No. 19: Silkwood

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

I can’t decide what’s more remarkable about Silkwood: the fact that it made $35.6 million and became one of the most commercially successful films of 1983, or the fact that despite the fact that it earned Oscar nominations for Best Actress, Supporting Actress, Director and Original Screenplay, the Academy left it out of the race for Best Picture.

To be fair, I’ve still only seen one of the Best Picture nominees from 1983 so far (Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff) and two of the other nominees didn’t finish in the Top 50 at the box office (Tender Mercies and The Dresser) but by all accounts Silkwood was an undisputed masterpiece in the eyes of critics and audiences in 1983. Roger Ebert raved about it with a four-star review and listed it on his year-end top ten list. Even crabby old Vincent Canby at the New York Times couldn’t stop raving about the performances of the entire cast, right down to the minor supporting players (more on them later). Simply put, Silkwood is a rare case of a truly excellent work of art that somehow also strikes a chord with the masses.

The first thing that jumps out to you about Silkwood is certainly those fantastic performances that cracked the stone casing around Canby’s heart, led by Meryl Streep in the title role of Karen Silkwood. A quick bit of background: firstly, it appears the real-life story of Karen Silkwood was quite well known to the public of 1983 (her case went all the way to the US Supreme Court), hence the trailer below giving away her ultimate fate in the movie. SPOILER ALERT: Karen Silkwood was a real person who died in a one car accident while on her way to deliver some reportedly damning documents to the New York Times regarding potentially illegal activities by her employer, nuclear material manufacturer Kerr-McGee (the documents were never found). Conspiracy theories abound among followers of the Silkwood case but Mike Nichols‘ film isn’t so much concerned with whodunit. It’s much more concerned with who Karen was when she was alive and what led to her ultimate fate.

As respected as Streep is today, it’s hard to fathom how respected an actress she was in 1983. Her performance in Silkwood earned her the fifth Oscar nomination of her career at the age of 34, an incredible feat that I don’t believe has even been approached by an actor that young. That stretch of her career also included the only two wins of her career (she should have won her third for Doubt but let’s not get off track). Streep was unquestionably the best working actress of her day, the woman you turn to when you need to cast a woman between the ages of 25 and 40 with some serious chops. The Karen Silkwood of Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen’s screenplay is a complex character, far more than a humble martyr or a principled whistleblower. She has great difficulty maintaining relationships, she doesn’t really take her job seriously and she makes rash and often dangerous decisions without thinking about the consequences.

While Kurt Russell gets more screen time as Streep’s blue collar boyfriend Drew, it was Cher who garnered the most love out of the supporting performers, earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her extremely understate performance as Dolly, a lesbian factory worker who smokes a lot of pot and shares a house with Karen and Drew. It’s hard to imagine the performance getting a nomination if the actress involved wasn’t a massive celebrity as it’s really not a very showy role. I imagine that a huge part of what amazed people about Cher’s performance is that as big a personality as Cher was, she completely disappears into the character. Had I not seen her name in the credits, there’s no way I would have guessed I was watching Cher on screen.

There are a couple of other really nice performances from the minor characters, including Craig T. Nelson as a slimy, shady company loyalist, Ron Silver as a fast talking union lobbyist and the man who was apparently the Jude Law of 1983, Fred Ward (The Right Stuff, Uncommon Valor) as an inscrutable fellow employee who warns Karen not to get nosey.

Nichols developed a reputation over the years as a director with a remarkably deft hand when it comes to working with actors, whether it’s going over the top with their performances (The Birdcage, Charlie Wilson’s War) or underplaying it and going hyper-naturalistic. In this case, Nichols went for the latter and the rapport between the cast from the opening scene is astonishingly good. They look as though they’ve been going to work together their whole lives and Streep gives off a constant feeling of a woman who is simply trying to get through her day. She never forces any great moments of revelation or emotional poignancy. Her face never drops with the sudden realization of what’s going on around her. She simply continues living her life and picks up tiny details along the way that clue her into the idea that something strange might be going on.

I think what impresses me the most about this film is the remarkable restraint the filmmakers showed in adapting this story that had already become a sort of rallying point for anti-nuclear, anti-corporate protesters by 1983. Rather than turn this into a preachy, issue-oriented movie, Nichols and the screenwriters made this film a character-driven story, a film built around a tremendously complex and multifaceted woman who makes the very difficult choice of turning to activism because it makes complete sense for the character to do so. The actions of Karen wouldn’t make sense without a great deal of careful setup and development and her fate wouldn’t seem so tragic and inevitable had we not grown to care for her and sympathize with her so deeply. It’s an incredibly well-made film bolstered by one of the best performances of Meryl Streep’s long and illustrious career.

Next Up: Oy vey…it’s finally time for me to sit through Barbara Streisand’s Jewish-themed musical Yentl.