The Greatest Living Actor: Meryl Streep at 74
Not all movie stars are created equal. If you were to trap all of Hollywood in amber and study it, you would discover a lattice of unspoken hierarchies, thwarted ambitions, and compromises dressed up as career moves. The best time and place to conduct such an archeological survey would be in late winter at Hollywood Boulevard, where they hand out the Academy Awards. The 84th academy awards are no different. Most of the attention belongs to the women, and the ones nominated for Best Actress bear special scrutiny. The fifth nominee was Meryl for her role in Iron Lady, in which she played a braying Margaret Thatcher. She won two Oscars in the past, and the last time was in 1983. While she has been nominated a record-breaking seventeen times, she has also lost a record-breaking fourteen times. when Colin Firth recites the names of the nominees, she takes deep fortifying breaths, her gold earrings trembling above her shoulders ‘. then Firth opens the envelope and grins “And the Oscar goes to Meryl Streep”.
Her acceptance speech is an art form unto itself; at once spontaneous and scripted, humble and haughty, grateful and blasé. By now it seems as if the title of the greatest living actress has affixed itself to her. Superlatives stick to her: she is a god among actors, able to disappear into any character, master any genre and nail any accent. Far from fading into the usual post-fifty obsolescence, she has defied Hollywood calculus and reached a career crescendo. In the 80s she was the globe-trotting heroine of dramatic epics like Sophie’s Choice and Out of Africa. The nineties were a lull. In 2002 Adaptation liberated her from the momentary rut she had been in. In her acceptance speech for Oscar, she singled out her hair stylist Roy Helland, with whom she has been working from Sophie’s Choice, ‘all the way up to tonight.’, when he won for his beautiful work in The Iron Lady, 30 years later. With Thatchersque certitude, she underlines each word with a karate chop: “Every, Single, Movie, in between. “
Forty-two years earlier Meryl Streep was a pellucid Vassar student, just discovering the lure of the stage. Her extraordinary talent was evident to all who knew her, but she did not see much future in it. Although she possessed an idiosyncratic beauty, she never saw herself as an ingenue. Her insecurity worked in her favor. Instead of shoehorning herself into traditionally feminine roles, she could make herself foreign, wacky, or plain, disappearing into lives far beyond her suburban New Jersey upbringing. Neither a classic beauty in the mold of Elizabeth Taylor nor a girl next door type like Debbie Reynolds, she was everything and nothing-a chameleon. One thing she knew she was not: a movie star.
What happened next was a series of breaks that every actress on earth dreams of. By the end of the 70s, she had become a star student at the Yale School of Drama, headlined on Broadway and in Shakespeare in the Park, found and lost the love of her life, John Cazale, and starred in Kramer Vs Kramer, for which she would win her first Academy Award- all within 10 dizzying years. The same decade that made Meryl a star represented a heady, game-changing era in American film acting. But its biggest names were men: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Huffman. It was the nuance and dramatic wit of her performances that earned her a place. Makeup and accents made her unrecognizable, and yet each performance had an inner discontent. Her interior life was dialectical.
Her immense craft was not without its detractors. In 1982 Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s maverick film critic wrote of her performance in Sophie’s Choice: She has put thought and effort into her work. But I can’t visualize her from the neck down. The phrase stuck, as did the idea that Meryl Streep is technical.AO Scott in his New York Times Review wrote on The Iron Lady: Stiff legged and slow-moving, behind a ton of geriatric makeup. Ms. Streep provides once again. a technically flawless impersonation. But Meryl is quick to explain, she works more from intuition than from any codified
technique. While she is part of a generation raised on method acting, she has always been skeptical of its self-punishing demands. She is, among other things, a collage artist, her mind like an algorithm that can call up accents, and gestures. Inflections and reassemble them into a character.
Coming of age during the ascendence of the second wave of feminism, her discovery was inextricable from the business of becoming a woman. In Kramer Vs Kramer, she starred as a young mother who had the audacity to abandon her husband and child, only to reappear and demand custody. The film was one level, a reactionary slant against women’s lib. But Streep insisted on making Joanna Kramer not a dragon lady but a complex woman with legitimate longings and doubts. Women, she said are better at acting than men, because we have to be. She also alleged how Dustin Huffman squeezed her breasts during the shooting, in a very nonchalant manner due to his star status & despicable male chauvinism!
The years that changed Meryl Streep from a winsome cheerleader to the unstoppable star of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice & Out of Africa had their own exigencies, ones that also transformed America, women & the movies. To become a star, was never high on the list of her priorities, she would do so on her own terms, letting nothing other than her talent clear her path. She did not wear her political predilection lightly, nor was she quiet when Trump mocked at a disabled reporter Kovaleski. She hissed out: when the powerful use their position to bully, we all lose. When Trump came up with his anti-immigrant policy, she said: Hollywood is crawling with outsiders. If you kick us out, you will have nothing to watch except mixed martial arts, which are no arts. She once said:’ There is no such thing as the best actress. There is no such thing as the greatest living actress. As she turns 74 today, she nevertheless, is closest to that crown!