WHERE WAS THAT EMPATHY WE’VE COME TO KNOW?
An open letter to Meryl Streep from a conservative fan:
Dear Ms. Streep,
I’ve been a fan of your work since I first saw you in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” It was clear back then you were destined to be a star.
You didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity to attack President-Elect Trump — and by proxy, the people who voted for him.
The camera loved your striking good looks. But we all saw more. Your depth. Your intelligence. And your empathy. And empathy is what acting is all about. Actors don’t judge the characters they play. They become them.
And what characters you’ve played. Linda in “The Deer Hunter,” Karen in “Out of Africa,” Sophie in “Sophie’s Choice,” Sarah in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” Rachel in “Heartburn,” Donna in my wife and daughter’s favorite movie — “Mamma Mia!” — and my favorite, Susan Orlean in “Adaptation.”
The flaws in your characters are never burnished, because you know all of us have flaws of one kind or another, and they can’t be separated from our virtues. You also know that there is, in every character you play, a part of yourself. A part of us all.
You are particularly good at taking seemingly unlikable people and making them fully human. In “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the movie that earned you your first Oscar, you turned an unsympathetic character into one we understood. And loved. Though your character had done the unimaginable, abandoning her husband and child for 18 months, you got us to see why she did such an awful thing. That she was in a lonely, desperate place. And did the only thing she thought she could do at the time: leave.
When she came back 18 months later to seek custody of her son, and won the custody battle, we were mad at her. But then she did something remarkable. Something hard. Despite the court’s ruling, she let her ex-husband retain custody of her son.
And that’s the thing about art. It challenges and surprises us. And reveals the contradictions and convulsions within us all. Indeed, it may be your crowning achievement that so many of your performances did just that.
That can’t be said for your performance at the Golden Globes. It was an obvious performance. A rude performance. And it lacked your characteristic courage to surprise and challenge all of us. Yourself included.
Let’s start with why it was rude. The Golden Globes invited millions of Americans into that room in Los Angeles, and millions of us invited you into our homes. But you didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity to attack President-Elect Trump — and by proxy, the people who voted for him. You either didn’t appreciate that fact, or took it into account and made the speech anyway.
Millions of your fans voted for Donald Trump, and millions were women. Good women you’d probably do a great job portraying if you had to. But on that stage, filled with righteous indignation, you paid them no respect. Like my wife, who admires your work, and who voted for Trump.
Moreover, what you failed to appreciate was this: Millions of people watching may not have liked Donald Trump, but voted for him anyway. Because sometimes, people we don’t like — people who offend our sensibilities — end up being very good at their jobs.
Like Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada,” the character you so capably brought to life. Could she have become a force in her industry by being anyone but the person she was? That’s what made your performance great. You didn’t judge her.
Could it be that Donald Trump has similar strengths and flaws? And might end up being a great leader, too? And could it be that those people who voted for him saw what you just couldn’t see?
Your performance was also obvious. When you started rattling the names of all of the actors, and where they were all from, we knew why you were doing it.
“Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners,” you said. “If you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”
The line got a laugh. But it was a cheap laugh. Because President-Elect Trump doesn’t want to throw outsiders and foreigners out of the country. Nor do his followers. Do you really think we want Ryan Gosling deported to Canada? And why that dig at so many millions of Americans who love you and the NFL? Love your movies and mixed martial arts? You treated us like we’re stupid, like you’re better than us. That’s a side of you we never saw on the screen before — condescending Meryl. Arrogant Meryl.
It’s an easy thing to caricature one side of a debate like illegal immigration, and worse, shut it down by calling people names. Or mocking them, which you did in your own elegant way. Which most of Hollywood has been doing in a not so elegant way since Trump launched his candidacy.
But what your performance lacked most was courage. You didn’t challenge your peers. They didn’t boo or hiss you once. We know why. They all agree with you. Moreover, you did not challenge the folks listening at home who did not vote for Trump. That’s not courage. That’s moral preening masquerading as courage.
I expected more from you. Because you know things aren’t always as what they seem, and that it’s easy to draw from single moments a caricature of any human being. Which you did when you focused on that Trump transgression with the journalist. You could have done that to Joe Biden when he implored a man in a wheelchair a few years back to stand up, not once, but several times. You didn’t, because you like Biden, and his brand of politics.
In what may have been the best movie of last year, “Hell or High Water,” Jeff Bridges plays an old Texas Ranger who teases his fellow Texas Ranger incessantly about his Comanche heritage. It would be easy to write the Bridges character off as a racist. But in the end, we learn that he loved his partner, and was willing to die for him.
That’s what art does. It surprises us. Inspire us. Even heals us.
“An actor’s only job,” you said, “is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like.”
That’s why your performance stunned us. The empathetic powers you so generously deploy with the fictional characters you play in movies was not extended to millions of real-life Americans watching on TV, the president-elect included, who see life differently than you.
You failed your own standard. And this is one case where you can’t blame the writer.
You still hold a special place in my heart. Your work always moves me and makes me think. Which is why I’ll give you a pass on your latest performance. Because, like you, I believe in art’s power to reveal the things not that divide us, but that bring us together.
From a fan for life, no matter what your political views,
This letter has been sent to Streep’s agent. Habeeb anxiously awaits a response. He isn’t holding his breath.
Habeeb is the VP of content for Salem Radio Network, and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife and daughter.