Film & Television

The Many Faces of Meryl: ‘Let Them All Talk’
and ‘The Prom’

Mary Louise Streep, eventually known to the world as Meryl, was born in 1949 in the unprepossessing town of Summit, New Jersey. Her unprepossessing parents, Mary and Harry, were, respectively, a commercial artist and a pharmaceutical executive. She was a fairly normal youth with a minor interest in performing. She appeared in school plays, sang at school recitals, and (somewhat against type) was even a cheerleader. At Vassar, she began to take acting seriously, and continued her studies and eventually earned an MFA at Yale School of Drama.

In a narrative sure to encourage any frustrated young thespians, Streep supplemented her acting with survival jobs. In addition to studying and performing at grad school, she waited tables and typed. At one point, she developed ulcers from the stress and she nearly quit to go to law school.

Then something wonderful happened. She became an overnight sensation. Well, overnight give or take several years of serious study. 

In 1975, Joseph Papp cast her, along with then unknown Mandy Patinkin and little known John Lithgow, in the nineteenth century comedy Trelawny of the Wells. She earned her first Tony nomination the following year. A fruitful film career followed, although in one of many true legends that emerge from a career as brilliant and long-lived as Streep’s, she was turned down for the romantic lead in King Kong (which introduced us to Jessica Lange instead). At her audition, director Dino De Laurentiis whispered in Italian to his son, “She is so ugly.” Streep, who spoke the language, replied, “Mi dispiace molto di non essere bella come dovrei, ma questo è quello che ottieni.” “I’m very sorry that I’m not as beautiful as I should be, but this is what you get.” (You go, girl!)

Since that eloquent, bilingual comeback, Streep has earned three Academy Awards (and a record 21 nominations), two BAFTAs, nine Golden Globes, three Emmys, two SAGs, and several groaning mantels of others. She is often hailed as “the best actress of her generation.” And I have to wonder if that helped her with the role of Alice Hughes in the new Steven Soderbergh film Let Them All Talk.

Alice is a celebrated novelist. She’s a serious writer, which we know not only because she’s won a Pulitzer, but because she reminds us of the fact at every possible opportunity. When we first meet her, in a New York café with her young agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), she’s evading questions about her new manuscript and bemoaning the fact that she’s just won the British “Footling Prize,” but won’t be able to accept it. “I can’t fly,” she tells Karen. Karen, eager to win over the author and even more so to uncover the subject of her new novel, suggests that she cross the Atlantic via the Queen Mary II. Alice at first balks at the idea, then has an inspiration. “May I bring people?”

She reaches out to two old friends, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest). She also includes her bright but somewhat awkward grad student nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges). And Karen, still hoping to gain some insight into Alice’s new project, goes along for the ride, albeit without Alice’s knowledge. The five embark, and mayhem ensues.

Well, not exactly mayhem. More like a couple of mysteries, some unrequited puppy love, and three decades of resentment. Plus, as one would expect, tremendous acting from the trio of leading ladies.

Let Them All Talk is based on a story by Deborah Eisenberg, herself a winner of multiple awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Although she did write a script for the film, the actors were encouraged to improvise dialogue. In the hands of seasoned pros Streep, Bergen, and Wiest, this works beautifully. (Although at times I had to remind myself that I wasn’t watching a Woody Allen movie.) The dialogue between the younger actors, Hedges and Chan, is a bit more awkward. Then again, that’s part of the charm. Karen is hoping to enlist Tyler to spy on his aunt and her work. Meanwhile, Tyler is falling hard — and hopelessly — for Karen. 

Alice’s celebrated life is in sharp contrast to the lives of her old friends. Susan is a lawyer who defends incarcerated victims of domestic violence. She wears comfortable smocks and has a gentle, philosophical manner. Roberta is herself the victim of a nasty divorce. She has money troubles and is working in a Dallas lingerie department, biting her tongue and probably the inside of her mouth every time she has to pander to an irate, entitled customer or her younger and decidedly stupider manager. She’s come on the Queen Mary for a free vacation and because she hopes to land a well-heeled widower. Oh, and she blames everything that’s wrong with her life on Alice. The reason is unclear for about half the movie, but the resentment is very real from square one.

A couple of other characters are introduced on the ship (“Never call it a ‘boat!’”) during the crossing (“And don’t call it a ‘cruise.’”). There’s a mysterious stranger who reads The Odyssey poolside during Alice’s daily swims. There’s also another writer, the bestselling author of a series of thrillers, which Alice is quick to dismiss but secretly reads alone in her spacious cabin. “How long does it take you to write one?” she deigns to ask at dinner. “About a month for the outline and then three months or so,” he estimates. “Oh,” she sniffs, “I wouldn’t have thought that long.” 

In addition to its dream cast, the unusual production process of Let Them All Talk has received some deserved notice. Soderbergh did, indeed, book his cast on a transatlantic crossing. (Just imagine being a fellow passenger!) He enlisted a small crew, choosing to shoot the film himself (and, supposedly, grabbing a wheelchair as an improvised dolly). The Queen Mary II is a magnificent vessel and becomes a sort of character in its (her?) own right. In fact, when the group finally lands in Southampton, it’s a bit of a letdown. However, Eisenberg and Soderbergh have one last surprise in store, which adds meaning to much of what we’ve overheard all along. The end of the film picks up where we started, more or less, with some new and satisfying perspectives on the business of writing.

If Let Them All Talk forced Streep to meditate a bit on what it means to reach a pinnacle yet continue to strive for one’s art, The Prom gave her permission to just have fun. She seems to be having a ball, and her voice has never sounded — or, I should say, “belted” — better.

Based on the popular 2018-2019 Broadway musical (which would be touring now if it weren’t for COVID-19), The Prom tells the unlikely story of an enthusiastic group of show people who venture into the deepest, darkest interior of Indiana to save a young lesbian from the pitchfork-wielding parents who won’t let her … you guessed it … go to her prom.

The movie version of The Prom is the love child of prolific director/producer Ryan Murphy. And, truly, it rings all his bells: big names; song and dance numbers; LGBT inclusion; and a smart but sarcastic attitude toward the accepted norms of the American Midwest. 

Streep chews up the scenery as diva Dee Dee Allen, a Tony-winning egomaniac, who upon learning that her new production, Eleanor Roosevelt: The Musical, is closing on its opening night, decides to devote herself to a cause that will shine her tarnished image. Perpetual chorus girl and Fosse-enthusiast Angie (Nicole Kidman) finds the story of Edgewater, Indiana’s Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) on Twitter. The PTA has canceled the prom rather than allow Emma to bring a same-sex date. Dee Dee and Angie, along with Dee Dee’s unemployed FDR Barry (James Corden), and Juilliard-trained Sardi’s bartender Trent (Andrew Rannells) decide to put on a show or at least a highly publicized protest. “We’re gonna help that little lesbian whether she likes it or not!” Luckily, a touring company of Godspell is headed to the hinterlands and our stars pick up a ride — and a chorus complete with tambourines for the musical numbers ahead. And, be prepared, there are lots of them. Emma sings, “Note to self / Don’t be gay in Indiana / Big heads up, / That’s a really stupid plan.” Think instead: “Note to self / Don’t hate musicals / And watch The Prom / That’s a really, really stupid plan.”

By and large, the performances (which also include Keegan-Michael Key as a star-struck principal; Kerry Washington as PTA president; and Ariana DeBose as Emma’s secret girlfriend) are top-notch, except the otherwise brilliant Corden, whose gayness is so over-the-top that it’s uncomfortable if not offensive. The production has plenty of glitz, from our stars strutting down the great white (CGI) way, to a happy ending prom-for-all with Broadway-caliber sets and lighting. And it’s always fun to root for an endearing underdog; Pellman with her ringing voice and sparkling eyes, is as endearing as they get.

But alas, The Prom is a little too slick. Murphy loses the camp that made the story’s silliness acceptable on Broadway. It’s easy (and fun) to leave common sense behind when you’re watching a staged show. It’s harder onscreen. A single musical number (even one delivered by Tony-winner Rannells in the middle of a fountain in the middle of a mall) is never going to change the minds of five high school haters in under five minutes. Yes, The Prom is entertaining. Sadly, and certainly not Ryan’s intention, it makes light of a tragic and all too common situation. The persecution suffered by cheery little Emma goes on every single day. And LGBT teens are three times more likely to attempt suicide than those who identify as straight.

The Prom doesn’t really address this sober reality, but it isn’t meant to be a documentary. It’s entertainment, and it delivers a taste of what we’ve all been missing with live theaters shut down.

And it still delivers a taste of what we’ve all been missing with live theaters shut down. The message of tolerance and respect for those who may be different from you is an important one, and Ryan, Streep, and company serve it up in a memorable and ultimately joyful way. It may well resonate with younger viewers and give them some courage to stand up for fairness.

After all, as Streep herself has said (perhaps in belated response to De Laurentiis’s snub so many years ago), “The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.”

Let Them All Talk is currently available on HBO Max.

The Prom is available on Netflix.

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