Before The Prom, Meryl Streep Was the Hero I Needed


In the winter of 2009, I made a list. I grabbed a piece of scrap paper from my parents’ kitchen desk and wrote down every single Meryl Streep movie that existed on the internet. Every weekend, I shut myself in my bedroom to reach beyond what I viewed as a limiting Midwestern upbringing.

I started with The Bridges of Madison County, the movie that first drew me to Meryl years earlier. She plays Francesca, an Italian woman who moves to America after World War II to marry an Iowan farmer. The character reminded me of my grandmother Marjorie—she left her lush, coastal home in British Columbia to settle with my grandfather in Missouri, where she raised three kids, cooked all the meals, baked all the treats, worked as a nurse, and sewed costumes for the local theater. After she turned 70 and her dementia worsened, she would reach for the phone book to call her mother, who’d been dead for decades. She’d ask me, then a pre-teen, if she could go down to the dock to get a bucket of shrimp, something she hadn’t done since she was a little girl. It broke my heart to see her miss the place that was the essence of who she was. In Streep’s Francesca, I saw a woman who, like my grandmother, loved her home but also longed to leave it.

My grandmother died when I was 13. By then, I had found Meryl, whose storytelling helped me better understand the woman who believed in fairies and dreamed of something else. Something more.

So, I made my list. I wanted to visit as many worlds apart from my own as possible, and Meryl could take me there. As I made my way down—Out of Africa, Death Becomes Her, The Hours—I got curious about the woman behind these characters. Who was this actress who offered escape from my hometown, who told me stories and helped me think beyond the confines of my own experiences? She felt safe.

Around the same time, I came across a YouTube clip of The Rosie O’Donnell Show from 1996. Julie Andrews was the guest, and O’Donnell told her that, after her mom died when she was 10, she and her siblings would wish for their dad to find his own Maria VonTrapp. “It was, like, my fantasy that you would come and be my mom and live in my house and make me clothes out of curtains,” O’Donnell says.

That was exactly how I felt about Meryl. She would understand all the questions in my head about my sexuality. I could talk to her about my crushes on girls and my fear of saying the word “lesbian” out loud. Maybe we’d go for a walk by the ocean and talk about my fantasies of living in a lighthouse with my wife. I was terrified to tell my parents about any of this, but Meryl would get it. Someone who could live inside so many different people, someone who created characters driven by empathy, someone who could bring back my magical grandmother, could save me.

the prom l to r andrew rannells as trent oliver, kerry washington as mrs greene, keegan michael key as mr hawkins, meryl streep as dee dee allen, jo ellen pellman as emma, james corden as barry glickman in the prom cr netflix © 2020

Meryl Streep as Dee Dee Allen in The Prom.

Netflix

A few months after I’d completed my list of Meryl movies, my mentor, teacher, and parent-figure died by suicide. In January 2010, another friend died suddenly. She was 18. People in my life told me it would get better. I had a sweet boyfriend who made me a scavenger hunt to ask me to prom and read books aloud while we cuddled on the couch. But my confusion over my sexuality only deepened and doubled as I mourned these losses. I hid in my grief. I had fantasies, all the time, of Meryl coming to save me.

When I watched the trailer for The Prom, the memories of those painful teenage years resurfaced. I would’ve given anything for Meryl to save me from my town, from my grief, from my internalized homophobia. In the film, Streep’s character, Broadway star Dee Dee Allen, isn’t exactly the perfect ally. She only goes to small-town Indiana to advocate for Emma Nolan, a high-schooler shut out of prom for trying to bring her girlfriend, to gain positive publicity for her faltering career. Dee Dee doesn’t know what the letters in LGTBQ stand for, she doesn’t remember Emma’s name, and she initially mistakes the teen for a completely different person. But seeing Streep in this role, belting out the word “lesbian” in celebration, brought me back to the days I’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror and eek it out in a whisper.

My friend Robbie (who would’ve made a much better Barry Glickman than James Corden, by the way), didn’t have the option to hide his queerness. He just was. “Coming out was sort of a ‘duh’ moment for me—being flamboyant and all, it was no surprise to anyone,” he told me in a recent email. Although we never discussed it in high school, Robbie, like me, had his own Meryls: “I long adored Jack McFarland and Karen Walker of Will & Grace—I saw myself in Jack and admired his connection with Karen. I even had a fascination with Roseanne Barr (before she was an outward racist), because her show embodied my middle-class upbringing with strong female archetypes.” Most kids at our school were not nice when it came to being different. Being gay was usually discussed as a punchline, and this scared me. I focused on being good at sports and school and not letting my parents see me fail. If Robbie was Barry, I was Alyssa Greene.

When I asked Robbie if he ever thought about talking to these people, he said he generally didn’t believe in meeting his heroes. However, he wouldn’t turn down a “cathartic hug and sob, and definitely a drink” from Sean Hayes and Megan Mullaly.

I did have my Meryl moment. In 2014, Indiana University Bloomington gave her an honorary degree. I took a friend of mine whose sister went to IU, and we made an overnight trip from Missouri. I wrote her a thank-you note, mostly because I knew the teen version of me would’ve wanted me to. I never intended to give it to her, but when someone onstage identified her husband nearby, I sheepishly walked up and handed him the sealed note. He said he’d give it to her, but I don’t know if he did. I don’t know if she read it. If she did, I hope she understood that she was a lifeline for a very scared kid growing up in the Midwest. Before she was Dee Dee Allen on film, she was that character for me.

I’m 28 now. I’ve worked at major publications and interviewed many celebrities, and the overall sheen of mystery they had when I was growing up in the middle of the country is pretty much gone. They’re people, many of them wonderfully interesting, cool, creative people. But people. Yet like Rosie O’Donnell with Julie Andrews, I’ll always have that fantasy of Meryl coming to save me from my problems. And I’ll always be grateful that, in a way, she did.

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