Mute Inglorious Meryls?
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: