From the archives: "The ultimate stage mom from hell"

Denzel Washington as Ben Marco in The Manchurian Candidate (dir. Jonathan Demme, 2004).

One of the first pieces I wrote and recorded for WGSU’s Weekly Review was a review of Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate, which I had seen over the summer of 2004.  My review aired in the fall of that year as we headed into a presidential election that felt more than a little doomed.  As I noted at the time, Demme’s remake was a political thriller for the age of late capitalism, with big business replacing the threat of communism in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 original and the Gulf War standing in for Korea.  I found the film to be a lot of fun, driven by Demme’s energetic direction and juicy performances—the juiciest being Meryl Streep as Ellie Shaw, the scheming mother of a brainwashed vice presidential hopeful (Liev Schrieber), the latter of whom I described, in my undergraduate attempt to sound punchy and clever, as “a lobotomized Hamlet in a power suit.”  Perhaps more than anything else, The Manchurian Candidate was instrumental in waking me up to the genius of Streep, coming fast on the heels of equally strong turns in such films as Adaptation (2002), The Hours (2002), and Angels in America (2003). 

Meryl Streep as Ellie Shaw.

“Streep turns in a scene-stealing performance as the ultimate stage mom from hell, pushing her son into the political limelight with ferocious, unstoppable resolve.  In her deliriously over-the-top scenes, armed with fiery speeches that she plays like arias, Streep hams it up brilliantly and proves that she is indeed one of our biggest talents still actively working in Hollywood at this moment.  It’s by no means a seriously challenging performance, but Streep’s matchless talent for nuance wrings every last bit of juice out of her somewhat simplistic role.  When Streep acts, we realize how few performers working nowadays know how to use their voice imaginatively.  She lilts and pauses, rises to fever pitch and then moments later breathes little sighs of resigned, exasperated laughter.  Dressing her son on Election Day for their big moment in the spotlight, Streep makes it easy to look past much of her armored nastiness, if only for a moment, to see her as a mother who has made the mistake of loving her child much, much too dearly.  She doesn’t try to imitate Angela Lansbury’s Academy Award nominated turn in the 1962 film, but instead brings a post-feminist hardness to Ellie Shaw that is decidedly modern.  Ruthless and venomous behind closed doors, sickeningly schmoozy in front of a crowd or a camera, creepily obsessive of her son’s mind as well as his body, she’s the embodiment of the modern career woman gone terrifyingly amuck.”

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