TOP 10 Meryl Streep Performances
As part of my blog, I will be featuring a segment called “Top 10 Lists.” The name is self-explanatory but in doing these lists, I will be focusing on a particular category of cinema each time. It may be a list of my favorite performances by a specific actor, it may be a list of my favorite films of the year so far, it may be my favorite films of a certain decade; the theme will change with every post.
To start off the first post in my “Top 10 List,” I’ve decided to focus my attention on an actress whose name is on everybody’s lips this time of year.
Oscar season has officially begun, and the first name being talked up for the Best Actress nomination is none other than the queen of cinema, Meryl Streep for her deeply involved performance in Steven Spielberg’s political drama “The Post.” Already receiving much acclaim and multiple nominations from film associations for her portrayal of Kay Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, it is only a matter of time before we see Meryl’s name on the ballot on January 23rd, when the nominees are announced for the 90th Academy Awards ceremony. Streep received her very first Academy Award nomination in what was only her second feature film in 1978, for Best Supporting Actress in Michael Cimino’s epic war drama “The Deer Hunter.” Since that first nomination 40 years ago, Streep has received a total of 20 Academy Award nominations, giving her the distinction of being the most Oscar nominated actor in history. Of the 20 nominations, she has won 3.
Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham in "The Post" (2017).
With such an incredible resume establishing Streep as one of the finest actresses in history, I thought it would be a great idea to dedicate my first “Top 10” blog to a woman whose career certainly speaks for itself. I will be ranking my TOP 10 performances by Meryl Streep on screen. This list is not my Top 10 favorite films she has been in, but my favorite performances by her. I will not take awards recognition into consideration. With that being said, let’s get to it! Starting with…
Ricki and the Flash (2015)
I’d like to say I don’t understand why this film had such a quiet response from audiences and critics but the truth is that the reason why “Ricki and the Flash” is somewhat of an underdog on Streep’s acting resume is because the film as a whole is very cliché. Streep plays Ricki, a wife and mother who leaves her family to become a Rock Star in LA only to return years later to fix some of the broken pieces between her and her family. The story teeters on emotional stereotypes and comedic pathos. But what puts this film in my Top 10 Streep performances is well, Streep, who really goes for the jugular as a "ruined person,” living on no income and still trying to prove herself worthy to her own music and ultimately her family. Mamie Gummer, Streep’s daughter in real life plays her suicidal daughter in this film and while she sometimes comes across a little too whiny and like she is trying to live up to her mother’s acting abilities, Streep comes out of this film with the most to gain. It’s always a breath of fresh air to hear Streep sing and even if you aren’t the biggest fan of this film, the musical numbers will keep you entertained and it's certainly a different type of character for Streep.
The River Wild (1994)
By this point in her career, Meryl was known for playing women in anguish that required a certain dramatic flair. But this mid-90’s action-adventure film takes you on a wild ride (no pun intended) that forces you to look at Streep in a different light. Streep plays Gail, a wife and mother who is experiencing marital problems. An expert in water rafting, she takes her son and their dog on a rafting trip down the Salmon river. Her husband surprises her and accompanies them on the trip. Along the way, they encounter two robbers (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly) who hold them captive and because of her rafting experience, Gail is forced to take them down river through dangerous rapids so they can escape. With beautiful cinematography and a great film score, this film is a very enjoyable watch and as a mother who must take action and save her family, we see many elements of Streep’s character evolve as she must face her fears in order to protect not only herself, but the lives of those around her.
Julie & Julia (2009)
By this time in her career, Meryl Streep playing a real life person on the big screen was nothing new. But Nora Ephron’s 2009 comedy film about American chef Julia Child is the greatest example of Streep’s ability to take an iconic character in pop culture and parlay that into a performance in which you no longer compare the actress to the person, but are put into a position where you know the rails are off and the character has been developed beyond persona. Yes, the physicality and voice of Julia Child is there. When it comes to accents, Streep adapts with such a natural fluidity. In playing Julia Child, Streep really lets loose in both the comical and affecting moments.
Sister Aloysius strikes fear in everyone she encounters. As the principal of a catholic school who refuses to let “doubt” interfere with her superiority over the other nuns and the students of the institution, she crusades for the truth through a controversial accusation. She is harsh in her endeavors, cold in her reactions, and unshakable in her arguments. She isn’t seeking the truth, she knows the truth and we as the viewer are rattled by her discontent but when the truth comes out through her own mischievous behavior, her vulnerability comes out for what appears to be the first time in her life as she reveals that through this tireless effort to protect the children and dismiss the head priest, she too, has her doubts.
Meryl is often giving her best work when all seriousness is thrown out the window and she is able to “breathe” and not have the jury of the Academy looking upon her for an Oscar worthy performance.
This late 80’s dark comedy was criticized for it’s elements of satire but today it stands as a cult classic and is filled with laughs and exaggerated tones. As romance novelist Mary Fisher, Streep gives a performance filled with narcissistic charm, explosive outbursts, and even a few tears of dramatic poignancy. With comedy being new territory for Streep, she holds her own against the domestic goddess, Roseanne Barr in her film debut. Playing a man-eater who lives in a “palace” by the sea and writes over the top novels about love, sex, passion, and excitement, Mary Fisher is a walking clothes hanger for all those things and tries to live her life according to her imagination of what she writes about. But when reality sets in and secrets about her past and present life are revealed, she crumbles and Streep does it in her oh so perfect “Streep” artistry.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
It’s all about that stare, that venomous glance combined with muted intimidation. “The Devil Wears Prada” on its own is a great film but Streep’s portrayal of editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (aka “The Dragon Lady”) is a visual lesson on how to root for the villain because even though we see her putting down Anne Hathaway’s character Andy throughout the film, you just can’t wait to hear the next words, as minimal as they may be, that come out of Streep’s mouth. As Elaine said on Seinfeld about Streep, “She’s so authentic!” This is truer than ever in “The Devil Wears Prada” as from the first time we see the elevator doors open and Streep removes her sunglasses, she IS Miranda Priestly and for the next 100 minutes, we are blessed with some of the greatest one-liners of Streep’s illustrious career.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
In what was only Streep’s second feature film, she takes a small role in Michael Cimino’s Vietnam war drama and turns it into a standout performance alongside some of cinema’s biggest names at the time including Robert De Niro. Streep accepted the role of Linda to be closer to her then partner, John Cazale who also starred in the film and had been diagnosed with lung cancer. As a character that was described as a “vague, stock girlfriend,” Streep had very little dialogue to work with, so many of her scenes were improvised. By doing so, Linda is more genuine, more real to the viewer. We see a deep sense of uncertainty in her eyes as if she is trying to convince herself that what she believes will happen won’t. When her friend Mike (Robert De Niro) returns from Vietnam but her partner Nick (Christopher Walken) does not, she accepts the fact that she has probably lost him, and we see that fear and discontent reflected in every move she makes. In a film full of incredible performances, Streep holds her own as Linda and debuts some of her most sincere work.
Death Becomes Her (1992)
This is camp at its most lavish and Streep goes right along with it with the boisterous tones and emotions only an actress of her caliber can deliver. There are so many reasons why this performance remains one of my favorites of Meryl’s. First, Streep, an acclaimed actress is put to the task of playing a bad actress and the contradiction is done with such vitality. As Madeline Ashton, a fading Broadway star obsessed with eternal youth, Streep is hysterically shrewd and when she is given the power of immortality through a magic potion, her performance only becomes more over the top. She is fearless in this role and starring alongside Goldie Hawn who plays her friend and rival in the film, the two have such brilliant chemistry that you feel you could just sit and watch them bash each other for hours. From the elaborate “I see me!” number in the beginning of the film to the iconic line, “Now a warning!”, Streep pummels through this performance without taking herself too seriously. This film is a cult classic and will live on as my “go-to” Streep movie for years to come.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
The reason one of Streep’s first on-screen performances (and her first Oscar winning role) remains one of the highlights of her career is because through her portrayal of Joanna Kramer, we see all the facets of Streep’s now known credibility as an actress. She plays a wife and mother, who feels she is incapable of living the life that seemed so perfectly designed without her consent. Therein lies the sympathy we feel for this character. When she deserts her husband and child, at first we try to find the reasons why she came to such a decision before judging her. As the film progresses, we start to feel displeasure with Streep’s character as she tries to reunite with her child by discrediting her ex-husband’s role as a father. Courtroom scenes are some of the hardest to shoot because all the attention is focused on the actor sitting at the stand and in one particular scene in which Joanna must defend her reasons for leaving her child and reasons for wanting him back, we feel mixed emotions of compassion, frustration, and sadness. This is what makes Meryl Streep…Meryl Streep.
Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Keep in mind, by this time in her career, despite already having won an Academy Award, the name Meryl Streep was not yet synonymous with Oscar glory. But as a polish immigrant who seeks comfort and extravagance to mask the pain of a terrible secret, Streep gives the performance of a lifetime. A performance that cemented her as one of the greatest actresses of all time. As a film, “Sophie’s Choice” tends to move a little slowly and almost shifts the focus on the lead male character, Stingo. However, when Sophie reveals the stigma that surrounds her despair, we are so profoundly moved by Streep’s ability to portray what can only be described as one of the most excruciating things a person can endure. Streep’s characterization of Sophie is brilliant on so many levels. From the efficient fluency of her Polish accent to the haunting sadness that surrounds her character’s bottle of emotions. “Sophie’s Choice” is a hard film to take in. The controversial “choice” scene is so difficult to watch and yet unavoidable at the same time for the commitment displayed by Streep in those few minutes is what makes Meryl Streep the best at what she does. She makes you forget you are watching a movie. She is Sophie.
Whether she is playing a woman fighting for justice or trying to survive an intense rafting adventure, Meryl Streep has done it all. She has the gift of an actor that I admire most. Not just the talent or the versatility, but Meryl Streep is brilliant at her craft because you can tell no matter what role she takes on, she is doing what she loves to do. There is passion behind every character she plays.
Feel like I missed any performances in this list?
Please share your favorite Meryl Streep performances in the comments below.