a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Now, with the announcement that Meryl Streep will be in the lead category and Julia Roberts is now in Supporting(over her dead body!) and that the ending may be changed as well for the former Oscar front-runner “August:Osage County” WHAT is going on over there, there being the Weinstein Co., with that movie?

Stage to page, difficult transition, for this Pulitzer-Prize winner that I adored so much I saw it three times onstage and was delighted that my stay in Toronto for TIFF was just long enough to cram this in. I was even there the first one on line for the Press and Industry screening, as I predicted I would be, dear readers, dear cineastes, but I wasn’t prepared for the mess I saw unspooling before me on the screen.

It starts off fine with Sam Shepherd doing a great turn as Beverly, the doomed patriarch of the Westin family, hiring the only surviving member of the original Bway cast Missie Upton, as the taciturn Indian girl Janaa, he is hiring as a housekeeper for his pill-crazed wife, Violet(Meryl Streep).

It’s a great, showy role, god knows, and Streep eats every piece of scenery in sight, and pretty much chokes on it, which is the problem. She seems not addicted to pills as she claims but to over-acting. I haven’t seen her show-boating a role like this since the remake of “Manchurian Candidate,” which all but ended director Jonathan Demme’s career.

Doing the Oklahoma accent so accurately, and playing an addicted person, pretty much guarantees her a nomination, but no win, in the Best Actress category, where she so rightly belongs.

But since it’s Streep, she doesn’t so much disappear into the character as much as she keeps popping out and waving a white flag, saying “It’s still me! It’s Meryl! I’m not really this evil witch of a character I’m playing! It’s only acting, folks! Don’t be scared.” But this is the problem, it’s also the problem I experienced when I saw Estelle Parsons take over from Deanna Dunagan as Violet Westin on Broadway. Estelle played her warm and cuddly, too, as Meryl does. When Dunagan was just a clear and simple horror. You hated her. You were afraid of her. You couldn’t believe she was doing and saying the things she was doing to all her assembled family. But Dunagan had the hidden plus of being an actress unknown to us. Meryl is hardly that. She’s still adorable, warm and cuddly Meryl under the bad wig and the age make-up.

So you never are really afraid of her. She’s not a dark force, but an amusing one. She doesn’t miss a laugh line. Her comic timing is impeccable. So yes, she will very likely get ANOTHER Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, making her the most nominated actress in Academy history.She’s not the MOM-FROM-HELL you want to escape from, but the wise-cracking fun-loving observant Mom you want to stay with.

But her likability robs the film of its’ dramatic fulcrum. There’s now no antagonist there. And also it reveals “August:Osage County” to have no plot.

And cutting it’s over three hour length onstage(there’s nearly an hour missing) really hurts it, too. Margo Martindale is fine as the plumb sister but her part is virtually gone. On Broadway, Rondi Reed, another Chicagoan actress like Deanna Dunagan, won a Tony as did Dunagan. The part has been so reduced here on film, I doubt that Martindale will get an Oscar nomination.

Violet’s sister is supposed to be the warm and cuddly one, not Violet, so again the play becomes unbalanced. So what, really is going on here? It’s simply a series of humiliation scenes as one by one Violet verbally attacks every single member of her family and alienates them, perhaps forever. But as Streep plays it, she seems to be giving each member of her clan the dose of truth-telling they so sorely need, and you think, yes, she’s right. Her children are all ungrateful, self-absorbed brats.And yes, the deserve a dressing down. At the very least.

And yes, one by one, they leave her. And we all see this coming a mile away in the movie. And the supporting roles of which there are almost too many to list her are all so cut down, it’s hard to feel anything for them, as Violet knocks off each and every one of them almost systemically. Too systemically for a supposed drug addict…

And totally missing to is the part of Janaa, the Indian girl, who in the play presides and oversees the goings on of the crazy white people below, from her attic room in the see-through skeleton of a house that was the brilliant setting of the play onstage. We were always mindful of Janaa watching, watching, watching…and as it turns out, waiting.

And in the climatic scene, which is now gone completely from the movie, we see Violet, pathetically abandoned and alone, crawling up the stairs of the three story house, screaming “Janaa! Janaa!” That is a shattering image I still can’t get out of my mind.

And much is made during the course of the play about the land that the house is on, in fact all of  Osage county, originally belonging to the Indians, and in the end, it is indeed the Indian girl Janaa who is left stoically standing as the whites below massacre, lacerate and abandon each other.

You totally understand why all of them want to get away from Violet. As did her suicided husband Beverly(Sam Shepherd) at the beginning of the play. They flee with reason.

The great, grand surprise of the movie is how good Julia Roberts is as the angry, reasonable daughter, who stands up to her mother. This is now the main conflict of the movie. Almost nothing of Roberts’ role has been cut out for the truncated screen version, and so she has a LOT to play and Roberts to her credit, gives the performance of her career as the daughter who stands up to her mother, but even she can’t take it in the end.

My question is ~ who in the film version would ever leave cuddly, jocular, joke-filled Mamma Mia Meryl Streep? The hour that is lost makes the children now seem like ingrates and Meryl’s Violet is the unjustly abandoned one.

Which is not right. And NOT why I saw this play three times and why it won deservedly the Pulitzer Prize.

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