Hannah McGill: Floored by Meryl Streep’s irresistible logic

Streep at the premiere of Hail, Caesar! in Berlin. Picture: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty
Streep at the premiere of Hail, Caesar! in Berlin. Picture: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty
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IT’S an interesting fact about actors that even the ones who are frequently “typecast” don’t necessarily resemble in real life the kind of people they best embody onscreen.

So Woody Allen, ever the nervy, funny nebbish on camera, is cold and confident in person; meaty action heroes Sylvester Stallone and Vin Diesel are by all accounts sensitive intellectuals; and Meryl Streep, so often cast as knowing, tough and haughty, gives the impression of actually being a bit of a madcap flake.

Streep is chairing the jury at the Berlin Film Festival, the biggest European film event after Cannes. At the opening press conference last week, Streep was asked about the fact that unlike the awards they will present – the Golden Bear and several Silver Bears – the jury members come in one colour only: white.

An option for Streep would have been to say something like, “Change can take time, and since the Berlinale welcomes films, filmmakers and delegates from every corner of the globe, it’s overall part of the solution rather than part of the problem – but we need to keep having the conversation, so thank you for raising it.” Another option would have been, “I don’t choose the rest of the panel. I’m Meryl Streep. My job is to show up, be more fabulous than you and get goodie bags.”

But Meryl writes her own script, dammit; and what she said was “We’re all Africans really!” Technically true, of course, but perhaps the clumsiest assertion of identity to be made by a famous person in Berlin since John F Kennedy supposedly claimed to be a jam doughnut – and a lot less endearing, at least to the sizable community of onlookers to whom intransigence in the face of its diversity problem represents the greatest threat to mainstream Hollywood’s relevance.

Still, you’ve almost got to admire La Streep for the sheer ditziness of her response. Actors Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine were widely accused of highlighting nothing but unthinking privilege with their comments about the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations. The Coen brothers – whose new film Hail, Caesar! opened the Berlinale – sounded high-handed and defensive when they ridiculed the supposed pressure for films to feature “four black people, three Jews and a dog”.

But Streep’s declaration ingeniously shuts down the whole debate, by rejecting out of hand the whole concept of race. Look back far enough, and there was only one race; and if there’s only one race, there’s no racism – right? This opens up thrilling new possibilities for dealing with any and all accusations of bias, prejudice or inequality. Accused of sexism? Simply point out that genitals don’t form until the seventh week of gestation, so we are all agender if you go back far enough. Suffer from the perception that you have no idea what poverty or social disadvantage are like because you went to Eton, inherited a baronetcy and married a fellow millionaire? The criticism is clearly invalid because there didn’t used to be any such thing as money!

The Streep defence works for anything. Don’t agree with me? Well, you would if different opinions had never been invented. See?

Humphrys can’t beat the rap

COFFEE was spat out across the nation last week when Radio 4 sourpuss John Humphrys spontaneously performed a little rap as part of a Today programme about grime music. Rap no longer counts as a new-fangled or cutting edge art form, since it’s knocking 40, grandparents are into it and its most celebrated practitioners are trillionaires – and yet inept attempts to do it can still make people look silly. Some examples of poor rapping count as classics. Debbie Harry’s effort on the 1979 Blondie single Rapture, for instance, is an oddly endearing and historically significant contribution to the genre. British children of the 80s share a perverse affection for John Barnes’s earnest contribution to New Order’s 1990 World Cup song World In Motion. Other artists, however, have made it agonisingly clear that good rapping is even harder to pull off than good singing – and can’t be improved by an Autotune. Back when fictional presidential races were more bizarre than real ones, Warren Beatty did some memorably cringe-making old-white-man rapping in the film Bulworth. Humphrys can comfort himself, however, with the fact that bad rapping cuts across social and racial divides – supercool black men can be heinously bad at it too, as you’ll know if you’ve ever seen Idris Elba giving it a go.

Jeremy by name…

SINGER James Blunt – who spends rather more time on Twitter than I would if I could afford a jet-ski – has nobly declared that he’s handed his “Cockney rhyming slang title” to the Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt. It was BBC presenter Jim Naughtie who famously succumbed to a Freudian slip when introducing Hunt, back when the latter was Culture Secretary. Now that Hunt’s mission to discredit and destabilise a precious workforce has made him one of Britain’s least-liked men, it’s safe to say that for many, the rhyme springs to mind more readily than his actual name. One would almost pity him, if he didn’t come across as such a…