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NYRB on Mrs. T; Mrs. T as movie muse

Posted by Mark Feeney  February 5, 2012 03:17 PM

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Istreep.jpgn The New York Review of Books, Julian Barnes weighs in on “The Iron Lady.” The piece is much more about Margaret Thatcher's performance as prime minister than about Meryl Streep's performance as Margaret Thatcher. That's okay, though, since any essay by Barnes makes for excellent reading — and Mrs. T retains a capacity to fascinate, compel, and enrage (or, yes, enrapture) that Ronald Reagan, for example, does not. If Reagan was the Teflon President, then Thatcher was the Brillo Pad PM — and her capacity to scour and rub the wrong way was just as central to her impact as non-stick frictionlessness was to his.

That central aspect of each leader’s persona may help account for his/her relationship to '80s movie culture.

reagan streep.jpgReagan, of course, had a movie background unrivaled by that of any world leader. (The runner-up -- the very distant runner-up -- is probably Richard Nixon, if only because he was the husband of a woman who put herself through college by working as a movie extra. Yes, that's the future Pat Nixon ever so briefly glimpsed in Rouben Mamoulian's "Becky Sharp.") A lot of presidents and prime ministers and dictators (monarchs, too) may have wanted to be movie stars -- and might even have thought they were -- but Reagan's the only one with an actual filmography.

That filmography was in his past, of course. His present was a different story. Certainly there are '80s movies whose swagger and utter absence of self-doubt make them seem very Reagan. "Top Gun" is the most obvious example. The unblinking, unthinking affluence characteristic of John Hughes movies could be another. It's like a Chicago-suburban supply-side celebration. But Reagan's relationship to the movies made during his presidency is nothing like, say, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's. FDR's presence is all over Studio Era Hollywood, from the overtly New Deal ethos of Warner Bros. to his being a character in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to his photograph hanging on a wall in the Acme Bookshop in "The Big Sleep" and in Barbara Stanwyck's dressing room in "Lady of Burlesque."

Thatcher's face rarely figures in British films of the '80s and early '90s, but her spirit -- or at least her spirit as portrayed by Labour-supporting  filmmakers -- is pervasive. Partly that pervasiveness is attributable to Britain being such a smaller, less disparate society. Partly it's attributable to the arrival of a new commercial television network, Channel 4, with its commissioning of provocative contemporary films. Mostly, though, it was a tribute to the potency of the prime minister's star power.

morgan-a-suitable-case-for-treatment-david-warner.jpgSelf-loathing has long been as much of a British specialty onscreen as self-celebration has been in Hollywood. It's not just there in Angry Young Men adaptations or '60s subversion like "Morgan!" (left) and "The Charge of the Light Brigade." It's there even in Ealing comedies. But this was different. Anyone who spent any time in Britain during the Thatcher years couldn't help but notice how she dominated the culture. Love her or hate her. Even be indifferent to her (go ahead, just try). You simply could not ignore her, and filmmakers didn't.

So often in British films of this era there's this blend of sourness and anger, bleakness and resentment. Think of movies like "My Beautiful Laundrette," "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," and "Prick Up Your Ears" (all directed by Stephen Frears), "The Ploughman's Lunch," "Defense of the Realm," "The Whistle Blower," "White Mischief," "Scandal." "Turtle Diary," "Dance with a Stranger," "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," "A Private Function," "Plenty" (an American production, but based on David Hare's play and starring, yes, Streep, below, with Sting), the Hare-directed "Wetherby" and "Strapless," and Mike Leigh passim.

plenty01.jpgIf there's such a thing as a movie-political parallel universe, then Mike Leigh is Margaret Thatcher in it. It would be interesting to know which of them would be more horrified by the comparison -- except that Thatcher is about as likely to recognize the name "Mike Leigh" as, oh, I don't know, Mitt Romney is. Leigh's "Naked" didn't come out until Thatcher had been out of office for three years. But David Thewlis' Johnny (below) -- beside being one of the great, headlong, fearless performances -- can be seen as the ultimate Thatcherite nightmare of what a permissive British society has come to . . . or ultimate anti-Thatcherite statement of what a brutalized British society has been reduced to.

Thewlis is best known for playing Remus Lupin, in the Harry Potter movies. Maybe the Potter series is the ultimate demonstration of Thatcher's hold on the British imagination. You can see her shadow in Professor Umbridge -- and Voldemort, too?


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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

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