It’s easy to take Meryl Streep for granted and think of her as just Meryl Streep. Sure, she gave another great performance. She’s just Meryl Streep. Of course she nailed the accent, she’s Meryl Streep. Of course she’s brilliant – she’s Meryl Streep. We’re so used to her always being great we forget just how rare of a performer she really is, how versatile, how talented, how unique.
While I haven’t yet seen Florence Foster Jenkins (I am at the end of my summer break) I did happen to catch this brilliant interview with Streep by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Streep also spoke to Gross in 2012 right before she won lead for The Iron Lady. That’s a good interview but this is by far a better one. Streep talks about her own singing and how she was trained in opera before deciding she’d rather be a cheerleader and chase boys.
During this interview I was thinking about what her success means. Sure, she’s gifted with a face that age can’t touch. She’s also managed to make characters she plays more interesting than you could ever imagine they could be. That she’s interested in playing them is often the reason the film gets made at all. What’s remarkable about her is what she transcends. She’s never played a throwaway character, even if cast as one. She is the rare female actor in Hollywood who can call the shots because she has box office clout and Oscar hardware. It isn’t as easy for many other actors, especially older women of color. It’s a shit show, in truth. As was pointed out by Mark Harris a while back, the senior citizen demographic has proved substantial. So much so that Sally Field, Blythe Danner, Charlotte Rampling, Lily Tomlin are all able to carry movies and have those movies make money. Streep is sort of in that zone but sort of out of it. She has “crossover appeal,” which in turn gives her more power in Hollywood.
And why wouldn’t they be, when said gusto is filtered through the indefatigable performing presence of Streep? Once hailed as American cinema’s most meticulous thespian technician, the 19-time Oscar nominee has, if not at any cost to her eerie knack for verisimilitude, broadened into something of a high-volume barnstormer: Whether playing Margaret Thatcher or “Mamma Mia!,” her latter-day work is largely defined by its vivid, palpable eagerness to entertain. And while some have complained that Streep has a monopoly on plum screen roles for women her age, that very rafter-reaching enthusiasm makes her an ideal fit for Jenkins, even if incompetence can hardly come easily to her. (Viewers should know well by now that the star can more than capably hold a tune.) Streep certainly has a ball mimicking the scarcely human strangulations of Jenkins’ vocal technique, though her characterization skates graciously shy of belittling burlesque: There’s an empathetic ardor for performance at work here, one that deftly coaxes even bewildered viewers into her corner.
At the moment, Streep looks to be headed for a nomination here, but she’ll be going for the big 2-0 and if it’s an extremely competitive year, there’s always the chance voters will opt for the newbies. On the other hand, this star has earned her place in the pantheon.