There are strata of acting talent—there’s the good, the very good, and the great. And somewhere up above all that, there’s Meryl Streep. Mary Louise Streep was born in Summit, New Jersey, broke into film in the late ’70s with a couple of remarkable supporting turns, and has never looked back. In fact, she’s leapfrogged everyone’s wildest expectations, and over the course of the past four decades has amassed a total of 19 Academy Award nominations (the only other actor alive who comes remotely close is Jack Nicholson, with 12). Now we’re not ones to measure artistic standards purely based on Oscar history, but in Streep’s case, it’s a good-as-any indication of her talents (to put it another way, if the Oscars were really about who deserves recognition most based on performance alone, she’d have about 14 by now).
Famously deemed “not beautiful enough” by the apparently blind Dino De Laurentiis, Streep has a graceful aura, a kind of mystery that’s the kernel of all her performances. This indescribable power, as well as her ridiculous range and uncanny knack for accents, are universally acknowledged, yet she somehow still finds ways to defy expectations. She’s laudably immune to the celebrity gossip complex, choosing instead to live a quiet life outside the clutches of Hollywood, picking her roles with care and approaching small parts with magnanimity and generosity, so that she’s as sought-after as an ensemble collaborator as she is a Grande Dame. She’s also a staunch supporter of women’s rights in the film world, is prone to donating her salaries to various charities, and actively supports other actresses for awards even when she’s in contention. She hasn’t yet cured cancer, but maybe if someone wrote that role…
This Friday will see her in the lead role in Jonathan Demme‘s “Ricki And The Flash” (written by Diablo Cody), opposite her daughter Mamie Gummer and reunited with her “Sophie’s Choice” co-star Kevin Kline, which gives us the excuse to get down to the long overdue business of dedicating an Essentials piece to Meryl Streep—one of the greatest actors to ever step in front of a camera.
“The Deer Hunter” (1978)
It all started at a wedding procession. That’s when the film world truly began to take notice of the young, barely experienced yet instantly captivating Streep. Robert De Niro noticed her in a stage production of Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and soon convinced director Michael Cimino to cast her as Linda in “The Deer Hunter,” the woman who unassumingly stands between two best friends/ war buddies Michael (De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken). The opening wedding ceremony, in which Nick asks Linda to marry him, coupled with that emotional bulldozer of a scene when Michael comes back after the war, showcase Streep’s natural, breathtaking beauty (both exterior and interior): there’s a rare purity to Linda that simply glows. And so this tiny role in one of the most psychologically intense Vietnam movies ever, featuring sensational lead performances by Walken and De Niro, turned out to be one hell of an entrance for Streep.
“Kramer Vs. Kramer” (1979)
After her breakout in “The Deer Hunter,” Streep turned a few more heads in Woody Allen‘s “Manhattan,” before inducing whiplash in just about anyone who saw “Kramer Vs. Kramer.” Considering it was a Best Picture winner that also bagged her first Oscar (alongside her brilliant co-star Dustin Hoffman), everyone saw “Kramer vs Kramer.” Even though her total screen minutes barely reach double digits, and even though she’s playing ostensibly the less sympathetic character (a mother who abandons her child—the horror!), Streep’s Joanna somehow breaks your heart while at the same time representing a clarion call for the women’s issues Streep would champion offscreen as a well as on: “All my life, I felt like somebody’s daughter, somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife,” she says. In fact, Streep revised the story with writer-director Robert Benton to make Joanna’s point of view more balanced, and the result is a film that inspired years of debate over custody rights and the mother vs. father dichotomy. One thing that was not so debatable: it established Streep’s reputation for tugging at the heart strings in a film’s final moments with the kind of emotional control that could make boot camp drill instructors weep like babies.
READ MORE: Watch: Meryl Streep Sings In ‘Ricki And The Flash’ Music Video “Cold One” Written By Jenny Lewis & Johnathan Rice
“The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981)
A novel long thought to be an unfilmable due to its metaphysical and supremely unpredictable structure, John Fowles‘ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” is expertly realized on film thanks to Karel Reisz‘s fearless direction and Harold Pinter‘s exemplary script adaptation, but it needs a versatile and surprising actress to make its tricksiness work. Playing with Victorian notions of romance and using every cinematic tool at its disposal—Carl Davis‘ atmospheric, woebegone score, Freddie Francis‘ gorgeous cinematography—the film becomes a meta-examination of the complexities of womanhood and love, all pivoting around the dual performances by Streep. Cementing her status as one of the most formidable leads in Hollywood, Streep balances the contemporary, urbanite mannerisms of Anna with the stifled, 1800s affectations of Sarah Woodruff, accessing common truths and wild contrasts between the two women, yet making them both feel primarily real, complex and of their time. From film to film, Streep’s subsequent career would be variegated, but “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” is still a rarity in allowing her to stretch her wings so expansively.
“Sophie’s Choice” (1982)
“I can’t choose! I can’t choose!” The barbarism, depravity, and simple dehumanizing evil of that climactic scene in “Sophie’s Choice” is so indelible that the title itself has become a byword for an impossible and grotesquely unfair dilemma. Streep’s performance in that scene alone would be enough to establish a career: it brought her second Oscar (her first for Best Actress) and made good on Streep’s heartfelt petitioning for the role (she tracked down director Alan J. Pakula after reading an early transcript and literally begged him for the role of Sophie Zawistowsk). His acceptance paved the road for movie magic: Streep’s ferociously raw attachment to the role is felt in every word, wayward glance, quivering lip and stunted sigh. Without a pinch of hyperbole, it is one of the greatest screen performances of the 20th century—her Polish accent is perfect, and it’s only a testament to how monumental she is every time she’s on screen that one of Kevin Kline‘s career-best performances comes in distant second. Say what you will about the film’s weaker aspects (it sure doesn’t look like Peter MacNicol begged for his role), but to this day, it’s still possibly the defining role for Streep, not only as a checklist of Streepisms—tragedy, romance, accent—but also for its inarguable greatness.
Considering its based-on-a-true-story provenance and the perfectly A-list (for the time) cast—Streep is supported by Cher and Kurt Russell—there should by rights be a sense of worthiness to “Silkwood.” After all, these are movie stars at the height of their glamor playing blue-collar nuclear power plant workers whose rights and then very lives are put at risk by The Man. But the performances, which are all excellent, especially Cher as the best friend and Streep’s gently offbeat portrayal of Karen Silkwood, along with sensitive direction from Mike Nichols (from a Nora Ephron script), transform the film from a standard workers’ rights/whistleblower narrative into a character portrait nonpareil. Indomitable though her spirit may be, Streep’s Silkwood is also occasionally clumsy, sexy, irritating and selfish. She has an affair, she runs late, she chews gum, she gets things wrong —she’s a person, never just a symbol. It’s perhaps the best iteration ever of one of Streep’s great skills: when she tamps down that glossy, patrician, fine-boned beauty and burrows into a de-glammed role, she inhabits it in such a wholehearted way that we realize there’s no such thing as an “ordinary” person.
“Out Of Africa” (1985)
Epic romance doesn’t get much more epic (or overblown, if we’re being less charitable) than in this story of Danish Baroness Karen Blixen (Streep) and her affair with big-game hunter Denys Hatton (Robert Redford) in Kenya. In all honesty, Sydney Pollack‘s “Out of Africa” is too long for the frail dimensions of the story, and seems to somehow get slower on every viewing. But as something of a controversial Best Picture winner, with lacklustre direction and eye-rolling dialogue, it’s rescued, however, by John Barry‘s translucent score, David Watkin’s cinematography (thanks in full to the enchanting beauty of the African plains), and, of course, Meryl Streep’s stoic and robust portrayal. She plays an aristocratic woman desperately trying to remain in her element while battling the rampant misogyny and colonial racism of the time, and with another spot-on accent and all the exterior aloofness befitting a Scandinavian baroness, Streep etches yet another essential character into her canon that is both stunning and the very portrait of poise (Pollack initially thought she wasn’t “sexy” enough for the part, which is absurd). At the end, when she reads that letter and can’t let go of the dirt, well, even the film’s harshest critics can be forgiven for turning tearful.
Héctor Babenco‘s rendition of William Kennedy‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Ironweed” is bourbon-soaked theatricality with plenty of sorrow and not a whole lot of plot. This makes for a tough viewing experience, and were it not for two acting titans in the lead role, we’re pretty sure the whole thing would’ve collapsed. Jack Nicholson and Streep reunite on screen (they’ve done the much lighter “Heartburn” the year before) as two homeless drunks who exist in a vacuum of bitterness and despair; Nicholson’s Francis haunted by his troubled past, and Streep’s Helen resentful at herself and the people who’ve mistreated her. We don’t know much about Helen, in fact, which makes Streep’s utterly mesmerizing performance all the more memorable. By submerging every inch of herself into this cracked shell of a woman (her gait, her bone-tired 1930s accent, etc.), she breathes life into a lifeless character. You could almost feel the entire weight of the Great Depression on her face as she sings “He’s Me Pal,” and the way she refuses Nicholson’s sandwich or prays to St. Joseph in the church tells you everything about Helen’s disoriented pride and shattered spirit. In “Ironweed,” Streep (together with Nicholson, who is just as fantastic) does that thing she does and makes you forget the screen every time she’s on it.
“A Cry In The Dark” (1988)
Streep built something of a reputation with a handful of critics for being too cold and technical an actor, and her turn as Lindy Chamberlain (alongside her Karen Blixen in “Out of Africa”) is one that surely stoked those fires the most. Bugger those critics, though. In “A Cry In The Dark,” the devastating true story of a woman who loses her baby to a dingo in the Australian outback only to be demonized by an entire nation and accused of murder, Streep delivers yet another one of her subtly seismic performances. Not only does she get that Australian accent down so pat that you find yourself re-checking her bio just to guarantee her birthplace, but the way she balances her grief at the loss of a child, her disappointment in her husband (a super-solid Sam Neill), and the interior vitriol bubbling as a consequence of the harassment she experiences, is nothing short of masterful. It’s impossible not to be hypnotized by her Lindy even when she’s in the background of that courtroom, and when she finally takes that climactic stand (“It’s been going on for two years..”) you can hear a needle drop, right before it punctures the heart. A rivetingly dramatic performance that should be studied in every drama class.
“Postcards From The Edge” (1990)
The 90s was something of a tumultuous decade for Streep as she transitioned away from the serious dramas and romances that became synonymous with her name in the 80s into lighter territory. While she did receive a Globe nomination for her farcical performance in the 1989’s “She-Devil,” it was really “Postcards From The Edge” the year after that sealed the deal on her surprisingly well-honed comedic chops. The combination of the professional familiarity she’d built up with her friend Mike Nichols (this was their third film together), her first-hand experience of being an actress in Hollywood, and working opposite the legendary Shirley MacLaine, paved the way for Streep to deliver one of the funniest turns of her career. She nails the insecurities, paranoia, and racked-up tension that befit a drug-addled starlet like Suzanne Vale (based on Carrie Fisher‘s quasi-autobiographical novel), and watching her square-off against MacLaine is an infinitely entertaining series of ding-dongs. She laughs, she cries, she cracks wise, she screws up and she even sings; her country number over the end credits being the final proof that Streep’s bow has all the strings.
READ MORE: Meryl Streep’s 10 Musical Warm-Up Acts Before ‘Ricki and the Flash’ (Video Clips)
“The Bridges of Madison County” (1995)
After the early 90s and a handful of middling to poor titles (“The House of the Spirits,” “The River Wild“) which mark the only major blip in an otherwise ridiculously consistent career, Streep landed the female lead in Clint Eastwood’s elegiac “The Bridges of Madison County,” a tale of a four-day romance and a lifelong memory. The Iowan countryside has never looked this romantic, and the film is rightly considered to be that rarity which does its book one better, creating something wonderful from a fairly mediocre novel (though a massively bestselling one: your Mom has a copy). “I was just going to have some ice tea, and then, um, split the atom. But, that can wait.” These playful words are spoken by Francesca Johnson (Streep) in her first encounter with Robert Kincaid (Eastwood). Within a single sentence, you see her starting to fall in love. Francesca is Italian-born which adds another pitch-perfect accent to Streep’s arsenal, but it’s the way she turns from skeptical, lonely, woman into a giddy teenager in love, and back to sensible matriarch who can conceal her heart from those who know her best, that yields her best performance of the decade, by some margin.
“One True Thing” (1998)
It may be a couple degrees north of a Lifetime movie, manipulating the tear ducts like an under-worked plumber, but Carl Franklin‘s “One True Thing” would’ve been headed straight for the TV movie garbage bin were it not for the performances on display, and Karen Croner’s heartfelt screenplay. In reality, it should now and forever be referred to as Meryl Streep’s “One True Thing” because she basically carries the whole thing on her shoulders, even eclipsing what are very fine performances by Renee Zellweger and William Hurt. Streep plays Kate Gulden, a housewife who has a strained relationship with her daughter Ellen (Zellweger) and has secretly kept up with her husband George’s (Hurt) philandering ways. When Ellen comes home and discovers that Kate is dying of cancer, the two grow closer and Ellen learns more than she ever thought she could from her mother. It’s weepy, but brush aside the “disease-performance” cliches and you’ll see one of Streep’s most organic turns, and probably one of the warmest of her career. She moves mountains with her “it’s so much easier to be happy” speech, and adds incredible depth to a character that could have been one side of a Hallmark card in lesser hands.
The winning combination of director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman gave Streep one of the most memorable supporting turns of her career. Sure, “Adaptation” is mostly remembered for its brilliant screenplay, one of Nicholas Cage‘s career-best roles as two competing twin brothers, and Chris Cooper‘s unforgettable, Oscar-winning, turn as hick botanist John Laroche. But in midst of the film’s jungle of original wilderness and absurdist reality is Meryl Streep’s softly exquisite, unassuming, and plain ol’ fun portrayal of author Susan Orlean. It’s one of the best examples of the kind of immensity Streep can bring to the most ordinary of characters, a lonely woman who is unhappy with her conventional existence and who—to her own surprise and detriment—falls in lust with the repellent Laroche in an effort to patch up the passionless void in her life. Watch her converse with Laroche’s horticulturist for some hilarious acting-as-reacting; check the bathroom scene when she realizes that she’s falling for Laroche for her knack to convey so much in just a single shift in expression, and marvel at the “dial tone” moment for just how silly and free Streep can let herself be.
“The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
“The Devil Wears Prada” wasn’t supposed to be as good as it was. But thanks in large part to the excellent cast, anchored by Anne Hathaway and featuring a breakout supporting turn by Emily Blunt, it became a hit. Surprisingly though, the heart and soul of the film was Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. In Lauren Weisberger‘s novel, a thinly veiled fiction about her time with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, Priestly is a monster, the Devil in Prada, without a shred of humanity or redemption. That was changed for the 2006 film, written by Aline Brosh McKenna, which allows for the possibility that exacting boss-from-hell Miranda might just have something else going on below her icy veneer, as amplified by Streep’s carefully controlled performance, with not a hair or gesture or word out of place. The modulation of her voice, using the quietest register to intimidate the most, was one of the markers of her performance—a surprisingly effective choice. After so many dramatic “Meryl Streep” roles, this was a foray into lighter fare, and she was clearly having a ball. Though Miranda Priestly isn’t all that much fun, Streep brings sympathy and dimension to the villainess role, veritably stealing the film right out from under Hathaway. Typical Meryl.
John Patrick Shanley‘s adaptation of his own play is thought of mostly as a four-way powerhouse acting showcase between Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Streep (all four were Oscar-nominated). It is undoubtedly that, with all these great actors behaving so generously toward one another: Adams and Davis unimpeachably brilliant in supporting turns to the fireworks that go on between Streep as the strict, suspicious Sister Aloysius, and Hoffman as the gregarious, possibly pedophilic Father Flynn. In fact, Shanley’s also-nominated screenplay is so dense it could easily drown out lesser actors—it takes performers of Streep and Hoffman’s caliber to be able to expand to the size necessary to contain all this bluster and brittleness. This is the best actor of his generation squaring off against arguably the greatest actress of all time, both measuring and raising their games, both managing to preserve the ambiguity and fleet-footed wisdom of the story. Just when you think it might be Hoffman’s show, Streep gets that last scene, that last line, delivered with a practically physiological burst of emotion (everything she has starchily repressed to that moment) and instantly all the film’s wit and weight falls back into orbit around her.
“Julie & Julia” (2009)
By the late aughts, Meryl Streep had become a real challenge for critics. How many superlatives were left? “Julie & Julia” ended up being Nora Ephron‘s last film before her death in 2012, draping a light-hearted picture in melancholic overtones, and as a whole it’s got its fair share of questionable ingredients that make the entire experience something of a letdown. Split between contemporary New York with Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and 1950s Paris with Julia Child (Streep), the story follows the two completely different women as the former is inspired with the latter’s cooking career. Nothing against Adams, who is one of the greatest working actresses around, but her ‘Julie’ portion is totally obliterated by the much funnier and warmer ‘Julia’ section. This is, naturally, mostly thanks to Streep’s uncanny knack for getting under the skin of her characters and never veering into caricature territory (something that, if you’ve seen the film or Julia Child’s real videos, you know would be too easy). The film feels undeniably lopsided and its light-dramedy register is not one that’s particularly memorable for anything other than Streep, but her performance is a polished gem, and was a lovely last gift to her good friend, Ephron.
“The Iron Lady” (2011)
Before you start a riot in the comment section, it’s our obligation to remind you that this is a list of essential performances, not essential films. Phyllida Lloyd‘s “The Iron Lady” suffers from many ailments; poor direction, jarring flashbacks, unnatural dialogue, and a conveniently soft professional depiction of Britain’s infamously ruthless PM, Maggie Thatcher. Having said all that, Streep’s third Oscar is very much deserved (apologies to Viola Davis fans) because for the first time in a career full of playing relatively obscure real-life people, Streep was met with the challenge to portray one of the most venerated and widely recognized politicians of the 20th century. Watch any number of the countless videos out there of the real Thatcher, compare it to Streep’s scenes in parliament and in her cabinet, then proceed to rub your eyes in disbelief, because, yep, she nails it. Streep becomes Thatcher, and all credit to her for making the woman’s humanity dominate over the public’s preconceived idea of her persona. However much the film may gloss over the politics involved, Streep brings Thatcher to oddly compassionate life, whether in her twilight years, or at the peak of her controversial career as a steel-willed woman in a man’s world.
Since we are talking about Meryl “probably the greatest of all time” Streep here, there’s plenty more where the above came from. Beside her uber-dramatic turns in the 80s, she found the time to be playful with Jack Nicholson in Mike Nichols‘ “Heartburn” (1986), and sweetly romantic with Robert De Niro in “Falling In Love” (1984). In 1991 she gave a wonderfully unselfconscious turn in Albert Brooks‘ “Defending Your Life,” followed by an over-the-top (but deliciously fun) turn in “Death Becomes Her” the year after. The dramatic turns continued in the 90s, though, where she held her own with mutual heavyweights Diane Keaton and De Niro in “Marvin’s Room,” and learned to play the violin like a maestro for the inspirational “Music of the Heart.” Once the 21st century kicked in, her career entered into phase three: another onslaught of brilliant dramatic turns, followed up by less taxing roles where the presumed fun on-set inspired her to let loose and just have a blast. Of these, 2002’s “The Hours,” 2006’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and last year’s “Into The Woods” missed full entries by a whisker.
The stage is yours, dear readers. What are some of your favorite Meryl Streep performances? Did we skip over an essential role? Sound off in the comments below.
–with contributions by Jessica Kiang and Katie Walsh