Meryl Streep Countdown:
From Ironweed to The Iron Lady

By Karlanna Lewis

The phrase “living legend” is too often bandied around, but for American actress Meryl Streep, the phrase “living legend” is the closest approximation to describe her genius. In her long career Streep has played every type of role, from bum (Ironweed) to nun (Doubt) to an actress (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Postcards from the Edge).

Streep is a chameleon. She immerses herself in every character’s motivations and dreams. With a variety of looks and accents to call on, she convinces us she is from a bevy of regions and walks of life. Her skillful voice is well trained—born on June 22, 1949 in Summit, New Jersey, Streep fell into acting after taking opera singing lessons in her youth. After studying drama first in high school and then at Vassar, Dartmouth and Yale (where she played in upward of 30 productions with the Yale Repertory Theater) Streep set after a Broadway career (including a Tony nomination for Tennessee William’s +27 Wagons Full of Cotton).
With Robert Markowitz’s The Deadliest Season (1977) she made her small screen debut, and that same year made her onscreen debut with Fred Zinnmann’s Julia. Now with seventeen Academy Award nominations, Streep certainly possesses that elusive “star quality,” a performer’s charismatic x-factor making her irresistibly captivating no matter what the role.
Streep, who is no doubt in wide demand, is able to select her roles, only lending a hand to projects of fresh and genuine interest.

Although Streep has been denied her Academy Award for fifteen out of seventeen nominations she is currently looking to make good on her Best Actress Oscar nomination for Iron Lady.
With nearly fifty films to Streep’s credit, fans disagree on her best work. I now present to you my personal ranking of Streep’s Academy nominations.

17. Postcards from the Edge-1990

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Mike Nichols
Writer: Carrie Fisher
Also starring: Dennis Quaid and Shirley MacLaine
(playing Suzanne Vale)

Watch the Trailer

With the comedy Postcards Streep steps just out of character to play a film actress who is recovering from drug addictions. Suzanne is a youthful character for Streep to play in her early forties, a juxtaposition highlighted when she is forced to move in with her irresponsible and demeaning mother—but opposite the exaggerated antics of MacLaine, who plays a former musical comedy star, Streep manages a fine balance of naivety and control. The film is a bit corny, but Streep holds it together.

16. Julie & Julia-2009

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Nora Ephron
Writer: Nora Ephron
Also starring: Amy Adams and Stanley Tucci
(playing Julia Child)

Watch the Trailer

Adapted from both Julia Child’s autobiography My Life in France and Julie Powell’s online diary, through which she chronicles her 365 day challenge to cook all 524 recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julie & Julia intertwines and parallels the two women’s lives and is the first film to be adapted from a blog. Adams and Tucci had previously worked with Streep on Doubt and The Devil Wears Prada, respectively. The film is light, even if the cuisine isn’t, and possessing some culinary interest adds to appreciation of the film. Streep’s performance makes it worth watching for anyone, though, due to her ability to embody not only Julia Child, the person, but also Julia Child, the myth.

15. Kramer vs. Kramer-1979

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Director: Robert Benton
Writer: Robert Benton (adapted from the novel by Avery Corman)
Also starring: Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry
(playing Joanna Kramer)

Watch the Trailer

In the five-time Academy Award winner Kramer vs. Kramer, Streep plays a mother who leaves her workaholic husband and son to “find herself,” only to return and enter into a custody battle. The complications of divorce make for familiar material for many audience members, and the turns of the custody hearing and its outcome keep the story from becoming completely predictable. All the fighting-over-the-kid business may leave a bitter taste for some viewers, for whom divorce proceedings hit too close to home, but Streep’s vulnerability and transformation from selfishness to selflessness make for a winning portrayal.

14. Adaptation-2002

Nominated Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Charlie and Donald Kaufman (based on The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean)
Also starring: Nicolas Cage, Chris Cooper and Maggie Gyllenhaal
(playing Susan Orlean)

Watch the Trailer

Based on Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief and jumbled with self-reference, the film follows Charlie Kaufman’s difficult struggle to adapt the book into a film, a struggle that began in 1994 when the film first went into development. Cage plays both Charlie and his fictional twin brother, Donald, who helps Charlie write the film. Donald pretends to be Charlie to interview Susan (Streep) but his suspicions bring him (with Charlie) on her trail to Florida, where Charlie witnesses Susan take a drug derived from the orchid. Here is Cage (in a fat-suit) at his finest, and an irrational and paranoid Streep who by the film’s end just wants to return to a purer state, an innocence fractured as soon as she became entangled in the complicated mess known as life.

13. The French Lieutenant’s Woman-1981

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Karen Reisz
Writer: Harold Pinter (based on the novel by John Fowles)
Also starring: Jeremy Irons and David Warner
(playing Sarah/Anna)

Watch the Trailer

The story within a story takes 20th century on 19th century society, and the relationship of the actors playing Fowles’ protagonists follows a similar trajectory to that of the characters they play. In his book Fowles incorporated two endings, one happy and one not, and the film format makes good use of these by giving opposite endings to the stories of the actors and of the characters. Streep’s exaggerated Victorian airs are still charming, and once again, true to form, she is an actress playing an actress, in a film where art certainly imitates life.

12.  The Devil Wears Prada-2006

Nominated for Academy Award for Actress
Director: David Frankel
Writer: Aline Brosh McKenna (adapted from the novel by Lauren Weisberger)
Also starring: Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci
(playing Miranda Priestly)

Watch the Trailer

Inspired by U.S. Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Streep’s Priestly is haughty and harsh, but also just likable enough to impress even Wintour. Critical reception of the fashion-laden film was mixed, but as Streep’s second highest grossing film ever, it was well received by fans (of both genders). Besides, it’s a nice change of pace to see Streep as “the villain.”

11. Music of the Heart-1999

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Pamela Gray
Also starring: Angela Bassett, Aidan Quinn and Gloria Estefan
(playing Roberta Guaspari)

Watch the Trailer

To portray the true story of inner-city music educator Roberta Guaspari, Streep enlists her voice talents once again, flattening her speech to give the impression of utter ordinariness. The feel-good life-based tale is not unfamiliar, but Streep’s feistiness, together the violin concertos she learned to play for the film, keep it uplifting rather than cheesy.

10. The Deer Hunter-1978

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Director: Michael Cimino
Writer: Deric Washburn
Also starring: Robert de Niro and Christopher Walken
(playing Linda)

Watch the Trailer

Three Russian American steel workers, including Linda’s (Streep’s) love interest Nick (De Niro), are sent to Vietnam. A controversial motif of Russian roulette presides over the second and third parts of the film, as friends Nick and Michael are repeatedly thrust into games against each other. Streep may have only a minor part, but her true-to-life characterization heightens the already emotional matter, especially once she believes she has lost everything and clings to the pieces of Nick she has left, and to a tenuous faith in America.

9. Out of Africa-1985

Nominated Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Sydney Pollack
Writer: Kurt Luedtke (adapted from the novel by Isak Dinesen, the penname of Karen Blixen)
Also starring: Robert Redford and Klaus Maria Brandauer
(playing Karen Blixen)

Watch the Trailer

Though the loosely biographical Out of Africa received seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, somehow Streep’s nomination fell just short. Streep plays the Danish woman who journeys to Africa in a marriage of convenience that falls apart, and meanwhile her romantic encounters with Redford never last. The setting is picturesque, the literary references are elegant and, per usual, Streep is a strong heroine.

8. Doubt-2008

Nnominated for Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Writer: John Patrick Shanley
Also starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis
(playing Sister Aloysius)

Watch the Trailer

As a stentorian nun, Streep delivers a striking performance in the film adaptation of Shanley’s stage play about a Catholic school in the Bronx and the possible illicit activities of its progressive headmaster. The severe role is unusual for Streep, but she softens the edge of even the most disciplinarian character. The film asks questions about doubt and faith and what is permissible in the eyes of God. All major players received Academy Award nominations for their roles.

7. The Iron Lady-2012

Nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Writer: Abi Morgan
Also starring: Jim Broadbent and Anthony Head
(playing Margaret Thatcher)

Watch the Trailer

Although critical opinion of the film overall is mixed-to-poor, especially with what some consider an insensitive treatment to dementia, Streep’s Thatcher is outstanding. Given Streep’s embodiment of the ambitious leader, the film’s attention to Thatcher as a character, rather than to historical events and the economic damage Thatcher caused, is understandable and even excusable.

6. A Cry in the Dark-1988

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Fred Schepisi
Writer: Robert Caswell and Fred Schepisi
Also starring: Sam Neill
(playing Lindy Chamberlain)

Watch the Trailer

Schepisi’s Australian feature takes an interesting meta-spin on a true story—the film traces the extended real-life trial of Seventh-Day Adventists Lindy Chamberlain (Streep) and her husband, who were convicted in the eyes of the media for killing their infant daughter. The courtroom scenes are ironic commentary on the public hunger for media representation of trials—by the final trial the judges and lawyers don powdered wigs and are clearly pandering to the ever-present television crews. As Lindy, Streep is a chilling and unapologetic woman who understands the power of the media and sacrifices herself once she realizes turning public opinion in her favor is a futile challenge.

5. One True Thing-1998

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Carl Franklin
Writer: Karen Croner (adapted from the novel by Anna Quindlen)
Also starring: William Hurt and Renée Zellweger
(playing Kate Gulden)

One True Thing is a film to smash stereotypes—for one, it defies the idea that material as dramatic as terminal cancer can only become a soap, and two, those who consider Streep merely a technical actress will be won over by her sensitive and spontaneous portrayal of a cancer victim. Told through her daughter’s (Zellweger’s) flashbacks at the District Attorney’s office, the film shows the family relationship deteriorate together with Kate’s (Streep’s) condition, but Kate manages to be a unifying force even after being defeated by the disease.
 

4. Silkwood-1983

Nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Mike Nichols
Writer: Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen
Also starring: Kurt Russell and Cher
(playing Karen Silkwood)

Inspired by the true story of Karen Silkwood, who died in a suspicious car crash as she was investigating dangerous and illegal violations made by the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant where she worked, Silkwood places Streep as an unlikely and imperfect hero. To add to the drama, Karen (Streep) struggles with her own problems, including abusing pills and alcohol and alienating those around her. In a blur of fact and fiction, what rings most true is Streep’s disappearance into Karen Silkwood’s day-to-day life, surrounded by her small-town friends and determined to expose the deadly corruption at the nuclear plant.


3. The Bridges of Madison County-1995

Nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Richard LaGravenese (adapted from the novel by Robert James Waller)
Also starring: Clint Eastwood
(playing Francesca Johnson)

In a film that elegantly movies beyond the maudlin qualities of Waller’s novel, the ethics behind Francesca’s (Streep’s) actions raise questions—she is a married woman but to put it simply, she has an affair. Told through flashbacks as her now grown children read journals she left for them after she died, the film paints romantic sentiment against a backdrop of farmland America. Streep is convincing as an Italian immigrant who married into an American life that was not what she expected or dreamed of, and like her children, we come to sympathize with and understand Francesca’s seemingly impetuous choices.

2. Ironweed-1987

Nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Héctor Babenco
Writer: William Kennedy
Also starring: Jack Nicholson and Carroll Baker
(playing Helen Archer)

Beautiful but dark is the film Ironweed, powered by the Oscar-nominated performances of both Nicholson and Streep. Set in Depression-era Albany, New York, the film humanizes the lives of bums Helen Archer (Streep) and Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson). Both strive for something better, but limitations of society and the hopeless future relegate Helen (Streep) to her position as a street drunk whose only happiness is found in surreal fantasies and memories of the past.

 

1. Sophie’s Choice-1982

Academy Award for Best Actress
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writer: Alan J. Pakula (adapted from the novel by William Styron)
Also starring: Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol
(playing Sophie Zawitowski)

Streep was neither Styron’s nor Pakula’s original choice for the part of a Polish immigrant who survived internment at the Auschwittz concentration camp, but having fought for the part, she delivers a performance acclaimed as one of the finest in her career. The film’s title scene, in which the Nazis force her to choose which of her two children will be gassed immediately and which will be sent to a labor camp, was filmed only once. As a mother herself, Streep identified with the protagonist’s torment, and at the end her mouth widens into a silent scream that is filled with the cries of her child on the way to the death chamber.

 
Fade Out:
“Robbed” of enough Oscars in her standout career, Streep is a favorite for the 2012 award, and with any luck the stars will align to give one of their own her due.
Streep masters personalities of all sorts and she is sure to surprise us with indefinable projects for decades to come. So Meryl, we salute you for a brilliant career, and here’s to many more.


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About The Author

Karlanna Lewis Karlanna Lewis, whose dreams include becoming a bird, completed her honors B.A. in Russian and Creative Writing at Florida State University in spring 2011, with an honors thesis in poetry and minor in computer science.

At Florida State Ms. Lewis was selected as an Outstanding Senior Scholar. As a graduate student at Florida State Ms. Lewis was a 2011-12 Rhodes Scholar Finalist.

She has also presented a research project on Russian literature and dance at various conferences. Ms. Lewis is a published writer and galleried artist, and in August 2011 she published her first book, Cante de Gitanas con Nombres de Luz / Songs of the Gypsies with Names of Light.

A native of Tallahassee, Florida, Ms. Lewis is a principal dancer for the Pas de Vie Ballet and has led an honors service project teaching dance to local schoolchildren. Ms. Lewis has worked multiple jobs as a cashier, teacher, and journalist her entire collegiate career and volunteered as a DJ and the continuity director for the V89 radio station.

Now as an intern at Raindance Film Festival in London, Ms. Lewis is writing articles about film, assisting with Web building projects and translating the Web site into Russian. When she leaves Raindance at the end of April she will spend a month in France as a writer-in-residence at Camac Art Centre.

In the future she plans to pursue her M.F.A. in creative writing and to eventually become a university professor. Serving as an art director for a production team is her ideal film job. Passionate about the arts and the environment, in 2011 she founded the non-profit Dancearth, an arts for social change initiative celebrating movement and the earth in which we move.

Check out her website: karlannalewis.com

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Meryl Streep: From Ironweed to Iron Lady