Meryl Streep joins John Wells and Tracy Letts with the cast for a LIVE Q&A MONDAY on the August: Osage County Facebook!
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The following is an excerpt from Seven Seconds: Memories of the JFK Assassination, the Tragedy that Changed America by Holly Millea [Byliner, $1.99].
Where were you when you heard the news that JFK had been shot?
For years, journalist Holly Millea has concluded interviews with that question. In her decades-long career as a profile writer for magazines, Millea has interviewed dozens of prominent artists, entertainers, and leaders who’ve shared vivid memories of what they were doing on November 22, 1963. Nora Ephron, Jeff Bridges, Barbra Streisand, Charlie Rose, James L. Brooks, Jimmy Carter, Gay Talese, Dick Cavett, Peter Fonda, Carl Reiner, James Patterson, Chuck Close, Debbie Reynolds, Donna Karan, Liza Minnelli, and Judy Collins are among the many cultural icons Millea has spoken with about that fateful day when, in just seven seconds, a series of gunshots in Dallas changed the country forever.
Robert Redford, actor, age 27 on November 22, 1963
I was in New York, and I had been taken to a restaurant by two guys, William Morris agents. They were giving me the hot box at the Four Seasons restaurant, trying to get me to join. I was uncomfortable, because it was such bullshit and they were leaning on me. They were giving me a ride home in a cab, one on either side of me. I was in Barefoot in the Park on Broadway, and the cabdriver was listening to the radio and he turned it up and they were saying the president had been shot. And the juxtaposition was too much, with what these guys were doing to me. I had the cabdriver pull over and let me out. I remember walking around Central Park, trying to make sense of it.
And then to go and have to perform a comedy that night, with this going on, and trying to think of every line before I said it. I had to double-think every line the whole performance. There was a particular line in the play where I come home from dinner and I walk into the apartment and I say, “I’ve been cut down in the prime of life by black bean soup.” That night, I couldn’t say it. And there was a line my costar [Elizabeth Ashley] had: “I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.” She had to mumble her way through that one.
Meryl Streep, actress, 14
I was a sophomore in French class and some kid said, “Should we duck under the desk?” That’s something I vaguely remember. That’s what we did in New Jersey. We’d practiced all that with the bomb. And then I remember going to my friend’s house—they were the only people who had a color TV—and we watched the funeral.
Lauren Bacall, actress, 38
I don’t remember where I was. I just remember that it was—it still is—I mean, it will never go away. You never can forget it. You can’t pretend it never happened. It never seems to end, the terrible things the family went through—the whole family. It was so awful. I feel very fortunate to have had them as friends. I met John after he won the inauguration. I wasn’t part of the entertainment group—that was all handled by Sinatra at the time. But I was always for JFK. I didn’t get to know him personally, really, really well. I’d gotten to know Bobby much better. It was the timing. I was in view if anyone needed me to show support for JFK, and Bobby, and for Teddy, too.
Gayle King, television news anchor, 8
I was living in Ankara, Turkey. And back then, people didn’t have TV in Ankara, Turkey. My memory is gathering around the radio from the States—I think it might even have been a ham radio; it didn’t look like a regular radio, it was a big, clunky thing. We had it so my dad could get stuff from the States. He was an electronic engineer who worked for the government, so he had all sorts of equipment in the house.
So we were gathered around the radio and it was the first time I had ever seen my father cry, and that was so jarring and traumatic to me. I said, “Why are you crying?” And he said, “The president of the United States has been shot—John F. Kennedy.”
I didn’t really even know that name, to be honest with you. Eight years old and living in Turkey, I have no concept of politics, American politics, nothing. My life is going to school and playing with friends.
So it was very traumatic because I had never seen… never seen him cry before. He just sat there listening, with tears running down his face.
Then the next big traumatic thing was the bombing of the little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, because he was from Birmingham.
It’s only when you get older that you have an appreciation for these things. We moved back to the States in 1966, and I went to school in California. I was in high school from ’72 to ’76, so I didn’t feel this great racial pressure, I have to say. Or maybe I was just naive, because I talked to a friend of mine who was white from my high school and she said, “Don’t you remember how bad race was then?” And I said, “It was?” Because I was so used to doing everything that I wanted to do … I lived in white communities my entire life, where I was either one or two of the only black kids in the class and so never felt that I was a different kind of kid. I just felt, Okay, I’m like everybody else. It’s only when you get older that you go, Oh, boy, that was some experience that I had!
Diane Keaton, actress, 17
I remember that we lived on Wright Street in Santa Ana, California, in a tract home—very typical late-fifties, early-sixties kind of thing. And my mom had the television on; that’s how we heard. That’s it. It was just a simple scene of a typical Southern California family. In fact, the tract development that we lived in, when we first moved in, was surrounded by orange trees. By the time I graduated from high school and left, the trees were gone—they all became houses. So you know, that whole Orange County and Southern California and the rapid growth during those years. And his death, which was just a transforming moment. He was early enough in [his presidency] to still be a romantic figure. It’s evil what we do to presidents, so brutal. I look at Obama and I just think, Oh, my God.
13. Meryl Streep
The Grand Dame
Which actress was blessed with the highest studio score on this list? It wasn’t Jennifer Lawrence, Sandra Bullock, or Angelina Jolie whom our studio executives gave their highest marks to; instead, it was 64-year-old Meryl Streep. And can you blame them? Simply put, Streep is the closest thing to a guarantee you can get in this business: If she’s the star of a movie, it’s smart, important, and bound to be a quality production. (Or it’s Mamma Mia … but hey, that was a mammoth hit, at least!) But though Streep is often referred to as the world’s greatest actress, she cleverly plays against her reputation with charming acceptance speeches in which she fumbles for her glasses and drops self-deprecating bons mots. It’s no wonder that her likability score is the same as Most Valuable Stars king Robert Downey Jr.
And she’ll need every ounce of that likability for her next role as Violet Weston, the cruel and cancerous matriarch at the center of August: Osage County. The family drama, adapted from the Pulitzer-winning play by Tracy Letts, has Streep tearing into Julia Roberts and her kin with a ferocious meanness; Streep also tears into the scenery, delivering a performance so big that some critics were moved to pan it at the film’s Toronto Film Festival debut. But even so, those same pundits took it as fact that Streep would earn an Oscar nod for the role, so beloved is she by the Academy. And Streep is pretty fun even when she’s being bad, a quality she’ll continue to mine as the Witch in the currently filming Into the Woods, where she’ll get to sing onscreen for the first time since Mamma Mia.
“There’s not a category of Meryl. There’s Meryl.” — Debra Winger on Meryl Streep #uplate
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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY– 5 STARS
Movies about dysfunctional families, no matter if they are little independent gems or classic favorites populated by Hollywood stars, are always prime landscapes for both drama and comedy. They are successful because they make us feel better about our own family we have at home. We either step back saying “Finally, there’s someone out there who has it as bad as I do” or “Gosh, I guess my family’s not that bad.” We either laugh AT their shenanigans as wildly different or WITH their shenanigans as kindred spirits and fellow gluttons for punishment. One can argue that every family is dysfunctional to some degree and that it’s just a matter of what your definitions are for dysfunctional, unique, crazy, and, most of all, normal. Besides, “That’s how we do it in this house.” always wins.
Five years ago, after getting its start at the famed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, Tracy Letts’ play August: Osage County, centering on the women of a particular rural Oklahoma dysfunctional family reacting to a moment of loss, went to Broadway and won five Tony Awards including Best Play, three Drama Desk awards, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as one of the most decorated theatrical productions of the past decade. When a play gets that kind of success, Hollywood was bound to take a stab at it at some point for the big screen. After all, movies, with their endless boundaries of space and location shooting, are supposed to be limitless stages. Successful TV show-runner John Wells (ER, The West Wing, Shameless) is the man who took that shot at August: Osage County and he brought a star-studded cast with him. It’s Chicago premiere occurred this week at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival before its wide theatrical release during the Christmas holiday weekend later in December.
Where movies based on plays commonly fail is when the cinematic expansion of scope and setting ends up stripping away the story and performance intimacy that made it special on the smaller stage. The good films based on plays don’t lose that closeness and connection while still giving us something deeper to see. In every way possible, the film adaptation of August: Osage County is one of those successes. It breathes vigorous life into the stage setting by fleshing out a real location filled with dynamic performances. At the same time, we have this year’s Silver Linings Playbook with a new silver screen dysfunctional family to relish in and size up to our own. August: Osage County, with its uncanny balance between uproarious comedy and striking family drama, is a crowd-pleasing gem and one of the finest ensemble movies you may ever see.
Three-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep plays Violet Weston, the cantankerous truth-telling family matriarch addicted to the haze her multiple prescriptions drugs give her while dealing with mouth cancer. Violet is full of hateful sarcasm that drives her family crazy. The unfortunate and trapped man married to her is Beverly, a former published poet and steady alcoholic, played by Sam Shepard. They share three daughters and are lifelong residents of Pawhuska, the county seat of Osage County in northeastern Oklahoma, a place more known as a Native American center than anything else. The couple just hired a local Native American woman Johnna (Misty Upham of Frozen River) to cook and clean around the house when Bev runs off and goes missing one afternoon.
After his disappearance extends to several days, Violet’s loudmouth sister Mattie Fae (Justified Emmy winner Margo Martindale) and her calm and homely husband Charlie (Oscar winner Chris Cooper) alert nearby family to come and help with the situation. The first on the scene is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson of Kinsey), the middle daughter and the one that never left Oklahoma. Her guilty patience is what keeps her close by despite constantly being belittled by her mother for never settling down with a man. The other two daughters couldn’t wait to leave back in the day and haven’t come back to Pawhuska in years until now.
Barbara, played by Oscar winner Julia Roberts, is the oldest daughter. She and her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) reside in Boulder, Colorado and are going through a painful separation that no one knows about while mutually struggling to control and understand their 14-year-old daughter Jean (Little Miss SunshineOscar nominee Abigail Breslin). Barbara absolutely loathes returning home and has constantly been at odds with her mother ever since she left many years ago. She holds little tolerance anymore for her mother’s drug addiction or antics. The youngest daughter completing the Weston family is the flighty Florida ditz Karen, played by professional flighty ditz and Oscar nominee Juliette Lewis. Her cluelessness comes blazing into town with her Ferrari-driving sleezeball fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney).
When it turns out that Bev took his boat out on the lake and drowned himself, this momentary family summit turns into a difficult funeral gathering that is going to require a few days. The last to make the trip in for the occasion is Charlie and Mattie Fae’s clumsy and dimwitted son “Little” Charles, played by Mr. Everywhere Benedict Cumberbatch. All together for the first time in a long time and not for a very pleasant reason, the sometime hilarious and sometimes awful warts, flaws, secrets, and old arguments of the Weston clan come bubbling back to the surface, perpetuated and punctuated by Violet’s bombastic rule of the roost.
Another hurdle in transferring Broadway success to a film adaptation is casting. So many movies based on plays reach too high with big names that swoop in for the artistic street cred as “the one that landed the big juicy part,” but end up not being suitable to the large task that is a dialogue-driven ensemble or the richly created character they are supposed to inhabit. The producers of August: Osage County, which include George Clooney, aimed to conquer where others have failed. They went out and got the big names, but then squeezed absolutely incredible performances from just about every single one of them.
Meryl Streep continues to show why she’s the greatest living actress in the world. In her usual fashion which we constantly underestimate and disrespect as her “norm,” she adopts and creates such a compelling and electric character with every possible hue and nuance that an actor can provide. She’s the spark that ignites the best of this film’s comedic and dramatic elements. This role is better than all of her last four Best Actress Oscar nominations (The Iron Lady, Julia and Julia, Doubt, and The Devil Wears Prada). It would be a monumental upset if her name isn’t among the final five in 2014 at the 86th Academy Awards.
There is, however, one person standing in her way from a fourth Oscar win who had the unenviable task of going toe-to-toe with the best in the business. Believe it or not (and many won’t until this see the film), Julia Roberts more than holds her own with Meryl Streep. This is a mature and challenging part that involves none of her megawatt smile and America’s sweetheart charm. She sheds that image masterfully and gets as ugly with her words as Meryl does. If Meryl’s Violet is the spark to greatest hits of August: Osage County, Julia’s Barbara is the dry kindling that allows those moments to burn with fiery intensity. This is, without a doubt, the absolute best Julia Roberts has ever been. Erin Brockovich, her Oscar-winning performance, can’t compete with this. She’s going to give Meryl a major run for her money at the Oscars.
The mere presence of these two heavy-hitters raises everyone else’s game within the August: Osage County cast. Everyone gets their chance to have their loud family spat and flip-out moment and all nail their landings. Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper are perfectly paired oil-versus-water sages of differing tones. Key among the bountiful supporting roles are Julianne Nicholson as Ivy and Benedict Cumberbatch as Little Charles. Both play hopeless romantics who are deeper than their timid exteriors and key to many of the plot twists. Both give substantially solid performances alongside the bigger names. Only Ewan McGregor feels a tad underutilized, especially considering his usual presence and personality. Nevertheless, the end result is an acting fan’s feast from top to bottom.
The makers of August: Osage County succeeded in their goal to encapsulate what made the orginal play such a monster success. Original playwright Tracy Letts adapted his own three-and-a-half hour play into a streamlined two-hour film for director John Wells, in just his second feature directing gig after 2010’s The Company Men. While details and changes were bound to happen, fans of the play should be pleased by the overwhelmingly intact familial tone that has now received a real setting to work with.
Mega producer Harvey Weinstein bought an actual Pawhuska farm house instead of shooting on a L.A. soundstage. The idyllic property and Oklahoma plains become an extra character to join the human ensemble and successfully hold the closeness and intimacy that gets lost in a play’s translation to film. The signature family funeral dinner scene, shot in the house with everyone on scene, is exactly as paced and written for the film as it was for the play. Not a single line of dialogue was changed. On Broadway, that crucial scene ran twenty minutes and it runs the exact same twenty minutes in the film.
That is just one enormous example of this film’s efforts to retain what made August: Osage County a successful and intimate play. August: Osage County brings an outstanding story peppered with howling laughs and poignant family drama that blend tremendously better than expected. The film is fantastically acted to make this popular story very absorbing. This film is tailor-made as a holiday hit-to-be upon its upcoming December holiday weekend release and a sure-fire Oscar contender in many categories come next year. It is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2013 and will be among this website’s “10 Best” of the year.
LESSON #1: THE PECKING ORDER OF WHO LEANS ON WHO IN A DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY— Each of the three Weston daughters approach Violet, Beverly, and coming home in different ways. They were tight growing up, but have evolved and changed since then. Violet is bold enough to admit that any parent that says they don’t have favorites is lying. We see the varying degrees of each daughter’s favor. When support is needed both up and down the family hierarchy, each person involved gravitates to different places to find strength. There’s a constant shift as to who is leaning on who and who is holding other people up.
LESSON #2: WHAT UNEARTHED FAMILY SECRETS SHOULD HAVE STAYED SECRET OVER OTHERS THAT NEEDED TO BE KNOWN— Beverly, the father of the family, had always been the calming factor and filter for Violet’s vitriolic behavior. He kept the family direction positive and dusted conflicts under the rug. With him passed on, the defensive shield is gone and the filter is off. The cross-hairs are out. Old mistakes and hurtful secrets reemerge in multiple directions threatening the already frayed family fabric. Everyone has scissors, but few bring the fixing needle and thread.
LESSON #3: WHEN THE LIMITS OF TELLING THE TRUTH ARE EXCEEDED— Violet sees very few of her overwhelming flaws. She was yelled at and berated as a child and has been at peace with doing the very same with her chance as a parent. Her sister does the same with Little Charles with her endless harping. Both piss and moan about how hard their lives are compared to their offspring. Violet feels that she’s just “truth-telling” and saying what no one else has the gumption to say. She lacks the care of what should or shouldn’t be said for decency’s sake. Everyone, particularly Barbara as the oldest, has their limits of how much “truth-telling” they can swallow before they react, cross the line of parental respect, and fight back with equally hateful words. There’s love in the Weston family, but it’s thickly coated in disdain and disappointment.
The one-sheet for John Wells’ star-studded film makes the case that the Christmas release offers something for everyone and is a comedy contender at the Globes.
The Weinstein Co. has released the theatrical poster forAugust: Osage County, John Wells‘ adaptation of Tracy Letts‘ Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play, which premiered at September’s Toronto International Film Festival and will be released nationwide on Christmas Day. Regardless of what one thinks about the film, which elicited a variety of reactions in Toronto, one has to acknowledge that its poster is visually cool and strategically smart.
The job of a movie poster is primarily to excite people enough to get butts in seats once the film opens, and I suspect that August‘s will accomplish that goal. By showcasing a large chunk of its impressive cast — namelyMeryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney,Chris Cooper and Abigail Breslin — the poster ensures that most moviegoers will be able to spot at least one person they like and will pay to see on the big screen. There’s something for everyone — the Meryl loyalists, the Julia fan base, etc. Other star-studded films have taken a similar approach, but rarely in such an organic way — instead of using headshots (like Valentine’s Day), August‘s poster features an image derived from an actual scene in the film, which is much more compelling
A secondary job of a movie poster is, or can be, to frame a film in the minds of awards voters — in other words, to create certain expectations for it. This is extremely important because most voters make time to watch only a handful of contenders each awards season, and in order to get their votes a distributor must convince them to watch a film in the first place. Trailers, Q&As and parties certainly help, but so too do movie posters’ taglines — with which TWC’s marketing folks and its longtime awards strategist Lisa Taback have a strong track record. One example: “Find your voice” for The King’s Speech, which hinted that the film offered an inspirational journey. The August poster’s tagline is cute (“Misery loves family”), and the image clearly suggests a raucous sort of dramedy (a woman attacking an older woman while others look on in shock). I’m told that August will be competing in the musical or comedy categories at the Golden Globes, as opposed to the drama races, and, while it could have been placed in either, this image reinforces the case for the former, in which it will have an easier time competing.
“We knew our poster had to feature the incredible ensemble cast but wanted to avoid anything that felt contrived,” Stephen Bruno, TWC’s president of marketing, told The Hollywood Reporter. “This image has a wonderful duality in that it entices the audience going in and serves as an iconic reminder of an extraordinary film on the way out.”
Whether or not August: Osage County will snag any major Oscar or Globe noms — aside from a lead actress one for Streep, which seems like a no-brainer — remains to be seen. But it seems to me that this poster is sure to get people talking about it, thereby teeing it up for awards voters as effectively as any could.
August: Osage County (USA) – If there was something I was dreading to see at this year’s film fest more than toothless Kazakhstan farmers staring at barley fields shot in ten-minute single takes, it’s seeing the film version of what I consider to be one of the greatest American plays ever written. If you’ve been reading my blog since the beginning, you would know that I’ve devoted blog page after blog page to August: Osage County’s original Steppenwolf production that eventually went to Broadway, London, and Sydney. Seeing its 2007 world premiere here in Chicago was one of my theatergoing life’s most indelible experiences, and solidified my ongoing deep commitment to Steppenwolf. Hollywood has a pretty good track record in trashing stage adaptations (uhmn, Nine, anyone?), so I really wondered whether August: Osage County would lose most of its muscle and all of its sharp teeth, not to mention its painful insights on inter-generational differences and family dysfunction in its transfer to the screen. I will most likely write more about the film when it is released in Chicago in December, but suffice it to say for now that August: Osage County as directed by John Wells and adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play is an honorable film that has the spirit and, in most places, the punch of the great stage production. I think the key is that Letts wrote the screenplay; he has slimmed down the running time but impressively kept the grand ideas, the enthralling plot complications, the gallows humor, and the criminally juicy dialogue of the play. Although Wells does an unshowy directing job, he gives the film room to breathe by incorporating scenes set in the vast Oklahoma plains, an important metaphor in the play, beautifully (if a bit too artsy-ly) shot by cinematographer Adriano Goldman.
And then there’s the acting! Having seen the original Steppenwolf performances, including the now-legendary ones of Tony winner Deanna Dunagan as the matriarch Violet and Amy Morton as the eldest daughter Barbara, I doubted that anyone in the film, even the great Meryl Streep, can top them. Well, Streep totally takes the role of vitriol-spewing and pain-causing Violet, rips it to shreds, and reconstructs it in her own special, enthralling way. Stumbling around wearing a fright wig with blood-shot eyes mostly covered up by Bob Dylan sunglasses, she is an electrifying Gorgon hiding a lot of pain underneath the complicated monstrosity. Roberts is surprisingly her match imbuing Barbara with an underlying decency and grace together with all that hard-edge cattiness and brittle insecurities – you know that she’ll successfully conquer her demons and not become Violet redux, a point that was more ambiguously treated in Morton’s stage performance. The entire cast is terrific (even the downplaying Ewan MacGregor who seems more comfortable blending into the scenery than chewing it unlike the rest of the actors), but imho, Julianne Nicholson as ignored middle-daughter Ivy and Margo Martindale as Aunt Mattie Fae give performances that stand apart from the stage ones. Nicholson is more hopeful than wistful and you completely understand why she stayed with her parents while the other daughters left. Martindale gives a less shrewish take on Fannie Mae (a role that won Rondi Reed a Tony), but gives her so many layers of regrets at choices made that when she says to Roberts during one of the big reveal scenes near the end that “I was beautiful once, I wasn’t always your old fat-assed Aunt Fannie Mae”, you see a heartbreaking lifetime of missed opportunities on her face.
Actress scores recognition for her continued contributions to theater
Meryl Streep has been tapped to receive the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s annual Monte Cristo award, given each year to a legit creative singled out for distinguished contributions to the theater.
Streep, who started out in theater before launching into film, has long stayed connected to the theater industry over the years, appearing in Shakespeare in the Park outings “Mother and Courage and her Children” (in 2006) and “The Seagull” (in 2001) and signing on as a presenting producer for the Broadway run of “Bridge and Tunnel” (in 2006). Last year she played Juliet opposite Kevin Kline’s Romeo in the Public Theater’s one-night-only reading of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Her upcoming film output also has a strong legit angle: She appears in the starry screen adaptation of Pulitzer-winning play “August: Osage County,” queued up for a Christmas release from the Weinstein Company, and is currently filming Rob Marshall’s movie version of Stephen Sondheim tuner “Into the Woods.”
Actress joins a list of past Monte Cristo recipients including Michael Douglas, Christopher Plummer, Kevin Spacey and Brian Dennehy, among others.
The 14th annual award is handed out by the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., which oversees a number of prominent new-work development programs including the National Playwrights Conference and the National Music Theater Conference, which together have yielded successful titles such as “In the Heights” and “Avenue Q” plus works by August Wilson and Wendy Wasserstein.
One of Streep’s earliest acting gigs was at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in 1975, where she appeared in five play workshops in six weeks (pictured, above).
Streep will receive the Monte Cristo award – to be presented to her by actor Joe Grifasi, another O’Neill alum who was also her classmate at the Yale School of Drama – at an April 21 ceremony in Gotham.