Streep, Meryl (1948—)

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Streep, Meryl (1948—)

Considered by many to be "the" actress of her generation, Meryl Streep remains in a class by herself in terms of critical acclaim and career longevity. A two-time Oscar winner, she has been nominated for ten Academy Awards throughout a career which has spanned more than twenty-five films. Known primarily for her heavy dramatic roles as neurotic or obsessed characters—many of which have required her to assume an accent—Streep has also proven versatile in playing both comedy and action roles.

Ironically, Mary Louise Streep was not driven to be an actress during her affluent New Jersey childhood. More drawn to athletics, she was a swimmer who later became a cheerleader in high school. It was upon enrolling at the exclusive Vassar College that Streep became obsessed with both literature and acting—in addition to singing with a musical group and acting as vice president of her sophomore class. Besides extensive work behind the scenes in designing lighting and costumes, one of her many leading roles was in Strindberg's Miss Julie, in which she asserts she was not "any good" but did have her first moment of epiphany as an actress "where you leave everything behind" and achieve "transcendence or something." Subsequent graduate work at Yale allowed her to play approximately forty roles, which were most often not reality-based, which she considered ironic in view of the heavy reality of the vast majority of her film work. After graduation in 1975, Streep won major roles at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York and the New York Shakespeare Festival. She made her Broadway debut in Trelawny of the Wells and won rave reviews and a Tony nomination for her performance in Tennessee Williams's Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton.

Her first film role—most of which ended up on the cutting-room floor—was with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave in Julia in 1977. It was followed by an Emmy-winning performance in the highly praised TV miniseries Holocaust and a performance opposite Robert De Niro (in the first of three films with him) in her first Oscar-nominated role in The Deer Hunter. Of the latter film, Streep contends that since the role was basically unwritten she was required to improvise her own lines of dialogue and interaction.

Streep made a series of high-profile films throughout the 1980s, beginning with her role in Kramer vs. Kramer, for which she won her first Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Joanna, Dustin Hoffman's neglected wife who abandons her family. She subsequently received Oscar nominations for The French Lieu-tenant's Woman, Silkwood, Out of Africa, and A Cry in the Dark. Her second Oscar—this time for best actress—as well as many other prestigious awards resulted from her role as a tortured Polish concentration camp survivor in 1983's Sophie's Choice. Streep also returned to the theater, winning an Obie award for acting, singing, and dancing the lead in a musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Seeking a break from a succession of heavy, character-driven roles, Streep then made a succession of comedies such as She-Devil, costarring reigning TV sitcom queen Roseanne; then, in a surprise move, performing her own stunts in a demanding role as a whitewater rafting guide in the action thriller The River Wild. Her tenth Oscar-nominated performance was as a bored Italian war bride who finds love with costar and director Clint Eastwood in the highly acclaimed The Bridges of Madison County in 1995.

Streep has worked with nearly every important director and every leading man of note, all of whom praise her talents. Sydney Pollack, who directed her in Out of Africa, claimed that not only is Streep capable of becoming "a totally new human being," but, further, is able to effectively communicate the character's struggles to the audience. Alan J. Pakula, who directed Streep in Sophie's Choice, once commented, "If there's a heaven for directors, it would be to direct Meryl Streep your whole life."

Throughout her career Streep has been nominated for and received many other prestigious awards. In 1997 she received the first Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award to "honor an actor or actress whose career distinctly parallels the high professional standards set by the late movie legend"; the Women in Film's Crystal Award, reserved for women whose work has helped enhance the role of women within the entertainment industry; the prestigious Silver Medallion at Telluride Film Festival's 25th Anniversary Celebration; and in 1998 received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to coincide with the release of her twenty-fifth feature film, One True Thing.

A political activist, Streep has also hosted and narrated television specials championing the rights of women and children, literacy, and ecological issues. She not only testified in congress against the use of pesticides but organized "Mothers and Others," an anti-pesticide organization, which has grown from thirty-five members to thirty-eight thousand.

Known for avoiding Hollywood glitz, Streep is fiercely defensive of her private life in the hills of northwest Connecticut, on a secluded eighty-nine-acre estate with a forty-seven-acre private lake. Married since 1978 to sculptor Don Gummer, Streep is the mother of four children and claims "Even my decisions about what films I make are predicated on the fact that I think about how my children will view them … and how it will either enhance it or strafe the soul of their future." Considering herself a mother first and a movie star second, she often takes her family with her on location, and she was once named one of the outstanding mothers of the year by the National Mother's Day Committee.

—Rick Moody

Further Reading:

Maychick, Diana. Meryl Streep: The Reluctant Superstar. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985.