Call it the "Streep Effect". For years, Meryl Streep was taken for granted as one of Hollywood's most respected actors, someone who didn't always have hits, but who had fewer duds in her filmography than any star of her generation.
Today, however, Streep is experiencing a career renaissance that is making her not merely one of Hollywood's favourite names, but one with a Midas touch. Her latest film, Julie & Julia, in which she plays the kitchen guru Julia Child, has already taken more than $28.5m (£17m) since its US release two weeks ago, and has sent Child's 1961 book Mastering the Art of French Cooking back to the top of bestseller lists, as well as triggering a boom in interest in French cuisine classes in the US.
This is not the only recent manifestation of the Streep Effect. After the star uncharacteristically sang and danced – in dungarees, what's more – in last year's Abba musical Mamma Mia!, the highest-grossing British film ever, not only did the Swedish group's Gold collection top the album charts, there was also a surge in demand from couples who wanted to marry on the Greek island of Skopelos, as in the film, with easyJet reporting flights up 13 per cent in the months after the film's release. (Streep herself, singing the film's title song, made the Portuguese Top 10.)
In terms of star power, all this is a return to Streep's glory days of the Eighties. After she appeared opposite Robert Redford in the 1985 hit Out of Africa, the number of overseas visitors to Kenya boomed from 152,000 in 1985 to 176,000 in 1986.
All this, no doubt, is partly testimony to the power of Hollywood marketing. Julia Child has long been a cultural icon in the US; it remains to be seen if the film will have a comparable effect in Britain, when released here next month. But the fact remains that, in the fourth decade of her big-screen career (Streep made her film debut, appropriately enough, in Julia in 1977), the star is enjoying a huge boost in popularity.
In 2006, she appeared to great acclaim as the fashion editor Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, a role generally believed to be modelled on Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue. Priestly was one of the great comedy villains in recent cinema – a chilly, cerebral force of nature with couture clothes, ice-white hair and a terrifying sotto voce delivery. While Streep has claimed that she "couldn't care less about fashion", the role caused Vogue itself to declare her a style icon – and watching the forthcoming documentary about the magazine, The September Issue, audiences may find the real Wintour a rather pallid presence by comparison.
Recently, Streep has given us several choice villains: she was basilisk-like as an inquisitorial nun in Doubt (her most recent Oscar nomination, earlier this year), and disarming as a conspiratorial Washington matriarch in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
Streep, who turned 60 in June, has carried off a unique feat among contemporary Hollywood leading ladies: she has sustained a long, A-list career without a break, and moved into roles that have the authentic prestige of the grande dame without settling for matronly support slots. The achievement is all the more impressive considering how many of her best contemporaries have fallen by the wayside, suffered patchy careers, or bowed out, weary of sub-par roles: Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek, Debra Winger, Sally Field ...
At the peak of her success in the Seventies and Eighties, Streep tended to be mentioned in the same breath as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro – especially the latter, given her chameleon skills, although her brilliance at accents became something of a running joke.
She first made a significant mark in the 1978 TV mini-series Holocaust. She quickly became renowned for playing strong women, even if her characters were sometimes disparaged as such: a castrating ex in Woody Allen's Manhattan, and the woman in 1979 divorce drama Kramer vs Kramer who coined the cliché of a generation when she stated she wanted to "find herself".
Kramer vs Kramer was the first of two Academy Awards, the other being for her Holocaust survivor in Sophie's Choice (1982). She is also the actor with the most Oscar nominations – a staggering 15. Throughout the Eighties, Streep created a selective array of psychologically intense, precisely observed parts: a tragic Victorian heroine, and the actress who plays her, in The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981); a doomed blue-collar activist in Silkwood (1983); a woman unable to recover from the thrill of wartime service in Plenty (1985).
Critics have not always been kind to Streep's seriousness. Her fiercest opponent was The New Yorker's Pauline Kael, who complained of Streep's cerebral approach: "She could give pensive a bad name. If only she could giggle more and suffer less."
But Streep is no stranger to the value of a well-placed giggle. The ebullience of Mamma Mia! hardly came out of nowhere: she has always known where and when to overdo it. Consider the underrated Depression-era drama Ironweed (1987), in which she and Jack Nicholson were paired as boozy vagrants. Streep sings a show-stoppingly mawkish bar-room serenade, "He's My Pal", that brings a lump to your throat even while you're trying not to stomach the hamminess – then another lump when you realise that the whole scene is a fantasy. It's an audaciously delicate thing to bring off, suggesting that Streep has an innate sense of exactly how an audience will read, and misread, her playing.
"I don't do junk," Streep once claimed. She has steered clear of the lucrative pulp with which De Niro and Nicholson have frittered away so much time, yet she has an eye for offbeat commercial material. The grisly special-effects comedy Death Becomes Her (1992) showed a willingness to slough off at least some of that famous dignity. When she bit the bullet to make an action thriller, Curtis Hanson's The River Wild (1994), it further humanised her in the public eye.
Streep may not always have an unerring nose for projects: recent, easily forgotten titles include Music of the Heart, One True Thing and Before and After. But she continues to pursue challenging adult roles: in 2001, she returned to the stage after some 20 years to play Arkadina in Mike Nichols's The Seagull, then in 2006, led an epic production of Brecht's Mother Courage in Central Park.
Where Streep once inspired a rather glaciated awe, her discretion about her home life has resulted in a reputation for being tactful rather than distant. Once partner to the late actor John Cazale (they both appeared in 1978's The Deer Hunter), she has been married since 1978 to the sculptor Don Gummer, with whom she has four children. She once characterised herself as a soccer mom who gets overemotional at PTA meetings, and has scrupulously kept herself and her family out of the public eye. "My life is all I have," she once said. "It's not for sale."
Streep has commented on her art in a way that could make it seem forensic: "I like peeling away the surface ... Acting is my way of investigating human nature and having fun at the same time." But critics continue to be impressed: even those lukewarm about Julie & Julia have been effusive about Streep's exuberant and somewhat raunchy kitchen matriarch. A O Scott of The New York Times enthused: "By now this actress has exhausted every superlative that exists and to suggest that she has outdone herself is only to say that she's done it again."
Now that she's more approachable than ever before, it's hard to deny that Streep truly belongs in the Bette Davis/Katharine Hepburn league of formidable screen women. US critic Molly Haskell recently wrote: "She's proving now ... that she can do effortless as well as strenuous ... and enjoy rather than hide behind her talent."
Her next role is as the voice of a talking animal in Wes Anderson's animated Fantastic Mr Fox, which suggests that Streep is intent on enjoying herself plenty.
The star who came Out of Africa - and made a Greek isle a honeymoon spot
By Rachel Shields
Julie & Julia, 2009
Meryl Streep's newest film, Julie & Julia, sparked a cooking frenzy in the US, with retailers reporting a huge rise in sales of cookbooks, French cookery courses and Le Creuset cookware. Streep stars as the late Julia Child, author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book around which the film revolves has now shot up to number two on The New York Times bestseller list.
Mamma Mia!, 2008
Forget country churches or city registry offices; ever since Streep dusted off her dungarees to head up the all-singing, all-dancing cast of Mamma Mia!, nothing less romantic than the Greek island of Skopelos will do. The Twickenham-based Ionian Weddings travel agency has seen a surge in requests by couples wanting to re-create the idyllic ceremony organised by Streep in the film. Her renditions of Abba tunes also propelled the Swedish pop group's greatest hits to number one in the UK album chart, for the fifth time.
The Devil Wears Prada, 2006
The actress may claim that she "couldn't care less about fashion"; but fashion certainly cares about her. The style bible Vogue has declared her "a style icon", cooing over everything from the chic trench coat she donned in Kramer vs Kramer, to her red-carpet choices. This move was no doubt influenced by her pitch-perfect performance as the fashion editor Miranda Priestly – based on Vogue editor Anna Wintour – in The Devil Wears Prada. Indeed, Wintour thought Streep's portrayal was so good that she was supposedly prompted to agree to a behind-the-scenes look at Vogue in the upcoming film The September Issue.
The Hours, 2002
When Streep played the embodiment of writer Virginia Woolf's most famous character, Mrs Dalloway, in The Hours, it was to critical acclaim (she was nominated for both a Bafta and a Golden Globe), but it wasn't just her own profile that enjoyed a boost. Woolf's Mrs Dalloway was never a huge commercial success, but six weeks after the film's release it was number one on Amazon's sales list – the first time the 78-year-old book had been a bestseller.
Out of Africa, 1985
Streep's turn opposite Robert Redford in Out of Africa introduced the continent to Brits as a tourist destination. The doomed nature of the love affair between Streep's Danish Baroness and Redford's big-game hunter didn't dissuade tourists from heading to Africa in droves, with the Kenyan Tourist Board describing the film as "one of the best possible advertisements for Kenya".Reuse content