The Marvelous Mrs. Meryl: The Deer Hunter

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

At this point, it’s difficult to imagine that another performer will top Meryl Streep’s record for Oscar nominations in the acting categories. Over the past 45 years, she’s been nominated for either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress a combined 21 times. It’s a mind-blowing figure and while acting awards don’t mean everything, they certainly contribute to Streep’s status as one of the most gifted actresses in film history. Her first Oscar win came in 1980 for her work in the divorce drama Kramer Vs. Kramer but her first nomination came the year prior for a film that had nominations in 8 other categories and wins in 5. Though The Deer Hunter can be seen as a movie dominated by masculinity, Streep provides a crucial counterbalance in a role that helped shoot the young actress into stardom.

Set during the late 60s in the Southern Steel Valley near Pittsburgh, The Deer Hunter centers around the relationship between three close friends before, during and after their deployment in Vietnam. The leader of the trio is Mike (Robert De Niro), who everyone seems to instinctually follow out of the steel mill when the 5 o’clock bell has rung. Right by his side is Nick (Christopher Walken), who is housemates and likely best friends with Mike as well. Then there’s the soft-spoken Steven (John Savage), who may not have Mike or Nick’s assertiveness but has loyalty to spare, evidenced by the fact that he’s marrying Angela (Rutanya Alda) even though she’s pregnant with another man’s baby. Shortly after Steven and Angela’s spirited wedding, the three men go off to war and what they experience together alters their relationship with each other and their community forever.

Streep plays Linda, whose soft features and warm demeanor have captured the affection of both Mike and Nick. She’s introduced in The Deer Hunter adorn with a lovely bridesmaid’s dress while anxiously preparing a meal for her alcoholic and abusive father. In an attempt to flee from his monstrous presence, she asks Nick if she can stay at their house while they go on a hunting trip and later when they go overseas to fight. Later at the wedding, Nick returns the favor and hastily ups the ante with an even more serious question: asking if she’ll marry him. Even though glances across the dance floor imply that she also has feelings for Mike too, she excitedly says “yes” to Nick’s proposal and awaits their return home so they can have a wedding of their own.

The second act of the film largely centers on the three brothers in arms during their time in the Vietnam War, which leave each of them broken in different ways. Steven loses both of his legs due to a fall from a helicopter, while a PTSD-ridden Nick goes AWOL and recklessly drifts from one Chinese gambling den to another. Mike returns to his small hometown of Clairton and while Linda is overjoyed to see him, she is understandably worried about her absent fiancé. The final act is where Streep’s performance really shines, imbued with quiet yearning and shattering heartache that realigns the emotional core of the film. After Mike finds Linda crying in the grocery store where she works, Linda laments “did you ever think life would turn out like this?” to him in the car a moment later.

As it turns out, Streep may have been mining from ongoing personal experiences when crafting her Oscar-nominated performance. During the filming of The Deer Hunter, Streep was in a committed relationship with John Cazale, who also stars in the movie as one of Mike’s hunting buddies in his final film role. Tragically, Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer that quickly spread to his bones, a fact that he withheld from the production studio EMI because he was worried he would be pulled from the production for insurance reasons. Robert De Niro was fully behind his friend and co-star, threatening to walk if the EMI dismissed him from set and, as it was finally revealed just a few years ago, De Niro was the one who paid Cazale’s insurance premium so he could stay on. Since the clock was ticking, director Michael Cimino shot all of Cazale’s scenes first and sadly, Cazale passed shortly after filming wrapped.

Even though Streep and Cazale don’t share many scenes together in The Deer Hunter, the real-life events give both of their performances an added layer of sorrow even independent of one another. ”I was so close that I hadn’t noticed his deterioration,” Streep later said of Cazale. ”John’s death came as a shock to me because I didn’t expect it.” In the film, Linda doesn’t deal with the same circumstances that Streep had to travail off-set but her character does suffer heartbreak and loss all the same. When Linda first embraces Mike upon his arrival home, she lets out such a cry of relief and surprise that it hits the senses like a thunderbolt. But when she realizes that Nick isn’t going to make it back, her spirit sinks as high as it rose when Mike hugged her at their door. Streep doesn’t have an abundance of screen time in The Deer Hunter but she pours her heart into every second that she’s on screen.