I was a young BBC reporter when I first met Margaret Thatcher on a cold Scottish hillside. She was standing in front of the wreckage of the Pan Am airliner that had exploded over Lockerbie.
As the news pack surged forward, I was knocked to the ground, prompting the British prime minister to wade into the scrum, reach down and pull me up. It was a tiny glimpse of Thatcher's rarely displayed humanity which I was reminded of while watching Meryl Streep's startling performance in "The Iron Lady."
I sincerely hope that Streep wins an Oscar this Sunday for her portrayal of Mrs. Thatcher, not just because she hasn't won in 29 years of stand-out performances, but because I don't think I have ever seen someone I know portrayed on screen with such veracity. And I've met a lot of politicians in my career, including Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair, whose lives have been dramatized on numerous occasions.
Matthew Paris, a former Conservative MP who worked for Thatcher said Streep's performance was so realistic, he felt haunted by it, as though a ghostly apparition of his old boss had stepped out of the cinema screen. "It's as if an old friend had been invaded and inhabited by a stranger, turned into a puppet."
Even those people who are not fans of the movie agree that Streep has captured Thatcher in appearance, voice and spirit. But I feel the actress should also be commended for her portrayal of old age. This is a contentious issue.
A lot of Mrs. Thatcher's supporters don't want to see their heroine diminished by the passing of time; they want to remember her at the height of her powers. They object to the scenes in which she appears to forget that her husband is dead or that she is no longer prime minister. But I would argue that Meryl Streep portrays the elderly Thatcher with great dignity.
There is no shame in growing old. Indeed the director of the British Alzheimer's Society has praised "The Iron Lady" — and Streep's performance — for the way dementia is handled. We live in an aging society; most of us will at some point in our lives witness a loved one's brain muddled by the forgetfulness of old age. It may be painful to watch but it shouldn't be hidden away like some shameful family secret. I have a friend whose mother is suffering from dementia. She was moved to tears by Meryl Streep's performance. They were tears of painful recognition.
Streep has described "The Iron Lady" as King Lear for girls. But the actress also "gets" Thatcher when she was all-powerful and could reduce grown men to quivering wrecks with a glance. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Matthew Parris says watching the movie brought back memories of being "skewered by those intense blue eyes making you feel she was seeing your innermost thoughts and inadequacies."
Thatcher continues to be an incredibly divisive figure in Britain. I was at university in London during her first term as prime minister and remember taking part in numerous demonstrations where we students would march down the street shouting, "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out."
But my stepfather recalls her years in power with misty-eyed admiration. As a member of the business community he saw her as a savior who rescued a paralyzed Britain from the clutches of the unions.
People either love or hate Maggie Thatcher, but they are rarely indifferent to her. It's a testimony to Meryl Streep's abilities as an actress that almost everyone who has seen "The Iron Lady" is united in the belief that it is a career-defining performance. It would be a tragedy if she didn't win an Oscar for it.