Meryl Streep's 22 best performances
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Awards season? With Meryl Streep? Groundbreaking.
Would the run-up to the Oscars even exist without the three-time Academy Award-winning legend? It’s almost become a cliché in itself to champion the 71-year-old’s unparalleled, once-in-a-generation talents on the screen, but you don’t become an icon without the work to back it up. Here, EW has assembled the finest performances from the world’s greatest living actress, from the ingenue days of The Deer Hunter and The Seduction of Joe Tynan, through to her ongoing imperial phase in commercial hits (The Devil Wears Prada), prestige gems (Doubt), and even the messiest — yet nonetheless delectably juicy — bits in between (She-Devil). Before Streep sets sail for HBO Max in Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk and Netflix in Ryan Murphy's The Prom, read on for a chronological, unranked compilation of the cinema deity’s best work to date.
Though it wasn’t her first on-screen role, Streep made the most of a small part in Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War masterpiece in a film that would ignite her stratospheric rise to superstardom. Cimino’s tale of how the military conflict impacts small-town Pennsylvanians brought Streep’s then-untapped potential to the attention of an entire industry, as the 29-year-old — playing a young companion to Christopher Walken’s corporal — would go on to receive her first Oscar nod for her work.
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An often-overlooked entry in Streep’s filmography, Jerry Schatzberg’s political drama is a glistening gem that saw the actress flexing her versatility in the role of Karen Traynor, an ambitious lawyer who begins an affair with the titular senator played by Alan Alda. Her performance is sweet, alluring, and, most importantly, effortlessly smooth — proving, early in her career, that Streep was capable of tackling any role and making it look easy in the process.
Streep remained hot on her Oscar streak in this adaptation of John Fowles’ 1969 novel of the same name, which scored her another nomination (her first among the Lead Actress set).
One of Streep’s most devastating roles has become a pop cultural staple since its 1982 release, for which she received widespread acclaim as a Polish Holocaust survivor, whose grim secret looms overhead throughout most of the film. Her moving treatment of the material during the gut-wrenching reveal is some of the finest screen time Streep has ever occupied.
By the mid-1980s, Streep was at the top of her game, the reigning cinema queen of her generation. Recouping nearly three times its budget, Silkwood — based on the true story of a whistleblower who curiously died in a car crash while investigating the dangerous amounts of radiation allowed into the workspace by her plutonium plant employer — earned Streep her third consecutive Best Actress nomination in three years.
Related: 20 whistleblower movies to watch
The actress teamed with Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack for this continent-hopping epic that proved audiences around the world were willing to sit through three dramatic hours of melodramatic Streep without complaint — all to the tune of nearly $230 million in worldwide box office receipts.
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Streep played a terminally ill, vocally inclined drifter opposite Jack Nicholson in a role that, alongside 1988’s A Cry in the Dark, capped Streep’s monumental decade filled with seven Oscar nods — six of which were for Lead Actress.
Though not as widely seen as some of Streep’s most celebrated works, her subtle approach to this Australian drama based on a real-life case of a wild canine snatching a newborn child from her parents’ clutches was perhaps better known to the masses after Seinfeld’s Julia Louis Dreyfus interpolated the famous line “the dingo ate your baby.”
Related: Dingo really did take her baby
Even in the most putrid of cinematic stinkers, Streep’s charisma is enough to make them feel abuzz. In a rare overtly sexy (and unabashedly fun) performance from Streep, she plays Mary Fisher, a narcissistic romance novelist who begins an affair with the husband of a dumpy housewife (Roseanne Barr), and later becomes the target of her devilish revenge.
An actor inherently takes a risk in playing an already well-known personality (her character is inspired by Carrie Fisher in a film based on the actress’ 1987 novel); comparisons to the living party are inevitable, which can quickly lead to accusations of pure mimicry versus acting. But, in Streep’s hands, she finds intricate layers both in Fisher’s script and in her persona, creating an irresistible character that’s both familiar and fresh.
Another so-odd-it-works offshoot for Streep, Death Becomes Her — in which she and Goldie Hawn play dueling women bickering over a man (Bruce Willis) after downing an immortality serum — brims with dark humor, macabre flair, and amusing body horror in a genre-hopping show-stopper that sees Streep finally tapping into a wealth of tones she’d yet to explore.
It’s become a cliché for an actor to garner Oscar attention for playing a character with a life-threatening illness, but nothing Streep does is cut from the cloth of expectation — least of all her deeply moving portrayal of a cancer-stricken mother hosting her resentful, journalist daughter (Renée Zellweger) for personal care as the disease takes its toll. Opposite Zellweger’s fiery, career-woman energy, Streep’s sweet, superficially doting mother aesthetic slowly melts away to reveal a tender center that’s sure to move you.
Wes Craven took a fleeting departure from horror to direct Streep in this musical drama about a woman who founded a school of music in Harlem.
Assemblies of acting talent don’t get juicier than Stephen Daldry’s haunting drama starring Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman as three women whose lives become intertwined — across different time periods — by Virginia Woolf’s (Kidman) 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. Though Kidman won an Oscar and Moore was nominated for their work in the film, Streep was shockingly shut out of the race that year, an even more peculiar turn of events given that the film was an across-the-board contender, with nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.
Streep’s roles have always resonated with a certain mature crowd, but her performance as the (allegedly) Anna Wintour-inspired, fashion magazine mogul from hell Miranda Priestly made the character an instantly quotable, automatically iconic role that helped Streep regain footing with a younger crowd of fans as the film became a huge box office hit throughout the summer of 2006.
Even divine entities quaked in the presence of Streep’s work as a no-nonsense Catholic school principal leading a crusade against a priest’s peculiar relationship with one of her students.
Some feel the actress’ take on iconic chef Julia Child is too showy and exaggerated, but even Streep at her most unhinged possesses an unexplainable magic that’s impossible to take your eyes off of.
Streep’s most recent Oscar victory didn’t land without criticism. Her portrayal as controversial political figure Margaret Thatcher divided awards pundits almost as harshly as Thatcher herself did the British public, especially given the neck-and-neck contest the actress waged that year with Viola Davis’ beloved work in The Help. While many have dinged this performance as a scenery-chewing masterwork in spectacular mimicry, there’s a palpable ferocity to Streep’s committed performance that’s unwavering, even in the film’s most intimate moments as it covers Thatcher’s political heyday to her quiet years as an elderly recluse.
Related: Meryl Streep discusses Iron Lady
After a string of straightforward dramatic turns, Streep took a dizzying turn as writer Susan Orlean opposite two Nicolas Cages (the actor played both Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother, Donald) in Spike Jonze’s meta dramedy about Kaufman’s attempt to adapt Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into a movie.
Regardless of how many cliches the plot around her gives in to, seeing Streep unleash as an aging rocker — complete with wild hairstyles and an unhealthy amount of leather — is worth enduring the saccharine (yet ultimately irresistible) emotional notes sounding around her.