Meryl Streep has gone broader in her acting as her career has continued to explode. Between a vicious nun, Julia Child, a scathing magazine editor and Margaret Thatcher, her roles as an ordinary everywoman from “Manhattan” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” have somewhat faded in memory.
With a role like Violet Weston, Streep is playing the broadest and vilest in her career. The character from Tracy Letts’s play “August: Osage County”, unseen by me, is infamous, and people have been quick to label Streep as merely scene-chewing. Her challenge as an actress is to rise above the bigness and vices of her character, to show a wounded, sympathetic and tragic figure underneath all the bile.
When we first meet her in “August: Osage County,” she’s worn, frumpy and unrecognizable, sporting the thin hairdo she had in the concentration camp in “Sophie’s Choice,” this time ravaged by chemo therapy. But with her big black wig on or not, she shows no vulnerability in taking swipes at her family while being slightly endearing in the process.
Violet’s husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) has just disappeared and subsequently committed suicide, and the whole family has arrived in their small hometown in Oklahoma to comfort her.
Barbara (Julia Roberts) is the oldest of the three Weston daughters, including the single and lonely Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and the bubbly airhead Karen (Juliette Lewis). Barbara harbors the most hatred toward her mother, sick of Violet’s judgments, personal attacks and even drug addiction to pain killers. She was lucky enough to escape Oklahoma, but visiting her old home brings out some tension between her and her teen daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and separated husband Bill (Ewan McGregor). Joining them is Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her family, the tender and modest Charles (Chris Cooper) and the slightly mentally slow “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).
What we get from these characters is a colorful class divide in a curious part of middle America. Not quite the Midwest and not quite the Deep South, Letts (who also wrote the screenplay and managed to trim nearly an hour from his play) evokes the rustic family dynamic of the Oklahoma region through these characters’ big personalities, busy mouths and biting sarcasm.
Both the film and the play’s centerpiece is a 20+ minute dinner table scene that teeters between comedic broad strokes and poignant gravitas. It’s a scene full of Violet’s “truth telling” in which one-by-one the attendees are humiliated.
Director John Wells seems to sit back and allow his actors to dictate the tone of the scene, and they deliver. Roberts sheds her signature smile and gives her character’s short fuse true nuance and fire.
She however is no real match for Streep. She goes around the room spitting fire at each of her family members, with Martindale her equally compelling partner in crime. And while her warrior mentality to destroy each person with her words will be memorable to most, she finds the true meat of her character in her disapproving glares. Streep has always been a more expressive than physical actress, but she makes full use of her body in this scene, slouching and tilting her head with despicable vigor.
It’s these quieter moments and gestures amidst titanic family drama that makes these characters feel real. Streep will remind many of Elizabeth Taylor’s groundbreaking performance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” but Letts allows for some nuanced shades that show that there’s a real relationship in this family beneath all the hate.
Really it’s the whole cast that’s capable of making “August” feel authentic. Breslin is apathetic and rebellious. Cumberbatch is emotional and fragile. Dermot Mulroney plays a mercenary playboy engaged to Lewis’s ditzy sprite. All of these people, not just Streep, fit into broad character types but avoid becoming cartoons. Letts truly knows his characters. He makes them intellectual as well as comedic, never a parody.
Most critics will look to a film adaptation of a play to see how they’ve made it cinematic. “August: Osage County” may not elevate its source material by moving to the screen. And whereas on stage everyone is playing to the back of the house, Wells’s film may be louder, more histrionic and melodramatic.
But if there’s ever a reason we come to the movies to see performances as large as this, it’s because of actresses like Streep. If this is the broadest role of her career, so be it. She owns every minute.