Poking around YouTube the other day, I ran across a November 1972 Tonight Show clip on which Truman Capote declared, “The less intelligent the performer is, the better he is. For instance, Marlon Brando is an absolutely marvelous actor…. But I mean, he’s so dumb it makes your skin crawl.” Brando, said Capote, was a fount of “extraordinary pretentious rhetoric” who yammered on “about the Indian reservations” and such but “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” A few months later, Brando won his second Oscar, for The Godfather, and, as if to prove Capote’s point, sent a young model — who was dressed in buckskin and identified herself as Sacheen Littlefeather — to turn down his award in protest against Hollywood’s portrayal of American Indians.
Well, Brando is no longer with us. Today the most highly lauded American actor is probably Robert De Niro, who in recent decades, after a string of brilliant performances in films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, has cashed in with lightweight entertainments like Analyze This, Analyze That, and the three Meet the Parents pictures. Appearing on talk shows to promote this swill, he’s sounded off with spectacular idiocy and inarticulateness about — mostly — Donald Trump. Apparently incapable of formulating an argument or articulating an idea, he’s simply summoned his inner thug — growling “F*** Trump,” threatening to punch Trump, and calling Trump a man with “no morals, no ethics.”
Still, there’s one good thing you can say about De Niro: at least his politics haven’t bled over into his movies. You can’t say that about the most honored American screen actress of our time, Meryl Streep, now 72. For decades, to be sure, she kept her opinions mostly to herself. Watching her as Dustin Hoffman’s ex in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), as a Polish Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice (1982), as Karen Blixen in Out of Africa (1985), as a drug-addicted actress in Postcards from the Edge (1990), as Clint Eastwood’s Iowa romance in Bridges of Madison County (1995), as a Diana Vreeland knockoff in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), and as America’s most beloved chef in Julie & Julia (2009), one didn’t find oneself thinking about how Meryl Streep votes.
Most of those films were — at the very least — watchable. Then everything changed. For one thing, she starred in more vapid crap than before, such as the karaoke pic Mamma Mia! (2008); It’s Complicated (2009), one of those Nancy Meyers romcoms featuring muted household décors; and the Meyers-adjacent Hope Springs (2012). Meryl took relatively modest roles in ensemble outings like A Prairie Home Companion (2006), August: Osage County (2013), and the seventh (!) go-round of Little Women (2019). But there were also, suddenly, lead roles in what can only be called left-wing agitprop.
Take, for example, Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs (2007). It mostly cuts back and forth between two mind-blowingly dull conversations. In a Capitol Hill office, the GOP’s rising star (Tom Cruise) debates the Iraq War with a left-wing TV journalist (Meryl); at a California college, a hip professor (Redford) urges an apathetic student (Andrew Garfield) to care about the world around him. Every so often — partly to provide some action and partly to illustrate what these gasbags are going on about — we cut away briefly to fighting in Iraq. But mostly it’s a lot of yap about the importance of doing something more than just, well, yapping. Only an actress eager to mouth Democratic talking points would have signed on for this gabfest, which both the New York Post and the Guardian called “pompous.”
When ads began to run for The Iron Lady (2011), some of us wondered how a lefty like Meryl could agree to play Margaret Thatcher. Easy: the film makes as little as possible of Thatcher’s role in defeating Soviet Communism and instead focuses on her as a feminist trailblazer who steamrollered over condescending male colleagues. Also, it views her career in flashback from the perspective of her dotage, thereby inviting viewers’ pity. When asked about Thatcher’s politics, Meryl confessed that what interested her was the opportunity to play “someone who does monstrous things maybe, or misguided things.”
To believe The Post (2017), super-rich Washington Post owner Katherine Graham, too, was a victim of sexism. It’s 1971, and when the debate about whether to publish the Pentagon Papers gets heated, she has to remind her male editors who’s boss. Really? But here’s the cutest trick in this Steven Spielberg flick: Graham was chums with Bob McNamara, defense secretary under JFK and LBJ, while her managing editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), had been a JFK intimate; but now, under Nixon, both suddenly realize — d’oh! — that instead of hobnobbing with the powerful, “we have to be the check on their power.”
Propaganda runs riot in these pictures. But they pale alongside The Laundromat (2019), a cinematic op-ed about the Panama Papers, that massive trove of documents, leaked in 2016, that detailed money laundering and tax evasion by thousands of offshore firms. Scenarist Scott Burns could’ve picked the story of one victims of these shenanigans and created an Erin Brokovich; instead he cobbled together one of the messiest scripts in years, ineptly juggling sequences about two shady business partners — Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), who consistently address the camera, explaining the smarmy machinations that made them rich — with the stories of several of their victims (real or fictional), including Ellen Martin (Meryl), a middle-class widow who can’t collect on her husband’s life insurance from a Mossack–Fonseca shell company.
Alas, every time we start to care about Ellen’s story, we cut away to something else — and unnecessarily so, because in most cases the points being made could’ve been conveyed through her narrative. But neither Burns nor director Stephen Soderbergh seems to care overmuch about people like Ellen, whom they exploit to make an ideological point — namely, that all this international corruption is ultimately the fault of (who else?) the U.S. (By contrast, Communist China is depicted as a punisher of corruption). At the end, Burns and Soderbergh drop their story entirely and preach at us through Meryl, who, removing her wig and switching to her own voice, tells us poor benighted slobs that “in this system, our system, the slaves are unaware both of their status and their masters…. Democracy’s checks and balances have all failed!”
How did Meryl Streep, even after missteps like Lions for Lambs and The Post, end up taking such a shrill role? Perhaps the advent of Trump had something to do with it. Speaking at the 2016 Democratic convention, Meryl venerated Hillary Clinton (“How does she do it? Where does she get her grit? And her grace?”) and cheered the Democrats as the party of female firsts. Did Trump’s win unhinge her? Her 2017 speech at the Human Rights Campaign certainly suggested as much. For her, Trump (unlike Hillary!) was a “self-dealer” who violated every presidential tradition of “custom, honor, and duty.”
Then, in her acceptance speech at that year’s Golden Globes, she told the ultra-privileged audience that they were nothing less than victims, “the most vilified” of people in the U.S. — “Hollywood, foreigners, and the press” — and quipped that since there are so many non-Americans in the American film industry, “if we kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts.” Obviously, Meryl was affirming here the leftist lie that Trump wanted to rid America of foreigners. (Her slam at football and MMA, meanwhile, neatly echoed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 putdown of flyover “deplorables.”)
Meryl went on to tell the Golden Globes audience that there’d been wonderful screen performances during the previous year. “But there was one performance this year that stunned me,” she said. “It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it…. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter.” This, of course, was a reference to Trump’s alleged imitation of a disabled reporter — another leftist lie. Meryl’s speech made headlines. The next day, an old video clip made the internet rounds. It showed her leaping to her feet at the 2003 Academy Awards to applaud the convicted child molester Roman Polanski’s Best Director win for The Pianist.
A few months after Meryl’s Golden Globes speech, the media began to report on Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexual-abuse accusations. Although his behavior was an open secret in Tinseltown, Meryl professed to be unaware of it. Poppycock. Interestingly, in 2018 she starred in Miramax’s Doubt as a nun who suspects a priest of child abuse. As Daniel Greenfield observed, “there are numerous movies about the culture of silence in law enforcement, the military and the Catholic Church,” but whereas “Hollywood loves making movies about itself,” don’t expect to see “any movies about [Hollywood’s] own sex abuse scandals.”
Which brings us to Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, the new and heavily viewed Netflix offering that’s been bringing Meryl more attention than in years. An end-of-the-world black comedy set somewhere in the territory between Dr. Strangelove (1964) and This Is the End (2013), it’s about two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence) who discover a comet that’s about to hit the Earth, only to find that the internet-addled society around them is (at first, anyway) too preoccupied with celebrity clickbait, YouTube influencers, and social-media memes to take their message seriously, while President Janie Orlean (Meryl) is so marinated in politics that she can’t even hear what they’re saying.
The first half or so of Don’t Look Up is mildly amusing, taking aim at legitimate (if familiar) comic targets. But then it stops being funny. After Orlean okays a nutty plan to mine the comet for valuable metals, flag-waving, red-capped U.S. patriots get onboard, while progressives — who, you see, respect science — acknowledge the comet’s threat (but where were they during the film’s first hour?). When the comet finally becomes visible in the sky, Orlean urges people not to look up. McKay’s point, he’s explained, is to hold a mirror up to those who refuse to buy into the climate-change hysteria.
I have to admit that if I hadn’t read about McKay’s motive, I’d never have realized that this movie — which closes with shots that are apparent homages to the endings of Fail Safe (1964) and Deep Impact (1998) — is really about climate change. From where I sit, the climate scolds haven’t been ignored but have been treated like oracles — even as their science has collapsed and their hypocrisy been exposed. But then I don’t live inside the Hollywood bubble, where of course an apocalyptic tale like this has to be about climate change — and where these days, if you’ve got a PC enough message to sell (and never mind how lousy the script may be), the once-estimable but now hopelessly woke Meryl Streep will be there to help you sell it.