June 22, 1949– Mary Louise Streep is probably the greatest actor since the invention of film.
At last year’s Golden Globe Awards, she said:
“Once when I was standing around on the set one day whining about something, we were going to work through supper, or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor. Yeah, it is. And we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight. As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once, take your broken heart, make it into art. Thank you.”
To prepare for today’s post, I watched Ricki And The Flash (2015) which I had somehow missed. This film, directed by the late, great Jonathan Demme has Meryl Streep playing a 60-ish year old former rock musician, who plays gigs at a bar by night, but by day works as a cashier at a supermarket. One day she gets a call from her ex, well played by Kevin Kline, saying their daughter Julie, played by Streep’s actual talented daughter, Mamie Gummer, is in the middle of a breakdown after her marriage fell apart. I almost always love Demme as a director, and I am zany for Kline, but mostly I was glad I caught this film so that I could realize that Streep can appear in a mediocre movie and give a somewhat less than stellar performance. It was character building for me to understand that Streep is human, even if she is in possession of a talent that is unrivaled.
I also recently caught The Devil Wears Prada (2006) again while channel surfing. The film certainly still stands up. Streep’s Miranda Priestly may be her greatest achievement in her long career so far.
She is not gay, of course, although she could play a lesbian. She is neither needy nor tragic, or outrageous in her private life. But I feel that Streep has the making of a true Gay Icon. She turns an astonishing 68-years-old today and she has never been bigger at the box-office. Only a handful of female stars can guarantee a winner at the box-office, and even fewer who are over 50-years-old. Even Ricki And The Flash made money.
Streep has received 20 Academy Award nominations (winning three) and 29 Golden Globe nominations (winning seven), more than any other actor in film history. Her work has also earned her two Emmy Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, a Cannes Film Festival Award, five New YorkFilm Critics Circle Awards, five Grammy Award nominations, 14 nominations and two BAFTA Awards, plus a couple of Tony Award nominations. In 2004, she was awarded the AFI Life Achievement Award and she received the Kennedy Center Honor. President Barack Obama awarded her the 2010 National Medal Of Arts and in 2014 the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian honor. France made her a Commander Of The Order Of Arts And Letters. In fact, I don’t consider it an awards season without Streep. Beginning in 1979, when she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Deer Hunter, and then winning in that category the next year for Kramer vs. Kramer, we just never get weary of celebrating Streep.
I think it says something of her sense of craft and sense of adventure that a star of her caliber will take on supporting roles. Streep was nominated in the Academy’s supporting category two more times, for Adaptation (2002) and for Into The Woods (2014). Those four supporting nods are the whipped cream and cherry on top of the 16 Oscar nominations for Best Actress.
Streep moves easily between large and small films, between comic, musical and dramatic roles. Since she turned 50-years-old, ancient for a female film actor, she has showed her age gracefully, grandly and seductively.
A consummate craftsman, Streep is also, undeniably, a genuine film star. This is my favorite part of her story because it happened so late in her career. An admired actress for 30 years, she became a surprising box-office draw with The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia! (2008, Streep’s highest grossing flick to date), Julie & Julia (2009) and It’s Complicated (2009). In the 21st century Streep has become the sort of actor whose name can guarantee a film’s success. Esteemed since her first films in the 1970s, she is now one of the most beloved movie stars.
I was initially reluctant to give her my love. At the start of her career, I thought her performances were all about technique and they lacked heart. Sophie’s Choice (1982), Silkwood (1983) and A Cry In The Dark (1988), as well as the other stuff from that period, seemed to be all about the accents and the wigs, nuanced gestures, high craftsmanship. It was as if her audiences were being asked to stand in awe of her remarkable range and her ever changing, fully committed, controlled, calculated character choices and hairstyles.
But, then along came She-Devil (1989), Postcards From The Edge (1990) and Death Becomes Her (1992) and suddenly our Streep seemed to tone down the technique and her performances were less intimidating and had gained a lightness. She seemed to be having fun with her characters without being less ambitious, working in unapologetically commercial projects for the entertainment of adults.
It is not that Streep gave up on her jaw-dropping acting chops or challenging accents and looks. One of my favorites of her varied roles is the bored, Italian war-bride farmer’s wife in Clint Eastwood’s underrated Bridges Of Madison County (1995). I still like her to break my heart, but Streep shines when she is playful and impish. Her formidable timing and technique are well served in comedies and musicals. I love that she seems to be enjoying herself. She is light as air as the spacey folk singer in A Prairie Home Companion (2006), and as a romantically confused California bakery owner in It’s Complicated, or as the lady fox married to George Clooney in Wes Anderson’s fantastic Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).
My first experience seeing Streep was not on film, but on stage, in The Taming Of The Shrew opposite the much missed Raul Julia at The Public Theatre in 1975. In my own NYC era, I also saw Streep in Trelawny Of The Wells by gay writer Arthur Wing Pinero and in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, both at Lincoln Center. Streep’s work on stage and her beauty felt inspired, heartfelt and even transcendent. Yet, I am such a fan of this current period, now in Streep’s authentic prime. Real film stars belong to everyone and that is what has happened to Streep. With nothing left to prove, she has become easy to love.
Last year she gave a fearless performance opposite Hugh Grant in Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), comic biopic about the noted blithely unaware tone-deaf opera singer who insisted on giving a public performance. Streep won received her 20th Academy Award nomination, plus Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA nominations for her work.
This coming Holiday season, Streep will be seen in Mary Poppins Returns. The film also reunites Streep with her Into The Woods director Rob Marshall and costar Emily Blunt, and her Mama Mia friends Colin Firth and Dame Julie Walters. She is set to begin filming Steven Spielberg’s The Papers, which centers on The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Streep will portray the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham to Tom Hanks’ editor Ben Bradlee.
Earlier this year when Streep accepted the Golden Globe’s Cecil B. DeMille Award. her speech was highly political and critical of the President-elect. She said that Trump had a very strong platform and was using it inappropriately. He responded on Twitter, of course, calling Streep “One of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and “A Hillary flunky who lost big”. It seems that it is a love-fest that continues.
A month later at the Human Rights Campaign Greater New York Gala where she received their Ally For Equality Award, Streep responded with speech without even mentioning POTUS’ name:
“If we live through this precarious moment . . . if his catastrophic instinct to retaliate doesn’t lead us to nuclear winter, we have much to thank this president for, because he will have woken us up to how fragile freedom really is. Yes, I am the most overrated, over-decorated, and currently, over-berated actress . . . of my generation,” she joked. “But that is why you invited me here! Right?”