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Queen of the silver screen ... Meryl Streep


In character: Meryl Streep thought she was too ugly to be an actress.

In character: Meryl Streep thought she was too ugly to be an actress.

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Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher in The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher in The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep receives her Oscar for The Iron Lady in 2012

Meryl Streep receives her Oscar for The Iron Lady in 2012

Meryl Streep in Into The Woods

Meryl Streep in Into The Woods

In character: Meryl Streep thought she was too ugly to be an actress.

When Meryl Streep received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination a few weeks back for her portrayal of a witch in the comic musical Into the Woods, her nearest and dearest could be forgiven for hardly noticing. Because this is Ms Streep's 19th Oscar nomination, a total that far outstrips the tally of any other actor, and is recognition of her extraordinary versatility and talent. She's so good she even gets nominated in bad films and it's almost a shock she's only actually won the Oscar on three occasions.

A decade or so back she started to look embarrassed at awards ceremonies at having been nominated yet again, but these days she's given up on that and simply smiles and shrugs when feted by her peers.

At the recent Golden Globes, when Patricia Arquette beat Meryl to the Best Supporting Actress gong, she said in her speech that she'd hugged Streep on the way up and hoped "some of the DNA rubbed off". Such is the esteem in which Streep is held in her profession. She's been called the greatest screen actress of all time and it's hard to disagree with that assertion.

After all, the stars of the past with whom she might be compared simply cannot match her achievements. Bette Davis was not at all as versatile as Streep and endured a painful career slump in her middle years; Ingrid Bergman was no good at comedy; Katharine Hepburn was too easily typecast. So while you could argue all night about who the best male screen actor might be, when it comes to the women, there's Meryl and the also-rans.

The other great difference between Streep and her golden age rivals is that she's managed to have a life outside Hollywood, raising four children, enjoying a happy marriage and staying a million miles away from the gossip columns. It's some achievement, and the 65-year-old shows no signs of slowing down just yet - later this year she'll play Edwardian suffragette Emily Pankhurst in a big-budget British drama and will also star as an ageing rock diva in Jonathan Demme's Ricki and the Flash.

At one point in the mid 80s, Streep was playing so many different characters in such a bewildering variety of accents that her thespian commitment was lampooned by satirists. But the jokes were a kind of compliment, and a tacit acknowledgement that Meryl's talent was something unique. Since then, she's demonstrated she can do practically anything, from heavyweight dramas and tragedies to romantic comedies, thrillers and even musicals - both Mamma Mia! and Into the Woods have proved that.

But Streep's ease with musicals shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, as she cut her acting teeth on Broadway, singing and hoofing in popular shows.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Meryl Louise Streep studied drama at Yale and Vassar before heading to New York to embark on the hard slog of off-off Broadway plays. But she wasn't exactly brimming with confidence to begin with and recently admitted: "I thought I was too ugly to be an actress." Casting directors begged to differ, however, and pretty quickly Streep's career was up and running.

As well as musicals, she experimented with Shakespeare, and it was during a New York production of Measure for Measure that she first met John Cazale. The charismatic Italian/American actor was already famous for having played Fredo in The Godfather, but he was also a respected and serious theatre actor.

He and Streep began dating, and he helped her land a part in Michael Cimino's seminal 1978 drama The Deer Hunter, in which he also starred. It was only her second film, but her surprisingly mature portrayal of Robert De Niro's pensive girlfriend earned Meryl her first Oscar nomination.

Sadly, John Cazale died of cancer, at the age of only 42, before The Deer Hunter was released. Later that same year, Streep married sculptor Don Gummer, with whom she has since had four children.

After The Deer Hunter, Streep's career took off with phenomenal speed. In 1979 alone, she was Woody Allen's glacial ex-wife in his magnificent comedy, Manhattan; played Alan Alda's muse in his political drama, The Seduction of Joe Tynan; and won her first Oscar for her performance opposite Dustin Hoffman in the hit legal drama Kramer vs Kramer. By 1980, Streep was Hollywood's most sought after young actress and she used her new-found clout to take on only roles challenging enough to really interest her.

Though they've never appeared together on screen since, she and Jeremy Irons made a memorable pairing in The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), a haunting John Fowles love story set partly in the past and the present day. It led to yet another Oscar nod, but even better work was to come the following year in Sophie's Choice.

Alan J Pakula's drama was based on a novel by William Styron and made huge demands of Streep as an actress, requiring her to play a Polish woman in 1940s New York who is traumatised by a particularly horrible secret (see panel). Sophie Zawistowski would arguably become her most celebrated performance, winning her a Golden Globe and a second Oscar.

She was nominated yet again in 1983 for Silkwood, Mike Nichols' fine thriller inspired by the true story of a nuclear whistle-blower who died in a suspicious car accident while investigating a scandal at her power plant. Critics raved about the intensity and focus of her acting, but what was becoming just as impressive was her daring and range.

In 1985 she gave, what for me is, one of her greatest and most overlooked performances in Fred Schepisi's Plenty, a tense psychological drama based on a play by David Hare. Streep was Susan Traherne, a British woman who finds it impossible to readjust to bourgeois norms after fighting with the French Resistance during World War Two. American critic Roger Ebert praised "a performance of great subtlety", adding that "it is hard to play an unbalanced, neurotic, self-destructive woman, and do it with such gentleness and charm".

Between 1985 and 1990 she moved with bewildering ease between romance (Out of Africa, Falling in Love), comedy (She-Devil, Postcards from the Edge) and out-and-out tragedy (Ironweed). Her portrayal of homeless drunk Helen Archer in Hector Babenco's Ironweed was typically bold, and brave: haggard, toothless and all but unrecognisable, she cut a heartbreakingly tragic figure, particularly when she sang a song in a dive bar to an adoring, imaginary audience.

But not everyone was convinced, and there were those who thought her acting overly technical. According to Katherine Hepburn's biographer, A Scott Berg, the Hollywood legend was not a Streep fan: "click, click, click", Hepburn apparently said, referring to the wheels you could feel turning in Streep's head. And her adoption of difficult accents was sometimes lampooned - her Australian twang in the a-dingo-ate-my-baby drama A Cry In The Dark (1988), for instance, was widely derided.

However, it's interesting that no one ever poked much fun at Robert De Niro for his comparably meticulous attention to detail. Streep has always done things her own way, refusing to bow to studio pressure to enhance her appearance as she has aged, yet somehow managing that rarest of feats for an actress - remaining relevant and bankable into late middle age.

After - by her high standards - a bit of a slump in the 1990s, she returned to form in the early 2000s with fine performances in films like The Hours (2002) and Jonathan Demme's 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, in which she gleefully assumed Angela Lansbury's villainous role. And then came that fantastic turn in David Frankel's 2006 comedy The Devil Wears Prada.

Frankel's film was based on Lauren Weisberger's semi-autobiographical novel documenting her time as the put-upon assistant of legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour. And in The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway played the unfortunate young woman who winds up under the thumb of cruel and dictatorial fashion diva Miranda Priestly.

Sporting cropped grey hair and a contemptuous pout, Streep was hilariously good as the despotic editor and managed, not for the first time, to make a fairly ordinary film memorable. That performance marked the beginning of a late career purple patch that stands comparison with her 1980s heroics. She bounded about the place like a 20-year-old in Mamma Mia! (2008), the frothy musical based on the songs of ABBA, only to transform herself later that same year into a pinched and redoubtable New York nun on the trail of a paedophile priest in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt.

She did a brilliant job of capturing the plummy charm of legendary American TV chef Julia Child in the charming 2009 comedy Julie & Julia, and belied her age opposite a frisky Alec Baldwin in Nancy Myer's hit romcom It's Complicated. Then, in 2010, she took on Maggie Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd's biopic The Iron Lady.

Although let down by a plodding film and a woefully uneven script, Streep eerily caught Mrs T's icy self-assurance and dictatorial tendencies. She won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and her third Best Actress Oscar, and deservedly so.

Sometimes, Meryl gets nominated just for turning up: she chewed up the scenery as the pill-popping matriarch of a grandly dysfunctional southern American family in August: Osage County (2013), a hammy melodrama that culminated in a memorable shout-off with Julia Roberts. But Streep was still nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, and no one would have been entirely shocked if she'd won.

Her career, viewed as a whole, is simply breathtaking, but what's most remarkable is how she's remained an A-list star into her 60s, an almost unheard of achievement for a woman. And all this without a facelift.

She is, in fact, that rarest of things in Hollywood - a class act.

A mother's worst nightmare: Sophie's Choice

Legend has it Meryl Streep was so desperate to star in Sophie's Choice that she went down on her hands and knees, begging director Alan J Pakula to cast her.

He had envisaged Swedish actress Liv Ullmann playing Sophie Zawistowski, and his studio wanted someone else, but Pakula became convinced Meryl was the right woman for the job after seeing her screen tests. Polish immigrant Sophie has turned up in New York in the late 1940s and is living with an unstable bohemian called Nathan (Kevin Kline) when they befriend a young writer called Stingo (Peter MacNicol).

Both men fall in love with Sophie, but she is haunted and traumatised by her time in Nazi concentration camps, when she was forced to choose which of her two children would live and die. Streep found that flashback scene so traumatic that she did it in one take and refused to do another. Roger Ebert summed up her achievement best: "There is hardly an emotion Streep doesn't touch in this movie and yet we're never aware of her straining."

Indo Review