Always compared to Bette Davis and with 18 Oscar Nominations and 3 wins, believed to be the most awarded and talented actress of her generation, Mary Louise Streep has been making headlines almost from the beginning of her career. “Kramer Vs. Kramer” wasn’t her first film; in 1977 she actually had a supporting role in the revered Fred Zinnemann’s ‘Julia’, followed by ‘Holocaust’ a successful TV miniseries that opened everybody’s eyes to this new actress. Then in 1979, she was cast in several films: Michael Cimino’s Oscar Winner ‘The Deer Hunter’, Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’, Jerry Schatzberg’s ‘The Seduction of Joe Tynan’ and finally her first Oscar as Joanna Kramer, the “bad-bad” mother who dared to leave her little son as she split with her husband, the also Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman was already famous for influencing the scripts and films he worked in and Streep wasn’t going to just let him go without a fight and her own imprint. In the end, Joanna was able to show her side of the story and how nothing is totally white or black in a marriage. This secured Streep her first Oscar nomination and a win as Best Supporting actress.
Streep’s passion towards her character led her to some of the best female characters of the next two decades (and then two decades more).
To list 10-best performances by Streep is a difficult task and it inevitably leaves many of her great work behind; even some of her nominated work would need to be excluded. So in no way my list deems the rest of her impressive resume as lesser performances. Take a look at this list, apart from the before mentioned and the ones I included in my very personal 10-best:
Still of the Night, Falling In Love, Silkwood (1983, Best Actress nomination), Heartburn, Postcards from the Edge (1990 Best Actress nomination), Defending your life, Death Becomes Her, The River Wild (Streep in an action film? That really proves she is capable of doing it all), Marvin’s Room, One True Thing (1998 Best Actress nomination), Music of the Heart (1999 Best Actress nomination), Adaptation (2002 Best Supporting Actress nomination), The Hours, Angels in America, The Manchurian Candidate, A Praire Home Companion, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Mamma Mia! Julie & Julia (2009 Best Actress nomination), It’s Complicated, Hope Springs and her latest Oscar Nominated role as the complicated Violet Weston in August: Osage County (not even counting the upcoming Into The Woods and other future projects).
Not only does she have an impressive resume, but also she seems to be the hardest working actress in Hollywood.
The 10 films I single out (clicking on the ‘More Photos” section) are just a showcase of her whole career and how she has influenced actors, directors and her audience.
And now that you're at it, check on the other award season nominated actresses:
(1982) Directed by Alan J. Pakula.
The influence of her majestic performance, one that is both physically demanding and profoundly introspective, with many pivotal dramatic scenes (especially the famous “monstrous choice”) and which also started the belief that she can do all the accents in the world, has become a landmark in acting. Many actresses refer to their best performances as their “Sophie’s Choice” part. Her leading actors also noticed a behavior others have expressed: they fell in love with her, and as soon as the shooting was over, she disappeared, and moved on with her life, while they were left abandoned. So is her dedication and total surrender to her characters and the love of acting.
The French Lieutenant's Woman
(1981) Directed by Karel Reisz.
If it is difficult and emotionally consuming to play the lead character in a movie, imagine playing 2 completely different lead characters. Streep plays Sarah, the 19th century woman whose melancholy overtakes her affair with an engaged man and forces her to leave him, and Anna, the actress that plays her and falls in love with her co-star (a married man) and eventually leaves him too. There was no doubt the night of the Oscars that her performance had towered all the others, even the winner Katherine Hepburn for ‘On Golden Pond’.
(1985) Directed by Fred Schepisi.
Streep’s unstoppable work brought her to compete with herself, as she was also releasing another great performance in a more “showy” film with ‘Out of Africa’. But that didn’t mean ‘Plenty’ had to vanish in the horizon. Playing a Spy in WWII whose life stumbles when the war is over and she has to go back to “womanly” duties (which eventually takes a toll in her mind), Streep fills her character with nuances and bolts of energy you could hardly forget. This is the only “non-Oscar nominated” performance in this 10-best list.
Out of Africa
(1985) Directed by Sidney Pollack
As the Danish Baroness Karen Blixen who establishes herself in an African plantation, Streep’s performance is commanding, becoming as big as her two co-starts (Redford and Brandauer) and giving another one of her exquisite and unforgettable performances. Famous is the behind-the-scenes anecdote when Streep had to do a long take as Karen is returning to Africa after a serious illness, and her workers welcome her. As Pollack shouted, “Cut” so did Streep. She had her dress removed in no time just to find that she had had a huge bug walking on her back the whole scene, while she kept in character.
The Devil Wears Prada
(2006) Directed by David Frankel
Another of her very influential performances, Miranda Priestly, the demanding head of a fashion magazine who never dares to dress less than breathtaking and never screams (rather whispers) her orders and never-ending criticism. Her “that’s all” became the quote of the year as well as “I wasn’t asking”. This is also one of the many times her presence and work elevated an otherwise poor film into a better movie…and a financially successful one too.
A Cry in the Dark
(1988) Directed by Fred Schepisi
Working again for the Australian Schepisi, Streep became the very unlikable Lindy Chamberlain, the most notorious woman down-under, who had to face the media craze as the whole country accused her of having killed her baby girl as part of her religion’s “sacrificial” activities. Streep also sacrificed her looks and became Lindy in body and soul, which sent her right to the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or as Best Actress.
The Iron Lady
(2011) Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Streep was the only one surprised by her Best Actress Oscar win. The rest of us knew it even before the film started shooting. Not her first character based in a real life one, Streep impressed the whole world by becoming Margaret Thatcher so completely you could forget an actress was under that make up, hairdo and full persona.
(1987) Directed by Hector Babenco
This was the second teaming of Streep with Jack Nicholson (after ‘Heartburn’) and it proved to be another great couple. These two are so incredibly well paced together that for many years the tabloids ran stories about a secret romance. Her portrayal of Helen Archer, a woman whose only purpose in life is to secure a place to sleep that night, is nothing short of breathtaking and even painful to watch. In one bar scene she breaks into singing “He’s me pal” which summarizes her character’s feelings for the man who shares her nightmarish life. There’s an interesting anecdote about the film. In her “death” scene, Meryl placed herself on the floor, where her character was suppose to die, while the crew was working on setting up the whole scene. Suddenly, an assistant walks to her, thinking something wrong is going on. He then tells Babenco that the actress is not breathing. What should we do? The director orders the camera to roll, and have the scene in the can before doing anything else. As the scene is done, Streep slowly came back from her “trance”.
The Bridges of Madison County
(1995) Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Sometimes Streep displays all her fireworks and leaves no one standing (like what she does in August: Osage County), and others, like her portrayal of Italian-American housewife Francesca, she goes for absolute subtlety. The sustained feeling of sin, guilt and a once-in-a-lifetime love makes for a date-film for couples that never were or never dared. The painful last scene where Francesca is torn between her desperation to follow her dream or stay with her husband will always be remembered.
(2008) John Patrick Shanley.
As Sister Aloysius Beauvier, Streep had the chance to play a completely “villain” character. A religious woman whose life has taught her there is nothing “innocent” in the world and that we are all sinners. Once again she commands the screen in a way no one can take their eyes off of her, even when destroying Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character and manipulating Amy Adams’ naiveté.