Streepathon Stop #3: Silkwood
"I'm doin' somethin' good." -Karen Silkwood
Time: 1983 (9th film)
Role: Karen Silkwood, blue-collar worker and whistleblower
Awards: 5th oscar nom, GG (drama) nom, BAFTA nom; KCFCC (Kansas City Critics) win
Fun Fact #1: This was the first time Streep had played a real person, and also the first time Streep had sung in a film (she gives an intimate rendition of "Amazing Grace").
Fun Fact #2: This was Streep's first collaboration with Mike Nichols. He has since directed her again on stage (The Seagull), in film (Postcards and Heartburn), and in television (Angels in America).
Fun Fact #3: Streep was pregnant with her second child during filming (and were those real cigarettes she smoked?).
Fun Fact #4: Meryl and Cher became close friends during the making of Silkwood and would remain close for some time. When Cher won an oscar over also-nominated Streep in 1988, she thanked Meryl in her speech for her friendship and guidance.
Meryl & Karen: (right & left) Joined in spirit if not in looks.
Film Review: If Erin Brockovich were a tragedy, it would be called Silkwood.
Part Erin Brockovich and part Dancer in the Dark, this beautiful film is a portrait of a brave, flawed woman who got a trip to heaven for her troubles instead of Erin's million-dollar check. As states the film's catchphrase, "Karen Silkwood was on her way to meet with a reporter from the New York Times. She never got there."
This is a simple film about simple people, made with the utmost care and attention to craft. It tells the story of Karen Silkwood, an employee in an Oklahoma nuclear plant, her boyfriend Drew Stephens, and her lesbian best friend, Dolly Pelliker. Their story begins happily and casually, but Karen's life and her friends' lives change drastically once she realizes that their workplace is frighteningly unsafe. Once Karen herself is contaminated by nuclear radiation and becomes ever more aware of the plant's corruption, she starts working with the union to make her story public. Unfortunately, all does not end well.
Streep, Kurt Russel, and Cher shine in the three main roles, with both Streep and Cher playing against the types they'd been pegged with up to the time. Streep plays her earthiest and funniest character yet (and also flashes the audience briefly... blink and you'll miss it), while Cher deglams to perfection as a dowdy butch lesbian. And Russell... well... let's just say that I'd NEVER been so attracted to him before. At all. But here, he's absolute perfection (and totally swoon-worthy) as Karen's gruff but loving boyfriend, Drew. Robbed of an oscar nom, he was (I seriously wanted him so bad while watching this... I'm not kidding... I don't really even understand why, but lust is like that). Together, the three of them are quite the formidable group. Throw in a fun supporting cast, including Sudie Bond and a young David Strathairn as co-workers at the plant, and you've got quite the tight ensemble.
At first glance, this is just your usual tale of the working class fighting back against "the man", but the lovely romance, comedy, and humanity on display set it apart from other examples of this genre. Mike Nichols' assured, low-key direction feels just right, bringing out the universality of longing in these characters and their situation, and the beautiful musical score is alternately placid and stirring, expertly creating a peaceful, pastoral feel to the proceedings and then shattering it when things go wrong. One masterful touch in the music is how it swells into an epic sweep during the most intimate moments between characters; Mike Nichols knows when to punctuate a seemingly "small" scene, and how effective that emphasis can be. One scene between Streep and Cher, in which Karen sings Dolly a lullaby on the porch, is pure gold.
In that scene and throughout the rest of the film, the acting all feels real and organic; the characters are strong and compelling, and never feel less than human... though sometimes more than human, particularly one Karen Silkwood. Despite all the film's obvious social relevance (worker safety and unionization, gay tolerance, etc.), this is really just a story about Karen Silkwood, and the unlikely course her life took. This is her story - her journey - and by the end, she seems an almost mythical figure, growing ever stronger and more beautiful as she heads toward her imminent demise. The film around her is not half bad either; in fact, I'd say it's a masterpiece. Easily one of Nichols' (and Streep's) best films.
Streep Review: Long story short: Meryl is awesome in the film. While this is not my absolute favorite of her performances (that honor is still reserved for Sophie's Choice), it's definitely one of her best. Silkwood revealed a new playfulness and grittiness in Streep that viewers hadn't seen before (not even in Sophie Zawistowsky). She handles the romance, comedy, pathos, and flashing with ease.
I have, however, started to notice chinks in Streep's dialect armor; there are several moments in this where the dialect doesn't feel quite "right on." This is probably the result of my watching TOO MUCH Meryl Streep for too long, but I'm starting to appreciate the slight slips in form that she herself has admitted. She is not a god, after all, as much as I love to think otherwise. Still, Meryl is awesome here, at once ballsy and totally vulnerable, compassionate and coolly distanced, bawdy and deeply sensitive. Her Karen Silkwood is a marvel, the best perf in the Streepathon so far.
Rest in peace, Ms. Silkwood, and keep on truckin', Ms. Streep.
Next in the marathon: Plenty