The Perfect Actress

One foggy night in early March, Hiroko and I went up to Tokyo, at the invitation of an old
friend, for the Japanese premiere of The Iron Lady, the 2011 film starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher.

It’s not the kind of event we’re used to attending, living in a forgotten suburb, and as we took our places in the centre of one row, brushing past former Japanese prime ministers and their wives, I could hear one or two grumble about the dishevelled Indian and his youthful-looking Japanese companion. Most of them were here to enjoy the sensation of meeting onscreen a British leader they’d worked with in life.

Before the film began, Ms Streep came out to offer a few words of introduction. She was preternaturally gracious and charming and poised. But it was something else that shocked both Hiroko and me. Ten days earlier, we’d seen her accept the Academy Award on TV in a not entirely flattering gold costume that contrived to make her look like a matriarch, a kind of fairy godmother to all the younger beauties seated before her.

Now, not three hundred hours on, we found ourselves looking at the most ravishing young beauty we could remember seeing, tall and slender, in little black dress, golden hair tumbling down her back.

We’d guessed she’d been dressing down at the Oscars; the first thing she’d said after collecting her award was “I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no! Oh come on, why? Her – again?’” Besides, she’d been wearing a similarly broad gold dress the last time she’d received an Academy Award, twenty-nine years before.

But of all the things for which Meryl Streep is famous – her intellect, her accents, her stamina, her political courage and the makeup artist who, for thirty-seven years at that point, had been turning her into perfect renditions of Karen Silkwood and Isak Dinesen – we’d never heard her drop-dead beauty mentioned.

After the closing credits, our friend invited us to join the star and the director and another friend for an intimate dinner high atop the hotel where they were staying. Through the three hours that followed, Hiroko and I were witness to everything we might have hoped for from the world’s most accomplished actress, and much more: she was sparkling, responsive, vulnerable, even haunting.

She seemed to shrug off her celebrity, speaking to us as openly, it felt, and as warmly as she did her friends. But when she got up and strode across the empty restaurant at evening’s end, far taller than even the waiters, we were reminded that we were forty- five stories above the ground.

On the long trip home, I tried to work out what we’d just seen. I remembered that Streep had told an interviewer that she was drawn to playing Thatcher because the British prime minister seemed so “designed,” not the first word that comes to every mind.

I recalled her adding that she felt terrified only when called upon to play Meryl Streep. As a girl, she’d recounted – she’d grown famous for talking about the way women are pushed into boxes – she’d seen that the way to get ahead was by saying as little as possible and just exclaiming, “Wow!” and “Great!” and “Cool!”

In some curious way, I felt that spending an evening with her had opened up to me the society all around. The mystery of Meryl Streep is that we know it’s hardly possible, even with a brilliant makeup artist, to be the golden songstress of Mamma Mia! one year and the Alzheimer’s-stricken prime minister of Britain three years on, to not just resemble – but become – Emmeline Pankhurst and a ragged, leather-jacketed rock star in the same year.

The deeper mystery is that, the more she showed herself to us, across the table, the less we could say who she really was.

“You must be happy to be going home after a month on the road,” I offered as we stood by the elevator doors, waiting for her to fly away.

She looked startled in the quiet space high above the fog. “I really feel at home,” said the perfect actress, “when I work.”

Making Oneself Up

Makeup is essential to a society in which public face is crucial – and in which making up with everyone is an indispensable part of sustaining a larger harmony.
“My colleague spends two hours a day making herself up,” my wife says, on her way to the department store where she works.

“She wants everyone to look at her?”

“No. She wants everyone not to.”
Hiroko will spend twenty minutes hastily applying makeup just to go to the grocery store around the corner. But when even the most elegant visitor comes to our flat, she thinks nothing of running around with no makeup, in T-shirt and jeans.
The Japanese, famously, have separate words for the self inside the home and the one that’s out on the streets. But what is less often noticed is that many spaces are a kind of transit zone, effectively public sites turned into private thoroughfares.
“Everybody wants to look their best,” advises the notice in a Brooklyn subway car, filthy with trash and smeared with graffiti, “but it’s a subway car not a restroom.” In Japan, however, the subway car really is a public convenience that serves (since everyone contrives not to look at everyone else) as a private antechamber.
The New York subway, however quixotically, bans “Clipping” and “Primping,” though everything else seems more than permitted. In Japan, where carriages are spotless and people highly proper, every other woman seems to be applying final touches to lips and eyes and cheeks as the train pulls into her station.
The Japanese are as adept at not looking as they are at not speaking. In Bunraku drama, the three black-clad puppet masters are seated onstage; yet the audience silently consents to see only the dolls that the masters are manipulating.
Strangers routinely sleep with their heads on strangers’ shoulders on Japanese trains, and the leaned-upon agree not to flinch. A sign of trust – of community, perhaps – but also a reminder that what constitutes public and what constitutes private is something subtler than homes and walls.
To make oneself up, in a deeper way, is a mark of courtesy. In the face of great suffering, the very
English novelist Jane Gardam writes, an English person has to put on a brave face, “a mask slapped on out of consideration, out of a wish not to increase concern and also out of a genetic belief that our feelings are diminished when we show them.”
When Ansel Adams took pictures of Japanese internees in Californian concentration camps during World War II, his subjects were so determined to offer bright smiles and to project a hopeful confidence to the world that the photographer was criticised for falsifying the truth.
Yet, when my neighbours apply too much lipstick and rouge to real life – calling captive wartime prostitutes “comfort women” and the single moms who now rent out their bodies “female hygiene agents” – their determination to deodorise embarrassment can smell to unsympathetic outsiders like nothing but a way to stink up the whole neighbourhood.
Keeping up appearances, my neighbours might reply, is not the same as denying what’s beneath. It’s simply a way of placing the needs of the whole before those of the self.

Excerpted with permission from A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations, Pico Iyer, Penguin Viking.