As she collected her third Oscar in 2012, Meryl Streep guessed what everyone was thinking. “I had this feeling,” she joked on stage, “that I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no! Oh, come on, why? Her? Again?!’” It was a self-deprecating line that got a laugh, but only because it was grounded in truth. Streep – perennially praised, comfortably ensconced in the cinematic establishment, and the recipient of the most Oscar nominations in history – was winning yet another Academy Award.
Streep’s joke wasn’t just about awards season, which transforms even the most likeable stars into people we desperately want to go away for a bit. It was also about “Meryl Streep fatigue”, an admittedly first-world problem that has plagued the actor for almost as long as she’s been considered brilliant. And that’s in spite of the many great performances she continues to deliver, as she does in this month’s fizzy Steven Soderbergh comedy Let Them All Talk and the otherwise dismal Netflix musical The Prom. Surrounding both is a feeling of “So what?” Streep’s apparent greatness is now treated as so inevitable, so unremarkable, so boring, that it has taken her full circle: she’s now underrated. Seriously. In truth, her acting only tends to get spoken about today when someone is expressing cynicism about it.
In November, The New York Times declared its 25 greatest actors of the 21st century, stocking its list with both inarguable greats (among them Denzel Washington and Isabelle Huppert) and lovely curveballs (Keanu Reeves at four!). Streep, however, didn’t make an appearance. It sparked mild outrage and, at least among certain critics, a kind of relief. “Was literally terrified M*ryl Str*ep would be #1 as I scrolled down,” tweeted the Vulture senior writer E Alex Jung. Weeks after the story went live, the New York Times published a follow-up piece answering some of the questions left in its wake, including the apparent controversy over Streep’s absence. “She’s given some very fine performances in the past 20 years,” critic AO Scott wrote. “But she’s also given some not very good ones that are showy and overdone … she has more of a mixed record than her fans might acknowledge.”
Scott is correct. Streep’s recent CV isn’t impeccable – for every Little Women or Ricki and the Flash (where she was brittle and prickly as a narcissistic musician) there has been an August: Osage County or a Big Little Lies, projects where she’s chewed scenery or relied on visual aids (false teeth, mad hair) to do the leg work. But because of the hallowed mythology that has surrounded Streep for much of her career, performances like those aren’t talked about as mere blips. Rather, they are significant, meaningful, or even evidence that she was never that good to begin with.
This approach isn’t new. Streep has long been dogged by detractors – ever since the late Seventies, in fact, when gushing reviews of her film and theatre work saw her declared among the best (or, in some cases, the very best) of her generation. Alongside all of that, and a spectacular run of early acting vehicles (that included her Oscar-winning work in Kramer vs Kramer and Sophie’s Choice), came voices contradicting the hype. Most notoriously, the revered film critic Pauline Kael regularly made it known that she disliked Streep’s acting.
Kael wrote that Streep was “glacial” in Kramer vs Kramer, adding: “Her technique doesn’t add up to anything.” In reviewing Streep’s work in Sophie’s Choice, Kael already seemed bored by the star. “She has, as usual, put thought and effort into her work. But something about her puzzles me: after I’ve seen her in a movie, I can’t visualise her from the neck down. Is it possible that as an actress she makes herself into a blank and then focuses all her attention on one thing – the toss of her head, for example, [or] her accent? Maybe by bringing an unwarranted intensity to one facet of a performance she in effect decorporealises herself. This could explain why her movie heroines don’t seem to be full characters, and why there are no incidental joys to be had from watching her.”
Kael’s thoughts on Streep, particularly the idea that she is all technique and little soul, has stuck in critical circles – though it is often prefaced with a guilty caveat of sorts, as if by critiquing Streep you’re effectively critiquing God. “Several of my well-read, culturally engaged, Pinot Noir-sipping friends are not just indifferent to Streep’s greatness, they’re actually put off by it,” wrote theatre critic Charles McNulty in The Los Angeles Times in 2012. “This was shocking news, and they were rightly ashamed to confess it.” Others have been more blunt. In her review of August: Osage County, The Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek hilariously declared: “Streep’s gaze vaporises all other actors on contact. If she were a Batman villain, she’d be called The Actress.”
No one else acts like Streep. She is, as many of her detractors claim, a barrel of tics and techniques. You will be able to picture many of Streep’s famous gestures in your head: the clutching at her face, the fingertips to her mouth, the darting of her eyes, that closed yet knowing smile. They’ve been uniquely, recognisably Streepian for decades. Debbie Reynolds once did a pitch-perfect Streep impression on TV without uttering a single word, and that was way back in 1996.
It means that Streep’s performances are rarely fluid or free-wheeling, but controlled and visibly worked-at. In something like August: Osage County, it becomes overpowering, like a bag of cats fighting for air. In almost everything else, they’re transcendent. Her work as fashion magazine mogul Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada is immaculately precise in its physical and verbal timing, with good reason. She’s all careful disdain and glances; Streep either speeds through her lines with intimidating ease, or whispers them slowly and methodically (“Why is no one readddddyyy,” she purrs during a meeting).
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Streep always seems to be thinking – flickering between emotions, histories, encounters and experiences crossing her face like overhead lights. It’s there in The Hours, when she ponders all the contours of happiness while lying back on a bed with her daughter. It’s in Adaptation, when she can’t figure out if she’s confused by or falling for Chris Cooper. It’s in Death Becomes Her, when she bounces in an instant between camp mischievousness and awe at her own hyper-real form.
All that moving and working makes Streep thrillingly alive on camera. She’s an actor who could not often be called subtle – why do one facial expression when you could flit through seven? – but she’s rarely too broad unless the role absolutely calls for it. Her power lies in the gesture, or the strange, sometimes unexpected journey of a line of dialogue. It might not be emulated often by her peers, but it’s her own, and she’s wonderful at it.
It probably takes Streep a few days to polish all of her trophy cabinets, so she’s by no means under-rewarded. She has become strangely unappreciated, though, her skill set and on-camera presence almost taken for granted today. We tend to flatten her story, too, ignoring the peaks and troughs of her career to imagine immaculate and sustained glory. It makes the times she’s been miscast seem bigger and more profound than they need to be, and minimises her career struggles. “In the last decade, the actress once called the female equivalent of Laurence Olivier has moved from critical successes to box office disappointments,” declared The New York Times in 1994, in a piece that pondered whether her mainstream career was on its last legs.
Instead, Streep survived, and her performances remained stellar. We have to give her that, even if it might not feel like we need to.
The Prom is released on Netflix on Friday 11 December. Let Them All Talk will be released in 2021.
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