Name: Meryl Streep
Born: 22 June 1949 (Age: 60)
Where: Summit, New Jersey, USA
Height: 5' 6"
Awards: Won 2 Oscars, 4 Golden Globes, 1 Emmy, 1 BAFTA
When, in February, 2003, Meryl Streep was Oscar-nominated for her performance in Adaptation, she overtook Katherine Hepburn to become the most successful actress in Hollywood history. 13 nominations in 26 years (Hepburn took 48 over her 12) - incredible. Given the traditional paucity of fine roles for more mature women, this is proof positive that Streep's talent can often turn manure into gold-dust. And everyone knows it, too. Though there have been many jokes about her penchant for trying different accents ("I hahd a fahm in Ahfricaaah"), she is generally accepted to be the pre-eminent screen actress of her generation - and maybe of all generations.
She was born Mary Louise Streep on the 22nd of June, 1949, in Summit, New Jersey. Her father, Harry Streep Jr, was an executive at a pharmaceutical company, while mother Mary was a commercial artist. Mary was 35 when she had Mary Louise, her first child. Soon would come Harry III, now a choreographer married to actress Maeve Kincaid (longstanding star of the soap opera The Guiding Light), and Dana, now a bond salesman.
Young Mary Louise grew up in Summit, then the affluent New Jersey township of Bernardsville, a short distance west of Newark. Pointers to her later career (and level of professionalism) were evident from very early on. As a child, pretending to be her grandmother, she drew age-lines on her face and wore a sweater to "feel" more like her character. She made her stage debut in a school Christmas production, singing O Holy Night, and it was also telling that she delivered the song in perfect French, despite having studied the language for only a very short time. Indeed, singing was the girl's first love and she dreamt of becoming an opera star. From age 12, she trained with the renowned vocal coach Estelle Liebling.
At Bernardsville High School, she was a fine student but, to begin with, an awkward teenager - gawky and lacking confidence. Acting in school plays began to change this and, when at 15 she received a standing ovation for her part as the librarian in a production of The Music Man, she claimed she stopped feeling "dorky" - a hugely liberating moment. Many other school roles would follow, including that of Daisy-Mae in Lil' Abner. Everyone would notice this new Mary Louise when she dyed her hair blonde and switched from specs to contacts. Her popularity sky-rocketed, and she became not just a cheerleader, but Homecoming Queen.
As said, she was a bright student and an obvious talent, and won a place at the prestigious all-girl Vassar college in Poughkeepsie, New Hampshire, studying drama and English. Here she stood out once more, being awarded a much-sought-after place on the Honours Exchange Program with Dartford College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Here she'd widen her range, studying both playwrighting and set and costume design. During a trip to London where she tried to make a brief living as an actress, she'd once find herself sleeping rough in Green Park. From her uncomfortable resting-place she would have a clear view of the Ritz and vow to stay there one day. And she did.
Graduating from Vassar in 1971, she spent the summer with a travelling theatre company in Vermont, worked as a waitress at the Hotel Somerset in Somerville, then made her New York stage debut. But the ambitious Streep knew she had more to learn, and so enrolled at Yale's School of Drama where she immediately became the bright new star, eclipsing such peers as Sigourney Weaver and Wendy Wasserstein. Treating her learning as serious work, she'd usually be seen clad in overalls. Over her 3 years at Yale, she'd appear in over 30 productions with the Yale Repertory Theatre, including The Royal Pardon, Lower Depths, Edward II, The Brothers Karamazov, The Possessed and A Midsummer Night's Dream - a real all-round education. In her final year she'd audition for Murray Schisgal's All Over Town, to be directed by one of the world's biggest movie stars, Dustin Hoffman who'd just seen Lenny released. The notoriously picky Hoffman would audition 1500 people for the play, not all of them actors, and would introduce himself to Streep with a loud belch, prompting her to describe him as "an obnoxious pig".
She left Yale in 1975 with a Masters in Drama, and spent that summer with the O'Neill Playwrights Conference. Now she was ready for the big-time. Returning to New York to join Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, she made an immediate breakthrough. Papp, who described her as one of the few "true actors" he'd ever met, gave her the lead in his Lincoln Centre production of Trelawney Of The Wells. Then came his 1976 double-bill of Tennessee Williams' 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton and Arthur Miller's A Memory Of Two Mondays. Many in the audience did not realise that the blowsy, simple-minded wife in the former and sophisticated secretary in the latter were played by the same actress. But the critics noticed and were blown away by her versatility and intensity. For 27 Wagons, she received an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Theatre World award and a Tony nomination.
1976 was a landmark year for Mary Louise (now calling herself Meryl). She proceeded to knock the critics out once more in the Shakespeare In The Park season, playing in Henry V and as Isabella in Measure For Measure. Her co-star in both was John Cazale. Though now known predominantly as foolish, fun-loving brother Fredo in The Godfather, Cazale was then set for even greater things. He was a stage star and all five of the movies he made (two Godfathers, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter) were nominated for Best Picture Oscars, 3 of them winning. He was a brilliant talent and it seemed correct that he should begin a passionate relationship with Meryl, the brightest new star in the New York stage firmament.
Meryl kept on the up. She starred on Broadway in the musical The Happy End, with John Lithgow in William Gillette's Secret Service, and won an Obie for Alice In The Palace. She also made her screen debut in the TV movie The Deadliest Season, as the wife of Michael Moriarty, playing a pro hockey star who, pressured into becoming more aggressive during games, is charged with manslaughter when an opposing player dies on the ice.
Now fame came her way. Making her big screen entrance in Julia, she impressed with a brief part as the bitchy friend of Jane Fonda's Lillian Hellman, a writer and anti-fascist activist trying to deliver funds to her battling buddy Vanessa Redgrave (in the title role) in a Hitler-ravaged Europe. The film was a big hit, winning Oscars for Redgrave and Jason Robards, but Meryl's real breakthrough came with her next release. This was Holocaust, a much harsher anti-fascist statement and a groundbreaking TV miniseries, following the conflicting fortunes of the Jewish Weiss family and German Dorfs as the Nazis rise to power.
Here James Woods gave an unforgettable performance as the Weiss first-born, an artist sent to the camps, where he's starved, brutalised and, in one profoundly moving scene, has his hands shattered - he will never create art in the same way again. Placed up against his torture are the efforts of his German-born wife (Meryl) to have him released. Wracked by her own feelings of nationalism, she does everything she can to have him freed, including sleeping with the vile camp commandant. It was a performance of massive depth and emotion, and won her a deserved Emmy.
Now she moved on to more glory with Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. Vying with Apocalypse Now as the greatest of the Vietnam movies, this saw 3 friends from a Pennsylvania steel town (Robert De Niro, John Savage and Christopher Walken) as they enjoy their last few days of liberty, then undergo terrible traumas during the conflict. Savage is physically ravaged, Walken mentally destroyed and De Niro emotionally paralysed. When De Niro returns to the town, he can't face the people, but makes contact with Walken's bereft girlfriend, Streep, and it's these scenes - Streep's quiet grief juxtaposed with De Niro's buried torment - that give the movie much of its very human heart. They would win Meryl her first Oscar nomination.
Professionally, it couldn't really have been any better. Personally, though, Meryl was suffering torment of her own. Within a couple of months of moving in with John Cazale, by then her fiance, he'd been diagnosed with bone cancer. So besotted was she that she hadn't noticed the beginnings of his deterioration but, throughout 1977, she nursed him as he fell away. He would eventually succumb in March, 1978, leaving behind that classic but all-too-short body of work, and a distraught Streep.
Meryl now threw herself into her work, starring alongside Raul Julia in the Shakespeare In the Park production of The Taming Of The Shrew. The performance would win her an important new fan in the director Karel Reisz. Onscreen, she continued her run of hot performances. In Woody Allen's Manhattan, while the ageing Allen enjoyed an affair with 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway, she played his now flamboyant and thoroughly hostile former wife, who's not only left him for another woman but written a best-selling book ridiculing their marriage and, worse, their love-life. This was followed by The Seduction Of Joe Tynan, where Alan Alda played a principled liberal senator who's gradually forced to compromise in every area of his life - Meryl appearing as the smart, pretty Southern secretary who draws him away from his family.
Schooled in the Sixties and Seventies, Streep was principled herself, demanding that both her roles and her performances be interesting and accurate. In 1978 she'd said "I'm looking forward to bigger parts in the future, but I'm not doing soft-core scripts where the character emerges in half-light, half-dressed". She would very much bring these attitudes to bear on her next role, as Dustin Hoffman's wife in Kramer vs Kramer. Interestingly, the role was originally intended for Kate Jackson, then a huge TV star after the success of The Rookies and then Charlie's Angels. But Charlie's Angels' hectic schedule meant she had to turn it down. Streep was actually called in to audition for the far smaller role of a lawyer (she'd obviously forgiven Hoffman for belching in her face during the auditions for All Over Town), but thought she was up for the Jackson role and consequently won it, playing the mother who leaves workaholic Hoffman holding the baby, then returns to seek custody just as he's managed to build a responsible relationship with his son.
In playing the part, Meryl demanded that her role be re-written (a brave move as Manhattan, The Deer Hunter and The Seduction Of Joe Tynan had not yet been released and she was not yet a star). It was important, she thought, to explain why Joanna Kramer had left her family. It was so obviously a massive step for a woman to take, her reasons needed to be clarified. It would also create sympathy for the woman, and thus add drama to the custody battle. And she fought hard for the changes, Hoffman saying later "I hated her guts, though I respect her as an actress". She was right, too. The film was a huge hit, and gained her her first Oscar, as Best Supporting Actress. Naturally, she was delighted, so delighted that during the celebration after the award ceremony, she left her precious statuette on top of a toilet.
Now everything was hunky-dory in her personal life, too. Soon after the death of Cazale, she'd engaged in a whirlwind romance with sculptor Don Gummer. Moving out of the flat she'd shared with Cazale, she'd moved into the apartment of a friend of her brother's who was travelling in Europe. That friend was Gummer. When he returned, he got on so well with Streep he asked her to stay. They'd marry in late 1978, and she'd give birth to son Henry (Harry) the next year. Mary Willa, known as Mamie, would follow in 1983, then Grace (named after an Irish ancestor) in 1986, and Louise in 1991. It was on her way back from visiting Gummer's parents for the first time that Streep would write that famous show-stopping speech in Kramer vs Kramer. Everyone was having a go at it, but her version would be chosen ahead of Dustin Hoffman's and director Robert Benton's.
As she entered the Eighties, having briefly returned to the theatre in Taken In Marriage, that performance in The Taming Of The Shrew had its effect as Karel Reisz cast her as The French Lieutenant's Woman. Written by John Fowles and scripted by Harold Pinter, this saw her in 19th Century England as a young woman waiting in vain for the return of her lover. Naturally, the town is scandalised as she pines away on the cliffs and Cobb of Lyme Regis, and all the more so when rich newcomer Jeremy Irons is captivated by this mysterious "widow". It was a richly romantic tale, made all the more intriguing by the addition of a parallel plot-line where a present day film crew are filming the story and the leads (also played by Irons and Streep) engage in an affair of their own. It was another bravura performance, and it brought yet another Oscar nomination, this time as Best Actress. The winner that year would be Katherine Hepburn for On Golden Pond, her 12th and last nominated part. 22 years later Streep would break that record.
Streep and Reisz had worked well together, but there would be ructions a few years later when Reisz ignored her request and cast Jessica Lange in his Sweet Dreams, a biopic of doomed country star Patsy Cline. Lange would be Oscar-nominated for her efforts, in the same category as Streep for Out Of Africa. Both would be beaten by Geraldine Page.
Meryl's next feature, Still Of The Night, saw her widening her scope once more. This was a psychological thriller from the Hitchcock school, and saw Meryl as another mysterious woman, but this time one who might be a killer - much to the confusion of infatuated psychiatrist Roy Scheider.
The movie wasn't particularly well-received. No matter - what followed would cement her reputation for good. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, Sophie's Choice was an involving and profoundly moving drama that saw Meryl at the very top of her form. Here she played Sophie Zawistowska living on America's East coast in 1947 with her possibly crazy lover Nathan, played by Kevin Kline. Their tempestuous relationship is viewed with fascination and some horror by their downstairs neighbour Stingo, a young Southern writer, played by Peter "Ally McBeal" MacNichol.
Streep had literally begged Pakula on her knees for the role of the concentration camp survivor whose dreadful secrets are gradually revealed, and in order to perfect her accent had learned Polish. And it paid off. Sophie's Choice entered dramatic legend and Meryl was now regarded as perhaps the finest actress of her generation, walking off with the Best Actress Oscar.
On she went to Silkwood, where she worked for the first time with director Mike Nichols. This was the true-life story of Karen Silkwood, a Texan employee at a nuclear facility, who discovers that not only are working conditions dangerous but plutonium has gone missing. Battling to reveal the truth, this feisty, courageous woman found herself first belittled by the authorities then (possibly) murdered when she tried to deliver the goods to the New York Times.
Once again, in her first real working-class part, Streep revealed her range, particularly in her exchanges with co-worker Cher. The pair would become very close, and Cher would later tell a tale of Streep's own courage. One day in New York, they were out walking together, turned a corner and saw a woman being mugged by a huge guy. Before Cher could blink, Meryl was running at the mugger, screaming at him. When Cher started running too, the fellow was panicked and took off.
Silkwood would bring another Oscar nomination, but no cigar, beginning a run of 8 consecutive defeats at the Academy Awards. Meryl moved on to Falling In Love, her first modern romance. This re-teamed her with her Deer Hunter co-star De Niro, as they played a couple of New Yorkers who meet in a bookshop, take a shine to one another and, despite their best efforts to stay true to their respective spouses, can't help but begin a relationship. It was sweet stuff, with both leads excelling as they quietly struggled to express their overwhelming emotions, but somehow it lacked spark.
Meryl immediately returned to more fraught territory. In Plenty, she was Susan Traherne, an Englishwoman who fights for the French Resistance then, post WW2, returns home to married Charles Dance. Trouble is, Traherne is a passionate woman, neurotic too, and prone to outbursts that embarrass the hell out her staid husband. Having lived fast and fully during the great conflict, she's constantly looking for an excitement, a life that no longer exists. And how she suffers for it.
It was another great performance, but not one that garnered much sympathy from viewers or the Academy, probably because Traherne was complex, fascinating but not really likeable. Yet Meryl ran the same risk with her next character, Karen Blixen in Out Of Africa. This was the true story of a brave and free-spirited Scandinavian woman who travelled to Kenya, took a husband of convenience and ran a coffee plantation on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, before financial troubles forced her to pack it in (writing as Isak Dinesen, she then became a famous author). Though the part was originally intended for Audrey Hepburn, Streep did wonders with the role, managing to be both strong and vulnerable in her dealings with the natives, the authorities, her errant husband, and her lover, game-hunter Robert Redford. And it was beautifully put together by director Sydney Pollack, who'd earlier directed Redford in another big sky epic, Jeremiah Johnson. Once more, Meryl found herself nominated by the Academy.
After two historical dramas, Streep now returned (almost) to the present day with Heartburn. Once more directed by Mike Nichols, this was a comedy-romance of sorts, written by Nora Ephron about her marriage to famous political journalist Carl Bernstein. Jack Nicholson played the Bernstein character, whose infidelity and general beastliness lead him to abandon a pregnant and vengeful Meryl. Unfortunately, being based on two such bitter and messed-up people, the movie was smart, but low on both comedy and romance.
Streep fared better with her next outing, paired again with Nicholson in Ironweed. Here they played a couple of drunks who pair up in Albany in the last years of the Depression. Nicholson is a former baseball player plagued by flashbacks, Streep matches him as a tubercular woman who won't accept she has a drink problem (and, in a return to her early stage days, she sings in a bar-room fantasy). Helmed by Hector "Pixote" Babenco, it was relentlessly grim stuff - but Streep shines when the going gets grim, and she picked up her 7th Oscar nomination.
Within a year, she had her 8th. This was for A Cry In The Dark, where she took on an Aussie accent in the real-life story of Lindy Chamberlain, a woman who, despite claiming that her young daughter was taken by a wild dog, was jailed for murder. Once again she was superb, and bravely unsympathetic. Chamberlain, a Seventh day Adventist, believed that one should reconcile oneself to the will of God, no matter what was willed, and was repressed, angry and bitter rather than openly emotional in the way the press and public expected a mother to be. This was a major reason why she became the main suspect, and why evidence that would later be easily proved as false was so happily brought against her. Streep saw and revealed all of this.
Now she was clearly established as a great thespian, to the point where people would mock her for endlessly challenging herself to master new accents ("The dingo ate my baby!" became a worldwide catchphrase). She also took flak for appearing "cold" onscreen, facing accusations that she could intellectually master a character, but never reveal her human heart. So, as if to confound her critics, she had a stab at comedy - four in a row.
First came She-Devil, based on the uncompromising feminist novel by Fay Weldon. Here Meryl played a snobbish, smarmy writer of romances, who lives a nauseatingly chintzy lifestyle, as if she were the heroine in one of her own books. But she also has a hard side, which she reveals when she cold-bloodedly steals away Ed Begley Jr, husband of Roseanne Barr, thereby unleashing Barr's burning desire for revenge.
Many were surprised by Streep's comic talents, and all the more so by her next film, Postcards From The Edge, another true-life tale based on the experiences of Carrie "Princess Leia" Fisher with her mother Debbie Reynolds. This allowed Meryl to live it up a little as the self-hating, promiscuous, alcoholic cocaine-freak battling with her attention-seeking ex-movie star mum, played by Shirley Maclaine. It was another excellent performance, which saw her singing once more, but you couldn't help feeling Streep would have been yet more impressive as the needy, overbearing mother. Nevertheless, she was Oscar-nominated again, and won an American Comedy Award.
Defending Your Life saw Meryl as a serene angel-type, capturing Albert Brooks' heart as he tried to show an after-life court how he'd shown courage during his worldly span. But she was far from serene in the final instalment of her comedy jaunt, Death Becomes Her. Here she played Madeline Ashton, an ageing screen siren who steals old college friend Goldie Hawn's plastic surgeon boyfriend, Bruce Willis. When the elixir of eternal youth comes into play, the two women engage in an almighty SFX-packed duel of spinning heads and ultraviolence (while filming, Streep actually scarred Hawn's face with a shovel - how close to disaster was THAT?).
Come 1993, it was time to get serious again, and who better to get serious with than Jeremy Irons, her French Lieutenant's Woman co-star. The pair re-united in Isabel Allende's magical-realist drama The House Of The Spirits, spanning several turbulent decades in a country not unlike Chile. Irons played a poor boy who must labour to win the hand of a rich girl, but sadly, once he's succeeded, she's poisoned. Years later, he meets his dead fiancee's younger sister (Meryl), who's taken a vow of silence, but breaks it for Irons. It should be a marriage made in heaven, yet Irons has trouble dealing with Streep's powers of clairvoyance and telekinesis , powers that affect the family for years to come.
It was a fascinating role, though the film was a tad slow. Infinitely faster was her next movie, The River Wild where, at the age of 45, she decided to try out as an action-heroine. Here she played a white-water raftswoman who's held up, along with her young son, by a gang of desperadoes led by a psychotic Kevin Bacon, and forced to take them down a particularly venomous stretch of river. It was a demanding role, but Streep took it, partly to test herself once again, and partly to show her daughters that a woman can be physically brave without strapping on a sub-machine-gun. And it nearly ended in catastrophe. At the end of the shoot, director Curtis Hanson asked Meryl to try one more take of one of the more chaotic river sequences. She said she wasn't up to it, but gave in to his persuasion, only to be swept from the raft and damn near drowned. Once on dry land again, she berated Hanson with a withering "In the future, when I say I can't do something, I think we should believe me".
Having (just) survived the action genre unscathed, Streep took on her first real romance since Out Of Africa, a decade before. This was Clint Eastwood's The Bridges Of Madison County, where a couple of grown-up siblings read their dead farmer's-wife mother's diary and discover that, back in the Sixties, she had a brief, passionate but unrequited affair with a travelling National Geographic photographer. Cut to flashback and we see the relationship unfold between Streep's misplaced Italian wife and Eastwood's gnarly-but-nice smudger, with Meryl superb as she wavers on the boundary between loyalty and desire.
It was a wonderful movie, a genuine heart-breaker, and it gave Streep her first Oscar nomination in 5 years (a long break in her case). She moved on to more high drama with Before And After, playing a New England doctor whose young son, Edward Furlong, is accused of murder. She tries to stay calm, seeking the best defence for her boy, but her efforts are undermined by her husband, Liam Neeson. Hurt and angry, his attempts at a cover-up bring yet more trouble to the family.
Before And After began a string of lower-profile dramas that offered Meryl, now approaching 50, more interesting parts. Marvin's Room saw her as the mother of an unruly Leonardo DiCaprio, struggling to keep him in check. Matters become far more complex when it's discovered he might be an appropriate bone marrow donor for her estranged sister, Diane Keaton, now suffering leukaemia. This was followed by ...First Do No Harm. This time it was her son who was sick, with epilepsy. As the hospital's treatment isn't working, Meryl does her own successful research into alternative cures, then faces a fracas with doctor Allison Janney, who will not let her take her boy home. Being a TV movie, it proved that Meryl was searching far and wide for testing parts - and it worked, earning her nominations for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
1998 brought Dancing At Lughnasa, about 5 unmarried sisters living in rural Ireland in the 30s. Streep played the oldest, a strict schoolteacher who holds the women together under a harsh regime of silence and discipline. But then stability is threatened when Rhys Ifans, the runaway father of one of the sister's baby, shows up, along with Michael Gambon's Father Jack, a whiskey-swilling priest from the missions and the sisters' elder brother. The movie allowed Meryl to once more reveal her feel for accents - but this had not been an easy process. A dialogue coach had been brought on board to oversee the actors' efforts, but it hadn't worked for Meryl. Having each take criticised had thoroughly unnerved her, indeed she'd begun to deconstruct her ability to act at all. Eventually, she had to have the coach removed, and returned to her own "instinctive" method of nailing the accent.
Next came another great performance in One True Thing, a profound emotional drama co-starring William Hurt and Renee Zellweger. Here Zellweger is a freelance writer who returns to the home of her famous writer father (Hurt) and housewife mother (Meryl). She's always admired her father, but not received the love from him she's always craved. Consequently she resents the affection poured on her by Streep, a problem made infinitely more complex when it's revealed that Meryl has cancer and dad wants Renee to give up her life to tend to her. All the leads were excellent here, but Meryl in particular as she discretely suffered slights from her selfish, bullying husband and deluded daughter. For the 11th time, she was Oscar nominated.
She would be again for her next picture, as Roberta Guaspari, teaching violin to Harlem street-kids in Music Of The Heart. It was a role she almost didn't play. Originally offered to Madonna, it became open only after the singer departed after "creative differences" with director Wes Craven. Left with a big hole to fill, Craven wrote a personal letter to Streep, explaining how he'd been pursuing the project for 20 years and please, please, please. Streep wisely looked past the fact the fact that Craven was best known for the likes of Scream and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and took the job on, studying violin 6 hours a day for 8 weeks in preparation.
That Streep was nominated for a part intended for Madonna must have given her some extra satisfaction. Back in the mid-Eighties, Meryl had signed up for a film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita. Much like Karel Reisz's Sweet Dreams, it would have be a perfect role for her, allowing her to show off her dramatic skills and her singing ability - thereby shattering the notion that she was always fraught in a funny accent. Sadly, the production ran out of money. When it was resurrected, Meryl was past 40 and, being as Evita Peron died at 30, she was considered too old. Meryl still fought hard to keep the part, but then Madonna came into the picture. "I can sing better than she can", complained Meryl, adding a peculiarly feisty "If Madonna gets it, I'll rip her throat out". But Madonna did get it - and her oesophagus remained intact.
Aside from providing the voice of the Blue Fairy in Steven Spielberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence, and starring alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman, her Deer Hunter boyfriend Christopher Walken and Sophie's Choice lover Kevin Kline in a Mike Nichols' Shakespeare In The Park adaptation of The Seagull, Streep would now disappear from the Silver Screen for 3 years. But this was due to delays in release rather than any self-imposed exile. When she returned in 2003, it would be in full force.
First, she returned to the cutting-edge with Spike Jonze's Adaptation. This involved the intertwining lives of an orchid thief in the South (Chris Cooper), a journalist for the New Yorker who's turning her article on the man into a book, and a screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) who's enduring writer's block in attempting to bring the book to the screen. As the real-life writer, Susan Orlean, Streep was on top form, particularly in a scene where, stoned on an orchid-based opiate, she comically tries to brush her teeth. As said, her performance would see her break Katherine Hepburn's record of 12 Oscar nominations. Co-incidentally, the real-life Orlean had years before once appeared as an extra in a movie. It was The Deer Hunter.
Many believed that Streep would also be nominated for her next picture, too. This was The Hours, filmed before Adaptation, but then delayed. With three combining stories, this saw Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf writing Mrs Dalloway, then Julianne Moore as a Fifties housewife in a loveless marriage, contemplating suicide as she read the book. Then came Meryl, in the present day as a lesbian book editor, planning a party for her dying ex-husband Ed Harris. She fights with him, but secretly agonises over whether she might somehow have found happiness with him. With the cast also including Toni Collette, Miranda Richardson and Claire Danes, it was the finest female ensemble in years. It seemed absolutely appropriate that Streep should be at their head.
After this would come 4 separate roles in Mike Nichol's 6-hour miniseries, Angels In America, concerning the onset of the AIDS virus. For the several roles she played, Streep would be rewarded with an Emmy and a Golden Globe (her fifth from 19 nominations), and there'd be more silverware when she was awarded the prestigious Stanislavsky Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival in 2004.
That same year would see her appear on our screens in two new productions. First would come The Manchurian Candidate, Jonathan Demme's reworking of the Frank Sinatra Cold War classic. Here Liev Schreiber is being pushed for office, one of his major plus-points being that he's a war hero. Denzel Washington would play a former comrade who believes Schreiber saved his life during the Gulf War but can't quite remember how it happened. There's clearly some weird mind-stuff going on and one person who understands it all is Meryl, as Senator Eleanor Shaw, Schreiber's scene-stealing mother, in cahoots with the insidious Manchurian Global Corporation. Angela Lansbury was Oscar-nominated for her efforts in the original, but Streep would take the part several steps further, never appearing villainous, but rather finding some twisted humanity in a woman who loves her son so badly she's willing to do anything, even place implants in his brain, to have him succeed. The Golden Globe nomination she'd receive would be her 20th.
Following this, she'd return to comedy with Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events, adapted from the first three books in Daniel Handler's series. Here three rich kids, their parents killed in a fire, would be sent to live with Jim Carrey's Count Olaf, a reluctant benefactor who'd like to take their lives and their fortune. Meryl would appear as their dotty aunt Josephine, hamming it up hilariously in an insanely vertiginous hut.
2005 would bring Prime where Uma Thurman (stepping in at short notice when Sandra Bullock pulled out) played an "older woman" who falls for a 23-year-old painter. At first, her therapist Streep says that age makes no difference, but her expressions become priceless as she realises Thurman is describing raunchy sex with Streep's own son, and that the dragonish mother being berated is in fact herself.
The following year would be another big one. Having taken the lead in Brecht's Mother Courage in Central Park, alongside her Sophie's Choice co-star Kevin Kline (her Deer Hunter co-star Christopher Walken having dropped out), she'd rejoin Kline in A Prairie Home Companion. This was a Robert Altman piece based on Garrison Keillor's long-running radio show. As you'd expect from Altman, there was a welter of colliding stories as the show's theatre is closed by corporate raiders and puts on its final performance, Streep and Lily Tomlin hilariously duetting as the sole surviving members of a four-sister act (the upcoming Lindsay Lohan would appear as Streep's singing daughter). Far more successful would be The Devil Wears Prada, where out-of-towner Anne Hathaway becomes an assistant on a New York fashion magazine and suffers at the hands of monstrous editor Meryl. It was another screamer of a performance by Streep who naturally added subtlety to her high-handed, elitist and hugely controlling uber-bitch. It came as no surprise to anyone when she was Oscar-nominated for the 14th time.
Having pulled out of Sean Penn's All The King's Men, Streep would lend her voice to the animated Ant Bully (of course playing the Queen of the Ants) and appear in a wonderful short by artist Laurie Simmons, known for her photographs of miniature rooms filled with strange dolls and oversized furniture. Called The Music Of Regret, this was a 3-act musical, featuring members of the Alvin Ailey dance company, and would see Streep enjoy a romantic duet with a ventriloquist's dummy.
Next she'd move on to Dark Matter, based on the true story of Gang Lu, a brilliant Chinese exchange student in Iowa who, in 1991, passed over for an award, took a handgun and killed five of his tutors. Streep would play his mentor and patron of the university, watching helplessly as her protege unravels. Then there'd be Evening, in which Streep would head one of the great female casts of modern times, featuring Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Natasha Richardson and Streep's own daughter Mary Willa, now credited as Mamie Gummer. Based on Susan Minot's novel, this would see a dying Redgrave looking back to a single weekend when she found her one great love and had her life wrecked by terrible tragedy. Streep would play her best friend, present throughout the long years, with Gummer playing her mother in flashback.
After Evening, 2007 would bring Lions For Lambs, directed by Robert Redford, the first production from a United Artists studio relaunched by Tom Cruise and his production partner Paula Wagner. With Streep, Cruise and Redford all deferring their fees to get the film made, this would combine three stories involving US involvement in Afghanistan. In one, new congressman Cruise would discuss the conflict with Streep, playing a journalist who helped raise Cruise to his exalted position. This would be followed with more political fare in Rendition, the title referring to the CIA's practice of transferring suspected terrorists to foreign countries to be interrogated. Here Reese Witherspoon's Egyptian-American husband would be thus disappeared, with reluctant CIA agent Jake Gyllenhaal being placed in charge of his torture. A pregnant Witherspoon would attempt to find and free her husband, eventually reaching as high as Streep the shady government official behind the dodgy transportation, who browbeats Gyllenhaal and places National Security above all else.
2008 would be yet another landmark year for Streep. Her first release would be Mama Mia!, the film adaptation of the hit stage-show, where she'd play the owner of a tourist villa on a Greek island. She's never told her daughter the identity of her father, but the girl finds a diary, discovers three possible daddies and invites them all to her wedding. Streep would have in-depth discussions with all three - Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard and Pierce Brosnan - and, in one of her sunniest roles yet, join the rest of the cast in singing and dancing along to the hits of Abba. The film would be a screaming hit worldwide, taking $143 million in the US and even seeing off Titanic to set a new British box office record. As with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, people would dress up to attend showings, and sing along.
Streep would win a Golden Globe nomination for her efforts in Mama Mia! She'd go several steps further with her next picture, Doubt, based on the Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning play. Set in the Bronx in 1964, this would see her as the ideologically driven mother superior of a convent school, terrifying the kids and ruling over them with traditional severity. Coming to suspect priest Philip Seymour Hoffman of abusing a young black boy, she goes after him, their conflict mirroring the battles within the church during the Sixties. It was an extraordinarily powerful drama and would win Oscar nominations for all four of its leads - Streep, Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. Streep would also be nominated for both a Golden Globe and a BAFTA.
Streep was busier now than she had ever been, making some six movies in 18 months. Her next would be Julie & Julia, where she would play Julia Child, the author and TV personality who introduced French cooking techniques and dishes to the States in the Sixties. The film would chart her rise, including the time she spent in Paris with her diplomat husband, a man accused by McCarthy during the Communist witch-hunts, also telling the story of a young woman in the present day (played by her Doubt co-star Amy Adams) who decided to work her way through all 524 of Child's recipes, becoming an Internet superstar in the process.
In 2004, Streep explained why she was still in such demand, even though a male-dominated industry usually puts actresses out to pasture when they reach "a certain age". Male studio bosses, she said, "don't want to see their first wife in the movies, and that's what I make them think of". Fortunately, she added, Hollywood is no longer an absolutely male-dominated industry. It was Amy Pascal at Sony Pictures, who insisted that Streep get her part in Adaptation, and Sherry Lansing at Paramount who saw her cast in The Hours and Lemony Snicket.
She may be prolific now, but for years Streep kept work to a minimum, concentrating instead on family life and charity work. As for the former, she once said that "You can get spoiled if you don't do your own ironing". Beyond this, recognising the problems of her son Henry, who attended pre-school in New York, nursery school in Texas, kindergarten in London and First Grade in Australia, she'd only film in the summers. As for charity work, she has been tireless. Coming from that Sixties/Seventies generation that believed you could and should change things, she became an activist for literacy and the environment, working on behalf of schools, mothers, forests, and the paralysed, fighting for female equality (observe the number of strong and independent women she has played), and acting at Paul Newman's camp for kids.
She may not have reached the high-earning bracket inhabited by the likes of Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz, but everyone recognises that a Meryl Streep movie will have something to say. It was quite right that she should, in 2000, have received France's Order of Arts and Letters. She is, quite simply, the most brilliant actress of her time.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Name: Meryl Streep