What ‘August: Osage County’ really teaches women
By Julia Siedlanowska, Staff Writer
Has the term “mommy issues” been coined? If it hasn’t yet been majorly popularized, August: Osage County certainly gives us a reason to use it.
Based on the play by Tracy Letts, the script itself can be described as a dark comedy. However, the film adaptation leans a little too much on the dramatic side of things. Directed by John Wells, the movie stars Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Juliette Lewis. Although it did not blow me away into a fantastic feminist coma of pleasure, it still passed the Bechdel test.
The story is about a highly dysfunctional family headed by the tyrannical Violet (played by Meryl Streep) since the disappearance of her alcoholic husband Beverly (played by Sam Shepard). In a crisis, the family comes together to tear into each other and confront Violet’s raging addiction to prescription drugs. The effects of Violet’s dark past are visible within the decisions of her three daughters as they are faced with their own seemingly miserable lives.
It’s difficult for me to praise the film because of the lack of catharsis I felt after it was over. I cannot argue that this is a major factor in responding to a work of art. Although I can see the film’s merits, it pales in comparison to the staged version. Seeing the possibilities for comedy with a bawdier acting style (allowed on the stage, but missing from the movie) left me depressed, and the film’s focus on the pain and suffering of the characters offered little relief. It’s not that kind of extreme pain you feel in Blue Valentine either, when you know it’s good. It’s the kind of dull sadness you get from a truth you’ve already seen. Perhaps it was the close-ups on Roberts’ all too familiar “Hollywood Sweetheart” face that didn’t quite convince me. Where the final image on the stage is—without giving anything away—striking, with a collapsed figure in the middle of the diseased house, the same feeling we get from that image is lost in the film, giving way to a cop-out added scene of Roberts’ driving away into the sunset, so to speak.
The film has its positives and its negatives, from a feminist perspective. The cast is predominantly female with the leading characters being women. Hurray! When they are not talking about their husbands, boyfriends, or father, they talk about their relationships with each other or with their mother. It does remain a family drama however, with domestic issues rarely branching out into more expansive themes. Although part of the plot involves indigenous people’s issues (“You can’t play ‘cowboys and Indians,’ it’s called ‘cowboys and native Americans’”), this is about as far as it goes.
The play gives some very meaty roles to women, with Streep’s and Roberts’ obviously standing out as the heftiest. More importantly, it gives meaty roles to older women. “Women get ugly when they’re old,” says Streep’s character, a pertinent statement in the film. Violet continually harasses her daughters over losing their beauty or not taking advantage of it at all, revealing her own self-hatred in a world where only sex and youth are desired by men. Although the statement itself is a negative one, acknowledging the cultural belief that women get ugly when they are old and that “men can preserve their sex appeal well into old age” is something positive in film. Becoming one with the idea and laughing about it is, I believe, one of the first steps to changing it. Disassociating oneself from the idea of needing to be beautiful to a man is freeing, giving way to the possibility of finding alternate values and definitions of beauty.
The film—although roughly the same length as the play—skimmed over some details and was too dreary and single-toned to elicit any emphatic praise. Although it doubtlessly passed the Bechdel test, I wasn’t wowed. The drama still remains centred around family-based issues, and does not create an innovative female role model capable of helping herself to evoke real change—the crooked smile and walk away by Roberts just wasn’t enough.
I think I’d rather be left with hard-hitting pessimism to scare me into changing. I am grateful that the characters were so fleshed out and that the film deals with mother and daughter issues, but I’m going to hold out gushing for something that knocks the stereotypes out of the park.