I have spent the last week wracking my brain for a new and original way to compare performances. I have read up on Stanislavksy (the art of experiencing/the art of representation), Strasberg (the Method/emotional recall), Meisner (getting out of one's head/emotional instinct), and Adler (trained sensory imagination/the anti-Method).
I did research on the philosophy of acting, the "structured forms of play," exploring the works of Johan Huizinga and Roger Callois. The latter, for example, distinguished the four aspects of play as: Mimesis (simulation), Agon (conflict), Alea (chance), and Illinx (catharsis).
I have read up on Meryl's training - BA from Vassar College, MFA from the Yale School of Drama - and one of the things she's known for is not really ascribing her "style" of acting to one particular method or teacher (although I think if you had to pick one, she'd probably be the most closely aligned with Adler).
Mostly, I have been procrastinating. How can I intelligently articulate what I am about to do? Because the truth is, this isn't going to come down to technique or skill - it is ultimately going to come down to my personal preference, and that's the hardest thing to defend.
I don't think my Ruthless Reasons are going to help me here.
I have watched these two clips from each movie probably a dozen times each, doing my best to compare and contrast what EXACTLY it is that makes each one so GOOD and so goddamned DIFFERENT. The Silkwood scene I used isn't available on YouTube, but do yourself a favor and watch it here:
Part of the reason I think these two performances are so well matched is because they are both so stripped down. Even though Meryl is using an accent in Silkwood, and has adopted this totally un-Merylly physicality and cadence, it's by far the most pared down and simplified of her "charactery" performances (actually, you could say the same for August: Osage County, but that's a battle for later).
There are 3 major moments for me in the Silkwood clip.
At 1:25, her boss Hurley accuses her off contaminating herself with plutonium. "What, are you crazy?" Meryl says, eyeing him up and down. She is legitimately caught off guard, to the point of even laughing about it, but you can see the wheels spinning in her mind: if he's actually accusing her of that, then he could accuse her of anything. He legitimately doesn't believe - or is pretending not to - that this was an accident for which his company is at fault.
The second moment comes a few seconds later, around 1:38, when she remembers that she spilled her urine sample container. That is a PERFECT FUCKING EXAMPLE of the "Aha!" Moment that every acting student has been taught. I know it seems small, but there are LAYERS AND LAYERS happening here. She's not ONLY having a genuine moment of discovery about the cause of the contamination, she's realizing all the implications if that's true: someone at the plant contaminated her.
The third big moment for me is around 2:40, when the Contamination Expert or whatever the hell he is tells Meryl that she's not only physically contaminated, but internally. Her face falls. She lets out this ugly little whimper, and bleats out: "Oh my Jesus." It's perfectly anti-climactic, in all the right ways. For a woman who has just discovered she's going to die of cancer, you'd expect some huge, over-the-top wailing, some cursing, some accusing. But she doesn't do any of that. She lets out an embarrassing little wail, and she says something kind of dumb... she reacts the way a person would probably react in real life: layers of devastation, hitting her differently all the way down.
And that final fucking gut-wrenching moment of acceptance when she gives her "testimony." I am contaminated. I'm dying.
Kramer v. Kramer
For Kramer, there are about a hundred moments in this one scene alone.
At 0:15, she says, "I know I left my son. I know that was a terrible thing to do." And then she pauses, for about THREE WHOLE SECONDS before continuing: "Believe me, I have to live with that every day of my life." The shame there is PALPABLE. She even begins to blush.
At 0:30, she says, "In order to leave him, I had to believe it was the only thing I could do. That it was the best thing for him." And PAUSES AGAIN FOR ANOTHER FOUR SECONDS. Her internal monologue is RAGING: I tried everything. I promise you, I tried everything I could do to stay. I tried so hard to stay. I left because I had the only forgivable reason for leaving: if I stayed, I would've killed myself. I'm so sorry. AND YOU GET ALL THAT FROM THREE SECONDS OF SILENCE. THAT'S IT.
0:55... "Since then, I have gotten some help. And I have worked very, very hard to become a whole human being." She glances down just for a split second on the word "worked." She's remembering the goddamn work it took. She's recalling the hours of therapy, the hours of crying, the hours of self-reflection, and the year and a half it took for her to work herself out of a depression. By just glancing down.
From 0:56 - 1:00, she is once again silent. She almost bites her lip. She looks like she's about to say something, then changes her mind. Finally: "...And I don't think I should be punished for that." Her eyes begin to glisten - not fill, just glisten - with tears. It took a year and a half of therapy for her to ALLOW HERSELF TO SAY THAT AND BELIEVE IT. And you can tell she's only 99.99% sure she believes it. That .01% is where the tears come from.
At 1:25 she says, "I was his mommy for five and a half years. Ted took over that role for eighteen months." AND THEN FIVE WHOLE GODDAMNED SECONDS OF SILENCE. FIVE ENTIRE SECONDS. The internal monologue here is less of a monologue and more of a wailing Greek Chorus, comprised of the millions of women across the world from the beginning of time who are infuriated by gender inequality, specifically how they were raised to believe that "normal parenting" included erasing their identity as people and becoming a Mother whether they wanted to or not. You did this shit for EIGHTEEN MONTHS, DUSTIN HOFFMAN. I DID IT FOR FIVE AND A HALF YEARS. YOU DON'T GET AN AWARD FOR THAT SHIT. Abandonment: not great. Doing the BARE FUCKING MINIMUM and expecting to be lauded as a saint: maybe worse? At the very least, it's certainly also not great.
1:49: I'm his mother. I'm his mother. And the blush. Oh, the blush. Of shame, of hubris, of self-loathing, of imploring, of yearning, of hoping, of pleading.
It is one of my favorite things on the planet to see an actor blush. Because you can't fake that shit. That has to come from inside. Whether you're using the wildly abusive emotional recall of The Method, or the highly demanding empathy and imagination of Adler's teaching, you have to feel shame to blush. It is one of the most agonizingly human and beautiful things to witness.
Sixteen seconds of silence, and that blush. We have a winner.
KRAMER V. KRAMER