No earthly tribute could possibly come close to doing justice to the monumental contributions Meryl Streep has made to cinema, but writer Michael Schulman tried in earnest, publishing the enlightening biography Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, in which he dedicates nearly 300 pages to the three-time Oscar-winning actress’ life and career — particularly her “artistic coming of age” throughout the 1970s.
Director Jerry Schatzberg played an influential role in shaping Streep’s career during that time, as he directed the then 28-year-old in one of her first major big screen roles in 1979’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan, written by and co-starring Alan Alda as a senator who has an affair with an attorney (Streep). As part of the IFC Center’s ongoing Becoming Meryl Streep screening series, Schulman and Schatzberg presented the film at the New York City theater Thursday evening, discussing their mutual love for Streep’s craft and offering reflective insight into the actress’ personal life and performative method at the time of the film’s production.
Check out six things Schulman and Schatzberg taught us about Streep, below.
1. She pushed through unimaginable pain to film The Seduction of Joe Tynan
Amid what Schulman describes as “one of the most devastating tragedies of her life,” Streep signed on to star in a film called The Senator, written by and starring Alda, which would eventually become known as The Seduction of Joe Tynan. “It was the spring of 1978. She was 28 years old, and three years out of drama school. She’d made a name for herself on the New York stage, but she was virtually unknown in movies,” Schulman told the IFC Center audience. “Meryl had been involved in a very passionate love affair with John Cazale, whom she met during Shakespeare in the Park in 1976… A year into their relationship, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer… As John’s health deteriorated, Meryl threw everything aside to care for him. She barely worked for five months, even as her career was hitting its stride.”
Schulman said the couple lived together in John’s loft in Tribeca, and eventually filmed The Deer Hunter together, though John died in 1978, just as the film was being edited. He never saw the final cut. This devastated Meryl, but four weeks after his death, she traveled to Maryland to shoot her scenes for The Seduction of Joe Tynan “in the throes of incredible grief” over her lover’s death.
“My first meetings with her were at the loft they lived in,” Schatzberg revealed, noting he was aware of the deep personal tragedy looming over the budding legend’s head as she read for the part. “Meryl is so gracious and so open, and she wanted to work. She probably knew that she had to work; this was not the time for her to sit down and start crying.”
2. During production, she solidified her bond with Don Gummer, the man she’s still married to
Schulman recalled Alda once saying “[Meryl] looked at [Joe Tynan] as some kind of test, a test she had to pass. She was determined not to buckle.” Not only did she succeed in the part, which became one of Schatzberg’s most commercially successful films to date, she found a new love shortly after Cazale’s death.
“Someone did come down and visit her on the set in Maryland: a handsome young sculptor named Don Gummer, who was a friend of her brother’s and had helped her move all of her stuff out of John’s apartment,” Schulman said. “In September they were married, only six months after John’s death. Of course they remain married today, and he became the father of her four children.”
3. Streep acting ‘on autopilot’ is still better than everyone else at their best
According to Schulman, in reference to The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Streep once said, “I did that film on autopilot.” It doesn’t show, and certainly didn’t register as a phoned-in performance to Schatzberg, who said Streep is one of the best actresses he’s ever worked with.
“I was so impressed with her acting. She read for me for the part, and my mouth opened; she was so good,” he told Schulman about her work on his film. “The thing about Meryl, she never gives you the same performance two times in a row. If you do a second take, it’s going to be different than the first one. You can’t tell her what to do because that upsets most actors, but you leave her alone and she’ll come through with something completely different and wonderful.”
For her “autopilot” performance, a still up-and-coming Streep won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s award for Best Supporting Actress in 1979, and nabbed honors in the same category from the National Board of Review. Other Oscar precursor groups, like the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics, also recognized Streep’s performance in the film with year-end accolades.
4. She thought Joe Tynan co-star Rip Torn was ‘a pain in the ass’
Rip Torn plays a rowdy, salacious politician in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, but according to Schatzberg, Streep playfully took aim at the actor’s real-life behavior on the film’s set as well. “You let Rip go, and he goes,” Schatzberg said, chuckling. “I was with Meryl, and I had to leave… I said, ‘I’m going to do costumes with Rip!’ and she said, ‘Well, tell him not to be a pain in the ass.'”
Schatzberg told the crowd he most admires Streep’s sense of humor, which he noted has remained intact for years. “She’s a fantastic comic, and she can’t help herself… I always compare it to Carole Lombard,” he said. “Years later, I ran into her at a function at Lincoln Center… I said ‘How many kids do you have?’ and she said ‘Too many!’ But, that’s just Meryl’s humor. She loves them all, I’m sure… I hope!”
After Joe Tynan, Torn and Streep would go on to star opposite one another in the 1991 film Defending Your Life.
5. She was comfortably nude in rare sex scenes
As Schulman indicated, sex scenes are have been rather rare throughout Streep’s career, though she has several in Joe Tynan, including one that sees her pouring beer on Alda’s nether regions while naked next to him in bed, exclaiming, “Things do contract in the cold!”
“She was nude under all that hair, and Alan thanked me for being as careful and concerned about all of that, but they’re pros, and they knew you don’t get into bed with your clothes on,” Schatzberg recalled.
6. Alda held Streep to the film’s tight script and dialogue, ruffling Barbara Harris’ feathers along the way
According to Schatzberg, working with Alda on Joe Tynan was “very difficult,” including dealing with his treatment of the other actors.
“I’m used to working with wonderful actors also who I can give the freedom to change dialogue and improvise, and I find I get the best performances that way,” the director said. “Every time an actor would change a word, he would stop shooting and say, “No, no, no,’ he’d stick to the words, but he did change his own dialogue, and Barbara Harris called him on that once. He was very upset about that, but I guess he just felt it was his and he wanted it to be his completely.”
When Schulman said he was surprised to hear of Alda’s on-set behavior, calling him a “mensch,” Schatzberg looked perturbed. “No comment,” the director responded.
Schulman’s book, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, is available now. The IFC Center’s Becoming Meryl Streep screening series continues Thursday, May 12 at 7:30 p.m. in New York City, with a showing of Kramer vs. Kramer followed by a Q&A with Schulman and director Robert Benton.