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In the flesh, she does not have an aura. She’s not lit from within. Heads do not snap in her direction when she walks through a hotel lobby, flanked by her dutiful make-up artist of 35 years and her imperious publicist – the few celebrity trappings of a woman who stubbornly considers herself a working actor, and nothing more.
And yet for half of her 62 years she has been dubbed either the greatest film actress of her generation or, now, the greatest living film actress.
So how does Meryl Streep, working actor, advance her artistry when she has nothing left to prove?
In a room off the lobby of the W hotel, she removes her glasses and hair clip and tosses both on a table. She is beautiful in the remote, masky way a sculpture by Michelangelo is beautiful.
“I feel more worried because, you know, the expectations are so high,” she says, brushing out her hair into a mane. “I do work very hard. I think I’ve always been that type of girl. I feel like I have to do a good job. I have to try really, really, really, really hard. I mean, that could be my epitaph: ‘She tried really hard’.”
She looks down, eyes glazing over, as if seeing her gravestone.
“She tried,” she repeats softly, shrugging, then releasing a husky giggle. “You know?”
We know, Meryl. The mastery of foreign accents, the exhaustive preparation and pinpoint technique, the 16 Oscar nominations from 46 feature films over 35 years. You tried. And succeeded.
There never wasn’t praise. Praise since a professor at Vassar called her acting “mind-boggling”, praise since her drama school days at Yale, where she gave herself an ulcer playing 40 stage roles in three years (Brecht, Weill, Shakespeare, Durang). Praise in 1975 when she first got to New York, where Joseph Papp called her the most remarkable actress who’d ever come through his Public Theater.
Forget crying on cue. She was able to blush on cue, Papp said.
“She’s going to be the Eleanor Roosevelt of acting,” said Dustin Hoffman, her Kramer vs Kramer co-star, in a 1980 Newsweek cover story that proclaimed her “A Star for the ’80s”. Critics in that era placed her at the vanguard of “the new American actor” – trained within an inch of her life in multiple genres and therefore confident and nimble enough to explore wildly. To try.
She tried in Sophie’s Choice and entered the pantheon at 33. The trying, the precision bordering on mimicry, was a turn-off for some.
She tried working-class (Silkwood). She tried epic (Out of Africa), comedy (Death Becomes Her) and action (The River Wild). She tried and sometimes fell short of perfection, but even her flubs are gold, according to Clint Eastwood, who directed her in The Bridges of Madison County in 1995. “When I showed her a rough cut of the film, she said: ‘You’ve printed all my mistakes!’” Eastwood says. “And I said: ‘Yeah, and they’re so good.’”
The source of this unassailable ability remains a mystery, even to her, says cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, who shot Julie & Julia, in which Streep channelled Julia Child, and the telepic Angels in America, in which Streep played four roles, including the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.
“I remember Mike (Nichols) asking her, ‘Why did you do this or that?’ in the scene where Ethel’s with Roy Cohn as he’s dying,” Goldblatt says. “And she said: ‘I don’t know.’ And I really think that’s the essence. She’s so deep into it that she’s not having a conscious conversation as an artist, as an actor, with herself.”
Streep’s most recent mark is Margaret Thatcher, who she plays in The Iron Lady.
“For a girl from Jerrrsey to walk into an English soundstage with 40 of the best English actors and presuuume to be their first woman prime minister, it’s just like: ‘Oh my God, who do you think you arrre?’” Streep says. “It raises the stakes and makes the adrenaline flow.”
Her characters, she says, help her understand little things about herself, and she will continue to pick projects that fill in her own paint-by-numbers portrait. How does she dovetail with Thatcher?
“Terrifyingly close,” she says, cackling. “That dutifulness, that relentlessness, that desire to do well, do right. To act according to your convictions. To try, try, try. Keep trying, keep trying. Don’t let the bastards get you. Don’t let them say you’re too old.”
Old seems to work for Streep. In the past five years, she has eased into her emerita-ness, turned each acceptance speech into a master class of diva comportment, relished roles in exuberant-if-commercial projects – and her box office receipts have started matching the volume of her critical praise.
A string of movies made more than $100 million (R810m).
Those dollars, she says, are the only reason she’s still employed. “My generation of actresses should be working at the same level of endeavour as I am, and they’re not. Why? Because to (businessmen), they’re old. That’s wrong. Because the audience is there.”
Between the hotel interview and a gala for the National Women’s History Museum, she does not make a costume change. She appears onstage in the same dress, with the same casual hair. In closing, she tries something. “As Margaret Thatcher would say: ‘If you want something spoken about, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.’”
The audience gasps at the quick-change and roars with approval, and then Streep snaps out of it, and Thatcher is gone. – The Washington Post