2020 The Prom-Behind The Scenes, Meryl Streep&Nicole Kidman
2020 The Prom-Behind The Scenes, Meryl Streep&Nicole Kidman

 

2021 "Don't Look Up"-Janie Orlean
2021 "Don't Look Up"-Janie Orlean

03.05.2016 Meryl Streep: “Women’s issues are men’s problem”

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Lynn Enright talks to Meryl Streep about f*ckability in Hollywood, Donald Trump and her new film, Florence Foster Jenkins
“Did you see this? It’s just come out! It’s fantastic!” Meryl Streep is showing me her iPad and a study recently published on the website Polygraph that exposed – using cold, hard data – the sexist skew so present in Hollywood films. “I have,” I say, “in fact, it’s on my list of questions I wanted to ask you.”

“Good girl,” she says, and I feel like melting. Because, when Meryl Streep calls you a “good girl”, it doesn’t feel patronising – it feels lovely, like you’ve just been awarded a prize. She’s exactly as you’d expect: warm, kind, intelligent – all tinkling laugh and soft skin and patrician bone structure and wry asides. She’s a joy. And when she passes on a little of that joy, in a conspiratorial chuckle or a compliment, you share her charmed universe for just a moment. 

What I’m particularly interested in, regarding the Polygraph data and Meryl Streep, is how she has managed to sidestep so many of the pitfalls for women that the study so clearly highlights. “For example,” I say, “the study shows that women are most represented in mainstream cinema, they have the most dialogue, when they are aged 22-31.”

“Yes, the f*ckable age,” she interjects.

“Exactly,” I say, “but for men, it’s much older – they are most represented in their forties.”

“Yes, their forties and fifties.”

How then has Meryl Streep, now aged 66 and as relevant as ever – currently in London to promote Florence Foster Jenkins, a sweet and joyous Stephen Frears-directed story about a deluded opera singer – managed to avoid being sidelined in an industry that is so brutally dismissive of women over 35? And what can other women in Hollywood learn from that?

"I worry about everything. In every marriage, there’s one person who worries about everything and then there’s the other one who says, ‘It’s going to be fine’

“I think, like everything else, it goes back to money,” she says. “And if you have made money for someone and they can’t really figure out why, but it still pays them, they’ll continue to dip into that pot. So, inexplicably at 50, I had the biggest hit I’ve ever had and then another one right after. Commercial hits, I mean. The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia. And I know it took them by surprise. They’d looked at those pieces and thought ‘chick flicks’… And yet they went to the bank on it. And that changed something. For me!”

She’s quick to point out that it’s just “for her”, and perhaps a few fortunate others like Susan Sarandon and Helen Mirren, but it’s not for everyone. The men – and, yes, it is overwhelmingly men – who control the money in Hollywood, and consequently the movies that get made, are desperately conservative, and while they will try to repeat unexpected successes, they are unwilling to believe that the same feat could be undertaken by another actress. 

“I remember when Steven Spielberg made a film called 1941 and it was so expensive. And it was a flop and no one cared. And it goes for actors, too. Actors can be in numerous flops. But an actress – it goes on her head if the film flops.” She pauses, before commencing in a mocking sing-song: “Different rules!”

“But we’ve known this since we were children,” she concludes wearily. 

So how can we change the rules, I wonder. 

“Progress is made when people who are advantaged, and have agency, and are sitting in the room where decisions are made, move over and let other people in: people of colour, people who don’t look like them, and women,” she says. “But so many people who are in that position are wonderful people, and very enlightened, and they talk a good game, but they don’t do it. And it’s not up to us to endlessly have these meetings and deliver the data, it’s up to them to move over and help…”

“And by them, you mean?” I ask.

“Men!” she exclaims loudly. “Men! To put a fine point on it. Men! Women’s issues are men’s problem.”

This fierce desire to see equality in the film industry accompanies every career decision she makes, and she interrogates each script she gets sent from a feminist point of view – “I see everything that way. To a fault – you know, sometimes I can’t relax.”

When she was approached about Florence Foster Jenkins, the real-life story of a wealthy but talentless patron of the arts whose delusions and singing ambitions were encouraged by those she financially supported, Streep saw a woman straining against the conventions of the time. 

“No one else saw it, the writer didn’t see it, nobody else, because how could they see through that lens?” she says. “But I saw the early 20th century. My mother grew up then – I know about women who were highly educated and had a certain amount of ambition. There weren’t women in the professions. There weren’t women doctors and lawyers – except the one-off; very, very unusual situations. It’s not the usual 17 per cent in the room, like we have now. It was one per cent in the room. Or less. So advantaged women, women who had money, became club women. That’s where they wielded their influence. And Florence Foster Jenkins, she was in 60 – 60, imagine it – clubs in New York City. And she was the president of something like 16 of them. That’s a lot of work, fundraising and all that stuff. So that was her realm of influence.”

Florence wielded her influence by funding classical musicians, and so they encouraged her to record albums and perform at Carnegie Hall even though she was the “world’s worst opera singer”. One of her chief supporters was her “husband” (the scare quotes are there because he was a common-law husband and also… well, you have to watch the film…), St Clair Bayfield, played in Frears’ film by Hugh Grant. 

There are some truly heart-wrenching scenes between Grant and Streep as they portray a compromised relationship built on lies, but bound in love. “We are all motivated by self-interest in whatever we do, no matter how selfless we think our feelings are,” Streep says, reflecting on the dysfunctional set-up of Florence and St Clair. “It feels like the doubt we all have in our own lives: are we really loved for who we are?”

Meryl Streep was born in 1949, to a mother who, perhaps unusually for the era, managed to maintain a career after marriage, working part-time as a commercial artist, and a pharmaceutical manager father. Her talent was apparent early on, and her ascent to the top of her profession was steady yet swift. After playing the lead in the school plays (as well as being homecoming queen and on the cheerleading  squad), she began acting seriously at university at Vassar, before going to drama school at Yale. She graduated to the New York theatre scene, earning rave reviews and awards for her work in Shakespeare and Chekhov productions, and then, towards the end of her twenties, she moved into the movies. She received her first Oscar nomination for 1978's The Deer Hunter, her second film, in which she had starred alongside her boyfriend, John Cazale, who died of lung cancer shortly after completing filming. 

"It’s hard not to be plunged into despair over what has been revealed when Trump lifted the rock and we discovered what’s really under there."

In 1979, she made Kramer vs Kramer (for which she won her first Oscar at the 1980s Academy Awards; she has now been nominated for 19 Oscars and won three). And, that same year, as her career took off, she had her first child, with her sculptor husband, Don Gummer. 

She went on to have four children with Gummer: a boy, Henry, in 1979, and three girls, Mamie, Grace and Louisa. Henry is a singer, but all three of her daughters are now actresses. How does that make her feel, I ask.

“Proud,” she says. “Proud. And terrified. Because I know the vagaries of our business, because I know how uncertain it is.”

I wonder, given our earlier conversation, if she also worries about the sexism they’ll face.

“Absolutely – I worry about everything,” she says theatrically. “In every marriage, there’s one person who worries about everything and then there’s the other one who says, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ But, yeah, I do think about [the sexism actresses face] because what you do [as an actor] is not what you wrote or put on the wall … it’s you, it’s your body. And this world, the Google world, people just hover, waiting to tear someone down. I’m so glad I’m not coming up as a young person now. But my kids are. So we’re all screwed.”  

Streep, who describes herself as “very pro-Hillary” does seem to despair of modern America, and is distraught at the mention of Donald Trump. “It’s hard not to be plunged into despair over what has been revealed when Trump lifted the rock and we discovered what’s really under there,” she says. “There’s so much resentment and [Trump] is tapping into that, all the worst fears. He’s scapegoating. It’s the worst.” 

She’s highly critical of the super-rich, or what she describes as “the new world order, that inter-global oligarchy of very rich people”: “You know Wendi Deng goes from Rupert to Putin, this is the world, this is who has the power.”

It seems, though, I say to her, that she can take on anyone, that she sees inequality and unfairness and sexism, and she calls it out – she always has. How does she do that? How does she find that courage? 

“I had a role model,” she says. “My mother just never held back. But she was funny, and it always helps. She said to me, ‘You never win an argument with a man by proving him wrong, but if you make him laugh, he’s disarmed.’”

Meryl Streep is a warm woman, kind and generous, but she can turn that warmth up to a fiery, ferocious heat when she needs to – and, if that’s still not working, she’ll crack a joke. Whatever way, she’ll get you. 

Florence Foster Jenkins is in cinemas from May 6
07.06.2016 11:10:51
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