It’s one of those secrets that we keep even from ourselves that great acting, everything that we know in terms of consummate histrionic technique and achievement, tends to be something we experience from some form of smaller makeshift screen. Once upon a time this was a television screen and now may well be some form of cybernetic mutant but it’s still true that a fair bit of the world’s great acting along with so much of the great films of the past come to us at one or two removes. In some ways this is highlighted by the fact that live performance along with cinema is there to enjoy again. Who does not want to see Hamilton? Or the new American family mystery play, Appropriate, the Sydney Theatre Company are doing with Sam Worthington, or Robyn Nevin’s one woman show A German Life which is touring nationally, thank God? Even the Oscars are finally looming and we’ll get the chance to see whether Anthony Hopkins can win another one at the age of 83 for his performance in The Father – not the harrowing play by Strindberg but Florian Zeller’s Alzheimer’s play adapted from the French by Christopher Hampton, told from the point of view of the sufferer, which I saw a few years ago performed as well as you could imagine by John Bell.
All of which is by way of saying that I’ve been watching Meryl Streep, directed by Steven Soderbergh, no less, in Let Them All Talk. Now most of us haven’t seen Meryl Streep on stage, although she’s one of those actors who carries her theatre with her so that we don’t have to have seen her Mother Courage to know how stunning and sumptuous she was as Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels or Ethel Rosenberg and the Mormon mother in Mike Nichols’ production of Angels in America, or how she appropriates not only Margaret Thatcher’s voice but her very soul in The Iron Lady. Now we have her in Let Them All Talk along with a couple of her starry contemporaries, Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest, and you know from the get go that this show is going to be a showcase of great acting.
It is, for what that’s worth. Meryl plays a famous novelist who wins the Footling Award (great name) and because she hates flying proceeds at her publisher’s expense to travel to Britain on the Queen Mary II in the company of two of her oldest friends whose lives she ransacked, whose griefs and loves she paraded in the novels that made her famous.
For the ride as the action goes on in this stately moving shopping mall which might in Faulkner’s phrase be a mausoleum of all desire, there’s a young English publishing girl, Gemma Chan and a gormless but nice nephew Lucas Hedges. Everything about Let Them All Talk is destined to be a winner except the central idea of the writer which never comes through convincingly in the script.
Whenever Hollywood attempts to doff its cap to the higher art of literature you tend to get the novelese and middle brow gestures of scriptwriters on heat, angling for a higher vision.
None of which stops the trio of grand dames from acting like goddesses. Streep’s pawns Candace Bergen and Dianne Wiest exhibit a world of resentment and fragility and the upshot is acting that is shrewdly observed and superb and at a deliberatly different angle from the grandeurs of La Streep who does deliver magnificently in the face of the rather aspirational dialogue which she just treads under her feet.
By chance I happened to watch a couple of great actors in old movies available on the streamers in adaptations of novels. There was a very young Richard Burton with Olivia de Havelland in My Cousin Rachel from the Daphne du Maurier novel and Michael Redgrave (much better cast than his successor Michael Caine) as the world weary old journalist in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American directed by Joe Mankiewicz of All About Eve fame – the man who brilliantly cast Marlon Brando in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and in Guys and Dolls and alas, filmed Taylor and Burton in his own version of Cleopatra rather than Shakespeare’s. Mankiewicz changed the ending of The Quiet American and Greene wrote in cold scorn to say that he thought his reputation might outlast the filmmaker’s.
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