Sophie’s choice: Meryl Streep at 70

As the great American actor turns 70, we tasked one Sophie – BFI contributor Sophie Monks Kaufman – with an impossible choice: picking out Meryl Streep’s 10 greatest screen performances.

20 June 2019

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

Manhattan (1979)

Mary Louise Streep turns 70 on Saturday 22 June. Her name (in its contracted form) rides high on a swell of accolades and awards, a shorthand for acting royalty. Since Mamma Mia! in 2008 she has been box office gold, but in the four decades since her breakout performance in The Deer Hunter (1978), she has been consistently compelling, never phoning it in.

She has a chameleonic voice that runs high and sweet (Sophie’s Choice) or low and husky (The French Lieutenant’s Woman)  and a gift for new accents and languages. She is a moving dramatic actress and a natural comedienne. You could say that she disappears into roles were it not for that striking face. She finds tenderness in even her villainous roles, yielding to co-performers via minuscule facial reactions. Vulnerability flickers for a split second before something within rises up to take control.

The following are not necessarily her most important works, but they are ones that best show off the talents that brought her to this exalted position.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Director: Robert Benton

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Robert Benton’s Oscar-sweeping adaptation of Avery Corman’s novel has become a cultural totem for a custody battle between divorcing parents. One fine day, housewife Joanna Kramer (Streep) walks out on her career-obsessed husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman), leaving him to refamiliarise himself with domesticity and fatherhood. Streep aches every moment she’s on screen, imbuing what could have been an unsympathetic caricature with the terror and pluck of a woman who has been drowning in a marriage and is now trying to learn to swim.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)

Director: Karel Reisz

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

Streep and Jeremy Irons take two roles each in a script adapted by Harold Pinter from John Fowles’ postmodern historical fiction novel. Sarah and Charles are actors secretly sleeping together while shooting a film in which they play Anna – a fallen woman known for staring out to sea – and Mike, a bustling Londoner who falls for her despite a prior engagement. This is Meryl as a femme fatale, at once melodramatic (“Why would you love a ruined person?”) and mysterious, with a self-possession that stretches across two roles and time periods. Neither Charles nor Mike proves a match for her unknowable depths.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Sophie's Choice (1982)

Alan J. Pakula is best known for 70s conspiracy thrillers (Klute, The Parallax View, All The President’s Men) and brings his slow-burn twist-revealing tendencies to this adaptation of William Styron’s novel about a Polish Holocaust survivor. Streep won the Best Actress Academy Award and is well-matched by an alternately charming and unhinged Kevin Kline as her lover. Sophie’s capacity for pleasure in the present-day timeline is gradually revealed to be her only amulet against past trauma. Streep has never been more beautiful or tragic. Instead of making Sophie hardened by experience, she plays her as soft as cotton-wool.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Death Becomes Her (1992)

It’s nice to see Meryl having fun! Which she does with relish opposite Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis in this Robert Zemeckis black comedy about Hollywood’s obsession with youth. Streep plays Madeline Ashton, a famous star in 1978 with a bad habit of stealing men, including one from her arch-enemy (played by Hawn). She also marries one ill-gotten gent: plastic surgeon Ernest (Willis). Fast forward to 1985 for an outlandish SFX spectacular, triggered by a potion of eternal youth. Some call this film a satire but it’s more an exercise in demented frivolity, with Streep ditching her usual nuanced performance style to camp it up as a glossy, unrepentant bitch.

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Director: Clint Eastwood

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Meryl’s looks are usually a footnote to her characters, but Clint Eastwood weaponises her sex appeal – like no one has before or since – in this adaptation of Robert James Waller’s romantic bestseller centring on a four-day love affair between married Italian housewife Francesca (Streep) and transient National Geographic photographer Robert (Eastwood). Streep is heavy with disappointment over the dreams that never bloomed in a life of domestic details, while still carrying herself with robust pride. She allows her senses to slowly, erotically awaken to the presence of a man who only wants to come closer.

Adaptation. (2002)

Director: Spike Jonze

Adaptation. (2002)

How fitting that Meryl, star of so many book adaptations, would finally appear in a movie called AdaptationCharlie Kaufman writes himself and a fictional twin – both played by Nicolas Cage – into a film so chock-full of postmodern nods and auteurial self-loathing that it feels like a 3D scan of its creator’s pretzel of a psyche. Fictional Charlie Kaufman becomes obsessed with the author of the book he is adapting into a screenplay: Susan Orlean, played by Streep. Streep presents as a poster child for the pains of being pure at heart. Her performance is poised between holding the sweet sorrows projected on to her and the disappointment that brings about her true ruin.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Director: David Frankel

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

“By all means, move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me,” says Miranda Priestly (Streep), the editor of high-end fashion magazine Runway. While the story, taken from Lauren Weisberger’s source novel, is preoccupied with the transformation of Andrea (Anne Hathaway) from a young, wannabe journalist into an obsessive fashionista, Streep, even when not on screen, is the withering force atop this well-groomed empire powering every other character’s neuroses. Despite elevating micro-aggressions into high art with this performance, Meryl elicits sympathy for the devil, turning what might have been a cartoon monster into a cautionary tale.

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Director: Robert Altman

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

The swansong of great American director Robert Altman is a curious and understated affair made, like much of his work, with an ensemble cast. Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Maya Rudolph and a young Lindsay Lohan bring to life the last night of a radio variety show, itself a reimagining of a real radio show fictionalised here by its original creator, Garrison Keillor. Meryl is one of the two singing Johnson Sisters. Misfortune has taken a lot away, but she clings to positive mantras, using them to push back at disillusionment with a resolute purity. Hers is a presence that laces the group dynamic with sweetness.

Doubt (2008)

Director: John Patrick Shanley

Doubt (2008)

“The dragon is hungry,” murmurs the new and popular parish priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) upon seeing Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) ordering a boy up to her office for a minor offence. Sister Aloysius is principal of Saint Nicholas Church School and will soon make it a personal crusade to cast out Father Flynn after accusing him of a terrible crime. John Patrick Shanley adapted and directed his own play for the screen, and doubt trickles through it like spilled communion wine. Streep presents as an antagonist, yet there are so many shades to her performance that it is possible to read her as an underdog hero.

Ricki and the Flash (2015)

Director: Jonathan Demme

Ricki and the Flash (2015)

Jonathan Demme. More Kevin Kline. Mamie Gummer. Meryl singing. Husky. Flawed. Broke. Charming. Wounded. Restrained. An American flag tattooed on her back. A beautiful finale. The film may have its cliched beats but the only beats Meryl plays are those of an ageing rock star. An all too rare portrait of a woman ageing on her own wayward terms, still crazy after all these years.

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