STREEP, MERYL (Mary Louise Streep) (1949– ) Actress

Arguably Hollywood’s most respected actress, Meryl Streep was born Mary Louise Streep in Summit, New Jersey, on June 22, 1949. Her first foray into the performing arts came at 12, when she began studying with renowned singing teacher Estelle Liebling. In high school, she took on what might be called her first acting role, when she decided to transform herself into “the perfect Seventeen magazine knockout.” As she would do so many times in the future, she played her part well, becoming a popular cheerleader and the homecoming queen.

Streep became more serious about acting while attending Vassar College. Her acting teacher Clinton Atkinson, who cast her in her first lead role in Miss Julie, once described her talents as “hair-raising, absolutely mind-bog-gling.” On a scholarship, Streep continued her education at Yale Drama School, yet she had doubts about pursuing an acting career. “I still didn’t think it was a legitimate way to carry on your life,” she later recalled. By the time Streep graduated from Yale, she already had a reputation as one of the country’s best young actresses. She fulfilled her early promise first on the stage, appearing in several Shakespeare plays directed by Joseph Papp. During a production of Measure for Measure, Streep began a romantic relationship with costar John Cazale. For her performance in Tennessee Williams’s 27 Wagons of Cotton (1976), she was nominated for a Tony Award.

Streep was soon lured to Hollywood, making her first appearance on film in the television movie The Deadliest Season (1977). She made her feature film debut the same year in a small role in  Julia. The movie’s star, JANE FONDA, immediately recognized her promise and told director Sydney Pollack, “This girl is great. This girl is a genius.”In 1978, Streep won an Emmy Award for the miniseries Holocaust. That year, she also had in her first major role in The Deer Hunter. Although her character appeared on only seven pages of the script, Streep made an indelible impression, subtly playing a quiet, working-class woman with a strong sense of dignity. Streep received the first of many Academy Award nominations for her performance. The movie also starred Cazale, who became ill with bone cancer during the filming. Streep nursed him until his death in March 1978. Six months later, she married sculptor Don Gummer, with whom she has four children.

Perhaps the most pivotal year in Streep’s career was 1979. She played three high-profile supporting roles that, taken together, showcased her extraordinary range. In  Manhattan, she was a sophisticated New Yorker; in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, a sexy southerner; and in  Kramer vs. Kramer, a young mother on the verge of mental collapse. Her part in  Kramer also displayed her willingness to play complex and often unsympathetic women. Her risk-taking in this role paid off with her first Oscar for best supporting actress. After only three years of working in film, Streep had established herself as one of the leading actresses in Hollywood by the beginning of the 1980s. She became renowned for being able to disappear into nearly any role. She proved equally convincing as a working-class martyr in Silkwood (1983), a Danish aristocrat in Out of Africa (1985), and a skidrow lcoholic in  Ironweed (1987). During the decade, she received an astounding six Academy Award nominations. She had her only win with  Sophie’s Choice (1982), for which she awarded the best actress Oscar. Although almost universally hailed as a great actress, Streep had her detractors. Her flawless technique left some critics cold, while the public often had trouble warming to the serious, often depressing projects she seemed to favor. Streep’s amazing felicity at mastering accents became almost a cliché in Hollywood. She herself grew somewhat defensive: “For me, it’s the least interesting part of the discussion of my work,” she once insisted in an interview.

Perhaps responding to criticism of her downbeat roles, Streep experimented with lighter fare in the early 1990s. She appeared in the comedies Defending Your Life (1991) and Death Becomes Her (1992) and sang a country tune at the conclusion of the comedy-drama  Postcards from the Edge (1990). These films, however, were only moderately successful, and by the end of the decade Streep had returned to drama, most notably in The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Marvin’s Room (1996), and One True Thing (1998).

In 2000, Streep made film history when she was nominated for a best actress Oscar for Music From the Heart  (1999). With 12 nominations, she tied the record set by KATHARINE HEPBURN. Notably, it took 50 years for Hepburn to become the most frequently nominated actress, while Streep earned nominations in less than half that time. With Streep still in mid-career, she seems poised to become the most honored American film actress of not only her generation but perhaps of all time.

Further Reading
Harris, Mark. “Depth Becomes Her.”  Entertainment Weekly. March 24, 2000, pp. 50+.
Maychick, Diana.  Meryl Streep: The Reluctant Superstar. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Columbia/Tristar, VHS, 2000.
Out of Africa (1985). Universal, DVD/VHS, 2000/1999.
Silkwood (1983). Anchor Bay Entertainment, DVD/VHS, 1999/1998.
Sophie’s Choice (1982). Artisan Entertainment, DVD/VHS, 1998/2000.