Dear friends and readers,
Since I’ve now come across several reviews of the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’s powerful play, August: Osage County, including misogynistic diatribe by David Denby (he resents the way Streep looks, the way Roberts behaves so stonily) in the New Yorker, I thought I’d briefly defend the film and urge people to go see it.
First it is another in a long line of depictions of US family pathologies as peculiarly hellish: the first I know of are by Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey into Night); the tradition carries on in Tennessee Williams’ work (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Miller (Death of a Salesman), Albee (Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf); it’s found by women (Hellman’s Little Foxes). We see it in the TV serial drama, Breaking Bad: in US life violence lies near to the surface, and family life instead of being a halcyon retreat (as is claimed) mirrors the terrific demands for competition, success, pressure on people to make big sums of money, the desperation over worldly failure, and if in real life most people don’t jump on one another to physically punish one another, they do the next best thing: corrosive excoriating needling, sexual too.
The terrain is that of Nebraska: the flat failed rural world; the escapes the same, pills, alcohol; the miseries the spreading cancer epidemic: Violet (Streep), the wife has mouth cancer; Ivy Western, her middle daughter had ovarian cancer caught early and a hysterectomy. It’s fine in US life to practice serial monogamy so we have three daughters with no permanent husband: Barbara (Roberts) is now aging and her husband (Ewan McGregor) has turned to a younger woman who does not pressure him to succeed so much; Karen Western (Juliet Lewis), the youngest sister settles for a conscienceless rake (Dermot Mulrooney); another, Ivy Western (Julianne Nicholson) more sympathetic) falls in love with Little Charles (Bernard Cumberbatch), her cousin who is raked over by his mother for not growing rich: they are to discover they are half-siblings. His legal father (Chris Cooper) is the only person besides Ivy to show him love and respect. Betrayal, deceit, secrecy, ignorance of all political and larger realities. There is some love or at least loyalty to this fragile ideal of family as the grown children all show up after Beverly Western (Sam Shepard) their father kills himself by drowning: a failed poet-professor who had no world to belong to.
As in other of these types of plays, there is the problem of what the characters scream at each other about: in all of them it’s sexual humiliation, lack of monetary success, scorn for men who are “weak” (not ferociously competitive, not macho males); who takes pills, who is an alcoholic, who betrayed whom. It’s a dark mirror of us, a concave house of tricks. The special emphasis here is on the loneliness and despair of the women.
It did not falter on the screen. The opening up to landscape gave it greater pictorial resonance with a play’s typical reliance on subtleties of debate within the language. It was not so claustrophic as it probably was on stage: I thought the film of Who’s afraid with Burton and Taylor similarly improved by having the characters go to a tavern and wander around a parking lot half-drunk. Comedy was brought in as here. Tellingly cars (people still imprisoned together — who likes a traffic jam?) figure in this opening up in both and in Nebraska:
Also arrivals by bus (little Charles); long shots of the house as people drive up to it. Some scenes shot within a screened porch at a distance. Julia Roberts last seen heading out on the highway in a truck.
A theme not brought up much is that of the aging single woman. Violet was very moving to me as the widow now left alone with no meaning for her life; Barbara as the tough exterior woman now going to live lovelessly (her daughter is deserting her); all of the women but Ivy lack any kind or trusting relationship. This is the product of a kind of rootless life where sympathy is not the central value, and sexual looks far too valued. I didn’t cry at the end because I felt the losses that were shown were irreparable and that there had never been anything to cherish; these traumas and cruelties went too deep for tears. I stretched my arms out wide and pulled them together to try to release the tension communicated.
Another is that of mothers and daughters. It’s said — and truly — that as who your father socially was, and who his father, determines your destiny (whether you are male or female); so for a woman the relationship you have with your mother can destroy or make you, or how she treats you is central. And from that point of view, Violet is kinder than allowed: she did not much help, but she did not destroy her daughters. One of them, Barbara, resents deeply how her mother failed to help her, how her mother is weak, and would like to get back, but is restrained by pity as well as remembered love. We see them clash again and again. I suspect the dislike the film received came from the popular audience irritated by this central mother-daughter paradigm. Who cares? would say most men. Many women might turn away from what they see, not want to see themselves in any of the three mother-daughter paradigms the movie provides at all.
The play or movie is another important play mirroring another phase of US culture’s destructive soul-destroying history: curiously the relatives all sit down to dinner together, keep a surface veneer: the result of our cruel economic policies, exclusive social lives, segregated spacial layouts. Everyone holding on, nightmare upon nightmare and finally they physically attack. Only the Spanish maid seems to have any patience for compassion.
The performances are terrific, not overdone at all, especially those of Streep and Roberts as mother and daughter. Miller gives us sons and fathers; Williams shows us spouses and siblings; Albee fathers and daughters. Now we have mother and daughters.