Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County is a play that demands histrionics from its actors. It is a smack-down between mother and daughter for the crown of loudest, spiteful, vengeful, soul sucking relative of all time. It isn’t so much a great play as it is an amalgamation of great theatrical influences. There are echoes of Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (and the famous Sydney Lumet version of 1962 featuring Katherine Hepburn) in the pain killer addiction of the family matriarch, a little of Tennessee Williams Southern Gothic turned Plains Angst in the sweltering Oklahoma heat, some eviscerating dialogue between mother and daughter that recalls the Mike Nichol’s directed Liz Taylor and Richard Burton slug-fest of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?. Dig further and hear some Beth Henley; maybe some Sam Sheppard who also plays the wizened, melancholic poet/patriarch.
The naked plot has an unexpected death, a suicide, as the motivation for an unwelcomed family reunion among the Weston clan of Pawhuska, Oklahoma – the cancer-ridden, drug-addled Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) and her three damaged daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis). August: Osage County won a Pulitzer and a Tony and by all accounts was a devastating night at the theaters. Letts did the stage to screen adaptation, chopping roughly an hour of script, amping up the melodramatic elements, opening it up slightly to the Oklahoma sunshine and giving moviegoers what they want: a little hope to match the overarching despair. This Osage County destroys the family stead with the small hope of recreating a better one. John Well’s contribution was to bring in two firecrackers in Roberts and Streep (and a good supporting cast) that can explode brightly in the ensuing fireworks.
This is a matriarchy where the women rule through denial, confrontation and timely tossed long dark secrets revealed. The men, an ineffectual bunch of closeted womanizers (Dermot Mulroney), feeble minded kin (Benedict Cumberbatch), or neutered voice of reason (Chris Cooper) are banished to the sideline, only to return to drag off a losing wife/daughter/fiancé in the escalating battle royal. The film directed with a steady and oddly light touch by John Wells (The Company Men) builds to an excruciating family dinner that has older daughter Barbara (Roberts) exerting her control over mama Violet (Streep) via choke hold. It is that old morphing dance of mothers blaming daughters for their sad life and daughters blaming mom for the same– and realizing they are their own greatest fear.
Meryl Streep as Violet enacts her role in full talon fury. Streep delights in tormenting her fellow actors like a vulture consuming and regurgitating road kill. Julia Roberts is Streep’s equal here. When Streep refuses to fight clean, Roberts drops the gloves and the resulting angry brawl produces the best performance of Roberts’s career. She has never been this angry or alive on-screen. Roberts utters one of my favorite movie lines this year: “Eat your damn fish, bitch!”
As New York Times critics A.O. Scott noted: “Acting” is an inadequate word for what the cast of this movie is doing. Maybe, in honor of one of the leading industries in the Sooner State, we should call it “fracting.” The application of enormous pressure is involved, a great quantity of subterranean gas is forced to the surface, and the environmental consequences are likely to be controversial.” Osage County can come off as a cast taking the short route to acting Oscar nominations. Lett’s melodramatic tendencies let the sex, incest and other cest-ualities develop a loony and Gothic soupiness—yet with enough black humor and mordant poetry to keep the whole enterprise at the edge of dramatic truth.
August: Osage County gets a B from me.