Monday, July 10, 2006

Meryl Streep

Almost from her first screen appearances, Meryl Streep proved to be one of the premiere actresses of her generation. Over her career, the blonde New Jersey native has demonstrated an astonishing range, equally comfortable with comedic material as with heavy dramatic fare, and has become noted for her facility with foreign accents. Even before she was in her teens, Streep was studying classical voice. While in high school, she appeared in musicals and went on to major in drama and English at Vassar.

After working with a traveling theater company in Vermont and her NYC stage debut in 1971, Streep enrolled at the prestigious Yale School of Drama where she distinguished herself in numerous productions. Following graduation, she quickly found employment with Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. In 1976, Streep appeared in a double bill of "27 Wagons Full of Cotton" and "A Memory of Two Mondays". It is a tribute to her skills that many audience members did not realize that she was featured in both plays. For her performance as the blowzy simple-minded wife in the former, Streep received a Tony Award nomination as Featured Actress in a Play. Subsequent theatrical roles included three Shakespeare in the Park performances including Isabella in "Measure for Measure" (1976), opposite John Cazale, and "The Taming of the Shrew" (1978), co-starring Raul Julia.

Streep appeared in the CBS TV-movie "The Deadliest Season" (1977) as the wife of a professional hockey player accused of manslaughter and earned an Emmy Award as a Catholic who marries into a Jewish family in the NBC miniseries "Holocaust" (1978). She debuted in a small role as a caustic woman friend of Jane Fonda's Lillian Hellman in "Julia" (1977) but it was her strong turn as Christopher Walken's de facto girlfriend who learns to assert herself in "The Deer Hunter" (1978) that made critics and audiences take notice. The following year, Streep offered a dazzling display of versatility in three high profile roles: as the acerbic lesbian ex-wife of Woody Allen in "Manhattan", the Southern mistress of Alan Alda's callow politician in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" and the dissatisfied wife of Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer vs. Kramer". Sweeping the critics' prizes, the actress walked off with an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for the latter.

Segueing to leading roles, Streep displayed her ear for dialects in the dual role of actress and character in the uneven adaptation "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1981). The following year, she delivered what is still thought of as one of her best screen portraits--the Polish concentration camp survivor in "Sophie's Choice". Offering a display of flawless technique coupled with raw emotionality, Streep was heartbreakingly realistic. Critics fell over themselves for superlatives, comparing her to Garbo (and just about every other major actress of the 40s and 50s) and proclaiming her the foremost contemporary dramatic screen actress. For her performance, Streep was awarded a richly-deserved Best Actress Oscar.

Having cemented her reputation as a film actress, Streep went on to offer a gallery of portraits that proved her mastery of idiom, accent or social milieu. She proved effective as the blue-collar whistle-blower in "Silkwood" (1983), was believable as the unstable British woman who had been the Resistance worker in "Plenty" (1985) and delivered another tour de force as author Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen in the sweeping epic "Out of Africa" (also 1985). Streep more than held her own against Jack Nicholson as the abandoned and very pregnant wife out for revenge in "Heartburn" (1986) and a homeless alcoholic in "Ironweed" (1987). "A Cry in the Dark/Evil Angels" (1988) cast her as the dour real-life Lindy Chamberlain whose claim that a dingo took her baby made her the most-maligned woman in Australia.

Nearing 40, the actress, who has been very vocal about the inequities of Hollywood, from its pay scale for women to its treatment of actresses of a certain age, attempted to lighten her image. The misfire "She-Devil" (1989) was hardly her fault--in fact Streep is the best thing in the film, offering a wickedly amusing turn as a self-centered romance novelist. She fared somewhat better as an aspiring singer and actress coping with an overbearing movie-star mother and various addictions in the film version of Carrie Fisher's roman-a-clef "Postcards From the Edge" (1990). While she has admitted that the film is flawed, "Death Becomes Her" (1992) offered her a chance to skewer Tinseltown's youth-obsessed culture as she essayed an aging, vain actress who will do anything to retain her looks.

Taking a cue from Yale classmate Sigourney Weaver, Streep attempted to transform herself into an action heroine with "The River Wild" (1994) but ironically found greater acclaim with the more conventional role of the Italian-born housewife who has a brief love affair with a photographer in Clint Eastwood's film version of "The Bridges of Madison County" (1995). Streep meshed beautifully with co-star Diane Keaton in "Marvin's Room" (1996), in which they played estranged sisters brought together by a potential tragedy. Returning to the small screen, she appeared in the well-meaning TV-movie "...first do no harm" (ABC, 1997) before tackling the role of a journalist's terminally ill parent in "One True Thing" and adding an Irish brogue to her accents as the eldest sibling in "Dancing at Lughnasa" (both 1998). The former, in which she movingly depicted a mother struggling to make peace with her daughter, brought Streep her 11th Academy Award nomination. The following year, she garnered yet another Best Actress Oscar nod for her strong turn as real-life NYC violin teacher Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras (whose life had been the subject of the award-winning 1995 documentary "Small Wonders") in "Music of the Heart".

After that film, Streep took a two-year hiatus from the silver screen, appearing only as the voice of the Blue Mecha in director Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence." But she made a powerful return in 2002, appearing in the artfully off-kilter "Adaptation" as real-life writer Susan Orlean, author of the best-selling novel "The Orchid Thief," who in a heady blend of fact and fiction becomes the object of the obsessions of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played in the film by Nicolas Cage). She near-simultaneously followed up the role with an equally critically-hailed turn in the modern-era segment of "The Hours," playing book editor and conflicted lesbian Clarissa Vaughn planning a farewell party for her AIDS-inflicted former male lover, a famous author who had nicknamed her "Mrs. Dalloway". Her heartbreaking, overwhelmed performance helped anchor the movie and earned her a fresh round of critical adoration, although at Oscar time she was remembered for her "Adaptation" role instead, earning a nomination as Best Supporting Actress. It was her thirteenth nomination, which allowed her to surpass Katharine Hepburn as the most nominated female actor--and the most nominated actor, period--in Academy history.

She next tackled HBO's 2003 miniseries adaptation of writer Tony Kushner's AIDS-themed "Angels in America," under the direction of Nichols and opposite Al Pacino, Emma Thompson and Mary-Louise Parker, in multiple roles--including a male rabbi, Hannah Pitt, Ethel Rosenberg and the Angel Australia--which earned her an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie, and a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television. Streep then agreed to take on a challenging project, director Jonathan Demme's remake of the 1962 conspiracy classic thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" (2004), a rare instance in which the remake stood on its own as a well-crafted film. Streep took on the role played by Angela Lansbury in the original, the doting mother of a vice presidential candidate (Liev Schreiber) programmed to serve as a sleeper agent in the White House--Streep's canny version was a honey-voiced but hard-driving Senator that emerged even crueler and more detestable in the remake. In a more straightforward comedic turn, Streep was charming as the befuddled Aunt Josephine in the otherwise uneven adaptation of the children's classic tale "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (2004), and she demostrated her comedic gifts again in "Prime" (2005) as therapist Lisa Metzger, whose beautiful but intimacy-challenged patient (Uma Thurman) strikes up an invigorating affair that she discusses in detail--with a much-younger man who happens to be Metzger's son (Bryan Greenberg).

Streep had two juicy and promising projects slated for 2006 release: first was director Robert Altman's multicharacter exploration of the last broadcast of Garrison Keillor's popular radio series "A Prairie Home Companion" in which Streep played country music siren Yolanda Johnson; and the big screen adaptation of the bestselling potboiler "The Devil Wears Prada," as the elite, imperious and demanding New York magazine editor Miranda Priestly.


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