That grand dame of acting, Meryl Streep, is a favorite of mine. In this film, she plays a divorced lady who has an affair with her now-remarried ex-husband. I especially enjoyed her open laughing, and, as I watched the movie, I found myself laughing, too. Since I’m a fan, I’ve seen most of her films and discovered that Ms. Streep is equally able to wow audiences in drama, comedy, and even musicals. Just to mention a few of this on-screen chameleon’s roles, there’s “Sophie’s Choice,” “Out of Africa,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Julie and Julia,” “Mamma Mia!,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” – and more. No wonder many consider her – and that includes me – one of the greatest actresses of our time. She disappears into character.
Recently, she portrays the first and only female former British prime minister in “The Iron Lady.” With a wig, a set of false teeth, and geriatric make-up discreetly applied, Ms. Streep provides a flawless impersonation of Margaret Thatcher. The movie is as much about decline as about her rise to power. I would have preferred fewer scenes in which, in the deepest throes of her dementia, Thatcher talks to her late husband. The story spends nearly as much time faithfully observing the woman in her dotage as it does watching her at 10 Downing Street. As I expected, the actress gives a wonderful impersonation, a true bravura performance.
“The Iron Lady,” although so well acted, is underwhelming. It occurs to me that perhaps it’s unwise to use movies as a history lesson – not as an historical biopic. “The Iron Lady” is worth seeing if only to watch Streep’s amazing titanic performance. It’s nice to know that at 63, she still finds challenging roles – a feat many mature actresses have struggled with, especially in Hollywood. Also nice to know that the star has been married to the same man since 1978 (you do the math) and has four children. Uncanny!
If you ever watched “Upstairs, Downstairs,” a captivating and addictive Masterpiece Theater series on PBS, you’re in for another television treat, and that’s a rarity in today’s TV programming. Two years ago, there began a similar elegant soap opera (let’s face it, that’s what it is) about masters and their servants, “Downton Abbey” (I feel as if there should be a “w” in the second syllable). An Emmy-award-winning series, it happily returned to Masterpiece Classics. At last, for me the wait is over and I can spend Sunday night with the all-star cast. My heightened expectations are being fulfilled. However, the sequel is now set amid the horror and mass destruction of World War I. In Series 2, the year is 1916 and the Great War has rendered everything and everyone changed. There’s still exquisite tableaux of swirling chiffon skirts, crystal decanters, and lavish country landscapes. Even Downton Abbey itself, like its residents, has risen to the call of duty and transformed itself.
Far from the trenches which we see in spurts, there remains no shortage of scheming, meddling, romance, and dangerous attractions. The fine cast includes one of my favorites, Maggie Smith, as Violet – comically implacable and opinionated. Come hell or high water, she will never desert her prized snobbery. However, the story emphasizes the slow collapse of class. I found myself enjoying the rivalry between the staff, between the family, and between the staff and the family. “Downton Abbey” is still about masters and servants, now at the twilight of the British empire. Even a world war can’t sever the bond between aristocrats and the servants who love them. I find this Masterpiece Classic compulsively watchable. Guess I have a gusto for intrigue and melodrama.
I did have high expectations when I went to see “The Artist,” an up-to-date attempt to replicate the magic and glory of silent cinema. The movie takes place in Hollywood between 1927 and 1931 and focuses on the declining male film star (Dujardin) and a rising actress (Bejo) as silent cinema disappears with the arrival of talking pictures. The era of silent film is impressively recreated. Its music made me think of my mom, who played the piano for them. The two stars of “The Artist” do a fine job, Dujardin as the charming 20s star and Bejo as the sassy sure-footed upstart. I particularly enjoyed their rousing tap dancing scene in the style of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. The relationship between the charming 20s star and his dog provide a sort of Chaplinesque feel. The dog deserves an applause. In many ways, “The Artist” plays like a missing link to “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Sunset Boulevard.”
In spite of a comfortable tribute that is black and white, absent of words, and morally appealing, I was mostly let down. A family film for the easy-minded and preceded by great accolades, it simply didn’t grab me and have all the magic most are claiming it to have.
When I like something, I stay with it. As an example, in 1970 a program series began at the 92nd Street Y. It presented events and concerts centered around the American Songbook. I hastened to subscribe to the “Lyrics and Lyricists” as soon as I learned about it. Recently, I attended the opening of the 2012 season and enjoyed it even more than in the past. The program, “Makin’ Whoopee: Walter Donaldson, Gus Kahn and the Jazz Age,” celebrated the little-known song-writing team behind the 1928 musical “Whoopee” (one of my favorite songs to sing). I must confess that the other hits from 1921 to 1931 were also songs I know and enjoy. All of the music was played by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, using vintage band charts. The group has a wonderful pianist, Peter Yarin, who has been with the Nighthawks for the past seven years. Known for playing the songs of the 20s, 30s, and 40s, the 11-piece group preserves the music in a light-hearted, understanding, intensely swinging way. The result is hot vintage jazz that sounds better to me than any I hear today.
The 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue in New York is an artistic home to the brightest stars of Broadway, jazz, and cabaret. It’s interesting to note that it presents a special under-35 ticket price for the Saturday and Sunday evening shows (obviously I didn’t qualify). When I go to “Lyrics and Lyricists,” I always stop to dine at Cafe Lex a block away, where an attentive waiter named Joe doesn’t sneer when I request no butter or salt added.
You can e-mail June Sturz at email@example.com.