Meryl Streep: 12 Essential Roles
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Not her first movie role — that was her bit part in Julia a year earlier, where the 20-something Yale Drama School grad, already a force to reckon with on stage, trailed far behind Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave in the credits. But her presence in Michael Cimino's epic Vietnam War pic was certainly Streep's first wowee, who IS this woman? moment as Linda, the Pennsylvania steel-town homegirl loved by two guys on their way to in-country hell. The Oscar nomination Streep received was the first of what would, by 2003, grow to a record 13.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
She had already burned brightly through Manhattan, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, the TV presentation of Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women...and Others, and the miniseries The Holocaust when Streep played dissatisfied wife and mother opposite Dustin Hoffman in Avery Corman's hot-button story of gender roles, self-actualization, and post-feminist child-rearing. On her second nomination, Streep won her first Oscar (in the category of Best Supporting Actress).
Sophie's Choice (1982)
Streep's rep as Consummate Thespian (and ace at all accents) may have begun with The French Lieutenant's Woman. But her reputation for precision of character — and, indeed, her induction into the record books as Great American Actress of her Generation — was sealed by her tour de force embodiment of sexy, tormented Polish-Catholic concentration camp survivor Sophie Zawistowski. (Fourth Oscar nom, second Oscar, this time as Best Actress.)
Certainly no other American Actress of her Generation has done such a committed, intelligent, and physically graceful job of turning herself from one kind of woman into another. Streep's accent is Texan, her hair lank brown to play real-life radicalized nuclear-plant worker and whistle-blower Karen Silkwood, who died mysteriously in an auto accident. (Fifth Oscar nom.)
Out Of Africa (1986)
For some (i.e., for me) it's all about the shampooing scene where Streep, as the real-life Danish baroness Karen Blixen (who lived in Kenya and wrote under the name Isak Dinesen), receives a sensual shampooing from Robert Redford as her Englishman lover, Denys Finch Hatton. For others (still me), it's about the romantic sweep of this epic travelogue. But for all (including me), the pleasure of Streep's performance is the combination of sexiness and strength she projects. And that delicious Danish accent. (Sixth Oscar nom.)
A Cry In the Dark (1988)
Mybee a dingo ite her bybee! Mybee not. Either way, vilified Australian mother Lindy Chamberlain, accused of murdering her own infant daughter, isn't likable, and that's Streep's great accomplishment in playing the real-life defendant: After weeping hot maternal tears in Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice, the star manages to startle by playing a mother whose absence of visible grief condemns her in the court of popular opinion. Streep has never looked so boldly awful (that terrible chopped black hair!) or bit into an uncomfortable role more ferociously. (Australian accent; eighth Oscar nom.)
The Simpsons (1994)
Somewhere in the late '80s and early '90s, Streep began hankering to let her freak flag fly, or at least her comedy banner. The results weren't always so great (She-Devil in 1989, Death Becomes Her in 1992). But sometimes they were, especially when the Grande Dame of American Cinema provided the voice of Bart's girlfriend, Jessica Lovejoy. And the experience was evidently satisfying: The Queen of Technique lent her voice to TV's King of the Hill in 1999 for the classy episode ''A Beer Can Named Desire.''
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Never has such a wax-papery pulp romance been turned into such a velvety movie. This miracle of pop cultural transubstantiation is effected by director and costar Clint Eastwood, but entirely shaped by Streep's work. As Francesca, Italian-born war bride on the Iowa prairie, the star becomes a lonely, sensual woman who falls in love with a roving photographer (viva Clint) while her husband is out of town, enjoys a brief, passionate affair, and then doesn't do anything tawdry like leave the farm. Ripely erotic in middle age, Streep rules Madison County with a simple twist of her farm-wife hands. (Italian accent; 10th Oscar nom.)
Angels in America (2003)
Proof that the star who has played them all is exactly the right actress — and perhaps the only right actress — to play a rabbi and a Mormon mother and Ethel Rosenberg (above) and the Angel of Australia, all in one sprawling drama of love, loss, and revolution in a time of AIDS. (The multiple roles won Streep an Emmy Award.)
What a total, liberating gas for our gal! Playing New Yorker writer Susan Orlean — a big city woman prowling the Florida swamps on the trail of an obsessive orchid fancier — Streep lets loose with all the freedom of a young star, tempered by all the experience of the finest pro working in the movies today. (No accent at all this time and yet: 13th Oscar nom.)
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006)
As country singer Yolanda Johnson, part of a sister act on a radio variety show, Streep takes to the late Robert Altman's preferred filmmaking style — loose, chatty, improv, a circus of characters stepping on each other's toes as they peramubulate through life — like she was born to drift and chatter. She's warm and easy with Lily Tomlin (as Yolanda's sister), tender and protective toward Lindsay Lohan (as Yolanda's death-obsessed teen daughter). But her finest flourish might be the thwarted-love-looks she looses every now and then at Garrison Keillor, playing a version of his shy radio-host self.
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)
...and Streep wears her haute couture haughtiness with panache: She is Miranda Priestly, Vogue editrix-like fashion magazine priestess, and I mean that from the topmost swoop of her divine, leonine silver coif to the polished tip of her pointiest Manolo. As she throws her PETA-disapproved fur jackets around, Streep exudes fearsome power with every shriveling glance she tosses over the tops of her reading glasses, every despotic command she murmurs. The star has noodled around with comedy before — air kisses are in order for her great silliness in the Lemony Snicket movie, and her hilarious ballbusting in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate. But we haven't seen our Meryl like this until now, relishing the role as if it were the swellest Best of Everything achievement award a serial Academy Award nominee could receive. (She also bagged her 14th Oscar nod.)