Things can often happen in a movie that we don’t always expect; things that evoke a memory long after the movie is over. They are not always choices that are primary to a plot but choices that exist in the form of creative layers — be it born on the page or discovered during that fleeting moment on a sound-stage. Sometimes, acting on impulse can find moments, as if by accident. Or by the virtue of instinct, making use of a conveniently placed set piece or prop. What I’m talking about are objects that are within the scene, be it set in place within the frame or already in hand for the actor to introduce, to work with, be it scripted or not. It’s about the things that relate, directly or indirectly to the world you want audiences to remember. Objects, props, set accessories are all there to provide insights into characters, anything from a nod, a quirk to a full blown visual tapestry that threads everything together, through its own form of code. These things can leave an indelible impression.
EXHIBIT A: “The Meryl Streep Orange Peel maneuver.”
The first of these comes as a mystery. We don’t really know if the scene was written to include the symbolic use of fruit. If it was scripted then it was clever foresight, even though it is fleeting, set behind the performances. It is akin to a spice or herb that you add to a sauce. You don’t know it’s there, but without it, the sauce will lack depth and flavor.
In the 1984 romantic drama, Falling in Love, directed by Ulu Grosbard, we are faced with an interesting bit of distraction and interaction that adds a profound amount of information, albeit subtle. We can do without it, but if you let it catch your eye, and if you are a person like me who sees a reason for everything within the frame, then an explanation of the following certainly makes a lot of sense.
Molly, played by Meryl Streep, is visiting her father who is not in the best of health. Here we see him enter with a fruit bowl of guilt. I say that, because the scene is all about whether or not he is looking after himself in Molly’s absence. He lives alone and we get a sense that Molly’s job when she visits is to miser her old man about doing the right thing.
We can assume that he forgot to put the fruit bowl out, but then if he had done and Molly came in to the bowl already on the table, would she then be invited to help herself to an orange? We could argue counterpoint that it is merely something that he knows his daughter would like. She’s all about being healthy. Healthy mind, healthy heart — even though in her life, she is about to fall for another man and stray from her husband. At this time however, her morals are intact when it comes to caring about her father. No man could ever live up to his standards: and as it seems, in the absence of her husband, she makes this visit on the train with the air of a single woman, setting up the idea of her bumping into Frank played by Robert De Nero.
When the father takes the oranges to Meryl, she accepts them and immediately takes one and starts to peel. The orange is not fully ripe and ready. Much like her father whose health may be failing, he’s still not an old man, especially not in Molly’s eyes.
Also, Molly would hate to watch fruit waste away, and instead of taking it apart bit by bit, she goes in for “the roll”: loosening the skin and then she follows with a bite to break the skin. Quick and painless. This is all she could hope for when things with her father take a turn for the worst. In this sense, this is foreshadowing and not just about her father’s inevitable failing of health, but to the breakdown of her marriage and the possible loss of a man she could have loved under better circumstances. Not ripe, not ready, hard to peel, a hard pill to swallow. The only thing we can hope for is to roll with it, bite into it and don’t look back.
So here oranges are used to say “it is okay”… Accept the inevitable. If symbolically, her father giving her the orange could be seen as a gift of power: therefore it could be perceived as a gesture of strength and preparedness.
Here’s to good health.
We can agree that the only part that was intentional in the scene was the action of her father bringing in the fruit bowl, placing it between them. Now Meryl Streep has something to do in the scene. That I believe was the only direction required in the scene. She would peel and but not eat. In fact it is something I notice when food is present in scenes that most people (apart from Brad Pitt who can eat his way through any situation) will either obstain from eating at all during the scene or leave it until the last beat, as if we leave at the moment where eating commences and characters no longer have anything to say. The last thing any director would want is for food to break into the scene and disturb the mechanics such as line delivery and continuity.
We’re however distracted by her method in peeling the orange. I say distracted,but more mesmerized: I don’t think that part is scripted, but knowing that on the set, fruit comes from another department and not everything is what is expected from the vision of the director or by part the expectations of the actor. Meryl Streep took the orange and noticed it was not going to be an easy peeler, and went in with what I call “The Meryl Streep Orange Peel maneuver.” Without knowing that what she was adding to the scene was quite powerful and knowing. I can only surmise to how this came about, but it gave us something to think about other than just a scene about a daughter and her father having a heart to heart.
Deep down she fears her father is still a perishable piece of fruit. What’s more, there is foreshadowing: What are also tight are her feelings connected with her marriage. Loosening the skin so that it could be easily peeled, easier to digest is exactly what she learns when she begins her affair. She learns here that she is as capable as anybody to lose her inhibitions.
- Stephen Radford
Falling In Love (Ulu Grosbard, 1984)