Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter - Supporting Actress Sundays

Screening The Deer Hunter for the first time caused StinkyLulu to develop an attitude problem. See, StinkyLulu finds it just creepy and annoying that "one of the most important and powerful films of all time", before it's even 1/4-way done, stages not one but two separate scenes in which a blonde in a pink bridesmaid dress gets punched in the face. As a device -- perhaps -- to demonstrate the brutality of life on the "homefront" the blonde-punching might make a certain kind of sense...a certain kind of gratuitous, hyperbolic and misogynist sense. (We won't get into how lazy it is that, even as Cimino lugubriously details the distinctive "pain" of each of his 6 or 7 male characters, the female characters are basically old bats, drunk sluts, catatonic brides or designated punching bags.) But, then again, everything about Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter is gratuitous, hyperbolic -- and, on those infrequent occasions when Cimino pauses to think about women at all -- "punched up" with misogyny. Just pisses StinkyLulu off...'specially when one of those punching bags just happens to be...
approximately 30 minutes and 56 seconds
25 scenes
roughly 17% of film's total running time

Meryl Streep plays Linda, the girl caught between her devotion to her fiance Nick (Christopher Walken) and her attraction to his incredibly hot (nsfw) best friend Michael (Robert DeNiro), both of whom -- as the movie begins -- are readying for tours in Vietnam.

The character of Linda is barely a character at all. As scripted, she's little more than the all-purpose movie "girl" -- the good girl, the girl at home, the kind of girl a guy marries, the girl whose picture the fighting soldier holds close to his heart, the girl who writes the "dear john" letter, the girl who works at the market in the hometown that never feels like home again to the returning veteran, the girl that got away... Linda's an archetype, a symbol, a stock character drawn in bold, unoriginal strokes. That is, until an emerging actress named Meryl Streep took the role.

Meryl Streep does more than spin gold from straw in her performance; Streep retrieves a fully-inhabited characterization from a role that's not so much a character as a pathetically underconceptualized plot device. Through the forceful clarity of her performance and the (mostly wordless) chemistry she establishes with DeNiro's Michael and even a little bit of goofiness, Streep's Linda becomes one of the most vivid presences in Cimino's film.

Truly, Streep acts her butt off in this thankless prop of a part. Her Linda is beautiful, gentle, a little bit dangerous and absolutely riveting. What's more, even though I'm left with no idea “who” Linda is, Streep’s emotional intricacies make me care about Linda anyway. I may not understand "who" Linda is, but I have no doubt "that" she is a living, breathing, complicated woman. Hers is a curious accomplishment. She's in the film, but somehow not of the film.

Streep's performance as Linda proclaimed her arrival on the screen as perhaps THE film actress of her generation. Her performance is vastly greater than the role, more emotionally substantial in some ways (at least for StinkyLulu) than the film. And while StinkyLulu somehow, for some reason, stops short of loving the performance, this much is clear: Meryl Streep's admirable and memorable performance as Linda in The Deer Hunter proclaimed her arrival as an actressing force to be reckoned with.

Now, if only she had punched back...


qta said...

Love this breakdown of La Streep's performance. Oh, and I tagged you for the 8 things meme.

RBurton said...

There are too many perfect moments in this performance to count.

This viewing, I noticed something when Michael first arrives home. He's walking her to work and they stop to chat with someone. While they talk, she checks her reflection in a shop window and fixes her hair. For a woman who didn't mind showing up bruised and battered to a wedding, she now wants to look perfect for Michael on his first day back.

And as I said in the smackdown comments, she gets that accusatory glance at the end which you included as the last picture. In seconds, you know just how she feels about Nick's death and who she blames.

You're right. It's a thankless prop of a part. But somehow Linda is the most dimensional character of the 1978 Supporting Actress nominees.

Meryl is GOD.

StinkyLulu said...

I noticed that reflection-check too. So specific and cute.

My favorite, though, is all the gawkiness she lets happen when she and Michael are dancing at the wedding and he offers to get her a beer. He leaves, but before he comes back to take her along, she's just an awkward goofy girl. Freeze framing those moments (one's in the smackdown) gives all kinds of great mini-expressions. (It's also right before my favorite line of hers in the film, the one where she says "Yah, well, it's a wedding you're supposed to have fun" or somesuch.)

I also love that moment in the aisle of the market where she realizes that Michael just asked her on a date and she said yes.

I'm still really peeved at Cimino for the movie, but I should give him some/more credit for keeping all that unscripted Meryl in...

RBurton said...

What don't you like about the movie itself?

And I opened that Robert Deniro picture at work, despite all warnings. I have no regrets.

criticlasm said...

I noticed that mirror check moment as well. It's why the perf works for me (and all of hers), she's so present in what she does that it all works. I saw her live in Central Park in the Seagull, and mentioned to a friend my favorite little hysterical thing she did, and he said "oh, she didn't do that when I saw her". It's all so fresh. Can't wait to see her and Redgrave on the screen together in Evening!

Anna said...

That sound you hear, SL, is me applauding loudly your blisteringly accurate critique of the character of Linda as written. And it is maddening.

Nice tribute to Streep, too.

popebuck1 said...

BTW, Streep later admitted that she hated the part even before she signed up for it. She took the role entirely to be with her NY theatre friend John Cazale, who was dying of cancer at the time (and who, I believe, died before the movie came out).

StinkyLulu said...

Thanks for that tidbit, popebuck. Makes TOTAL sense. It also helps to explain a dynamic I noticed in Cazale's scenes with DeNiro: DeNiro often regards Cazale with an incredible tenderness. Basically, in certain scenes, DeNiro looks at Cazale with a blazing devotion -- like the kind Streep's Linda looks at DeNiro's Michael. I was trying to figure what was up with that and this detail might help to contextualize it. Thanks!