THE CONTENDER: A Cry In The Dark (1988)
Number of Nominations: 1 – Actress in a Leading Role (Meryl Streep)
Number of Wins: 0
As this column continues to wind its way through 90+ years of Oscar-nominated movies, we’re going to be seeing a lot of Meryl Streep. A lot. She’s been nominated for 21 Academy Awards, more than any other performer in film history. And assuming she remains healthy and doesn’t suddenly forget how to act for some reason, it’s reasonable to assume she’ll get a few more.
Because she’s such a fixture at the Dolby Theatre (and, prior to that, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Shrine Auditorium), it’s easy to take her work for granted. There have been occasions when her name has been read as a nominee and you can sense a sort of collective eye-roll in the room. It’s as if we all assume that it’s part of her contract whenever she signs on to a new project. As long as she shows up to work every day, she’ll get a nomination.
You can trace the origins of Streep Fatigue back to her 8th nomination, 1988’s A Cry In The Dark (known in its native Australia as Evil Angels). At the age of 39, she was already an Oscar favorite, having won twice. Certainly no one begrudged her any of those honors, but her nomination for the previous year’s Ironweed was the first time she (and co-star Jack Nicholson) was singled out for elevating a movie that was not unanimously praised. A Cry In The Dark would mark the first time (although not the last) that Meryl Streep would be the sole nominee representing her film.
Even at the time, A Cry In The Dark wasn’t a particularly popular movie. Today, it’s best remembered (when it’s remembered at all) for the episode of Seinfeld when Elaine, trapped at a hellish party, tells an annoying woman that “maybe the dingo ate your baby”. Even there, based on comments I’ve seen online, a surprisingly large number of people don’t realize that’s a deep-cut reference to a movie. They seem to think it’s just a non-sequitur.
None of this is to suggest that A Cry In The Dark isn’t a good movie. In fact, it’s an unusual and quite gripping movie, ably directed by Fred Schepisi. Based on a true story, Streep stars as Lindy Chamberlain, alongside Sam Neill as her husband, Richard. While on holiday at Ayers Rock, the Chamberlains’ nine-week-old daughter, Azaria, disappears, seemingly abducted by a dingo, although only Lindy actually saw the animal. Hope quickly fades that the girl will be found alive, so the police and coroner’s office begin searching for evidence to establish the cause of death. The case turns into a national cause célèbre, with members of the press tripping over each other to run wildly speculative stories and everything from Lindy’s aloof exterior to the Chamberlains’ Seventh-day Adventist religious beliefs scrutinized and judged in the court of public opinion.
Schepisi makes a number of interesting choices in his unfolding of the tale. The movie starts out somewhat languidly, taking its time to get to know not just the characters and their lives but also the surrounding environment and people. Australia itself is very much a character in the film. Within 15 minutes, we have a very clear sense of the place and its people.
Events continue to unfold leisurely through the initial search for Azaria and the Chamberlains’ return home. It isn’t until the press enters the picture that Schepisi picks up the pace. Suddenly, things start happening very quickly. The passage of time is barely remarked upon, even as the movie starts jumping ahead months at a time with only subtle visual cues like Streep’s changing hairstyle to cue us in. We see the rumor mill at work through a series of quick check-ins with random Australians discussing the case on the street, at work, and at dinner parties. They’re almost never the same people twice. These sequences are a little bit longer and meatier than your average montage but still more rapid-fire than the surrounding scenes. On occasion, Schepisi will even cut to or away from these brief scenes in mid-sentence, adding to the sense of dislocation.
Fred Schepisi came up through the so-called “golden age” of Australian cinema, alongside such figures as George Miller, Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong. But he never quite established his own identity as a filmmaker, remaining something of a journeyman throughout his career. Most of his films are good or very good, including Barbarosa, The Russia House, Six Degrees Of Separation and the HBO miniseries Empire Falls. But even when his films flirt with greatness, as in Steve Martin’s Cyrano update Roxanne, it’s because Schepisi is smart enough to get out of the way and let those elements really shine. Honestly, there’s something very refreshing about a filmmaker who puts himself in service to the story and not the other way around.
With A Cry In The Dark, Schepisi knows exactly how he wants to tell this particular story. It’s easy to imagine a version of this movie that casts doubt on Lindy Chamberlain’s explanation of events. But Schepisi presents everything in such a matter-of-fact way that we never doubt her for a second. We may, in hindsight, second-guess some of her later decisions, such as making herself available for interviews, especially when she’s so unbending in the way she presents herself publically. But we never think she’s guilty of murder.
Streep is outstanding in a complex role that somehow manages to be both sympathetic and unsympathetic at once. At the time, Streep’s reputation as the Queen of All Accents somewhat overshadowed the rest of what she accomplishes with the role (although, for the record, her Australian accent is impeccable). It’s impossible not to feel for a woman who has lost a child. But Lindy’s strict religious beliefs seem to make her recover far more quickly than most. For many people in the audience, and certainly for most Australians at the time, this makes her seem unfeeling. But Streep manages to open a window that allows us to see her real emotions. It’s a remarkable performance.
Sam Neill, a reliable and criminally undervalued actor who makes every performance seem effortless, is more than up to the challenge of playing opposite Streep. If his role hadn’t been quite so underwritten, he likely would have received an Oscar nod of his own (as of this writing, Neill has yet to receive a single nomination). But the script (co-written by Schepisi and Robert Caswell) isn’t nearly as concerned with Richard. He remains a bit of a cipher, never questioning his wife’s story and mostly just watching in disbelief as events happen around him. Neill gets a few good moments and he makes the most of them but everyone involved seems to agree that it’s Meryl Streep’s show.
I think it’s fair to say that Meryl Streep was considered the longshot at the 1989 ceremony. Her competition included Jodie Foster (who won for The Accused), Sigourney Weaver (a double nominee that year in both the Leading and Supporting categories), ingénue Melanie Griffith, and Glenn Close, probably Streep’s closest peer and contemporary. Up against that lineup, Streep’s work in a dark, kind of weird Australian docudrama never stood a chance. But don’t feel too badly for her. She won plenty of other accolades for this role, including Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, and we’d be seeing plenty more of her at the Oscars soon enough.
A Cry In The Dark is available on DVD and Digital from Warner Home Video.