We’re in this swanky suite in a Knightsbridge hotel. We’re here to discuss Merryl Streep’s role in Mamma Mia! (their exclamation mark, not mine), a film version of the musical in which she plays an older woman called Donna who runs a B&B on a Greek island that has been infected by a terrible plague: nobody can stop singing Abba songs, until some god, in the form of the end credits, intervenes.
The number of people not aware of how this story ends diminishes daily: across the globe more than 17 000 people see the show each night. Before Phyllida Lloyd directed this swift, spirited movie version, 30-million people saw the stage show and it grossed more than $2-billion at the box office.
Streep is the film’s heart and its revelation. She sings! She dances! She does the splits! She confers on her role a dignity that miraculously stops the movie collapsing into mere camp.
“I keep getting asked about the scene with the splits,” says Streep. “They ask—was there a body double? Yeah, right! Or was it CGI? Of course! They grafted my face on to Olga Korbut’s body.” She’s joking. Note to younger readers: Olga Korbut was an adorable, Olympic gold-winning Soviet gymnast of the early 1970s. Streep turned 59 this year.
What really happened? “I just did the splits on instinct. That’s what always happens with my acting. As an actor, you’re not allowed to think. I couldn’t do the splits for you right now.” Couldn’t you just try? “No,” says Streep firmly.
Some critics think that to be singing karaoke Abba songs in a relentlessly cheerful musical is a terrible career misstep. I ask: “Isn’t this role beneath you?”
“I’m not strategising my career moves at all,” replies Streep. “I haven’t got a career that I’m building. When I swim my 55 laps, I try to remember the movies I’ve been in order and I can’t ... the past is just a miasma. There’s no career path.
Streep first saw Mamma Mia! on Broadway seven years ago. She was in a bit of a pickle. She had to dream up an excursion for some friends of Louisa, the youngest of her four children by husband Don Gummer, the sculptor to whom she has been married for the past 30 years. Only one problem: it was October 2001 in Manhattan.
“Everybody was really dimmed spiritually after 9/11. I thought, ‘What am I going to do with the kids?’ So I took all these 10-year-olds to see a matinee of Mamma Mia! They were dancing on their chairs and they were so, so happy. We all went out of the theatre floating on the air. I thought, ‘What a gift to New York right now.’” She sent a thank you letter to the cast.
Producer Judy Cramer and director Phyllida Lloyd saw it and mentally filed it away. They knew that Mamma Mia! would one day be a film. They also knew that Streep had sung with great charm in both Postcards from the Edge and A Prairie Home Companion. Putting two and two together, they realised that Streep would some day be a bella—and perhaps even a prima—Donna. And so she is.
Streep tells the story rather differently. “Judy had seen me as Mother Courage in Tony Kushner’s production [of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children] in Central Park the year before last. That’s what made her know I was destined to be Donna.” How weird—from Brecht to Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.
But why did she accept the role? “It’s a requirement of popular culture that you strike an ironic distance. This doesn’t. It’s a film about women and their whole experiences being hopeful and youthful and older and suffering the regrets that you have over a long life. It’s visceral and I love that.”
I have a different idea as to why Streep was seduced into playing Donna. It was to prove Pauline Kael wrong. Years ago Kael, the late, massively influential New Yorker film critic, wrote that Streep acted only “from the neck up”.
Kael’s bile hurt Streep. “It killed me,” she once said. I suggest to Streep that by taking this role she is, in a very literal, high-kicking way, proving Kael wrong. Few 59-year-old screen actors seem as lively from the neck down as she does as Donna.
“I’m incapable of not thinking about what Pauline wrote,” Streep replies seriously. “And you know what I think? That Pauline was a poor Jewish girl who was at Berkeley with all these rich Pasadena Wasps with long blonde hair and the heartlessness of them got her. And then, years later, she sees me.”
For the record, Streep is no Pasadena Wasp. Her ancestry is a mixture of English, Swiss, Irish and Dutch. On her father’s side she can trace distant Sephardic Jewish ancestors from Spain. But she still has long blonde hair.
“Look, we make these associations,” says Streep. “Pauline had a visceral dislike of me and there’s no movie I could have done to stop that. She made up a person that I’m not.”
But Kael also underestimated Streep’s talent. A more generous critic, Molly Haskell, recently wrote of Streep that “to the extent she does deflect attention from the body to the head, it’s not just in the interest of accents, hair, gimmicks: it’s because the lady thinks. Her characters can have more than one idea in their heads at a time.” Haskell argues that Streep remains singular among great film actresses. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Katharine Hepburn each had a recognisable voice, a way of reading a line, certain expressions that remained constant from film to film. Similarly, with present-day actresses such as Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore or Glenn Close we know what we’re going to get. With Streep, there is no predictable set of characteristics.
Streep balks at the suggestion that she is so protean an actor that there are no constant traces of herself in her characters. “I see myself in everybody I play.” She pauses for a second, looking down. “What I try to do is deepen the humanity of each woman that I play.”
And yet the notion persists that Streep is a chilly actress, a robotic performer. To be sure, that’s not true of her performance in Mamma Mia! Yet Donna is also hardly the kind of tough, complex, challenging woman whom actors of Streep’s generation revelled in playing in the 1970s and 1980s. Hollywood has stopped putting intelligent, difficult women on screen. As Haskell points out, time was when Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Sissy Spacek played “whistle-blowers, union organisers, anthropologists, hookers and writers with raised consciousnesses, in movies of substance that would never get past a story conference today”.
What happened to all those strong celluloid women? “It’s a very big question,” says Streep. “Women’s real change in our society has been disruptive, but feels evolutionarily necessary. So now 60% of the kids in college are women. More than 50% of medical students are women. They’re not at the top in government and business, but there is real change and I think that has terrified everybody. It’s terrified men and it’s terrified women.” As a result, she thinks, “women have performed a compensatory step back”.
Streep starts imagining out loud what the women who have made that step back tell themselves: “‘Even though I want to be paid an equal amount, I still want to appear sexy, I still want to appear fragile, so I’ll lose weight.’ That’s my theory about what women are doing anyway.”
But where does this leave Streep’s most recent film successes, for example The Devil Wears Prada? There she gave us a cruel woman from hell, fashion mag editor Miranda Priestly. Wasn’t she designed to make us more terrified of strong women than we were already?
“I think it’s the opposite. It’s an unusual film because it’s very hard for men to feel through a female protagonist, to feel their way to what a woman feels. But men just don’t want to do it. Who knows why? Maybe it’s just uncomfortable for them. But with The Devil Wears Prada, many men loved the character because they thought: ‘That’s me. I’m misunderstood. All I want to do is run things cleanly and clear away the bullshit.’ A lot of people feel that—underappreciated in the job they do. But it’s so rare for men to empathise with a woman’s plight.”
“The relationship between men and women is key to what’s going on,” she says. “I think it’s really behind a lot of what we call fundamentalism.” What sort of fundamentalism do you mean? “I was thinking of the Pope saying women can’t be priests. That’s fundamentalism.”
A PR minder comes in and says there’s time for one more question. It proves to be the worst of the interview. Is there any reason to hope that our evolution will be more comfortable gender-wise than it has been hitherto? That girlish laugh sounds again. “Well, we can all stay friends and have sex, it seems to me.” Let’s hope. Indeed, that does seem to be the moral of Mamma Mia! - if you care to seek a moral at all.—