Meryl Streep – So many films, so much time!
BY WENDY SCHUMAN
We’re having a Meryl Streep film festival at our house. Five films down, and around 70 to go! At a time when we’re stuck at home, Streep’s films have been transporting my husband and me around the world in time and space–from London (The Iron Lady) to rural Oklahoma (Silkwood), from the Australian outback (A Cry in the Dark) to a Greek island in the Aegean (Mamma Mia!), from a farm in Kenya (Out of Africa) to a theme-park version of the afterlife (Defending Your Life). Yesterday, we watched Streep’s latest film—Let Them All Talk—which takes place aboard a ship on a transatlantic crossing, a perfect metaphor for the transitional time in which we’re living.
More than far-flung locations, Meryl Streep’s characters give us a range of real human beings in all their emotional complexity—not to mention their spot-on accents and languages. Danish, British, Polish, German, Italian… she does it all perfectly. Plus, she sings!
Not all the movies are great, but Streep is invariably wonderful in them.
Widely acclaimed as the most gifted actress of our generation (she turned 71 in 2020), Meryl Streep is also one of the most prolific and honored. Nominated for 21 Academy Awards—more than any other actor—she’s won three Oscars (one less than top-scoring Katharine Hepburn). And she’s received the most Golden Globe nominations and wins in history.
Her New Role—Grandmother
For more than a year Meryl Streep has been quietly playing a new role—that of the first-time grandmother. The star’s eldest daughter, Mamie Gummer, 36, gave birth to a baby boy in February of 2019. The toddler’s dad is Mamie’s fiancé, producer Mehar Sethi. In a talk with fellow actor Glenda Jackson that appeared in Interview before the baby’s birth, Streep said, “I’m getting ready for my first grandchild. My daughter’s having a baby in February, so I’m going to go out and ruin her life. I specialize in unsolicited advice.”
Joking aside, Streep undoubtedly has a ton of information and first-hand experience to share with her daughter, who is also a successful actress. Streep and her husband of 42 years, sculptor Don Gummer, have three children in addition to Mamie—musician Henry Wolfe, 40; actress Grace Gummer, 34; and Louisa Gummer, a 29-year-old model.
Streep, who has always been a devoted mom, once noted, “Every single decision I make about what material I do, what I’m putting out in the world, is because of my children.” For years she made professional decisions with her kids in mind, choosing films that didn’t take her away from the family for more than two weeks. She credits her husband with being the mainstay at home. “Motherhood, marriage, it’s a balancing act,” she told Working Mother. “Especially when you have a job that you consider rewarding. It’s a challenge, but the best kind of challenge.”
Streep has been an environmental activist since the late ‘80s, co-founding Mothers & Others, a group that opposed toxic pesticides in foods and children’s products. Caring for the environment would naturally extend to what affects her grandchild. According to a source quoted in Closer Weekly, “She’s into organic food, so she’s getting nontoxic toys and sustainable, healthy products right down to the sheets and blankets. She’s been researching voraciously, like when she does research for a part, about what’s best for Mamie and the baby.”
“Empathy is the thing that will save us…”
In acting, research is important but only part of Streep’s method for understanding a new character. How is she able to transform herself so seamlessly into so many different roles that we forget that she’s Meryl Streep and actually believe we’re seeing Margaret Thatcher or Julia Child, a desperate Polish Holocaust survivor, or a tough-as-nails nun in the Bronx? Streep herself has given the answer: empathy. In a conversation last year with Stephen Colbert at the Montclair Film Festival, she said, “Actors are natural empaths. It’s part of the job description, like—can you type 90 words a minute? Can you empathize, can you feel what this person feels?
“We all stop imagining, so quickly in life, what it’s like to be other people,” she added. “But empathy is the thing that will save us if we will be saved.”
Empathy—deeply understanding another person with compassion—is what she brings to roles like that of nuclear whistle-blower Karen Silkwood, who died in a suspicious car accident. “I put together every piece of information I could find about her … What I finally did was look at the events in her life, and try to understand her from the inside.”
Her characters are not perfect people—some of them are downright unlikable—like Miranda Priestly, the editor in The Devil Wears Prada, or Sister Aloysius in Doubt. But through empathy, Streep is able to show us their humanity.
Streep’s career has spanned more than 40 years—starting as a young theater actor after she graduated from Yale Drama School in 1979. She never thought she was conventionally beautiful, and neither did some directors. But she was arresting and charismatic in early roles like The Deerhunter (1978) and Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). (In fact, she’s gorgeous, with strong cheekbones, a peach complexion, and an aquiline nose.)
Over the last 20 years, since turning 50, she’s played powerful older women with panache, humor, and often sex appeal. Her two recent films show her willingness to experiment with genres. In Let Them All Talk she teams up with film legends Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest on the Queen Mary 2 as college frenemies, where they basically improvise their own dialogue. In The Prom, a musical comedy in which she plays a narcissistic Broadway star who descends on a small Indiana town, she sings, dances, and flirts with the high school principal. In her upcoming film, Don’t Look Up, she plays a U.S. president who has to deal with a global catastrophe—a familiar scenario for today’s audience.
In various interviews, Streep has spoken movingly of the freedom and confidence she’s found in later life. “I like who I am now. Other people may not. I’m comfortable. I feel freer now,” she notes. “You have to embrace getting older. Life is precious, and when you’ve lost a lot of people, you realize each day is a gift.”
Regarding her long career, she told Oprah, “I know life is short and I’m a lucky woman. I think that you find your own way. You have your own rules. You have your own understanding of yourself, and that’s what you’re going to count on. In the end, it’s what feels right to you. Not what your mother told you. Not what some actress told you. Not what anybody else told you, but the still, small voice.”
What’s your favorite Meryl Streep movie and why?
Everyone has an opinion about the many roles played by this great actress. Here’s a sampling of responses from Facebook.
Julie and Julia, because it was one of my mom’s favorites and we watched it together. I also love Julia Child’s story, Streep’s portrayal of her, and Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of her husband.
It is hard not to pick Sophie’s Choice. Meryl was perfect. In that role she was poised and polished when in Poland before the war, she was shaken and heartbreakingly sad during the war, she was tortured after the war—but also so childlike when she was happy in Brooklyn. My favorite moment is when she is so excited to go to Coney Island for the day and says, “Coney Island! Oh boy!” in this girlish Polish accent. She was beautiful.
I love The River Wild. She’s the victim, she’s the hero, she’s awesome. And I think of her personal resolve in Bridges of Madison County, constantly.
Kramer versus Kramer. It was a sensitive topic told by pure acting with NYC as a backdrop. The brave theme allowed a woman to take a break from family life to find herself, understand her potential, and evolve into a caring, giving mother without being castigated or having a nervous breakdown. It was free of stereotypes.
One that springs to mind: It’s Complicated. She is a phenomenal dramatic actress, but I loved the free and comedic side she brought to the role, and it’s a testimonial to her amazing acting that there were so many dimensions to her performance. Also loved that as a “woman of a certain age,” it showed her as a sexual being.
Postcards from the Edge captures Streep’s generosity. A recovering addict, she tries, over and over, to prove herself to her larger-than-life mother, played by Shirley MacLaine. Streep gives and gives until, at the movie’s end, she rallies her estimable talents as a singer and finds, even more, to bestow on her audience.
So many choices (including Sophie’s Choice!) for this marvelous lady! But I think my favorite is Mamma Mia. In this film, in addition to her terrific acting, Ms. Streep also demonstrates her amazing versatility as a singer, dancer, and comedienne.
Out of Africa with Robert Redford. The scenery is breathtaking. Ms. Streep needed to recreate the book’s author’s life in Kenya with a Danish accent.
She was a genius in Silkwood. We were very involved in the anti-nuke movement in the late 70s and Karen had been a real hero. No one could have played the truth of that time and Silkwood’s pain better. I would also have to say Sophie’s Choice. I was a new mom and went to see it with a girlfriend who was also a new mom. The way Meryl played the scene when she had to make that devastating choice, just broke me. I felt like my own heart was being ripped apart. Her performance took my breath away.
I loved Streep in The Devil Wears Prada! She was so quietly fierce and commanded attention!
I have to add The Post. As Katharine Graham she was strong, smart, gutsy, and caring—and watching her make this incredible decision that is hers alone to make but will impact the entire company (and the world)—with all these men telling her what to do… and she makes the call. Whoa!
Sophie’s Choice. I was simply blown away by the entire cast, but especially Ms. Streep’s outstanding performance. Simply mesmerizing! She has remained my favorite female actress ever since. I was so completely moved by the story, and it’s where I first fell in love with the name Sophie…and I named my daughter Sophie.
–Cheryl Raymer Henderson
I’m thinking of the great movie Doubt with the greatest actors—Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Viola Davis!
My fave Meryl Streep movie was a toss-up between Death Becomes Her and She-Devil... her comedic acting in both are, I think, so underrated!
I was teaching a writing class when a young woman handed in an essay about her first day at work at a major fashion magazine. She called it The Devil Wears Prada. When she got a book contract, she turned her real-life boss into Miranda Priestly. In the movie version, Priestly was brilliantly played by Meryl Streep. Streep did a terrific job of portraying “the boss from hell.”
This isn’t a movie, but I had the rare privilege of seeing Meryl Streep and Raul Julia in The Taming of the Shrew live at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park before either was anywhere near as famous as they became. When I tell you that sparks flew, I mean SPARKS FLEW…
The Deer Hunter … the scene in the supermarket. I can see it clearly as the first time she broke my heart.
Like the others, Sophie’s Choice springs to mind; I was also a fairly new mum when I saw it and was just rooted to my seat when the film finished; I was devastated and undone. But there are just so many! I enjoyed The French Lieutenant’s Woman—I had recently read that book to my husband John on our drive across Africa and the Sahara. And talking of Africa, John loves her portrayal of Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Her ability to master accents is so impressive!
I adore Devil Wears Prada, because I worked at women’s magazines and related to the film. But my cult favorite is Defending Your Life, one of Streep’s lighter movies. In it, the newly dead go to a way station where judges decide if their actions in life show that they’re ready to move on to the next level. As evidence, they are shown a video of Meryl Streep’s character saving her children from a raging fire—and then going back for the family cat! I feel like Meryl would actually do something like that!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – WENDY SCHUMAN
Wendy Schuman is a proud grandmom of four and a freelance writer who makes her home in West Orange, NJ. She is a former editor of Parents Magazine and Beliefnet.com. Wendy and her husband help a new generation of college grads in Millennials in Wonderland. To learn more about Grad Life Choices, their pro bono coaching program, click here.
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