Tracy Letts‘s August: Osage County is the 2000s love child of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee and younger brother of Sam Shepard. And equally, no surprise to find Shepard playing said patriarch, Beverly Weston, since it’s the sort of work he’d have killed to write. In fact, his character thinks much the same.
For John Wells‘s film version, it’s small wonder that fine actors were falling over themselves to get roles in the rich stew of conflictual dialogue that issues forth in a dysfunctional family gathering over the funeral of the patriarch following his untimely suicide – almost a sequel to Cat On A Hot Tin Roof but with Big Mama instead of Big Daddy.
You could tell la Streep was itching to get her teeth sunk into a good meaty matriarch role, and here it was, topped up with pills, wigs and OTT lunacy and overacting of the kind only a great actress could pull off and still get nominated for Oscars. As said of another play in another context, the characters here spend their time trying to grab the cow by the horns.
In fact, the fun here is that there is barely a sane sole to be seen in the extended Weston family – they’re all mad as hatters and with enough skeletons in their respective closets to fill a cemetery. Did those who bought into the family by marriage have the faintest idea what they were letting themselves in for? Either way, the tendrils of madness have infected them all.
But then, the critics, surly beasts that they are, criticised the film for its propensity to self-indulgent overacting; either that or the cast are swept along with the tide and behave competitively as you would expect for such a stellar ensemble. Fact is that the better performances are those that offer the greatest restraint, up to the point where they can stand it no more.
Therefore, I commend to you three such: Ewan McGregor‘s bewildered Bill Fordham, separated husband of Julia Roberts‘s steely but intuitive Barbara Weston-Fordham and co-parent of 14-year old Jean (Abigail Breslin.) As a separated couple trying to pull together for the benefit of the family, they have their moments, such that you always know there is more than meets the eye, but they don’t fool the matriarch. He is supportive while never quite comprehending the nature of the vortex in which Barbara and mother Violet swirl, while she has the same mean streak and takes it out on those around her.
Both are fine performances, though my personal favourite is Chris Cooper‘s Charles Aiken, husband of Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale doing a deceptively jovial act to conceal a deep secret that it turns out Violet knew all along.) Cooper is a fine character actor, one I admired greatly in American Beauty and Capote precisely because he makes every word count. Here we first appreciate his wisdom as he tries to encourage his son “little Charlie” (blubbing inadequacy being an unusual emotion for the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch) to get his shit together.
There are many more members of the extended Weston family, but forgive me if I don’t list them all alphabetically. It would however be fair to say all the characters, except the maid Johnna Monevata (the tragically deceased Misty Upham) have an arc; almost none end up in the same place they started, metaphorically. Perhaps too much to expect that they end up wiser, but they have certainly been on a journey from which there is no return.
By the end, so does the audience, much as I felt when watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for the first time, in that the playwright has been leading me by the hand along a path towards self-deception. Everyone knows more than we viewers, whatever they pretend to one another.
The politics of extended family life are cut open and displayed in all their gory technicolour details, like a verbal and behavioural autopsy leaving its victim pinned open for viewing. No surprise then that the film ends with Roberts’ Barbara driving away in her truck across the plains of Oklahoma towards Wichita, Kansas, slightly to the alarm of her remaining family.
Rather than saying anything else, I’ll let you form your own conclusions, though I feel sure many would choose not to intrude. After all, it is we, the audience, are the trespassers in this meaty saga, and for some that will be ample evidence of the need to turn vegetarian.