Today, our most celebrated actress, Meryl Streep, turns 63. Can it be possible?
I recall vividly the first moment I saw her on-screen in The Deer Hunter (1978).
Her part was relatively small -- basically she played the stateside love interest -- but I was immediately struck by her presence.
She was not the typical Hollywood female star in the making. Her face was stunning, but unconventionally so. It was like she was from another age: she could have been painted in the seventeenth century.
It was also in her expression, the way she moved. You could sense she was complex and had depth. You suspected she might even be intense at times. She was intriguing, even riveting.
And of course, the camera loved her.
In the thirty-five years since her first film appearance (a small character part in Fred Zinnemann's Julia), Meryl Streep has become known as the finest actress of her time, if not all time.
Nominated for a whopping seventeen Academy Awards -- a record -- she has won three (nearly a record; only Katharine Hepburn won four). In addition, she has amassed an astonishing 26 Golden Globe nominations, and eight wins.
She holds honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and has received an honorary Cesar, along with the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award and the Kennedy Center Honor.
Along the way, Meryl has found time to raise a family of four with her husband, sculptor Don Gummer. Their marriage has endured for over three decades.
Prior to that, Meryl had a romantic relationship with the gifted actor John Cazale (from Dog Day Afternoon and the first two Godfather entries). She was with him on The Deer Hunter (his last film, her second), and nursed him all the way through his tragically premature, final battle with cancer.
It's all pretty extraordinary.
What's also noteworthy and refreshing is that she hasn't let the adulation go to her head, and prevent her from living a (relatively) normal, well-adjusted life.
It appears that for her, it is all about the role, not the fame. Obviously, she has developed and nurtured a prodigious gift for inhabiting her characters.
But it's not just her natural talent, but how she applies it that makes the difference: her intense drive and discipline to understand the characters she plays, inside and out.
I suspect this demanding yet fascinating process is what she loves most about what she does -- this in addition to a great actor's natural satisfaction at pleasing one's audience.
And Meryl Streep has most always pleased us.
Even in the '90s, when she faced the problem common to so many actresses in their forties -- finding good roles in good scripts -- she still managed to make some solid (if not quite superb) pictures -- among them 1990's Postcards From The Edge and 1995's The Bridges of Madison County.
Once the millennium hit, Meryl was back on a roll, though again her performances often outshone the films themselves (as in 2009's Julie and Julia, and I'd argue, even last year's The Iron Lady, for which she won her third Oscar).
Importantly, my own top-ten list below reflects what I believe are her best films, not necessarily her best portrayals. (Full disclosure: though it's technically not a "movie," I have also singled out her work in a brilliant TV mini-series).
But let's not quibble. On her birthday, let's just say: "Bravo, Meryl Streep."
The Deer Hunter (1978) -- When we first meet three young steelworkers from Western Pennsylvania -- Michael (Robert DeNiro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken), the men, friends since childhood, are celebrating Steven's marriage, while Mike and Nick take turns flirting with Linda (Streep). Then all too abruptly the trio gets shipped over to Vietnam for active duty. Soon they are captured by the Vietcong and are forced to endure the misery and torture of a North Vietnamese POW camp. Though eventually they manage to escape, none are home free yet. Solid Vietnam films abound, but few pack the wallop of this highly intense, disturbing feature from then-newcomer Michael Cimino. Beyond the graphic scenes of the group's inhuman, unbearable captivity, the film shakes us up even more in the aftermath, as the stalwart Michael goes searching for his old friends, a perilous and selfless act of love and loyalty. This gut-and heart-wrenching feature won Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor Oscars (for Walken, who is unforgettable.) Meryl also got her first nod for this. One of the all-time champs, but definitely not for the squeamish.
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) -- On the brink of a big promotion, caffeinated, pre-occupied ad-man Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) gets the wind knocked out of him when wife Joanna (Streep) abruptly announces she's leaving him and their young son, Billy (Justin Henry). Facing the sudden need to balance 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. Under these circumstances, can anybody win in the end? In 1979, Hoffman hit a career high point, and Streep solidified her own stardom, with director Robert Benton's 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 nabbed Best Actor, and Meryl scored her second consecutive Oscar nod, this time taking home the statuette for 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), the town's most eligible bachelor, 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 (Streep and Irons again), who are 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 (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) 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. Don't miss this: it'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 (Peter MacNicol), a naïve aspiring writer from the South, becomes their neighbor and falls under the spell of this magnetic pair. Yet Sophie carries traumas from the recent war that she can't seem to shake and this, combined with Nathan's own inner demons, threatens their future. When director Alan J. Pakula cast Streep as Sophie, he gave her the part that would confirm the breadth and depth of her talent to a wide audience. As a film, "Choice" is deliberately paced, literate, and atmospheric and, be warned, it does include some disturbing flashback sequences. Above all, it's a Streep tour-de-force, netting her a well-deserved Oscar. Kline also provides a poignant, memorable turn 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 November, 1974, Karen Silkwood (Streep) -- a plutonium-plant employee outraged at her management's disregard for safety procedures and the resulting risk of radioactive contamination -- 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). Director 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 to attempt something extraordinary. 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 disturbing cautionary tale.
A Cry In The Dark (1988) -- In 1980, while camping with her minister husband Michael (Sam Neill) in the Australian Outback, young mother Lindy Chamberlain (Streep) discovers, to her horror, that her baby daughter is missing. Anguished but oddly reserved, she maintains to authorities that a dingo (Australian wild dog) dragged off the child as she was sleeping. Prosecutors are not convinced, however, and Lindy suddenly finds herself the target of a vicious public who believes she is a murderer. 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.
Adaptation (2002) -- Sad-sack, chronically self-doubting Hollywood screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is hired to script The Orchid Thief, written by New Yorker scribe Susan Orlean (Streep). Obsessed with the foxy author and struggling with how to faithfully adapt the tale of Orlean'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. Meanwhile, studio producer Valerie Thomas (Tilda Swinton) is breathing down his neck. This 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 had teamed earlier on Being John Malkovich. In fact, Kaufman really was hired to adapt the Orlean book, and took a chance writing a 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 sweaty, uncomfortable turn in both roles is pure angst-filled genius, and pros Streep, Swinton and Cooper (who nabbed an Oscar) match his inspired playing throughout.
The Hours (2002) -- This wildly inventive film moves seamlessly among three different time periods and women. We explore the fragile existence of gifted but disturbed writer Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) as she starts writing Mrs. Dalloway; then the claustrophobic life of Laura (Julianne Moore) a housewife and mother in late 1940s LA, who becomes depressed after reading Woolf's book; and the predicament of Clarissa (Streep) a modern 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. A subtle, literate meditation on life's hidden detours that direct us away from self-knowledge and fulfillment. Stephen Daldry's ambitious piece succeeds as intense, disturbing drama, showcasing the prodigious talents of all three stars (Kidman deservedly won an Oscar). Harris, Toni Collette, and John C. Reilly also shine in this memorable film, well worth your two hours!
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, Louis (Ben Shenkman). Tackling the AIDS panic, religious intolerance, and Reagan-era conservative politics, Mike Nichols' 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, who won an Emmy for this, also plays Joe's straitlaced Mormon mother.) Jeffrey Wright is especially winning here, reprising his stage role as a flamboyant nurse's aide. With its poetically inflected dialogue and dreamy special effects, Angels is a vibrant, pop-political melodrama for any age.
Doubt (2008) -- In 1964, the St. Nicholas Catholic school in the Bronx is shaken by controversy when its austere, notoriously strict principal, Sister Aloysius (Streep), accuses popular, reform-minded Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of sexually abusing Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), a 12-year-old African-American boy that a younger nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), has noticed him mentoring after hours. Lacking evidence and witnesses, Aloysius is driven by her need to root out the threat posed by Flynn. But is he guilty? Enlisting Streep and Hoffman, two of the finest actors working today, for this Oscar-nominated film based on his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, John Patrick Shanley wrings a lot of great, gut-wrenching drama from his main themes, which hinge on faith and reason, doubt and certainty, progress versus tradition. Wedding past events (civil-rights era) and present-day concerns (the Catholic priest scandals), Shanley concocts a consummate chamber drama that leaves no "Doubt" about the talents of its top-shelf cast.
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