Monday, May 21, 2018

Meryl, Kurt and Cher—a Silky Cinema Menage

On its face, it may not seem like Silkwood (1983) would be a highly entertaining film—it’s a grim, ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a nuclear plant worker who blows the whistle on its shady business practices and shines a light on the cancer-causing health effects of working with radioactive materials.

But in the hands of master storytellers, headed by prolific director Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Angels in America) and screenwriters Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally) and Alice Arlen, the story of real-life labor union activist Karen Silkwood’s relentless quest for truth and justice becomes an absorbing, compelling and supremely watchable movie, punctuated by dark humor and enlivened by a triumvirate of unforgettable star performances.

Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood

In 1974 in Oklahoma, Kerr McGee plant worker and union member Karen Silkwood (played by Meryl Streep) died in a mysterious car accident, after having been repeatedly contaminated with radiation, seemingly as a punishment for planning to share her story with The New York Times. As Karen digs further, uncovering ethical and safety violations, her coworkers and even her lover Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell) and roommate Dolly Pelliker (Cher), who also work for the plant, turn on her for upsetting the status quo and putting herself in danger.

Kurt Russell as Drew Stephens
Evoking the Deep South of the 1970s, with banjo music prominently featured in the film score and a Confederate flag draped behind the bed that Karen shares with Drew, the milieu of Silkwood is pure country, with most actors sporting convincing southern drawls and Streep memorably warbling an an impressive a cappella rendition of the gospel standard “Amazing Grace.” Director Nichols goes for gritty authenticity all the way.

An effective workplace and kitchen sink drama as well as an anti-nuclear polemic, Silkwood has universal themes—most everyone can relate to the concept of a toxic work environment, for example! But here, of course, the drama is heightened because this crew isn’t “working with puffed wheat,” as Drew says, but with uranium and plutonium. If you make a mistake, you’re “cooked”—not figuratively, but literally. Exposure to radiation causes cancer—but back in the early 70s, most nuclear plant workers were not fully aware of the risks.

Cher as Dolly Pelliker

Despite the subject matter, if you appreciate fine acting, you’ll love Silkwood. The chemistry among the three principals is, pardon the cheap pun, as smooth as silk. Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher work wonderfully together as the three coworkers sharing a ramshackle house to cut their expenses, enduring the drudgery of their boring, repetitive and dangerous jobs but creating a family unit of their threadbare existence.

This is truly one of Streep’s best roles, and with her stellar resume of iconic performances, that’s saying a lot. As promiscuous, willful, complicated Karen, Streep brings tremendous vulnerability along with fierce determination and ironic humor to the role. Always at odds with her coworkers, her lover, her ex-husband, Streep’s Silkwood is an antiheroine but heartbreakingly human. For her performance in Silkwood, Streep was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award (she’d already won her second Oscar just the year before, for Sophie’s Choice.)

Drew clocks in

The role of Karen’s loving, patient and long-suffering boyfriend Drew Stephens may well be the ultimate Kurt Russell dramatic performance. Here, Russell is soulful, masculine yet vulnerable,  forgiving of Karen’s indiscretions, deeply caring and supportive, trying vainly to calm her obsessions and tame her wildness.

Thelma (Sudie Bond) gets "cooked"—just another day at the office

One of Hollywood’s most underrated actors, Russell is a charismatic and versatile actor who has been able to turn easily from drama to comedy to action adventure in his 50+ year career. A child star who acted with Elvis Presley before portraying him in a TV movie years later; a teenage male ingenue for a handful of 1970s Disney classics; leading man to his longtime lady love Goldie Hawn in memorable comedies like Swing Shift and Overboard; and of course, iconic action hero Snake Plissken (thanks to his long-time partnership with director John Carpenter), the hardworking Russell has played almost every type of role in every film genre imaginable.

Don't worry, there's plenty of Kurt in this one!

Though Russell is far more than just a handsome face and physique, he is undeniably easy on the eyes, especially here in Silkwood. In fact, Kurt, shirtless throughout 75 percent of this film, shows more skin here than in any other film except maybe Captain Ron (in which he nonchalantly strutted through much of the proceedings in a speedo!). Some Kurt Russell fans may want tune in to Silkwood just for the eye candy!

Cher’s performance as sardonic, lonely lesbian Dolly Pelliker in Silkwood was a revelation and paved the way for an acclaimed new career as a serious actor. As the female half of a popular singing duo who made it big in prime time television, Cher had always proven herself an able and enthusiastic performer. Her flair for comedy had already been established in the Carol Burnett-style comedy sketches of her TV variety shows. She triumphed on the Broadway stage in a non-singing role in Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (reprising her role in a low-budget film version that nobody really saw at the time), and then Mike Nichols hired her for Silkwood. Cher would receive her first Oscar nomination (as Best Supporting Actress) for the role of Dolly; in the coming years she would earn a Best Actress nod for Mask and then the Oscar itself for Moonstruck.

Streep, Scarwid and Cher
Nelson doctors the negatives
Silkwood’s supporting cast is also peppered with brilliance, with brief turns by David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, Dolores Claiborne), Fred Ward (Big Business, The Player), Craig T. Nelson (Poltergeist, Book Club), and the wonderful character actress Sudie Bond (who appeared with Cher in the star’s very first film, Come Back to the Five and Dime.) Other standouts in the cast are Diana Scarwid (Inside Moves, Mommie Dearest) as the funeral parlor makeup artist and object of Dolly’s affections; and Ron Silver (Reversal of Fortune) as the labor union leader with whom Karen has a brief fling in Washington, D.C.

For Silkwood, both Streep and Cher were nominated for Oscars, as were director Mike Nichols, screenwriters Ephron and Arlen, and film editor Sam O’Steen. Kurt Russell was once again overlooked by the Academy, and even to this day has still not received a single Oscar nomination (maybe because he always makes his job look so easy). But for his portrayal of earthy Drew Stephens, Russell did earn a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. 

Perhaps because of its downbeat subject matter, Silkwood is rarely shown on classic movie channels, but it deserves a place in history alongside well-made true-life, politically themed films like All the President’s Men and Erin Brokovich (which won Julia Roberts her Best Actress Oscar for playing another colorful antiheroine). And if you are a loyal fan of Streep, Cher or Russell, this one is a must-see.

I'm so excited to participate in the Kurt Russell Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews and Return to the 80s! What a pleasure, and I look forward to reading all the entries. The amazing Kurt Russell deserves a blogathon AND an Oscar, in my opinion!