Becoming Meryl Streep
By Michael Schulman; HarperCollins. 293 pp. $26.99
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Reviewed by Carrie Rickey
'Superlatives stick to her like thumbtacks," Michael Schulman writes early in his chronicle of the making of America's most-acclaimed actress. It is a sign that he comes not to bury her, but to puncture her with praise.
The book's title comes courtesy of Streep's 2012 Oscar acceptance speech for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. "When they called my name," she said, "I had this feeling, I could hear half of America going, 'Ohhh, no. Oh, come on. Why? Her again?' " Schulman reads this performance as "undermining her perceived superiority while putting it on luxurious display."
And I thought the most-nominated actor in Oscar history was being wryly funny.
Schulman charts Streep's progress from 1966 to 1980, from her crowning as the homecoming queen of Bernards High School in Bernardsville, N.J., to winning her first Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer. Schulman writes beautifully but laces many of his observations with snark.
As he tells it, Streep early on practiced the art of transformation, an alchemy key to her personal and professional life. At 14, the awkward teen chucked braces and glasses and "doused her hair in lemon juice and peroxide until it gleamed like gold. She studied teen magazines and "ate an apple a day - and little else," Schulman writes. "She found that she could mimic other people's behavior with faultless precision, like a Martian posing as an Earthling." He calls her an "impostor."
And I thought she sounded like so many teenagers I know trying on personas for size.
Although she was the star of high school musicals - Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, Daisy Mae in Li'l Abner - Streep didn't take acting seriously. At Vassar, a women-only institution until Streep's junior year, a drama teacher was impressed by her readings of A Streetcar Named Desire and Miss Julie.
Drama professors noted her imaginative empathy. Her speech teacher assigned an improvisation: Get on the stage and imagine that after 50 years in the theater, you are taking your final curtain call. Streep effortlessly assumed the carriage of a woman half a century older and made her audience of five weep.
At last, Schulman's writing is without barbs. But not for long.
For graduate school, Streep attends what her classmate, future playwright Wendy Wasserstein, called the "Yale School of Trauma." It was during the turbulent tenure of dean Robert Brustein, which coincided with the turbulent years of the last years of Vietnam, President Richard M. Nixon, and Watergate. Sigourney Weaver was at Yale for much of the same time, but Streep was a Brustein favorite, receiving most of the plum roles. Schulman quotes an anonymous actress who complained to Yale president Kingman Brewster: "You know, there are people paying to go to this school, and they're never getting a chance to act."
When the graduates of the Yale Class of 1975 marched into Old Campus in their dark caps and gowns, Streep was in a white picnic dress, the sunlit spot of light in a sea of black. Schulman writes, "Once again, Meryl had done everyone better."
Once again, he assumes Streep's motive is to upstage. Is he unaware of antiauthoritarian college graduates of the 1970s who repudiated cap and gown as props of the establishment?
She auditioned for Joe Papp, populist impresario of New York's Public Theater, and was immediately cast in a series of plays that showed her virtuosity, breadth, and depth. In 1976, she was cast as the chaste nun Isabella opposite John Cazale's libertine Angelo in Measure for Measure. Their onstage give-and-take led to their offstage intimacy. Cazale, an actor's actor 15 years her senior, was well-known for his role as Fredo in The Godfather and Sal in Dog Day Afternoon.
She won a small role in Julia (1977). You can see her briefly at the bar in Sardi's. Jane Fonda had to tell her where her mark was and much of her part got cut. She thought she would never do another movie.
But Cazale, who had lung cancer, was coughing up blood. She took a role in The Deer Hunter to be with him on the set. She was at his bedside at Sloan-Kettering when he died in 1978. She threw herself into her work, bunked down at the loft of Don Gummer, a friend of her brother's, and wed him six months later. "Six months. That's how long it took," Schulman writes. Is he being judgmental?
And I thought that living around death and loss for a year may have made Streep want to embrace the living.
The book's best chapter is about the making of Kramer vs. Kramer, about how costar Dustin Hoffman goaded Streep into using her grief about Cazale to play her role. (As Schulman correctly observes, that's the way Hoffman, not Streep, worked.) And about how director Robert Benton enlisted her help to rewrite a speech to make her character more dimensional.
I would say this chapter justifies buying the book, but Schulman's tone is so annoying I'll say this: Go to the library and read that chapter excerpted in the April Vanity Fair and save yourself $26.