In honor of International Women’s Day I would like to pay tribute to the one of the best ever. It is nearly impossible, by now, to say anything more about Meryl Streep that hasn’t been said. Considering she’s probably the best actress who ever worked in Hollywood it’s a wonder she’s only won three Oscars.
Two of them for lead. She could have tied Katharine Hepburn, who has four, but it never worked out that way. Part of it is that Streep is always the best thing about the movies she chooses. Rarely is a movie she starred in a Best Picture contender for the win (Kramer vs. Kramer and The Deer Hunter the two exceptions). Maybe that’s because when Meryl Streep is in your movie, she IS the movie.
On a more personal note, I can’t really talk about Meryl Streep without talking about growing up with her. Sophie’s Choice came out in 1982, a year before I graduated high school and back then actresses were more substantial than they are today. A performance like that, for Streep to finally win in lead, it caused an impact that really still resonates today; how could Streep, or any actress, ever top it? As a young theater student out of high school, there was one role model and only one. Streep broke many of the rules at the outset, much like Dustin Hoffman did — unconventional looks, odd features but spilling over with versatility and talent.
Most people remember the first time they ever saw Streep act. I think for me it was in Kramer vs. Kramer and it was immediately apparent that this actress was doing something no other could do – with her face, with her mannerisms, with her reluctant tears. It was such a complex performance, Streep’s Joanna. True, the sympathy was with Dustin Hoffman and the kid, but if you go back and really study this film, and specifically Streep’s take, you will see a woman truly destructing from the inside. That role and others like it were symbolic of what would eventually do in the feminist movement: selfish mothers abandoning their children and thus, ruining society. When Streep says she went to “find herself,” it could have been just a cold statement but when she says it in the movie you see exactly what she means.
She would win her first Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, deservedly. One thing the Oscars have always been about, and continue to be about, are the actors. The film must be an acting showcase, actor-driven. The difference between the films that won Best Picture in the 1970s and films that won from then on was that the films in the 1970s were more director driven. The actors were great too but the films were notable for who was behind the camera. Not so with a film like Kramer vs. Kramer — it was all about the acting.
Streep is an actress built from the ground up. They rarely build them that way anymore because there isn’t a need to invest in them for the long haul. Sure, actors continue to study their craft, to go to Yale Drama and study theater, to do Shakespeare in the Park and study The Method and all of that. But by the time they’re done they’re in their 20s and isn’t that almost too old by now? No, the new breed has to start young and mostly skip the training. Natural talent, popularity, box office matters more. Streep is one of the few, maybe the only one, who has mastered all of the above.
She famously started at Yale (after transforming herself into a blonde cheerleader, what she calls her first successful role), then performed Shakespeare. Her first movie roles were small parts in Julia and Manhattan. But even as a young supporting player there was never anything sloppy or accidental about Streep’s work. She was exacting and deliberate, every gesture, every character choice. She is one of the few who know that when you cry on screen you don’t really cry; you try not to cry. What Streep has always done is use her breath, language and expressions to act in conflicting ways so you find yourself studying her face to figure out what she’s really saying. But there is never nothing going on.
Streep would win her first Oscar around the age of 30. Here are the records of actresses who’ve won two Oscars before the age of 30:
Stars to Win Two Best Actress Oscars Before the Age of 30:
- Luise Rainer (at age 28) for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937) — back-to-back wins, the first to accomplish this feat
- Bette Davis (at age 29) for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938)
- Jodie Foster (at age 29) for The Accused (1988) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Hilary Swank (at age 29) for Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004)
I think it’s very telling of our time that Jennifer Lawrence holds the records for the youngest double for Lead Actress nominations. It’s not a sleight against Lawrence as much as it is a comment on the lack of great roles for women in general. Streep came from a different time and even she will tell you that things have gotten steadily worse since the 1980s.
Why I think Streep has carved out her own career path that seems teflon to the usual problems actresses have, like aging out or not being able to draw in adequate box office or get great reviews — whatever forces appear to work against women — is a combination of factors. 1) Streep’s face is timeless and ageless. She did The River Wild at 45 and you can barely tell at all. She’s got those cheekbones and that jawline – age has barely touched her.
But beyond that, she is an extremely intelligent, curious person. She has never done, nor needed, plastic surgery and she’s smart enough to know the value in keeping roles open for older actresses because even though Hollywood wants us to be done with them, we women know the value of women at every age in our culture. Streep has found brilliance in the women she plays turning each of them into a cinematic legend. Bridges of Madison County could have been a throw-away sex romp but Streep turned that whole movie around from the potential to be a male sex fantasy to it really being a woman’s sex fantasy. She shows us the internal transformation that impacts the external. We see her burn with passion and craving nothing so much as a man to look her in the eye and have a conversation with her.
The Devil Wears Prada is one of Streep’s best — an icon. So maybe in that case the material was great but how about One True Thing? Streep’s mother character turns miraculously into the most interesting person you’ve ever “met.” Ditto with last year’s Hope Springs. Streep doesn’t approach these roles as throwaways — she isn’t hiding her middle age, nor trying to play younger. She finds the worth, the authenticity in these women and in so doing has mostly and singularly kept alive the evolution of women on the big screen.
So here’s to you, Ms. Streep, for the decades of brilliance, the political activism, the silliness and every other grand and tiny thing that makes you such a bright star in a crowded, mostly inconsequential sky.
What is your favorite Streep performance? This might be mine:
I can’t choose. Don’t make me choose!