Meryl Streep’s status as perhaps the best living screen actor can hardly be contested. A record number of seventeen Oscar nominations (and 3 wins) alone attests to this. Streep has played dozens of memorable characters, among them strong women, confused women, loving women, cold women, crazy women…the list goes on. But for anyone who has followed her career closely, a curious pattern emerges. Meryl has played a lot of mothers. A lot.
Meryl has acted in or lent her voice to a good 50 films to date (this is including August: Osage County which just recently debuted at TIFF and well over half of them have her play a mother. So what is it about Meryl Streep that screams maternal? In this feature, we will look at Meryl’s most memorable mother characters and how her motherhood has evolved over the years. Warning: plot spoilers ahead. Though, if you haven’t seen these films, shame on you.
The first time Meryl was brought in to play a mother would also become one of her most notorious mother characters, though hardly her most beloved. This is of course Joanna Kramer from Meryl’s 5th feature film Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) for which she won her first Academy Award. Within the first ten minutes Joanna commits the most cardinal sin a mother can commit: she leaves her husband, Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and most importantly her son, Billy (Justin Henry). For a while the film makes it seem like she won’t recover from this, like she’ll never go back. Throughout the film, however, especially when she reappears to gain custody of Billy, it becomes more and more clear that what at first seems like an irredeemably selfish move was actually quite the opposite. Joanna thought she was doing the best she could in distancing herself from her son whom she thought she would just damage with her unhappiness. In the end, Joanna realizes that to take him away from his father would only hurt him and decides to leave him with Ted. The film and its two principal actors (Hoffman won an Academy Award, too) do a great job of turning what at first seems a black and white situation into a nuanced portrait of parenthood.
Joanna Kramer would become the first of Streep’s mother characters and in many ways signals what would become apparent in the ones to follow as well. Streep’s mothers often have to make tough choices but in the end they usually have their children’s best interest in mind, whether the world understands that or not. Meryl, who by all accounts is a great mother to her four children (her daughters Mamie and Grace are on their way to becoming accomplished actresses themselves) has become known for playing seemingly distant characters, and that’s not just the mothers she’s played. No screen mother is better known for this than Sophie Zawistowska from 1982’s Sophie’s Choice. Sophie’s difficult choice as a mother is so ubiquitous in today’s world that the phrase “Sophie’s choice” to denote having to make a near impossible decision has become part of popular parlance.
Of course the famous choice Sophie was forced to make and can’t forgive herself for is which of her two children to send to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Once again, it’s easy to condemn Sophie for the choice she made but even moreso than Joanna, Sophie was in an impossible situation requiring her to make decisions most human beings never have to do more than think about and shudder. It’s easy to say that Sophie is a bit too cavalier about the whole situation when she recounts it to the film’s narrator Stingo (Peter MacNicol) but this is only true on paper. Streep’s pitch perfect performance tells us everything she has gone through with just a look or a single tear in her eye. It is no wonder that the role of Sophie earned Streep her second Oscar.
Though she played a few mothers inbetween, the next most memorable mother character came for Streep with the role of Lindy Chamberlain in 1988’s A Cry in the Dark. Lindy Chamberlain was a real life Australian mother whose baby daughter Azaria disappeared on a camping trip. Though Lindy maintained from the beginning that a dingo had carried her baby away, she was found guilty for the murder of her child and spent three years in prison before new evidence led to her release and the overturning of her convictions. The film, which earned Meryl her eighth Oscar nomination (though not a win this time) is all about how a mother is perceived by others and how the wish to keep children from harm can cloud all other rational judgments. In the end the fact that Lindy was disliked and judged to be uncaring by the public from the very beginning contributed to her sentence. But once again, Lindy sticks to her story and refuses to apologize for her choices no matter what others think of her. Streep once again manages to insert some humanity and pathos into a character that is deliberately portrayed as unpenetrable and cold.
The 1990s saw Meryl Streep play a whole host of mothers such as Gail in The River Wild (1994), where she plays a woman who must navigate her family on a river raft as they are held hostage by two armed robbers (played by Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly). This film is not exactly critically beloved, showing for maybe the first time in her career that even the mighty Meryl can make some questionable role choices. Two years later, she once again portrayed a mother in Marvin’s Room. Here she plays Lee, mother to Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, after years of no contact, comes back in contact with her sister Bessie (Diane Keaton) who has been caring for their sick father alone. Though this film focuses more on Lee’s role as a sister and daughter, her relationship with Hank is another entry into the difficult motherhood category. Hank has been committed to a mental institution but through unconventional parenting methods such as not sweeping Hank’s mental illness under the rug, Meryl once again plays a mother that has to deal with a difficult situation.
The 2000s saw Meryl play an evil quasi-villain in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate. This would, however, mark a new period in Meryl’s mother characters. Whereas her early career was marked by dramas and bleak situations, the 2000s saw her flex her comedic muscles, with the first of these lighter pictures being 2005’s Prime. Here she plays Lisa, a therapist who, through a series of hijinx, figures out that the young boyfriend her client Rafi (Uma Thurman) has been so happy with recently is actually Lisa’s son David (Bryan Greenberg). Horrified at first at the fact that Rafi is much older than David, that she’s not Jewish and that they might want children together soon, Lisa learns slowly to put her own disagreement with the relationship aside and focus on what her son really wants. Though of course no Sophie’s choice, Lisa’s decisions nevertheless are hard for her to make, making this Streep role not all that out of character.
Probably Streep’s most notable recent mother character came several years later with 2008’s Mamma Mia! Here she plays Donna, who lives on a small Greek island together with her daughter Sophie. Sophie is about to get married and has decided now is finally the time to find out who her real dad is. When Donna finds out that Sophie has invited the three men who could be the father (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård), she is adamant that they leave and reveals to her best friends (Julie Walters and Christina Baranski) that she has kept the identity of Sophie’s father from her because she was so ashamed about not knowing which one it actually is. We also come to find out that she has been hesitant about Sophie marrying young because she doesn’t want her to repeat her own mistakes as a young woman. Though, again, a far cry from the difficult decisions of her early mother characters, Streep does once again play a mother haunted by her own past decisions that just wants to make things right for her children. And it’s mainly because of Streep that this film wasn’t completely critically blasted.
Throughout her career, Meryl Streep has played a whole host of memorable mothers. Just whittling it down to the ones mentioned in this article was a regular Sophie’s choice. All her maternal characters are presented with tough choices and often portrayed by the films they play in as outright negative. However, owing in large part to luminous performances by Streep, many of these mothers have gone down in film history as tragic antiheroes rather than villains. Streep has made a large part of her magnificent career on playing these mothers and if August: Osage County is any indication, she is far from finished with them.
MORE FROM TORONTO FILM SCENE