The hype surrounding Meryl Streep’s turn as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd’s “The Iron Lady” has been relatively constant since her involvement in the project was announced in July, 2010. Beyond the fact Streep’s involvement in any drama immediately makes it Oscar bait, Thatcher was an incredibly polarizing figure in Great Britain. She broke new ground as the country’s first female PM and stood firm by Ronald Reagan in the last days of the Cold War, but was despised by the members of the opposition party (Labour) for her economic and Union-busting policies (among other issues). So, in many ways, it wasn’t a surprise that the initial reviews for the awards season player were mixed when the film was first screened for critics in London. As Lloyd noted in a conversation we had about the film before the holiday, she found her own friends questioning why she’d direct such a film.
Lloyd notes, “There were people who came up to me and said, ‘Phyll, I”m really struggling with this. I made an agreement with friends at University, we were going to have a party the day she dies, and you”re putting me in a really difficult position here.’ And I just thought, ‘Guys get over yourselves,’ you know?’ The thought seemed sort of slightly crazy about the way people talk about her that goes beyond her, because we don”t attach it to any of her male colleagues who were architects of her regime. So, nobody is going to dance on the grave of Geoffrey Howe who actually helped her sort of plan this economic revolution.”
Somewhat surprisingly, outside of Streep’s acclaimed performance the reviews in the states have been just as mixed. Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame,” BBC’s “The Hour”) have been given little credit for conceiving a biopic that doesn’t hop to every major historical moment in Thatcher’s career. If you want a movie that’s going to delve into the entire Thatcher/Reagan political relationship you aren’t going to find it here. And the audience friendly Royal family are barely mentioned which is quite remarkable considering Thatcher’s reign as PM was in the middle of Princess Diana’s blossoming as a media darling on the world stage. But, even in the United States, where Thatcher’s tough lady stance didn’t always go over well with members of either U.S. party, there is a disturbing thread in many reviews that she’s been portrayed as too sympathetic — as though that was the overarching goal of the film.
Lloyd notes, “In England there”s really quite a lot of caches about Margaret Thatcher on one side or the other in that she”s the witch, she”s the she-devil, she ruined the life of millions, on the one hand. Or she is the blessed, sainted Margaret who saved the nation and, you know, put us back on the world stage and there”s not really much in between.”
Morgan has stated their goal was to depict Thatcher’s less documented years in the last stages of her life where she’s been beset with dementia and what it’s like to deal with the loss of political power. And on that level, they have fashioned a strong drama. In order to pull this off, however, they needed someone of Thatcher’s magnitude to portray her and that turned out to be none other than American Meryl Streep.
“I think that”s what it came down to, the size of Thatcher”s personality,” LLoyd says. “And I think that”s why there was so little actual controversy in England about casting Meryl. I don”t think she”s held in the special regard anyway in Britain, so there was very little mumbling about it in the way that we can get quite mumbly about such a thing.”
Thatcher’s critics rarely give her credit for the steps she took to become PM in the late ’70s. She had to transform herself in many ways to win over the men in Parliament and Lloyd sees Meryl as the American “outsider playing the outsider” contributing to her performance. It was a pressure that likely kept Streep focused throughout the shoot.
“[Thatcher] didn”t fit in. She had to change her voice, had to change her hair, had to become someone in order to subdue or command these men around her and Meryl had to do the same,” Lloyd says. “So [Streep] was having to work the voice. One tiny slip of the accent and all authority was gone, as it were. And so there was a kind of tension there between her and the men on the set, that came because she was the outsider.”
The big question, as so aptly tackled by Anne Thompson yesterday, is whether the mixed notices will affect Streep’s chances for a best actress win. Streep has already won the New York Film’s Critic Circle honor this year and received respective SAG and Golden Globe nominations. And unlike her recent work in “Doubt” or “Julia & Julia,” even competing consultants will tell you it’s one of Streep’s finest performances. However, the busy Weinstein Company is already focused on bringing home another best picture win after “The King’s Speech” with “The Artist.” They also have the well regarded Michelle Williams as a contender in the same category for “My Week with Marilyn.” Moreover, Viola Davis increasingly seems like the sentimental favorite for her emotional turn in “The Help.” And so, after decades of arriving at Academy Awards ceremonies to take home a deserved third Oscar, the greatest actress in cinematic history has turned in her best performance since 1995’s “The Bridges of Madison County” (she lost to first-time winner Susan Sarandon for “Dead Man Walking”) and may still lose for a jaw-dropping 13th time in a row. Obviously, no one is going to cry for the recent Kennedy Center Honoree, but if she does come away empty handed, it may be time for Streep to withdraw her name from future consideration.
Can Streep pull out a come from behind win? Is it time for The Weinstein Company to run ads to Academy members noting “It’s Time” for Streep? Considering it took the classy New Yorker almost 25 years to even let out a peep about years of losing, probably not. She may not, but this writer will. It’s time Academy. Whether it’s via screener, screening or in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, make sure you see “The Iron Lady” for Streep’s incredible work. We know you will, but try to go into it with an open mind on Thatcher.
It’s time. And, it’s deserved.
“The Iron Lady” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.
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