August: Osage County received nominations for Best Actress: Meryl Streep and Best Supporting Actress: Julia Robert.
Adapted by the playwright Tracy Letts, from his own play, August: Osage County makes the challenging shift from stage to screen. Unfortunately, it may have been better left to the stage. The trailer that has been playing over and over again on television is a bit misleading. It couples parts of dialogue together that do not below together. It also makes the film appear funnier than it really is. While there are funny moments in the film, we have to question whether it really is humorous or just plan mean.
The film begins with Beverly Weston (Sam Shepherd), a lonely poet hiring Johna (Misty Upham), a Native American woman to be the cook, nurse, and maid for his old farmhouse and for his sick wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). After hiring Johna, Beverly disappears. This disappearance is what sets the story in motion. It brings the family together to the old farmhouse in Osage County, Oklahoma.
The August, Oklahoma heat is not the only thing keeping the family members on edge. Violet, who is suffering from mouth cancer and is addicted to pain pills, is ruthless when it comes to sharing what she really thinks. As the family gathers around the table after Bev’s funeral, the insults, the anger, the name calling, and the “truth” telling begins.
Eventually the “truth” telling leads to dishes being broken, Violet being wrestled to the floor by her daughter, and pills being flushed down the toilet. Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margot Martindale) will drop another bomb onto the plot, which later we learn Violet knew about the whole time.
As Violet, Meryl Streep dominates the screen, which only reminds us why the story is better on the stage than on the screen. Streep has this innate ability of bringing pure horror to a character, while evoking pity for her from the audience. It is why she has received over eighteen Oscar nominations. But what makes Streep shine is her supporting cast. Of all the actors only Julia Roberts, as the eldest daughter Barbara, got an Oscars nomination.
The supporting cast is one of the best, and frankly makes the film tolerable. Within the first twenty to thirty minutes, we get a sense of who Violent is and that Violent is not going to change. But it is the supporting cast that gives us hope. Julia Roberts’ Barbara has her own set of struggles, a cheating husband (Ewan McGregor) and a teenager searching for her own place in the world (Abigail Breslin). A cancer-striken, pill addicted mother doesn’t help. Barbara is the only one, however, who is willing to speak up, break a dish or two, and really tell her mother what she thinks. Not unlike Violet.
Barbara enters the story with a guilty conscience, feeling that the situation and the drama is somehow her fault. Violent does not give up the chance to tell Barbara that its her fault, either. “You were his favorite,” Violent tells her daughter, implying that she is Violent’s rival in the family.
The other two sisters are Ivy (Julianna Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Karen is the baby of the family who left home to sow wild seeds. She brings one of them home with her as her fiance, who makes advances on Barbara’s daughter. Ivy is the middle daughter who never left home. She was left to care for her mother, while dealing with her own medical issues of not being able to have children.
Ivy is the older son in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, while Barbara and Karen are the younger son. Ivy hangs on to bitterness towards her sisters, mostly Barbara, for leaving her behind. No one knows about her secret love for Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), which largely represents the fact that no one really knows her. Ivy has remained faithful to the work at hand, unable to successfully carve out her own life, her own happiness, or her own healing.
Violet reveals in one of her “truth” telling moments how cruel her mother was to her and to Mattie Fae. It is one of the rare moments when Mattie Fae is silent. It is clear that pain riddled their childhood, just has it as for Barbara, Ivy, Karen, and Little Charles. Mattie Fae shows her true colors when Little Charles arrives late to the funeral. Charlie (Chris Cooper) stands up to Mattie Fae telling her that she doesn’t start treating their son with more respect, he is going to leave.
Chris Cooper is one of the best, and I think was overlooked for an Oscar nomination. He is the new, gentle, patriarch of the family. He is the calm presence in the midst of the dysfunction and chaos under Violet’s control. He is also the loving and proud father, offering Little Charles love and advice, where he does not get it from the rest of the family, except from Ivy.
While there are connections to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, what seems to be missing is the loving father. Beverly disappears too early in the film, and Violet is drunk, high, angry, or a combination of all three. Ivy as the eldest son ends up driving off. Barbara and Karen, though they are the prodigals who returned home, leave too. The Forgiving Father is Johna, the hired cook, nurse, and maid. She is the healer, offering unconditional love to Violet as she holds her and rocks her. It is the films only major, significant scene.