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The Dangerous Side of the Streep: Spiritual Lessons From Meryl and Margaret

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Those of us who are 50-plus identified way too closely with what has now become known as Meryl Streep's "senior moment." To a person, we squirmed uncomfortably when Meryl Streep forgot her glasses on the way to the podium of the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards. Only when she bravely soldiered on to give her speech by heart did any of us start breathing again.

Now, having seen the portrayal in the movie for which Streep was honored, I contend that both our discomfort and relief are kid stuff compared to her performance on the big screen. In fact, simply watching Streep play Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady required a growth spurt in regards to my own level of spiritual maturity.

I'd seen the previews of the film about Thatcher's life, taking away only snippets of Meryl as Margaret, both in their prime. Spines straight, hair to the full, forcefully swinging open the door not only to 10 Downing but the world stage. It's all there.

However, prepared as I was for a historical retelling of Thatcher's political drama, I got far more than I bargained for. In fact, I was taken completely by surprise when Streep as the aged, long-retired Thatcher, opens the film and then refuses to make the polite exit we've come to expect of the elderly in biographical cinema. Yes, indeed, it can be a melancholy thrill, indeed, to see one of our favorite actresses in wrinkle make-up and extra poundage in the cameo book-ending of a life story. But this version of Streep/Thatcher refused to slink off to the margins and behave.

In fact, this portrayal was not just a senior moment with which the Boomers in the TV audience identified, but an all-out assault on the very fact of our mortality. That Margaret Thatcher, one of the strongest women of our lifetimes, could actually suffer such a rocky transition off the world podium and into old age, not only centering on the physical decline, but mental, as well, and that Streep could actually find it in herself to play her so vulnerably and true, is an act of humility and gracious surrender that I have to stretch to even imagine.

I know that other actors have portrayed the elderly with honesty and courage. In this same awards season, Leonardo DiCaprio played J. Edgar Hoover through his late 70's. In the case of a DiCaprio, when you've got four decades between you and your subject, the young actor can dazzle us with his transformation and acting skill. The performance, however adept, can inform or entertain, but doesn't transform us. On the other hand, watching Meryl, in her sixties, be willing to dig down deep enough to play a woman in her 80's: this is not just an act of thespian prowess we're watching. This is an act of moral courage begging us to rise to the occasion with compassion and acceptance.

I would argue that the degree of courage Meryl brings to this role is exactly equivalent to the degree of resistance we have to aging as a whole, not only as expressed by popular culture but in the recesses of each of our own hearts. Those of us who have served as caregivers to our own aging parents know how easily it is that the lines blur between the decades beyond midlife. We identify with the challenges and losses age bring, and feel substantially older than our years. We catch passing glimpses of ourselves in shop windows and mirrors and think we are seeing our own mothers or grandmothers.

While my mother passed away some time ago, watching Meryl in this role brings up many of the same raw emotions. Like the memories drawn from our own pasts, this renewal of the painful confrontation with mortality on the big screen forces us to pay attention, even if we would prefer to look away. That Meryl could find it in herself to master the walk of an 80-year old woman so convincingly; that she could give expression to the confusion and regret of a lifetime; that someone of the magnitude of a Margaret Thatcher could have to deal with dementia in the first place, that none of us are ultimately immune from confrontation with the meaning of our lives, the choices we've made: It takes my breath away.

I survived the film, relieved to have caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror outside looking to be as I am, just in my sixties. And yes, I'd left my glasses in my chair and had to go back to retrieve them. So that's why I'm here to say that Meryl's senior moment and recovery at the podium is kid stuff, and that we should all feel a bit foolish at having squirmed at something as natural, human and yes, endearing, as all that in the first place.

I'm glad we all started breathing again. As Streep and Thatcher remind us, we've got a ways to go.

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