AFI's Lifetime Achievement Award Goes to Meryl Streep

Isthmus | May 27, 2004
As an actress, she claims to have no method. She’s never read Stanislavsky She’d never seen a serious play until she was in one. She went to Yale Drama School instead of Julliard because the entrance fee to Yale was $15. Julliard would have cost $50. Early on in her film career, an agent tried to talk her into changing her name to Merle Street. She refused. Only a handful of her films have done very well at the box office. Death Becomes Her was supposed to be her commercial breakthrough. It wasn’t. Asked by Entertainment Weekly to share something about herself that contradicts her public image, she replied, “I’ve gone three weeks without washing my hair.” She considers herself lazy, a procrastinator. And yet, when not on location, she cooks three meals a day, does her own washing and ironing, does her own shopping, shuttles her kids to and from school. She drives a Toyota Prius. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Meryl Streep, generally considered the greatest actress of her time, one of the greatest of all time. And now it’s official. On June 10, the American Film Institute will bestow upon Streep its Lifetime Achievement Award in a star-studded ceremony held at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre. And when the USA Network broadcasts the tribute on June 21 at 8 p.m., the rest of us will get a chance to bask in the glow of this incandescent soccer mom. Garbo-like about her privacy, Streep doesn’t make many public appearances; you won’t catch her trading late-night quips with Dave and Jay. And her chameleonic approach to acting – all those guises and disguises, those globe-trotting accents, those shape-shifting wigs – seems like an attempt to hide in the spotlight, be seen without being seen. But when Streep steps out on the Kodak stage to accept her award, there will be no place to hide. Or will there? Over the last 30 years, since she quietly walked off with The Deer Hunter while Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Jon Savage wailed and flailed in the foreground, Streep has been engaged in an elaborate dance of the veils. The stellar performances have just kept coming – an Upper East Side wife and mother who gives up her kid in Kramer vs. Kramer, a Victorian heroine waiting for her illicit lover to return in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a Polish shiksa haunted by the Holocaust in Sophie’s Choice, a Midwestern gal taking on the nuclear-power industry in Silkwood, a British woman longing for the exciting days of World War II in Plenty, a Danish writer smitten by the Dark Continent in Out of Africa, an Australian housewife accused of killing her own baby in A Cry in the Dark, an Italian housewife stuck on an Iowa farm in Bridges of Madison County, a New York writer succumbing to passion in Adaptation. And those are just the highlights. So famously various have this Oscar-winning actress’ roles been that when Homer was shopping around for a perfume to buy Marge in “The Simpsons” a few seasons ago, he landed on “Meryl Streep’s Versatility.” But versatility isn’t exactly what Hollywood is looking for; star power is. Most of the great movie stars have embodied certain qualities – the flintiness of Katharine Hepburn, the suaveness of Cary Grant. Streep’s mystique has more to do with our inability to pin her down, assign her a category. Is she a star or an actress? A leading actress or a character actress? A dramatic actress or a comedic actress? Is she beautiful or strikingly plain? A blond or a brunette? Just who is Meryl Streep, and where did all that talent come from?

Maybe she was born with it. “No one liked me,” Streep has said about her suburban New Jersey childhood. “I was bossy, prim and determined.” Later, corrective glasses and dental braces would deliver the coup de grace to a face maybe not destined for the silver screen. But never underestimate the power of determination. Early in high school, Streep decided she wanted to be beautiful after all, so she nixed the glasses and the braces, bleached her hair and tried out for cheerleader. It was her first award-winning performance, for not only did she make the cheerleading squad, she got elected homecoming queen. Meanwhile, she was tearing up the boards in the school’s annual musicals, where she had the lead three years in a row. Singing, which Streep has done in several of her movies, was an early passion. For four years, she studied with the woman who coached Beverly Sills, then gave it up for more important things – i.e., boys. Then on to Vassar, which was still a girls-only school when Streep got there. Being where the boys aren’t was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to her career. She got rid of the homecoming dress and concentrated on acting. By the time she left, she was a campus legend, and the legend only grew at Yale, where, because she was capable of doing anything, she did everything – 12 to 15 roles a year. Streep’s theater background has been held against her by some movie critics. Her early screen appearances, in particular, were considered mannered, an expert technician’s bag of tricks. But Streep claims to have gotten very little out of drama school except stage experience. And she thinks critics get lost in the details when evaluating her work. “They get stuck in the auto mechanics of it,” she once told The Saturday Evening Post, “the most obvious stuff, like what’s under the hood. They mention the accent or the hair, as if it’s something I’ve laid on that doesn’t have anything to do with the character.” However she put them together, Streep created one indelible character after another during her first years as a movie actress – a group of women who suffered beautifully, sometimes drawing strength from their hopeless situations, sometimes surrendering blissfully to them. These weren’t conventional women, or even likable women. And Streep wasn’t a conventional actress. There was that voice, for one thing – a rather ordinary voice that, when filtered through an accent, achieved subtle shadings of color and texture. And there was that face – a Modigliani face, with its angles and planes, the high cheekbones cleaved by the long, slender nose, the skin as smooth and creamy as marble. Streep wasn’t conventionally beautiful, but the camera loved her, and so did the man behind the camera. “I love to photograph her,” Nestor Almendros, who shot most of her early films, said at the time. “It’s like photographing a Brancusi.” Actually, it was like photographing several different Brancusis. There was a lot of excitement in those early days as Streep picked up an Emmy (for “Holocaust”) and two Oscars while jumping from magazine cover to magazine cover. What would she do next? Like Laurence Olivier, she changed her appearance from film to film, and not just her hair and makeup. Something happened to her body, her skin. It was soft and easily bruised, like a ripened peach, in Sophie’s Choice; hard and weathered, like a pioneer woman’s, in Silkwood; pale as the moon in The French Lieutenant’s Woman; burnished by the sun in Out of Africa. Three of these films were based on literary sources, and although Streep also starred in such films as The Seduction of Joe Tynan and Still of the Night, neither of which did much for her reputation, she was in danger of being typecast as a tragic heroine, Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, Queen of the Costume Ball. There’d been resistance to Streep from the beginning, led by The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, who zeroed in on the technique behind the mystique. “Meryl Streep’s performance is all about her hair,” Kael wrote in her review of Still of the Night, paving the way for other critics’ beauty-salon approach to Streep’s work. “She can’t chew a bit of food without acting out chewing,” Kael added in her review of Heartburn, where Streep played a food writer. But it was in her review of A Cry in the Dark that Kael most succinctly laid out her case against Streep: “She’s a perfectionist who works at her roles from the outside in, mastering the details of movement, voice and facial expression, and this thinking-it-all-out approach gives her an aloofness.” Never mind that aloofness – the character’s refusal to play the media role of grieving mother – was what the movie was about. Streep had prepared too much, thought too much, kept her distance. It’s an old argument, one that has been used against British actors for years. American actors work from the inside out, so the argument goes, merge with their roles by drawing on their own emotional pasts. British actors, on the other hand, work from the outside in, metamorphose into their characters by applying their makeup, donning a wig. There’s the old story about how Olivier, after watching Dustin Hoffman go through conniption fits to pull a believable performance out of himself in Marathon Man, took him aside and said, “Try acting, dear boy, it’s easier.” But it isn’t easier. In fact, it may be harder. “First, I’ll learn Polish. Then I’ll forget me. Then I’ll get to her,” Streep told a Time reporter before beginning work on Sophie’s Choice. And if her performance was theatrical, so was the character. So are most of the memorable characters Streep has played. Only when she plays ordinary characters does she herself seem ordinary. I’m thinking of Falling in Love, Before and After and One True Thing, movies where she played average housewives, and The Hours, where she wasn’t given enough to do. Like any actress, Streep needs something to sink her teeth into, even if it’s just those accents. (Her characters in A Cry in the Dark and Bridges of Madison County are unimaginable without them.) On the other hand, she was quietly radiant opposite Albert Brooks in Defending Your Life, where just about all she was required to do was laugh at Brooks’ jokes. (Yes, but what a life-affirming laugh!) And she was surprisingly sensual in Adaptation, where investing herself in a small part paid large dividends. One of the raps on Streep has been that she can’t play contemporary urban women. Nonsense. Even The River Wild, where she took a plunge into action-adventure filmmaking, was successful on its own terms. The question is, was this the best use of her talent? Those of us who follow Streep’s career have fretted over the use of her talent, especially in the last 10 years or so. The parts don’t seem to be coming, either that or she’s turning them down. With four kids (one who’s in college now) to cook and clean for, she claims to have planned her career around her family, which has meant no stage work, few exotic locations and lots of supporting roles. She played the lead in Music from the Heart, even learned how to play violin, but the part – a music teacher who takes her Harlem students all the way to Carnegie Hall – was one-dimensional. And she played the mother in an ABC movie of the week called First Do No Harm, which was about a kid battling pediatric epilepsy. She supposedly took the part as a favor to her friend, writer-director Jim Abrahams, whose son had fought the disease, but the very idea of Meryl Streep doing a TV movie seemed a sacrilege. She may do another one someday. For Hollywood hasn’t been waiting patiently for Streep to raise her kids, like some of us have. She isn’t box-office poison, but neither is she a genuine movie star, able to bring millions of fans to the multiplex on opening weekend. Not that she hasn’t tried. Back in the late-‘80s, Streep reinvented herself as a comedian. She-Devil, Postcards from the Edge, Defending Your Life, Death Becomes Her – the roles were as various as her dramatic ones, and she was funny in them, but none were hits. Then came The River Wild, which did solid box office but was supposed to do solid-gold box office. Meanwhile, Streep had moved to L.A., changed agents and spoken out in favor of better roles and equal pay for women. “The screen belongs to a bunch of dumb, brawny men – the Die Hard boys,” she said. Age is also working against Streep. She’s past 50, which is even worse than being past 40, in Hollywood producers’ minds. Bridges of Madison County and Adaptation proved she’s still capable of generating sexual heat, but that kind of role is going to be harder to find as she heads into the later stages of her career. What’s more likely is that she’ll continue to take supporting roles. Or she’ll return to the New York stage. (Is it too early to check on airfares?) In HBO’s recent production of Angels in America, she managed to do both, taking on three supporting roles in this filmed version of Tony Kushner’s landmark play, including the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and, in an absolutely stunning display of virtuosity, an aged rabbi with a Yiddish accent. (The woman knows from Yiddish accents.) When I saw her name in the end credits, my jaw dropped, then I burst out laughing. So she’s still got some surprises for us. And one can only hope that she continues to be given the opportunities to spring them on us. Other major actresses close to her age aren’t exactly in demand these days: Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Sissy Spacek, Debra Winger. But maybe Streep will be the one who defies the odds. She always has been in the past. An ugly duckling, she willed herself into a swan. A stage actress, she made the transition to film. A dramatic actress, she made the transition to comedy. A character actress, she took on the role of romantic leading lady, just as she’d once taken on the role of homecoming queen, and pulled it off with aplomb. Now, at the ripe old age of 55, she’s embarking on a second act that even F. Scott Fitzgerald, who claimed there are no second acts in American lives, wouldn’t begrudge her. A repertory company unto herself, Meryl Streep has already achieved enough for one lifetime. But why settle for one when there are so many to choose from?


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