There are performers who can’t act if their lives depended on it, then there are mediocre artists who just about cut it. And then there actors who are so good they could go into hiding and take up another identity and we’d never know who they were. The last category is considered the best. But above all that, you have Meryl Streep. A league of her own. It feels redundant even alluding to her intense preparations and nuanced characterization. From creating strong, motivated backstories of characters to occasionally improvising or writing her own dialogue, Streep’s ability to shape-shift is truly unparalleled. To put her genius into perspective, she has 21 Academy Award nominations. The closest anyone’s ever gotten to that was Jack Nicholson with 12. And a record 32 Golden Globe nominations, winning a total of eight.
The latter half of Streep’s career, shows how valued and appreciated her work is. Amongst her other prolific wins, she received top honors — AFI Life Achievement Award in 2004, Gala Tribute from the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2008, and the revered Kennedy Center Honor in 2011 for her contribution to American culture, through performing arts. Former American President Barack Obama awarded her the 2010 National Medal of Arts, and in 2014, the coveted Presidential Medal of Freedom. Most recently in 2017, Streep was awarded the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award. Here she gave a most impassioned speech against the hateful Presidency of Donald Trump.
I could go on about her achievements but that would require a whole other article. Instead, let’s dive into the 10 best performances of the supremely versatile actress:
10. Julie and Julia (2009)
Julie and Julia is a tale of two women in two different periods. Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is a celebrated cook in 1950s Paris, whilst Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is obsessed with Julia’s cooking career. Streep blows Adams out of the water with her warm, hilarious portrayal of Julia Child. No disrespect to Adams, she’s a fine actress herself, but Streep is Streep after all.
Stanley Tucci, a frequent collaborator with Streep meshes nicely with Streep, in what turned out to be Nora Ephron’s last film. Needless to say, Streep earned herself an Oscar nomination with this role.
Where to Watch: Netflix
9. Adaptation (2002)
Adaptation featured one of Streep’s most enjoyable roles. She was offered the opportunity to loosen up, playing journalist Susan Orlean. The screenplay was brilliant, as is obvious with Charlie Kaufman holding the pen. Additionally, Nicholas Cage was in peak form, and Chris Cooper was scarily good.
Streep gave an otherwise ordinary character so much depth — a lonely woman who is unhappy with her conventional existence, who slowly turns hedonist as she falls in lust/love with a botanist (Cooper). Another Oscar nom in the bag for Streep, then.
8. The Bridges of Madison County (2008)
The Bridges of Madison County tells the tale of a four-day romance between Francesca Johnson (Streep) and Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) in the Iowa countryside. A four-day romance it may be, but with each sentence, each expression, each deed she does, you can see Meryl Streep’s character slowly falling in love.
The movie, not really Eastwood’s usual style, wasn’t as good as it seems, but it was definitely a defining moment for Streep. The portrayals and chemistry created by both actors made the conclusion that much more shattering. Best Actress Oscar nominated? You bet.
7. Doubt (2008)
The previous movie spoke of Streep’s more romantic side. In Doubt, Streep’s character, a 1960s nun, is described as a ‘dragon’. And with good reason, with the savagery of her words being like the fire straight out of a dragon’s mouth.
The movie revolves around Streep’s suspicions about a priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and whether he molested a young African-American schoolboy. It’s one of the best male actors (Hoffman), against one of the best female actors (Streep) of their generation. And it’s a full-on acting powerhouse, with Amy Adams and Viola Davis also giving impeccable performances. All four of them were nominated for Academy Awards.
Where to Watch: HBO
6. Out of Africa (1985)
Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa was a subject of major controversy when it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It was an epic romance of humongous proportions. Perhaps too much. The direction of the film was quite questionable, but no one could question the portrayal of Streep. An aristocratic woman who tries to remain in her element whilst facing many physical and mental hardships during her journey there, along with her lover, portrayed by Robert Redford.
Today, Out of Africa still remains a controversial choice for both Best Movie and Best Direction. Other aspects of the movie, especially Streep, who bagged another nomination, proved to be the saving grace.
Where to Watch: YouTube, Google Play
5. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Not gonna lie, this is my favourite performance on this list. The Devil Wears Prada was in no way thought to be as good as it was. Anne Hathaway played a strong lead, with a breakthrough role for Emily Blunt. An additional Stanley Tucci elevated the acting performances in the film too. But as usual, and more so in this movie, the show was stolen by the classy, fabulous, savage Miranda Priestly, played by Streep.
Priestly‘s icy tone, without a shred of emotions, without a hair out of place was portrayed to perfection by Streep. I hated her so much I loved her. Does that make sense? By the end of the film, Streep brings in tiny glimpses of humanity into this villainess role, which was something like redemption for the character. She was simply delightful. Miranda Priestly remains one of her most iconic roles to date. Did she bag an Oscar nom? Yes, she did.
It isn’t surprising to see how Miranda Priestly‘s no-nonsense character was created by Meryl Streep. The fact that she was about to walk away from the film, and the manner in which Streep dealt with the situation, is testament. Despite reading the script and feeling like the movie was going to be a huge success, Streep had reservations about accepting the role. Streep said she was hesitant because when she was offered the role, producers low-balled her salary. The actress went on to say that when she announced she would be walking away from the project, producers doubled the offer.
Where to Watch: Hotstar
4. Silkwood (1983)
This film is based on the true story of nuclear whistle-blower Karen Silkwood. Streep’s character has nagging concerns regarding her workplace’s unsafe working conditions. Her investigations lead her to the realization that she has been exposed to alarmingly high level of radiation.
This was one of Streep’s earlier roles, but she was already a billable star with two Oscar wins (for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice). She transformed completely for the role of Karen Silkwood — mullet haircut, sleeveless shirts, and all — but she went beyond costume and made Karen feel like a woman of her time (the 1970s) and place (Oklahoma). A fine, fine portrayal of a very tragic story.
3. Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Meryl Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice is a benchmark for aspiring actresses, as well as seasoned veterans to this day. She literally begged director Alan J. Pakula to cast her as Sophie Zawistowsk after reading an early transcript. This role is one of Streep’s best known movies and best known roles, as she portrays a Polish survivor of a Nazi camp, living in New York, haunted by a decision she made in the past.
As a part of her preparation, Streep dove into learning German and Polish. Her mastery of the accents remains as one of screen acting’s greatest vocal achievements. Her proficiency was such, that while shooting on location, the locals truly believed that she was Polish. Famed critic Roger Ebert said of her enchanting Polish-American accent: “the first accent I’ve ever wanted to hug,” and I couldn’t agree more.
Streep portrays a guilt-ridden, tormented character with such vulnerability and dedication, it’s heartbreaking watching the events of the movie unfold. Streep won her second Oscar, and her first as Best Actress, for her incomparable work.
2. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Everyone remembers The Deer Hunter for that unforgettable scene with Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken playing Russian Roulette with their lives in Vietnam. But it would be an injustice to not acknowledge the performance of a young, inexperienced Meryl Streep, who played her character with a kind of untouched pureness. In this tiny supporting role, she managed to turn heads away from two of the best actors of their generation.
Every actor has their first big break, where everyone starts to notice you. The Deer Hunter was Meryl’s big break. And with a cast such as this, in a movie surrounding the psychologically intense events of Vietnam, it was one hell of a break. This was the first of her 21 Oscar nominations.
1978 proved to be a year which truly furthered Streep’s career. Along with the aforementioned Oscar nomination, she won an Emmy Award for her role in the miniseries Holocaust.
1. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Kramer vs Kramer is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest performances by any actor ever, and according to me, her best ever work.
Fresh off The Deer Hunter and Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Streep was now a big dog. Alongside Dustin Hoffman, Streep’s character Joanna, a mother who abandons her husband (Hoffman) and son, returns demanding custody in a divorce case. Her screen time is VERY limited, and considering that, she gives a truly heartbreaking, gut-wrenching performance, raising questions about various social matters like the role of women in society. Matters which Streep herself would champion later on in her career.
The behind-the-scenes trivia of this film speaks volumes about her conviction and understanding of character. Director Robert Benton allowed Streep to write her own dialogue in two key scenes in the entire movie – including the courtroom speech – though her co-star Hoffman objected it. Streep has even gone on record to say that she felt her character was portrayed in a fashion that was “too evil,” while reading the initial script. She thereby insisted on revising the script to make her character a true reflection of real women who face marriage breakdown and child custody battles.
Kramer vs Kramer is a testament to Streep’s acting abilities. Even with a limited amount of time, she manages to get our attention in a masterclass of a performance. She won her first Academy Award with this role, and went on to achieve greater things. The rest, as they say, is history.
Where to Watch: Netflix, Mubi
Meryl Streep is one of the greatest actresses of all time. She has proved time and time again that she can slip into the skin of any given character and deliver a performance fit for legends. Despite this being a list of 10, Meryl Streep’s saga cannot be complete without mentioning her powerhouse performance in The Iron Lady. The film explores the personal and politically-charged life of Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The film indeed received mixed reviews, but the widespread appreciation for Streep’s humanistic performance was unanimous. In fact, her portrayal of the British behemoth bagged her the 17th Oscar nomination of her career; she also won the award, making it her 3rd and most recent win.