Equally adept at drama, comedy and musicals, Meryl Streep is famous perhaps above all for her astonishing versatility. Considered by many critics to be the greatest living actress, she received her first Oscar nomination in 1979 for her breakthrough role in Michael Cimino’s brutal Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter (1978), going on to win best supporting actress the following year for her turn in the divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). The best actress award was hers for the first time just a few years later, when she won for her mesmerising performance in Sophie’s Choice (1982).
Streep had taken Hollywood by storm, with Newsweek predicting she would become “the first American woman since Jane Fonda to rival the power of such male stars as Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino”. Living up to that promise, Streep has now been nominated for a total of 20 Oscars, winning a third time recently for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011). What’s more, she’s continued to be offered a wealth of lead roles – something many mature actresses have struggled with in Hollywood.
Here are 10 of her most memorable performances.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Director Michael Cimino
After seeing Streep in a stage production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Robert De Niro convinced director Michael Cimino to cast the barely experienced young actor in The Deer Hunter. Streep plays Linda, a young woman torn between her commitment to fiancé Nick (Christopher Walken) and her desire for his best friend, Michael (Robert De Niro), both of whom – as the film begins – are headed off to fight in Vietnam. In what could have been a docile love-interest role, Streep makes every scene count, turning Linda into a profoundly complex, human character.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Director Robert Benton
In a part that highlighted Streep’s status as a talent not to be overlooked, her portrayal of Joanna Kramer received glowing reviews, as the emotionally worn mother and wife who abandons her husband (Dustin Hoffman) and son, returning 18 months later to demand custody in a chaotic divorce case. Given her relatively brief screen time, Streep nonetheless turns in a wrenching and deeply touching performance, winning her first Oscar in a film that raised pressing questions about gender relations and the changing roles of women in society.
Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Director Alan J. Pakula
Streep set a new benchmark in her outstanding Oscar-winning role in Sophie’s Choice, in which she plays a Polish survivor of a Nazi camp, now living in New York, who remains traumatised by an unthinkable decision she was once forced to make. Easing into a faultless Polish accent, Streep commands the screen with a translucent vulnerability, wholly immersing herself in a guilt-ridden character who has already lost herself to intolerable torment. A sprawling and far-reaching saga, Sophie’s Choice also features fine debut work from Kevin Kline as Sophie’s troubled lover.
Director Mike Nichols
Based on a true story, Mike Nichols’ politically charged human drama focuses on Karen Silkwood (Streep), a reckless, blue-collar worker who’s in over her head as she struggles with exposing the defective equipment at an Oklahoma nuclear plant. The humiliating ‘scrub down’ showers, which Silkwood and a terrified colleague are subjected to after they trigger the radiation sensor, remain among the most distressing scenes in non-horror cinema. Streep’s nuanced portrayal of Silkwood is the most offbeat and evocative of her early career.
A Cry in the Dark (1988)
Director Fred Schepisi
Streep adopted a flawless Australian accent for the real-life story of Lindy Chamberlain, who in 1980 was accused of the murder of her nine-week-old daughter despite her insistence that her baby was snatched by a dingo from her tent at Uluru/Ayers Rock. Imbued with a brittle, coiled intensity, Streep’s risk-taking performance as the stoic Chamberlain, who refused to share personal insights throughout the ensuing court case and media circus, is an acting master class.
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Director Clint Eastwood
It could have been a melodramatic mess, but Clint Eastwood’s underrated autumnal tragedy of a love that was never meant to be provided Streep’s finest hour as she entered middle-age. She plays an unfulfilled, Italian-born Iowa housewife, Francesca Johnson, and the film concentrates on her four-day romance with a National Geographic photographer (Eastwood) who drifts into her life when he asks for directions. The Bridges of Madison County never attempts to diminish how ill-fated their affair is, but that doesn’t make the conclusion any less shattering.
Director Spike Jonze
In one of her most thoroughly enjoyable roles, Streep plays jaded New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean, who transforms from a reticent Manhattanite into a playful hedonist after meeting the fanatical ecologist and orchid breeder John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Self-referential and dizzyingly clever, Spike Jonze’s multi-layered Adaptation is a deliciously dark meditation on Hollywood, success and artistic integrity.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Director David Frankel
Based upon the novel by Lauren Weisberger, The Devil Wears Prada follows aspiring reporter Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) who is hired to work as an assistant to Streep’s Miranda Priestly, the imperious and pitiless executive of the fashion magazine Runway. Like most of its characters, the film can be shallow and occasionally trying, but Streep’s ingeniously controlled comic performance as the acid-tongued villainess steals the show.
Director John Patrick Shanley
In John Patrick Shanley’s impeccably crafted adaptation of his Pulitzer prize-winning stage play, Streep relishes her stony-faced role as a 1960s Bronx nun, Sister Beauvier, whose darkest suspicions are fuelled when a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in her school becomes friendly with a newly arrived African-American boy. Drenched in ambiguity throughout, Streep and Hoffman skilfully underplay their characters, transforming them into people full of subtleties and contradictions.
Julie & Julia (2009)
Director Nora Ephron
Nora Ephron’s delightful comedy (sadly her last) tells the dual stories of Julia Child, on her journey to becoming a celebrated chef in 1950s Paris, and modern-day New York blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who devotes a year to recreating the recipes from Child’s famous book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julie & Julia switches effortlessly between these two periods, but it’s Streep’s colourful portrayal of the legendary gourmand that sticks in the mind. It’s a triumph of jubilance and awkward charm, which meshes nicely with Stanley Tucci’s avuncular turn as Julia’s husband.