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The Singularity of August: Osage County

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If one of the major themes of this year's film awards contenders is the "lone survivor" (to invoke the title of the most recent movie about a stranded protagonist, after All Is Lost, Captain Phillips and Gravity), August: Osage County explores the opposite scenario: perhaps one feels most alone in a family that does cruel things in the name of love. When it comes to the blistering depiction of domestic secrets, betrayals and recriminations, the film adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play offers a cornucopia of powerhouse performances.

While some might be surprised to find August: Osage County marketed as a comedy, the film version directed by John Wells is laced with some very dark humor indeed. A real ensemble piece, it gives most of its thirteen characters opportunities to huff, puff and blow the proverbial house down, 'Oklahoma Gothic' style. By the movie's end, delusions, denials and lies are bared by actors at the peak of their craft.

These include Meryl Streep as Violet Weston, the eviscerating matriarch whose husband has just disappeared. Suffering from mouth cancer while hurling toxic words at her family, Violet takes drugs as well as potshots at daughters played by Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson.

I interviewed a few of the cast members this past month and learned how their talent enhanced what is ultimately a very high-class soap opera. At Manhattan's 92nd Street Y, a preview of August: Osage County in my "Reel Pieces" series was followed by an onstage interview with Juliette Lewis and Abigail Breslin -- who plays the daughter of Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor -- the night before the cast received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for "Best Film Ensemble."

When Breslin (best known for her Oscar-nominated role in Little Miss Sunshine) was asked about actors that had inspired her, she recalled seeing Conviction (2010) in which an actress was "just incredible" playing the trashy girlfriend of a man in jail. "It was Juliette Lewis," she said, to her co-star's visible surprise onstage.

And Lewis praised Streep: "Meryl gives you hope. She is this groovy, down-to-earth person who has a family, treats the crew with respect, and has no airs: she dives in the deep end. She shows me it can be done and for a long time. No one works harder, gives more or commits stronger than Meryl Streep."

I also moderated an onstage conversation for the SAG Foundation with Margo Martindale, the terrific actress who plays Violet's sister Mattie Fae, married to soft-spoken Charles (Chris Cooper). Given that the playwright is also an actor, she explained how the screenplay of August: Osage County needed no improvisation because the dialogue was so "actable."(As Juliette Lewis put it, "Material this good is liberating... the gift you look for in a career. It might happen once in a decade. We would run scenes, wanting to nail that rhythm, to not miss a beat.")

Martindale also shared Tracy Letts' confession of how autobiographical the story was, based on the life of his verbally lashing grandmother after his grandfather's suicide. When he first showed the lacerating play to his mother, she allegedly said, "you've been very kind."

Seeing the film with an audience of 800 people turned out to be a different experience from watching it in a small screening room weeks earlier. Onscreen behavior that elicited uncomfortable smiles from critics at a press screening was greeted by waves of laughter from a crowd.

Given that August: Osage County has received mixed reviews from major urban newspapers, the film might be suffering from metropolitan snobbery. Histrionics that seem melodramatic in front of a dozen reviewers can be hilarious with a large audience. For some, the laughter that greeted the ferocious lines of the extended Weston clan might have resulted from a glimmer of recognition; for others, it was a reminder of how gifted actors can render a terrifying family dinner in terms of liberating humor.

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Annette Insdorf, Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University, is the author of books including Francois Truffaut, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, Philip Kaufman and Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (which has just been reissued by Northwestern University Press).