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What I Should Have Said to Meryl Streep
July 6, 2009
It happened maybe 15 years ago. Howard Phillips and I were standing in line at a theater, hoping to get tickets to a play. I don't recall where we were. Probably in New York City.
I happened to glance behind me. There was Meryl Streep.
I think she is the best movie actress of all time. This does not make me unique. That is a common opinion. There are a couple of leading men who could give her a run for the money. Daniel Day-Lewis. Robert Duvall. That's about it.
What impressed me was that she looked young. The woman never seems to age. I have this vision of a self-portrait of her on her wall, wrinkled like a prune.
I am semi-paranoid about my privacy. So, I don't say anything when I find myself in close proximity to celebrities. They spend their lives being hounded. I once stood next to Elton John. We were waiting for a cab in front of a swank motel. I was at a conference. Otherwise, a Super 8 is good enough for me. What could I have said to him? I have never seen him perform. The sight of him persuades me to click the channel-flipper. So, I said nothing.
I was not tempted to say anything to Ms. Streep. So, I turned around and began chatting with Howard.
I might have said, "You never seem to age. I thought it was camera work. It isn't. It's depressing to the rest of us." That's true, but I didn't say it.
These people get wild praise and fawning fans. What does one more fan mean? But, I could have said what I Jack Lemmon said made his day. A fan would approach him and say: "I never once felt cheated after spending my five bucks to see you in a movie." I had the ultimate follow-up. "I even liked Time After Time." Nobody remembers Time After Time. It was Lemmon's one attempt at a hit record. It missed. I think it came out in 1962. There is not a trace of it on the Web. It consisted of three words: time after time, strung together in a melody I can still hum: mindless. It was silly enough as a concept to be amusing.
Then I would have walked away: no chat.
Movie stars get fans telling them they loved this or that favorite movie. What is the actor to say? "Thanks." Then what? The fan wants to talk. The celebrity doesn't.
Celebrities really can't judge if their work is any good, based of what fawning fans say. That's a curse. He makes money, but popularity can disappear fast.
A person who is really good at something has his peers to evaluate his work. Their judgment counts. Or a highly skilled use of whatever it is the craftsman produces has an opinion worth taking seriously.
I should have told her that I always felt I got my money's worth after seeing her on screen, which is true. Also, I am an expert in what I like. My opinion on her comparative skills with all other actresses is worth approximately nothing. My view on always getting my money's worth has standing.
The key would have been to turn around after that and ignore her. That would have proven that I meant what I said. I wasn't just looking for a chance to chat with a celebrity. Besides, what could I have chatted with her about? Her views on Alar?.
Years later, I was with Phillips again. We were watching a performance of Bobby Short, the Cole Porter master interpreter. We were in D.C. At intermission, I spotted Jim Lehrer, the PBS News Hour man. This time, I was determined to say something. I followed him into the lobby. Now, this was Washington. Fans are supposed to be cool. There were no autograph seekers. I went up to him and said this: "Authors never know if their books are really any good. Your autobiography is one of the best I have ever read." This was true.
Then I added a zinger: "My only regret is that I never heard you do your Greyhound bus destination list." He had written that he worked for Greyhound, and that he had a masterful announcement. He even did it at parties 30 years later. I knew he would know I had read the book. He said: "Maybe you'll get a chance sometime." I walked away.
This way, he knew I was serious about his book, A Bus of My Own, which I was. I wasn't after chat.
I also didn't tell him I paid a buck for it at a remainder sale. No use reminding him that it didn't do well.
Celebrities deserve to be left alone. If they have done anything truly exceptional, they are entitled to brief, specific praise from people with no ulterior motive, preferably people with enough knowledge to be able to assess their performance. I am not competent to judge Lehrer's professional skills as a newscaster, although they seem good to me. I am in a position to assess his ability as a writer.
Lehrer's book is incredibly important because of one incident he records. I reported on it here. It had to do with Kennedy's assassination.
Just before the plane was scheduled to leave Fort Worth for the short flight to Dallas, the rewrite man, Stan Weinberg, asked me if the bubble top was going to be on the presidential limousine. It would help to know now, he said, before he wrote the story later under pressure. It had been raining early that morning, and there was some uncertainty about it.
I told Stan that I would find it. I put the phone down and walked over to a small ramp where the motorcade limousines were being held in waiting. I spotted Forrest Sorels, the agent in charge of the Dallas Secret Service office. I knew Mr. Sorrels fairly well, because I was then the regular federal beat reporter. . . .
I looked down the ramp. The bubble top was on the president's car.
Rewrite wants to know if the bubble top's going to stay on, I said to Mr. Sorrels, a man of fifty or so who wore dignified glasses and resembled a preacher or bank president.
He looked at the sky and then hollered over at one of his agents holding a two-way radio in his hand. What about the weather downtown? he asked the agent.
The agent talked into his radio for a few seconds, then listened. Clear, he hollered back.
Mr. Sorrels yelled back at the agents standing by the car: "Take off the bubble top!"
Just over twelve hours later, I was part of the bedlam at the Dallas police station along with hundreds of other reporters. I went into the police chief's outer office to await the breakup of a meeting in Chief Jesse Curry's main office. I had no idea who was in there.
The door opened and out walked several men. One of them was Forrest Sorrels. He looked tired and sad. And bewildered. He saw me and I moved toward him. His eyes were wet. He paused briefly, shook his head slightly and whispered, "Take off the bubble top."
I will someday include this in a book on history: the "what if" phenomenon -- the inherent unpredictability of events.
If you see someone who is a true master, take a couple of minutes to tell him that you recognize his performance skills with respect to something specific. If you have expertise in the field, tell him that, too. Then leave.
Why? Because masters need encouragement from people with no ulterior motive.