Silkwood (1983): Mike Nichols’ Best Film? Starring Meryl Streep

The protagonist of Mike Nichols’ “Silkwood” is an ordinary but unconventional woman, Karen Silkwood (Meryl Steep), the nuclear plant worker, who died in 1974 under mysterious circumstances, on her way to meet a N.Y. Times journalist with a confidential report.

Working as a lab technician at Kerr-McGee nuclear plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma, Karen Silkwood is a distraught, selfish mother, who has left her three children in Texas. Imperfect and reckless, she is flighty, free-living, devil-may-care woman (she defiantly bares a breast in front of her male workers). But like Norma Rae, another working class heroine in a popular film (of the same title), Karen is capable of changing. Once she becomes aware of her exposure to poison, she transforms from a careless woman to one with an acute political consciousness, a worthy individual capable of thinking and acting for herself. Through strength of character, Karen becomes a heroine, though in her personal life she continues to be “nontraditional,” a woman with “loose” morality.

In one of his stronger performances, Kurt Russell plays Karen’s live-in boyfriend, Drew Stephens, who at first resents her political involvement. Cher plays Karen’s lesbian roommate and friend Dolly Pelliker, a working-class woman, who carries on an affair with Angela (Diana Scarwid). Cher’s gutsy turn, which was Oscar-nominated, exceeds her acting in the comedy “Moonstruck,” for which she won the Best Actress Oscar four years later.

Detailed Plot

Karen Silkwood (Streep), a worker at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site, near Crescent, Oklahoma), shares a house with two co-workers, her boyfriend Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell) and her lesbian friend Dolly Pelliker (Cher). She makes plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors, where she deals with the threat of exposure to radiation. She has become a union activist, concerned that corporate practices may adversely affect the health of workers. She is also engaged in a conflict with her former common-law husband in an effort to have more time with their three children.

The plant has fallen behind on a major contract—ostensibly to provide fuel rods for a Breeder reactor at the Hanford Site—and so the employees are required to work long hours of overtime. She believes that managers are falsifying safety reports and cutting corners wherever possible, risking the welfare of the personnel. Karen approaches the union with her concerns and becomes active in lobbying for safeguards. She travels to Washington, D.C., to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission. She interacts with union officials who appear to be more interested in the publicity she is generating than her welfare and that of her co-workers.

When Silkwood and other workers become contaminated by radiation, plant officials try to blame her for the incident. When she discovers that negatives of photographs of faulty fuel rods have been retouched and records of inadequate safety measures have been altered, she decides to conduct an investigation of her own. Complications arise in her personal life when Angela, a funeral parlor beautician, joins the household as Dolly’s lover. Unable to deal with Silkwood’s obsession with gathering evidence, her lover Drew moves out.

Silkwood contacts a reporter from the New York Times and arranges a nighttime meeting.  her farewell from Drew is heartbreaking, though, obviously neither knows it’s the last time they would see each other.  The exchange of their loving look is reprised during the end credits.

In the film’s final image, the scene fades out as Silkwood, driving to meet the reporter, sees approaching headlights in her rear-view mirror.  The lights draw up so close that they blind her, making it imposible for her to watch the road. The scene fades in on her fatal one-car crash, and the viewer is left to decide whether the crash was an accident.

The film ends on an ambiguous note, which frustrated some critics and viewers.   Title cards show Silkwood’s tombstone and death date, and state that to this day it is not known whether her death was a function of a single car accident, and whether or not she was carrying important documents since none was found in her burnt car.

The film was shot on location in Albuquerque and Los Alamos in New Mexico and Dallas, Howe, Texas City, and Tom Bean in Texas.


Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood.

Kurt Russell as Drew Stephens.

Cher as Dolly Pelliker.

Craig T. Nelson as Winston

Fred Ward as Morgan

Diana Scarwid as Angela

Ron Silver as Paul Stone

Josef Sommer as Max Richter

Charles Hallahan as Earl Lapin

Sudie Bond as Thelma Rice

Henderson Forsythe as Quincy Bissell

Bruce McGill as Mace Hurley

David Strathairn as Wesley

M. Emmet Walsh as Walt Yarborough

Ray Baker as Pete Dawson

The film opened on December 14, 1983 in 257 theaters, then expanded to 816 screens, grossing $35.6 million in the US.

“Silkwood” signaled Mike Nichols absence from direction in eight years, since the disastrous response to “The Fortune,” starring Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty.  He would enjoy another creative decade, with such commercial hits as “Working Gïrl,” in 1988.


Director: Mike Nichols
Screenplay (Original): Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen
Actress: Meryl Streep
Supporting Actress: Cher
Film Editing: Sam O’Steen

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1983, the big Oscar winner was “Terms of Endearment,” which received Best Picture, Director for James L. Brooks, and Best Actress for Shirley MacLaine.

The winner of the Original Screenplay Oscar was Horton Foote for “tender Mercies.” Linda Hunt won the Supporting Actress for “The Year of Living Dangerously.” The Editing Oscar went to the team of “The Right Stuff,” which included Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart, and Tom Rolf.