'The Manchurian Candidate'

In the pantheon of great psycho performances, at least two come to mind that no self-respecting thesp, under any circumstances, should attempt to duplicate.

In 1998, Vince Vaughn tried to out-Norman Anthony Perkins in Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” remake and was roundly panned for his efforts.

But if rules are made to be broken, Meryl Streep may as well be the one to do it. In Jonathan Demme’s update of the 1962 classic “The Manchurian Candidate,” Streep plays Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, the monstrous, Machiavellian mother of the eponymous candidate — a role that Angela Lansbury made chillingly famous more than 40 years ago.

But instead of rotten tomatoes, Streep has garnered her usual raves and a Golden Globe nomination for supporting actress. If she receives an Oscar nod (as Lansbury did before her), it would be her 14th mention, cementing her status as the most Oscar-nominated actress in history, and for perhaps her out-and-out nastiest turn since “Death Becomes Her.”

“I just love the way Ellie Shaw is described in the screenplay: ‘Ageless with soft curves that conceal razor claws and a titanium backbone,’ ” says Streep. “How could I possibly not relish portraying a juicy character like that?”

If anything, Streep made the part even juicier, substituting “a high-wire, borderline-camp theatricality for Angela Lansbury’s simmering inner demonism,” as critic David Edelstein wrote in Slate. “She stops the movie just by crunching down on some ice cubes with a mixture of cruelty and insouciance.”

In addition to the ice cubes, other critics picked up on Streep’s uncanny resemblance to real-life Sen. Hillary Clinton, from her trim, pastel-colored suits right down to her string of pearls and meticulous coiffure.

But the essence of the character — a seething psychological stew of ambition, murderous calculation and barely concealed Oedipal longing, so bent on political advancement that she conspires to turn her own son into a mind-controlled assassin — stays true to the original conception.

Though this newly updated “Candidate” departs from the original’s Cold War setting to tap into a distinctly contempo vein of paranoia, its most disturbing scene may be a throwback to the original, when Shaw takes her son’s frozen, robotic face in her hands and kisses him full on the lips.

“Ellie Shaw is a woman who adores her son and believes in him,” Streep says. “She’s also a mother who is achieving through her son the political position she feels has been denied her. So while Ellie grooms her son for leadership, she is also fulfilling her own destiny.”

Liev Schreiber, who plays Shaw’s son (vice presidential candidate Raymond Prentiss Shaw), says Streep’s great achievement is her ability to stir sympathy for such an unsympathetic role.

“What Meryl brings to the character is a cloaked tenderness that will surprise people with Ellie Shaw’s depth and ability to love.”

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