With the start of her film career and eventual stardom all occurring during my pivotal college years, the work of actress Meryl Streep is so embedded in my consciousness that it feels as if I should measure my own milestones by hers.
This week, our most distinguished screen actress turns sixty, and looking back on her legacy, we find one of those rare, happy stories of a person with blazing talent setting a high but worthy goal for herself, and fulfilling it.
That goal was to create a body of work whose quality would stand (she unquestionably has), without resorting to roles designed to exploit her beauty or sex (she didn't). Even when her films fell short (as they frequently did in the '90s, when Hollywood had no clue what to do with her) her presence always counted for something. She was never a decorative accompaniment or support to a leading man; she always held her own, by virtue of her performances, but also the parts she took.
And we, her fans, know Meryl Streep primarily from the emotions and intelligence emanating from those roles, not via sensationalistic stories in the National Enquirer. There is a grounded, decidedly normal quality to the woman that makes the actress seem all the more extraordinary.
Off the set, she eschews the spotlight, and has raised four kids, now grown, in a happy marriage to sculptor Don Gummer. By all accounts, that very private, stable part of her life has kept her clear-eyed and put her success in healthy perspective over the years. One wonders, why can't more stars follow her example? Or let's just clone her.
Mary Louise Streep grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of a pharmaceutical executive and an artist turned homemaker. A self-professed child of the sixties, at first she couldn't take acting seriously in the midst of all the social foment. But she knew it was fun, and that she had a knack for it.
So, as a young adult in the early seventies she enrolled in the Yale School of Drama after graduating from Vassar...and never looked back.
Her first film is a personal favorite of mine- Fred Zinnemann's "Julia" (1977), starring Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jason Robards. The movie is drenched in romance and nostalgia, all about Lillian Hellman's close childhood friend (Redgrave) battling the Nazis. And there, playing an insufferable society girl distracting the noble Lillian from going to her friend's aid, is Meryl. Seen today, she's almost unrecognizable. Here was a part even most good actresses would render forgettable, but there was something about Streep that reached out and grabbed you.
The Meryl we would first come to know and love appears in her very next movie, "The Deer Hunter" (1978), a male-oriented picture if there ever was one. Yet again, Streep's sheer virtuosity as Linda, who seems to embody every young woman left behind in war, registers. (This also marked her only film with the man she was first engaged to, actor John Cazale, who had played Fredo in "The Godfather". Tragically, Cazale was dying of bone cancer during production, and his loss soon after would be a bitter blow for Streep.)
Still the roles would keep coming, and as the eighties arrived, Meryl Streep was- unavoidably and inevitably- a star.
Viewed from a perspective of thirty years, Streep's painstaking discipline and sense of craft have never wavered, but the years have relaxed her to the extent that she will eagerly do comedies. Though some of these pictures are not entirely successful, her presence goes a long way towards redeeming them- and she is in fact a deft comedienne.
As Meryl turns sixty, here's my own list of top Streep titles I'd want with me on most any deserted island:
Kramer Versus Kramer (1979)- On the brink of a big promotion, pre-occupied ad-man Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) gets the wind knocked out of him when wife Joanna (Streep) leaves him and their young son, Billy (Justin Henry). Balancing career demands with caring for a young son he barely knows, Ted makes the hard choices necessary to be there for Billy. But when Joanna returns unexpectedly, a nasty custody battle ensues. Here Meryl teams with Hoffmann at the peak of his career and director Robert Benton for a near-flawless marital drama, depicting the dissolution of a marriage with unerring sensitivity. Touching performances from all three leads help bring an insightful script to heart-wrenching life. At Oscar time, "Kramer" won Best Picture, Benton took the honors for both direction and screenplay, Hoffman got the nod for Best Actor- and after just two years in film, Meryl walked away with the statuette for Best Supporting Actress.
The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)- Disgraced by her affair with a French lieutenant, Sara Woodruff (Streep) is regarded as a woman of ill repute in her South Britain seaside village. But Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons) finds himself irresistibly drawn to this mysterious and guarded Victorian lady, even though he's engaged. As their story plays out, so too does the tale of modern-day actors Anna and Mike, who're playing the doomed lovers in a film, and tumbling into their own conflicted affair. In choosing to adapt John Fowles's complex and epic romance novel, British filmmaker Karel Reisz enlisted the help of dramatist Harold Pinter, who framed the sorrow-laden, 19th-century tale of sexual repression with an intriguing modern story, creating a film-within-a-film structure that reflects the early '80s milieu. Irons is perfectly cast as the love-bitten English gentleman, and the Oscar-nominated Streep is magnificent in her double role--oozing passion as Sara, and cool precision as Anna. Here's a love story like no other.
Sophie's Choice (1982)- Based on William Styron's book, title character Sophie (Streep) is a lovely, mysterious Polish émigré who settles in Brooklyn right after World War II, starting a new life with her brilliant but erratic lover, Nathan (Kevin Kline). Stingo, a naïve aspiring writer from the South (Peter MacNicol), becomes their neighbor and falls under the spell of this magnetic pair. Yet Sophie carries traumas from the recent war which she can't shake and this, combined with Nathan's own inner demons, threatens their future. With this picture, director Alan J. Pakula exposed the full breadth of Streep's prodigious talent when he cast her as Sophie. Beyond her astonishing turn, the film itself packs an emotional wallop- it's at once extremely literate, highly atmospheric and emotionally intense. Also, be warned - it does include some disturbing flashback sequences. Above all, it's a Streep tour-de-force, netting her a Best Actress Oscar. Kline is also solid as the tragic Nathan. This devastating film will stay with you long after the lights come up.
Silkwood (1983)- On her way to meet a journalist in 1974, Karen Silkwood (Streep), a plutonium-plant employee outraged at her management's disregard for safety procedures, vanished, never to be seen again. In this film, we follow Karen's attempts to obtain proof that her company is engineering a cover-up, despite threats, intimidation, and the disastrous effect it has on her relationship with boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell). Mike Nichols brings a chilling true story to life with this suspenseful, engrossing exposé. Streep's nuanced portrayal shows an ordinary woman who, through fate, circumstance and a streak of raw defiance, risks her life for a cause bigger than herself. Russell executes one of his more interesting roles as Karen's beau, and the talented Cher sheds all her glamour to play Karen's lesbian friend Dolly. Director Nichols builds a gradual sense of dread, culminating in a nerve-jangling conclusion. Don't miss this blistering cautionary tale.
A Cry In The Dark (1988)- In 1980, while camping with her husband Michael (Sam Neill) in the Australian Outback, young mother Lindy Chamberlain (Streep) discovers her baby daughter missing. Anguished but oddly reserved, she maintains to authorities that a dingo (Australian wild dog) dragged off the child from their tent as she was momentarily distracted. Prosecutors are not convinced, however, and Lindy suddenly finds herself the target of a vicious public who believes she is a murderess. Based on the shocking true story of a Seventh Day Adventist and his wife's personal and legal ordeal, Fred Schepisi's poignant, gut-wrenching drama builds on the astonishing performance of Streep, barely recognizable as the timid, aggrieved victim of near-daily assaults in the press. Schepisi builds suspense in the tense courtroom scenes, which are intercut with flashbacks to the camping trip, and never recoils from the lurid aspects of the Lindy witch hunt. With its sympathy for a minority faith and contempt for tabloid excess, "Dark" feels more relevant than ever.
The Hours (2001)- The plotline of this fascinating film moves seamlessly among three different time periods and women: the fragile existence of gifted but disturbed writer Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) as she starts writing "Mrs. Dalloway"; the claustrophobic life of Laura (Julianne Moore) a housewife and mother in late 1940s L.A. whose reading of Woolf's book causes a numbing depression to surface; and the predicament of Clarissa (Streep) a modern-day, Dalloway-like book editor, whose lifetime project, a dying author played by Ed Harris, is receding before her eyes. Each interwoven tale plays out a variation on Woolf's own isolation and sense of futility. Don't miss this subtle, insightful meditation on life's hidden detours which direct us away from self-knowledge and fulfillment. Director Stephen Daldry's ambitious piece resonates as a disturbing and profound drama, showcasing the prodigious talents of Streep, Moore, and Kidman (who won an Oscar). Ed Harris, Toni Collette, and John C. Reilly also shine in this haunting and memorable film.
Adaptation (2002)- Sad-sack, self-doubting Hollywood screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is hired to script "The Orchid Thief" by New Yorker scribe Susan Orlean (Streep). Obsessed with the foxy author, and struggling with how to faithfully adapt the tale of Orleans's intriguing friendship with a renegade rare-flower expert John Laroche (Chris Cooper), Kaufman becomes increasingly stressed, unhinged, and of course, innovative in his approach. A brilliant meta-narrative and hilarious spoof of Hollywood's formulaic approach to telling stories, "Adaptation" is the brainchild of director Spike Jonze and real-life writer Kaufman, who teamed earlier on "Being John Malkovich." In fact, Kaufman really was hired to adapt the Orleans book, and took a chance writing a fun, zany, highly inventive script about his neurotic inability to wedge it into a conventional plot structure. He also invented a fictitious alter ego, twin brother Donald, who despite being a noodle-brained philistine, knows how to write a crack blockbuster. Cage's balding, uncomfortable turn in both roles is angst-filled genius, and Meryl, predictably, also delivers the goods.
Angels In America (2003)- This dramatic adaptation of Tony Kushner's award-winning play tracks several characters at the height of the AIDS crisis in mid-80s New York City, including Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), a young HIV+ man who begins to have visions of an angel (Emma Thompson) telling him he's a prophet, and gay-bashing conservative lawyer Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), whose underling Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson) is a closeted Mormon having an affair with Prior's ex-boyfriend.Tackling the AIDS panic, religious intolerance, and Reagan-era conservative politics, Nichols's six-hour miniseries brings to the big screen everything that made Kushner's original play a Broadway smash in 1993, including the caliber of his actors: Pacino plays real-life, rock-ribbed conservative lawyer Cohn with despicable malice, while Thompson and Streep thoroughly enjoy showier roles as supernatural visitors. (Streep also plays Joe's straitlaced Mormon mother- and the tragic Ethel Rosenberg- to chilling perfection.) With its poetically inflected dialogue and dreamy special effects, "Angels" is a vibrant, pop-political melodrama for any age.
And so, this venerable phenomenon we call Meryl Streep greets her milestone with engines on full throttle, having just received her (gasp!) fifteenth Oscar nod for her superb work in last year's screen adaptation of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt". In career terms, it seems many more roles lie in store for her, of which we will become glad and grateful beneficiaries.
Happy Birthday and thanks, Meryl Streep.
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