Meryl Streep is Susan Orlean, Notes on Adaptation

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Meryl Streep’s greatest performances distill the essence of the films that encase them. The conflicted feminist messages of Kramer vs. Kramer are all there in her coldly emotional monologues; the delirious absurdity of Death Becomes Her can be found in the way she deliciously shrieks “Flaaaacid!” before being pushed down the stairs; the Woolfian ennui of The Hours shines in her pained smiles and wistful sighs. But there is no clearer example of this than Meryl’s performance in Spike Jonze’s 2002 film, Adaptation. In a movie about the inability of movies to capture the essence of real life people, Streep’s take on writer Susan Orlean is both impossibly plausible and shamelessly fabricated. It is the film’s thesis made flesh.

Her Susan Orlean is a deceptively plain performance. There’s no wig and no accent. There’s barely any makeup. It’s perhaps as stripped down a character as she’s offered us in decades. Her Orlean is closer to her Joanna Kramer than to any of the brassy broads she’s given us as of late. But unlike Joanna, a character which was created whole-cloth, there’s no escaping the fact that Orlean refers to a real life person. If we know Meryl to be, in Viola Davis’s words, an observer and a thief, it is because she has left enough evidence on screen of her misdemeanors. Film after film, she’s displayed the many ways she’s grabbed hold of a person’s mannerisms and turned them into outer markers of their inner selves. As Miranda Priestly, she evoked the imperiousness of Anna Wintour with a mere withering stare and a slew of sibilant esses. Our collective caricatured image of Ethel Rosenberg is all there in Meryl’s phlegmy coughs and matronly walks. Suzanne Vale’s fidgety hands captured Carrie Fisher’s manic impatience, while Maggie Thatcher’s entitled sovereignty echoed through Streep’s polite condescension. Her based-in-real-life characters are often so flawlessly drawn that they exhaust one’s ability to praise them. That is, when they don’t irk for their predictability. I mean, must we really sing her praises (again!) at her ability to capture Florence Foster Jenkins’ hilariously off-key operatic voice or Julia Child’s booming laughter?

While mimicry is not really at the center of her Susan Orlean, Meryl’s history of accurately playing real life people is the bedrock on which she stands. Orlean, who wrote the book on which Adaptation is based on, initially balked at the idea of signing off on the script Charlie (and Donald) Kaufman had come up with. Rather than turn Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into a movie about her main character John LaRoche, who’d been at the center of an orchid poaching scandal in Florida, the Being John Malkovich writer created a meta-fictional meditation on passion and yearning. Faced with the futility of trying to adapt an unadaptable, nonfiction book, Kaufman had fictionalized that very struggle. It included, much to Orlean’s horror, a version of herself who, on page 96 of the script, is revealed to have posed for nude photos now readily available online.

“You know I can’t let you make this movie,” she told producer Ed Saxon. “It’s gonna ruin my career. If you really insist on making this film, you’re going to have to change my name.” That, given the nature of the script, wasn’t a possibility. Adaptation, as Orlean eventually came to see, hinged on the conceit that every person we meet in the film is a real person. And so, while the notion that people would be confused as to which parts of the film were real and which ones were not still nagged at her, Orlean eventually agreed to let the film use her name. She admits, of course, that knowing Meryl Streep would play her alleviated some of her doubts about the project.

Kaufman, as we learn in the film, was also plagued by the anxiety of, if not pleasing at least doing justice to Orlean and her writing. No doubt borrowing from his own late nights spent worrying about how to turn her book into a film, Kaufman offers us a scene where he voices his concerns. Drenched in sweat and lying awake in the middle of the night, he reaches for The Orchid Thief. He turns to an earmarked page and reads one of the many “sweet, sad insights” that litter Orlean’s prose:

“There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”

We get the sense that Charlie isn’t so much reading Orlean’s words as she is performing them for him. In fact, in the original version of the script, Kaufman often called for the writer to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. All that remains of that idea are the many moments during which, as is the case in this scene, we get to listen to her read her words aloud. Meryl’s voice here is breathy. Hazy, even. As if her Orlean were plucking the words out of thin air and giving them weight as she utters them. You can see why Charlie is so drawn to her; there’s a melancholy in the way Meryl plays her, a sadness that teeters all too close to flirtation. Her whispers call out to us to fill in the blanks of this pared down performance. This is, of course, a scene about the very moment Kaufman realizes he’s found a way into the book, where he decides to follow Orlean’s advice and whittle The Orchid Thief to its core: his wistful attraction to Orlean herself. But he’s so haunted by her words (by her voice) that he worries he’ll mess it up. “I’m afraid I’ll disappoint you,” he tells her author photo. The line is all the more preposterous—ironic, even—for the way it invokes the language actors deploy when discussing the perils of playing a real life person. The disappointment that these PR-approved soundbites refer to rests on the assumption that what ends up on screen will be an accurate if not always complimentary picture of the person they’re playing. The voice will be down pat. The wig and costumes will make the resemblance uncanny. The actress will have disappeared into the role. That is not quite the case in Adaptation, which so gleefully flaunts the very tenets of biopics and fictionalized true life stories that it nevertheless depends on. That is what makes the film so fascinating. It begs for its subject to be disappointed—or worse, appalled—at the film she’s engendered.

When Orlean first objected to letting the producers of Adaptation use her own name, Saxon was quick to point out that Kaufman’s cringe-worthy version of himself anchored the film. He spends half the movie masturbating (including in the scene above where he fantasizes about making love to Orlean). But it’s one thing to write oneself as a pathetic balding screenwriter struggling with an assignment. Quite another to ask a respected New Yorker writer to let her name be used for a character that so willfully breaks with her own persona. The former is mere narcissistic self-deprecation; the latter, a more troubling provocation that skirts the line between artistic license and licentious libel. It explains why, after a screening of the film, Streep felt the need to approach her real-life doppelganger and apologize for the liberties the film had taken with her name and reputation. By that point Orlean had come to terms with what was on screen and laughed it all away. “Oh! That’s okay,” she told Meryl, “I wish I were Susan Orlean!” The anecdote recalls Nora Ephron’s quip that Meryl “plays all of us better than we play ourselves.” The actress is not only good at playing real life people; she can’t help but improve them. The feeling is understandable when the actress turns your messy divorce into a beautifully calibrated performance that mines your pain for comedic effect (see: Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Ephron’s autobiographical novel, Heartburn). Less so when she’s playing a version of you that disregards journalistic ethical practices, gets hooked on drugs, and is all too quick to plan a murder in order to save her reputation. But Orlean’s playful comment gets at the way Adaptation is most captivating in the way it creates curious character sketches that ring true even in the midst of their hilarious absurdity.

“Can you make a movie about a flower?” the film asks, “Or are you doomed to make a movie about sex, drugs, and violence?” The former is a call for a type of cinema that refuses the teleological thrust of a narrative, the latter the essence of the very things Kaufman rails against while attending Robert McKee’s screenwriting seminar. Adaptation is a document of the failed attempt at going against McKee’s dictum that “First, last, and always, the imperative is to tell a story.” That is the last thing Kaufman wants to do and indeed the first two thirds of the film are persuasive attempts at moving a film along almost in spite of a narrative. It’s mostly a collection of scenes where characters think about doing things. The film eventually derails itself in order to tell a story, though one that mocks the Hollywoodization of the uneventful “real world” that Kaufman was after. It ends up hinging on crises and on characters actually doing things that move the plot forward. It’s a beautiful “fuck you” to Hollywood execs even as it cannot help but deliver the movie it’s simultaneously scoffing at. That type of irony is at the heart of Meryl’s performance. The latter third of the film, when we see Orlean consorting with Laroche (played by Chris Cooper) and later intent on killing Kaufman, is all the more disorienting because that’s Meryl Streep right there doing those things. Those moments seem out of character, but not for Orlean. For Meryl. The Oscar-winning actress prided herself in having steered clear of films about sex, drugs, and violence—yet here she was, wielding a gun, high as a kite, caught in flagrante with a naked Chris Cooper by her side.

For many of us who grew up having never known her as anything but “the greatest living actress,” her portrayal of Susan Orlean was and remains revelatory. Here is as naked and vulnerable a performance as she could give. In other characters, Meryl could hide behind perfectly executed accents and/or distractingly fabulous wigs; here, the chameleonic actress hides in plain sight. Her way into the character is no different than Kaufman’s way into the book: through Orlean’s words. Those keen insights that littered her sprawling New Yorker prose inform those first moments when we meet the writer in Adaptation busy at her desk. Even in her initial interactions with Laroche, pen and paper in hand, she’s constantly assessing everything around her with a mixture of empathy and cynicism. Above all else, the actress created a character driven by the curiosity that runs through Orlean’s work. Meryl’s characters are most alive when we see them thinking, but her Orlean is most captivating when she is mindless. The more time we spend with her, the less tethered she is to the “real” author of The Orchid Thief. She becomes, as Orlean has described her on-screen avatar, a “strange creature” that somehow still captured something about her. Something she didn’t even know had made its way into the book.

Streep’s Susan Orlean may be the most unassuming example of the actress’s talent, but it’s also her most beguiling creation to date. Real and unreal. Authentic yet fabricated. To create a performance that exists in that liminal space takes a special kind of actress. The kind who could effortlessly sum up what Adaptation is all about by turning the absurdity of mimicking a dial tone into an exercise in melancholy. That moment at the hotel room where Orlean gets high on orchid dust is a study in minimalism. Streep’s face remains impassive as she begins to see and hear the world anew. But where before her aimless stares felt empty, like she was hoping to find more if only she looked closer, the actress opens up Orlean’s gaze here, letting her become obsessed with everything around her, and with those soothing phone tones in particular. Her teary-eyed response to finally nailing the sound effect is a perfect metaphor for what Meryl Streep has been doing for her entire career, finding ways of perfectly mirroring real life in technically precise ways that nevertheless unlock unexpected emotional reactions. It also echoes what makes Orlean and Streep such kindred spirits: they both know that to capture the mundane is to capture the ineffable.