A little less than a year ago, just before the inauguration of Donald Trump, Meryl Streep accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes ceremony in Los Angeles, using her speech to castigate the president-elect for his treatment of the press during the presidential campaign, especially a disabled New York Times reporter.
“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing,” she said to a crowd of her largely supportive peers. “Disrespect invites disrespect; violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” She concluded by rallying support for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Streep’s remarks — the first widely publicized criticism of Trump by a world-famous figure since his election — became a fulcrum moment, especially in Hollywood. “It felt like [she] was finally letting the air out of the room,” producer Kristie Mocosko Krieger recalls. “We were all just keeping our mouths shut for so long, and [Meryl was] like, ‘[Forget] it — I’m not keeping my mouth shut anymore.’”
The screenwriter Liz Hannah remembers the Golden Globes speech just as vividly. At the time, her script for “The Post,” about Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham confronting the perilous decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, was making the rounds in Hollywood. Immediately after Streep spoke, one of “The Post’s” producers, Tim White, texted Hannah and fellow producer Amy Pascal. “He said, ‘Did you see Meryl give her speech?’” Hannah recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘That’s Kay.’”
Two months later, Mocosko Krieger’s boss, Steven Spielberg, announced that he would be directing “The Post,” with Tom Hanks starring as Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and Streep starring as Graham. The film was put into production at warp speed, with Mocosko Krieger quickly diverting Spielberg's creative team from what they thought would be their next project (“The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara”), drafting screenwriter Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) to work with Hannah on rewrites, and assembling an A-list cast to begin filming in May. After a similarly accelerated post-production process, “The Post” will arrive in theaters Dec. 22, a breathtaking six months after being put before cameras.
It’s impossible not to perceive “The Post” as anything but Streep’s rapid response to the president she excoriated so passionately from the stage in January. On Monday, she was nominated for another Golden Globe for her performance as Graham, guaranteeing that, should she win, this year’s acceptance speech will be a doozy.
During a recent conversation in New York with Mocosko Krieger, Hannah and Pascal, Streep recalled the days immediately after the election when, alarmed by reports of possible Russian hacking, she got together with Robert De Niro, producer Jane Rosenthal and others (including a former FBI agent) to discuss their anxieties.
“People were really scared and demoralized,” she says. But her swift commitment to “The Post” came from a different place. “The passion, honestly, that I had wasn’t political on that end. It was political on the feminist end. I wish that my citizen heart beat harder than the one that feels the grievance, but that’s the way it goes.”
It’s “the grievance,” as Streep puts it, that has completely changed the moment that “The Post” wound up anticipating, capturing and leveraging: What Spielberg might have intended as a reminder of the principles of a free press standing firm in the face of a paranoid and hostile presidency has, perhaps more meaningfully, become a portrait of a woman born into privilege, but still having to battle systemic sexism, the condescension of her male colleagues and her own internalized self-doubt to come into her own as a corporate leader and journalist.
When Pascal acquired “The Post” in 2016, she was convinced that by the time it came out, it would be a Hillary Clinton-era movie; when Spielberg decided to direct it, he thought it would be a Trump-era movie; now, it’s a Weinstein-era movie, with Graham’s personal story of overcoming male arrogance and female invisibility having taken on an even more galvanizing resonance than the intrepid reporting at its core.
“The movie is about a woman finding her voice,” says Pascal, who ran Sony Pictures Entertainment for nine years, until she was fired after the company was hacked in 2014. “And what’s happening right now is, women realizing they haven’t had a voice in a very long time. I’ve been thinking about it so much. How many meetings have I been in were I didn’t say a word? ‘This actress is [desirable], that actress isn’t [desirable], this female director is impossible, she’s a bitch, blah, blah, blah.’ How many times have I paid [female actors] less money than their male counterparts? I know because I ran a studio. I know how much I did that. I know how much I didn’t say anything, I know how much I went along with it. And I think of myself as a pretty big feminist.”
“I must say I accepted what I suspected was an inequity,” says Streep, who several hours earlier, at an event with Gloria Steinem, had announced an initiative among her fellow actresses demanding equal representation in the film industry (“We are after 50/50 by 2020”). But she demurs when she’s asked about it now. “I don’t think I’m supposed to say [anything] yet,” she says somewhat sheepishly. “I blew it. But it’s okay, nobody listens anyway.”
She’s being sarcastic, but only slightly: She points out that the same kind of reflexive disregard Kay Graham contends with in “The Post” also pervades an industry shaped largely by male filmmakers, according to their tastes and assumptions. “Do you know how hard it is for a crew to hear a direct command from a woman, and how easy it is to hear a man?” she continues, slipping into character as a confident, in-command male director. “‘Get me that light, I need a gaffer to bring that over,’” she barks. “Just that tone, no emollient applied.”
And Streep’s career itself embodies how bias has affected what movies get made: Five years ago, at yet another awards presentation, she observed that five movies aimed at women had made more than $1.6 billion — including “The Devil Wears Prada,” “The Iron Lady” and “Mamma Mia!,” all of which she had starred in. Noting that they cost far less to make than profligate tentpoles and thus were exponentially more profitable than big-budget flops, she took studio executives to task. “Pure profit!” she cried. “Don’t they want the money?”
She nods when her words are quoted back to her. "I'll tell you another thing that I learned from 'Mamma Mia!,' " she says today. "Even though it made that money, a guy can't get up at the board meeting and say, 'I made "Mamma Mia!." He would much rather say, 'I made "Full Metal Jacket" or "Transformers."' Because it's personal. Everything is personal. Everything is self-reflective. So [women] don't have any problem claiming the happy credit for a hit movie about silly people dancing on a Greek island."
“For a long time, people said the only thing I knew how to do was chick flicks,” says Pascal, whose filmography includes “Little Women,” “A League of Their Own” and the all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot. “And then I got ashamed of it. I felt like, maybe I didn’t know how to do anything else.”
“Those are some pretty good chick flicks, though,” Hannah says.
“It didn’t matter,” Pascal says. “They were not ‘movies.’ ”
But part of what Pascal calls the “fantastic uproar” currently engulfing the movie business — from corporate mergers and technological shifts to issues of representation in front of and behind the camera — includes a change in defining what a “movie” is.
“‘Wonder Woman’ is a watershed moment,” she notes. “Because everybody went to that movie. Because everybody bought those dolls. Because everybody thought she was a hero. It wasn’t just girls. Everybody said, ‘Wait a second, boys are going to this movie, just like girls, and little boys don’t see the difference.’ They’re like, ‘Right on, she’s a hero.’ They’re fine with it.”
“It’ll be great when she doesn’t have to wear a bustier,” Streep says. “And, by the way, little boys will be fine with that, too.”
Tellingly, the Golden Globes nominations did not include any female directors, despite outstanding achievements this year by Patty Jenkins, Greta Gerwig and Dee Rees. Still, a realignment is happening that feels newly energized, maybe even permanent. "The nice part about this moment is that [we] might have an audience right now," Streep says. It's different than it was a few years ago at the Telluride Film Festival, when she was there with "Suffragette" and men's eyes seemed to glaze over every time she connected women's fight for the vote with present-day exclusion and discrimination. "It's such an ancient grievance that lives in every household: 'Do we have to talk about that again?' The eyeroll that isn't even an eyeroll; it just stays very still and waits through this part of the talk, and then we can talk about what we really want to talk about."
“We just have to find [the right] stories,” Hannah says. “When people start to realize you’re having a conversation they’ve had nine times, they’re like, ‘I’m going to go to my happy place and just wait for this to be over.’ But if you’re telling a story about something they don’t expect, you can find a way in to that conversation.”
Streep reaches over to grab Hannah by the arm. “That’s what you did, baby,” she says, taking the screenwriter into a side-by-side embrace. “That’s what you did.”