While Other Stars Turn to Rust, Streep Soldiers On

Her films are consistently mediocre … one does feel that she pays more attention to the check than the script.

Last Updated: November 16, 2009 @ 1:56 PM

Back when "The Devil Wears Prada" was pulling them in, I joked to a friend that Meryl Streep, after 30 years in the movies (she had a brief scene in "Julia" in 1977) had her first hit.

She had, of course, been in several commercially successful films but always in a strategic pairing. Well, Meryl, the joke’s on me. Streep, now on-screen as a voice in "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," has been delivering the audiences and the dollars as the lustre of other stars has turned to rust.

"The Devil Wears Prada" may notionally have been built around Anne Hathaway, but it was Streep’s film, with a perfectly judged performance that proved less is more; although Julia Child is familiar to some Americans she is by no means a mass market figure — yet Streep, admittedly assisted by Nora Ephron and the Amy Adams, made "Julia & Julie" the only remotely adult hit of the summer.
It’s ironic that such an intelligent and literate actress, who has often been hired for her prestige rather than ability to draw audiences, was in "Mamma Mia!," surely the flimsiest film ever made. But her involvement tells us something about Streep’s tactics.
Any actress would have known the ABBA revival would have guaranteed success — over $600M — but Streep’s involvement, a tad unlikely to us, is a clear example of her commercial nous. I think she is, as was remarked of Sean Penn, a Hollywood animal.
Streep, of course, does not have to resort to Penn’s ludicrous posturing, but she knows the game. No matter how often she is denied at that Academy Awards, she faithfully acknowledges her nomination and sits through the annual ordeal — Meryl clears her diary regardless of the odds.
Her films are consistently mediocre, and other than "Manhattan" she has never been in anything remarkable — "The Deer Hunter" not having aged well. She is not the most obvious offender, but one does feel that she pays more attention to the check than the script. She has been content with big studio vehicles — this is not an actress who has championed emerging writers and directors. Only "Defending Your Life," from the neglected genius of Albert Brooks, is slightly off the common run.
Of the big names she, arguably, has shown most awareness of the new realities, but it could be chance, on the other hand she has just finished a stint in the Nancy Meyer factory … She did make a brief move to Brentwood in the early ’90s, reportedly fearing she was being overlooked.
She did remark, half-jokingly perhaps, that she was the only one not invited to participate in "The Player." (Altman made amends by casting her in "A Prairie Home Companion.") It’s true her career had a bit of a lull when her performances seemed to come from a template, and she suffered a time of critical apathy and redress.
Her Oscar nominations are a bit of puzzle. Is her talent genuinely admired or do the lazier voters just ask what she’s in and add her name automatically? I’d like to think not, but her finer work has been overlooked ("A Cry in the Dark") and her lesser performances ("Music of the Heart") have robbed the more deserving of nominations.
She was a sublime in "The Hours," a performance to which I paid particular attention since when she was on the cusp of fame she nursed her then partner John Cazale through a terminal illness. Though it was possibly the closest she has played to her own experience, she acted it flawlessly and without her usual props.
She looked to be on a winner for "Doubt," but there’s only so much ham a nice Jewish town can tolerate. Still, Hilary Swank Best Actress twice in five years!
To date she has only snared the big prize with "Sophie’s Choice," a work that makes me uneasy. Film, like literature, theater and to a lesser extent visual art, can manipulate events, facts and experience to illustrate and examine human truth, but it’s a practice that tends to come unstuck at the extremes of human experience — like the events of "Sophie’s Choice."
It is, and this may well be a minority opinion, a contrived film of a contrived book. Despite its monstrous subject matter and a scene that none of us can possibly imagine or comprehend, it is just another commercial vehicle, one that can garner awards, launch careers and line pockets. And that is tasteless.
Streep’s influence, though, is questionable. She has set a generation of thespians off on a wig-accent-and-walk route to acclaim and awards. Not that this is entirely knew, Vivien Leigh’s Southern belles brought her considerable success — but Streep has turned what was a trickle into a stampede.
Here in London we frequently see media pieces about British actors "conquering" the US, though we know that once they can master a passable accent they are an irresistible bargain. Streep’s career seems to have copied entirely by Cate Blanchet, whose opus could be edited into The Meryl Streep Story and no one would notice. The hardest acting to do, and the rarest to be seen, is an actor being someone else without apparent effort.
Streep is probably the last remaining Hollywood figure who has an iota of the dream factory glamour.
Not that she is a diva or demanding, probably the opposite since nobody seems to have bad word to say about her and whenever interviewed or on promo tour she is invariably charming, usually witty, and remains unfazed through an horizon of monotonous questions. And when not plugging a project, she is the perfect example of how, even in an age of excessive and reckless celebrity chronicling, a famous individual can have a very private life.
As her immediate and close contemporaries tumble off the radar, Meryl Streep is arguably the only Hollywood star who has a flourishing career.

Mark Lynch lives and works in London, where he writes an online novel, The Republic of Truth, about teen survivors of a climate disaster.