Looking down the list of Meryl Streep’s Oscar nominated performances is to be awed by a career which has put the virtues of intensely observed and technically accomplished character acting at an absolute premium: the arc of her career is not a simplistic morph from sexy romantic lead to cantankerous old dame — although in some ways it is always a shock to revisit her (un-Oscared) performance in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and be reminded of just how beautiful a young woman she was.
Hardcore Streep fans might also fantasise about getting the Academy somehow to recognise her improvised mini-performance on BBC News, in the UK to promote The Iron Lady, in which she appeared to fall briefly but passionately in love with the arts correspondent Will Gompertz.
Anyway, here is a quick rundown of the Streep Oscar list in which each performance is given marks out of five Meryls for sexiness, charactery-ness and accent.
THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
Fantastic. Somehow Meryl could convey ordinariness and beauty at the same time. Her pink bridesmaid’s gown is heartbreaking.
KRAMER VS KRAMER (1979)
Great stuff, and Meryl’s first Oscar win, although I think she slightly loses out in the empathy-acting contest with Dustin Hoffman: the title resonates with the unacknowledged upstaging duel these great performers are having. She has a big scene on the witness stand.
It’s a more self-conscious performance, with that slooooower British voice (actually, a prototype for Maggie), the black cloak and the frizzier-than-usual hair. Younger people who may have seen the vulgar Scottish Widows TV ad need to be educated as to where all that imagery comes from. In terms of upstaging Meryl crushes Jeremy Irons.
SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982)
Nothing established Streep’s pure acting seriousness more than this: the Polish-Catholic woman sent by the Nazis to a concentration camp in the second world war and forced to undergo a horrific personal “choice”. A big vocal triumph for Meryl Streep, and her second Oscar win.
This performance as the nuclear plant worker who stumbles on a scandal put Meryl right back into the strain of performance she gave in The Deer Hunter in which her jolie-laide quality could plausibly represent working-class ordinariness, as opposed to distance and refinement. Her “shower” performance is chilling and superb — weirdly reminiscent of Janet Leigh in Psycho.
OUT OF AFRICA (1985)
This is a massive accent role for Meryl as the Danish author Karen Blixen and her experiences in Kenya. All Streep fans like to do her “I hett ah faaaahhm en Effrica….” routine, although imitations don’t quite do justice to it. Despite the big voice, it’s a bit reserved for me.
In terms of big acting contests, the pairing of Jack Nicholson and Meryl as two alcoholics is a King Kong vs Godzilla faceoff. Meryl might have lost out marginally to Hoffman and bested Irons but this is sort of a draw. Meryl is back to having a more patrician voice here, and she has a big singing scene.
A CRY IN THE DARK (1988)
It may not be the most distinguished performance, but for sheer outrageous voice work and empathy, maximum Meryls have to be awarded to her performance as Lindy Chamberlain, the real-life Australian woman accused of killing her infant girl. All together now: “Thet Deengo’s got my bayyyby!”
POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990)
Another alcoholic role, but played relatively easier and with fewer obvious pyrotechnics, largely because of the more lenient comic context: she is the drunk and troubled movie star forced to live with her mom, played by Shirley MacLaine. In terms of upstaging, this is a diplomatic neutrality situation.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995)
Not my favourite Meryl. There is something a bit supercilious in the way she is cast as a housewife who falls for hunky dreamboat Clint Eastwood — a National Geographic photographer, of all the sexy, outdoorsy things. But it’s Meryl who should be playing the sexy photographer!
ONE TRUE THING (1998)
Another slightly soapy role for Meryl, and a film in which fans might be suspected she is heading for the Meryl wilderness. She plays a mum with cancer, which creates a crisis for her daughter, Renee Zellweger. Decent, but without the Meryl fire.
MUSIC OF THE HEART (1999)
Another decent, relatively subdued bluecollar role in which Meryl plays a woman who created an inspirational high-school music programme for deprived city kids in New York. Her studied voice work was admired, but the Meryl magic is missing.
Like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, this is a levels-of-reality story. Streep plays New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, whose essay-turned-book about an orchid poacher is adapted into a movie, by Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicolas Cage. The awful truth is that Streep’s story is far less interesting than Cage’s — and he upstages her.
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)
Meryl is right back on top with this glorious comic performance as the haughty Wintour-ish magazine editor. No big voices, but Streep has entered into her senior years with a vengeance, and her Meryl Menace blows all other actors, make and female, off the screen.
My least marvellous Meryl. This is undoubtedly a huge, melodramatic, accent-y role for Streep as the Bronx Irish nun who embarks on an obsessive campaign to get a priest defrocked for abuse. She has a big speech at the end, with all the fireworks, but I felt this glib and preposterous movie did not support the performance.
A big, ripe impersonation of a TV cooking queen, hugely famous in the US but little known in this country. Again, it’s a big turn for Meryl, but the fact that it relies so much on recognition means that it isn’t a mega-Meryl.
Whoa! This is a monster Meryl. Her performance as the ageing Margaret Thatcher is almost eerily good, and as the real life Baroness Thatcher withdrew from public life in her final years, it is this film, and Meryl’s interestingly sympathetic performance, which for good or ill may colour how succeeding generations and historians see Thatcher’s winter years. The voice is stunningly good. A third Oscar win.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)
I can’t be doing with this shouty, hammy, silly, stagey film, although Meryl’s cantankerous matriarch is pretty good value. Although is she just going through the Meryl motions?
INTO THE WOODS (2014)
I’m not a fan of this Sondheim movie, but Streep as a witch is something that had to be. And there is something startling about the way she is digitally morphed into a younger self, which made you realise that you sort of assumed she could sort of be about that age anyway. Like David Bowie, Meryl doesn’t seem really to get any older.
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