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As 'Into the Woods' Looms, Ten Meryl Streep Characters Through a Feminist Gaze

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 24, 2014 at 4:59PM

Meryl Streep is a cinema nonpareil whose acting talent and aura seemingly can't be explained. Nominated for a record 18 Academy Awards and winner of three, Streep may be up for another Oscar for her over-the-top singing portrayal of The Witch in Robb Marshall's movie version of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" (December 25). Critic Karina Longworth zeroes in on ten iconic Streep characters in her insightful book on Streep.
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Meryl Streep as The Witch in "Into the Woods'
Meryl Streep as The Witch in "Into the Woods'
Meryl Streep
Streep at 2012 Oscars

Monday Streep was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and blushed as he confessed his crush. Streep seems to get nominated almost every year: last time around it was for her portrayal of the grieving, drug-addicted mother in John Wells' movie version of Tracy Letts' Broadway smash "August: Osage County."

Film critic Karina Longworth (whose podcast "You Must Remember This" is a must-listen) managed to nail Streep down in her book, "Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor." Longworth has moved from movie blogging in New York, to long-form criticism at the LA Weekly and Village Voice Media, to book author

Longworth's third contribution to the Cahiers du Cinema/Phaidon series --the first was on Master of Cinema George Lucas, followed by an Anatomy of an Actor book on Al Pacino-- takes a straightforward deep dive into ten iconic Meryl Streep characters, from the start of her career through her rich middle-age blossoming, accompanied by glossy color photos. Longworth argues that "serving up a corrective to the patriarchal version of history has been the major project of Streep's acting career." 

Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale in 'August: Osage County'
Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale in 'August: Osage County'

At the end of her introduction, Longworth concludes: "In playing and thereby giving voice to the voiceless, she has again and again authored alternative historical fiction from a female point-of-view. That's more than speaking to feminism, it's enacting feminism." 


The book is a pleasurable and enlightening read. No heavy plowing required. Longworth and I talked about Streep and writing the book over the phone. 

Anne Thompson: What made you interested in a close look at Meryl Streep? 

Karina Longworth: I was approached about doing a book on Streep. I didn't want to do it at first. I thought that everything that could be said had been said. In the course of doing research to explain why I wasn't interested, I became interested. No one had considered the whole of her career from beginning to end, they had not put the work into a social context over the course of decades, in terms of what was going on in the culture and with women. I went to the Academy Library every day for a month looking at the microfiche and clippings, reading different articles, trying to isolate Meryl's voice and how it changed over time.

Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady"
Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady"

What surprised you about what you learned about Streep?

I guess I got a larger picture of her. When I wasn't interested in writing the book, I thought of her as being the grand dame of acting, the most-praised screen actress of all time. I became interested in so many things people don't talk about, because they're talking about Oscar nominations. I was excited that in the '80s and '90s, she was making speeches at the Screen Actors Guild conference calling out 'Pretty Woman' as a bad influence. The ways she expressed herself in interviews behind the scenes in the making of movies, she'd stand up for her characters and make them more than what existed on the page.

Did Phaidon provide a set format?

The set format is to have ten movies, each chapter on one movie, and within that as long as you meet their specific length, they are hands off. With Pacino I wrote a critical biography, with Streep I went out on a limb with more analysis of her as a feminist artist. 

Meryl Streep in 'The Devil Wears Prada'
Meryl Streep in 'The Devil Wears Prada'

She became an outspoken critic of Hollywood's treatment of women. 

That was definitely a discovery for me. For the first 20 years of her career she was not particularly outspoken, even demure. But when asked her political views in the late 80s and early 90s she did speak out about not being paid like Jack Nicholson and not getting the roles she felt she deserved.

She took a turn toward more mainstream commercial roles.

Even though "Out of Africa" in 1985 was a huge hit, there was a backlash against her, a pattern in the 80s emerged as I was going through the articles. That's when Meryl decided to lighten up, when they were attacking her for not being a bigger box office draw, when she was taking comedies and "Death Becomes Her" and "She-Devil," with Roseanne Barr and Ed Begley.

Davis and Streep

She also played a dark role in the true story of an Australian woman nobody liked in Fred Schepisi's "A Cry in the Dark." And sure enough, no one went to see her in the movie.

In 1987, that was one of the movies that nobody wanted to see. She considered taking on movies that were chosen on the basis of an acting challenge. She was out of touch with the public.

After that through the 80s late 90s, a lot of things didn't work. "Death Becomes Her" and "River Wild" were not the big hits that she needed. Really the only movie that was a hit was "Bridges of Madison County," which was interesting as a woman in her mid late 40s playing a sexual object in a movie talking about romance from a woman's point-of-view, making romance part of the experience of being an outsider in conformist Middle America. The movie was a lot better than the book because the people making it had material that could appeal to the audience that loved the book, and still be subversive and interesting. 

Mamma Mia!
Mamma Mia!

She had to learn how to work with director-star Clint Eastwood, who shoots fast and expects his actors to keep up with him.

Eastwood had a very hands-off style of directing.


How did you choose the ten roles out of some 40 or 50 movies? Which were you sorry to leave out?

Choosing ten performances was daunting at first. I had to go out of my way to watch movies I had never seen before for research. I really wish I could have done "Adaptation"-- that's one of the movies in the middle that serves as an interesting bridge between "The Bridges of Madison County" and others I would have written about more, "She-Devil," "Heartburn," and "Postcards from the Edge," when she was trying to do the women's comedy thing which was not quite working. "Postcards" did OK, it was not the big bomb that "She-Devil" was, but it was not a huge zeitgeisty hit.

Death Becomes Her
Death Becomes Her

What marked the turnaround for her?

"Devil Wears Prada" was a big blockbuster. Things start to pick up in 2002 with "Adaptation" and "The Hours" and "Angels in America" and "Manchurian Candidate" in 2004.  

Streep once said she was a character actress, not a movie star.

Right. She was able to be a character actress with a lot of success but while she was not a giant movie star, certainly in the last seven to ten years, there was a period of four years when she was in the biggest comedy hit of the summer. During the Bush administration she got so angry. There was a pileup of things against what she believed in. And around that same time, her kids were getting older and moving out of house, she had less of a role being a mom and didn't have to compromise anything about her personal life or beliefs. She talked about how as you get older you can accommodate other people less, be more yourself and say 'fuck it.' 'Mamma Mia!' is an example of a movie so many people didn't think was going to work, except for Meryl and [Universal production chief] Donna Langley.

Lois Smith and Meryl Streep
Lois Smith and Meryl Streep

What did you discover about her acting process? 

It's something she's tried to hide. She's thrown up a lot of misdirection, so that people don't investigate it too much. She learned Yale grad school methods and there was a transition point from theatrical acting to screen acting. She's somebody who doesn't want to pull back the curtain as to exactly what her method is. But what strikes me when I read about her process, is she always finds a way to relate her own personal experience to it, not like The Method, just an emotional person-to-person thing. 

She has been very savvy about how's she shown her power, learned from her missteps and choices of projects. Her longevity has to do with a really smart understanding of the way the industry works and how to present herself within it. She moved to LA six or seven years ago, as a personal life thing more than a professional thing.

Do you admire her?

Absolutely. I admire anybody who is able to create such a widely varied body of work with so much quality in it. It's hard to be able to do it at such a high level for so long but to be able to produce great work that has something to it so often is pretty exciting.


Did you ever meet her? 

Nope. I have not met her.

Where do you go from here? More longform writing? 

I'm going through a transition where I'm not interested in being a blogger or critic. I'm more interested in film history and in current films and a lot of the current debate about film. I've been teaching at Chapman. One thing I'm good at is collecting and analyzing information and to be able to share that with students. I can't spend my entire time on the internet trying to get people to pay attention to me. And I'm working on a beautiful book photo book ["Hollywood Frame by Frame: Cinema's Unseen Contact Sheets"] on contact sheet still photography of classic films. It's a fun research project with the Princeton Architectural Press. 


This article is related to: Meryl Streep, Meryl Streep, Books, Oscars, August: Osage County, Awards, Academy Awards, Awards


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