By Stephanie Zacharek
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The vastness of America makes the land fertile with suspicion. Endless space separates citizens from settlers, urbanites from rural folk, believers in one thing from believers of something else. Cinema is an artifact of that national distrust — the class divides in Double Indemnity, the racial tensions in West Side Story, the hidden lives in Brokeback Mountain — and of its inevitable side effect: the restless, never-ending search for the Real America.
Every year, that search continues through Hollywood's annual stab at the Great American Film. With Django Unchained and Beasts of the Southern Wild, the South and the open sore of racial inequality dominated last year's efforts. This year, the search moves west to the Great Plains, specifically the wind-flattened, never quite hospitable states of Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Perennial Academy favorite Alexander Payne represents the Cornhuskers in Nebraska, while TV-journeyman-turned-Oscar-underdog John Wells finds the knobby, hardened heart of the Sooner State in August: Osage County. Interestingly, the two family dramas hew closely to gendered norms: Payne's father-son pair roams the Midwest, while the mother-daughter conflicts in Wells's film play out in a claustrophobic house where "the air doesn't move."
Since the '90s, Wells's name has been an imprimatur of quality television, stamped on shows like ER, The West Wing, Southland, and Showtime's underrated Shameless. After his promising film debut, the 2010 downsizing drama The Company Men, Wells was enough of a known quantity in Hollywood for Harvey Weinstein to handpick him to adapt August: Osage County for the big screen. It's probably the congenial 57-year-old industry veteran's ability to balance many different characters and personalities that helped him set aside his ego and immerse himself in Tracy Letts's Pulitzer-winning play, the "flat, hot nothing" of Oklahoma's plains, and the world of warring women.
August: Osage County begins with the suicide of alcoholic poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard). He leaves behind his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), whose mouth "burns" from cancer, and three daughters (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson). Before Beverly's body is even found, his wife and eldest daughter Barbara (Roberts) accuse each other of being responsible for his death. They're both right, at least in part. Violet is a pill addict and meaner than the devil. Barbara abandoned her parents for the bright(er) lights of Boulder, and her lack of ambition became a disappointment to her parents.
"There's an archetypal nature to the family and the different generations," Wells explains. "But it's also about a specific place and a time in that place and how people in that place developed."
Part of what drew Wells to the project, in addition to its black wit, was the indelible localness of the play. (Letts was born in Tulsa and raised three hours from there.) "In Oklahoma, there's a very strong history of powerful matriarchal societies because of how difficult the work was," Wells clarifies. "Particularly during the turn of the previous century, through the oil and gas exploration years [of the 1910s and 1920s], the men were very infrequently at home. So the women had to deal with some very harsh conditions while the men were working in fields quite a ways away. And some of the hardships of the Dust Bowl years, the Depression years, how poor and difficult it was, that was passed on to their children."
August: Osage County, explains Wells, is "really about breaking that cycle. Will Barbara recognize that she is turning into her mother? Will she find the strength to break that cycle so she can get to her own life and also hopefully not allow that to be passed on to her own daughter?"
To accurately capture the burden of the past on the Weston family, Wells shot on location in north-central Oklahoma. Even the characters' home, a creaky, sun-bleached homestead, is a relic of that hardscrabble history. "That's actually a house that was a Sears kit house, bought from a Sears catalogue in the 1920s for $670 or so and brought out there on a boxcar and then a truck. All through the Midwest and the Plains and the West you'll find those kinds of homes from that period."
Though the film has a decidedly female focus, Wells shies away from dwelling on the film's gender dynamics. "Whether it be matriarchal or patriarchal," he says, inter-generational malaise is "a recurring theme in all of American [theater] literature, frontier literature, and many of our strongest and most powerful plays, from [Eugene] O'Neill to Tennessee Williams. This film is really about how people behave within families, as we separate and move out across the country."
Despite the richness of historical and psychological insight in Letts and Wells's drama, it's probably the impressive cast — rounded out by Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, and Dermot Mulroney — that is the film's biggest draw. Yet no star shines in the film as much as a startlingly shambling Streep, who was the first to be cast. "Nobody works harder than Meryl," Wells confesses.
So what's it like directing the great Meryl Streep? Wells says his job was not to tell her — or any of his actors — how to perform a scene: "When you're working with a talented cast like this, it's much more like you're the conductor of a small chamber orchestra and every one of the musicians is unbelievably talented on their instrument. So I'm not telling [Meryl] how to play the violin. I'm suggesting, ooh, right there, it needs to be balanced more toward this because of what else is happening at the same time. Because she's just performing her own instrument. But it was a total pleasure."
If Streep is a surefire Oscar bet, Wells demurs on his own chances of winning one of those golden statuettes. "The real value of any of the awards is that it puts a seal of approval on something," he says. "I'm uncomfortable talking about [the Academy Awards] in these terms, but if it leads more people to actually going to see [our film] and experience the work that we did, then I'm delighted that anybody's talking about it."
The director's radical humility feels incongruous with his ambition of making the Great American Film, but gentility and grace have brought him this far. And if they're enough to take him to the top of Hollywood, Wells may prove himself a pioneer in the most cutthroat town in the West.
August: Osage County
Smokehouse Picturesin theaters December 25
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