In our The Toast series today, we celebrate an actor par excellence, who embodies the spirit of creative brilliance and is a league of her own. Meryl Streep.
A record 21 nominations. A beyond impressive 3 wins. It’s hard to talk Oscars and not talk Meryl Streep. And if we do talk Streep, what more can be said? She’s well-trodden territory no doubt. Still, this Universal Mother of Hollywood, rising to glittery prominence during those glittery disco-ball 1970s, is always worth a revisit. Talent breeds discussion, and then some, and then some, in Streep’s case.
Bursting onto the big screen with a small role in legendary director Fred Zinnemann’s 1977 film Julia, Meryl Streep proved her magnetism from the start. She was subsequently nominated for her first Academy Award in 1978 for The Deer Hunter and won her first Oscar the following year for Kramer vs. Kramer (currently streaming on Netflix, if you still haven’t seen it). She quickly proved that whether her role was big or small, good or evil, accented or galloping in plain ol’ American English, she could create cinematic magic. She could shape-shift like no other — allowing her to play anything, and be anything. Additionally, she always gave dignity to, and showed compassion for, her characters — even if she didn’t agree with them. How bold. Magnificent.
A downright ton of nominations and two Academy Awards later (1982’s Sophie’s Choice and 2011’s The Iron Lady), we movie watchers are still transfixed with Streep’s performances, leaving us to feel quite strongly (and perhaps suspiciously!) that Meryl Streep isn’t just an actress. She’s a bona fide mystical channeler. She’s synergy in motion (akin to poetry in motion). We might even be asking ourselves, “Wait. How’d she do that?”
When watching Streep, it’s good to know math. Or rather, how Streep defies it. For instance, with Streep, 2+2 never equals 4. It always equals at least 6 or 7. That’s synergy. Somehow, she consistently brings more to a character than the script, the director, and anyone else can dream. She’s math-defying. She never merely portrays a character – she absolutely ‘is’ that character. Period. It’s phenomenal to watch. Marlon Brando? Katharine Hepburn? There have been precious few imbued with that transcendent ‘pixie dust’ acting quality.
Which brings us to Streep’s poetic, pixie dust role in 1985’s Out of Africa. Directed by acclaimed Sydney Pollack of The Way We Were (1973) fame, Out of Africa won 7 Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. Out of Africa is a sprawling, megalithic, yet poignantly soft and whispery film. Often described as one of the best African-set Hollywood movies of all time, Out of Africa is an ‘experience.’ It gets in our soul, and just kind of ‘hangs out’ there for days, weeks, or possibly months. This film makes us cry at the sheer beauty of nature, of love, and life.
Streep was nominated as lead actress. Though she didn’t win, her hypnotizing portrayal of quiet, enigmatic Baroness Karen von Blixen has proven to be one of her most enduring, iconic roles. “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills.” Plaintive. Intriguing. Who isn’t hooked from the first few minutes? And Streep’s husky Danish accent is apparently spot on.
The Enchantment Of Out Of Africa
Out of Africa is a biopic about a Danish aristocrat’s experience in Kenya in the early 1900s. She goes to this beautiful foreign country to marry a fellow Northern European who is open to starting a new life and business there with her. Though she knows it’s not a love match, she’s hopeful for an exciting, fulfilling life with this man in this sunny, warm new land. Imagine a sprawling successful dairy perched in the gorgeous, flowery highlands of Africa. Imagine weekend safari expeditions to witness the shy elegance of wild giraffe. The fragrance of the flowers. The possibility of this adventure. The audience can conjure up all that amazing imagery right alongside our protagonist.
However, big sigh. Her marriage quickly deteriorates for a variety of reasons in Kenya. She then finds unexpected solace and love with a different European man – hunter and safari-man Denys Finch Hatton (played by legendary Robert Redford, fresh off his success in 1984’s The Natural). Theirs is a love that is tender, respectful, patient, but ultimately fragile. Redford’s character dies in a plane crash. And the Baroness, whose coffee business goes bust, moves back to Europe and never returns to Africa. We’re left asking, “Wait, what?”
Out of Africa is truly ‘the stuff of movie legend.’ Sydney Pollack is perfect with the camera. He lets talented cinematographer David Watkin weave his subtle, dream-like magic – which complements composer John Barry’s sun and moon-kissed musical score. Full of longing, hope, sadness, and happiness, the cinematography and soundtrack alone are Oscar-worthy. No surprise both Watkin and Barry won Oscars in these two categories.
A Perfect Streep Back-Drop
It’s Sydney Pollack’s creation of this softly lush, rich emotional world that becomes the perfect backdrop for Meryl Streep to step into – she can play and be anything, but she truly seems at home in roles like Baroness Blixen. The Baroness is an emotionally ‘meaty’ character who undergoes massive personal transformation during the film, and Streep sinks her teeth into this role with the admirable conviction of a lion. (Incidentally, these strong, skilled creatures abound in Out of Africa. They also appear and are referenced in the film’s touching final scene.)
Streep and Redford are also great together. There’s an ease in their pairing. Robert Redford’s renowned ‘understated’ acting style is superb here, as it fits with the film’s quiet tone. His Denys Finch Hatton, alongside Meryl Streep’s Baroness Karen von Blixen, are two characters that we in the audience are interested in, and care about immensely. Though many Out of Africa watchers might not relate to these two characters’ exotic African lives – Streep and Redford still make us care.
Building off of director Sydney Pollack’s soft, ethereal vision, they create a kind of ‘mythology’ to their characters. It’s wondrously entrancing.
Then add in Streep’s sweetly haunting narration throughout the film, as she conveys a much, much older Baroness Blixen who is nostalgically looking back on all these distant years of her much-loved African life, and this flashback movie enters ‘next level’ poetic status. The brilliant use of narration in Out of Africa can’t be overstated.
Streep’s Lofty Beginnings
And in the end, although we feel hollow and vacuous with this couple’s unfavorable destiny, we conversely feel full. Full of nourishing, life-affirming emotion. We’ve been on a nearly three-hour adventure with this couple. We’ve been given a secret key to a secret, beautiful, far-off world. And there’s a certain vigor in that revelation. When Out of Africa leaves the screen, there’s usually silence in the room. Reverence perhaps. Yes, it truly is an ‘experience.’ Be ready for the ride.
This brings us back to uber-talented Meryl Streep. How does she do it? A Jersey girl from the auspicious-sounding town of Summit, New Jersey, the name of her birthplace might just have predicted her cinematic success. Or so ‘linguist prophets’ might profess. Summit means tippity-top – the highest peak. Streep has inhabited that top spot in Hollywood for over forty years. No small accomplishment. However, Streep is also well-schooled. She went to prestigious Vassar College in upstate New York, receiving her undergrad degree in Drama. She then received her graduate degree in Drama at Ivy League giant Yale University in Connecticut.
Whatever the reason behind her stellar performances, movie lovers everywhere are grateful. She’s an Oscars favorite, but even without all the accolades, her work speaks for itself – and it always has. Her thoughtful, heart-wrenching performance as unhappy wife and mother Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) was painfully beautiful. And her magical role in Out of Africa (1985) was pure Hollywood poetry. And the list goes on. There’s the more recent fun film called Mamma Mia! (2008). She was also in 2020’s The Prom.
Oscar’s Ultimate Queen
And fortunately for us, Meryl Streep shows no signs of slowing down. She continues to bring us a jaw-dropping variety of characters – people that we learn to understand at the most intimate, soulful of levels, thus expanding our humanity and our capacity for empathy.
Streep proves that storytelling isn’t just entertaining, but it’s important. She’s been a master of peeling back characters layer by layer, and unearthing the shiny jewel, the luminescent pearl, and sometimes the heinous spray paint and rotting flesh. (Who can forget the campy, cult-classic Death Becomes Her from 1992?).
All told, Hollywood would not be the same without the brilliant, exceptional Meryl Streep. Neither would the Oscars.
Catch all the stories from our The Toast series here.
I was once an exec for a prominent financial magazine. GDP what??? Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.