The wounded cries of Violet echo throughout the Weston’s home moments her daughter wrestles her to the ground and snatches the ‘blue babies’ (pills) from her hand. Violet isn’t just wounded, she’s rabid. Verbally clobbering each and every member while puffing on cigarettes (‘You think you can shame me, Charlie? Blow it out of your ass!’ she barks, when her poor brother-in-law attempts to provide reassurance), the harridan attempts to get even with her daughters for spoiling themselves and turning out to be major disappointments in life.
Meryl’s performance has been compared to Faye Dunaway’s in Mommie Dearest, the greek monster Medusa, a monstrous pterodactyl, Tyler Perry’s Madea (!), a gorgon, etc. I think she sought inspiration from the character of Roy Cohn, performed by Al Pacino in Angels in America. She was the lead on that show, and witnessing the terrifying outbursts and the nasty barbs here, spoken with the most horrifying expression you’d imagine, I think Meryl really owes credit to Pacino rather than ‘Dunaway’ or ‘Madea’. Plus, she’s played a cancer patient in One True Thing, and the physical appearance when she sheds her wig takes us back to that film. When she opens about her past in a vulnerable moment with her daughters on the swing, I thought of my grandmother, who suffered a nasty and lonely dotage suffering from cancer, osteoporosis and paralysis. In her verbal lashings, she reminded me of… me when I was eighteen and (although my parents still think I’m kidding) suffering from melancholic depression (two years of meditation and intense introspection proved helpful). She’s also an abandoned King Lear in the film, ramping up her performance to the histrionics of a Shakespearean character when required.
It’s a nut-loose persona, and a second viewing is needed to catch the subtleties in her act. She delivers with a lifelike intensity, which to be honest, I don’t see in any other working actor today. Daniel Day Lewis flares up on screen, so does Brando or De Niro or Di Caprio, but they’re more reliant to the power of their voice to convey emotions. Meryl somewhat hides her emotion in her timbre, but if we’re observant, we hear the strains in her voice as she intones. The ‘lifelike’ quality is harder to notice, especially for people who haven’t been in such situations or who haven’t experienced such emotions, and that’s why she’s called ‘cold’ and ‘technical’ by a few. Right now, I can bet that anybody who’s been through her condition or who has seen someone undergo such a phase will say Meryl’s given the most realistic performance one can imagine.
But again, she makes Violet a shade too melancholic in an endeavor to get into the skin of the character. Julia Roberts is emotional too. As Jean, Abigail Breslin plainly has to look left and right during the dinner table battle, mutter some lines on being a vegetarian and loving Phantom of the Opera, and then shedding tears when she’s caught later. McGregor fares worse, looking like Tom Hanks from Captain Phillips (if you look really hard), and stalling on the periphery of the action.
Who nails the tone of the play – a very dark ‘comedy’? Juliette Lewis, who looks like she’s landed from David O. Russell’s world of quirky, sad characters. She helps transit the play’s spirit to screen, and so does Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper who play Violet’s younger sister Mattie Fae and her husband Charles.
You know what, I watched Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, a Spanish-French dramedy, a couple of hours after August: Osage County, and it was infinitely more funny, melodramatic, heartwarming, sad and touching. Roger Ebert perfectly described it as ‘a struggle between real and fake heartbreak–between tragedy and soap opera. They’re usually funny, too, which increases the tension. You don’t know where to position yourself while you’re watching a film like “All About My Mother,” and that’s part of the appeal: Do you take it seriously, like the characters do, or do you notice the bright colors and flashy art decoration, the cheerful homages to Tennessee Williams and “All About Eve” (1950) and see it as a parody?’. All this is missed in August: Osage County, which ends up working like a sappy, patchy melodrama. It isn’t stuck together properly.