Meryl Streep, Silkwood
Monday, January 16, 2006
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
“....Neither [Silkwood nor Gorky Park] is an ideal project for a movie, Silkwood being based on real-life incidents in the life of a shadowy martyr of our political mythology ... What pulls both pictures through are unusually strong and sensitive performances in the central roles. It is not surprising, therefore, that both movies work much better from moment to moment than from beginning to end….
“…. Not all of Silkwood's messy young life is on display in the movie. Some of the missing portions would have made her look better, some would have made her look worse. On the whole, however, director Mike Nichols and scenarists Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen have chosen to sink or swim with a heroine of considerable complexity and often disconcerting directness.
“In one scene, particularly, she rather spectacularly embarrasses an unfriendly male co-worker by flashing a tit at him with derisively antierotic abruptness. This brazen gesture separates her from such warmly womanly underdogs as Norma Rae and Sophie, all the way back to Mildred Pierce and Madelon Claudet in the gallery of female sufferers who win Oscars. Streep's Silkwood is made of much sturdier and carser fabric than silk. There are traces of blue collar redneck, and country roads in her temperament, but she is smarter, freer, and wilder than the convenient stereotypes.
“What justifiably unleashes all the furies and fussy mannerisms in Streep's arsenal of acting stratagems is the very real fear of chemical contamination that plagues us all in one way or another. The players around Streep are first-rate as well….
“Yet Streep dominates the proceedings with the kind of fierce, cranky individualism that is at the root of all social unrest and human progress. There is a scene early on when she and her live-in companions take the children she has abandoned from a previous marriage out to a fast-food emporium. In those few moments of aching family reunion, there is more lifelike pain, humor, guilt, and, yes, grace under impossible pressure, than there is in all of Terms of Endearment.
“Ultimately, the earthy verisimilitude of the characters makes their predicament in a plutonium plant all the more horrifying . . . . The fear of libel may have inhibited [Nichols and his scenarists] from even a hypothesis about what actually happened. Still, I applaud them for going the opposite route from Star 80 by venturing into the inner life of a vibrant, sensual, confused, and ultimately heroic woman.”
Village Voice, December 27?, 1983
“I would have split my vote [for Best Actress of 1983] between Patricia Hodge in Betrayed and Streep, though after mean-mouth ["mouthed"? not sure--my copy's hand-written] Meryl's ungracious remarks at two consecutive Sardi's award ceremonies, I would have to close my eyes as I marked my ballot.”
Village Voice, March 6, 1984
“Meryl Streep, as Karen Silkwood, drove her car through the gate of the plant where she worked, parked, then headed across the lost toward her job; and I felt snug. Silkwood was going to be all right. In those first ordinary actions, Streep had once again done the miraculous, which is the daily work of fine actors: she had changed the unchangeable. When I last saw her, in Sophie's Choice, the core of Sophie had been innate, immutable. Now she has transmuted to another immutable.
“Streep does not let us down. But the film does, badly…. What seems numbed in Silkwood is what Nichols brought with him to films: his theatrical sense of dialogue--its rhythms and timing--which was exquisite. This film labors under longeurs, not of windy dialogue but of wind between the lines that bloats the film. No character can ask another to have a beer without enough time lapsing before the answer in which to drink the whole damned beer…. About twenty of the film's 128 minutes could have been eliminated by picking up cues, and the result would not have betrayed the idiomatic pace of the characters' speech. As is, the pace gets so draggy that it reflects on the actors. Audiences may think that Streep and colleagues are less gripping than they ought to be when the flaw is really Nichols's "conducting."
“….. Some published accounts indicate that facts about Silkwood's private life have been altered to make her more popularly acceptable and that her experiences in the plant, with safety practices and radiation tests, have been nudged a bit one way and another.
“All these changes verge on the unethical, the deliberately misleading. E. L. Doctorow altered facts in the Rosenberg case for his novel The Book of Daniel, but he made no claim to be presenting that case factually…. The film does indeed show her growing awareness of her social situation and its connection with the physical condition caused by making her job, but this is not the same as making her something akin to a labor Joan of Arc.”
The New Republic, Jan. 23, 1984
Field of View, pp 238-239
[re-read whole review]
“Thanks to Meryl Streep's brilliant characterization of Silkwood, we feel this awakening in our own, nonradioactive bones. Her Silkwood is no Okie version of Joan of Arc. She's a chain-smoking, hip-swinging, hair-mussing, wise-cracking girl who's careless about safety rules, swipes food from her co-workers' plates and flashes her bosom at gawking males. But the writers, Nichols and especially Streep turn this selfish "pain in the ass" into the complicated human being that she was, a girl who wanted to study science, who left three children behind with her separated common-law husband. Beyond these details Streep shows us a smart, sensitive woman with the constant jitters that come from deep frustration. It's a devastating irony that Silkwood only found a focus for her character and intelligence when she was contaminated by radioactivity.
“. . . . Nichols's handling of an outstanding cast is superbly sensitive. . . .
Newsweek, December 12, 1983
“…. Streep, with her shag-cut brown hair and small mischievous eyes, plays Silkwood like the spoiled princess of Kerr-McGee, sashaying into work in short skirts and cowboy boots, blithely yanking open the foreboding steel doors. In the cafeteria, she's a flirty busybody, rummaging into her coworkers' lunches and business. At first, Steep's Karen notices things because she's smart and nosy and bored. Later she puts her snooping to work for the union, and when people start to notice her noticing things, she presses on in defiance. Working out all of Karen's feelings on the surface, Streep gives her lightest, least mysterious film performance: she paces briskly when she's outraged, and when her boyfriend moves out we watch her smile and shrug, bob her head from side to side, and pull compulsively at her hair. What keeps us from getting to know her as well as we might is the impoverished characterization in the movie, and its failure to let us forget, even for a moment, that she's a sacrificial lamb.”
Boston Phoenix, Dec. 13, 1983
“If this edition  had reached print by, say, 1989, then surely it would have acknowledged Meryl Streep as the dominant actress in American pictures. At forty, she was not simply regarded as the most talented woman in pictures, but the most distinguished. Distinction is not common praise in movies, nor is it often well intended. The distinguished are somtimes those the public does not love: the term lay heavily on the heads of Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, and even Al Pacino, at times. But at the very end of the eighties, Streep had been brilliant, properly enclosed, and unquestionably Australian in A Cry in the Dark…. [B]ut some reckoned that Streep's presence was by then sufficient warning to wary audiences. She would be superb, rather cold, in a movie that had little vulgar magic. Even critics who admired her had grown weary of the complaint that in her highest flights of skill one felt the strenuous breathing of a mistress technician….
“In two films, she worked very hard to be gorgeous and sexy, yet something failed to click--was it inner restraint, or some fierce certainty that actresses should not sell themselves: The Seduction of Joe Tynan…. and Still of the Night…
“It hardly seemed to matter, for now she was a reigning figure, capable of any accent or period--a labeled great actress: The French Lieutenant's Woman…; luminous, touching, yet oddly remote in Sophie's Choice… as if her very genius led us to see how fake that story is. She was at her best, wilder, more dangerous, and less respectable in Silkwood….
Bio Dictionary of Film, 3rd Edition
“Nichols is scrupulous in adhering to the known facts, refusing to,,, specify just what did get into Karen, both physically and psychologically. She remains something of an engima: How far was her paranoia justified?….
“It is precisely because the characters are so interesting that we want to know more about them, want their stories and attitudes developed, or at least woven more organically into the political framework.
“Heading a cast that is extraordinarily strong in capturing a variety of down-home folk types and behavioral truths is Streep's Karen. Chain-smoking, wearing miniskirts and pulling constantly at the hair of what looks like a Dacron wig, she is outrageous and absolutely right in her greatest performance to date. In the past, I've had reservations about the neurotic mannerisms of her previous starring roles, but they were made to order for Karen, a nosy, impulsive "stand-up" woman--open as an open book and mysterious as an unknown language.”
Playgirl, March 1984
“Meryl Streep gives a very fine performance as Karen Silkwood, considering she's the wrong kind of actress for the role. Since she has reached great heights of prestige, and many projects are offered to her, she's the one who's making the wrong choices--she is miscasting herself. There's a scene in Silkwood in which Karen and the other employees… are having lunch, and Karen, who likes to titillate her co-workers by showing them how freewheeling she is, nuzzles close to one of them--Drew (Kurt Russell), her lover--rubs his bare upper arm with her fingers, and then, swinging her hips and moving from table to table, starts to take a bite out of somebody else's sandwich. Meryl Streep imitates raunchiness meticulously--exquisitely. She does a whole lot of little things with her hands and her body; she's certainly out to prove that she's physical, and she seems more free here than in her other starring roles. But she hasn't got the craving to take that bite. If the young Barbara Stanwyck has grabbed that sandwich, we'd have registered that her appetite made her break the rules; if Debra Winger had chomped on it, we'd have felt her sensual greed. With Streep, we just observe how accomplished she is. She chews gum and talks with a twang; she tousles her shag-cut brown hair; she hugs herself; she eyes a man, her head at an angle. She has the external details of "Okie bad girl" down pat, but something is not quite right. She has no natural vitality; she's like a replicant--all shtick…. [That's how some Okie girls act, and you sense they're acting.]
“…. The most dramatic events in the various accounts of Karen Silkwood's life are circumscribed, because they're in contention (probably forever)… As a result, the movie is a series of suggestions and insinuations and evasions.
“What can be dramatized is the character of Karen Silkwood, and that could be enough, because, unlike storybook heroes and heroines but like many actual heroes and heroines, she was something of a social outcast. (As Simone Weil noted, it was the people with irregular and embarrassing histories who were often the heroes of the Resistance in the Second World War; the proper middle-class people may have felt they had too much to lose.) Karen Silkwood drank and popped pills and liked to play around. She had given her three small children over to their father, and at the time of her contamination she was going with Drew and sharing an apartment with a lesbian co-worker… She was--perhaps obsessively--centered on her duties as a member of the union's negotiating committee and worked gathering evidence to support her charges. She was a maze of contradictions, and a spirited actress could have made us feel what her warring impulses came out of. A woman who gives up her children is horrifying to many of us; we want to understand the sexual needs or the passion for freedom that drove Karen Silkwood to it, and how these emotions tied in with her union activism and the courage she showed in going against the company.
“Meryl Streep sensitizes the character and blurs her conflicts. She plays Silkwood in a muted and mournful manner--Karen's sad, flirty eyes show the pain of a woman who doesn't quite understand how she lost her children, and can never get over it. She's haunted by her loss; she's fine-boned and fragile--a doomed, despondent woman with many an opportunity to smile mistily through incipient tears. And… Mike Nichols, the director, soft-pedals everything around her…. [B]oth Drew and Dolly are in love with Karen; it's hard to know why, except that Karen is played by the picture's star. (They love Karen the way everybody in An Unmarried Woman loved Jill Clayburgh.)… Karen has a scene sitting in a porch swing and holding Dolly and comforting her, because she can't love Dolly the same way Dolly loves her. By that time, the movie has refined a potentially great woman character and turned her into a neurasthenic object of sympathy and adoration….
“…. [C]ompany officials come to the house that the three have shared; they find traces of plutonium there and accuse Karen of having deliberately contaminated herself so she could hurt Kerr-McGee. Karen reels off an elaborate explanation of how she was poisoned, and her words don't have the weight of thought. The scene is an embarrassment: Are we meant to think that she's lying, or is it just that Streep lost hold of the character? It's as if no one on the set were listening [I found it a great scene.]…. The capper to the director's uncertainty is the song Karen sings… Meryl Streep has a tender, scratchy singing voice, a little like Buffy Sainte-Marie's; her singing has more emotional lift than her acting--it's the only suggestive element in her performance. But "Amazing Grace"! It's the safest, most overworked song in contemporary movies.
“There's no vulgar life in Silkwood except for Diana Scarwid's Angela….
“Meryl Streep has been quoted as saying, "I've always felt that I can do anything." No doubt that's a wonderful feeling, and I don't think she should abandon it, but she shouldn't take it too literally, either. It may be true for her on the stage, but in movies even the greatest stars have been successes only within a certain range of roles. Katharine Hepburn didn't play Sadie Thompson or Mildred Pierce, and Ginger Rogers didn't appear in The Swan. Anna Magnani didn't try out for Scarlett O'Hara, Bette Davis wasn't cast as the second wife in Rebecca, and Garbo didn't break her heart over not doing Stella Dallas. Part of being a good movie actress is in knowing what you come across as. My guess is that Meryl Streep could be a hell-raising romantic comedienne. (A tiny dirty laugh comes out of her just once in Silkwood, and it's funkier and more expressive than any of her line readings.) She has the singing voice for musical comedy, and the agility and crazy daring for knockabout farce. And maybe she can play certain serious and tragic roles, too--she was unusually effective in her supporting role in The Deer Hunter. But in her starring performances she has been giving us artificial creations. She doesn't seem to know how to draw on herself; she hasn't yet released an innate personality on the screen.”
New Yorker, January 9, 1984
State of the Art, pp. 106-111
“The screen relationship that Meryl Streep and Kurt Russell have created isn't hot-blooded; it isn't even very romantic. It's comfortable, and one recognizes the way it works at once: Karen's burgeoning strength will make Drew question his own bullishness, and the relationship will suffer. I've gotten good and tired of this post-feminist formula…, and I wish Kurt Russell had been given a chance to buck it…. When he and Karen are on the skids, it's Russell who draws the darker and sexier emotions to the surface; Streep is stiff, chilly--Streepish.
“And yet, this is the finest performance she's given since she was designated a national shrine--the best, in fact, since the sublime comic turn she delivered in The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Wearing a scraggly auburn hairdo and an assortment of unfortunate mini-skirts, cowboy boots, and peasant blouses, Streep seems to enjoy playing a flirty lowlife; she understands Karen's sexual humor, and she shows us how it might feel to be a woman who regards flashing a naked breast as the most scintillating of witticisms. Even when Streep's being moon-driven and actressy, Nichols knows how to direct her. Instead of propping her up in the center of the frame and letting the camera adore her suffering, Nichols sets her to the side, where she can bounce off the other actors; one sees her listening and soaking things up, one sees how fast she is, and how funny. Streep's scenes with Cher are little jewels of comic-romantic direction; they're love scenes (even though Karen remains a true-blue heterosexual--at least according to this film). And Cher… is splendid….”
[left out some, including Streep's "wise-elephant eyes"]
Vanity Fair, February 1984
“For the role of Karen Silkwood… Meryl Streep not only acquired a brunette do and a twang but also equipped herself with something far more maverick: a dirty mind. In Silkwood… dirty thoughts race like minks across Streep's eyes, and the memory of an off-color joke always seems to be playing at the corners of her mouth. Streep doesn't confine her character's lewd energies to the narrow angles of her face, however; this is most full-bodied performance. She swings her rump like a truck-stop waitress saucing it up with the boys at the counter and, when confronted with authority, flashes her breast. Streep isn't very convincing as a down-home tease--unlike Debra Winger and Jennifer Beals, her body doesn't have a natural sass, and you're aware that her mind is telegraphing sexy twitches of movement southward--but her dedication and nimble, undisguised skill prove to be welcome in Silkwood, a movie in which the world is morosely pulling in on itself, retreating into the folds of death. Actressy as Streep is, she's reaching out to us, trying to establish contact, opposing her flesh against the movie's toxic drizzle. Once her small fire has been smothered, the movie slips off into a hushed, dreamless sleep….
“Except for the performances of Streep and Scarwid, Silkwood suffers from a soft fatalism, making its heroine's death seem like a sad benediction….”
Texas Monthly, February 1984
“Poised and diligent, with her skewed Madonna features, Meryl Streep is the class valedictorian of the new breed of young movie actors. Streep is the embodiment of the modern, unversity-trained, classical actor. She slips into each new character with amazing proficiency, and each one--the Southern lobbyist, the melancholy Victorian, the memory-haunted Pole, the martyred nuclear worker--ap[pears to be equally within her range. Streep approaches her characters with a scholarly thoroughness. Her performances are meticulously footnoted; every detail is filled in. In her big roles, like Sophie or Karen Silkwood, where the performance requires an accent or a physical change, we felt the weight of research behind her transformation into a character. In this sense, Streep is the most intellectual of the new actors. Watching her on screen, we always sense her mind at work, calculating reacting, weighing her choices. As Karen Silkwood, she's never at rest; her eyes bounce from side to side in their sockets and she pulls feverishly on cigarette after cigarette. She's so high strung that you can almost hear the thoughts buzzing inside her head. But in Silkwood, Streep's moody restlessness isn't expressive. Her performance has a surface authenticity but her empathy with the character doesn't go very deep, and she never really comes to life.”
"The Naked and the Bred"
Boston Phoenix, October 2, 1984
“As Karen Silkwood… Meryl Streep speaks in a coarse voice, wears her hair in a limp brown shag, and looks at men with a frankly appraising stare bordering on provocation….
“…. Silkwood suggests that this ornery, selfish, not always shrewd woman was something more interesting than a schoolbook moral hero…. In the delicate, funny, but finally terrifying and deeply moving film they have made about her, screenwriters Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen and director Mike Nichols have had the good grace not to turn her into a symbol or an abstraction.
“…. Gulled by Kerr-McGee into thinking the plant is safe, the nuclear-fuel technicians, like workers almost everywhere, get throught the day by joking and teasing and breaking into little factions and cliques. The plant is like school, and Karen is the class bad girl, loved by some and resented as a troublemaker by others.
“Mike Nichols's tense, ambitious earlier movies depended very heavily on emphatic line readings, but in his eight-year hiatus from directing movies Nichols seems to have relaxed his ideas about film acting. Many of the early scenes in Silkwood have a pleasantly disheveled comic spirit. Nichols, understands, for instance, what factory work does to people physically. At their little, isolated house, Karen, her boyfriend, Drew (Kurt Russell), and her friend Dolly--all plant workers living together--sprawl on the porch, or sit around the kitchen, too fatigued to do more than feebly nag at one another. As Drew and Karen approach bed, Nichols lets their conversation reach that peculiarly drowsy yet charged rhythm of talk before sex….
“After the leisurely, digressive early sections of the movie, the tempo gradually accelerates. The scenes become brief and violent: Nichols sends the camera racing down the nightmarish white corridors of the plant and moves in closer to Streep's anguished face….
“Too angry and stubborn to leave town, or at least proceed more cautiously, Karen pushes on and on, contaminated, possibly cancerous, and sure she that she is going to die…. Meryl Streep, white-faced and haggard, and seemingly so frightened she can barely keep her head from slumping on her chest, conveys the despair of complete isolation…. Silkwood fills us not with righteous anger but with the terror and grandeur of a heedless life turned so awkwardly and passionately toward a terrible singleness of purpose. The movie convinces us both that Karen Silkwood fulfilled her commitment and that she remained a singular and unmanageable person right down to the moment she drove herself--or was pushed--off the edge of the road and into the ditch where she died.”
Dec. 26 1983-Jan. 2, 1984