With 84 award wins and 94 nominations over the course of a glittering, four-decade career, Meryl Streep is undoubtedly the greatest actress of our time. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
So it happened again this year. It happened last year, too. It’s happened almost every other year since 1978. It’ll probably keep happening. Meryl Streep, that is, getting nominated for an Oscar®. Four decades after she made her big-screen debut, the 61-year-old Hollywood actress holds the record for the most Academy Award® nominations of any actor – 16 of them with two wins. “I’m thrilled when I get nominated,” she says. “I don’t count how many and I don’t remember how many I’ve had.” Not even a guess? “I just know it’s a lot.”
She’s right. In fact, it’s hard to think of an award that Streep hasn’t been nominated for (or won). Golden Globes (25 noms, seven wins). BATFAs (13 noms, one win). Emmys (three noms, two wins). Screen Actors Guild awards (12 noms, two wins). Grammys (four noms) – and even a Tony.
Which makes it all the more amusing to discover legendary Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis’ reaction when a young Streep, who’d never before won a film role, auditioned to play Ann Darrow in his 1976 remake of King Kong. “She’s ugly,” scoffed De Laurentiis to his son in Italian. “Why did you bring me this thing?”
He was stunned when Streep coolly replied in fluent Italian. Two years later, she’d win her first Oscar® nomination to make a monkey out of De Laurentiis and begin her own ascent into big-screen immortality.
A STAR IS BORN
Mary Louise Streep was born at 8.05am on a summer morning in New Jersey. Inspired to perform by a father who played the piano and a mother who sang, “Meryl” studied at the Yale School Of Drama, where she threw herself into massive variety of roles. “I thought it was really fun,” says Streep of her view of acting back in college. “But I didn’t think it was a serious way to conduct your life.”
As her talents blossomed, however, Streep began to take acting more seriously. But it wasn’t until her late twenties that, after an impressive stage career in New York, her big-screen debut arrived quietly in the 1977 drama Julia. No doubt the young Streep would have relished the chance to act alongside Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. But her mind was on other things.
Streep was engaged to be married to actor John Cazale, who’d debuted brilliantly in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and followed up with masterpieces such as The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon. Cazale, though, had been tragically diagnosed with bone cancer. Everyone knew Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter would be his last movie. Streep took a small role in it to be with him during filming.
John Cazale died in March 1978. Nursing him through the final stages of his illness took its toll on Streep, who admitted to playing at least one role afterwards on “automatic pilot”. But just when she was at her lowest, her career took off.
It all happened so suddenly: she won an Emmy for TV mini-series Holocaust just as The Deer Hunter hit cinemas to huge acclaim, with Streep being Oscar®-nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Roles in Woody Allen’s rom-com Manhattan and family drama Kramer Vs Kramer with Dustin Hoffman followed fast.
Already a three-time Oscar®-nominee who’d wowed audiences in a decade’s worth of landmark movies (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Straw Dogs, Marathon Man, All The President’s Men to name a few), Hoffman suddenly found himself opposite an actress of astonishing commitment who was utterly unintimidated by him.
Ignoring her co-star’s protests, Streep insisted on rewriting her own dialogue in order to make her character more realistic and carefully prepared by spending time in the Upper East Side neighbourhood where the film was set. “She’s an ox when it comes to acting. She eats words for breakfast,” said Hoffman. “Working with her is like playing tennis with Chris Evert – she keeps trying to hit the perfect ball.”
It worked: Streep won her first Academy Award® for Kramer Vs Kramer and entered the ’80s as American cinema’s premiere actress. Interestingly, she received a letter from none other than Golden Age Hollywood icon Bette Davis informing her of just that. Davis saw Streep as heir to her throne.
Right after yet another Oscar® nomination for playing John Fowles’ iconic heroine in the 1981 tragedy
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (her first leading role), Streep won her second Oscar® for playing a Holocaust survivor in director Alan J Pakula’s classic weepie Sophie’s Choice. She delivered a heartbreaking performance – and mastered a perfect Polish accent. She filmed the famous “choice” scene in a single take and was so drained by the experience that she refused to do it again.
At this point, Streep seemed unstoppable. Her performance in Silkwood (playing the titular doomed activist) resulted in her third consecutive Oscar® nomination. It also gave her a taste for real-life characters that would last long into her career – she’s played six so far – and she proved her mastery of accents again, this time with a flawless Danish lilt in 1985’s Out Of Africa.
Then, just as now, she was the actress Hollywood’s finest wanted as their co-star. Robert De Niro claims she’s his favourite actress to work with. Diane Keaton calls her “my generation’s genius”.
A rare dissenting voice came from old-school Hollywood legend Katharine Hepburn, whose biographer claimed Streep was her least favourite modern actress. “Click, click, click,” quipped Hepburn, referring to what she saw as the cogs turning in Streep’s head as she gave a performance. Hepburn, frankly, was on her own.
For everyone else, even bad films – like comedy She-Devil with Roseanne Barr – were worth watching when Streep was on screen. Having become firm friends with Goldie Hawn, Streep intended for them to make Thelma & Louise together, only for pregnancy to rule out those plans. Instead they starred in the 1992 farce Death Becomes Her with Bruce Willis.
This time, there would be no Oscar® nomination for Streep. Instead, the failure of Death Becomes Her marked an unexpected nosedive in her career as the great roles that came so easily to her suddenly began to dry up. “I don’t actually get loads of scripts, but I’m lucky enough that some of them are great,” insists Streep.
“Now every single decision I make about what material I do, what I’m putting out in the world, is because of my children,” she says. And, while raising a growing family – she has four children now –Streep picked films that allowed her to both stay close to home and work with all generations of Hollywood’s most gifted actors, such as Clint Eastwood (The Bridges Of Madison County) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Marvin’s Room). For all her awards, Streep has always been incredibly generous to her co-stars.
“It’s a lesson I learned in drama school,” she once said. “The teacher asks, ‘How do you be the queen?’ And everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s about posture and authority.’ And they said, ‘No, it’s about how the air in the room shifts when you walk in.’ And that’s everyone else’s work. I really, really depend on the other actors, so it’s important to me to work with good people that aren’t worried about how they look. You know. Real actors. They’re your blood.”
BACK IN FASHION
It was harder to see Streep at the start of the 21st century. Few noticed her as the voice of the Blue Fairy in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. And although she was Oscar®-nominated (again) for Spike Jonze’s Adaptation in 2002, Streep watched co-star Nicole Kidman pick up an Academy Award® for The Hours that year.
It seemed like a symbolic handover – the end of Streep’s reign of dominance. Forgettable Hollywood fare like Stuck On You, The Manchurian Candidate and Prime just weren’t testing her. Maybe she didn’t want to be tested. It was now four year since her last Oscar® nomination.
But hold the front page: everything changed with The Devil Wears Prada. Playing ruthless magazine matriarch Miranda Priestly, Streep rejuvenated herself as a modern-day superstar, earning box-office success and her 14th Oscar® nomination. Rocking frosty white hair, she looked good. Seriously good. But as ever with Streep, there was always substance with the style – right down to the fact she donated her wardrobe to a charity auction.
Streep’s newly rediscovered ability to charm the box office and deliver serious performances hit its zenith in 2008. On the one hand, she was Oscar®-nommed for her searing performance as a nun who interrogates the soul of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ’60s priest in fierce faith-drama Doubt. Then, that same year, she became the face of a phenomenon in the musical smash Mamma Mia!
It’s impossible to think of any other actress in the world who could have pulled off such a double whammy. And Streep shows no signs of slowing down. Since then, she’s done romantic comedy (It’s Complicated), biopic (Julie & Julia, her latest Oscar® nomination) and even animation (Fantastic Mr. Fox).
Rightly considered the greatest living film actress, Streep rarely earns more than $5 million a film – nothing compared to Hollywood’s $20-million madams Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie – but her value can’t be priced.
For her, it’s not about the money or the Oscars®. It’s about doing what she loves. “Let’s face it,” she said once. “We were all three year olds who stood in the middle of the living room and everybody thought we were so adorable. Only some of us grow up and get paid for it.”
Words: Jonathan Crocker
This article first appeared in Sky Movies Magazine, Nov/Dec 2010.