Meryl Streep and “impersonation”

15 January 2012

So I woke up this morning to find it was 1° F outside. (That’s -17° C. Can we say “yikes!”?) Naturally, two things crossed my mind:

  1. (Sarcastically.) It’s really too bad the gym is closed and I’ll have to stay inside all day in my pyjamas.
  2. (Seriously.) Why is everyone calling Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady an “impersonation” of Margaret Thatcher?

I know, you’re thinking:

  1. What a geek.
  2. Yeah, why “impersonation”? Please tell me, Feminéma!
  3. It’s just a little cold — put on a few layers and go for a walk already, wimp.

Blogger JustMeMike pointed it out in his review of the film, noting the term’s appearance in virtually every review (just google it and you’ll see). “How come no one referred to Leonardo DiCaprioimpersonating’ J. Edgar (Hoover) in the same way?” he asks. Exactly!

Impersonation. It’s one of those terms that skirts between flattery (“an eerie job of inhabiting that real-life personage”) and a backhanded slam against such close attention to accent, appearance, and personal tics as less than true acting (“it’s only a parlor trick”).

It reminds me of the problem of the “uncanny valley” in modern 3D animation (I’m looking at you, Tintin) whereby audiences find themselves revulsed and disturbed when an animated character looks too realistic. Impersonators, after all, are the kinds of low-level entertainers who appear in Vegas or on Saturday Night Live. Impersonators emphasize exactitude rather than artistry. A great impersonation gets all the details right — but can’t go further to impress with real acting skill.

Let’s also remember that there are female impersonators — that category of campy performer who dresses as Liza Minnelli or Dolly Parton in order to get a lot of whoops from a drunken audience. These performers are not associated with manly acting talent.

As near as I can tell, those critics who are also good writers have used the term impersonation not to complain about Streep, but to contrast her strong performance with the utterly disappointing film. Roger Ebert writes, “Streep creates an uncanny impersonation of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but in this film she’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.” A. O. Scott likewise uses his flattery of Streep’s work as a rhetorical pivot to detail the film’s shortcomings. “Ms. Streep provides, once again, a technically flawless impersonation that also seems to reveal the inner essence of a well-known person,” he explains, before complaining about “the film’s vague and cursory treatment of her political career.” In other words, these writers seek to make it clear that Streep did what she could with a lame script.

Since then, however, critics who are less aware of their vocabulary’s connotations have jumped on the impersonation wagon to use it all the time in describing her role. “Meryl Streep’s performance as/ impersonation of Margaret Thatcher had Oscar written all over it,” writes Roger Moore. John O’Sullivan also admiringly notes that Streep’s “uncanny accuracy … goes beyond brilliant impersonation” in his piece for Radio Free Europe. These pieces blur the boundaries between impersonation and acting; yet my actor friends bristle at the notion that they are equivalent or that performing in the role of a real-life person demands impersonation. After all, numerous flattering reviews of My Week With Marilyn state something to the effect of, “Michelle Williams doesn’t so much impersonate Marilyn Monroe as suggest her.” None of these statements seem overtly to associate impersonation with acting that leaves something out. I truly don’t think these writers use the term to complain about Streep (or Williams, right), at least not consciously.

But this returns us to JMM’s question: why don’t these writers use the term impersonation when they discuss Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar (or, for that matter, his Howard Hughes from The Aviator)? Why wasn’t Michael Fassbender “impersonating” Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, or Colin Firth “impersonating” King George V in The King’s Speech, or Jesse Eisenberg “impersonating” Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network?

Here I can only speculate, as I don’t know the inner souls of all these film critics, but I want to suggest that it can be attributed to an unconscious bias in favor of the superlative acting skills of male actors. An enormous percentage of published film critics in the US are male. Combine this with an industry seriously tilted toward male success and you have conditions within which even the most female-friendly critics are less inclined to celebrate an actress’s accomplishment without using terms with complex connotations. (Would a male critic really associate a male actor with the term impersonation so long as there are “female impersonators” out there?) This bias may be unconscious and not intended to express sexism, but we can see its effects nevertheless.

Until I started this blog and educated myself on the issues, I was unaware of the extent to which men dominate filmmaking and film criticism. It’s not just the fact that women appear onscreen less, behind the camera less, as producers less, as writers less — and that they get paid less overall. It’s also the more subtle things — the ways a woman’s subtle performance will get overlooked as male critics fall over themselves to praise her male co-star. The ways that female actors inhabit such a severely limited range of body types — I dare you to come up with the female equivalent of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti, much less Cedric The Entertainer or Gérard Depardieu.

These critics may not be consciously demeaning Streep’s performance. But the term impersonation is not a wholly flattering description of what she does — if it were, we’d have seen it appear in reviews of men’s biopics.

Now, off for a walk while it’s still a balmy 11° F (-11.6° C).

14 Responses to “Meryl Streep and “impersonation””

  1. Dienna Says:

    “I dare you to come up with the female equivalent of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti, much less Cedric The Entertainer or Gérard Depardieu.”

    There never will be. Men can look any which way they want and still be praised for their acting, while a woman must be attractive at all times. Such a double standard.

    • Didion Says:

      I’ll never forget reading one of those Sunday newspaper gossip columns a year or so ago in which a reader wrote in to ask, “Why has Meryl Streep let herself go now that she’s in her 60s?” And I thought, when someone asks this of Paul Giamatti instead of talking about him as a crazy acting genius (never really understood that, but whatever), I’ll be able to die happy.

  2. Didion,
    Thank you for this post! I probably will not see this movie. I love your concluding line: ” if it were, we’d have seen it appear in reviews of men’s biopics.” What I fear is that this movie will portray Thatcher in a far more compassionate tone than she deserves. She is the Ronald Reagan of Great Britain and no friend of the poor or disenfranchised. I’m, as always, in awe of your insight and analysis.

    Your fan,

  3. Hmm…Maybe this is one for my own blog after I see the movie.
    On this one, where the viewer is standing in time (several of reviewers mentioned in post are over 50) may have greater importance than female vis a vis male performers. Of course women always get the short end in media as elsewhere. When someone asks why Streep has let herself go in her 60s, this older lady says, “About time!”

    1979, the year Thatcher became PM, marked a time when many American feminists thought we were making progress. As much as she seemed the Brit version of Phyllis Schlafly, there was something hopeful about her having achieved the post in a country far more sexist than the U.S.

  4. JustMeMike Says:

    Thanks for running with this one Didion. I’ve nothing against Roger Ebert. I read all of his reviews, because I can always learn something about film and film criticism.

    For what it is worth, the below are quotes from Roger Ebert’s reviews:

    about Jamie Fox who was Ray Charles in the bio film – Ray
    “… great exuberant performance … ”

    about Phillip Seymour Hoffman who played Truman Capote in Capote
    ” … precise uncanny performance …”

    about Will Smith who played Ali –
    ” … a good job of acting…”

    Of course reviews by their nature are the opinions of their authors,. As such they can write whatever they please.

    But I feel the question was definitely worth asking. Why is Streep’s Thatcher called an impersonation?


    • Didion Says:

      Oh, I don’t have anything against any of these people. I meant to praise Ebert and AO Scott to the skies. But I can still suggest that so many people running with “impersonation” displays a culture-wide, possibly subconscious treatment of a great female actor as fundamentally different than how they’d treat a male actor.

  5. Hattie Says:

    You draw attention to some interesting points here. I was never a big fan of Streep, except in her lady novelist role in Rosanne’s revenge fantasy, “She Devil.” However, her Julia Child was a tour de force that went way beyond impersonation. Just watch that scene where her husband tells her they have to leave Paris and go back to the U.S.
    She is an acting genius, no doubt, but only the onerous Alec Baldwin can stand up to her in the way he draws attention to himself, as he did in that movie about obnoxious rich people in Santa Barbara that I can’t remember the name of.
    It may be that her real defect as an actor is that she is too charismatic.

  6. servetus Says:

    She’s getting criticized because she’s too convincing?

    For crying out loud.

  7. Hattie Says:

    Charismatic. She upstages everyone.

    • Didion Says:

      Charismatic is right. I went around for days speaking like Meryl Streep doing Julia Child after seeing Julie & Julia.

      But I’m not sure I think it’s just her charisma that makes people praise her with the “impersonation” description (which I think is loaded praise indeed). I think it’s that she’s a woman with terrific talent and charisma.

  8. JustMeMike Says:

    It’s Complicated is the Baldwin/Streep film you meant.


  9. servetus Says:

    I am *so* glad she won.

    I was thinking this morning that in a world where it’s hard to get any role at all after you’re 45, and as a consequence the list of bankable female artists over 45 is limited to at most a handful, why shouldn’t Meryl Streep win every year? She’s hands down the best of that crowd, by a mile. And of course the more roles she does, the better she gets. If you’re going to complain about her because she’s too good, give her honest competition a chance to appear on screen and compete. And if you can’t do that, honor the fact that she is an amazing artist.

    I was joking with someone yesterday about the Australian prime minister who shot down her annoying colleague in a sort of minor political drama that maybe Meryl Streep could play the role.

    • Didion Says:

      Too true. I was rooting for Viola Davis for reasons of my own, but it’s just a fact that none of the other nominees could compare to what Streep did in this part. It was akin to what Helen Mirren did in The Queen — she managed to be both reprehensible and yet sympathetic. And Streep as the doddering-old-lady version of Margaret Thatcher: damn.

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