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Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Women of Osage County

I don't remember where I heard this advice to men, but there may be truth in it. If you want to know what your sweetheart, your wife, will be like after 20 or 30 years of marriage, look at her mother.  At the end, women turn into their mothers. And women, if you doubt this, listen to the voice in your head, the tone that you use, the judgement that wells up instinctively as a first reaction. Of course, it is possible to unlearn your early childhood conditioning. Hopefully, as you progress in the world, you become your own person, with your own ideas. It's not easy to be objective about your mother, but it is possible to understand what shaped her, and to appreciate her influence on your life. It might even be possible - often after she's gone - to see her as her own person.

And so, Meryl Streep comes to her ultimate role of motherhood in the person of Violet Weston in August: Osage County, the John Wells film based on Tracy Letts' award-winning play. In the first scene, her husband Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is briefing a new housekeeper who is evidently Native American (Misty Upham). Violet enters and immediately displays an acerbic temper, an upwelling of racism and her waspish, vitriolic long-harboured world view. She's a falling down alcoholic and drug addict. But her words have the sting and bitterness of truth. It's ironic that her cancer is of the mouth.
Violet (centre) and her sister Mattie Fae with Violet's daughter Ivy.

Shortly after, the family gathers when Beverly is found dead in the lake. There's Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) the third daughter who keeps her own counsel and sanity, quietly serving Violet while keeping out of her way. Karen, the middle daughter, turns up with the latest boyfriend Steve Huberbrecht (Dermot Mulroney). The eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives with her husband Bill Fordham (Ewan McGregor) and teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). The family is complete with Violet's sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) - their mother's favourite says Violet - her husband Charlie Aiken (Chris Cooper). Their son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives too late for the funeral, but not too late to find his own place in the family unravelling.

Violet and her daughters, Ivy and Karen

Playwright Tracy Letts received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for the play August: Osage County which had opened at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, Illinois where it was awarded the 2007 Joseph Jefferson Award. Letts was born in Oklahoma to parents Billie (writer) and Dennis (actor), and is one of three sons.

On transforming the script for the John Wells film, Letts says, "There's another dimension in the film that is not in the play, and that's Osage County. I would take them [filmmakers] to my home and show them the landscape, that's kind of profound for me as a guy who not only has written a play, but written a play that's somewhat autobiographical. The landscape itself becomes a character." Oklahoma's Osage county in the summer is unbearably hot, dessert dry and open as the unshaded prairie.

The secret which Barbara wishes should remain untold is blurted out to Ivy.
The older Letts, Dennis, originated the role of Beverly Weston in the first production of August: Osage County at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company (2007). He was diagnosed with lung cancer in September of that year. Despite his diagnosis, he moved with the production when the show opened in New York (December 2007) where he remained a full cast member - performing eight shows a week - until February 2008 when he died at age 73.

Tracy's mother, Billie (her published works include Where the Heart is) says of his work,  "I try to be upbeat and funny. Everybody in Tracy's stories gets naked or dead." This story by Tracy succeeds in peeling away layers of civility and formality - the veneer that makes life feel tolerable or normal -  to bitter nubs of irreducible despair.

A moment of happiness for "Little" Charles Aiken and Ivy Weston
At the end, Violet repels all her "loved ones." Beverly escapes through death. Karen leaves with the boyfriend Steve, ever hopeful for happiness with a man. Ivy may be driven mad by the secret which her mother dumps upon her. And Barbara - whose husband has left the house and their marriage with their daughter - may already be afraid that she's turning into her mother.

Is this the woman that Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep's role in the Bridges of Madison County) or Gail Hartman (Streep in The River Wild) turns into?

Violet Weston and her grand-daughter Jean Fordham
Indeed, what is the process by which a woman becomes a fury, a bitter force for hate in the world? Low self-esteem, disappointment in love, frustrated hopes, alcohol, drugs, disease all seem good enough reasons, but are they? And what steps may be taken to prevent the curse continuing through all the women and tainting the family forever?

(All photos from IMDb)

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