On November 13, 1974, the body of chemical technician and labor union activist Karen Silkwood was found dead in her car on the side of the road. The police ruled it an accident but some journalists believed otherwise. That night, she was on her way to meet a New York Times reporter with documentation that would prove her claims that the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site Plant, where she worked, had serious health and safety issues that resulted in her being contaminated with plutonium.
In 1983, her brief life was given biopic treatment with Mike Nichols directing a Nora Ephron screenplay and starred Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher. Silkwood was a critical and commercial success, receiving five Academy Award nominations. All three leads disappeared into their roles, bringing them vividly to life while giving the reasons for Karen’s fate enough ambiguity to leave it up to the viewer to decide.
We meet Karen (Streep), her boyfriend Drew Stephens (Russell) and their friend Dolly Pelliker (Cher) as they drive into work at the plant. Nichols proceeds to give us an abbreviated tour as we see an average day of work. A group of trainees are brought in, which is an excellent way of explaining what she and her co-workers do at the plant. It also shows the comradery among them (including notable character actors Fred Ward and Craig T. Nelson among others). Nichols creates a naturalistic vibe as we observe these blue collar workers bantering back and forth while they work. Like many, they work long hours for lousy wages and it makes them immediately relatable.
Drew, Karen and Dolly live in the same house together and hangout when they’re not at work. There is a believable familiarity between them that is apparent in the shorthand that they have with each other and is well-acted by Russell, Streep and Cher. They are people that eat at fast food restaurants, drive crappy little cars and live in run-down homes. They are the people that populate Bruce Springsteen songs – America’s heartland. It is crucial that we spend these quiet moments with them as we get to know and care about these people so that when things go south later on we’re invested in what happens to them.
Karen locks horns with the management at the plant when she is blamed for contaminating her section and then openly criticizes how a co-worker is treated when she is contaminated. Soon afterwards, Karen finds herself in a contaminated section and is subjected to the painful decontamination cleaning process. It seems suspiciously coincidental and so she decides to become active in the local union, which is in danger of being dissolved. She believes that the company is putting the employees at risk by cutting corners when it comes to safety reports. Union representatives in Washington, D.C. encourage her to get documentation and this complicates her personal and professional lives.
Meryl Streep turns in another solid performance as a smart person driven to do the right thing when she discovers that the powers that be at her job are putting her co-workers at risk and they don’t even know it. She’s not afraid to play Karen as a flawed person who stands up for what she believes in even though she makes mistakes in her personal life. The actress does an excellent job showing how this affects her job and vice versa. Streep isn’t afraid to show how scared Karen becomes when the company exerts pressure on her in all kinds of ways in the hopes of wearing her down. Despite this she soldiers on because she’s driven and believes what she’s doing is right.
Kurt Russell had a fascinating run of films in the 1980s, bouncing back and forth between genre films like Escape from New York (1981), comedies like Used Cars (1980), thrillers like The Mean Season (1985), and dramatic roles like the one in Silkwood. It’s wonderful to see him playing an everyman role like Drew, a stand-up guy that becomes increasingly frustrated with Karen spending more and more time involved with the union and less with him.
Cher delivers a wonderfully understated performance as Karen’s best friend. She dresses down and dials back her affectations in a way that she’s rarely done since. Even the reveal that Dolly is a lesbian is done matter-of-factly by Nichols. It’s performances in this, Mask (1985) and Moonstruck (1987) that demonstrated her natural acting talent and makes one wish that she did more film work.
Two grad students from the University of California Film School – Buzz Hirsch and Larry Cano – spent seven years assembling news reports, hearings transcripts and taped interviews with Karen’s friends, relatives and colleagues. Jane Fonda bought the rights to their work and fancied playing her with Lily Tomlin auditioning to play Dolly, but released the rights after making The China Syndrome (1979). Meryl Streep’s agent Sam Cohn moved in and bought the rights.
Cohn was responsible for bringing Mike Nichols on board as director. Screenwriters Alice Arlen and Nora Ephron were hired to write the screenplay with the former going to Los Alamos, New Mexico to do research on nuclear energy. The two women wrote a first draft and ended up spending a year working on subsequent drafts and revisions.
For the role of Dolly, Nichols offered the part to Cher while she was doing a play but she had to decide on the spot without reading the script. Needless to say, she agreed to do it. Streep had finished making Sophie’s Choice (1982) and two-and-a-half weeks later was filming Silkwood. Principal photography took place between September and November 1982.
To prepare for the role, Streep met with Drew Stephens, Karen’s boyfriend, and from him learned about her mannerisms and talked about her for two days. The actress was clearly on the same page as her director as she said in an interview, “Mike spoke of the film as being about people being asleep in their lives and waking up: ‘How did I get here?’ And that’s exactly how I felt.”
Cher’s approach to Dolly was that the she didn’t want to play her “stomping around with a pack of Marlboros rolled up in my T-shirt sleeve” and was set to cut her hair short but Nichols told her not to: “Let’s not make a statement about Dolly with a butch cut.” During filming, the director demanded she wear no make-up, which she had difficulty with: “There was nothing to hid behind in Dolly. There’s no flash. That’s exactly what was needed, so the public would see past ‘Cher’ and accept me as an actress.”
Silkwood grossed $35 million at the box office off a budget of $10 million. It also received strong critical notices, chief among them Roger Ebert who gave it a four-star review: “It’s a little amazing that established movie stars like Streep, Russell and Cher could disappear so completely into the everyday lives of these characters.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Streep’s performance: “Her portrait of the initially self-assured and free-living, then radicalized and, finally, terrified Karen Silkwood is unlike anything she’s done to date, except in its intelligence. It’s a brassy, profane, gum-chewing tour de force, as funny as it is moving.”
Nichols deftly avoids the more obvious conventions of the biopic. He doesn’t put Karen on a pedestal and instead presents her as a real person doing the best she can under increasingly stressful conditions. This goes for all the characters. None of them are perfect and this is what humanizes them. He also avoids telegraphing “important” moments in the film with overtly dramatic music to manipulate our emotions. There is very little score and what is used is done sparingly. There are no epic showdowns with a swelling score – just quietly intense moments presented with no frills direction.
Silkwood is a quietly powerful drama about a woman not afraid to go against a company that was hurting people at the cost of her alienating co-workers and friends. She ended up paying the ultimate price and this film is a fitting tribute to her life.
Bego, Mark. Cher: If You Believe. Cooper Square Press. 2001.
Cohen, Richard. She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron. Simon and Schuster. 2016.
Egginton, Joyce. “The Karen Silkwood File.” The Observer. April 6, 1984.
“Meryl Streep.” American Film. December 1983.