This article appeared in the April 14, 2006 Jewish Advocate.
Coolidge Award honors Streep in gala event
Film star discusses Inga, Sophie roles
By Susie Davidson
Each year, the Coolidge Corner Theatre honors a man or woman who has notably contributed to the world of cinema. Two years ago, Chinese director Zhang Yimou, whose credits include “Hero,” “The House of Flying Daggers” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” was the first honoree. Last April, Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Conformist,“ “Reds,“ “Last Tango in Paris“) received the distinction. Last week, amid a month-long celebration of her distinguished film career, actor Meryl Streep became the third recipient of the Coolidge Award.
This year’s festivities culminated in a Wednesday night gala that featured testimonials from Streep colleagues Lily Tomlin and Kevin Kline, who co-star in her newest film “A Prairie Home Companion,” as well as from director Robert Altman, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award at last month’s Oscars. The event also included appearances by actor Chris Cooper and author Susan Orlean, whose novel “The Orchid Thief” was the basis for Streep and Cooper’s 2002 film “Adaptation.” Streep received an Oscar nomination for the role. Scenes from Streep’s films were shown, and singer/songwriter Patty Larkin, BSO violinist Sheila Fiekowsky, and students of the Brookline Music School performed. The event closed with Streep’s acceptance of the award.
Prior to Wednesday’s gala, the Coolidge programmed several screenings of Streep’s filmography, as well as four seminars, in its restored 600-seat Movie House I. In addition to viewing “The Deer Hunter,” “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Sophie’s Choice,” as well as “Manhattan,” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” “Defending Your Life,” “The Hours,” “Silkwood” and “Out of Africa,“ moviegoers were treated to sneak previews of “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Since her 1977 debut in Julia, Streep has received five Golden Globe Awards and 13 Oscar nominations, the most of any actress (Katherine Hepburn had 12). She won two Oscars for her roles in “Kramer v. Kramer” and “Sophie’s Choice,” and in 2004, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. Her Hollywood star was dedicated in 1998. In addition to A Prairie Home Companion, which is based on Garrison Keiler’s public radio show, she will appear this summer in 20th Century Fox’s “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Streep was raised in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, by her father, Harry, a pharmaceutical executive, and her mother, Mary, a commercial artist. She has two brothers and since 1978, has been married to Donald Gummer, a sculptor. The couple have a son and three daughters. Streep has a Bachelor’s in drama from Vassar and an MFA in drama from Yale, and studied opera with Beverly Sills' coach.
In addition to her film career, Streep has taken active stands against domestic violence, water pollution, nuclear power and the current political administration. She has supported causes that include Arts & Education Partnership, Arts for ACT, Big Sisters L.A., Connecticut Farmland Trust, Children's Health Environmental Coalition and Equality Now.
Streep has also won two Emmys, for 2004’s “Angels in America” and 1979’s NBC miniseries “Holocaust,” which was directed by Marvin J. Chomsky and produced by Herbert Brodkin and follows the doomed Weiss family through the Nazi years. Streep played Inga Helms Weiss, the Aryan wife of son Karl Weiss. The series was filmed on location, at Mauthausen and other sites, and included coverage of the slaughter at Babi Yar, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the liberation of Auschwitz. While American reaction was mixed (despite total New York water pressure dropping during the first commercial due to large-scale viewing), the series had a major effect upon its airing in West Germany in 1979. Roughly half the adult population tuned in, and from subsequent polls, Variety reported that “70 percent of those in the 14 to 19 age group declared that they had learned more from the show about the horrors of the Nazi regime than in all their years of studying West German history.” The previously unknown term “Holocaust” became familiar, and the statute of limitations for Nazi war crimes, set to expire in 1979, was cancelled (but not in time to take action against a flood of viewers who saw the Kristallnacht scene and called police stations to confess their participation), and public support for the Nazi resistance rose dramatically.
For “Sophie’s Choice,” Streep learned both a Polish accent and the German language for her role as Polish refugee and Holocaust survivor Sophie Zawistowska. At a Wednesday panel with Altman, Streep, Kline and John C. Reilly, the Advocate asked Streep and Kline how they felt about their roles in Sophie’s Choice, and about Streep’s in “Holocaust,” in light of the recent international resurgence in Holocaust denial. Both responded thoughtfully. “How do we deal with these people?” asked Streep. “It’s incredible that in this information age, we seem to have less and less that gets through to them,” she added.
“It’s just like the situation with the current President and his message,“ Altman quipped. “Everybody seems to buy that!”
Kline, whose father, Robert, was Jewish, lives in New York with his wife, actress Phoebe Cates, and their two children. Cates’ father was game-show ($64,000 Question and Tic Tac Dough) producer Joe Cates, originally Katz. Her uncle Gil Cates produced “I Never Sang for My Father,“ and many Oscar telecasts. “There are those who say you can’t make a movie about the Holocaust - that what happened to these survivors is too horrible to fictionalize,” Kline said. “On the other hand, though, by producing works based on the Holocaust, you are educating so many people. So it all sort of evens out in the wash,” he said. “It will always be a double-edged sword,“ he added. “You mustn’t forget. We mustn’t forget.”
Both Streep and Kline said they were proud of these past roles, while Altman, who is not Jewish, pointed out that the two productions reflected times that were, unfortunately, nothing new for Jewish people.
“It wasn’t anything that hadn’t been going on before then,” he said. “Certain things just didn’t start yesterday.”
The actors and director discussed the new film, and about working with radio people. “They didn’t’ treat us like interlopers, even though we were,” said Streep. Altman said radio had always been a great influence for him. He lauded poet journalist Norman Corwin, whose radio programs of the 1930s and 1940s included the V-E Day broadcast “On a Note of Triumph,“ and who, at 95, is still writing for radio and teaching at USC. “He brought a whole new sense of poetry to radio,” said Altman, while noting that medium only lasted for about 7 years, until the advent of the television age. “Arch Obler, Wells - radio was a very strong medium then,” he said.
Coolidge seminars included “Fiction Into Film: The Hours, A Screenwriting Case Study” on March 15 with Tufts University professor Susan Kouguell; “The Actor’s Challenge: Meryl Streep’s Roles in Adapted Films” on March 22, with Harvard professor J.D. Connor; “Poker-Faced and Gorgeous: The Early Performances of Meryl Streep” on March 29 with Boston College professor Michael Civille; and “The Comedic Roles of Meryl Streep” on April 2 with publicist Lois Smith, who has worked with Marilyn Monroe, Martin Scorsese, Streep, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Altman, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. On Thursday, the day after the award ceremony, the film “Adaptation” was screened both before and after a panel discussion with Streep, Cooper, Orlean and Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay.
“The award honors a selected film artist whose work advances the spirit of original and challenging filmmaking,” said Beacon Cinema Group publicist Marianne Lampke. “Its inspiration comes from a continued commitment to celebrate bold filmmaking and a recognition of the Coolidge's role in building audiences for this work,” she said. Each year, a different film category taken from the theater’s programming is highlighted.
In an era of megaplexes, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which is run by the not-for-profit Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation, remains one of the country’s few independently operated movie theaters. Its successful capital campaign and remarkable Art Deco restorations have won several awards and acknowledgments. “The theatre, which was slated to become a shopping mall, will always be here,” said Executive Director Joe Zina on Wednesday (in 1989, bulldozers were literally about to roll, with supporters lined up to block them, when local realtor Harold Brown’s Hamilton Charitable Foundation stepped in to save the theatre).
Streep said that she was very honored by the award. “The small, independent theatre is a creature that has to be preserved,” she said.
Supporters of this year’s Coolidge Award included the Patricia Larsen Foundation, Scott Rosenberg, Susan and Robert Stoller, Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Elizabeth Driehaus, LEF New England, Chobee Hoy Real Estate, Inc., The Eliot Hotel, Restaurant Clio, Boston Magazine and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, as well as individuals, sponsors and community-based businesses.
The Coolidge Corner Theatre is located at 290 Harvard St., in Coolidge Corner, Brookline. For information on programming, call 617-734-2500, or visit the website at www.coolidge.org.