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Ten Meryl Streep Characters Through a Feminist Gaze

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood March 2, 2014 at 5:11PM

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 is up for an Oscar on March 2 for her over-the-top portrayal of a grieving, drug-addicted mother in John Wells' movie version of Tracy Letts' Broadway smash "August: Osage County," although she's not pegged for another win. Critic Karina Longworth zeroes in on ten iconic Streep characters in her new book.
Mamma Mia!
Mamma Mia!

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. 

Death Becomes Her
Death Becomes Her

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.

Lois Smith and Meryl Streep
Lois Smith and Meryl Streep

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.

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 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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