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The 20 Best Meryl Streep Movie Performances

20 October 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Cristina Valente

best Meryl Streep movie

A rabbi, a nun, a fashion mogul and even a former Prime-Minister, Meryl Streep has done it all and quite convincingly.

Considered the best actress of her generation, at 65 she shows no signs of slowing down. With two of her latest films in post-production and one in pre-production for 2015, with Diablo Cody’s signature on the script and Jonathan Demme on the director’s seat, having Streep on board just lets you know one thing: it is going to be a hell of a ride.

Meryl Streep has such a successful career that she can say or do anything she wants that no one will take it the wrong way. Let’s face it, even when making fun of herself, she is a lady. Just look for her Adaptation Golden Globe Awards speech and you’ll see what I am talking about.

Without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemen, here are some of the most memorable Meryl Streep’s performances.

 

20. The House of the Spirits (1993)

The House of the Spirits (1993)

Based on Isabel Allende’s best-selling book La casa de los espíritus, the story details the life of the Trueba family, spanning four generations and tracing post-colonial social and political upheavals of the Latin American country they live in. The idea for the book first came to Allende when she received news that her one hundred year old grandfather was dying. She then began to write him a letter that ultimately became the starting manuscript of The House of Spirits.

The rights were bought by a German producer, Bernd Eichinger, who helmed the international production of the movie adaptation with the German Neue Constantin Film, under the direction of Danish Bille August. The first actor to be on board was Jeremy Irons, who brought along his former co-stars Meryl Streep and Glenn Close. But despite the great ensemble cast, the film was a box office disaster as well as a critical failure.

The best thing about it was Winona Ryder’s surprise on Streep’s work method: “I always thought actors had to be really depressed or moody or anguished to be great, but she was completely fine and had her family and came to work and did an amazing job and she wasn’t that way. I remember that being a really big deal to me. And I was like “Wow, I can actually be happy and be good at the same time”.

 

19. One True Thing (1998)

One True Thing (1998)

One True Thing is based on Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anna Quindlen’s 1995 novel of the same name. For the director Carl Franklin, the story presented an opportunity to tackle a film unlike any he has directed. Kate Gulden’s character fascinated Streep not only with her deep maternal qualities but with her hidden complexities.

And it proved a tour de force for Streep to portray such a woman. “As an actor, sometimes, you do everything you can to push a feeling away from you, because you don’t have to work for it. It’s too accessible, it’s all right there and you’d better damn well do your best to think about lunch or complain about your wardrobe. You don’t want to make any connections to your own life – just don’t go there”, said Meryl to Entertainment Weekly.

When you watch One True Thing, you know there’s a magic with actors like Meryl Streep and William Hurt – they just mysteriously get to the heart of their characters. And once again Streep was nominated for an Oscar.

 

18. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Meryl Streep told The Sunday Telegraph “Unfortunately, we don’t have enough women in power, so most of my models for this character were of the male persuasion. Compared to the people that I used as inspirations, Miranda is well-behaved. She’s almost like a diplomat compared to some very, very, very powerful people in the film business.

The anticipation for the film is almost bloody. People are longing to go after Anna Wintour, or any woman in a powerful position. But I was interested in portraying a woman in a powerful position and showing exactly how hard she has to work to stay there”.

The film is based on the book by the same name but the evil Miranda Priestly shown on the page has nothing to do with the complex, comically mean and sometimes genuinely sad Miranda created by Meryl Streep. From the tone of voice to the elegant posture and assertiveness, we see a powerful woman that will do everything to maintain her position. However, Meryl gives her Miranda a feel of effortlessness, when in fact it costs her everything to be who she is.

This performance also landed her yet another Oscar nomination.

 

17. The Iron Lady (2011)

the-iron-lady

Casting an American actress to play a public figure as quintessentially British as former Prime-Minister Margaret Thatcher was a risk, even if that actress is Meryl Streep. The stakes were high and it was of no surprise that Streep rose to the occasion.

“It was one of those rare, rare films where I was grateful to be an actor and grateful for the privilege of being able to look at a life deeply with empathy. There’s no greater joy. I still don’t agree with a lot of her policies. But I feel she believed in them and that they came from an honest conviction and that she wasn’t a cosmetic politician just changing make-up to suit the times. She stuck to what she believed in and that’s a hard thing to do. You want people who are willing to find a solution. I admire the fact that she was a “love-me-or-hate-me” kind of leader, who said: “This is what I stand for.” It’s a hard thing to do and no one’s doing that now.”

Whether you loved Thatcher or not the truth is Meryl Streep’s portrayal of such an important historic figure was all but flawless and astonishing. In such a way that, after years of being nominated and not winning, she finally landed the third Oscar of her career, the second in the Best Actress category.

 

16. Julie & Julia (2009)

Julie & Julia (2009)

This movie gave Streep her sixteenth Oscar nomination.

The story was an adaptation to the big screen from Julie Powell’s book Julie & Julia. Powell was almost thirty and trapped in a dead-end secretarial job when she resolved to reclaim her life by cooking. In the span of a single year, she decided to cook every one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s legendary Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Inspired by Powell’s journey, Nora Ephron decided to adapt her book into a film. One day while coming out of the theater with Meryl Streep she told her about the project and immediately Streep began to impersonate Julia Child. Ephron even thinks that Streep nailed the “Bon appétit” perfectly.

One thing led to another and Meryl immersed herself into Julia Child’s life but she treated this character not like an imitation, it was more like a habitation. She was portraying the idea Julie Powell had of Julia Child not Julia Child herself. And that made all the difference.

This film also rejoined Amy Adams with Streep, after their poignant performances in Doubt.

 

15. Manhattan (1979)

Manhattan (1979)

In Manhattan we see Meryl in a brief role but that cemented her image of rising star at the time – the cool blonde with icy look. She plays Isaac’s (Woody Allen) ex-wife, Jill Davis, and is writing a confessional book about their marriage. Jill has also since the divorce come out of the closet and lives with her partner, Connie (Karen Ludwig).

Manhattan was filmed in black-and-white . Woody Allen’s decision to do so was to give New York City a “great look.” The film also features music composed by George Gershwin, including Rhapsody in Blue, which inspired the idea behind the film. Allen described the film as a combination of his previous two films, Annie Hall and Interiors.

History shows that Woody’s films are full of wonderful performances by actors and actresses that, he once acknowledged, he had never heard of. Were it not for his casting director, Juliet Taylor, and he probably would use the same half dozen people in all his movies, whether they fit the part or not. Basically Woody Allen gets bored with the whole casting process. So we must bless Juliet Taylor for all her resourcefulness or a number of discoveries and careers would have not been launched. And Meryl Streep would probably have not been chosen for Manhattan.

On working with the director, Meryl told Premiere magazine in 1997: “I didn’t get to know Woody Allen, really. I had two days on the film, maybe three. He was very firm. I was very surprised because his films have, to the outsider, such an improvised feel – that’s how he deals with whomever is his primary character, you know, like Diane (Keaton). That all feels very improvised, but, man, on the lower echelon, we had to stick to what we were saying! I think he just hated my character. He didn’t take anything out on me. He would just ask me to say the line how it was written. I think it’s a fair request”.

 

14. Postcards from the Edge (1990)

Postcards From The Edge (1990)

“This is the story of Suzanne Vale shaking off her mother’s (Doris Mann) mantle and coming out and becoming herself at last”, said Streep. “I think it’s a really interesting story, not just for movie stars with progeny in the business, but for anybody who’s got an indelible character for a mother or a father”, adds Streep. And having Shirley MacLaine portray her mother was simply the challenge to die for. She is such a larger than life kind of personality that Meryl didn’t have to work hard to feel like she was on her shadow.

Again with Mike Nichols on the director’s seat and Meryl Streep on board, everyone wanted to be part of the project. One of the reasons Streep accepted the role was because she was truly afraid of singing in front of people and this part challenged her insecurities. To prepare for this role, Streep spent some time at a drug rehab clinic and attended meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. She also spent time with Carrie Fisher.

The film was based on Fisher’s book which was, therefore, an account on her own experience with alcohol and drugs and being the daughter of Debbie Reynolds. For Meryl it wasn’t important to pick Fisher’s brain. In fact it wasn’t even necessary. “She’s like a volcano, she erupts. I liked her immediately and I didn’t hang around her to “get” the character. I liked her as a friend”, Streep said at the time. As for Fisher, she had to help Meryl on a couple of things, mostly on bad behavior. “Anyone who wants that kind of training, that’s my specialty. She understood the notion of it very well. It’s ridiculous what she can do and I think she thinks it’s ridiculous, too”, said Fisher to Hollywood Reporter.

Nichols lived up to his reputation as an actors’ director and Meryl, working with him again, couldn’t but praise him: “Mike is demanding, but he doesn’t have tunnel vision. People come in with ideas and if he doesn’t like them he rejects them in a most diplomatic way. Mike is great and he’s very funny on the set. Even when he’s angry, his wit sharpens and he’s very amusing”, said Streep in an interview.

In Postcards from the Edge, what happens to Suzanne in the course of the story is usually what happens to most people who mature. You learn that you have to forgive your parents for your own sake as well as theirs. And parents learn that they have to forgive their children, because, after all, children hurt parents as much as they hurt children. As we know, the only thing that allows us to be free and live our own life is to forgive on both ends.

 

13. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

First published in 1970, Roald Dahl’s beloved book Fantastic Mr.Fox has enchanted and delighted generations of children and their parents alike for almost 40 years. And thanks to the bittersweet, wryly funny vision of acclaimed filmmaker Wes Anderson and also to the magic of stop-motion animation, the darkly humorous tale was adapted to the big screen.

To play the crafty, roguish anti-hero Mr. Fox, Anderson only ever had George Clooney in mind, with his naturally appealing voice. As for Mr.Fox’s pragmatic and resolutely faithful wife Felicity, Anderson could only think of one woman: Meryl Streep. “When else am I going to be Mrs. George Clooney?” laughed Streep of accepting the role. For Wes Anderson there was no better actress to bring to life a character.

 

12. Silkwood (1983)

Silkwood (1983)

Meryl Streep stars as Karen Silkwood in the first of four collaborations with director Mike Nichols. The story is based on the real life case of a plutonium plant worker who discovered corporate powers were covering up radiation leaks at Oklahoma’s Kerr-McGee plant. Karen’s whistle blower efforts as a union activist ended tragically.

Reportedly on her way to meet with New York Times reporter David Burnham, Karen died in a suspicious car accident in November 1974. Some believed it was actually an intentional murder, while others blamed Karen’s abuse of alcohol and drugs – that were found in small quantities in her blood.

Nichols’ film is an attempt not to make Karen Silkwood into a martyr but to show the reality of her life as a powerless but very human and determined working class woman. With a growing sense of determination and purpose, the film shows Karen’s metamorphosis from an irresponsible directionless woman into someone awakened to the world around her and anxious to fight for a cause.

For Meryl, Silkwood is about human nature more than any other issue. She explained in an interview “I was attracted to the character. No matter what I think in my real life, in order to effectively play a part or make my imagination go, I have to be presented with a certain challenge and a character with problems. What I liked about Karen was that she wasn’t Joan of Arc at all. She was unsavory in some ways and yet she did some very good things. This doesn’t feel like an antinuclear movie. There are lots of those around and I’ve stayed away from them quite purposefully because I don’t like polemics.”

In Silkwood, Meryl delivers a chirurgical portrayal of emotions in an evenhanded, funny, really-life way.

 

11. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

John Fowles’ original novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman was distinguished by a literary technique that involved telling a story of Victorian sexual and social oppression within the bounds of a 1970´s viewpoint. How was it possible, then, to convey this idea on film? The author and the director, Karel Reisz, found the perfect screenwriter to help tackle this problem – Harold Pinter. Known for his mastery of narrative structure, layered meaning and nuanced dialogue, Pinter developed a script based on a double story.

One thread of the plot follows the 19th century romance of Sarah Wooddruff and Charles Smithson while the other one tracks the modern day affair of Mike and Anna, two actors playing Charles and Sarah in a film production of the novel. Both Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep had to double themselves to play both characters. Irons doubled himself into the skin of Mike and Charles while Meryl garnered her first Best Actress Oscar Nomination for the portrayal of Sarah and Anna.

Despite the praise she got for her performance, it wasn’t easy for Streep to get in touch with both characters: “I thought it was very interesting, but I must say, I could never attach to either of my characters ever. It was very disconcerting. I didn’t know who I was at any given moment. This movie set me aside from myself. I didn’t know where the actress was manipulating the guy through her character. Everything was so conscious and I don’t like to be conscious when I’m acting. I like to be unconscious – extremely unconscious.”

 

 

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  • ryanS

    there better be a world shatteringly good reason for the inexplicable omission of Sophie’s Choice.

  • Sidney DeLeonardo

    Plenty is an amazing and understated film in which Streep plays a fascinating and complex woman with myriad life experiences. It is my favorite. Also, Sophie’s Choice. Streep is hauntingly good in that.

  • soumik

    Can you explain the absence of Sophie’s Choice?

  • Dave Teves

    Even in the horrible Mamma Mia!, Meryl Streep made it watchable. It’s impossible not to watch her genius and talent in acting. She is the only interesting thing in the movie.

  • Alex Nasaudean

    This is a really misguided list, people involved should be ashamed…

  • luckyme13

    what????????? no sophie’s choice?
    if i may,i will add the ff:
    1.it’s complicated
    2.death becomes her
    3.ironweed
    4.julia
    5.defending your life

  • wil blake

    Plenty.

  • She also managed to turn the sludge that was ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ into a credible weepie.

  • Rafael Rivera Rodriguez

    no Ironweed?? she was sublime !