There is a story that Jack Nicholson, after reading the script for Terms of Endearment (1983), called a friend and said if he could find someone to take a bet that Nicholson would win the next Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, then he would surely win the bet.
Nicholson, playing Garrett Breedlove, a former astronaut-playboy living next door to Shirley MacLaine’s Aurora Greenway, was never in doubt.
When Garrett spurns his usual young companions and asks his next door neighbour, the similarly-aged Aurora, to lunch it begins an affair that starts off badly but ends in happiness.
After Aurora dumps Garrett in the surf while he is showing off by driving his sports car, standing up and using his feet to steer, the next scene shows them outside their respective houses. Aurora asks the dripping Garrett if he would like to come in: “I’d rather stick needles in my eyes,” says the former astronaut.
What this has to do with The Iron Lady (2011) and Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher is slightly tenuous. However, if Streep was a betting woman, I am sure she would have made a similar phone call to that made by Nicholson.
Unbelievably, at least to someone who has not seen Viola Davis in The Help (2011), Streep is quoted at odds against with some bookmaking firms to win the statuette.
Before seeing The Iron Lady I had imagined Streep giving an impersonation of Maggie Thatcher. What I saw was a depiction of old age and frailty that you rarely encounter from a younger actress playing an older woman. It was sublime.
The mere fact that this piece is being written about Streep rather than necessarily about the film itself proves what an effect it had.
Scenes of the declining Thatcher getting in and out of bed – hardly something I would imagine gets taught at Juilliard or by Lee Strasberg devotees – were just so nostalgic for I was reminded of my own mother and how infirm she became in later life.
Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher has earned many plaudits but the film has been criticised for its accent on the Thatcher who talks to her long-dead husband Denis rather than the detail of her rise to power. The latter and her Prime Ministerial years are covered in less than half the film but were enough to give audiences the flavour of her leadership.
However, this is a film about the last years of a champion – rather like showing what life is like today for Muhammad Ali, with an examination of Parkinson’s disease taking precedence over the man’s sporting and social achievements. As a proud Ali fan, this would sadden me but nonetheless make a stunning motion picture.
Is the message of The Iron Lady that, no doubting our power in life, we all disintegrate to dust at the end? Those who in life climbed the highest steps look to have fallen furthest when they decline as equally as other mere mortals?
The writer Abi Morgan (she created and wrote TV’s The Hour), director Phyllida Lloyd and obviously Streep are all women, making a movie about the first (and only) female British Prime Minister. The film shows the predominance of men in post WWII western governments and how one woman, through her own indomitable spirit and sense of right, completely overshadowed them all – domestic and international.
The pit workers who hated her would have hated her all the more had they shared the Cabinet Room with Thatcher in charge. What they saw on television was only a small sample of what single-mindedness she held over her party and her government.
Jim Broadbent gives a bouncy performance as the ghost of Denis Thatcher but all accolades go to Streep. My concerns that this would be an impersonation rather than Streep playing a part were totally unfounded. You’d think I’d know better!
FOOTNOTE: Woody Allen has previously been extolled in these pages; once for his ability to recognise talent early. Streep’s fifth movie role was in Manhattan (1979) where she played Allen’s estranged wife, who had left him for a lesbian partner. Two of her previous roles were in the acclaimed Julia (1977) and The Deer Hunter (1978) so Allen didn’t just pluck her from obscurity but it says something of his cache that she would take such a small role in Manhattan which would become one of the best films of that decade.