Meryl Streep in the Workplace

To do a job is to work. The physical space in which one does a job is a workplace. Don’t you marvel at all the things you learn here? Anyway, I’m here to discuss three specific workplaces in movies, settings that have allowed for stories that range from melodrama to broad comedy. The workplace lends itself to a myriad of emotions, after all. We can sympathize, abhor, empathize and relate to all manner of workplace situations. My chosen workplaces all have Meryl Streep in common. You may already know who Meryl Streep is. but if you don’t suffice it to say that she is one of the greatest actors of all time – although I admit that saying that feels like saying air is the best thing we can breathe. Throughout her impressive career Ms. Streep has portrayed workers in workplaces numerous times and all have been memorable. I chose three that I find particularly compelling not only as individual characterizations, but also in comparison to each other. I shall begin with the Catholic Church.

 

Doubt (2008) – John Patrick Shanley, Director

Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep)

Title: Principal of St. Nicholas school in the Bronx

Employer: The Catholic Church

Few people in American society were immune to the changes that came about in the 1960s. Even those whose lives took place in hermetically sealed environs couldn’t escape the changes that were happening. One such person is Sister Aloysius, the severe principal of St. Nicholas school in the Bronx who, in 1964, doubts many things and many people.

Sister Aloysius is a traditionalist trained to live and work under strict rules, which are strengthened by a daily dose of rituals. As principal at St. Nicholas Aloysius is the letter of the law, unbending and unwilling to change. She is a hard woman who – although not devoid of heart – protests even the slightest advancement such as a pen and wears her bonnet like a harness. The Sister doubts everything – people’s character, people’s intentions and people’s capabilities. Some may even say Sister Aloysius is the model of the Catholic Church, its values and what it represented, old school religious doctrine with its uncompromising mores and authoritarian judgments. Then came the reforms of Vatican II, which were under way in 1964, when the story in john Patrick Shanley’s Doubt takes place. Lead by Pope John XXIII the Catholic Church was now intending to “be a part of the modern world, an entity wanting to engage, not condemn.” (Thomas Ryan) It’s only natural that Aloysius felt betrayed by her employers and her faith, a faith that dictated – up to this point – how she ruled her world and lived her life. The employee manual, if you will, had just been rewritten with no input whatsoever by Sister Aloysius. Her certain world is now rendered uncertain. All of this plays a role in how Sister Aloysius reacts when questionable behavior by a priest involves Donald Miller, the first black student to ever attend St. Nicholas school in the Bronx.

Being a Catholic school, the culture at St. Nicholas is very specific and under Sister Aloysius’ firm thumb rules cannot be deviated from. The chain of command is important. A nun who teaches should report any incident to Sister Aloysius who would then report anything serious to the Monsignor and on up to the Holy Father (aka The Pope). This is also a male dominated culture that permeates all mandates and decisions made by the Church. It’s made clear in Doubt that the word of a priest, for instance, would be valued more highly than that of a nun. It is also intimated that the sins of a priest might be overlooked easily and the misguided accusations of a nun judged harshly. We certainly know that the true positions of power within the Catholic Church, those who set policies and make rules, are all men. All of this plays a role in how Sister Aloysius reacts when questionable behavior by a priest involves Donald Miller, the first black student to ever attend St. Nicholas school in the Bronx.

One day Sister James (Amy Adams) mentions to Sister Aloysius that she has concerns about Donald Miller, a student in her class. Sister James is young, somewhat innocent – or certainly has a clean slate compared to Aloysius’ baggage – and is willing (and able) to give people the benefit of the doubt. When she tells Aloysius that she is concerned about Miller and his (perhaps) suspicious relationship with the school priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the older nun immediately jumps to conclusions. In fact, it is the only thing she doesn’t doubt.

PS – This is not intended as a commentary on the film in general, but rather one on the “workplace” aspect of the movie. While both Adams and Hoffman give good performances in Doubt I can’t help but give a special shout out to Viola Davis whose performance as Donald Miller’s mother is so moving it permeates the entire movie despite it being a relatively small role. We don’t want to hear what Mrs. Miller has to say. We don’t want to know her reality, which means that what her son may be going through at the hands of a priest is preferable to the child’s alternative reality. What Mrs. Miller has to say is heart-breaking, it is the movie’s game-changer. I’ll leave you to doubt what you will from here.

Sister Aloysius, Sister James and Father Flynn

 

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) – David Frankel, Director

Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep)

Title: Editor-in-chief, Runway magazine

I now turn away from a woman whose power is limited by a repressive set of regulations and turn toward one on whose shoulders lies the responsibility of a global brand. In the highly competitive world of high fashion Miranda Priestly is top dog and queen of her domain. Ms. Priestly sets the rules, the tempo and everyone at Runway dances to her tune. The world Miranda has created is one where appearances matter as much as competence, where best behavior and best look are the basics. With demanding precision, an ice-cold voice and a look that can kill Priestly manages a team that scrambles to meet her expectations lest she be disappointed in them. She is invested in her job and expects everyone else to be as well. All the time.

The character of Miranda Priestly is said to be based on Anna Wintour, the formidable editor of Vogue whose nickname in the industry is “Nuclear Wintour.” While it’s easy to chuckle at that moniker it’s been traditionally true that many powerful, determined, capable women are referred to in a negative manner so I’m not buying into whether Wintour earned it. That said, Ms. Priestly does have what some may perceive as a less than kind demeanor toward her subordinates, making them squirm at every possible opportunity. And if she expects better, which she always does, and you disappoint she might give you an impossible task – like when she asks her assistant Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) to get copies of an unpublished Harry Potter manuscript. It’s through Andy, a recent journalism graduate who accepts the assistant job at Runway despite belittling fashion, that we get to know Miranda Priestly and her world. And yes, we immediately recognize that Miranda’s tough and yes, she holds no prisoners when things don’t go her way, but there is a lot to admire about her. To start she is the top in her field the world over, she can make or break a career with a look and works harder than anyone. If you can survive in Miranda’s world you too will be prepared for anything. That’s admirable. And in the end – without giving anything away – Miranda Priestly proves she can play hardball with the best of them in an industry that values youth and beauty above all things. She is indispensable.

The world depicted in The Devil Wears Prada is, according to Ginia Bellefante, former fashion reporter for The New York Times, “easily the truest portrayal of fashion culture since Unzipped,” Douglas Keeve’s 1995 documentary about designer Isaac Mizrahi. This movie illustrates how high stress and high fashion go hand-in-hand. And, I should add, makes a statement about women in the workforce as well. Not only do we see Miranda’s personal life suffer due to – we assume – her demanding career, but we witness Andy’s relationship worsen as she gets better at her Runway job, as she becomes more like Miranda.

I thoroughly enjoy Meryl Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada. Every look, nuance and movement she makes is in character with confidence radiating – as it should – from a person who rules absolutely. This is best illustrated in the scene when Miranda puts Andy in her place with the cerulean sweater story. It’s simply one of the greatest Streep moments on film, in my opinion, and she’s had many. Don’t let a contemporary dramedy about fashion dissuade you. This is good stuff.

I’ll end with shout outs to Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt who are terrific in The Devil Wears Prada. They are in large part responsible for why it’s such an entertaining movie. Finally, a personal fashion anecdote. Years ago I worked at Liz Claiborne for a short time as an administrative assistant to a division VP and, um…let me just say I am not administrative assistant material. Every time one of the bosses asked me to bring them something my instinct was to reply, “why don’t you get it yourself?” Of course, I needed the job and did as asked, but I wasn’t happy about it. Still, I admired the people who worked there, passionate people who loved what they did, but I never understood that world and the fact that they could have four-hour meetings about buttons was mind-blowing. Unfortunately, I had to attend those meetings myself and was tasked with taking notes about a subject I not only knew nothing about, but didn’t understand or care about. I was very much the Andy Sachs of Liz Claiborne and there was no Meryl Streep to convince me about the importance of the history of buttons and how they ended up in my closet. In short, those meetings were boring as all hell and all the buttons looked the same to me aside from maybe a blue one being different from a green one. Yet, they were discussed to the minutest details for hours. Then one day, during one of those meetings, one of the VPs caught me making an extemporaneous note in the margin of my notebook, “please God, take me now.”

Miranda Priestly judging in her office

 

Silkwood (1983) – Mike Nichols, Director

Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep)

Title: Factory worker at a plutonium processing plant

Employer: Kerr-McGee

From the formidable Miranda Priestly I turn my attention to Karen Silkwood, a hero made so by her ordinariness and a will to tell the truth.

Meryl Streep’s performance as Karen Silkwood is one of my favorites. Known for becoming the characters she plays, Streep completely disappears into Karen Silkwood, the Oklahoma woman at the center of Mike Nichols’ extraordinary 1983 film. The movie is based on the true story of a woman who comes to believe she and her co-workers are being exposed to unsafe levels of radiation at their processing plant. As a result of sounding the alarm against safety conditions Silkwood quietly becomes a union activist and is ultimately used by both sides of the argument. Meanwhile, we are exposed to the raw story of the woman who represents the American working class and who is powerless against the uncontrollable forces that affect the workers.

The story of Silkwood is told so truthfully and the characters are so fully realized that it feels as though you’re watching a documentary. At the beginning of the movie Karen Silkwood is just another cog in the wheel, as is the case (I imagine) for most factory workers in the country. We see the workers punching clocks, doing their work automatically and the apparent camaraderie leads us to believe everyone fits in, they feel at home. As the story progresses, however, we see Kerr-McGee is not an ideal place to work. The bosses are strict about time off, everyone is putting in more hours than they should and are met with little compensation. In fact, corners are being cut and because of that it soon comes to light that the health of the workers are at risk.

Karen Silkwood fights back as any average person might do, she begins to attend union meetings and becomes one of the spokespersons for the workers. Interestingly, she is not met with support and gratitude when she is vocal about Kerr-McGee falsifying safety tests. Many of these workers are angry, they don’t want to lose their jobs or have the spotlight shined on them. This, even after seeing the brutality with which the workers are treated if the plutonium alarm should go off as they leave the work space. It is a dehumanizing process that tells all there is to know about a workplace like Kerr-McGee. Indeed, it’s difficult to watch what came to be known as the “Silkwood shower,” where the worker is forced to disrobe before he/she is scrubbed until the skin is raw. This happened to Karen Silkwood as punishment for her activism, which should have outraged everybody, but instead leaves her high and dry with no union support and no co-worker willing to stand by her. That is the tragedy depicted in Silkwood. This is not a movie about dangerous leaks or conspiracies. Silkwood‘s power comes from the tragedy of a single life, which could be anybody’s.

Karen Silkwood at Kerr-McGee

Also in Silkwood are Kurt Russell and Cher, both delivering memorable performances as does the entire cast of supporting players. The movie is also masterfully directed by Mike Nichols.

 

I could’ve chosen any number of movies to comment on from Meryl Streep’s filmography, but for some reason these three came to mind immediately. I think they illustrate her extraordinary talent as well as any other triple feature with the added benefit of allowing discussion on three very different workplaces.

This is the first of two entries I hope to submit to Moon in Gemini for The Workplace in Film & TV Blogathon, which runs from August 18 – 20. Be sure to visit.

12 thoughts

  1. Great post. I love Meryl in all three of the films you mention. Silkwood is good because it shows an ordinary woman doing an ordinary and tough job. Meryl captures the determination and frustration of Karen very well. She is hysterical in Devil Wears Prada. In Doubt she is stern, but caring and she is someone who is determined to fight evil. All three are very interesting examples of life in the workplace.

  2. My goodness, this topic really grabbed you, didn’t it.

    Three extraordinary performances and the variety of workplace environments illuminates each one in their details.

    PS: I loved your story about taking the notes at Liz Claiborne. I can imagine, and relate (though in different industries). You made me guffaw. I love to guffaw.

  3. I was repeatedly told I needed to see “The Devil Wears Prada” because Streep was so like my graduate adviser in grad school. I avoided it, actually, on the assumption it would tend to belittle her role.
    I did watch “Silkwood” while in (undergrad) film school and even did a class project on it. You’re very right that Streep completely disappears into the role.

  4. “Silkwood” is fantastic. I’ll have to see the other two. Have you seen “Evil Angels” (aka “Cry in the Dark”)? It was made in Australia and is based on a true story. Streep plays a mother whose child is killed in the Australian outback (supposedly by a dingo), but is accused of the murder. She delivers a low-key, smoldering performance. Sam Neill is good, too.

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