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The 3 Acts of Meryl Streep’s Long and Glorious Career

The 3 Acts of Meryl Streep's Long and Glorious Career

A suggestion flashed by on the Internet last week as Streep was about to increase her already record number of acting nods – which now span an astonishing  37 years — for her critically applauded role as the Witch in the musical “Into the Woods. “

It was put forth that the woman who is considered the world’s greatest living actress should perhaps withdraw from any future Academy Award races  in order to allow others to have a go at a trophy.

 
The only proper response to such a notion? Nonsense.
 
“If you are doing the work, you are in the game,” says Jeanine Basinger, movie historian and founder of the film studies program at Wesleyan University. “It’s not as if she is simply playing Meryl Streep. She is being recognized for real performances. Get over it. That is like telling LeBron James to sit on the bench. If you take yourself out, you might as well retire.”
 
Not only is she still in the game, Streep is racking up the box-office bucks. “Into the Woods” has taken in $116.4 million domestically since opening Christmas Day and could top the biggest grosser among her Oscar-nominated roles: 2006’s “The Devil Wears Prada” at $124.7 million. And if the fairy-tale fable collects just $20 million more, it could top her biggest hit – another musical, “Mamma Mia!” with $144.1 million.

From the looks of it, Streep is not ready to sit upon her considerable laurels anytime soon. Besides embodying two variations of her Sondheim sorceress in “Into the Woods,” a gnarled crone and a glamorous  beauty, she showed up looking like a female Gandalf – actually, a Chief Elder — in “The Giver” and briefly materialized in “The Homesman,” a feminist Western directed by “Hope Springs” pal Tommy Lee Jones and co-starring her daughter Grace Gummer.

Besides, she still has at least one other Oscar record she could beat. The late Katharine Hepburn, nominated 12 times, still holds the champion title for the most acting wins with four, all leads. Streep’s trio consists of two leads and one supporting. That’s like four of a kind vs. a pair and a wild card. 
However, Streep’s greatest contribution to film industry these days isn’t just gracing interminable awards shows with her presence, but providing a career blueprint for veteran actresses who wish to remain vital as they age.

Tina Fey had a point when she wryly quipped last year at the Golden Globes, “There are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.”  

That is why TV  and outlets like Netflix continue to capitalize on the availability of such 40-plus female performers as Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates in “American Horror Story,”  Viola Davis in “How to Get Away With Murder,” Robin Wright in “House of Cards” and Frances McDormand in “Olive Kitteridge. “
But although Streep has done some TV work, such as HBO’s “Angels in America” miniseries in 2003, she prefers big-screen vehicles.  And much like England’s revered grande dames such as Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, she continues to be on the most-wanted list of stars by moviemakers.
How does she do it? “Not enough attention is paid to Streep’s incredible career management,” says Basinger. “She will try the offbeat roles and not play a certain Meryl Streep persona. She doesn’t always have to be the lead or be glamorous. She will subsume herself in a part. That is a lesson for the movie business of today. There is no studio system. No one is writing roles tailored for a Barbara Stanwyck or a Bette Davis. Streep hasn’t just set the bar. She has set the model.”
Streep’s Three Acts

A clue to what has made Streep click with audiences for so long can be found in her catalog of nominated roles. Just like Picasso had artistic periods defined by a certain style– Blue, Rose and Cubism – so, too, does Streep’s most honored output break down into three distinct acts. The one trait that has remained consistent through the decades:  The lady is still an ace at accents.

1. The Rather Serious (1978-88) is stuffed with social issues, book adaptations and biopics. She got her first Oscar nomination for the Vietnam War-themed “The Deer Hunter.” The next year, “Kramer vs. Kramer” – based on a novel—  brought Streep her first win as a distraught mother  in a brutal custody fight. Vincent Canby of “The New York Times” singled her out in his review:  “The central figure is that of the movingly, almost dangerously muddled mother, played by Miss Streep in what is one of the major performances of the year.” Both movies would go on to win best picture and helped to elevate her to leading-lady status. 

Other literary-inspired titles that brought her academy attention include “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981) and  “Ironweed” (1987).  “Silkwood” (1982), “Out of Africa” (1985) and “A Cry in the Dark” (1988) were all drawn from real-life stories. But it was the 1982 Holocaust drama “Sophie’s Choice,” based on William Styron’s novel, that would provide Streep’s first best actress win.  Roger Ebert wrote of her Polish, concentration-camp survivor: “There is hardly an emotion that Streep doesn’t touch in this movie, and yet we’re never aware of her straining. This is one of the most astonishing and yet one of the most unaffected and natural performances I can imagine.” 
 
2. The Awkwardly Transitional. By the time Streep was facing the big 4-0 in 1989, she was ready to step down off her pedestal and do less lofty fare. So she began seeking out comedies and more commercial vehicles. Her first of four Oscar bids that decade came via 1990’s “Postcards From the Edge,” based on Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel. Streep was a decade or so too old as the reckless pill-popping actress who lives under the shadow of her legendary mother.
 
Nonetheless, more than a few critics were pleased. “Meryl Streep gives the most fully articulated comic performance of her career, the one she’s always hinted at and made us hope for,” noted Hal Hinson in “The Washington Post.” Her other Oscar nominations during the decade came from a mixed bag of efforts. With Clint Eastwood as her director and co-star, Streep helped to re-invent “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995) from best-selling glorified mush to moving middle-aged affair of the heart. She switched gears again for the 1998 mother-daughter tear-jerker “One True Thing.”
 
By 1999, when she took over the role a real-life inner-city violin teacher  that was meant for Madonna in the less-than-memorable “Music of the Heart,” Streep – who turned 50 that year — was more than ready to  shake things up. 

 3. The Gloriously Unexpected got its first real seal of approval when she earned an Oscar nomination for a supporting role as “Orchid Thief” author Susan Orleans in 2002’s “Adaptation,” Spike Jonze’s bizarre meta-commentary on the act of screenwriting. Not only did she engage in wanton on-screen sex with Chris Cooper as an orchid thief, Streep giddily imitated a phone’s dial tone while under the influence of a flower-derived drug.
 
Suddenly she found what had been missing from her most acclaimed work: The element of surprise. The days when the likes of critic Pauline Kael accused the Yale-trained Jersey girl of being an “automaton” who acted only from the neck up were over.
 
Streep continued to add spice to her credits in the form of variety, in between piling up more nominations, by doing a cameo for the bawdy Farrelly brothers in 2003’s “Stuck on You” and appearing opposite Jim Carrey as Aunt Josephine in the 2004 family film “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
 
In 2006, she hit the jackpot with a rare adult-driven summer comedy about the fashion industry, “The Devil Wears Prada.” Her portrayal of Miranda Priestly, a haughty harridan of a “Vogue”-style magazine editor, brought her a 14th Oscar nomination. More would soon follow: A Bronx-accented nun and school principal dealing with a possible child-abusing priest in 2008’s “Doubt”; the larger-than-life chef Julia Child in 2009’s “Julie & Julia”; the hard-headed British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the source of her third Oscar win, in 2011’s “The Iron Lady”; and a coarse drug-addicted cancer sufferer and matriarch in 2013’s “August: Osage County.”    
 
Perhaps there will be a fourth period, judging by what she has on her plate this year, one that combines all three of her career stages. Streep takes on renowned British political activist Emmaline Pankhurst in “Suffragette” opposite Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter (no U.S. date yet). She gets musical again as a fading rock star while reuniting with Sophie’s Choice co-star Kevin Kline in Jonathan Demme’s “Ricki and the Flash” (Aug. 7).  And she has agreed to star in a biopic about notoriously terrible opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins with “Philomena” director Stephen Frears.
 
Streep isn’t much for providing ponderous insights into her craft. She is more apt to joke about her underwear while onstage at an awards ceremony. But she did some insight into how she does what she does in 2006 when she addressed an auditorium packed with students at Princeton.
 
She told them she is never comfortable when people ask how she is able to embody such a wide array of characters – young, old, different nationalities, even other genders. “And I say, ‘Well, why did God invent imagination? Should I have played women from central New Jersey all my life?'” she said. “The people I have played in movies and in the theater have all felt like me to me.”
And movie fans who have watched her continue to evolve and challenge herself through the years are very glad that Meryl remains who she is. Amazing!

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