THE BECK/SMITH VAULT:Meryl Streep: The Woman Behind the Mystique

Meryl Streep in "Kramer vs. Karamer"

Meryl Streep in "Kramer vs. Kramer"

10-03-1981

Meryl Streep: The Woman Behind the Mystique

By: Marilyn Beck

Hollywood – The media has made Meryl Streep a legend before her time – and it doesn’t please her.

The nation’s news magazines have heralded her coming in “French Lieutenant’s Women” with the sort of superlatives that have been heaped upon few actresses since Sarah Bernhart. And she’s scared.

Newsweek has hailed her as the actress of the ’80s.

Time Magazine, in its recent cover story, was so blinded by adoration it reported there had been “an astonishing public clamor” for her even prior to the “Kramer vs. Kramer” portrayal which earned her a Best Supporting actress Oscar.

She refers to it all as excessive – and unsought – hype. And she makes the point, “I am not the actress of the ’80s. Someone said it to sell magazines – and it sets up expectations it’s impossible for anyone to meet.”

Her talent is undeniable; her track record remarkable, her achievements particularly stunning when you consider that she is only six years removed from the Yale School of Drama. And her performance in United Artists’ brilliant adaptation of the John Fowles novel is truly magnificent. But she feels she still has much growing to do as a woman and as an actress – and she’s afraid she’s not being given the chance to fail.

Thus far, she has been a stranger to failure, having been swept almost immediately from Yale to leading roles in six major Broadway and off-Broadway productions, and then on to films, where she made indelible impressions in TV’s “Holocaust” and the big-screen’s “The Deer Hunter,” “Manhattan,” “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” – and “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

But she is well aware, “Everyone has to fail, And I’m scared of being robbed of that opportunity.”

She sits in her New York hotel suite, resting before she submits to television promotional activities for the “French Lieutenant’s Woman,” which marks her first starring role. She is prettier on screen, where she has the benefit of lighting and theatrical makeup, which soften the sharpness of her features, minimize the angular line of her nose, and heighten the importance of her small, expressive eyes. But in person, a directness and warmth radiates from her. There is a candidness, too.

She talks about the growth she has witnessed in herself since the days she starred in college productions and says, “I came off with much more energy then, but I didn’t have what I have now.”

She smiles as she repeats the cliché about acting, “you don’t have to be a murderer to play one.” But she adds that growth does come from “all the incredible life experiences one has, as well as the drudgery we all experience – doing the laundry, getting painters back to complete a job.”

Her life has been touched by stark tragedy (the death of her lover, actor John Cazale, of bone cancer in 1978) and great joy (her marriage to sculptor Don Gummer and the birth of their son in 1979). She is, like all of us, the sum of her past experiences. But she remains, to a degree, inscrutable. “I think all of us are. Even our analysts don’t know who we are.”

She doesn’t mind telling us, “I am not self-confident – as people assume I am. I am filled with insecurities.” And she carries a bag of fear.

Returning to the subject of the superlatives that are being heaped upon her, she says, “I can’t take any pleasure in it. I feel very paranoid about it. When I think of what the press did to a marvelous man like John Travolta. They raved about him in ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ then tore him apart when he made his next movie. And I must tell you I have this terrible fear they’re sharpening their knives for me now.”

She has certainly not gone out of her way to become the media’s darling. And being singled out for the attention she’s receiving makes her fear, “It will damage the way I walk into a rehearsal hall. An actor is only as effective as what he or she gets and gives from other actors. It is a collaborative effort.”

Director Karel Reisz reveals that Meryl’s reputation did cause some trepidations on the part of her “French Lieutenant’s Woman” co-star Jeremy Irons when production on the picture first began. “But within a week she managed to get it out of the way. She is an ensemble performer. She doesn’t behave like a star.”

And Irons, the English actor who makes her big-screen debut as the 19th century aristocrat who is obsessed with love for the French Lieutenant’s woman, describes Meryl as “strong, opinionated – and nearly always right. She gnaws at a problem until she finds its solution.”

Filming the movie in England was good for her, he says, because, “Unlike America, stars are not to be revered over there. We don’t have the machinery to produce them ourselves – so we hold them a little in suspect. And while she was there, she could go shopping and not be mobbed, and not have to worry about security and all that.”

Security – for herself and her family – does preoccupy Meryl over here. It’s one of the prices she finds she has to pay for stardom And she doesn’t like it. Stardom, she’s also finding, means “having to change your phone number every five minutes, it seems, and having people look at you differently.”

Her ability to adapt speech patterns and mannerisms for her various characterizations was born, she says, of her talent for mimicry. “I would observe people on the street and imitate them But I can’t do that any longer. You can’t watch someone who is watching you, and that is what happens when you become famous.”

If fame causes her anxiety, her love her craft seems to make it all worthwhile – and more.

“It is fun, it is fakery,” she says with an easy smile. “It is very liberating to be an actress. And probably the only thing I could ever do, because I get bored very easily. I have a very short attention span. I have never been in a long run of a play and would probably die if I were. Film acting is the perfect profession for me.”

Even if it has brought with it the pressures she abhors.