A few years ago Bette Midler joked, with mock-exasperation, that her message to Meryl Streep was: “Do you have to say yes to everything?” It may have been said in jest, but a legion of Hollywood actresses would have nodded ruefully in unison. La Streep not only can do no wrong, she is adored. The plum parts for women of a certain age are hers to pick. And here she is with her eighteenth Oscar nomination, a record for a performer, even though reviews of her performance in the movie August: Osage County have been mixed. Of her turn as the drug-addled and vituperative matriarch Violet, The New Yorker said Streep’s portrayal was “overwhelming,” and not in a good way.
But whether her loud, rancorous scrapping with Julia Roberts, who plays her daughter, is too overblown – better for the theater stage where the film began life, say critics, rather than the more confining movie screen – you can’t take your eyes off it. It is still a distinctive Streep-ian tour de force. It perhaps falls into the same bracket as The Iron Lady, for which Streep won her last, third Oscar playing Margaret Thatcher: amazing performance in a not-so-great film. Her scenery-chomping performance in August is in sharp contrast to that of another Oscar-nominated national treasure—the British Judi Dench—for her role as a mother searching for her lost son in Philomena. Both women are indomitable, but Dench’s Philomena is self-contained, quiet, determined not to cause a fuss, while Violet’s default setting is fuss-with-added-hellfire.
Streep commands the screen because the audience generally cannot wait to see who she is going to be. All actors dress up. All actors play different characters. But there’s something about Streep’s inhabiting of her roles, the way she enters them, assumes her character’s gait, voice, and mannerisms and makes a complex internal life tangible, that makes every performance enveloping—whether playing the unsympathetic wife in Kramer vs. Kramer, for which she won her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, or lovelorn on Lyme Regis’s famous Cobb, lashed by sea and rain, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She was conflicted and vulnerable in Sophie’s Choice (Oscar win number two, Lead Actress), carefree and dancing along cliffs in Mamma Mia, and terrifying and calculating in The Devil Wears Prada, where she makes her dragon-ish magazine boss character not just human, but also sympathetic.
Her breadth is neatly demonstrated by those 18 Oscar nominations, which span everything from the sturm and drang of The Deer Hunter to the light brilliance of Julie and Julia, in which Streep played the cookery writer Julia Child. Next, more Streep transformations beckon: we will see her as The Witch in Rob Marshall’s big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, then opposite Tommy Lee Jones in the Western The Homesman. Most intriguingly, Harvey Weinstein just announced her presence in a movie aimed at making the National Rifle Association wish it “weren’t alive.”
However, audiences don’t just love Streep for her roles. It is because, in a world obsessed with actors’ looks, love-lives and fashion, Streep—arguably one of the most lionized and respected actors in the world—is known and celebrated for her talent. She is beautiful, but it is her work and dedication to her craft the public and critics revel in. She is also witty, intelligent, and spiky. Her many awards’ acceptance speeches are hilarious—in equal measures keenly felt, yet arch and knockabout. When she won the Oscar for The Iron Lady, she noted: “When they called my name I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh, no! Oh, come on why—her! Again!’” Collecting an Emmy for her performance in Angels in America, she said, “There are some days when I myself think I’m over-rated [pause, glare at some slight], but not today-yyy.”
She is also quite willing to bite the hand that feeds. A few weeks ago at a film industry event she denounced Walt Disney as having “supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group” and called him a “gender bigot.” Noting Hollywood slowness to pick up on the popularity of female-led films, Streep once said it was “because men run the studios and live their own fantasies through them.”
But what seals our love for Meryl Streep is that when we see her, sitting at the Oscars or the Golden Globes, smiling that mischievous smile at the hoopla and pressing of the flesh around her, she just seems good fun, as well as mistress of all she surveys. Jennifer Lawrence possesses a similar intelligent warmth. You sense Streep has pleased herself rather than played the game, and if she has played the game she has outplayed all the suits around her. Presenting her with an Honorary Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement in 2012, Jake Gyllenhaal said of Streep: “I think the best actors, the actors we love, the legends, they're the ones who find real joy in their work. Meryl has done that time and time again throughout her career.” He is right, and we are the lucky beneficiaries of that joy.