Just to begin with: Jimmy Stewart may have been the exception that proved the rule. In his movies, he embodied all-American decency and quiet courage. But for once the image wasn’t just Hollywood hokum, as it was, and is, with so many other movie stars. On the contrary, the real-life Jimmy Stewart was even more awesome than the one on screen. He was a war hero who led bombing missions over Germany and who, after his return to motion pictures, included in his studio contracts a clause forbidding any mention of his wartime heroics in movie publicity. Highly respected by his military colleagues for his unwavering courage, humility, and deep concern for his men’s well-being, he remained in the Air Force reserve and ultimately rose to the rank of brigadier general.
Meryl Streep has a glowing reputation, too. Unlike Stewart, she’s famous not for projecting a single admirable image but for the opposite: her seemingly magical versatility. She’s played a staggering variety of characters in a wide range of genres, perfecting the accents of people from Poland, Denmark, Italy, the Bronx, Minnesota, the American South, various parts of England, and New Zealand. For a long time, moreover, her appearances at awards ceremonies were invariably appealing: her acceptance speeches exuded a convincing modesty and professionalism, the implication always being that she was just one more woman who worked hard at a job she enjoyed.
Indeed, for a long time, a big part of Meryl’s appeal was that, even though she was the most decorated movie star of the day, she seemed to keep Hollywood itself at a distance. She’d been married for decades to the same man, who wasn’t in show business; they lived quietly in Connecticut; they’d never been subjects of tabloid gossip. Like the late Katharine Hepburn, Meryl enjoyed gardening and did her own dishes.
But then, gradually, the image changed. Streep’s politics became more and more clear. Only politics could have driven her to accept a role in Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs (2007), a deadening, plotless talkfest that hit the viewer over the head with its far-left ideology and Hollywood self-righteousness. Four years later, Meryl was terrific as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, but the movie itself was a hatchet job, giving short shrift to the three-time PM’s accomplishments and presenting her remarkable story in fragmentary flashback, framed by images of her as a doddering, senile widow. We all grow old, if we’re lucky: why choose to present Thatcher, of all people, in this way? Streep could have demanded a different script; that she approved of this one suggested that she wasn’t out to burnish the Iron Lady’s legacy but to take her down a peg.
Meanwhile, Streep’s awards-show appearances became – well, a good deal less appealing. At the 2004 Oscars, we saw a Meryl who leapt out of her seat to initiate a standing ovation for child molester Roman Polanski when he won Best Director for The Pianist. Then, at this year’s Golden Globes, she channeled the very worst type of Hollywood sanctimony. Donald Trump was about to be inaugurated as president, and Meryl delivered a lecture in which she presented her own privileged self, and the equally privileged members of the star-studded audience, as victims:
“You, and all of us in this room, really belong to the most vilified segment of American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners, and the press….Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing else to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”
Of course, nobody had ever talked about kicking out all foreigners. And why pick on football and MMA? We’d always admired Meryl for her ability to inhabit all kinds of characters and capture them with remarkable delicacy. We kind of assumed, perhaps without really thinking about it, that her ability to embody these characters meant she had respect for them.
But now she sounded like one more vapid Tinseltown leftist, telling a movie-star audience exactly what they wanted to hear: first, that their “art,” their exquisite sensitivity, made them special; second, that in this regard they were the very opposite of the president-elect, a vulgar “bully.” Implicit in all this was that their ability to stand in front of cameras and pretend to be somebody else put them on a higher moral plane than a man who’d constructed iconic buildings, created a billion-dollar business, and gotten himself elected president. Also implicit was that they, as artistes, weren’t just superior to Trump but to the “deplorables” who’d elected him.
Meryl cited a story about Trump mocking the disability of a reporter – even though the story had already been exposed as a lie. And she spoke loftily, self-importantly, of “the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.” The message was clear: we in Hollywood have empathy; that clown who’s about to move into the White House does not.
Meryl’s anti-Trump jeremiad got precisely the response she expected. The applause was thunderous. Vanity Fair called the speech “an instant classic.” Responsibility! Empathy!
And yet this was the same woman who, in 2012, on accepting the Golden Globe for The Iron Lady, had thanked “my agent, Kevin Huvane, and God, Harvey Weinstein.” The same lady who, in recent weeks, as the endless stream of facts about Weinstein’s history of sexual abuse began to pour out, at first kept mum and finally – after things had plainly reached a tipping point – issued a statement.
Unlike her Golden Globes speech, which throbbed with heartfelt passion, that statement read like the work of a publicist. “The disgraceful news about Harvey Weinstein,” it began, “has appalled those of us whose work he championed, and those whose good and worthy causes he supported. The intrepid women who raised their voices to expose this abuse are our heroes.”
So far, so OK. But Meryl wasn’t just eager to join in the now-swollen chorus of condemnation. She wanted to insist that she’d been in the dark about Weinstein’s infamous history: “One thing can be clarified. Not everybody knew….I didn’t know about these other offenses: I did not know about his financial settlements with actresses and colleagues; I did not know about his having meetings in his hotel room, his bathroom, or other inappropriate, coercive acts.”
The desperation of those denials is palpable. So is their dishonesty. Meryl sounds for all the world like a guilty defendant on the witness stand. “I did not know….I did not know.” One is reminded of Nixon (“I am not a crook”) and Bill Clinton (“I did not have sex with that woman”).
A quarter century ago, someone who is close to me, and who was then a very young person working in production at a major studio, went to Weinstein’s then company, Miramax, for a job interview. Just walking into the place turned her off. She’d been in the business for a few years. She’d been treated respectfully. Nothing untoward had ever happened. But at Miramax, it was different. It felt different. The atmosphere instantly gave her the creeps. The people were rude. The place had, in her words, a “sleazy” vibe. She split, pronto. Later, she heard Weinstein stories of the sort we’re all hearing now.
Now, Meryl has known Weinstein for decades. She worked with him on Music of the Heart (1999), on August: Osage County (2013), and on The Giver (2014). Are we seriously supposed to believe that this legendarily super-sensitive soul never felt that “sleazy” vibe? Or that during these almost two decades she never heard so much as a whisper about any of Weinstein’s abuses?
Remember, this is a woman who saw fit, days before the inauguration of a U.S. president, to use a lie to smear him as a “bully” on national TV. Her film-world colleagues cheered her supposed courage.
Perhaps they’re all so used to playing pretend that they don’t know real courage from a facsimile.
No, Meryl’s not alone. Dozens of other female stars took days to get around to condemning Weinstein. Some have shared stories of abuse – by him or other moguls – dating back to the very beginnings of their careers. Jennifer Lawrence, for example, tells of a cattle call at which she and several other girls were ordered to strip – whereupon Lawrence, then a teenager, was told by one (female) producer that she was overweight, while another (male) producer told her that, despite her weight, she was still “fuckable.”
She could have walked out then and there, as my friend walked out of Miramax after merely sensing a whiff of sleaze. But Lawrence’s hunger for fame eclipsed her self-respect. Now, like Meryl, she’s an Oscar winner. Congratulations.
One wonders: how many equally gifted (or more gifted) actresses sensed or glimpsed or experienced the degeneracy and walked away from Hollywood entirely, choosing to pursue careers in other lines of work – professions in which they didn’t have to keep their mouths shut while being treated like hunks of meat, professions in which they weren’t constantly giving one another awards and applauding their own avowed moral superiority? How many mute inglorious Meryls have become doctors or teachers, cooks or salespeople or scientists, rather than allow themselves to be pulled down into the fetid swamp of Hollywood horniness and hypocrisy?