Most actors are lucky to have one big movie in a year; Meryl Streep has two coming out this weekend. The first, on HBO Max, is Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk, a dry-witted, dark comedy about literary assholes set on the opulent Queen Mary 2, a ship that regularly makes the trip between New York and the United Kingdom. The second, Ryan Murphy’s The Prom on Netflix, is a musical about a group of Broadway actors who descend on a small Indiana town to help a young woman attend prom with her girlfriend. The two films couldn’t be more different — in fact, there’s a good argument to be made that Streep’s character in the former would absolutely detest her character in the latter — but add up their total 255 minute-run-time, and they illustrate the unparalleled range of one of the biggest stars.
This is not a story arguing that Streep is underrated. We’ve already had one of those recently, and frankly, no, she’s not. No one with 21 Academy Award nominations — many of them deserved, one of which stole Amy Adams’ Arrival Oscar — and three wins can be considered a Hollywood martyr. If she’s become a bit of a punchline over the years, it’s only because she’s so firmly secure in her position as the reigning queen of acting — much like George Clooney embracing the label of Mr. Amal. Neither of these figures is in danger of anyone forgetting their heightened status, so why not be magnanimous about it?
Still, it’s rare we get to see her flex her range in such close proximity. A double feature of Let Them All Talk and The Prom tells a tale of two Meryls, an actor whose very prowess can be both a blessing and a curse.
Shot almost entirely on a real Queen Mary 2 crossing in 2019, Let Them All Talk is a character study of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Hughes (Streep), who invites her two former best friends Roberta and Susan (Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest) and nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) to join her on an Atlantic crossing to England, where she’s receiving a prestigious award. Though the three friends haven’t spent time together in 30 years, this isn’t a gushy reunion — Roberta and Susan have old grudges to sort out with Alice, and through them, Let Them All Talk delves into the sacrifices and compromises one makes for art, and the impact that has on one’s relationships. Also on board is Alice’s agent (Gemma Chan), who’s hoping the trip may be an opportunity to get a glimpse of a long-awaited novel.
Streep’s second collaboration with Soderberg (the first being The Laundromat, in a role tainted with racist undertones) is a masterclass in gestures. As Alice, she’s physically turned in on herself for much of the film, wrapped in a series of glitzy shawls. Everything about her is severe, including her bold, black glasses, which she uses in a way that is absolutely indescribable. (Was “glasses acting” a thing before? Well, it is now.) She is the picture of the elusive author, a woman who lives in her mind, with little real time or inclination for personal physical and emotional connection. The introspection required for her work has turned her into someone who is almost incapable of really connecting with others — all she has are the memories of her friendship with Susan and Roberta during their university days.
And then suddenly, Alice will surprise us: the way she tenderly brushes Hedges’ shoulder in the loving familiar gesture of an aunt; the fluid dances of her hands during a talk about her favorite author, the rare time she feels that emotional pull; her arm literally reaching out to Roberta during a tense conversation towards the end of the movie, all indicate a person who wants to be revered as an author but understood as a person, even as she’s put all her efforts in to the former, ignoring the latter.
In a way, the reverse is what drives Dee Dee Allen, Streep’s character in The Prom. A formerly successful Tony-award-winning Broadway superstar, her focus on her own personal squabbles have tarnished her professional appeal. With yet another flop on her hands, Dee and her cronies — a similarly afflicted Barry (James Corden), Juilliard graduate turned bartender Trent (Andrew Rannels) and chorus girl with leading lady dreams Angie (Nicole Kidman) — decide that the solution to their image problem is to parachute into activism, taking up a cause that will endear them to the public. Their pet project: Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Perlman), an Indiana teenager whose desire to attend her prom with her girlfriend (Ariana DeBose) has thrown the community into turmoil.
A third cousin to Mamma Mia and Ricki and the Flash, Streep’s performance in The Prom is not her best — it’s not even her 16th best — but it’s still good. The problem is that, like Dee Dee, she has landed in an environment that isn’t quite ready for her. Having Meryl Streep in your movie is tricky. You know she’ll be great, because she always is. On the flip side, that also means that any flaw will look glaring by comparison. In a movie like The Prom, having Streep high kick in a cape and a copper wig just feels like a stunt, rather than a living, breathing performance.There are too many things going on here for any one element to really stand out: The cast is an event in and of itself, and then there’s singing, dancing, and *gestures in Ryan Murphy.* It’s not a coincidence that Perlman and DeBose steal the two few scenes they’re in. The Prom is a movie that would have been much better served by letting actual singers and lesser-known actors take what is ultimately a sweet story and make it shine with earnest performances.
Meanwhile, in Let Them All Talk the cast is the single ornament in a movie that’s so bare-bones, it’s always on the verge of collapse. Though Deborah Eisenberg’s script set out clear narrative lines and themes, some of the dialogue and most of the delivery was reportedly improvised, which gives every interaction a more spontaneous and natural feel. This is a movie where the only real conceit is the limited opportunity to spend time with phenomenal actors on a beautiful ship, even — especially — if all they’re doing is talking.
If you can only choose one Meryl to indulge in, though, let it be Let Them All Talk. The strength of the film isn’t just the sheer force of her Streepness bulldozing everything in its path, but in watching her spar with Wiest and Bergen, all at the top of their game. To quote The Prom: You’ve got to “give it some ‘zazz.”