Here I go again…

MAMMA MIA!Well, tonight in Sydney with a group of ABBA fans and cinema full of subdued D-list invitees I saw a preview screening of MAMMA MIA! Apparently it was the “third official screening in the world”, though there was also one in Melbourne tonight.

I’m having conflicted thoughts about the movie at the moment. I first saw the show in London when it opened in 1999, and I hated it – the story was barely there to string the songs together, the staging seemed cheap and the whole atmosphere was very pantomime. Frankly I thought it would flop in a few months and would never appeal outside of England.

When I saw it again a couple of years later when it played in Australia I quite enjoyed the show, but it was still not great, and the storyline was still rubbish. To date I’ve seen it five times in London, Melbourne and Sydney (yeah, I know what you’re thinking, he hates it but he’s seen it five times, I have that same thought quite often).

Seeing the same show, albeit slightly modified, on the big screen with high calibre actors like Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan singing those familiar ABBA songs was a bit of a bizarre experience.

I’m not going to review the movie – if you’re interested in a highly detailed review, go to Ryan’s Incredible World, but be warned, there are spoilers galore.

One thing I will say is that seeing and hearing ‘When All Is Said And Done’ (minus the third verse) as a celebratory song rather than being “the ABBA song about Benny and Frida’s break-up” gives it a whole new context and an entirely different emotional response, which quite surprised me.

And maybe that moment illustrates the magic and continuing success of ABBA music – it can mean all things to all people, which is why it appeals to young and old, men and women, straight and gay.

I did quite enjoy the movie, though it took a couple of hours and a couple of beers to process it in my mind. It’s really a lot of fun. Go see it. I think it’s going to be as big a hit as the musical has been.

And if it introduces even more people to the real ABBA music and sells more copies of ABBA Gold and the rest of ABBA’s back catalogue, then all the better.

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6 Responses to “Here I go again…”

  1. Samuel Inglles Says:

    Hi IAN!

    You’ve seen ABBA’s Australian concert debut, live in Sydney during 1977, in the middle of a thunderstorm and heavy rain. I know it was a FANTASTIC moment and event in your life! WOW!!! WOW!!! And WOW!!! I suppose you’ll always remember this whole special day/evening/night on the 3rd of March for the rest of your life. All your preparation and anticipation to the concert and then way back home to Canberra. At the time you didn’t realise Agnetha was in the very early stages of her pregnancy and was terrified at the dangerous atmosphere of the outdoor-concert after seeing Frida singing and dancing in the rain and slipping and falling on the stage floor.

    You’ve seen the live ABBA cover bands from the original Björn Again to Sweden’s Arrival. (They’re not too bad, after all.)

    You’ve even seen the musical ‘Mamma Mia!’ from London to Melbourne and then in Sydney too! I hope you managed to laugh a bit and got up on your feet to dance with the rest of the audience during the up-beat songs!

    You’ve seen the musical ‘Chess’ in theatres twice. I know it was all worthy of your time. Maybe someday you may even be able to assist Tim Rice in re-writing the book to ‘Chess’ since you are one of ABBA’s greatest fans and who is amazingly intelligent and enthusiastic with all of ABBA members’ work. You are definitely an asset to ABBA and all their fans globally with the beauty of all your knowledge, hard work and input as an Ultimate ABBA historian!

    You’ve been to the cinemas to see ’ABBA-The Movie’, ‘Muriel’s Wedding’, ‘The Adventures Of Priscilla – Queen Of The Dessert’ and more recently ‘Mamma Mia!-The Movie’. Which is your favourite movie and why?

    I know that you’ve been to, seen/heard, participated in a lot more of ABBA’s music related shows, functions, outings, activities etc… than what I have mentioned here. I hope you’ve always managed to enjoy yourself immensely and cherished all the wonderful memories for a lifetime to come.

    Thank you for always sharing your beautiful ABBA-Fan life experiences with the rest of ABBA’s fans worldwide on your MARVELLOUS BLOG and also on the ABBA websites.

    I enjoyed meeting you in person for the first time this year – I thought you were so humble, kind, down-to-earth and so genuinely friendly and a very caring person as well!

    IAN, take great care of yourself and continue to enjoy life as you always seem to be doing! Stay HAPPY, healthy and safe forever!

    There are plans for a Chinese version of the musical ‘Mamma Mia!’ at some point in the future and bellow there is an article suggesting it.

    Kind Regards
    Samuel Inglles

    The Times (London) – Saturday, 15 September 2007 (Page 54)

    WORLD

    Mama Miya! West End musicals get ready to conquer the East. By Jane Macartney (Beijing) & Ben Hoyle

     Joint venture with Sir Cameron Mackintosh.
     ‘Les Misérables’ to be first production staged.

    Already household names around the rest of the world, ‘Mao’, ‘Beican Shijie’ and ‘Mama Miya!’ are coming to China. Sir Cameron Mackintosh is poised to sign an agreement to produce the musicals – ‘Cats’, ‘Les Misérables’ and ‘Mamma Mia!’ – in Chinese.

    The deal has been years in the making and will finally be completed on Monday by Sir Cameron and China Arts and Entertainment, an affiliate of the Ministry of Culture. It offers nothing less than an invitation for the world’s most successful musical impresario to break into the world’s biggest – and until now closed – market.

    Up first will be ‘Les Misérables’. It is expected to make its debut at the National Theatre for performing Arts in November next year. It will be among the first, and possibly biggest, shows to be staged in the modernistic, glass-domed theatre – China’s newest and most ambitious showcase for the arts that stands near Tiananmen Square, in the shadow of the Stalinist-style bulk of the Great Hall of the people.

    Dubbed the “Egg” for its smooth, gently curving exterior, the theatre is still under wraps and officials have been coy to reveal its inaugural performance.

    Sir Cameron will also stage Chinese-language versions of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Mamma Mia!’, ‘Miss Saigon’, ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘Cats’.

    Getting the language right is crucial. Previous shows by Sir Cameron have been in English with Chinese subtitles – less than ideal in a country where few people speak much English. Sir Cameron has long-term plans to train Chinese writers, performers and production crews to create original Chinese musicals.

    On Tuesday he will meet students at China’s Central Academy of Drama, who will no doubt be among the thousands eager to audition for a part in productions virtually guaranteed to take China by storm.

    Sir Cameron has already had a glimpse of the Chinese enthusiasm for his musicals. A limited run of ‘Les Misérables’ in Shanghai in 2002 was a sellout.

    Chinese still thirst for variety after the ultra-leftist 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. For a decade Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, banned any musical stage performance other than the five “revolutionary model operas” that she had commissioned, approved and, in some cases, even tried to choreograph.

    ‘My Fair Lady’ is a far cry from shows such as ‘Raid on the white Tiger Regiment’, ‘On the Docks’, ‘Taking Tiger Mountain by Storm’, ‘Sparks Amid the Reeds’ and ‘The Red Lantern’.

    Censors have softened their approach and with incomes rising swiftly in cities, newly rich young Chinese are looking for fresh ways to spend their money. Tickets could run as high as £50, or nearly three months’ income for a farmer, so the shows will be for China’s most affluent.

    Musicals are gaining in popularity. Last year ‘The Sound of Music’ and the musical of ‘The lion King’ were staged in China. The-tap dance-themed ‘42nd Street’ is due to go on tour this month and the Hong Kong pop star Jacky Cheung, one of Chinese pop’s biggest acts, staged a Mandarin version of his Cantonese dialect show ‘Snow Wolf Lake’.

    Sir Cameron said in 2002 that the appeal of ‘Les Misérables’ to a wide audience could set the stage for his future ambitions. “We have several other internationally acclaimed musicals which we would like to present firstly in Shanghai and Beijing and then tour into other cities in China,” he said.

    Industry experts have little doubt that audiences will flock to the Chinese productions. Alistair Smith, the news editor of The Stage,
    called China “an untapped but potentially hugely lucrative market”.

    He said: “Eastern Europe and Asia are likely to be the two big growth markets for shows over the coming years and Cameron is clearly looking to establish an early foothold in what is likely to become an increasingly important sector.

    “China in particular, with is predicted massive economic growth, is likely to become a bigger and bigger player in the entertainment market.”

    Photos:
    • ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ – Opened in 1986 and Seen by 52 million.
    • ‘Mamma Mia!’ – Opened in 1999 and Seen by 30 million.
    • ‘Miss Saigon’ – Opened in 1989 and Seen by 31 million.
    • ‘Mary Poppins’ – Opened in 2004 and Seen by 1.5 million (in London).
    • ‘My Fair Lady’ – Opened in 2001 (modern revival).
    • ‘Cats’ – Opened in 1981 and Seen by 50 million+.
    • ‘Les Misérables’ – Opened in 1985 and Seen by 51 million.

  2. Samuel Inglles Says:

    Hi Ian

    Here is a review of the movie.

    Kind Regards
    Samuel Inglles

    The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) – Sunday, 6 July 2008 (Page 116)

    MOVIES

    1970s revival meets its Waterloo. By Ben McEachen

    ‘Mamma Mia!-The Movie’ – Universal 108 min (PG). Score: 3/5 stars

    Made for the ladies and those who thought the sequined sing-alongs in ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ were vital to its success, this film version of an ABBA-fuelled stage musical is like ‘Sex And The City: The Movie’. Fans of the source material should looooove it, while everyone else will swing between befuddlement and polite interest.

    Musicals tend to be at their best when the song and dance numbers have been created specially.

    ‘Mamma Mia!’ on the other hand, took ridiculously popular humdingers by a ginormous Swedish band and fitted them around a story by British playwright Catherine Johnson about, um, an expat American girl living in the Greek islands, who invites her three possible fathers to her wedding.

    Even with the intimate support of the two Bs, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (who pop up in the movie), ‘Mamma Mia!-The Movie’ still sounds like a holiday in Crazy Land.

    On screen, as directed by British theatre veteran Phyllida Lloyd, ‘Mamma Mia!’ rolls merrily along, despite its eye rolling plot, wonky second act and some ear-punishing solos.

    The true test, though is whether ‘Mamma Mia!’ inspires kicking up of heels.

    What should have been as infectious as jubilant Hair-spray, ‘Mamma Mia!’ just musters some isle-burner from obvious big guns (‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Money, Money, Money’) and friendly smiles at movie stars reinventing themselves.

    Acclaimed “serious” actor Meryl Streep’s previous diversions into comedy will not prepare you for how she throws herself into musicals. Not afraid to look like a frump before gradually transforming, Streep is convincing and quite tuneful as Donna, who runs a disintegrating Greek hotel with daughter Sophie (lovely Amanda Seyfried).

    Apart from not revealing just who fathered her child, Donna – like all around her – enjoys singing ABBA songs to express herself.

    That’s not too terrible, nor is the fact that no one is actually called Fernando. What is tough to take is James Bond bludgeoning ‘SOS’. To be fair to Pierce Brosnan, though, all the male co-stars (Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgärd) struggle to keep up their ends.

    But, just as the Beatles-fired ‘Across The Universe’ showed last year, getting actors to belt out numbers can thud like a drunken karaoke “star”.

    Good thing ‘Mamma Mia!’ isn’t about the blokes, then.

    007, Mr Darcy and many young six-packs are just eye-candy to surround Sophie, Donna and her former back-up singers, dowdy Rosie (Julie Walters) and botoxed Tanya (Christine Baranski).

    Their girly rapport is effective – even if the flirty routines wear thin – as is the believable bond between Streep and Seyfried.

    This helps to distract from that ludicrous plot, but it can’t disguise just how uncomfortably the ABBA songs are shoe-horned into the second half.

    Another major obstacle to enjoyment is that director Lloyd stages many routines with disembodied voices, allowing us to detach from the performers – and the film.

    Glazed with charm, light humour and warmth, ‘Mamma Mia!’ is what it is – and established crowd-pleaser, made for an established crowd.

    Opens Thursday

    Photo: Thank you for the music: Merryl Streeep and Amanda Seyfried as mother and daughter are the real highlights of this cinematic remake.

  3. Samuel Inglles Says:

    Hi Ian

    Here’s another ‘Mamma Mia!–The Movie’ related article.

    Kind Regards
    Samuel Inglles

    The Courier Mail (Brisbane) – Sunday, 5-6 July 2008 (Page 34)

    Here we go again: My, my, how could we resist it? ABBA mania is back. By David Murray

    More than anywhere else outside of Sweden, Australians haven’t been able to resist ABBA’s brand of pop music.

    Now a new generation is about to be drawn into the ABBA fan club with a movie version of the blockbuster stage show ‘Mamma Mia!’ opening on Thursday.

    With a cast including Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Julie Walters, the film is tipped to be one of the most popular of the year.

    Courier-Mail film reviewer Des Partridge describes it as “the happiest, funniest, sunniest and most engaging movie musical since ‘Seven Brides For Seven Brothers’ more than 50 years ago”.

    On the publicity trail to help launch the movie, the band that brought the world ‘Thank You For The Music’ has said their own thank you to Australians for helping make it all happen. “We are grateful to you Australians – you were so good to us from the beginning,” former band member Benny Andersson told The Courier-Mail this week.

    Just why the Swedish band struck a chord Down Under, no one is sure.

    ABBA member Björn Ulvaeus speculates: “There have been many theories on why Australia. One I remember is that you are outsiders on one side of the globe and we are outsiders on the other side. So we take to each other.”

    Relaxed as always, Andersson adds: “And we look like wombats.”

    The pair seems surprised and pleased the ABBA juggernaut continues to roll more than two decades after the band split. (And unlike other acts, there are no plans to cash in with reunion tours.) They reportedly still sell two to three million albums a year and have sold an estimated 370 million in total.

    The stage show ‘Mamma Mia!’ has taken on a life of its own and no doubt keeps sales ticking over.

    Nine productions are currently up and running, attracting 17,000 people worldwide each night and generating $8 million in ticket sales a week. It has played for two extended seasons in Brisbane.

    As for the reasons behind ABBA’s incredible longevity, even the band members find it difficult to explain. “Everyone asks how could this happen, why? I don’t know,” admits Andersson.

    Merryl Streep has her own theory: “I asked Benny ‘What is it that you and Björn do that gets a hook in people’s heart and even if you try you can’t get this song out of your head?’,” Streep told The Courier-Mail.

    “It’s a specific kind of gift that they have. Some people have it. There’s a lot of number one records that you’ve forgotten by next year. Theirs survived for 30 years, The Beatles survive.

    “Who knows why, but I think part of the ongoing appeal across cultures, many different kinds of people, many different ages, is that there’s something essentially good natured about it.”

    Money, money, money … but no

    How hard would it be to turn down $1 billion?

    For ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, who did just that, the answer requires only one word: “Easy,” he told The Courier-Mail.

    Ulvaeus and his former band mates had been offered the incredible sum in 2000 for a reunion tour.

    It is a lure most people would have found impossible to resist.

    For the band’s Benny Andersson, the offer at required some thought.

    “If you are offered that amount of money and I’m not even sure it’s true but I think it is (“It is,” confirms Ulvaeus, sitting beside him), you have to consider it,” Andersson said. “You can give at least half of it away to something good.”

    In the end, though, it comes down to only a simple answer for Andersson too: “But no.”

    And not ever.

    With the success of the ‘Mamma Mia!’ stage show, it’s possible the pair are earning more now than they did as a band.

    One estimate two years ago was that the band – made up of Andersson, Ulvaeus, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad – had earned more than $600 million from their songs and musicals.

    Andersson this week spoke of their enduring friendship. “Now it’s like being brothers.”

    Photos: Bucking the trend…there will be no reunion tour say Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.

  4. Ian Cole Says:

    Hey Samuel,

    Thanks for these great articles!

    Ian

  5. Samuel Inglles Says:

    Hi IAN

    Another Mamma Mia! news/story!

    Kind Regards
    Samuel Inglles

    The Weekend Australian (Sydney) – 19-20 July 2008 (Page 38)

    Mamma mia, here we go again with a profitable musical. By Amanda Andrews

    When Hollywood legend Meryl Streep took “six screaming 11-year-olds” to see ‘Mamma Mia!’ on Broadway to provide them with some relief from the horrors of 9/11, she enjoyed herself so much that she wrote the cast a fan letter. That letter, which found its way to the producer Judy Craymer, was the first step in the show’s long journey to Hollywood.

    Mamma Mia!, which has been playing in London since 1999, has become a global phenomenon. Thirty million people have seen the show worldwide and sung along to ABBA’s hits from ‘Dancing Queen’ to ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and it has taken an estimated $US2 billion ($2.05 billion) at the theatre box office from Moscow to Osaka to Daegu and Seongnam in Korea.

    “They are mad for musicals in Korea and Mamma Mia! has been a huge hit,” says Craymer, who was born and bred in North London and began her career working alongside Sir Cameron Mackintosh at a touring theatre company.

    The show’s worldwide success — which Craymer puts down to the story line about the relationship between a mother and daughter “which appeals to all cultures”, allied to the popularity of ABBA’s music — brought Hollywood knocking on her door at an early stage.

    But she had reservations. She was aware of the challenges in bringing a successful stage musical to the big screen.

    “Producing a film is not for the faint hearted,” she says. “But musicals adapted for the cinema can run the risk of being pigeon-holed. I had to work hard convincing a lot people who thought musicals were not particularly hip that Mamma Mia! was different.

    “They soon realised that it wasn’t a typical musical. Meryl Streep gets 007 (Pierce Brosnan) and Darcy (Colin Firth) and 007 sings ABBA songs. Even 15-year-olds swoon at Darcy and 007,” says Craymer, adding that at a test screening of the film for 13-year-olds in San Diego in March the children were up dancing for the duration. She admits that she was concerned about losing control if Mamma Mia! found itself in the hands of a Hollywood studio, so a decision to join forces with Universal did not come overnight.

    “I knew that if we were going to make a film, I wanted Hollywood involved, as we needed the big machine of a major studio to make this a success. The handling of the film internationally was very important, as we needed it to be released in all countries simultaneously. But control was a big issue.”

    And she ensured she got control. “I have been working on the film every day for the past year and a half.”

    The setting for the film, an idyllic Greek island full of lush bougainvillea and whitewashed villas, was also important — Craymer insisted that this would be a “real film” without the stage-like set of recent cinematic musicals such as Chicago.

    With the added contribution of a raft of high-profile executive producers, including Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, and the former ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the studio expects the film to be an international money-spinner. It has already taken more than pound stg. 10 million ($20.5 million) at the British box office since its release on July 11 and is set for US release overnight. A relief for Universal, no doubt, which admits to spending significantly more than the average pound stg. 40 million marketing budget.

    Despite the large budget, marketing Mamma Mia! presented a challenge because ABBA always insisted that its music was not used for advertising. David Kosse, the president of Universal Pictures International, and Craymer made regular visits to Stockholm to meet ABBA’s Benny and Björn. The result was a television advert in Britain for Maltesers, the first time ABBA music has been used in a promotion, and a campaign for a Swedish biscuit brand.

    ABBA needed assurance that the adverts clearly promoted the film, not just chocolate bars. It is, after all, in their interest to make the film a success, promoting their love ’em or hate ’em disco hits to younger generations. The film’s sound track is currently one of iTunes’ best-sellers.
    The Times

  6. Samuel Inglles Says:

    Hi Ian

    Articles on Dominic and Meryl!

    http://wl.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,25750975-7642,00.html

    Broadcast of live Phedre stage show to cinemas a first

    Andrew Fenton
    July 09, 2009 12:00am

    DOMINIC Cooper is sitting in London’s National Theatre looking out over St Paul’s Cathedral. Befitting such stately and historical surrounds, his first words are: “I’m very sweaty around the groin!”

    By way of explanation he adds: “We just came off a few minutes ago.”

    Cooper – star of Mamma Mia!, The History Boys and The Duchess – became part of history three weeks ago when Phedre, the play he has just stepped off stage from, was beamed out live in high definition to 73 sold- out cinemas across Britain. The HD broadcast will also be screened in 200 cinemas around the world, including Brisbane this weekend.

    Like many people, Cooper was initially unsure about the idea.

    “I always queried it,” he says. “From what I’ve done on stage that has been filmed, it’s never been as good. But this has proved me otherwise.”

    He would say that – but the critics were similarly converted. Giving the production five out of five, The Guardian critic Michael Billington raved: “It was a big risk but it paid off brilliantly. The production worked even better in the cinema than it did in the Lyttleton (theatre).”

    In the moment before the curtain went up on the broadcast performance Cooper reveals he turned to another actor and said: “I have no idea what feelings I’m supposed to be experiencing right now.”

    Cooper explains that he hadn’t experienced the same sorts of emotions he’d had on the night they performed for the critics but says it also wasn’t like filming a movie, because you couldn’t go back and do another take.

    “I suppose it was kind of a bit like being a sportsman at a live broadcast of a sporting event and if you made a mistake you have to drive through and keep going,” he says. “I was always aware of the people watching on screen which was an odd feeling.”

    Phedre is a new production of French dramatist Jean Racine’s take on the Greek tragedy, updated in 2000 by poet laureate Ted Hughes. Phedre (Mirren) lusts after her young stepson Hippolytus (Cooper) believing her husband to be dead. But when her husband unexpectedly returns she accuses Hippolytus of rape.

    Cooper only has one major scene with Mirren and in it he has to appear completely repulsed by her, to the point of almost gagging.

    “It was obviously extremely hard to do because she’s beautiful and talented,” he says. “But my character is repulsed by the ideas she can even consider having feelings towards her stepson, which he thinks are very, very wrong and therefore detests her.”

    Talk movies with our guru Des Partridge at his blog
    Mirren is arguably Britain’s most talented actress and the same could be said (in the US context) for his Mamma Mia! co-star Meryl Streep.

    He says he was fortunate that both of them were aware of his work in The History Boys.

    “It’s a wonderful place to start when you meet them and they are aware of something you have done among the abundance of work they have done. They are very generous, warm people so meeting them is not intimidating,” Cooper says.

    He says Mirren makes him look good even when he’s not doing anything.

    “All I have to do on stage with Helen is to make sure I’m looking at her, because she’s doing such an incredible, focused, energetic and exciting performance,” he says.

    “And watching Meryl, and having seen her on stage – I just hope that something is sinking in!”

    His next big screen appearance will be in the wonderful and touching coming-of-age film An Education, written by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) and out in Australia in October after screening as the opening night film at this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival on July 30.

    It’s about a young girl who gets seduced by an older man – Cooper plays the seducer’s best friend.

    “We are both pretty criminal and deceitful people and she gets screwed over and hurt,” he says. “It’s really a wonderful film”.

    Cooper has played a number of “cads”, including the villain role in the BBC’s Sense and Sensibility.

    “I don’t know why people do (see me like that) I’ve never understood it,” he says. “I played a horrible mortgage broker recently (in Dominic Savage’s telemovie Freefall) and I began to get worried the director thought I was like a subprime mortgage broker!”

    While he’d played small roles in TV series including Band of Brothers, Cooper’s big break was the stage production of The History Boys.

    “We became those characters a bit. By the end of so many shows we were acting like a bunch of moronic adolescent idiots who were constantly mucking about,” he says.

    He still lives with fellow History Boy James Corden, who became a huge star in his own right in sitcom Gavin and Stacey.

    “He’s around occasionally!” he says. “I’d love to do something (in terms of work) with James. We’re always coming up with ideas together but he’s very, very busy at the moment.”

    Cooper admits he prefers the stage version to the 2006 film, both of which were directed by Nicholas Hytner (and who is also behind Phedre).

    “I think to be totally honest yeah – it was written as a play,” he says.

    “But I love the fact more people have been inspired by the film, especially when people come up to me who are quite young or watched it in school and just loved it. It’s brilliant because they would never have got the opportunity to see it.”

    Which you would think is also the biggest benefit of broadcasting Phedre.

    “A film lasts forever but a play is only in the minds of the few able to see it – which makes it exciting and at the same time quite sad,” he says. “I hope (the broadcast) makes people more interested in the theatre.”

    Phedre screens at Palace Centro Cinemas and Dendy Portside, July 11 and 12 at 1pm.

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/entertainment/film/the-remarkable-ms-streep/2008/12/05/1228257313999.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1

    The remarkable Ms Streep
    Rachel Abramowitz
    December 6, 2008

    Meryl Streep loves to tell the story about how one learns to be king. It dates to her days at Yale Drama School, when the instructor asked the students how to portray a monarch. “And everybody said, ‘Oh, you are assertive’, and people would say, ‘Oh, you speak in a slightly deeper voice’.

    “And the teacher said, ‘Wrong. The way to be king is to have everybody in the room quiet when you come in’. The atmosphere changes. It’s all up to everybody else to make you king. I thought that was really powerful information.”

    It’s hard not to think of that story after meeting Streep, perhaps the reigning queen of American movies, who in the past several years has had an unexpected career renaissance – at 59 playing women who make the DNA of people who encounter her flutter and mutate. It’s a rare achievement. In modern Hollywood, only Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood have had comparable return engagements with audience affection, and they’re not actresses, who routinely are considered washed up at 40.

    Now, after almost 30 years of being perennially more admired than beloved, the double Oscar winner has been connecting defiantly with the masses, first with her turn as the malevolent but unexpectedly vulnerable fashionatrix in The Devil Wears Prada, and then as the single mother singing Dancing Queen in the Abba musical Mamma Mia!, which has taken close to $US600 million ($930 million) worldwide.

    Her summer slot for 2009 has been claimed by the much-buzzed-about Julie & Julia, a Nora Ephron film due for release in Australia next October. It blends the tale of a young temp secretary’s (Amy Adams) obsession with chef Julia Child (Streep) with the actual story of Child’s years spent in Paris in the 1940s and ’50s. Streep thinks of her incarnation of Child as a homage to her own mother, who died in 2001 but was much like Child – “these outsize women, for some reason, who have decided who they are early on, and they’re fine with it, and that comfort with who they are makes everybody else comfortable and they’re able to live an existence with their energy. It’s energy and light. The room really lit up when she came in. And Julia had that. She really did”.

    It’s hard to imagine Streep doesn’t also have this when she wants it, which is not always, given the rapacious attention paid to movie stars these days. A recent afternoon found her squashed between round-table interviews and photo sessions for Doubt, her new film premiering in Australia on January 10 (and in the US next week). It’s about the 1964 hand-to-hand between a nun (Streep) and a popular priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) she suspects of molesting a student, although there is no direct evidence.

    Streep at first seems slightly daunted by the process of perma-sell that has descended on cinema, particularly Oscar-bait films such as Doubt, which require their actors not only to sell their wares to the public personally but also to practically every guild and academy member in America. Still, she quickly rallies, drawing on reservoirs of compassion, intelligence, strategic self-deprecation and a certain insouciant giddiness.

    She is dressed in jeans, an oversize shirt, with large beads she fingers repeatedly when not brushing her wispy blonde hair behind her ears. Large glasses can’t quite obscure her luminous complexion, the fine points of her famed cheekbones and the faintest of smile lines around her eyes. She does not appear to be in some death-knell battle against nature, gravity and food. Mostly, Streep, who lives in Connecticut and New York, seems gleeful about her professional resurgence, which she says was completely unexpected, and she’s not quite sure how it happened. “I don’t make anything happen. I sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. Really,” she says. “Why these opportunities are coming up has less to do with me than all the things I don’t understand about how decisions are made here.”

    Still, she notes that three of the last four movies she has made (including her upcoming untitled Nancy Meyers film) were directed by women, and The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia! were championed by female movie executives and producers. “Donna Langley [the president of production] was our champion at Universal for Mamma Mia! Nobody wanted to make that,” Streep says. “The smart guys banked on Hellboy to carry them throughout the year. The Mamma Mia! wagon is pulling all those movies that didn’t have any problem getting made. Our budget would have fit in the props budget of Hellboy.”

    In the case of Prada, the filmmakers had to persuade Fox’s co-chairman Tom Rothman, who 30-odd years ago was the adolescent younger brother of a friend. She does a killer imitation of Rothman’s nasally voice: “I … I … I … I don’t get it. I’m going to say it right now: go ahead, make the movie, but it’s not my thing.”

    “So it’s hard for them,” she says. “People operate on instinct, and they do things that kind of make them feel good on some level, and so every time we complain there’s not enough things for women, that’s because the people that are making the decisions are not turned on by material we are. It’s a very simple equation. But [Rothman] has two daughters, and he has a wife, and he has a lot of smart women executives that said, ‘Tommy, this will make money. This will make you a lot of money.’ And they were right.”

    Streep gaily says she doesn’t care that Mamma Mia! earned her some of the worst reviews of her career. “I knew it would make lots of people happy, and you know, the reviews came out, and when the bad reviews came out, the blogosphere just exploded with women empowered to say, ‘These people are crazy! What’s the matter with you? Life-hating, life-sucking, desiccated old farts.’ ”

    The last time Streep won an Oscar was back in pre-history (1983, for Sophie’s Choice), when Ronald Reagan was president. Since then, she has been to the ceremony 10 times as a nominee, including for Out Of Africa, Ironweed and Adaptation. She has spent many evenings looking cheerful as other actresses walked off with the prizes. Sometimes she appeared dutifully glammed out by a professional stylist; on other occasions not.

    The Oscars are still “very nerve-racking,” she says, laughing. “It doesn’t stop. It’s just like I had four children, and it was just as terrifying and unsettling with the fourth one as it was with the first. I supposedly knew more but you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s just overwhelming … It’s not like childbirth, although some evenings feel like it,” she giggles.

    As for her fashion sense, she chortles, “I don’t know how to be a movie star.” She likes getting to meet people whose works she admires but finds daunting the anarchy of the awards night red-carpet walk. She recalls her mother telling her to enjoy it, to “stop being such a hairshirt”.

    “Well, I wish I could, but I haven’t really figured out the way to act my way through it.”

    Doubt is the kind of movie that could instigate another trip to the red carpet. In the first scene, Streep’s character, Sister Aloysius, is seen striding down the aisle during a church sermon, stridently imposing order on wayward parishioners, mostly children. She’s swathed in the dark fortress of the nun’s habit, but its dark folds only partly contain Sister Aloysius’ ferocious energy. She moves her arms with sharp little jabs and speaks in a thick New York accent.

    Sister Aloysius is not meant to be initially sympathetic, and indeed, that’s part of the point of John Patrick Shanley’s film, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Sister Aloysius is a disciplinarian, a seeming killjoy in a battle with the popular, empathetic priest determined to make the church more accessible, more modern. Yet she’s also a relatively powerless woman fighting against the tide of ingrained patriarchy and occasional misogyny of this particular church. And she’s carrying out a private crusade against Hoffman’s character, based primarily on her intuition.

    “My friend Gavin de Becker [the security consultant] wrote a book called The Gift of Fear. It was about women’s intuition, and it was about … just basically saying if you sense that something’s off, if you feel unsafe, you probably are on some level. You’re not paranoid; you’re probably right,” she says. “We’re animals. We smell it. We smell danger, and I think that Sister Aloysius senses something whether it’s from something she knows deep, deep in her past or what it is. She’s seen this before.”

    Streep loves the nun. “I sympathised with her plight, with where she found herself in this world.”

    Streep recently was trying to explain to her three daughters – 17, 22 and 25 – how different the world was in 1964. “The opportunities were different for smart, ambitious, directed women, and I think [Sister Aloysius] is somebody who has a real pain in her past and sought the church for the solace, certainty, structure, ritual, the purposefulness of a life within the church.”

    Of course, this is Streep’s view, not necessarily the author’s. Doubt is inherent in every aspect of this joust over faith and authority, and since the play appeared on Broadway, audiences have debated whether the priest is guilty.

    Cherry Jones famously played the part on stage, but Shanley explained that when making the film, he wanted to make the experience his own, not simply repeat what stage director Doug Hughes had done. And Streep was perhaps the obvious choice. The writer-director says Streep is conscious of her stature as Meryl. “She uses the fact that she’s Meryl Streep in her initial situation with new people. She doesn’t give up being Meryl immediately, but it’s totally conscious. It’s just a ploy,” he says, laughing.

    In fact, although he marvelled at her diligence and her facility in running the crescendo of human emotion, it was not until a day of reshoots that he finally glimpsed Streep’s doubts, the uncertainty that often accompanies great artistry. “I saw suddenly her vulnerability about the role, how deeply she cared, how worried she was that we got it. She was like a young girl, very vulnerable and very shaky.”

    It’s that unadorned humility that’s fostered many of Streep’s greatest performances. In the early part of her career, critics noted that Streep often seemed devoted to bringing compassion to marginalised women, such as the Holocaust survivor Sophie Zawistowski or activist Karen Silkwood.

    Older women can feel marginalised, mistrusted or simply ignored. It’s hard not to think Streep is doing her best to imbue recent characters with traits that our culture sometimes denies them, qualities like sexuality, humor, dignity, compassion and basic humanity.

    “We’re conflicted about women in power. We saw it in Hillary’s campaign. We see it in Sarah Palin,” Streep says. “There’s a reason it was called The Devil Wears Prada. That’s why it was made. If it was ‘The Angel At The Head Of Vogue Magazine’, no one would go.”

    Los Angeles Times

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