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! 


  1. Thanks so much for joining the blogathon with this review, I remember my parents watching this on video back in the day. And my adolescent self probably missed out on a crush on Russell judging from your lovely pictures, but now of course I'd watch it for that interesting storyline.

  2. Hi Gill, thanks so much for hosting the blogathon. I think you will indeed be engaged and absorbed by this compelling story.
    Thank you for visiting!
    - Chris

  3. Silkwood has never been on my radar for the simple reason that I saw The China Syndrome and decided I didn't like movies about nefarious doings at nuclear plants. But maybe I'll give it a shot after reading this.

  4. Terrific post as always Chris! "Silkwood" is an excellent, very well-acted movie, possibly Nichol's best, and I'm glad you've done a piece on it.

    Cher's character was actually named "Sheri Ellis" in real life. She's a sympathetically drawn gay character, and her problems are not related to her sexual orientation. Ellis was asked if she minded being portrayed as gay and she quipped "I'm a virgin, and so is everybody else in Oklahoma," LOL.

    There were some dramatic liberties taken, of course. The contamination scene occurs in one day in the movie, but actually took three months. Still, the main points of the picture were left intact.

    Cher hated being completely deglamorized for the roel, but obviously she got over it!

  5. Hi Bill, I am delighted that you love this film as much as I do. I did not know the story about Sherry Ellis, that is so funny; sounds like she was indeed quite a strong and colorful character in real life. I did hear that Cher did not enjoy the way she was photographed, but it was worth it...her first Oscar nomination...but I notice that Cher was never so deglamorized again.

    Thanks as always for your support, and I will see you over at your amazing Great Old Movies blog!
    - Chris

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  7. Hi Quiggy, I understand how you feel and what you mean. The anti nuke theme was omnipresent in the late 70s and early 80s. I will say though, that I think Silkwood is a far superior and more excitingly told story than China Syndrome. Even though I love Fonda, Lemmon and Douglas, I think China Syndrome is kind of might like Silkwood better!

    Thanks as always for stopping by, I appreciate your support! See you at your prolific Midnite Drive In blog!
    - Chris

  8. Excellent choice for the blogathon, I love this Nichols and Ephron collaboration. Why Meryl Streep hasn't acted with Kurt Russell again is beyond me. I'd say they had some of the best chemistry in all of Streep’s filmography.
    Kurt certainly had a great run of films in the 1980s didn't he? From Escape from New York and Used Cars to The Mean Season and Tequila Sunrise he's always eminently watchable. His role in Silkwood is one of his finest and most overlooked, thanks for shining a spotlight on it.

  9. Hi Paul - it’s true, Russell was on a winning streak in the 1980s with so many films in such diverse genres. I agree he should have costarred with Streep again— he gave her some much needed sex appeal. I do wish that he had earned an Oscar nomination for this film, he was just as amazing as Cher and Meryl.
    Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! I love your blog.
    - Chris

  10. Hey Chris,

    I am a huge Cher fan and remember wondering all during her '70s TV days why no one would give her a chance in movies. Apparently Cher's glamour and tabloid was too much was too much for mainstream know, the folks who watched her every week and bought all those tabloids ; ) Cher always reminded me of those old time stars like Ann Sheridan, Linda Darnell, and Ida Lupino--tough talking, but with a sense of humor and a good heart.

    Amazingly, I never saw the movie til just a few years ago. On it's release, I couldn't get anybody to go with me. Back then, I was so shy, the thought of going to a movie alone was mortifying!

    Cher indeed hated being make up free and wearing men's work clothes, but her best work was when she was playing working class, like Moonstruck or Mask, and in ensemble projects, not vanity vehicles (of which she did very few, unlike some musical movie star divas!)

    I always remember that story Cher has told, when she caught a sneak preview of 'Silkwood.' Meryl's name appeared on the screen...applause, applause. Kurt's name appeared, more applause. Cher's name came onscreen...and the audiences laughed.

    But as always, Cher had the last laugh!

    Cheers and thanks for the fine review,


  11. Hi Rick - I am as big a Cher fan as you are!! Love your comparison to those tough-talking dark haired forties true. I also remember her comedic character Laverne in the launderette sketch and thought it was just as good as Lily Tomlin on Laugh-In. We knew way back then that she was a powerhouse performer.

    Wow, I can't believe the anecdote about the opening credits for Silkwood...but I guess, at the time, a musical variety performer appearing opposite "serious actors" was indeed a joke, till she showed she had the chops to back it up. And of course, we know she does!

    Best guilty pleasure of the year for you and me will be Mamma Mia 2! Cher will steal the show!

    Thanks as always for your support, Rick. I admire your beautifully done movie blog so much!

  12. Hi Chris
    VERY late to the "Silkwood" party, but wanted to say that I loved your piece on this, one of my favorite Meryl Streep films. I saw this when it was first released, virtually unaware of who Karen Silkwood was, but sold primarily by the cast.
    Had it not been for the cast I think I would have avoided the film based on the subject matter because, as you note in your opening paragraph, it didn't exactly sound like an entertaining subject matter; it being the kind of topic I would have likely preferred to have seen given the documentary treatment.
    But the film almost takes you aback at how it tells it tale with with and warmth, and a mounting sense of dread. To a person, the cast in great, and I watched it again about a little over a year ago. It holds up beautifully.
    Enjoyed reading your thoughts on the film very much. Thanks, Chris!

  13. Hi Ken - the party always starts up again when you arrive, my friend. Thanks for stopping by!
    It’s true, the film does hold up beautifully—all of Mike Nichols films seem to, in my opinion.
    And this is indeed iconic Streep, one,of her very best.

    As always, thank you for reading and commenting!
    - Chris