Streep-Vs.-Barr girl-fight Case File #124: She-Devil

Streep-Vs.-Barr girl-fight Case File #124: She-Devil

 

When mean-spirited caricatures of Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold popped up in an episode of Duckman I caught a while back, I was struck by how completely Barr had faded from the public consciousness. I wonder if teenage readers of The A.V. Club even realize what an inescapable figure she was in the late '80s and early '90s.

In the giddy days of the first Bush era, Barr's sitcom Roseanne had the distinction of being one of the most revered shows on television. It became an institution, a pop-culture phenomenon hailed for featuring a cast that looked and sounded like its audience. In a sea of pretty people with glamorous pseudo-problems, Roseanne was an island of semi-gritty working-class realism.

Barr's ascent to the apex of superstardom was wildly unlikely, yet long overdue. With her nasal bray, shapeless K-Mart wardrobe, porcine figure, and lumpy features, she was about the furthest thing from a conventional television star. Yet Barr stood for something much greater than herself. Her rise represented the revenge of the repressed. She spoke for people who otherwise had no voice in pop culture, a great army of "domestic goddesses" ignored or marginalized by television and film. She articulated their concerns and anxieties with blunt candor. She introduced a new paradigm: the mad housewife as incendiary icon.

The problem for Barr, however, was that society loved Roseanne and hated Roseanne. Success forgives just about everything, but failure is unforgivable. For five consecutive years, Roseanne was a huge success, consistently one of the five most-watched television shows; its second season beat even the sainted Cosby Show for the number-one slot. As long as Roseanne kept making ABC great gobs of money, the network had to grudgingly tolerate her myriad eccentricities. By "myriad eccentricities," I of course mean "batshit craziness."

Barr forfeited much of her enormous cultural currency with a ninth and final season of Roseanne that lustily defecated on everything she and her collaborators had created. A show beloved for capturing the lives of average Americans with humor and pathos leaped from the mundane to the forehead-slappingly ridiculous with a plot twist that found her television family winning the lottery. It would be like The Office deciding, "Fuck it. Next season, Dunder Mifflin is a spaceship that goes on time-traveling adventures. And Michael Scott is an alien. Let's see who sticks around for that."

We as a culture like our plus-sized folks sassy or supportive, wisecracking or self-effacing. Above all else, we like our bonus-sized gals and guys to be sexless. We like to pretend that fat people reproduce asexually, like single-celled organisms or Mormons. Yet Barr shamelessly pushed her private life into the public sphere. She even made the guy she was fucking, a former factory worker named Tom Arnold, a celebrity by association. We will never forgive Barr for poisoning our collective consciousness with the mental image of her having filthy, filthy fat-person sex with Tom Arnold.

We expect people who don't conform to traditional notions of beauty to be humble, modest, and disproportionately grateful for whatever crumbs we throw them. Barr, on the other hand, wanted to be a rock star. She wanted to live out loud, to share everything with the world, whether it was formative sexual abuse she claimed to have suffered as a child, or her shifting views on religion and politics. She mud-wrestled with Tom Arnold in Vanity Fair photos, and like Cher, Prince, and Madonna, chose a one-word moniker, demanding the world just call her "Roseanne." While the world cried "Cover up, devil woman! Hide your shame for the sake of the children!" she posed for pictures like this:

Yes, I realize you can never unsee what you've just seen. In 1990, Roseanne's decades-long bid to irritate and enrage the sum of Western society scored perhaps its greatest, most pointless victory when she screeched her way through a "satirical" take on the "The Star Spangled Banner" and learned, surprisingly enough, that us Amurricans don't take too kindly to people mocking our terrible, unsingable, unlistenable national anthem.

In 1998, Roseanne segued gracelessly from one of the most successful sitcoms of all time to a talk show dedicated to the curious notion that Americans wanted nothing more than to spend an hour with an unfiltered, unhinged woman every single fucking day. When The Onion was just starting to make its presence felt nationally, its editor—my friend Rob Siegel—appeared on The Roseanne Show (or at least his voice did via a phone interview), and you could cut the crazy with a butcher's knife. Let's just say there are public-access shows where paranoid schizophrenics in clown suits conduct angry debates with the voices inside their heads that are more lucid and coherent than Roseanne's interview with Rob. From what little I saw of it, The Roseanne Show seemed like the quintessential inmate-run asylum. Nor do I think its insanity was accidental. I suspect that Roseanne pitched the show as "Me acting crazy for 60 minutes until the nice men with the butterfly nets come take me away or I'm booted off television, whichever comes first." For a taste of the madness, here's a piece my colleague Keith Phipps did on the show during its brief run.

Somewhere along the way, Roseanne tried to become a movie star, most notably in today's entry in My Year Of Flops, 1989's She-Devil, which paired our nation's hottest TV star (Roseanne) with its most acclaimed actress (Meryl Streep) and its second-most-impressive Ed Begley. (That would be Ed Begley Jr., not his Oscar-winning father.) It says a lot about the way Hollywood views Roseanne that her two biggest non-Roseanne roles were as a she-devil here, and a cow in Home On The Range.

Given Roseanne's place in pop culture, it's fitting that She-Devil introduces her as an ugly duckling in a world of swans, sad old Martha Dumptruck in a universe of perfectly put-together Heathers. She-Devil's early scenes have a satirical, Ross Hunter-like opulence that throws Roseanne's working-class ugliness into sharp relief.

We are soon immersed in the glossy, superficial realm of superstar novelist Meryl Streep, a woman who not only writes romance novels, but seems to live in one as well. In her world, the men are all handsome, the women are gorgeous, and love triumphs over all. It's a genius character, brilliantly executed. Streep speaks in a breathy coo that implicitly says, "Oh, you big strong man. What would I do without you?"

Roseanne crashes into Streep at an elite cocktail party where everyone else is dressed to the nines, while Roseanne wears a floral dress that makes her look like a couch in desperate need of reupholstering. When she gracelessly spills wine on Streep, Roseanne's accountant husband (Ed Begley Jr.) impresses the lady-author by recommending she get out the stain with salt and Perrier.

"Salt and Perrier? A man familiar with a woman's domain: I like that." Streep coos flirtatiously, conveying that she'd like Begley Jr. to explore her womanly domain in a more intimate fashion. It's lust at first sight. Trapped in her pink paradise, Streep finds the concept of a numbers-crunching family man hopelessly exotic and desirable.

When Begley drives Roseanne and then Streep home that night, Streep gazes rapturously at the soul-crushingly identical McHomes in Roseanne and Begley's neighborhood and contemplates the unfathomable joy that must come with being part of a struggling family in a generic neighborhood. "How lucky they all are!" she gushes.

Back at Streep's palatial estate, talk of finance quickly segues into pillow talk, and Streep and Begley Jr. end up in bed together. Begley Jr. sees Streep as both the ultimate sugar mama and the perfect exit strategy for his marriage to Roseanne.

After a disastrous dinner party where Roseanne accidentally presents Begley's horrified parents with an entrée garnished with one of her kids' dead pet gerbil, Begley tears into Roseanne. In a devastating long take, the camera focuses on Roseanne as Begley screams that she isn't even a woman, she's a she-devil.

Her face registers the inner torment of a woman breaking down. The long-suffering, uncomplaining good little wife is dying so that the inner bitch might live. It's the apex of Roseanne's performance. Alas, it's the only time she seems to be acting at all.

Before he leaves permanently for a cushy existence as Streep's lover, Begley explains to Roseanne, as only an accountant can, that he has four primary assets in his life—his home, his family, his business and his freedom—and one giant liability: her.

In that exhilarating moment, the battle lines are drawn. Roseanne takes Begley's speech about his assets to heart, but recontextualizes it as a list of things she must destroy. So she diligently sets about blowing up her house and everything inside it: her children's toys, her belongings, her husband's prized possessions, the whole nine yards.

Then she leaves her two obnoxious children in the care of Begley, Streep, and their two surly, disagreeable servants. (Streep is so spoiled and impractical that even her hired help are pampered.) Roseanne, meanwhile, gets a job at the nursing home that houses Streep's salty, rebellious mother (Sylvia Miles); she wants to spring her from her antiseptic-smelling prison and facilitate a reunion between Streep and her embarrassing liability of a matriarch.

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Americans claim to prize home, family, and motherhood above all else. So it takes chutzpah to ask audiences to root for a woman who blows up the family house, then abandons her children. It's perhaps the film's biggest miscalculation that Roseanne goes from sad-sack housefrau to raging feminist avenger without hitting any stages between. The film's source material, Fay Weldon's novel The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil, was also adapted for a British miniseries in 1986; that version apparently spent a lot more time fleshing out the mad-housewife character. Here, she comes off as a cipher, a woman whose personality shifts radically over the course of a single scene.

It doesn't help that Roseanne's screen time dwindles rapidly once she reinvents herself as a strong-willed businesswoman dedicated to helping other overlooked, marginalized women whom society has thrown away because they don't conform to popular notions of beauty. Throughout the film's underwhelming third act, Roseanne's presence is felt largely though flat, nasal, punishingly obvious voiceover narration like the following, about Streep's character:

"Mary Fisher lives in a palace by the sea. But her life is no longer a fairy tale now that Prince Charming works late every night."

"Sad Mary Fisher. She's learning that men who burn so hot for a mistress cool off fast once the mistress starts acting like a wife."

Roseanne's narration reeks of studio meddling. It's as if executives saw a rough cut of She-Devil and worried that Roseanne's fans were largely working-class, and consequently touched in the head, so they'd benefit from Roseanne spelling everything out for the slow kids.

Once Roseanne's revenge plot kicks off, she and Streep essentially change places. Roseanne becomes a tycoon-in-the-making after an awkward setting-up-a-business montage filmed in the fast-motion style popularized by Benny Hill. As a fast-forward traditionalist, I chafe at any wacky sped-up sequence that isn't set to "Yakety Sax." That kind of shit makes composer Boots Randolph weep great body-heaving sobs in his grave.

While Roseanne makes a suspiciously seamless transition from harried housewife to successful, empowered businesswoman, Streep makes an antithetical leap from successful, empowered businesswoman to harried housewife. Before Begley and Roseanne entered her life, Streep didn't have to worry about anything more serious than finding the perfect euphemism for man-fluid ("love nectar") and the clitoris ("love button"). Actually having to care for Roseanne's no-good Bebe's Kids humbles and humanizes Streep. In Pinocchio terminology, she stops being a fairy princess and becomes a real woman.

Streep does an amazing job conveying her character's transformation through body language alone. In the early scenes, she behaves as if an Entertainment Tonight crew is following her everywhere and will crucify her publicly if she betrays the slightest imperfection. But as she morphs from romance queen to domestic serf, her body language becomes hilariously casual and slapdash. There's a wonderful moment late in the film when a despondent Streep throws herself onto her bed so that she looks as graceless and accidental as a pile of dirty clothes.

Later, she's eating with a publishing-world crony convinced, with good reason, that her escapism-obsessed audience won't respond favorably to her latest book, a blue-collar ode to real love in the real world called Love In The Rinse Cycle, which contains an entire chapter just about laundry. When the Love In The Rinse Cycle doubter asks Streep if she has a gummi bear in her hair. Streep replies affirmatively, then gingerly, unselfconsciously eats the offending candy.

As in Adaptation, there's an additional kick in watching Meryl Streep, the timeless, unimpeachable great lady of American stage and cinema, reduced to behaving like one of the unwashed rabble. So why does She-Devil fall so flat as a feminist wish-fulfillment fantasy? Probably because Roseanne's character rings so false. Roseanne simply doesn't give us much to root for, and as the film progresses, her already wan, overmatched character gets fuzzier and more removed from reality.

I found a great deal to like about She-Devil, especially Streep's performance, but it's easy to figure out why it didn't find an audience. It deals with just about everything American film-goers traditionally don't want to think about: old people, fat people, ugly people, nursing homes, class, money, and the ever-present specter of death. Also, it involves a dog dying. As What Just Happened reminded the four people who saw it, moviegoers tend not to go for that, though it does lead to the film's biggest laugh, when Streep pauses to remember her dear departed poodle in front of its hilariously human-sized gravestone.

She-Devil failed to make Roseanne a movie star. For such a larger-than-life figure, Roseanne proved to have a curiously TV-sized presence. I'd keep an eye out for this Streep woman, though. She's got a bright future in the pictures, says I.

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