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Six definitive films: A beginner’s guide to Meryl Streep

“Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.” – Meryl Streep

The living definition of versatility and talent, Meryl Streep is famous for her ability to get into the skin of any character she is assigned, including mastering accents. Rightfully considered the best actors of her generation, Streep is a cinematic legend whose genius is immeasurable, her talent incomparable. With a record of 21 Academy Award nominations and three wins out of numerous other awards and accolades, she is inarguably the queen of Hollywood, reigning atop her throne of honours and acting prowess. 

Having been a part of the industry for a little over five decades, Streep is known for her classic method-acting and for conducting incredible background research on her characters as she strives for perfection. Streep has been as breathtaking on stage as she was on film and had been partial to theatre for the longest time. Despite having graduated from Yale School of Drama, Streep said that given the different approaches adopted by her teachers, she had “decided to make it up as [she] went along”. Her music and dance lessons helped her acting sensibility develop over the years and she was seen in famous productions, including Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children”.

It was Robert De Niro’s stellar performance as the notorious Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver that made Meryl Streep consider film acting. Her first feature film was the 1977 Julia where she starred alongside Jane Fonda, the latter becoming a great influence on her career. Her breakthrough film, however, was The Deer Hunter, following which she amassed critical acclaim as well as the first of her 21 Oscar nominations. Later, she won her first Academy Award the following year with her expressive performance as Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer. Streep has a brilliant emotional spectrum to play intense characters and her prowess is understandable via the varied range of characters she has played, from mastering complicated accents and learning entirely different languages to singing soulfully, from being an older male rabbi to a bad operatic singer, from being a free-spirited mother to a Polish immigrant, from a merciless boss to the iconic Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. 

Streep brings with her inexplicable grace and poise that complement her charismatic aura and magnetic on-screen presence. She has often been compared to a chameleon for her ability to adapt to any role. A master of improv, Streep loves learning from mistakes, have not been able to learn from a particularly streamlined acting school. Streep’s oeuvre cannot be pigeonholed into a set of particular roles as she keeps surprising the audience with the diversity of those roles, transcending all the boxes she is at times typecast into. Her characters are powerful and evocative, speaking volumes in scathing monologues or haunting silences. 

At 72, Streep remains as graceful as ever, leaving the audience spellbound with her brilliant acting skills. While it is extremely difficult to pick out this legend’s best roles given her dexterous acting abilities, here are six definitive film roles of Meryl Streep that shall help the audience get a better understanding of the evolution and development of her illustrious career that made her a revered Holywood icon. 

“What does it take to be the first female anything? It takes grit, and it takes grace.”

Meryl Streep’s six definitive films:

The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)

Considered as one of the greatest American epic films made since Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather, the film is set in the late 1960s when three friends from a working-class belt of a steel town, Michael, Steven and Nick, decide to go for a final hunting trip. Their expectations and glorified thoughts about wars are shattered when they are faced with the brutalities and viciousness of warfare during the Vietnam War, including a handicapped Steven and a missing Nick. Wars not only affect these young men but also those back at home, related to them, including Nick’s sweetheart, Linda.   

The Deer Hunter sees Meryl Streep in a supporting role but can be considered as her breakthrough role as she received her first Oscar nomination as well as critical acclaim for her performance. Although Streep was not very fond of the character’s vulnerability and passive nature, she had taken up the role to spend time with her then-boyfriend John Cazale; unfortunately, this would be Cazale’s final film as the latter succumbed to an illness, shortly after. Streep managed to convey the emotional turmoil that Linda went through with dexterity and a fierce passion. The film analyses the psychological implications of warfare as well as portrays Streep as a cinematic revelation.  

“Did you ever think life would turn out like this?”  

Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979)

Workaholic Ted Kramer works in the advertising industry and barely has time for his wife, Joanna, and their son Billy, which annoys Joanna who eventually leaves him with their son to take care of. Despite struggling initially, failing to bond with his son, Ted and Billy gradually forge a beautiful relationship as they bond over shared interests. In walks Joanna who wants to claim Billy’s custody and the estranged couple soon engage in a brutal and vicious custody battle where they, on the insistence of their lawyers, tear each other down to shreds. Based on Avery Corman’s 1977 novel, the film delves deeper into the ugly custody battle that follows their divorce. 

If Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story broke you, Kramer vs. Kramer shall tear you apart. Focusing on the ruthless custody battle that follows their divorce, the characters’ relationship is laid naked in front of the viewers for a close and raw analysis. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep are the titular Kramer couple whose irreconcilable differences push them to take such a drastic step. This realistic film recorded Hoffman and Streep’s realistic performances, winning the duo Academy Awards in their individual categories, this being Streep’s first of three wins. Their individual personal tragedies were taken as the root cause for such realistic and soulful performances. Streep had, apparently, come up with her courtroom monologue herself which added more dimension to her character. She also wanted to portray the character of Joanna in a more sympathetic light instead of being the outright villain. Flawed and human, Joanna is one of Streep’s most memorable roles. The film was, however, met with immense controversy after Streep accused Hoffman of bullying and harassing her. 

I was his mommy for five and a half years. And Ted took over that role for 18 months. But, I don’t know how anybody could possibly believe that I have less of a stake in mothering that little boy than Mr Kramer does. I’m his mother. I’m his mother.”

Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982)

Based on William Styron’s eponymous 1979 novel, the film follows a young writer named Stingo when he moves to Brooklyn to draft his first novel. He soon befriends Sophie, a Holocaust survivor, and her psychologically unstable boyfriend, Nathan, who is gripped by jealousy. From Sophie, Stingo learns of the life of Sophie, as a Polish immigrant, starting from her opulent life in pre-war times to the harrowing stories about the concentration camps. Stingo and Sophie grow closer to one another as Nathan’s emotional health deteriorates and Stingo learns of various gut-wrenching truths from Sophie about her days in Auschwitz. 

Meryl Streep delivered an unforgettable, bravura performance as Sophie, the character anguished by the horrors she had to face. As a character reeling from the aftermath of the Second World War, entrenched in anxiety and paranoia, Streep was heartbreakingly beautiful. She had apparently begged the director to cast her in this role and learned not only the Polish accent but also fluent German and Polish to perfect her role as the Polish refugee. The most pivotal and poignant scene of the film is when Sophie has to make the titular choice, the event that was not unravelled until the very end. As Streep chooses between her two children for one to be sent to the children’s camp and the other to their death, the moment, drowning in the child’s screams, is painful, realistic and devastating. With her exceptional performance, Streep won her second Academy Award for Best Actress. 

“Take my little girl! Take my baby!”

The Bridges of Madison County (Clint Eastwood, 1995)

Based on Robert James Waller’s eponymous 1992 bestseller, Michael and Carolyn Johnson visit their mother, Francesca’s Iowa estate following her death. They are puzzled to know of their mother’s wish for her ashes to be scattered from the Roseman Covered bridge instead of being buried next to her late husband. Soon, the siblings come across a polaroid and some other mementoes in a chest filled with memories that inform them of their mother’s four-day-long torrid love affair with a photojournalist named Robert Kincaid with whom she found a brief escape from her loveless marriage, the memories of which sustained her for the longest time. 

Devoid of sappy sentimentality, the film offers a fresh and honest perspective on adult romances. It emphasises the tropes of yearning and isolation while taking its own sweet pace to culminate into an absolutely beautiful and heartrending romance, accentuated by the genius of director Clint Eastwood who left Streep speechless with his selfless attitude as a director to make the film be a perfect work of art rather than taking up scenes to flaunt his prowess as an actor. Eastwood and Meryl Streep have palpable chemistry and Francesca Johnson is most likely one of Streep’s most underrated performances despite it having won her an Academy Award nomination. The motif of lost love holds strong in this evocative narrative where Streep, restrained and patient, speaks volumes via fleeting glances and heavy silences. 

“I want to keep it forever. I want to love you the way I do now for the rest of my life. Don’t you understand: we’ll lose it if we leave. I can’t make an entire life disappear to start a new one. All I can do is try to hold onto both. Help me. Help me not lose loving you.”

The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006) 

Based on Lauren Weisberger’s eponymous 2003 novel, the film follows the New Yorker, a naive simpleton named Andrea Sachs who is hired to be the second assistant to the extremely powerful and scary Miranda Priestly who reeks of sass and sophistication and is cold and merciless as the coveted executive of the Runway fashion magazine. Amidst various obstacles and challenges as well as professional commitments, Andrea slowly begins to change her behaviour and outlook towards life which impacts her private life. Soon, she has to make a choice that is difficult on various levels. 

Miranda Priestly is cold, ruthless and unforgiving, relentless in her fury and sarcasm yet has a softer side that remains concealed behind the tough exterior. She is the living embodiment of a tyrannical boss who would stop at nothing to get to the top. With her perfect and crisp attire, Streep is a vision to behold and respect, her short-cropped platinum blonde hair complementing her sharp features and adding a defined personality to her formidable nature.

Despite playing second fiddle to Anne Hathaway, Streep rules hearts and has an overwhelming presence. Her brilliant performance earned her an Academy Award nomination as well as heaps of praises from critics as well as Anna Wintour, the famous Vogue editor on whom the role was allegedly based. Streep based her appearance on Carmen Dell’Orefice’s classic white bouffant, talking about how she “wanted a cross between her and the unassailable elegance and authority of Christine Lagarde”. Despite initial scepticism, the producers came around after witnessing how scary she could be as Miranda. Keep an eye out for her brilliant and scathing monologue about the different shades of blue, emphasising cerulean blue and fashion trends. 

“Is there some reason that my coffee isn’t here? Has she died or something?”

Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009)

Told in a series of flashbacks that continuously make the viewers oscillate between the past and the present, this biographical drama focuses on the lives of two women with a knack for cooking. Julia Child pursues her unabashed dream of becoming a French culinary master in the 1950s.

Despite various obstacles adorning her path including criticism, investigations and more, her dauntless efforts, passion and love for butter finally help her get her own cookbook published which in turn serves as an inspiration for a young woman nearly five decades later. Julie Powell is tired of her job and finds motivation in attempting to cook all of Child’s 524 recipes listed in her cookbook within a span of 365 days and attempts to document it on her blog. 

Following films such as Silkwood and Heartburn, this was Ephron and Streep’s third collaboration. In her role as Julia Child, Meryl Streep is full of surprises. She is ambitious and fearless in her impersonation of the iconic culinary master and adds a sense of joy and mirth to her character. She makes one wish for a film to be solely based on her. Streep had been nominated for a Best Actress award at the Academy for her performance yet lot, making it her 12th consecutive loss. However, her larger-than-life persona helps convey the life of an icon effortlessly well, along with her passionate love affair with food, besides her husband, being one of the most sensational parts of the film. 

“You and I are vaches enragées.”