Saturday, December 14, 2013

Was 'Silkwood' Snubbed?

Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep): You think I contaminated myself? You think I did that?

Mace Hurley (Bruce McGill): I think you'd do just about anything to shut down this plant.

"Silkwood," which was released in the theaters 30 years ago today, was a story about three ordinary — and flawed — people caught in an extraordinary situation at a plutonium plant in Oklahoma.

Meryl Streep played Karen Silkwood, a plant worker and a labor union activist. Her boyfriend Drew was played by Kurt Russell; he also worked at the plant. Cher (yes, that Cher) played Dolly, a lesbian and a roommate of Karen's and Drew's. Dolly worked at the plant as well.

The first part of the movie dealt with their day–to–day lives — Karen, for instance, was involved in a clash with her former common–law husband over time with their children. Drew and Dolly tried to be as supportive as possible. Working at the plant was a humdrum job, like any other humdrum job. The only real difference, as far as they were concerned, was that this job required workers to handle hazardous material, but the workers believed the risk was minimized, that they were protected by all the precautions their employers had taken.

But as the movie went on, it was established that the plant had taken on a large contract — and it had fallen behind. To make up for lost ground and lost time, the company was requiring employees to work long hours — and Karen, who had recently become active in the labor union, was convinced that the company was falsifying documents and cutting all kinds of corners, making conditions truly hazardous for the workers.

In spite of the precautions that were in place, she and others had been contaminated during the course of their work. This was expected to a certain extent but not at either the rate or level they were seeing. That alone was suspicious, but Silkwood, in the course of her investigation, uncovered evidence of other abuses as well — so Silkwood became a whistleblower and agreed to meet a New York Times reporter with the evidence she had gathered. She never made the appointment. She died in a car accident. No documents were found with her body.

I thought that the acting was terrific, and I was pleased to learn that critic Roger Ebert felt the same way. "It's a little amazing," he wrote, "that established movie stars like Streep, Russell and Cher could disappear so completely into the everyday lives of these characters."

Amazing but true. Long before the end of the movie, I stopped being conscious of who the actors were and became aware only of who their characters were and the plight they faced.

Director Mike Nichols ("The Graduate") probably had his own ideas of why Silkwood died, and he didn't spare the company, but he left the door open for other conclusions as well. Nearly 40 years after Silkwood's death, much of it remains shrouded in mystery.

Maybe the subject matter was a little too hot to handle for Oscar voters in those days. "Silkwood" got five Oscar nominations but zero wins.

"Silkwood" was just one of the movies for which Streep has earned an Academy Award nomination. Everyone knew how talented she was when "Silkwood" premiered. She had received four Oscar nominations already and had won two statuettes (but she wouldn't win another one until 2011).

Her co–star, Cher, also was nominated. It was her first, but she wouldn't win until she was nominated a second time.

Nichols' directing received a third Oscar nomination — and, for the second time, someone else took home the award.

"Silkwood" wasn't nominated for Best Picture, either. Was it snubbed? I don't know. I've seen "Terms of Endearment," the Best Picture winner 30 years ago, and I thought it was good.

It just wasn't as important as "Silkwood."