It feels like Meryl Streep enters the Oscars race every single time she appears in a film.
And that’s certainly no different this fall, considering her much-applauded turn in upcoming film August: Osage County.
A new trailer for the film, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, features Meryl as Violet Weston, the pill-popping matriach of a dysfunctional family.Oscar-worthy performance? Meryl Streep stars in August: Osage County as a matriach with a sharp tongue and an addiction to prescription pillsMeryl Streep stars in new August: Osage County trailer
Adapted from the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, August: Osage County follows the family as they come together after the death of Beverly Weston (Violet’s husband).
It’s clear that there’s plenty of drama – and awkwardness – to air out, as each person holds their own backstory and quirks.
‘Look at your boobs! The last time I saw you, you looked like a little boy,’ Mattie Aiken (played by Margo Martindale) tells teenager Jean Fordham (Abigail Breslin).Growing up: Abigail Breslin, now 17 years old, stars as the daughter of Ewan McGregor and Julia Roberts’ characters
What did you say? Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin stare in shock at a rude comment from Meryl Streep’s character Violet Weston
In another scene, Meryl can be seen rolling her eyes and making faces as Chris Cooper, in the role of Charles Aiken, talks about the ‘joy of family’ as he says grace at the dinner table.
Her befuddling temperament might have something to do with her prescription drug habit: ‘She takes pills – Valium, Vicodin, Xanax,’ her husband notes.
The drama also follows the separation of Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts) from Bill Fordham (Ewan McGregor), who is apparently involved with ‘a younger woman.’
‘Well, the odds are against you there, babe,’ Violet drawls to her daughter.Big claims: Julia Roberts has called her acting experience opposite Ewan and Meryl as the ‘best’ of her illustrious career
Why the tears? Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the upcoming film The Fifth Estate, looks distraught in the clip
August: Osage County has earned kudos for its all-star ensemble cast, which also includes Benedict Cumberbatch (The Fifth Estate), Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney and others.
The film has received many positive reviews, with the most praise going to the performances, particularly Meryl’s.
Julia Roberts has even called her role ‘the best acting experience of my life,’ according to the Associated Press.
The film opens Christmas Day in the U.S.Settle down: Chris Cooper calms Benedict down as they discuss Beverly Weston’s funeral
Winning ways: Variety’s Scott Foundas calls Meryl’s performance ‘electrifying,’ and she’s certain to get awards-season attention
Leading lady: Meryl Streep attends the Crystal & Lucy Awardsi, held at the Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, in June 2012
Toronto: The movie adaptation of “August: Osage County” received a rare 10 minute standing ovation last night at Roy Thomson Hall. The film of Tracey Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winning play stars Meryl Streep as Violet, matriarch a volatile Oklahoma family. The ovation was like something from the Cannes film festival, not usually seen in restrained Canada, and was very disarming for everyone in the cast who was in attendance including Julia Roberts
I know, every time Streep is in a movie people say “Oscar.” But the three time Oscar winner weaves some kind of magic in this movie. You can see it from the moment she appears in half light, looking haggard with spiky short hair to when she pulls on a full, dark wig to play Violet, the pill popping cancer patient with loads of secrets. And yes, this is a comedy and a drama.
Streep was not at last night’s premiere because she starts filming “Into the Woods” this week and has a bad enough cold that she couldn’t travel up from New York with setting back that production. But her name was heard everywhere as the credits rolled and the lights went up.
Most of the large, talented cast was there however: Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, and Abigail Breslin among them. And when they got to their party at Soho House–the only party of any interest last night in Toronto– pop star Taylor Swift arrived and joined them. That caused mayhem as you can imagine, when Swift and Roberts posed for pictures together with Harvey Weinstein.
“August: Osage County” was a bit of a surprise for many reasons last night. There had been a lot of talk that the film adaptation hadn’t worked out. That may have come from a teaser trailer that made the film look like a Southern comedy played for yucks. There was also a lot of discussion about how to handle Oscar positioning with Streep and Roberts. Who would be considered lead or supporting?
But once John Wells’s movie unfurled, all became clear. Streep is the star, the quarterback. In one scene taken from the play she sits at the head of a dining room table with this cast all around her. She literally throws “touchdown passes” to each cast member, landing jokes and barbs as they run to the end zone. It’s sort of mesmerizing because she never flags or tires or misses. It’s like watching an acting master class. It’s breathtaking.
So yes, Meryl Streep jumps onto the Best Actress list with Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and Sandra Bullock. “AOC” becomes an extremely serious contender for Best Picture. It will almost certainly win Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards. Julia Roberts and Chris Cooper will be up for all the supporting awards. Cooper almost steals the show with a scene right out of Letts’s play at the dinner table. Roberts gives her most soulful performance yet, and comes across with a humanity–as one of Violet’s three daughters–that gives the movie anchor while Streep storms on like a hurricane.
PS Kudos also to Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sam Shepard, who also make this movie an absolute pleasure.
[Warning: This post contains plot spoilers about the upcoming movie “August: Osage County.” While we don’t think they’ll ruin the experience, you might be mad anyway. Please read at your own risk.]
TORONTO — If you saw Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning black comedy “August: Osage County” on the stage in any of the numerous cities it played a few years back, chances are you were struck by one scene above all else. The final one, that is, in which matriarch Violet Weston is seen sitting on the stairs of the house she once ruled, abandoned by her adult daughters, especially eldest daughter Barbara, who don’t/can’t/won’t stay and take care of a woman who, let’s face it, has made her and her sisters’ lives pretty miserable.
For those who saw the John Wells-directed (and Letts-scripted) movie at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, a different ending awaited.Violet, played by Meryl Streep, is indeed shown toward the end of the action in the house she once ruled, calling for the Native American nurse who serves as the sort of eyes and ears of the audience. But the film doesn’t end with the play’s iconic image of Violet on the stairs. Instead, in the following scene, Barbara, played by Julia Roberts, can be seen driving away, conveying in a rather different way she’s leaving her mother and shifting the focus to the younger character.
It’s impossible not to notice the difference, and filmgoers exiting the premiere were buzzing/arguing/complaining about the movie’s final scene.
But here’s the thing: It might not be the movie’s final scene.
Wells and Letts are still in a push-pull with producers and Weinstein Co. executives over whether the movie should end in the current manner, as many in the latter camp want, or with a shot of Violet in the manner of the play, as Letts and Wells have long learned toward.
In fact, in his first cut Wells left the ending as it was on the stage — with the shot of Violet on the stairs. But when the film was screened for early audiences they didn’t approve.
“We tested it over and over again and people rebelled in the theater,” Wells said in an interview Tuesday. “They were terrified about what happened to Barbara.”
Keeping it the way it was in the play, he said, was just too alienating to the people the film needed to appeal to.
“They felt like we were hitting them on the head with a hammer. I heard it over and over again — to the point that it was ‘Let’s see what happens if we put Violet on the steps and then cut to Barbara.”
That went over better, with audiences now saying they had more closure with the daughter character. And so, in went the final ending for Toronto.
But that result — though blessed by Weinstein — isn’t something Wells is convinced of. And he may yet triumph in his bid to revert to the other ending.
“I’m not sure I’m OK with doing it that way,” he said. “I don’t want to say there’s anything wrong with the current ending, because there isn’t. But it’s something we’re still talking about. We don’t open for three months, and it’s possible you’ll see something different.”
A Weinstein Co. spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
In an interview alongside Wells, Letts agreed but struck a somewhat more ambivalent note. He said he felt there was something stark and powerful about ending with Violet on the stairs — that’s how he wrote it for the stage, after all — but he also said that closing with a Barbara drive scene was OK if it clarified the matter for viewers.
“A little ambiguity is not a bad thing,” he said. “But we don’t want audience confusion, where it’s suddenly ‘I don’t know where the ball is.’ So this is what we’re trying to figure out.”
Why audiences were OK with a Violet-centric ending on the stage but not the screen remains an open question. Letts wryly suggested that it’s because the play didn’t afford the option; he couldn’t very well show Barbara offstage in a prop car that she pretend-drove.
Whatever the reason, there’s more at stake than just the plot point, though the idea of focusing on Barbara’s leaving instead of Violet’s solitude has some implications in its own right. There’s something of a fundamental question about the ending: How much freedom should creators have in adapting a work as they see fit. It’s a question that transcends this piece and, indeed, stage-to-screen adaptations generally. Should those putting a new spin on a popular entertainment brand be given wide latitude to make the choices they want to make? It’s been a question turning up a lot lately, from the Ben Affleck’s Batman casting to – why not? – Miley Cyrus twerking her image.
The “August” ending also raises a curious wrinkle in the world of filmmaking. As Wells noted, not that long ago, when film was still presented on film, once a cut was locked it was locked. It cost a hundred or two hundred grand to change it, which allowed little last-minute dithering over an ending. But like so many other things that have gone digital, from Web journalism to cable news coverage, a finished story is never really finished
At the close of the “August: Osage County” movie, Meryl Streep is, symbolically speaking, standing alone. Does Julia drive? The Weinsteins and its director are, for all the film-festival chatter, still hashing it out.
Legendary movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sat down for a lively, career-spanning discussion at the Toronto Film Festival hosted by Credit Suisse and The Daily Beast. From the tumultuous history of ‘Gangs of New York’ to Meryl Streep’s unique preparation methods for ‘August: Osage County,’ here are the best bits.
A modish mélange of A-list stars, film executives, and journalists gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto on Tuesday night to honor the man, the myth, the legend: Harvey Weinstein. Nicknamed “The Punisher” by none other than Meryl Streep, the bullish movie mogul’s name has become synonymous with Oscar—he has racked up 321 nominations and 78 wins, including two out of the last three Academy Award winners for Best Picture.
Weinstein, former head of Miramax and now The Weinstein Co., carried a whopping seven films into this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, including Stephen Frears’s Philomena, the Nelson Mandela biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the ensemble dramedy August: Osage County, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, and more. And Weinstein is no stranger to TIFF, having used it as an awards launching pad for several of his Oscar-winning hits, including The King’s Speech.
On making August: Osage County:
The process of August: Osage County is an interesting one. About five or six years ago, a young guy who works for me named Ben Famiglietti walked into my office and said, “I just read an amazing play.” I said, “Let me read it.” And he dropped off a 190-page script, and I said, “This is crazy.” And then I started reading it and it was the most incredible dialogue I’d read in a long time, up there with Tennessee Williams. These people were desperate for money, and I think it was $500,000 or something… I wrote the check [for the rights]. The play went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and was a financial success at the box office, and they kept their word and Jean [Doumanian] sold us the rights to make it a movie. George Clooney was our biggest competitor, so I thought it was only fair that George produce the movie with Jean.
On working with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts on August: Osage County:
Off-set, the cast loved each other. Meryl’s process is one of the most interesting ones. In order to do this role correctly, she was at Costco at two o’clock in the morning shopping like a homeless person. She becomes the role. She lives it. She is it. This is my sixth movie with her, and we’re about to do a seventh, and an eighth. And [Julia Roberts] loved it. It’s her favorite role, and she’s spectacularly good in the film. I’ve known her 20 years, and she was actually giddy last night. She and Taylor Swift went into the SoHo House and they went to the photo booth and they were just hugging all night with each other, with their tongues sticking out. Taylor Swift, I think, was shocked that Julia Roberts knew who she was, and Julia Roberts had the same reaction.
Tweet – @WeinsteinFilms
In some cosmic switcheroo, Taylor Swift may just have been the perfect megawatt replacement for Meryl Streep last night at Grey Goose Soho House. Streep had been the most anticipated guest of TIFF 2013 in connection with her latest sure-to-be Oscar nominated leading role in August: Osage County, but bowed out at the last minute due to illness. There were tears for many, especially one pint sized fan who wore a “Meryl in training” T-shirt to the film’s screening at Roy Thompson Hall earlier that evening. Not for the film’s cast and Gucci and Holt Renfrew’s hosted after-party guests however—they all seemed thrilled by the surprise appearance by Swift, who showed up in a wowza Calvin Klein Collection number after walking the red carpet of One Chance. Flanked by Harvey Weinstein and a dapper Brenton Thwaites who I’m sure will be the talk of the blogs all day long (he’s about to be a Disney prince!), Swift held court on the second floor for most of the night, that is, while she wasn’t busy hanging with the film’s star studded cast, aka. the fixtures of the rip-roarious festivities.
Julia Roberts, breathtaking in raspberry Dolce & Gabbana, chatted animatedly with co-stars Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Julianne Nicholson and Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding 2.0!) for most of the evening. Her million dollar smile and signature cackle were as omnipresent as you’d, or say a little gal watching Pretty Woman on repeat a million times, imagine. Everyone was hugging. Everyone was so huggy! Nearby, Chris Cooper, whose performance instigated applause multiple times throughout the screening, ate dinner with wife Marianne Leone.
The cast seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, spending hours in and around the club. I even found Roberts, McGregor, Mulroney and Swift making use of Soho House’s photo-booth, conveniently located beside the women’s bathroom. “It’s a good look, you should keep it,” said Mulroney to Swift as I meekly shuffled by. (I had to touch her back. It was soft. And awkward.)
Later that night, the party got even wilder as more celebs packed in. Juliette Lewis, who swapped into a white off-the-shoulder cocktail dress after the premiere, toasted with friends on the newly opened rooftop as the familial-y blessed Jack Huston and the familial-y famous Jason Bateman hung out at tables nearby. Back on the club floor, we were thrilled to see that IRL, Mad Men’s Lane Pryce aka. Jared Harris, was very much alive. Felicity Jones was there too, cause why the heck not.
And because that wasn’t all, I witnessed Ralph Fiennes showing off his moves to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as an impromptu dance party broke out on the main floor. Devil may care? More like wizard can dance, am I right?
There are no surprises — just lots of good, old-fashioned scenery chewing – in “August: Osage County,” director John Wells’ splendid film version of playwright Tracy Letts’ acid-tongued Broadway triumph about three generations in a large and highly dysfunctional Oklahoma family. Arriving onscreen shorn of some girth (the stage version ran more than three hours, with two intermissions) but keeping most of its scalding intensity, this two-ton prestige pic won’t win the hearts of highbrow critics or those averse to door-slamming, plate-smashing, top-of-the-lungs histrionics, but as a faithful filmed record of Letts’ play, one could have scarcely hoped for better. With deserved awards heat and a heavy marketing blitz from the Weinstein Co., this Christmas release should click with upscale adult auds who will have just survived their own heated holiday family gatherings.
Onstage, confined to a creaking, cavernous old house that seemed variously a womb, a prison and a sarcophagus for those who passed through it, “August” consciously aligned itself with a particular strain of Great American Plays set in just such environs (including multiple works by Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams). Onscreen, gently opened up to include the big skies and infinite horizons of the real Osage County (where the pic was lensed), it suggests a more barbed, astringent “Terms of Endearment” for the Prozac era, with fewer tears and far more recriminations.
Once again, we are introduced to the Weston clan by way of patriarch Beverly, a melancholic poet (played here by an excellent Sam Shepard, in a role originated by Letts’ own late father, Dennis) who quotes T.S. Eliot’s immortal maxim that “life is very long” just before taking matters into his own hands: first by mysteriously disappearing, then by turning up drowned in a local lake. The ensuing funeral serves as a de facto family reunion, the previously empty house filling to the rafters with Beverly’s three grown daughters, their significant others and assorted relations. All have come to pay their last respects. None will leave without incurring the wrath of the widow Weston, Violet (Meryl Streep), a cancer-stricken, pill-popping martinet whose idol was Liz Taylor and who could be Albee’s Martha a few decades — and many rounds of marital prizefights — on from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
From all points they converge: Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and moody teen daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) in tow; Karen (Juliette Lewis), the youngest, who shows up on the arm of her supposed fiance (Dermot Mulroney), a sleazy Florida hustler with unsavory business connections; and middle child Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), whose big secret is that she’s sweet on her first cousin “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) — a secret, it turns out, much bigger than even Ivy knows.
Whatever else one may think of “August,” in Violet, Letts (who adapted “August” for the screen) has created one of the great, showstopping female roles in recent American theater — his Mother Courage, Mama Rose and Mary Tyrone, all rolled into one — and Streep plays it to the hilt, in and out of a black fright wig (to hide the character’s chemo-stricken hair) and oversized sunglasses, cursing like a longshoreman and whittling everyone down to size. Nothing slips by her, she says repeatedly. You’d better believe it. It’s a “big” performance, but it’s just what the part calls for, since Vi is something of an actress herself, craving the attention that comes with turning a solemn family gathering into an occasion for high theater. This may be Beverly’s funeral, but it’s Vi’s chance to shine.
Shine she does, especially during the long funeral dinner at the end of Act Two that is, as it was onstage, Letts’ piece de resistance. Streep is electrifying to watch here, goosing, prodding, meting out punishment and laying family secrets bare, surprisingly gentle one moment, demonic the next. And Roberts, who hasn’t had a big, meaty part like this in years, possesses just the right hardened beauty to play an aging woman let down by life, terrified at the thought of becoming her mother.
Wells, who is best known for having produced such small-screen phenoms as “ER” and “The West Wing,” does an impressive job shooting and cutting among 10 major characters, all of whom get their chance to engage Vi in verbal tango. He isn’t a natural film director per se (his lone previous feature, 2010’s “The Company Men,” was the earnest, corporate-downsizing also-ran to “Up in the Air”), but he understands what “August” needs in order to work onscreen, how to preserve its inherent claustrophobia without rendering it completely stagebound, and the result is far more successful than any more stylized “cinematic” treatment probably would have been. (Overall, Wells’ work here recalls the American Film Theatre series of stage-to-screen adaptations from the 1970s, of which John Frankenheimer’s “The Iceman Cometh” was the major highlight.)
“August” is the third Letts play to reach the screen in a decade, following William Friedkin’s films of “Bug” and “Killer Joe.” And if, on the surface, it appears to be Letts’ straightest piece (void of surveillance implants and fellated chicken legs), just beneath it may be the most violent and perverse. It’s a panorama of unfulfilled lives in which people do the most unforgivable things to the ones they (supposedly) love, mostly in an effort to feel better about themselves. What makes Letts an original aren’t his subjects so much as the foul, logorrheic, yet oddly musical way his characters have of expressing themselves. The people in “August: Osage County” talk the way we wish we could, and sometimes do, when some long-suppressed yearning or accusation wells up inside us — torrents of words batter and bruise only to arrive at some bracing, lucid insight: “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.” Or, “It lives where everything lives, somewhere in the middle.”
If Streep and Roberts have the roman-candle roles here, the entire cast is commendable, with Letts and Wells giving even the most seemingly incidental character (like the fine Native American actress Misty Upham as Vi’s live-in caretaker) a grace note or two. Lewis is a particular hoot as the daughter hanging on to her carefree youth with all fingernails firmly dug in, while Cumberbatch is very touching as the clumsy, unemployed young man whose diminutive name is one of Letts’ few overtly symbolic touches. (Also excellent: Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Little Charles’ parents.)
Shooting in widescreen — a practical necessity with this many characters to squeeze into a frame — Adriano Goldman (“Jane Eyre,” “The Company You Keep”) beautifully captures the hazy half-light of a house whose permanently drawn window shades are mentioned in the dialogue. Indeed, it is a place where we can never be sure whether we are traveling a long day’s journey into night, or a long night’s journey into day.
Yesterday ‘August: Osage County‘ premiered at the Toronto Film Fest. Unfortunately, Meryl Streep couldn’t attend the event due to illness. [ Tweet] Below you can check the official reviews. Also here you can go through the tweets reviewing the movie once the screening was over.
It’s official: The Weinstein Co. has switched the Oscar strategy of the top stars in “August: Osage County“. Meryl Streep will remain in the lead race, according to one of the studio’s Oscar campaigners. But here’s the shockeroo: Julia Roberts will drop to supporting,
Back in early August, the rep told Gold Derby that Streep would compete in the supporting race, but Roberts would go lead. Then last week, the rep warned me that Streep could go back up to lead based upon reactions to early screenings of a new, final cut of the film. But the rep didn’t suggest that Roberts might be shuffled too.
Now it turns out that Roberts will compete against “August: Osage County” costar Margo Martindale, who portrays an award-winning role. The star who performed her character on the Broadway stage (Rondi Reed) won Best Featured (or Supporting) Actress in a Play at the 2008 Tony Awards.
The stars who held the original stage roles played by Streep (Deanna Dunagan) and Roberts (Amy Morton) were nominated by Tony voters in the lead race. Dunagan won.
Now Streep has been advanced by Weinstein Co. as the sole “August” actress competing in the lead race at the Oscars for this reason, according to the rep, “We have to look at the Best Actress race this way: Who’s strong enough to beat Cate Blanchett? It’s Meryl.”
But Roberts may not like too much the idea of being dropped to supporting where she must compete against Oprah Winfrey (“The Butler”), who – let’s face it – probably has that Oscar in the bag already.
Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep star in ‘August Osage County,’ a December movie which got an early premiere in Toronto — and some early Oscar buzz (THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY)
“August Osage Country” had its premiere at Toronto tonight. The movie isn’t scheduled to open until Christmas, and this version was so new the sound mix still wasn’t quite done; as it was projected, the formidable Harvey Weinstein literally hovered off to one side of the theater, like a father proudly watching his baby take its first steps.
And then baby broke into a run.
“August Osage County” is a big drama, and some of its theatrics are as overheated as the Oklahoma summer it’s set in. There’s a death in the family, an uncomfortable reunion and a lot of screaming viciousness disguised as “truth-telling”; mom is a pill addict, her three daughters have their own serious problems, and few of the men in their lives seem to be able to stand up for themselves, let alone anyone else.
So basically it’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” crossed with a little “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But with some comedy, too.
It’s all very effective, although not particularly flashy or visually innovative. That, of course, is how Weinstein prefers it. Apart from Quentin Tarantino, edgy directors have never really appealed to him; Weinstein’s filmmakers of choice are conventional, dependably tasteful and solely determined to get a whole bunch of Oscar-worthy performances on screen and in focus. (For the record, the director here is John Wells.)
Almost everyone is great, but the best of the best is Meryl Streep, as the foul-mouthed, acid-tongued patriarch. And being Streep, she makes the part even harder on herself by doing much of it behind big dark glasses, hiding an actress’ greatest tool — her eyes. It’s like Serena Williams playing a match with one hand tied behind her back, just for fun — and still acing it.
Excellent, too, is Chris Cooper as perhaps the one truly decent fellow in the whole family, Streep’s brother-in-law. And the often underestimated Juliette Lewis is a delight as the flakiest of the three sisters, still trying so desperately — and vainly — to win her mother’s affection.
As the strongest sister — the only one to really go toe-to-toe with Mom — Julia Roberts is fine. But she’s not wonderful and it’s annoying — and obvious — how the film has been tweaked to accommodate the size of her stardom. She gets long, careful closeups; worse, there’s a completely unnecessary coda which detracts from what should be (and was, in the play) the final scene, just so the film can end with her onscreen.
Of course, to be cynical, the superfluous footage does more than that: By ending on Roberts, you announce that this is her film, and this is her best-actress race. (In fact, there have been reports — albeit constantly changing and contradictory ones — that the studio may push Roberts alone for a best-actress Oscar, knocking Streep down to the supporting category.)
I hope that’s not true, not because of who has the better chance in which race — unlike studio heads, I truly don’t care — but because of what’s fair. Cooper has a supporting role, and should be nominated for such. Lewis has a supporting role, and could be nominated in that category as well (she’s been an excellent, and under-the-radar actress for years).
But this is Streep’s movie. It is about her, and she owns it from beginning to end. And no matter what category she is eventually put forward for — and which, if any, Academy members choose to select her for — she is already a winner. And an undisputed champion.
It’s undeniable that, at least on paper, “August: Osage County” looks like a can’t-miss proposition. PairingTracey Letts’ Pulitizer Prize and Tony Award-winning play with an outstanding ensemble cast ranging from awards-nominated veterans to rising young stars—Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham—it’s hard to fathom the material not working. And while the choice of helmer John Wells (“The Company Men”) might not seem like the most inspired decision, all he theoretically has to do is put the camera on a tripod and let the actors do their thing. And he does. And yet, ‘Osage County’ still turns out be an exhausting, screechy drama, in which a lot of very good actors work very hard, and yet produce so little as a result.
Following the death of family patriarch and celebrated poet Beverly Weston (Shepard, in an appearance that’s just slightly more than a cameo), the entire brood returns to the titular home to rally around their mother Violet (Streep), a cancer-battling, pill-popping woman. Arriving from near and far are Violet’s daughters Barbara, Karen and Ivy (Roberts, Lewis and Nicholson); her sister Mattie Fae (Martindale), her husband Charles (Cooper) and their son “Little” Charles (Cumberbatch); as well as Barbara’s estranged husband Bill (McGregor) and their daughter Jean (Breslin) and Karen’s new fiancé Steve (Mulroney). And as major family events like births, marriages and funerals tend to unveil, there’s a lot history to discuss, catch up with and reconcile, and over the next few weeks it will all come out in mostly painful and harsh showdowns.
Violet in particular seems to have an unending reserve of bitter, acidic observations and opinions to rain down on everyone she knows, and she doesn’t waste much time in getting down to business. At a family dinner after Beverly’s funeral is when the gloves first come off, in an extended scene where nearly everyone has a sharp spear of insult or indignation hurled straight at them. The Westons are hardly the Waltons, and it soon becomes clear that is just the tip of an iceberg of meanness and cruelty. The dinner is just the first layer of an onion of secrets, regrets, revelations and accusations that are yet to come, and while we have no doubt Letts’ original material won awards and critical acclaim for good reason, the translation to the big screen leaves much to be desired.
While seeing this on stage in a series of clearly defined acts likely gives the the story a different shape, presented similarly as a film, it leaves the pacing feeling particularly slack. Letts’ work contains frequent verbal bouts, and showdowns between various characters, but the staginess of the movie—particular in scenes that get stuck in one room for minutes upon minutes on end with different people shouting at each other—can be tiring, and certainly visually lifeless. Granted, we’re not watching ‘Osage’ for camera movements and slick sequences, and though the screenplay by Letts’ himself does open things up slightly, it doesn’t do enough inside the Weston home to knock down some walls have give both these characters and the audience room to breathe.
And sure, one could justify that choice as a metaphorical one, emphasizing the claustrophobia of the entire situation, but this a film that requires performances to carry what the isn’t in the (endless) scenes of dense dialogue. But sadly, for most of the cast, yelling every line loudly is confused with conveying emotion, sarcasm and/or depth, with several zingers completely missing the mark because any shaping of the lines is erased by sheer volume. “August: Osage County” is a film of big, wild gestures, plate smashing, screaming and tears, but not nuance, and it all has the effect of leaving one deadened, not moved. None of these characters are sympathetic, nor should they be, but we aren’t given a reason to personally invest, relate or even understand the depth of betrayals and bad behavior that has stacked up over the years. These are clearly people who don’t like being together, but yet the movie doesn’t give the audience a reason to want to be with them either.
But there are some saving grace notes throughout. Streep is at her Streep-iest, given a wig to wear, and allowed to look ugly, and she takes to sneering, emotionally volatile Violet with ease. She commands the screen and many scenes like she should, but has a great foil in Roberts playing Barbara. As the eldest daughter, who has to come to grips with her family history, as well as take the unwanted role of Weston matriarch, Roberts hasn’t been this good in a while, and that’s likely due to a role that gives her a lot of substance to play with. And a special nod of recognition has to go to Cooper as Charles, who delivers one of the film’s few genuine moments, with a wonderful, poignant rebuke of his wife Mattie that lays bare the ugliness at the core of the Westons.
As directed by Wells, he seems to have been almost too hands-off when it comes to his heavyweight cast. There is little in the way of craftmanship here—even the usually-reliable composer Gustavo Santalallaprovides a rather workmanlike score—and the film could’ve used a stronger hand in guiding the transition of the play to the big screen. There is a powerful cinematic experience somewhere in “August: Osage County” waiting to get out in the sprawling two hour plus runtime, but in seemingly staying too faithful to Letts’ work, the end product winds up playing almost like a supercut of Important Acting In Big Scenes, instead of a cohesive work of dramatic weight and thematic thoughtfulness.
It’s tough to decide if August: Osage County is foremost an insightful work about the dark, twisted, occasionally humorous nature of family, or if it’s good platform to showcase big performances. Either way, it’s an engaging picture that features memorable turns from its stellar cast, especially (and unsurprisingly) Meryl Streep, and also throws together a complicated, abrasive portrait of a shattered family that can’t put the pieces back together. They can only break into smaller pieces, and the only thing stopping the audience from breaking down is the black comedy permeating the family affair.
Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), the patriarch of the Weston family, has died, and his funeral has brought together his estranged family. The pill-popping matriarch Violet (Streep) is joined by her daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis), and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her husband Chris (Chris Cooper), and their son Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Also along for the demented ride are Barbara’s daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), separated husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), and Karen’s fiancée Steve (Dermot Mulroney). The only non-related person on the premises of the Weston house in Oklahoma’s Osage County is the new maid Johnna (Misty Upham) who is presumably relieved that she’s not related to this gang of lunatics. Over the next several days, grievances are aired, secrets are revealed, and the strained relationships become even more complicated.
The Weston clan could be referred to as a powder keg, but a powder keg can only explode once. The reunion is predicated on death and it doesn’t get much better from there when it comes to the prevailing attitude hanging over the characters. Violet is by far the most damaged as she’s not only lost her husband, with whom she already had a tenuous relationship, but she’s a drug addict, cancer-stricken, and is mean down to her bones. Her children have hardly any love for her, her sister berates Charles, Chris tries to play peacemaker, and on it goes. There are, at most, two healthy relationships in August: Osage County. The rest are predicated on grudges, deceit, and manipulation. Separately, each of these groups had their problems, but bringing them together only highlights their issues and then exacerbates them.
Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay),August: Osage County edges dangerously close to a melodrama with how far it takes the characters’ lives from bad to worse. Some reveals are absolutely unnecessary, and only exist to further show how family relations could be construed as inherently and inescapably damaging. The Westons aren’t meant to represent all families but instead provide an amalgam of issues that some families could face. At the very least, they provide an utterly captivating freak show.
The deeply flawed characters are an actor’s paradise, and the cast runs absolutely wild with Streep at the forefront. The only way Streep could truly surprise audiences at this point is if she gave a bad performance. Violet is despicable, but Streep taps into the wry, funny, sad, venomous, manipulative facets of the character. We can see how Violet’s ugliness could drive people away and yet her perceived weakness can guilt her children into staying close. Streep doesn’t have anything to prove, but August: Osage County is further evidence that she’s one of the greatest screen actors of all-time.
The rest of the cast does an admirable job of keeping up and finding their place in the script even though Violet is the juiciest role. Barbara is a co-lead, but doesn’t really get to carve out a role until the second-half of the movie. Once there, Roberts’ performance really takes off as we see a woman who is against her mother but also disturbingly similar to her. However, until this point, Roberts’ performance consists mostly of giving Violet plenty of hardened glares. At least when Barbara is finally unleashed, her wrath is worth the wait. All of the other actors get their moments, but the main event is Violet vs. Barbara.
The large performances and outsized conflict is tempered by the dark comedy laced throughout the story. Without the humor, August: Osage County would still feature interesting characters and worthwhile subtext, but the ugliness would be too much to bear. The jokes are where the audience can come up for air, and Letts’ script deftly weaves laughs into even the darkest, most serious scenes. A typical scene can feature hilarious, quotable one-liners and an absolutely devastating reveal.
This emphasis on giving the movie over to the actors isn’t just by virtue of having a great cast, but is also the natural extension of having a stage play as the source material. Director John Wellsmakes sure the movie never feels stagey even though its stage origins are always on display. Most of the film is comprised of long scenes that take place in a single location. The trick for Wells is managing the details like how long to hold a shot on an actor, if he should keep the camera on the speaker or go for a reaction shot, and where to place the camera. This sounds relatively simple, but trying to move around multiple characters in a single location is incredibly complex, especially when it comes to the film’s centerpiece—a dinner scene following Beverly’s funeral. The direction may not be flashy, but it’s pragmatic and lets the characters and themes come through.
The difficulties the Weston clan faces shows how family trauma is like a virus that spreads not only across generations but across all family ties. At one point, Ivy questions the very nature of family, and how we’re forced together with these people not by choice but by birth, and that they’re allowed to have so much of an impact on our lives. Of course, with the cavalcade of difficulties permeating the Weston family, that impact is greatly amplified to an overwhelming degree.
August: Osage County is a big movie filled with big emotions from big characters played with big performances. Subtlety is not the film’s strong suit, but the performances make the characters come alive in such a way that you feel some sympathy for each of the Weston family members even if the character has far more than their fair share of personal shortcomings. And while difficult emotions bubble beneath the surface of the story, and later explode into chaos, we can leave the movie with a smile on our faces not only because of the dark comedy, but because as dysfunctional as our families might be, at least we’re not as bad as these nutjobs.