Super Trouper for the Silver Screen
The Oscar-winner is enjoying a resurgence at a time when other actresses of her age are regularly overlooked. Her latest project, the film of the hugely popular Abba stage musical, is set to be a box-office success
As a young girl growing up in Bernardsville, New Jersey, Meryl Streep was a devotee of Broadway musicals. Her mother used to take her to see the likes of Ethel Merman and Carol Channing on stage in Manhattan and for many years, the actress, who trained in music when she first went to university, nurtured the ambition to play the lead in a musical. In the mid-Nineties, she went after the part of Evita in the film of the musical. At the time, her career was, by her own exceptional standards, in the doldrums. Streep has won two Oscars and made the Academy shortlist a record 14 times, but she went a whole five years from 1991 to 1996 without an Oscar nomination. Of box-office flops, however, there was no shortage.
As the part of the brittle beauty began to dry up, she made a number of unwise excursions into comedy, most obviously with the mirthless She-Devil and Death Becomes Her. She seemed heavy-handed, like the earnest teacher trying too hard to be amusing. Audiences either remained stony faced or at home. Suddenly, the leading actress of her generation was in danger of being a turn-off. The Evita producers went with Madonna. 'I wanted to tear her throat out,' Streep said of the singer afterwards, possibly displaying a belated grasp of humour. Or possibly not. Yet now, more than a decade later, her childhood dream has finally been realised in the unlikely form of Mamma Mia!, an adaptation of the hugely successful stage show based on the Abba songbook. She saw the theatrical production in New York a few days after 9/11 and was so impressed she sent a fan letter to the creators, producer Judy Cramer, writer Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd. The women kept the note and later returned the compliment by asking her to star in the film. Streep, who is perhaps best known for playing women with foreign accents in serious issue-based cinema, is not the first person who springs to mind when one hears such lyrics as: 'Feel the beat from the tambourine ... watch that scene/ diggin' the dancing queen.' The advanced word, though, is that Streep is a revelation as Donna Sheridan, the ageing hippie living on a Greek island with a grown-up daughter of uncertain male parentage. Her voice, which has previously been heard in Postcards From the Edge and A Prairie Home Companion, is said to be strong and her performance both amusing and moving. At 59, Streep seems to be enjoying the kind of career upturn that very few actresses experience in their fifth, let alone their sixth, decade. She won plaudits for her roles in Adaptation and The Hours in 2002, but it was four years later as Miranda Priestly, the control-queen fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada that Streep established a new foothold in the public imagination. It was a part that, had a lesser actress been wearing the Manolos, could easily have toppled into caricature. Streep's quietly ironic performance, with just a suggestion of vulnerability, was beautifully restrained. Somehow, she turned a sadistic career bitch into a human being. Though Streep is in many ways an anti-celebrity, one of those actresses who disappears into a role leaving little trace of herself, the role of Priestly none the less shifted perceptions of her. The notion that there was warmth and a beating heart under the porcelain exterior extended beyond the character to the intensely private Streep. The critics loved it and, a little more unusually, so did the public.
She had come a long way from that spell in Nineties when she apparently wondered if her best years were behind her. 'I thought I was washed up at 40,' she says in an interview in the next issue of Good Housekeeping. During that period, she made a series of scathing attacks on Hollywood, accusing the studios of offering older women only parts as witches. It's the star's prerogative to order off menu, but biting Hollywood's feeding hand was bad manners. Though she'd banked a lot of respect by then, it was of the kind closer to admiration than love - love, of course, is reserved for money. As David Thomson writes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: 'At 40, she was not simply regarded as the most talented woman in pictures, but the most distinguished. Distinction is not common praise in movie, nor is it often well intended.' In truth, for all her awards and recognition, Streep has often left many viewers and reviewers cold. Critic Pauline Kael once observed that Streep only acted 'from the neck up'. 'It killed me,' Streep later said of Kael's damning verdict. Dustin Hoffman, with whom she appeared in Kramer vs Kramer (she upstaged him and won the best supporting actress Oscar), said that she was an 'obsessed' and 'selfish' actor. And according to Streep, even her one-time fiancÚ, the late, great John Cazale, called her the 'delicious robot'. 'He thought I acted perfectly,' she told one interviewer, 'but without the least feeling.' It seems a curious observation because Streep's reputation in films such as Sophie's Choice, The French Lieutenant's Woman and Out of Africa is for playing women who are at war with their emotions. But her instinct has been to turn away from sharing that turmoil, to keep something back from the camera. And that has sometimes meant performances that are intriguing rather than involving. She met Cazale, best known as Fredo Corleone in The Godfather, in a 1975 New York production of Measure for Measure. The 26-year-old Streep had the appearance of an icy blonde. She had been to Vassar and Yale, two of the most prestigious American colleges, and was the daughter of a pharmaceutical executive and an artist. Cazale was the dark, edgy, off-Broadway actor from poor Sicilian stock. 'They were so happy,' Cazale's friend Al Pacino later recalled. 'I felt they could do anything.'
The couple got engaged and acted together in Streep's second film and Cazale's last, The Deer Hunter. He was already very ill with bone cancer during the filming. Her part was relatively small but significant because she brought a subtle intelligence to a production that could otherwise have fallen victim to actorly machismo. She nursed Cazale through his last weeks and he died in March 1978, before the premiere of the film. Within weeks, an ex-girlfriend gained the lease on his flat and Streep was forced to look for another apartment. Her brother's friend was travelling around Europe, so she moved into his place while he was away. When the friend, a sculptor named Don Gummer, returned, he asked Streep to stay. In September 1978 they married. They've been together ever since and have four children. The length of marriage and number of children would be notable in any walk of life, but in the film business they practically qualify for a lifetime's achievement award. Aside from stints in LA and Manhattan, they have lived for most of the time on a farm in Connecticut. Both Gummer and the children maintained a low to invisible public profile until recently when Mamie Gummer, her daughter, broke cover and became an actress. Streep jokes that she had hoped Mamie would become a molecular biologist, but there was genuine maternal concern at seeing her child enter a business that places such a high premium on beauty. By her own account, Streep was a self-conscious girl who remained highly insecure about her appearance long after she became famous. Nevertheless, she acknowledged that her looks were important to her early success. 'What made me emerge,' she said, 'was all that hair and, you know, the perfect skin and all those things.'
Of that perfect skin, Kevin Kline once remarked: 'It just changes all the time, like a Kokoschka painting.' But neither co-stars nor anyone else says those kinds of things any more, and it's the fear that they'll stop turning heads that has led many actresses to seek the attentions of cosmetic surgeons. Streep has resisted that particular solution, perhaps because she realises that it turns heads, but not in the way intended. She cites Catherine Deneuve's maxim: 'After a certain age, you can have your face or you have your ass, it's one or the other. Well, I've chosen my face and I'll sit on the rest of it.' She attributes the strong roles she's landed in the last decade to the rise of female executives such as Amy Pascal and Sherry Lansing. With male executives, she says, they don't employ older women 'because they don't want to see their first wife in a movie'. In Mamma Mia!, Streep does little to conceal her age. She plays a woman whose wild youth comes back to confront her in late middle age. In the show-stealing finale, she sings the immortal words of Bj÷rn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson: 'I apologise/ If it makes you feel bad/ Seeing me so tense/ No self-confidence/ But you see/ The winner takes it all.' And it won't spoil the plot to say that, notwithstanding the unfunny comedies, the identity of the winner was never in doubt.
The Streep lowdown
Born Summit, New Jersey, on 22 June 1949 and brought up in Bernardsville, New Jersey. Of Swiss, Irish, English and Dutch descent. Her mother Mary was a commercial artist and her father Harry was a pharmaceutical executive.
Family In September 1978, she married sculptor Don Gummer. They have four children: Henry 'Hank' (born in 1979, Mamie (1983), Grace Jane (1986) and Louisa Jacobson (1991).
Best of times Her Oscars for Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and Sophie's Choice (1982). And then there are the other numerous nominations and awards she has had over her career, which include 14 Academy award nominations and 21 Golden Globe nominations.
Worst of times Nursing her fiancÚ John Cazale, with whom she appeared in The Deer Hunter, through bone cancer. He died in 1978.
What she says 'I believe in imagination. I did Kramer vs Kramer before I had children. But the mother I would be was already inside me.'
'I didn't have any confidence in my beauty when I was young. I felt like a character actress and I still do.'
What others say 'Meryl Streep does things I would never have thought possible ... her presence on screen is outstanding.' Leonardo DiCaprio
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