then & now
by Tavo Amador
Jane Fonda, the star of Meryl Streep's first movie, Julia (1977), says she knew she would be a great success in films. Fonda was prescient, but her opinion was far from universal. Critics like David Thomson and Pauline Kael had doubts. Kael, who had greatly admired Streep (b. 1949) on stage, felt she was being miscast in pictures and had to struggle to overcome that problem. Even after winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her tough mother and wife in Kramer vs Kramer (1979), a film career as a leading player wasn't assured. She proved skeptics wrong, however. The newly issued DVD of Sophie's Choice (1982), for which she won her first Best Actress Oscar, enables a comparison with her second win in that category, 29 years later, as The Iron Lady (2011).
Her performance as the Polish Sophie, a gentile survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, earned rave reviews and swept all the major acting awards. For the first time, she used a flawless continental accent. Helped immensely by Nestor Almendros' superb cinematography, she was convincing as a desirable if unconventionally beautiful woman. With the precision of a great stripper, she slowly revealed the character's complex and shocking history. The audience believed that Kevin Kline (never more attractive) as Nathan, a Holocaust-obsessed American Jew who suffers from schizophrenia, loves her, and she him. Their unstable, unhealthy co-dependent relationship has touching moments, yet is often frightening. Viewers accepted the perspective of the callow young writer, Stingo (Peter MacNichol), who narrates the story. He is fascinated by the couple, and falls in love with her. All three seem plausible living in post-WWII Brooklyn. Streep relates well to her co-stars, never hogging scenes. She appears to have paid close attention to director Alan Pakula's instructions and to have read the book carefully. She focuses on understanding what novelist William Styron felt about his creation.
As Sophie, she has to convey a broad range of emotions, witty, warm, romantic, sensual, enigmatic, hysterical, and tragic. Yet her performance, though technically superb, now seems calculated, as though she were thinking about each gesture, each inflection, rather than feeling them. She does not seem at ease in front of the camera.
That's no longer the case. The turning point was Silkwood (1983). Director Mike Nichols' dexterity with actors, and her own growing confidence that audiences were connecting with her, make this a landmark film in Streep's career. That new assurance made her romantically mesmerizing in Out of Africa (85); startling in A Cry in the Dark (88), as an Australian mother who mourns for her dead daughter, yet remains publicly stoic and self-controlled; and brings looseness and wit to Postcards from the Edge (90). Her singing in the last was surprising and expert.
More recently, her work has shown greater emotional range and suggests more belief in her own attractiveness. She has given a series of dazzling performances that have had critics and viewers exhausting superlatives, appropriately so. In the right role, she's also been a box-office star – almost unheard of for a woman over 50.
She looked stunning and was wickedly funny in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), was tart and conflicted as the suspicious nun in Doubt (08), and made middle-age sexy, romantic, and exciting opposite Stanley Tucci in the moving Julie and Julia (09).
Her work as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady is full of unexpected touches. Her acting is as technically assured as it was in Sophie. She's still a generous co-star. Despite the amazing make-up, which helped her performance enormously, she is not remotely self-conscious. Her work seems natural, innate, spontaneous. No doubt every scene was carefully thought out, but once conceived, she allows it to play naturally. Whatever one thinks of Margaret Thatcher as a person or feels about her politics, as England's first woman Prime Minister, she was fiercely intelligent, committed, and principled. She had to overcome her middle-class background in a country steeped in snobbery. Streep unaffectedly conveys all of this with humor and vulnerability. It's a performance of such depth that the often disappointing moments in the movie hardly matter.
Has any other star, at her age, accomplished so much at such a high standard? What's more, Streep continues to stretch herself. Upcoming projects include the film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama August: Osage County, which will allow her to be belligerent and angry on screen. She continues to surprise audiences with her choice of roles. With luck, that will go on for many more years.