Jane Fonda, The China Syndrome — Bette Davis, The Letter — Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver — Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom — Katharine Hepburn, Suddenly, Last Summer — Elizabeth Taylor, BUtterfield 8

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Meryl Streep, in The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
mainstays & repeat winners
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Meryl Streep
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Claudette Colbert, in It Happened One Night (1934)
Barbara Stanwyck, in Double Indemnity (1944)
Renée Zellweger, in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
Angela Bassett, in What's Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Sally Kirkland, in Anna (1987)
Gong Li, in Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
Judi Dench, in Notes on a Scandal (2006)
Janet McTeer, in Tumbleweeds (1999)

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Best Actress: Perennials Meryl Streep
15 Nominations (81, 82, 83, 85, 87, 88, 90, 95, 98, 99, 06, 08, 09, 11, 13)
2 Wins (82, 11)
3 Supporting Nominations (78, 79, 02)
1 Supporitng Win (79)

click boldfaced years for profiles of those races

I wrote this article in 2009 and have not updated it to encompass more recent work, including her third Oscar-winning performance in The Iron Lady.

In the circles where I travel, speculation as to when Meryl Streep will finally win a third Oscar is a popular pastime, as is a certain degree of gratuitous fretting that she never will. After all, neither Bette Davis nor Spencer Tracy ever "recovered" from the gilded liability of scoring two statuettes so early in their careers. If a hat-trick does happen for Meryl, I will be as pleased as anyone to see her clutching a third Academy Award, as long as she doesn't win another one just to win another one, and I will gladly listen to her characteristic moxie, eloquence, and scrumptiously ironized Queen of the Universe-ness as she thanks all her collaborators in her latest vehicle. But what I really want to hear, and what we can all place even surer bets on, is the moment we'll all enjoy when Meryl wins that Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, occasioning the all-stops-out tributes from all of the sozzled Hollywood folks who love her—a rum bunch stretching from Jack to Bobby to Liza to Cher—and then a pièce de résistance of that breast-thumping, arm-waving, left-voting, eye-twinkling, spotlight-loving genre of telecast speech that Meryl has perfected, somewhere along the way of perfecting everything else.

In the current idiom, Meryl is the Pixar of modern actors, the one people love even though they rarely love this sort of thing, the one they not only cheer at every single at-bat but whose career we are all obligated to describe as an unending series of three-run homers. Rumor has it that she's got no one left to compete with but herself, although happily, this also means she is rangy and good-natured enough to play on almost any team that invites her. It has become almost compulsory for the actresses who win major gongs for which Meryl is nominated (Gwyneth, Hilary, Kate...) to isolate her in their speeches and declaim how particularly unworthy they feel to have bested her. A reality check would not kill anyone, least of all Meryl, whose infinite capacity for charm and good sense has prompted her on several occasions to underscore the faults in some of her own work (calling Before and After, with perfect justification, a "weird, airless thing"). She even uses her own missteps to toss compliments at her colleagues, applauding Kim Basinger for "getting" in L.A. Confidential what she feels she herself missed in Still of the Night. But these are low-stakes gestures, you protest, in relation to minor Streepiana. Fine. Let's hunt some bigger game: she's helpless at getting The French Lieutenant's Woman to make any emotional sense; she's trapped, despite all her brilliant technique and deep feeling, in some of the same misguidedly glamorizing impulses that turn Sophie's Choice (review) into such an obscene object. The welcome bent toward populist flamboyance in Lemony Snicket, Prada (review), and the dread Mamma Mia! (review) are nevertheless starting to imply—based on the proximate evidence of The Manchurian Candidate (review), Rendition, and the half-blown opportunity of Doubt—that Meryl is sometimes mislaying her knack for subtlety, and that her directors are growing less and less willing to steward or challenge her choices.

So now that's out of the way. And yes, I confess that slagging Meryl Streep even a little bit seems almost comically churlish; it reminds me of that delicious bit in Jane Smiley's Moo when a splinter-cell of renegade English professors identify themselves to each other at an MLA Conference with carefully dropped barbs at Toni Morrison's expense. High time to declaim, having conceded that no one is perfect, not even the "Greatest Living Actress," that Meryl Streep is a national treasure and a historically important artist. She is a one-woman cherry-bomb against various dumb canards about the public's indifference to serious work, or the impossibility of a Hollywood megastar maintaining her marriage and living a recognizably human life. She has pulverized the requirement that every serious actress be willing to disrobe, especially when she's most f*ckable, and she has proven in her grinning but Midas-like way the viability of a tony actress's career even after she's hit 35 40 50 60. By the physical laws of Hollywood, Meryl not only shouldn't be headlining hit after hit, she not only shouldn't exist, she probably should have stopped existing as far back as the era of She-Devil through The River Wild (review). Even I remember all of the wagging, chauvinist "journalism" (but alas, none of the journalists, dusty Yoricks all of them!) that was so gloatingly sure this Ivy League goddess had finally slipped her pedestal, that her newfound penchant for broad comedies and genre pictures could not possibly index anything except career twilights and grasping at straws. And fair enough, the exact same period, brief as it was, witnessed the surprise tailspins of all three of Meryl's closest competitors as the major American actresses of the 1980s: Kathleen Turner, who only recently rediscovered herself in live theater; Glenn Close, who's finally back on a major track via cable TV; and Jessica Lange, who works sporadically and unevenly and, spiky to the last, just doesn't seem to give a rat's ass.

But Meryl's fine. She's way beyond fine, obviously; she's a genuine phenomenon. She's a bigger, more reliable star these days than Tom Cruise is, and as I reported in my Mamma Mia! review, she's a multi-demographic hero and a major frame of cultural reference to my students, almost none of whom have any idea why Madonna was ever famous. Some of the heat, lightning, and shimmer that made her an almost instant legend in her early career still subtends her durable prestige and celebrity: once you've had a year like 1979, bounded by two Oscar nominations and encompassing four such different women as mothlike Linda in The Deer Hunter, acerbic and glamorous Jill in Manhattan, giddy and enticing Karen in Joe Tynan, and desolate, unpredictable Joanna in Kramer vs. Kramer, you're probably bound for a certain measure of fond popular memory. If you can create Sophie Zawistowska and Karen Silkwood (review) almost back to back, we're already talking Actor of the Generation. She's probably the only gal in the industry who could have lured mid-80s De Niro and Nicholson into playing the kinds of flawed, second-fiddle Everyman parts they assayed in Falling in Love and Heartburn, respectively. If you can snatch a real, poignant, funny, and full-hipped woman from the purple clutches of Robert James Waller, you're within striking distance of Mount Rushmore, and if you can co-star in not one but two eggheady and rumored-to-be-troubled productions in 2001, both of them postponed for a full year till 2002, and both of them popular and critical sensations upon arrival, you're in Valhalla. Popping in for some throwaway yuks without a single person thinking you've finally gone Monster-in-Law is another good trick, but an even greater one is almost single-handedly resuscitating summer entertainment for the Audience Formerly Known as Women.

But you probably knew all that. This is the major-chord version of Meryl Streep's Greatest Hits. There are minor chords and B-sides to think about, and if classic Hollywood teaches us anything, it's that enduring movie stardom depends a great deal on whether people appreciate you in your "between-projects" projects, not just your main events. If you don't show them a good time in your Follow the Fleets and your Great Lies, they won't always love you in your Swing Times and your Now, Voyagers. Sure, I'd like to see a few more Voyagers on Meryl's recent résumé, even though this gal doesn't have to do a damn thing she doesn't want to. Especially now with her kids all grown, I'd do jumping jacks, I'd promise to learn rafting and Polish to see her take bigger chances on the kinds of auteurs that Nicole Kidman and Catherine Deneuve keep chasing around. Barbara Hershey, a marvelous performer, isn't fully the thespian that Meryl is, and yet I can't help wondering what Meryl might have shown us if she were making more Last Temptations, World Aparts, and Hannah and Her Sisterses in the late 80s instead of being, by a dozen miles, the best thing in Heartburn, Ironweed, and A Cry in the Dark. The recent choice to lend her talents to Dark Matter, a nervy, nickel-budgeted, and smarts-driven drama by an Asian director that Hollywood's never heard of, augurs promisingly in this direction. Surely it will occur to someone either to lure Meryl more frequently onto the New York stage or to commit some of her recent theatrical tours de force into the worthy movie versions we've never really seen of The Seagull or Mother Courage and Her Children. Or, sweet Jesus, both! I would prefer this profoundly to the off-key yet somehow inevitable likelihood of her having a whirl at Violet Weston in August: Osage County, who seems better-tailored to a Close or a Clarkson, someone with visible bones and a third-degree, murderous glare.

The possibilities on this, Meryl's 60th birthday, seem endless. I hope she never dies, and I am glad that even though I still have so few of her performances to experience for the first time (Holocaust, Plenty, and Death Becomes Her, most promisingly), I have every confidence that there's much left to discover in the turns I've seen once (Out of Africa, Angels in America), twice (Ironweed, A Cry in the Dark), three times (Marvin's Room, One True Thing), and countless times (Postcards from the Edge, reviewed here, or The Hours, reviewed here). The paths, echos, and meanings among her performances can be followed and matched in so many ways. Even far afield from the nucleus of her reputation, one finds rich, savory pleasures in the outlying orbits of her body of work. For instance, if you polled Meryl Fans around the world for the one Oscar nod they'd willingly subtract, I'm sure that her Hepburn-tying 12th in Music of the Heart would probably get the axe, but I think that's a shame. To me, it's one of her most lived-in, charmingly shaded, and emotionally generous portrayals. Sure, I'm a sucker for Sophie's big Choice and for Karen Silkwood setting off the alarms and for "cerulean" and for Francesca's moment of reckoning with the handle of the car door... but I wouldn't ever want to lose Heartburn's Rachel sifting spontaneously through her mind for songs with "Baby" in the title, or Falling in Love's Molly telling Dianne Wiest that she simply can't tolerate any well-intentioned advice, or Suzanne Vale in a policewoman's uniform cowering behind a rolling rack of costumes, or Helen Archer checking into her last hotel, or Yolanda Johnson singing a moon-bright and river-clear eulogy for her mama, or, way back at the beginning, Lillian Hellman's narcissistic semi-friend Anne Marie swanning over in Julia (review) to offer an ostentatious congratulation and then fussing for just a beat, fingers to her chin, as Lillian sidles by.

I was born in 1977, the year Meryl made her first movie, and boy, do I feel like I got here just in the nick of time. FAQs / Leave a Comment

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