moments before her life quickly unravels; Hank is sent to a psychiatric hospital and Lee and Charlie, having no other family (or friends?), move into a convent, a tactic that emphasizes Lee’s uncouth and impetuous behavior. Chain-smoking, fed up, and frazzled, Lee is an atypical but refreshing persona for Streep, whose gifts for comedy and lived-in spontaneity brush up against the off-putting and often ditzy facets of Lee’s disorganized personality. Not since Silkwood had Streep turned in this full a portrait of a working-class woman overwhelmed by the unfair hand she has been dealt. You get the sense that Streep relished the opportunity to go big and uncorked after a string of roles which emphasized her preternatural poise and good-natured temperament. Lee can be a pill, but Streep is clearly having a blast.

Which is not to say that Streep is disinterested in fleshing out this woman who, at first, eschews audience sympathy. Though Lee may cluelessly place a handful of M&Ms on her zonked-out son’s chest while visiting him in the hospital, defy hospital administrator Margo Martindale’s request that she not smoke in her office, or fail to appropriately respond to Hank’s heartfelt apology, Streep knows how to bake in moments of heart and vulnerability in order to gain the viewer’s compassion. Just before arriving in Florida, Lee stands in front of a gas station bathroom mirror, putting in hair extensions and rehearsing her hellos to her reflection. The scene underscores Streep’s knack for piercing through to a character’s core, exposing a tender and almost childishly sensitive soul underneath Lee’s acidic veneer.

When Streep and Keaton finally share a scene together, one feels as though this on-screen combination is the single glorious reason for the entire production’s existence, an actressexual match made in heaven. Even upon their first encounter, you realize the challenge embedded in their casting, with both Streep and Keaton playing against type, switching the more logical roles of Streep as saint and Keaton as neurotic. Why don’t you take us through some highlights of this inspired match?


MATTHEW: It has probably been at least a decade since I first watched Marvin’s Room, but it remains such a pleasure to witness these two sublime actresses feed off each other’s very different but equally distinctive creative energies. Keaton ultimately received the Oscar nomination (in one of the most overwhelmingly marvelous Best Actress rosters that AMPAS ever produced), but that’s not to say that Streep is in any way giving a lesser performance. On the contrary, Streep’s missed nomination speaks to the stiff competition of 1996, but also to the relative mutedness of her chosen approach, which grows increasingly selfless as the film progresses and begins to afford Keaton’s comparably timid Bessie most of its solitary attention and manifest sympathies.

Perhaps it’s because of this measured understatement that I didn’t immediately buy Streep as a blowzy, working-class single mother duly overwhelmed by financial straits and an uncontrollable delinquent son. Interestingly enough, Streep, who was introduced to McPherson’s play by longtime friend De Niro, was originally offered the role of Bessie. She not only turned it down but urged the filmmakers to cast Keaton in the part, so much so that it seems as if Streep’s participation in this project was contingent on Keaton’s involvement. Streep told the Los Angeles Times:

I never saw anyone else but Diane for Bessie. She has such a sense of what’s humorous, yet it’s always rooted in reality, so unforced and unself-conscious.”

As for what drew her to Lee, Streep noted, “I felt it was time I played a bad mother… I’d played angry women before — like in Plenty — but none quite so direct and un-neurotic about it, so fueled by fury.” The role seems to beckon for a frostier, no-bullshit presence, an actress along the lines of Mercedes Ruehl or Kate Nelligan, each of whom were coming off peak periods that would quickly wane in the mid-to-late 1990s but were, by then, recognizably adept at letting us glimpse the humanity beneath slightly gaudy women, by turns good-natured and tough-as-nails. Yet Lee isn’t really a successor to the wisecracking, gently clichéd creations essayed by Nelligan in Frankie & Johnny and Ruehl at nearly every stage of her career. Scott McPherson’s storytelling may be soppy but it’s also frequently touching and true-to-life. Lee isn’t written as a discernible caricature or a vital life force, but a stoic everyday woman who simply has too much on her plate.

Streep is, as ever, inclined towards the fundamental honesty of a character and the provided material, but she also takes the screenplay’s comedy in stride, letting it subtly seep into her speech and comportment. She makes a vivid impression, no question, but she manages to do so without playing the attention-grabber that this particular part could have so easily become. Instead, she anchors many a scene with quiet force, dredging up certain truths about these people that might have gone undetected by a more broadly comedic take. Streep can, unsurprisingly, sell the hell out of a passive-aggressive battle with DiCaprio over a bowl of potato chips, riotously playing both the irritant and irritated. But she’s equally arresting when letting a look of blanched and flinching discomfort slip across her face, allowing us to discern the ways in which Bessie’s casual but cutting judgments and gradual closeness to Hank are sources of exasperation and envy for Lee.

Meryl with baby Leo!

Streep wields a similarly calm control over her costars in each of their conversations, never straining for thematic import but embodying the emotional honesty of these exchanges with little fuss. Keaton is granted most of the pathos (and movingly conveys it), but it’s Streep who ultimately has the harder task of gauging the appropriate reaction for each sentimental reveal, treading a thin boundary between stealing a moment for oneself and conveying just the right amount of character in moments that call for Lee to be little more than a silent witness. Streep errs on the side of the latter, but she manages to make a memorable impression even when playing second fiddle. She looks so visibly flustered by Keaton’s reveal of a tragic, unknown romance from her youth while still ceding the scene almost entirely to her on-screen sister, perhaps knowing that she will be rewarded soon after with a single, affecting shot in which a shaking Lee chokes back tears in private. Here, Streep filters that uniquely painful feeling of being confronted, quite abruptly, with a loved one’s helpless vulnerability through a permeable poignancy whose closest equivalent can be found in the worried, sad-eyed glances that Kristen Stewart throws at Julianne Moore in the latter half of Still Alice.

Later on, Streep reigns in her own response during Keaton’s big speech about love and luck, registering fear and confusion while remaining actively present in the same space. Streep’s restraint in the face of Keaton’s lavish outpouring speaks volumes, more than any pair of crying eyes ever could, about the ambiguous nature of familial ties, such as Bessie and Lee’s, that only gradually reveal the full extent of their affection and devotion.

What else stands out to you about Streep’s with any of her other scene partners, like a pre-Titanic DiCaprio?

JOHN: I enjoyed Streep showing DiCaprio how to act, and even if her being his mom was a hard sell, she develops a level of uninhibited exasperation that he clearly benefits from, pushing his own narcissism in more interesting, and challenging, directions. I had attributed Keaton’s nomination to the Academy bestowing a long-overdue third nod to their own Annie Hall, and Streep’s omission as a sign of voters growing tired after their 10-nomination love affair. But, as you’ve rightly pointed out, Streep’s sustained subtlety is at odds with Oscar’s typical acting preferences. Streep develops such a generous camaraderie with Keaton throughout Marvin’s Room that one gets the impression that Lee, as opposed to Streep, is tactfully allowing Bessie the space and time to process key plot developments. In such instances, Streep seems to offer the spotlight entirely to Keaton. And even before the pivotal scene that you described above, when Lee is shaken by the sight of Bessie’s hair loss, Streep underplays her shock and discomfort as we would expect someone to do in real life; in moments like these, she claims Lee as a sympathetic figure, not merely an uproarious foil to Bessie.

While the character is messy and brash, upon closer inspection, Streep’s performance is defined as much by self-control as it is by self-assurance. The actress, unsurprisingly, rescues Lee from the walking mental-breakdown caricature she could have been, proving her tremendous range again in a movie whose own disparate tones often seem irreconcilable.

Catch up with 'Months of Meryl' why don't you?

  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) 

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Reader Comments (30)

Two great actresses in a touching film.

There should be more films like this.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo - Brazil

Thanks guys,you are very kind to this film which is all but forgotten with 4 Legendary Actors all at different stages of their careers.

My favourite scene is the fish hooks speech in Las Vegas,Lee finally lets us in on what we probably knew all along,she has intamacy issues.

Did you notice a snot fly from Keaton at 1 point during a kitchen scene.

Sigourney Weaver was first choice for Bessie but I don't see her only Keaton whom I admire for toning down the neurotic mannerisms she plays it so calmly the reaction to Dicaprio knocking her hand away speaks volumes about Lee,Streep always seems to be on the edge,just holding it in,Verdon is a riot!

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk


June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I haven't seen this since it first came out but remember enjoying it, not least of which for getting to admire two actresses play off each other when you'd normally not ever picture them in a movie together. Although I do remember Streep looking more rundown than these photos would indicate (and she should be looking pretty run down), so I wonder what I'd think of the movie now.

I also wonder if Streep's lack of a nom is due to confusion as whether she should be in lead or supporting.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I'm with Peggy Sue. Meryl just seems like she's doing some "hillbilly bad girl" acting-class exercise (Can this really be the same actress who played Karen Silkwood?). Diane Keaton's heartbreaking performance, on the other hand, is marvellous, maybe her best work ever.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

I really didn't like this movie when I saw it years ago. It's from the Lorenzo's Oil school of tugging heartstrings for the sake of it. The performances are fine but the material is just too sentimentally miserable.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

No way.... Madonna should have had this Best Actress spot for EVITA

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

Wonderful film Overall.
It does play some Soap opera clichés quite obvious.
I hope Mery and Diane will play Sisters once more in future movie. Make it happen, Hollywood!

Otherwise the true heart of Marvin's Room is Diane's Bessie, so no wonder she got the Oscar nom in the end. How she tells the trgic Story of her secrete teenage love or her fear not to be able to wake up ever again is simply heartbreaking.
I'm sure Meryl did appreciate it.

And I loved the character of her aunt. Such a Scene stealer.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Only Streep could have pulled off the “fishhooks” line. Love her and Leo together and wish they would share the screen again.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Not a fan - only Gwen Verdon really shines.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

At the time I was eager to see Streep and Keaton together, whatever you may think of the film, they work so well. Keaton was the performance that everyone talked about - and Streep's performance drew mixed reviews. I still like it, but it's interesting to see what people think now.
What's important is that they both now when and how to share the screen.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Yeeeah, I recently rewatched this and I actually found that Streep, while certainly game, was simply miscast (I didn't quite believe her), while Keaton was perfect. The movie itself is typical middlebrow 90's Miramax fare: certainly pleasant and more than watchable, but ultimately a bit pat. Pretty much a B- or C+ affair.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I know I'm going to get heat for this, but Diane should have won the Oscar. She's heartwrenching in both quiet and big ways. Love, love this performance. At the time, I hated that Leo got second billing over her, and I still do.

PS. Beautiful score by Rachel Portman

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

It's a real Chocolate Box film,it's rainy outside,warm inside and this passes the time gloriously.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I am of the opinion that without each other to play off o.f the movie would have been a Hallmark Lifetime movie.

I think Streep was great in her role and I do agree Keaton ( I am not usually a big fan of hers ) should have won the Oscar.

Streep was nomad at Golden Globes and Keaton the Oscars

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Can any1 picture original choice Sigourney Weaver in either role and what she might have brought, her energy is a different species to either Diane or Meryl.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Brenda Blethyn should have won.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Love this movie. And think of all the amazing performances not nominated for Best Actress : Madonna, Meryl Streep, Courtney Love, Debbie Reynolds....

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Winona Ryder And Nicole Kidman too.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I saw this as a kid and only remember two things:

*Bessie fainting at DisneyWorld and waking up in Mickey's house (and my mom crying out: "AWWWW IT'S MICKEY'S HOUSE!")

*That year, Diane Keaton telling Entertainment Weekly that she thinks drama is way easier than comedy and no one else thinks that. I found that SO INTERESTING! Michelle Pfeiffer would later say the same thing on Inside the Actors Studio, that drama gives you more leeway -- comedy is more specific and unless you're Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, there's a lot more pressure. "I don't have that gene," she said (this is when they discuss "Married to the Mob" and she is asked why she never did more comedies). I find that stuff so interesting! In the True Lies post, we were discussing JLC's Oscar snubs and I said that the Academy rarely gives Best Actress noms for comedic performances -- how interesting that Keaton herself would get a fourth (?) Best Actress nomination for another comedy in 2003.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

Easily my favorite of Keaton's performances. Her final scene with Streep (who is also absolutely wonderful, and it's a performance where she looks so at ease and natural) is such a wonderfully bittersweet grace note to the whole story.

I wish this had gotten a better Blu-ray release. :(

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterManny

Streep is just... not good at this?

(Of course Watson should have won. It's one of the three or four performances of all time that deserve to mentioned in the same sentence of Rowlands' Mabel Longhetti)

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Great post. I really adore this film. It has Streep, Keaton, DeNiro, Leo and other talented actors that make it so memorable.

June 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

The offbeat humor in the script (hilarious scene involving a garage door!) plus strong performances make this film so much higher in my view than sentimental schlock like ‘Beaches’.

Would so day it’s one of Meryl’s best performance? No, relative to her entire catalog of roles, but she’s great nonetheless.

Agree that Keaton deserved the nod. Having said that I think Meryl’s portrayal of a terminally ill woman in ‘One True Thing’ -to be recapped shortly- blows everyone else’s out of the water!

June 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

Streep using her post-hit currency to green-light a literary adaptation again, creating and reviving careers all around her. Bravo. I thoroughly enjoyed this film then and now.

June 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Burge

Michael, when you say reviving careers, u don't mean Diane's? She was going strong with The Father of the Bride 2 and Manhattan Murder Mystery. And First Wives Club released the fall before this movie, and it was a big hit.

June 16, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

1996 - Courtney Love should’ve been in for sure! Unless it makes more sense in supporting.

Manhattan Murder Mystery was one of Keaton’s best, someone mentioned that upthread. If she can get one more nom this year or next, she’ll have had one in each of the last 5 decades.

June 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

Brenda Blethyn should have won the Oscar that year for what has to be the most singular and un-actress-y, yet actress-y performance ever.

But Diane's performance is a close second. The scene where she knocks the pills off the counter, and she has that short monologue to Meryl about how it is a privilege to take care of the old people ... if that scene doesn't give you the feels, then you are dead on the inside. It's a beautiful quiet moment in an otherwise oddly loud, stage-y and merely "it's fine" film.

I don't think Meryl is miscast. I just don't think the role is that great. This is the Diane Keaton and Gwen Verdon show. The rest is window dressing.

June 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

I heard a rumor today that Leo is considering doing The Nix with Streep. Please God let this be true. We need to be hopeful.

June 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Chastain

I love this film. I watch it every now & then and never tire of it. Though, I am always reminded of how upset I was that the sweet, lovely & hilarious Gwen Verdon wasn't nominated for Supporting Actress. As good as Meryl & Diane were, I am always left thinking about every single moment Verdon is on screen. I genuinely adore her in this... particularly her "Oh Marvin, look! You're flying!" moment. Such a wonderful, and tragically underappreciated performance.

July 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTroy

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