The Queen And The Sylph
by Kiko Matsing
NY Times just featured a retrospective look at Meryl Streep’s career since the 1980’s, noting her trademark technical prowess and sylph-like qualities in roles leaden with dramatic gravitas, to the lighter, comedic roles of her later phase.
And her temperament and physical appearance seemed as mutable as her voice. Ms. Streep, in her early, major phase was variously enigmatic, severe, wounded, butch, sylphlike and aristocratic, changing souls as easily as she changed hair colors and styles. And there were a remarkable range of those as well: dark pageboy, brown mullet, reddish bob — all heroic suppressions, in the cause of art, of her natural blondness.
But to say that she disappeared into these roles is not quite accurate. Rather, she used the particularities of these disparate characters to reveal some essential facet of herself, an ineffable but unmistakable Streepness. In one of the few skeptical assessments of this elusive quality, Pauline Kael, reviewing “Sophie’s Choice,” suggested that Ms. Streep was too controlling, too calculated, to create characters of full and spontaneous humanity. “It could be that in her zeal to be an honest actress,” Ms. Kael speculated, “she allows nothing to escape her conception of a performance.”
I have been a long fan of Meryl Streep. I liked her especially in Silkwood, Postcards From The Edge, and Adaptation. I’m amazed at her nimble transmutations, but the same surgical precision can be too cerebral, mannered, stifling–even in comedy. Her films also do not survive repeated viewings, unless as visual textbooks for drama schools. Her characters are sexless, emaciated, aridly white–too WASP, too Northeastern, too clean-cut Ivy League.
This opinion is of course informed (surprise!) by Camille Paglia’s essay Elizabeth Taylor: Hollywood’s Pagan Queen:
There is an absurd assumption in the air that Meryl Streep is the greatest American actress. Meryl Streep is a good, intelligent actress who has never given a great performance in her life. Her reputation is widely out of sync with her actual achievement. Cerebral Streep was the ideal high-WASP acress for the fast-track yuppie era, bright, slick, and self-conscious.
Elizabeth Taylor is, in my opinion, the greatest actress in film history. She instinctively understands the camera and its nonverbal intimacies. Opening her violet eyes, she takes us into the liquid realm of emotion, which she inhabits by Pisces intuition. Richard Burton said that Taylor showed him how to act for the camera. Economy and understatement are essential. At her best, Elizabeth Taylor simply is. An electric, erotic charge vibrates the space between her face and the lens. It is an extrasensory, pagan phenomenon.
Meryl Streep, in the Protestant way, is stuck on words; she flashes clever accents as a mask for her deeper failures… Try to picture Meryl Streep in a Bible epic! Streep is incapable of playing the great legendary or mythological roles. She has no elemental power, no smoldering sensuality.
Elizabeth Taylor can be endlessly fetishized, most notably in J.G. Ballard’s Crash, where one of the main character’s ultimate fantasy is to wreck into the actress’ limousine. I don’t see the same erotic potential in Meryl Streep; she is as tepid as a bowl of cereals. Her 16 Oscar nominations are undoubtedly stellar achievements on paper, but cinema is not a textual medium–it is visual and subliminal–and Meryl Streep, held up against the voluptuous vixens and femme fatales of the screen, such as Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Susan Hayward, just, well, pales in comparison.