My Year with Meryl Streep: Doubt (2008)
A look at the Oscar-nominated drama co-starring Amy Adams, Viola Davis, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman!
I recently spent a whole year watching a Meryl Streep film every week, and I thought I’d share with you some of the reviews I wrote for her many classic films!
Has any actor or actress played two lead characters in two major films in the same year as wildly different as Donna in Mamma Mia and Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt? While Meryl often acts in more than one film in a given year, 2008 has to be considered one of her crowning achievements just in terms of showing her remarkable range.
In Mamma Mia, she plays a sexy, independent woman dancing through Greece, making out with James Bond, and belting out ABBA songs. In Doubt, she plays a stern, demanding nun who hides behind a black veil and manages to scare the children at her Catholic school with merely a glimpse in the hallway. The first character is vibrant and full of life, and the second character is a quiet, internally damaged woman who thinks only the worst of others. These roles couldn’t be more different than each other, and yet Meryl commits to them so completely that both characters become fully three-dimensional, totally believable, remarkably played by the same actress. That’s the magic of Meryl.
John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for 1987’s Moonstruck, adapted his Pulitzer-Prize winning play Doubt to the screen. Cherry Jones, who played the Sister Aloysius role on stage for more than a year and won the Tony award, might have seemed a likely choice to play the character on film, but Shanley didn’t direct the play, and he wanted to make a movie that stood separate from what audience members had already witnessed on the stage.
For example, scenes that took place in dark rooms in the theater were shot outside in the movie, with exteriors of 1964 Bronx, New York giving the film a crucial cinematic feel. He uses dutch angles and a subtle music score to infuse in the audience a sense of dread. He also wanted powerhouse A-list actors to give his emotionally resonant story new life, both for those who had already seen the play and for those who were coming to the movie cold. With material this rich, he probably could have convinced any major actor to be in his adaptation, and thankfully, for him and for the viewer, he picked the best four actors he possibly could’ve.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an electric performance, plays Father Flynn, a priest with an actual sense of humor and appreciation for his students who unfortunately never refrains from rubbing the strict Principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl), the wrong way. She’s always looking for an excuse to get him to leave, and she finally finds that excuse when Sister James (Amy Adams), an innocent nun without a shade of dishonesty, tells her that she suspects Flynn of spending too much time with Donald, the school’s first black student. Without a shred of real proof, Sister Aloysius immediately commits herself to the idea that Father Flynn is up to no good with this boy, and she confronts him about his alleged wrongdoing. When he doesn’t give her the answer she wants, she pursues the matter further, potentially ruining the lives of everyone around her.
Easily Meryl’s best drama since The Hours, Doubt is an absorbing film that at one hour and forty minutes doesn’t overstay its welcome. Films based on plays can often be stuffy and long-winded, but despite most of the signature scenes running on for big chunks of time, sometimes ten to fifteen minutes a piece, the characters are so well drawn and the dialogue is at such a high level of intelligence that the scenes feel shorter than they actually are. Doubt presents the kind of unique story that allows each viewer to bring his or her own beliefs to the movie. There’s no handholding here, no easy ending that reveals to the viewer the core mystery at the heart of the film. Is Flynn guilty or not? The viewer is never explicitly told, and it’s a smart decision on behalf of Shanley because it provides fodder for debate and interpretation.
This film features one of Meryl’s finest performances since The Bridges of Madison County, but it is also that rare achievement where every major player is outstanding, always raising his or her game. Each of the four actors with significant roles received Academy Award nominations, with the late Hoffman especially a joy to watch square off against Meryl in two long riveting scenes filled with tension and tears.
Hoffman is perfect casting for his character because in a long and varied career he played more than a few disturbed individuals — Allen in Happiness and Andy in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead come to mind — and his slightly off-kilter quality makes guessing whether he’s guilty or innocent all the more difficult. He was one of the best actors of his generation, a true original who always took chances, and watching the two extended scenes when he goes toe-to-toe with Meryl is as mesmerizing as movie scenes get.
Adams is also a perfect choice here, genuinely innocent and trusting of those around her, but with an inner sadness when she believes that trust has been broken. And Viola Davis’s single, stunning scene, when her character Mrs. Miller begs Sister Aloysius to keep the alleged transgression a secret, stuns and exhilarates. Any actress who’s able to upstage Meryl in a scene is worthy of applause, and Davis is spectacular in a single moment that took her career to great heights.
Doubt marked Meryl’s first major role in a feature film drama since the aforementioned The Hours, and for her performance she received a Screen Actors Guild award and another Academy Award nomination. If Kate Winslet’s Oscar nomination in Lead Actress for The Reader had been placed in the Supporting Actress category, where it was put at the SAG and Golden Globe Awards, Meryl would have certainly won her third Oscar for her raw, chilling performance in Doubt.
This is a character we think we know everything about when we’re first introduced to her. She’s a disciplinarian, the wicked witch of the Catholic school who inflicts fear and pain on her students, especially the unfortunate ones who don’t follow the rules. She doesn’t take crap from anybody, and she’s suspicious of Father Flynn from the start. But as the film continues, the viewer starts to see cracks in her veneer, her lack of ever looking inward to see what’s made her so judgmental of others and so bitterly unhappy. When she explodes at Flynn in their second of two major scenes, she seems to be yelling less at him and more at her own frustrations in convincing herself to only see the worst in people.
It is not until the final scene that her character, finally having received her wish for Flynn’s removal from the school, allows her intimidating and demanding persona to crumble, when she tells Sister James that she has doubts. Her two lines at the end can be interpreted in more than one way. Does she have doubts that Flynn molested the boy? That she handled the situation correctly? That inherent goodness in humanity is on the way out? Or possibly her own faith in God? Like the core mystery of the movie, her own doubts are left for interpretation, which makes this ending both challenging and effective. It also gives Meryl one of her most memorable movie endings, probably her most emotionally draining since the last scene of Kramer vs. Kramer.
Meryl followed up Doubt with her endearing portrayal of Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia, which also co-starred Adams. Soon after that, she starred in The Iron Lady, the film that finally, after nearly thirty years, won her an Academy Award, oddly enough beating out her Doubt co-star Viola Davis, who was nominated for The Help. Despite approaching sixty at the time of appearing in Doubt, an age when most actresses have either ruined their faces with plastic surgery or been relegated to one-dimensional mother roles, Meryl found herself at the most exciting time of her career with one tremendous performance after another that continued to cement her status as our greatest living actress. Who else, after all, could go from a movie like Mamma Mia to a movie like Doubt and excel at both roles so significantly? Only the best.
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency. You can read more of his work at his website, brianrowebooks.com.