Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars: 5

To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here

We’ve reached the top 10! At this point, every star gets their own post.

5) Meryl Streep

What’s lost in the Meryl Streep hagiography—the twenty-one nominations and three Oscar wins over thirty-nine years, the “greatest actor of her generation” guff, etc.—is just how much Streep works. To me, the sheer number of roles that she’s taken on, more than sixty acting parts outside of documentaries in about forty-five years, is what makes her a compelling figure. Streep just keeps going for it. In the 2010s, she made fifteen films; she made eighteen in the 2000s. Although the great triumphs of her career are usually given between The Deer Hunter and Postcards from the Edge, Streep is still one of the major actors of the 21st Century. Her prolific career also allows her to survive the excision of some her major performances from consideration in this exercise. Four of her Oscar nominations and one of her Oscar wins come off the board. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a great British film where she is superb; A Cry in the Dark, called Evil Angels in its native Australia, where she gives one of her most finely spiked performances; The Iron Lady, a British movie about an English prime minister which won her that elusive third Oscar; Florence Foster Jenkins, a British movie where Streep plays the world’s worst opera singer, which I really really hope is some kind of commentary on Streep’s insistence on singing with that middling voice of hers. For most other actors, losing that volume of work is basically fatal; it’s why Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole don’t make this list. I still have Streep here, because no actor of any kind since Katharine Hepburn has for so long and with such consistency modeled great performance in the American cinema. In the past fifty years, there is no performer for whom people say, with such alacrity, “Yes, she is the great screen actor.” If there are eras in the wilderness or stretches of awkward aging for Streep, they are muted ones little remembered by the popular imagination. And even though I have banged a very lonely drum which questions whether or not we can seriously consider Streep the greatest actor of her generation based on the dearth of great movies on her resume, I think calling her a top-five star of the American cinema is pretty easy to do. As a symbol of the craft as practiced by Anglophone performers, Streep is a demarcation like Hemingway is for American writers.

The best of Streep is in her ability to take parts which seem like they can’t contain any more depth than what one has time to express on a mall escalator, and then to find that depth in the characters regardless. One True Thing, where Streep plays a housewife dying of cancer, seems to be that kind of movie. The title does it no favors, and even in the first half-hour or so of the film, it doesn’t seem like it’s leading up to something really special. Streep finds a voice for Kate, sort of a Midwestern twang that feels desperately out of place in the film. And then, the sicker Kate gets, the more that voice gets pushed aside. When I heard the voice, I made one of those viewing mistakes I hate in others and detest in myself: I tried to be smarter than the movie while it was still playing. I would be very surprised if Streep or director Carl Franklin were trying to 1) rope us in with another Streep accent and then 2) fade it out of the movie strategically so that we can see Kate’s goody-good persona is really something of a front for a lifetime of disappointment. But it’s not inconceivable, and the way the movie plays, that’s exactly what happens. Never is the Minnesota Nice in Kate Gulden stronger than when she welcomes her daughter and her daughter’s friend to her home while dressed in a Dorothy Gale outfit.

Just as much, the dying of cancer thing should relegate One True Thing to Lifetime movie status. As good as William Hurt and Renee Zellweger are in this movie, the reason this thing coheres without falling helplessly into roaming sentiment is Meryl Streep. In someone else’s hands, the revelation of sordid details of this little town, the philandering husbands and the women who keep everything stitched together, would screech through the movie and we would have little recourse but to roll our eyes. Streep, as she is so good at doing, finds the humanity in those people. I make fun of the need for an accent she has, but the tone of voice she finds to lightly chastise Zellweger in one scene about a friend of hers who needs company is flawlessly executed. When she gives the monologue about how if he’s your husband and the father of your children, you find a way to make it work no matter how much it hurts, Franklin puts the camera above her. It makes Streep, by now playing a woman fairly near death, look smaller, and yet the iron she summons for her eyes as she shows Ellen just how much she understands is riveting. Those are two good scenes in the film; there must be ten more where you could point to Streep and say that she’s the reason this movie feels honest and bold rather than stilted and predictable.

Although Sophie’s Choice or even Silkwood are probably more important to Streep’s legend, the banner films from the ’80s which transitioned her from haunted supporting actress to brazen women on center stage, it’s another supporting role which stands out to me as her greatest acting achievement, her greatest star performance. (It’s also one of her many Oscar nominations for Actress in a Leading Role, and a true example of category fraud; she’s in a quarter of the picture.) There are so many films where dialogue does most of the work towards establishing a character: we hear about their college record, someone says he’s an architect, we hear they’re super nice, we hear they’re basically evil. There is no dialogue in The Devil Wears Prada which can live up to that performance as Miranda Priestly. It’s another movie where Streep is using a voice, but it’s no accent here. That breathy, distant voice that Streep wields is an affectation within the performance of Miranda Priestly, a weapon to be wielded as surely as her dissatisfaction or her grudging acknowledgement. It’s the Streepest thing about the performance, but the voice is what makes all the warnings that Andy gets about Miranda Priestly feel justified. This isn’t a case where the dialogue bark is worse than the actual character’s bite. Maybe “That’s all!” in that dismissive tone is the catchphrase of choice from the film, but it’s the monologues in the voice which make the performance. The most actorly monologue, and thus the most forgettable, comes when Miranda, out of makeup and tired and weak, squidgy outside of her element, remarks to Andy on the failure of her personal life. (Streep has a cenobitic gift for mortification of the flesh onscreen; some of the same energy from the cancer-ridden part in One True Thing carries over to this scene, mirrored also in the removal of a wig in Florence Foster Jenkins or the industrial scrubbing of Silkwood.) Far better are the sequences where Miranda is emphatically the boss, demanding her lunch a certain way, trying to get the next Harry Potter book in advance, or, my favorite, explaining Andy’s arrogance to her with no small amount of conceit in her own voice. “Oh, okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you,” she begins, and I can instantly hear that huffy, quiet tone even when I read the words on a screen.

Where One True Thing gives us a chance to recognize Streep’s ability to unfold a great performance in a thankless role, and The Devil Wears Prada provides us the opportunity to see a great part played to its greatest potential, Death Becomes Her is a delightful example of Streep’s still underutilized proficiency in playing against type. (Playing against type for Streep increasingly seems to mean “Putting her in a part where she’s had sex,” like they do for Mamma Mia or It’s Complicated.) In it, Streep plays the maneater and Goldie Hawn plays the bookish victim of the maneater’s predilections; There is very little dignity in Madeline Ashton, an aging songstress with a nasty case of Norma Desmond syndrome, and that dignity is chiseled away in horrifying fashion. After being pushed down some stairs by her husband (back together with Hawn’s Helen and ready to take the easy way out), Madeline comes back to life. Sort of. Her body is reanimated and her mind is at work, but her functions are wrong and she walks around in a distressingly backwards fashion, something like what you’d expect from Freaks, thanks to a broken neck that has her head swiveled all the way around. Eventually this is mended enough so that the special effects budget doesn’t overwhelm the movie, but what makes those (very good!) special effects wonderful is Streep’s initial clueless reaction. Death Becomes Her is one of those rare things, a funny body horror, and no one in the movie is consistently funnier than she is or more at home with the physical strangeness of the film’s second half. I enjoy dumb Bruce Willis a great deal, and Goldie Hawn is probably a little underserved, but Streep clomping about with her face going the wrong direction compared to her legs—and doing so blithely!—is the center of the movie’s best, weirdest scene. Perhaps there will be more weird Streep in her future; we can, at least, hope for it.

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