BEYOND THE BALLOT: Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep in Marvin’s Room (1996)

I wasn’t intending to do this as my first post for Beyond the Ballot, but being able to watch this film twice mad me realize it would be a nice start.

Marvin’s Room is a very 90s comedy-drama that is all about watching two acting legends act together, and it delivers. The film embodies its dramedy sensibility to extremes, and it is not always rewarding. Gwen Verdon’s character is mostly used for laughs, and I find her character to be the weakest link of the group. Here’s what I said about the film in my tweet/Letterboxd account:

Thank heavens for delicious sororal dynamics, meticulously crafted by Keaton/Streep, for pre-Titanic beauty of DiCaprio. Contains both broad heart-tugging & gritty specifics. These overcome the recurring (if unapologetic) sentimentality. Very 90s.

I am going to review Keaton and Streep individually.

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DIANE KEATON

ROLE: Bessie Wakefield, a caring daughter with leukemia
AWARDS: Academy Award (nom), SAG (nom), BFCA (nom)

Diane Keaton plays the daughter of his bedridden father (played by Hume Cronyn) and his fragile aunt (played by Gwen Verdon). As she does her best to take care of both, she comes to terms with her own disease that will force her to reconnect with her estranged sister.

On paper, Keaton gets the baitier role: the cancer-inflicted sister. However, she also has the burden of maneuvering her character through the screenplay’s broader dramedy strokes.

Take her first scene with her father and aunt. It hastily jumps between heartwarming drama and unsubtle humor. The tonal shifts are erratic and sloppy, to say the least. From her aunt’s self-admitted uselessness to the father’s malfunctioning bed, the scene roughly succeeds in fully nailing both.

But here’s an interesting thing about that scene, and this applies to most of her performance: Keaton lays out the humanity of her character so well, avoiding scenes from becoming an embarrassing tonal mess. It is her earnest character work that grounds each of her scenes with sincerity despite the film’s persistent preoccupation to push the dramedy hard (perhaps too hard on occasion).

Keaton also excels in keeping her character from being overly precious. Bessie is written as a selfless and caring martyr who has given up her life to her father and her aunt. There is even a scene where she opens up to Lee about her former lover, further demonstrating she lost her chance of romance. In these moments where the film turns the energy a bit down (the film tries to pump up emotions constantly) where Keaton lets her subtle emotional journey work.

Keaton knows the planned tearjerking moments of the film would not work if she has not laid out the completeness of her character. Her dynamic register of emotions, especially with Streep, make for the film’s more exciting character moments. She gets to portray the different shades of Bessie. Her character is no saint just because she is in an awful condition; her flaws as a sister and an aunt to Lee’s sons become more evident, causing her to be defensive.

In these moments, Keaton humanizes Bessie. She is as flawed and messy as her sister Lee, even if she maintains a composed and dignified facade. In her struggle with leukemia, her abrupt confrontations with mortality bring out her worst fears, and it is palpable. Keaton realizes the beating heart of her character and it shows her skillfulness in bringing out the best of the character who is clearly the emotional centerpiece of this film.

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MERYL STREEP

ROLE: Lee Wakefield Lacker, a strong-willed single mother
AWARDS: Golden Globe Drama (nom)

Meryl Streep plays the abrasive single mother who balances reconnecting to her estranged sister Bessie and his problematic son Hank (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).

In a way, Streep’s lack of the Oscar nomination: throughout most of the film, her character steps back from emotionality (which perhaps made Keaton a more obvious pick). Instead, her character’s maternal edginess brings the more abrasive moments in this soft-hearted film. It also just shows the embarrassment of riches of leading actresses in 1996 (more on that in the future).

Her first scene shows how her no-bullshit attitude. Lecturing another woman in the salon about how one should have a positive outlook. Streep owns the bluntness of her first scene and spins it to make it part of her character. She is an experienced woman, perhaps hardened by mistakes and heartbreak. Little she realizes that this is the springboard for her bigger problems: her son burns down the house and she must go back to help her sister with cancer.

Her trip back to her family would force Bessie to confront several issues. Streep maintains the edgy nature of her character. However, she expertly pulls back the layers to her character, the reasons why she maintains a tough exterior. She compensates her insecurities with a resilient face so as not to show others how injured her character is. This is where Streep’s deftness comes in: she smoothly shows the transition of her character vis-à-vis her relationship with her family.

I am still decoding Streep’s depiction of Lee’s affection for Bessie. They come to terms that they were never close, and the pretense is slowly peeled away and what is left is their honesty. We see Streep through her scenes with Keaton her own emotional journey as Lee reconnects with Bessie: the moments of discomfort, joy, and pain are all wonderfully crafted by Streep. What is also striking is the required restraint when she is with Keaton. Streep understands Lee’s place in relation to Bessie, and the drama is grounded in clear-eyed honesty.

And inasmuch as Streep does wonders with Keaton, she also does the same with DiCaprio. She plots the trajectory of Lee’s relationship with Hank with clarity. From cluelessness of Hank’s actions to a tough love meant to discipline him, Streep manages to clearly illustrate this emotional beat of the film, always making it clear that Lee’s love for Hank, though flawed, is sincere if not easily visible.

It is quite ironic that in two years’ time, Streep will also play a cancer patient (and get an Academy Award nomination) in 1998’s One True Thing. However, Streep cleverly manages to hand the spotlight most of the time to Keaton in service of the film. This move makes sense, and Streep manages to create emotionally honest moments without attempting to steal the attention from Keaton. It is a tough act to maintain one’s place in a story without demanding attention, and Streep achieves this balance.

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In both performances, Keaton and Streep give each other so much to create an engaging relationship dynamic that maximizes each other’s strengths as an actress. Both turn in lived-in performances which delightfully surprised me given how casting both suited and challenged each of them. It is a remarkable actress-actress work that feels emotionally resonant and honest.

For their respective performances, Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep both get:

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