eryl Streep has appeared in or narrated 67 movies, has received 19 Oscar nominations, and has won three times. Now 66, she has been a star for nearly 40 years and is without question the most celebrated—and financially successful—actress in the history of the cinema.
Yet Streep’s career assumed from the outset an idiosyncratic shape. Unlike most movie stars, who develop a “type” early in their careers and then stick closely to it, she chose instead to play a wide variety of characters, ranging from the high-strung housewife who deserts her small child in 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer to the fluty-voiced, slightly absurd Julia Child of Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia (2009). Nor did she content herself, as did Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, with highly charged portrayals that were more often than not variations on a familiar screen persona. Instead, she impersonated her characters, using accents and makeup to conceal her real-life manner and appearance from the viewer.
Were Streep not so distinctive-looking, she would not have been recognizable enough to become a star. But her sharp, crooked nose and close-set eyes set her apart from the blandly symmetrical beauties with whom Hollywood abounds. Her beauty is that of a stage actress, and in fact she studied at the Yale School of Drama and came to prominence in the 1970s by playing Shakespeare and Chekhov in New York’s Central Park. Yet she turned her back on the theater soon after her screen career took off in the early ’80s, and since then she has appeared in only two stage plays of any consequence, the Shakespeare in the Park productions of The Seagull (2001) and Mother Courage (2006). She is, for all intents and purposes, a creature of the big screen, and shows no sign in her senior years of caring to be anything else.
One would suppose that so odd a duck would already be the subject of numerous biographies. Yet until now only one book had been published about her, and Karina Longworth’s Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor (2013) is not a biography but a feminist critique of 10 of her films. No doubt this is because Streep’s personal life is mundane. She has been married to the same man since 1978, and gossip columnists long ago gave up on her as a possible source of scandal. Nor is her even-tempered personality the stuff of biographical high drama. She appears to be, like the vast majority of movie stars, more interesting on screen than off, a naturally bright but unintellectual craftsman who has nothing of any particular interest to say about the world save through the medium of her work as an actor.
A New Jersey cheerleader from an upper-middle-class family who appeared in high-school musicals for fun, Streep soon found that playing parts, both on stage and off, made it easier for her to cope with her adolescent self-consciousness.
It succeeds in large measure because Her Again comes to a close in 1980, on the night that Streep won her first Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer. Instead of a tedious film-by-film chronicle pieced out with what little is known about her private life, Schulman has given us a lively, tightly focused study of her youth, professional training, and early career, one whose subtitle might well have been “The Making of an Actress.” I cannot recall a similar book about any other actor of distinction, and it is precisely because of its narrowness of scope that Her Again is so valuable. Having read it, you will come away understanding not only what sets Streep apart from most other American film stars of her generation, but why she chose so individual an approach to her craft—and how the difference manifests itself on screen.
ike most actors, Streep came from unexceptional circumstances. A New Jersey cheerleader from an upper-middle-class family who appeared in high-school musicals for fun, she soon found that playing parts, both on stage and off, made it easier for her to cope with her adolescent self-consciousness. Her natural talent was evident to everyone with whom she worked, and she started channeling it into serious roles as an undergraduate at Vassar, starring in a 1969 production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie that left no doubt of her prodigious gifts.
At Yale, where she began her professional training three years later, Streep was cast in numerous leading roles, both classical and modern. She was also exposed to the principles of “method” acting, the discipline developed by Lee Strasberg that was by then in wide use by such younger actors as Pacino and Hoffman. Method actors build their performances by drawing on personal memories of the emotions that they felt at moments in their lives that were similar to those of the characters whom they play. Several of Streep’s teachers encouraged her to embrace this approach, but she refused, perhaps because she saw acting as a way of concealing her inner life rather than parading it. She would later tell an interviewer that those teachers had “delved into personal lives in a way I find obnoxious.”
This early exposure to method acting confirmed Streep in her inclination to look outward, not inward. As Schulman describes it:
Consciously or not, Meryl would create her characters as composites of people in her life: a vocal inflection here, a gesture there. Cast as an old woman . . . she adopted an odd physical tic, twitching her hand like she was strumming a harp. Afterward, she told her classmates that it was borrowed from her aunt. The voice had been her grandmother’s.
This approach has since been central to her acting process. When asked how she decided how to play the part of Linda, the small-town girl torn between two friends in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), she gave this revealing reply: “I thought of all the girls in my high school who waited for things to happen to them. Linda waits for a man to come and take care of her.” She answered more pithily when asked a similar question about Sophie Zawistowski, the title character of Sophie’s Choice: “First I’ll learn Polish. Then I’ll forget me. Then I’ll get to her.”
Upon graduating from Yale in 1975, Streep went to New York, where she was promptly cast in a Broadway revival of a 19th-century chestnut called Trelawny of the “Wells” with John Lithgow and Mandy Patinkin. The following summer she starred in Measure for Measure in Central Park, appearing opposite John Cazale, who is now best remembered for playing Fredo in the first two Godfather films. They fell in love almost at first sight, and when Cazale was diagnosed with the terminal lung cancer that would kill him two years later at the age of 42, Streep resolved to make a film with him while she could.
After seeing her in the 1977 Lincoln Center Theater production of The Cherry Orchard, Robert De Niro recommended to Cimino that he cast her in The Deer Hunter alongside himself, Cazale, and Christopher Walken. Simplicity and whole-heartedness were the keynotes of her quiet but extraordinarily vivid performance, which won her a supporting-actress Oscar nomination. Though she seemed at first glance too elegant to be believable as a grocery-store checkout girl, her unconventional looks made it possible for her to give a plausible performance—perhaps the only time that she has ever been successful at playing so ordinary a person.
As a result of the success of The Deer Hunter, Streep became a client of Sam Cohn, one of America’s most powerful talent agents, who pitched her not as a character actor but as a potential star in the big-budget “prestige” films then beloved of Hollywood producers. She was cast in quick succession in Woody Allan’s Manhattan, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, and Kramer vs. Kramer, all released in 1979. The last was a box-office and critical smash that won Streep her first Oscar and put her on the cover of Newsweek. Never again would she play a supporting role.
n 1981, the critic David Denby described Streep as “a chameleon, a leading lady who wants to play every sort of role.” The tag stuck, though it is more relevant to her method than to the results. Not only is her face easily identifiable, but so is her smooth-surfaced mezzo-soprano voice, which she disguises with carefully studied foreign and regional accents instead of attempting in vain to alter its distinctive timbre.
Yet for all her recognizability, Streep has never had the “iconic” quality of method-style actors who, like De Niro, Hoffman, or Pacino, draw on their own personalities in developing their characterizations. Nor does her acting resemble the heightened naturalism of such old-school Hollywood stars as Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck, who played subtly modified versions of themselves.2 Streep prefers to wear her characters like masks.
It is for this reason that she was so disliked by Pauline Kael, the influential film critic of the New Yorker, who insisted that her performances were “artificial creations. She doesn’t seem to know how to draw on herself, she hasn’t yet released an innate personality on the screen.” As perceptive as she was, Kael was shaped by early exposure to golden-age Hollywood and postwar method acting, so much so that she seems never to have understood that there are other, equally valid approaches to the subtle art of screen acting, thus making it hard for her to properly appreciate Streep. In certain ways, the actor whom Streep most resembles is Laurence Olivier, another “chameleon” who sought inspiration not in personal experience but in observation of the world around him, and who loved to conceal himself behind makeup. This is the way classically trained actors work.
Her legacy will consist in the main of films like The Bridges of Madison County, The Devil Wears Prada, The Iron Lady, and Silkwood, but not Cleopatra and Medea and Hedda Gabler.
As for Streep’s films, they turn out to be unexpectedly unsatisfying when considered in their totality, not because of any failing on her part but because of the limitations of the Hollywood genre in which she specialized. Prestige dramas like Out of Africa and Sophie’s Choice are the middlebrow equivalent of serious movies, earnest exercises in cinematic uplift that are watchable but ultimately forgettable. When, in films like The Deer Hunter and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), she appears in a more adventurous context, the results are always memorable. But it is hard not to conclude that Streep is in this way less like Olivier than Spencer Tracy, another great actor who stuck too closely to the path of commercialism and so left behind a body of work that was not fully worthy of his talents.
And because, like Tracy, she stuck faithfully to the screen, Streep has never been able to essay more than a handful of the major stage roles to which her talents so clearly suit her. Her stage career is so far removed from us now that it is easy to forget that she was once regarded, in the words of Mel Gussow of the New York Times, as “the most interesting and original actress on the American stage.” That was in 1978. Since then she has appeared in variably effective screen adaptations of five major modern stage plays, Plenty (1985), Angels in America (2003), Dancing at Lughnasa (1998), Doubt (2008), and August: Osage County (2013). She has yet to appear in a film version of a classical role, and since none of her stage performances was filmed, it is impossible for those who did not see her at Yale or in New York to know what she was capable of doing and chose not to do.
It is here that the comparison with Olivier becomes painfully salient, so much so that it may become part of Streep’s professional epitaph. We will not remember her in the way that we do Bogart and Stanwyck because she chose not to give directly of herself on screen—and we will not remember her in the way that we do Olivier because her legacy will consist in the main of films like The Bridges of Madison County, The Devil Wears Prada, The Iron Lady, and Silkwood, but not Cleopatra and Medea and Hedda Gabler. Perhaps it is selfish to expect even more out of an artist who has given us so much for so long, but can an actor truly be considered great if she has not proved herself the equal of the greatest parts written for women? Such is the hard and inescapable question posed by Meryl Streep’s singular career.
1 Harper, 293 pp.
2 A film that suggests the kind of actor that Streep might have become had she chosen to be more personally forthcoming on screen is Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life (1991), an intelligent, imaginative romantic comedy in which she plays an irresistibly likable woman who appears to be not unlike Streep’s off-screen self—and does so to perfection.