A versatile screen actress known for immersing herself in her characters, Meryl Streep (born 1949) distinguished herself with two Academy Awards and has been nominated 13 times, more than any other actor in history. Intelligent, commanding, and unafraid to play unglamorous and difficult women, Streep embodied an increasing realism for female characters in major studio films.
Streep was born in Summit, New Jersey, on June 22, 1949, to wealthy parents. Her mother was a commercial artist and her father a pharmaceutical executive. She has two younger brothers. Raised in Bernardsville, New Jersey, she took operatic voice lessons as a child and started acting at Bernards High School. She was also a varsity cheerleader, Homecoming Queen, and an academic stalwart.
Though her ambition was to be an interpreter for the United Nations, Streep continued her theater work at Vassar, where she was the star of the drama department. She spent one semester at Dartmouth and then enrolled in the prestigious Yale Drama School. There she appeared in more than three dozen productions with the Yale Repertory Theater and became well-known for her astounding range and the intensity of her performances.
Streep went directly from Yale to the New York theater scene. She appeared at the Public Theater—its impresario Joseph Papp was her mentor—in the musical Alice in Concert. Soon Streep arrived on Broadway, and she was nominated for a Tony Award in 1977 for Tennessee Williams's 27 Wagons Full of Cotton.
While playing a lead role in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Measure for Measure, she met and fell in love with actor John Cazale, with whom she would work in The Deer Hunter. They never married, but she cared for him until he died of cancer in 1978. A few months later, she married sculptor Don Gummer.
A Woman of Substance
In 1977, Streep made her debut on the small screen in the made-for-TV movie The Deadliest Season and on the big screen in Julia. In 1978, she won an Emmy Award for playing a Jewish woman persecuted by the Nazis in the TV miniseries Holocaust. Also that year, Streep was nominated for the first time for an Academy Award for a small but stirring role in The Deer Hunter as a woman in love with two men during the Vietnam conflict.
The Deer Hunter made many Hollywood directors eager to work with Streep. The first to grab her was Woody Allen, who cast her as his hostile ex-wife in Manhattan. In that role and in others to come, Streep demonstrated she was comfortable portraying an unlikable character.
In fact, Streep was perfectly suited to play the new roles that were opening up because of the feminist movement. Though Streep was a blonde with elegant features, she was rarely glamorous, and she could easily suppress her beauty and look ordinary. Playing a woman conflicted about divorcing her husband in Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979, Streep embodied the difficult choices facing millions of women. "In 1979, nobody was talking about depression," Streep later told Entertainment Weekly 's Mark Harris, "but this woman probably thought about killing herself once or twice a day." One of the first movies to treat divorce from an egalitarian standpoint, Kramer vs. Kramer was a cultural landmark in American film. Streep's portrayal merited an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and made her a household name.
Also in 1979, Streep showed her versatility by portraying a sexy attorney who snares a politician in The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Two years later, she was nominated again for an Academy Award for a supporting role, playing two characters (the mistress of a Victorian gentleman and a modern actress playing her) in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Critics and the public, especially female moviegoers, embraced her. Already hailed as the greatest actress of her time, she won the Academy Award as Best Actress for Sophie's Choice in 1982. In that film, she adopted a convincing Polish accent after enrolling in a Berlitz course.
What was unusual about Streep was not just her willingness to take on difficult roles, but her ability to utterly disappear into her characters. A thorough researcher, she could adopt a different era, nationality, accent, or personality. Some critics, however, most notably Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, criticized her work as too stylized. To such detractors, Streep came off as a masterful technician who lacked warmth and genuine emotion. Reacting to this common criticism, Streep, in an interview in the Washington Times in 2002, said that she approached her roles instinctually rather than analytically: "I like to think I am the opposite of technical. I only worked once with a voice coach, and it was a disaster."
However she had accomplished it, in five years Streep had gone from a virtual unknown to the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom. In the noir thriller Still of the Night, Streep again attempted a seductive character, but did not fare well. "I didn't know what I was doing in that!" she told Entertainment Weekly 's Harris. "I didn't know who my character was. I hate noir. It's not about playing a person, but a representation."
Able to pick and choose her roles, she next took on an openly political character, playing a nuclear power industry whistleblower in the biographical picture Silkwood. To this role she brought a convincing recklessness and courage, and once again she was among the Best Actress nominees on Oscar night.
Again switching gears, Streep followed up with a romantic role opposite Robert DeNiro in the film Falling in Love, which flopped despite featuring the biggest male and female stars of the day—possibly because audiences could not picture either of them in a romantic pairing. Streep returned to serious drama in 1985 with Plenty, playing a woman in the French Resistance who has trouble piecing her life back together after World War II. The next year, in Out of Africa, Streep gave another Oscar-nominated performance as a Danish woman having an affair in Kenya. Her next picture was the comic romance Heartburn, which was filmed while she was pregnant.
Streep got her by-now-customary Best Actress nominations in 1987 and 1988 for Ironweed, in which she played a Depression-era alcoholic, and for A Cry in the Dark, in which she took on the thankless role of a much-reviled Australian woman accused of murdering her own child. She later told Liz Smith in an interview in Good Housekeeping that this was her favorite role, explaining: "I'm drawn to disagreeable women… . I loved trying to put somebody out there that you wouldn't normally look at or care about." Ty Burr, in a 1996 Entertainment Weekly article that named Streep number 37 among the 100 greatest movie stars, opined: "She's the movie star as medicine: good for you, but not much fun… . She inhabits her roles with a craft that can occasionally seem academic. "
Ranged Far and Wide
With her career direction in question, Streep decided to try comedy. She gave her voice to a character in the animated television sitcom The Simpsons. Streep shocked almost everyone by appearing opposite comic Roseanne Barr in She-Devil, a notable flop. Next, she played Carrie Fisher's alter ego in Fisher's semi-autobiographical Postcards from the Edge —the first movie she made in Hollywood. It netted her another Oscar nomination. She followed that with a starring role in Richard Brooks' comedy Defending Your Life. None of these comic roles attracted much attention, but Streep was funny in the over-the-top satire Death Becomes Her, playing a zombie-like character opposite Goldie Hawn.
Having proven she could act in comedies, Streep returned to drama in the harrowing The House of the Spirits, in which her ten-year-old daughter Mamie appeared. She decided to show her children she could be adventurous by doing her own whitewater rafting in her next film, The River Wild, a harrowing tale about a family expedition that goes wrong.
Streep had to cry for entire days during the filming of the tear-jerking romantic drama The Bridges of Madison County, a guaranteed box-office success because it adapted one of the decade's most popular novels. For this part, playing an Iowa farm wife wooed by a photographer, she put on weight and shed makeup. After a five-year absence from Oscar night, the role earned her a tenth Academy Award nomination.
In 1996, Streep played the mother of a teenage boy accused of murder in Before and After. The same year, she appeared in Marvin's Room, playing the mother of Leonardo DiCaprio. During her career, Streep also played the real-life role of mother on a secluded 89-acre estate in rural Connecticut with Gummer and their four children: Henry, Mary Wills (Mamie), Grace, and Louisa. She turned down theater roles because they would take her away at night, and she tried to maintain a normal family life as much as possible, guarding her children's privacy. In 1998, she told Smith in the Good Housekeeping interview: "I always feel like my life is straining at the seams… . Basically I've now decided I can do one movie a year."
Discussing her daughters and how they influenced her acting choices, Streep told Dana Kennedy of Entertainment Weekly: "I want them to see not just examples of beautiful young women, I want them to see that women are beautiful throughout their lives and important and formidable and exciting, because I think those fantasies are what you build your dreams on. I know I did when I was a kid." Kennedy observed that "by sheer strength of personality," Streep "could probably command the U.S. armed forces in addition to tending to her acting career, her husband, and her four children."
By the mid-1990s, Streep's flirtation with comedy was over, and she had returned to playing the kind of drama that had made her so famous, and with an assured maturity. She played a terminally ill wife and mother in One True Thing, garnering another Oscar nomination, and added an Irish brogue to her linguistic repertoire in Dancing at Lughnasa. She played an innercity violin teacher in Music of the Heart, netting her a 12th Academy Award nomination.
After lending her voice talents to a role in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence in 2001, Streep returned to the stage to star in a Broadway adaptation of The Seagull, directed by Mike Nichols. Newsweek 's Cathleen McGuigan said "Streep commands the stage—but never steals scenes—in a wonderfully funny, wrenching performance."
Having turned 50, Streep was determined not to fade away as too many great actresses do in middle age. In 2002, she returned to the forefront with two critically acclaimed performances. In the offbeat comedy Adaptation, she played New Yorker columnist Susan Orlean, who falls for the subject of her article and book, a scraggly gap-toothed orchid thief in Florida. She won a Golden Globe as a supporting actress and also landed a Golden Globe nomination for her standout performance in The Hours, in which she played a New York book editor throwing a party for a longtime friend dying of AIDS. About that portrayal, David Ansen of Newsweek raved: "Few actresses can express their inner lives without a line of dialogue as eloquently as Streep: her warm, flustered performance allows us to become mind readers." Her Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Adaptation allowed her to pass Katherine Hepburn as the most Oscar-nominated actor in movie history. Director Alan Pakula said: "If there's a heaven for directors, it would be to direct Meryl Streep your whole life."
For her part, Streep told Daily Variety that she was proud of the integrity of her career, of "this eccentric, quirky collection of movies I've done, all with their idiosyncratic pleasures. They've never said about my movies, 'What's the sequel?' and 'Can we merchandise this?' "
Utterly rejecting the idea that she approached acting mechanically, Streep said in the Washington Times interview: "We need art like food. I'm not religious but I think of my work—this is so pretentious—a bit like going to the altar. Like going to God… . You can't get ready for it, I believe. Acting is surrender. All you really have to do is listen."
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Daily Variety, November 18, 2002; January 8, 2003.
Entertainment Weekly, February 11, 1994; Fall 1996; March 24, 2000.
Good Housekeeping, September 1998.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (Orlando Sentinel), January 16, 2003.
Newsweek, August 20, 2001.
People Weekly, June 26, 1995; January 27, 1997.
Washington Times, February 20, 2002;
"Meryl Streep," All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com(February 7, 2003).