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Streep and Thatcher vs. Frost and Nixon: Inverse and Opposite

Actress Meryl Streep takes on more than politics in ‘The Iron Lady.’

Poetry vs. prose.

Future vs. past.

More duet than duel.

Anyone who watched the play or viewed the movie Frost/Nixon can’t help but see the parallels, or at least the echoes, from the film The Iron Lady.

In the award-winning play Frost/Nixon, both men are past their prime and angling for a second chance at relevance. For David Frost, the aging British talk show host, it posed the possibility of getting a confession out of former President Richard Nixon about his part in the Watergate scandal.

For Nixon, the interviews meant a chance to rewrite his history (post Watergate, impeachment and resignation) by out-dueling the Brit. Think mental gymnastics at 30 paces in wingback chairs, by two desperate men, in front of a camera.

Frost offers Nixon $600,000 for the no-holds barred, three-part interview. He promised the funds before he could raise them and promoted the interviews as collateral before he secured the outlets or the scoop.

Nonetheless, Frost promised to pry an admission of guilt from Nixon—something that no other journalist accomplished—and, with it, a return to prime time and his previous vaulted celebrity.

Nixon, reluctant at first but equally desperate, decides to accept.

He, too, hopes to turn the interview into a second chance to rescue his sullied past. 

The drama, the dueling, the craven self-interest of each man and their desperate attempts to avoid irrelevance make for award-winning theater.

Frost uncovers the basis of Nixon’s demise; his actionable belief that “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.

Frost eventually wears Nixon down and gets him to admit that he participated in the “cover-up” of the Watergate break-in, and that “he let the people down.”

A win for Frost. A loss for Nixon. A history lesson for everyone else.

For Meryl Streep and Margaret Thatcher it is a win, win, win.

Streep plays Thatcher, the first woman prime minister of Great Britain, in The Iron Lady (a nickname coined by the Russians).

Streep, 62, is on the upswing on that teeter-totter profession called acting.  Baroness Thatcher, 86, on the terrifying slide of life called dementia.

Howls of protest come from Thatcher loyalists about the film being “disrespectful,” “insensitive,” and even current Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in, wondering why it couldn’t be delayed for “another day.” Read: Until Thatcher was dead.

While Frost’s desperation to interview Nixon was rooted in a desire for personal victory, Streep’s willingness to portray Thatcher is based on a desire for greater understanding.

Neither Frost nor Nixon is contemporarily relevant—except as history lessons in the march of imperial presidencies and unpopular wars, while Streep and Thatcher have both caught a wave that elevates their currency in today’s global political, economic and even cultural maelstrom.

Thatcher’s decision to keep England out of the euro (condemned roundly at the time) has proved brilliant.

She argued against yielding England’s economic sovereignty to anyone else. Her prescience on that score is obvious now. The Greeks, Portuguese, Irish, Hungarians, Spaniards and even the French—just downgraded by Standard and Poor’s over the debt crisis—must wish they had followed Thatcher’s course and remain independent.

On the decision to spend scarce resources successfully defending the Falkland Islands against the Argentine invasion (coupled with the recent discovery of a fifth oil field there), Thatcher has also proven to be both intelligent and au courant.

Thatcher’s legacy in teaming with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in ending the Cold War marked yet another milestone for the history books.

But with Streep in her prime and Thatcher in her decline, both deliver something more powerful and poignant than the sum total of their own remarkable careers.

They deliver poetry.

Poetry on an intimate, human scale. Poetry that probes and feels for that elusive meaning in life, aging and death. Poetry about a subject more intimate and taboo-laden than sex—dementia.

Unlike Frost and Nixon, Streep and Thatcher deliver a salient and timely treatise on that greatest of fears—not irrelevance, not even death itself—but the horror of mental confusion and the frailty of dementia; that wilderness darker than death.

Dementia creeps in and terrorizes its victims and caregivers alike, in unpredictable bouts of humiliation, cruelty, uselessness and often painful tenderness.

And that is where The Iron Lady delivers. Streep was interested in the biopic for a chance to better understand the perils of aging—not just exploit it.

Her performance (you must see it for yourself) may just provide her with that elusive third Oscar win. And in so doing, assures Baroness Thatcher (the daughter of a grocer, Oxford University graduate and the first woman prime minister in the western world) of vindication, if not admiration, while highlighting a disease still largely hidden.

Together, the poetic duet of Streep and Thatcher elevates both women, their professions and their currency in living what Thatcher called “lives that matter”—still in full sail and relevant at 62 and 86. That the actress is a liberal feminist and the politician a staunch conservative makes the film even more remarkable.

A Win. Win. Win.

Jim January 21, 2012 at 06:25 AM
Beautifully put, Colleen.

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