Book review: Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep

Every American loves their national treasure, Meryl Streep, except Donald Trump.

Michael Schulman

Faber & Faber, €20.99, HB; €10.50;

ebook, €8.20

He regards her as ‘one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood’. And judging by his snide undertone, Michael Schulman, who penned this unauthorised biography, is not that keen either.

On the surface everything in the garden is rosy. Using a rather breathless, women’s magazine style, Schulman details Streep’s conventional upbringing in Bernardsville, New Jersey. 

Using as archival material the school’s 1967 yearbook, Schulman paints a picture of a young woman whose first acting role was to put herself ‘where the boys are’.

He suggests that girls universally disliked Streep because they could see through her disingenuous persona: sweet and girlish, passive and tongue-tied, in order to snare beaux. 

But this behaviour was normal. Red-hot poker type girls were required to disguise themselves as shade-loving violets.

Among 80 or so interviewees Schulman foregrounds Mike Booth, a childhood sweetheart, who ‘let her go’ before joining up and serving as a medic in Vietnam. 

Schulman regards Booth as ‘a major character’ in Her Again. 

It’s almost as if Schulman is licking his lips as he imagines his very own, well-researched, script for a film about Streep’s early life. Maybe he’s written the acceptance speech for his Best Original Screenplay award?

It’s easy to visualise an early moment, one imagined rather than documented, by Schulman, when Streep rips out her tooth braces and crushes her spectacles. 

Later shots would show Streep resculpting herself on ‘an apple a day’ until the occasion in 1975, at the graduation of the Yale Drama School, when the slender, white-clad woman ‘stood out like a blaze of light’. Think of the overhead shot!

Every other graduate wore black and, apparently all the other women thought, ‘Bitch, why didn’t I think of that?’.

In Schulman’s blockbuster film, interwoven with scenes of Streep’s campus life, would be frantic iterations of Booth. Within the breast pocket of his scrubs nestle letters from Streep, placed close to his heart. 

We see him darting from injured GIs to Vietnamese children with napalm burns. What a movie Schulman could write! Move over The Deer Hunter.

It is more difficult to foresee Streep giving permission for this ‘film’ to be written, since her spokesman states of the book, ‘Ms Streep has no comment. She made no contribution to [this book], nor has she read it’.

Probably Streep is not overly concerned with this ‘chick-lit’ account of her teenage years. What may well have displeased her is a later section dealing with Dustin Hoffman and Kramer vs Kramer.

This chapter of Her Again, is called ‘Joanna’, and was separately published in Vanity Fair. 

On its website, The Philadelphia Inquirer suggests the excerpt ‘justifies buying the book, but Schulman’s tone is so annoying’ that it would be better just to read the April edition of Vanity Fair.

Or you could just look at the magazine’s website, March 29, 2016.

Schulman interviewed producer, Richard Fischoff, who purportedly said that Method-actor, Hoffman, had slapped Streep. 

‘He was goading her and provoking her, using stuff that he knew about her personal life and about John to get the response that he thought she should be giving in her performance.’

The film, made in 1978, followed on fairly closely from the death of John Cazale (Fredo Corleone in The Godfather). Cazale was Streep’s lover and co-star in The Deer Hunter and she was at his bedside, on March 12 of that year, when Cazale died, aged 42, of cancer. 

Schulman suggests that it might have been the ‘still-fresh pain’ which gave Streep the vulnerability needed to play the part of the mother who deserts her child, twice, in Kramer vs Kramer.

Meryl Streep won her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Kramer vs Kramer. Schulman opens his biography with an account of Streep’s Best Actress win for The Iron Lady in 2012. 

It is in that acceptance speech that Streep utters the words, which give the book its title, ‘Her again’. In the acknowledgments Schulman thanks Streep ‘for not throwing up any significant roadblocks’. There seems to be little love lost between the two.

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