The 20 Best Meryl Streep Movie Performances

10. Doubt (2008)


When Doubt first moved to Broadway, playwright John Patrick Shanley noticed all the different responses people were having every night in the theater. It seemed like a lot of people felt passionately about the subject of certainty and its consequences so right there and then Shanley decided he wanted to turn his play into a film. As he began adapting it, he realized the screen would allow him to explore many elements that simply couldn’t be addressed in the play, like the live of the nuns, the children at the school and the whole outside world of a Bronx neighborhood.

Shanley also started envisioning Meryl Streep taking the role of Sister Aloysius, because he knew he needed an actress of unusual skill and subtlety to grasp the character and go well beyond the simple trope of the dictatorial, heartless nun. With Streep it was assured that details were going to be met to honor all that makes Sister Aloysius compelling and complex, even in her righteousness and certainty. And that was exactly what happened.

Streep made Sister Aloysius so layered that not only audiences applauded her but also did the Academy with another Oscar nomination.


9. August: Osage County (2013)

August Osage County

August: Osage County tells the dark yet hilarious and deeply touching story of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose lives have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest House they grew up in and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them. Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name premiered on Broadway and went on to international success until finally winning the Tony awards in 2008.

The film is directed by John Wells (The Company Men) and features an all-star cast, including Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, both nominated for an Oscar for their dazzling performances as mother and daughter. The “eat the f****fish” scene is simply mesmerizing. Streep was afraid of portraying such a mean-spirited person onscreen or like Julia Roberts said “the new gold standard for cruelty”. Nonetheless, it was yet another risk worth taking.


8. Adaptation (2002)

Adaptation (2002)

In 1999, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his Being John Malkovich were brought to the big screen by director Spike Jonze. Around the same time he had been commissioned by Jonathan Demme and his producing partner Ed Saxon to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s best-selling non-fiction book The Orchid Thief.

The book is a widely praised tale of a journalist who discovers the roots of her own passion while following the adventures of John Laroche, a man who is obsessed with his love for rare orchids. What started as a great moment of self-confidence turned into depression and throughout the torturous process of writing, Kaufman remained committed to find a way to address the theme of passion. And he finally did it. After Susan Orlean Read the script she was just speechless. Kaufman had taken her journey and combined it with his own, crossing the border from fact into fiction.

With Spike Jonze attached to the project as director, he began to imagine Meryl Streep for the role of Susan Orlean. He knew it would take an actress of her talent and caliber to capture the subtleties in the script. But the more Jonze thought about Streep, the more he realized it was a “pipe dream”.

However, Streep did react enthusiastically to the script and couldn’t wait to get on board “It was simply one of the best screenplays I’d ever read. There was no other script like it. So, I had to say yes”, said Streep. And then came along a crazy emotional ride with amazing performances by Chris Cooper, Nicolas Cage and, of course, Streep who was yet again nominated for an Oscar.


7. The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Michael Cimino’s epic tale on war and friendship is both powerful and disturbing but it is also a compelling look at the Vietnam War through the lives of three blue-collar, Russian-American friends in a small steel-mill town. The story develops in three major acts – before, during and after their service in the war. Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale and Meryl Streep, the film is simply poignant.

This three-hour epic about men, their bonds and war and how violence affects their humanity was tough on Streep. After all she was a woman in a male landscape. In fact, her role was negligible. So, in order to make it more complex, Cimino explained the setup to Streep and asked her to write her own lines.

Meryl Streep was delighted to be part of the whole process, because, at the time, she was living with fellow actor John Cazale (who unfortunately would not survive cancer and therefore didn’t get to see the movie) and as she said in an interview “That is so hard for actors, you’re always in different cities, missing each other…They needed a girl between the two guys and I was it”.

Streep is always deeply immersed in her characters because part of her method is finding the truth for that specific person: what makes her feel alive, what moves her and what are her hopes and dreams. In this film, her character Linda is someone who waits for someone else to make her life happen, someone that gives her a reason for her own existence. Her fragile yet powerful portrait of this woman earned Streep her first Oscar Nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category.


6. Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

Kramer vs. Kramer

This film earned Meryl Streep her first Oscar (Best Supporting Actress).

Kramer vs. Kramer is based on the 1977 novel by Avery Corman and was adapted for the screen by Robert Benton. At first the film producers wanted the renowned François Truffaut to direct but Benton insisted on being allowed to direct as well. The producers then agreed to let Benton make his directorial debut with Nestor Almendros as his cinematographer (who had worked with Truffaut on several films).

This simple, yet timely story of changing gender roles is one of the most sincere and emotionally woven films ever made on a family torn apart by divorce. Starring opposite Hoffman as Joanna Kramer, Meryl Streep transformed her minor role into a major performance and won unanimous praise from the critics, just as she had in The Deer Hunter (1978).

Originally the film’s producers wanted Kate Jackson (from Charlie’s Angels) for the part of Joanna Kramer. They believed Streep would work best for Phyllis (which JoBeth Williams ended up playing), because she had never carried a leading role before. They basically thought she was not yet bankable enough to play Hoffman’s wife. However, despite auditioning for the part of Phyllis both the director, Benton, and Hoffman loved her so much that they thought she was absolutely perfect for the role of Joanna.

Again, as had happened with The Deer Hunter, Streep ended up rewriting most of her part to make her character more sympathetic, including her entire courtroom speech. But this wasn’t a peaceful process, because Hoffman reportedly thought she was trying to upstage him and argued with her over many of the changes.

Nonetheless, Meryl ended up winning him over and managed to create a more human and complex character in Joanna. Later on Hoffman realized Streep was only fighting for the scene, not herself and acknowledged her talent. “Yes, I hated her guts, but I respected her. She sticks with her guns and doesn’t let anyone mess with her when she thinks she’s right”.


5. The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Robert James Waller’s novel -The Bridges of Madison County – was a genuine literary phenomenon. The simple story set in 1965 about a married Iowa farm wife who has a brief but life-changing affair with a world-traveling photographer struck a chord with readers everywhere. The book became so popular that Steven Spielberg’s company, Amblin Entertainment, bought the movie rights and he considered directing the film himself but became too busy working on Schindler’s list (1993) that he had to leave it behind.

Sydney Pollack was attached to the project for a while with Robert Redford rumored to play the photographer Robert Kincaid. The lead characters of Kincaid and Francesca Johnson were both middle aged and called for older actors to play them. Francesca was the most hotly pursued female role in Hollywood at the time. A-list actresses over forty such as Jessica Lange, Isabella Rossellini, Susan Sarandon and Anjelica Huston were all considered leading contenders.

But it would be Clint Eastwood firmly set to star as Robert Kincaid with Bruce Beresford as a director that would change everything. Beresford wanted a more exotic, possibly European actress in the role such as Lena Olin or Isabella Rossellini but Eastwood felt strongly that the part should go to an American actress and began to champion Meryl Streep for the role.

Beresford and Eastwood continued to clash and eventually it was announced that Beresford was leaving the project. Eastwood, an accomplished director himself, decided to take over the director’s seat and the first thing he did was to pursue Meryl Streep for the role of Francesca. He had heard that she wasn’t a fan of the novel so he called her personally to ask her to read the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese.

Eastwood assured Meryl that LaGravenese’s screenplay had made vast improvements on the book’s affected and often criticized prose. Streep did like the script and soon happily agreed to play Francesca.

Later on, the cast and crew of the film moved to Iowa for the relatively brief forty two day shoot. Meryl Streep said later that the set was the quietest she had ever worked on. Eastwood worked very fast, never raising his voice above a whisper and rarely asking for more than one or two takes.

For her performance, Streep received yet another Oscar nomination.


4. Out of Africa (1985)


The idea of adapting Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s memoirs to the screen had been thrown around for decades before the project was finally picked up by Universal Studios. Orson Welles and David Lean had both considered making the film but it would be Sydney Pollack to produce and direct the film.

Out of Africa was shot on location, which did rise several problems during the shoot. The city of Nairobi was recreated by local workers to resemble its’ appearance in the early 1900s. However, during the production, the country was in the middle of a drought, many crew members contracted malaria and, since it was illegal to touch or handle wild animals, the crew had to camp out for hours to wait for the animals to come into just the right spot for each shot.

The film tells the autobiographical story of Baroness Karen Blixen (Dinesen’s true name) and her time spent on a coffee plantation in East Africa in the early 20th century.
Portrayed beautifully by Meryl, Blixen, in the film, marries Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and moves with him to Africa. The marriage is most unsatisfactory, being him a womanizer, and he ends up leaving her, forcing her to take care of the plantation on her own. Soon after, the Baroness meets a hunter named Denys (Robert Redford) and the two begin an idyllic love affair.

For Sydney Pollack, Meryl Streep was perfect for the part. “She’s a great actress because of her intuitiveness, her powers of observation and her sense of being in touch with herself quickly – all that, along with talent. She has a vast imagination, she has incredible intuitive powers, she understands instantly things about human behavior that people who aren’t observant don’t understand and people who are narcissistic don’t understand.

You have to be paying attention to the outside world and most people are not. Most people are wondering how they’re doing, they’re looking in your eyes, thinking, “I wonder what she thinks of me?” You’re not going to learn about human behavior like that. She’s in the world, interested in the world. She lives a full life and she’s experienced what she needs to experience: motherhood, love, frustration”, compliments Pollack on Streep.


3. Angels in America (2003)

Angels in America

For the miniseries version of his Tony Award winning play, playwright Tony Kushner adapted his original text for the screen and Mike Nichols directed it. Executive producer of the series, Cary Brokaw worked for over ten years to bring the 1991 stage production to television. It would eventually be HBO Films stepping in as producer that made it all possible.

Kushner made certain changes to his play in order for it to work on screen but the HBO version is a faithful representation of his original work, especially because of Nichols contribution on directing.

Meryl Streep plays four characters, one being a rabbi. The rabbi is always the one that everyone never guesses it is Streep. I personally only found out in the final credits. So no wonder the woman is an acting Goddess.

Also part of the cast where: Al Pacino, Jeffrey Wright and Mary-Louise Parker.


2. The Hours (2002)

The Hours (2002)

When Scott Rudin purchased the screen rights to Michael Cunningham’s novel, many wondered how easily a film could be made of such a nuanced, non-linear literary work. Director Stephen Daldry found that the idea of three stories and three women, and the relationship among them, was a wonderful opportunity to try to create a single narrative. With the help of the brilliantly talented David Hare, he did manage to create such an incredible narrative connecting every single story.

Before jumping on board, Meryl Streep had originally received the book as a gift from a friend and found it simply beautiful. So when her agent called about the film she was curious as how they were going to make it into a movie, how so much of an interior world could be translated into film.

But, of course, when the script came to her hands she realized how wonderful it was and how David Hare has such a compassionate and compelling nature that he can capture and explore people’s inner thoughts. Having worked before on the film version of one of his plays, Plenty, Streep acknowledges Hare’s greatness “David is able to express things that are inside people. He puts them in the situation and makes it actable”.

Meryl’s collapse in the kitchen scene surely shows how much of the inner world is actually actable. In a single moment, with body language, you know everything you need to know about her character – Clarissa Vaughan.


1. Sophie’s Choice (1982)


Meryl Streep who received her fourth Oscar nomination and second Academy Award for playing Sophie Zawistowska, a very mysterious and beautiful Polish woman haunted by a horrible secret. Streep’s win was very obvious. In fact, some critics dismissed her performance at the time as way too technical and calculated. But for me, her poised and precise acting is just a testament to how much she cherished her character. Quite frankly it’s the Meryl Streep show. From beginning to end. And although the film had a very dramatic tone, the shooting was quite fun for the actors.

In Streep’s words “Kevin and Peter are two of the great funny guys. People would say, ‘Was it sad to make?’ and I’d be chirping on and on, ‘No, we had the greatest time, it was so fun!’ It sounds dreaful, but we had to. In the olden days, when I had a memory, I could remember song lyrics from the first time I heard them, things like that. That’s a facility – it didn’t take a lot to learn the sound of the languages. I took a Berlitz course in Polish. And I read poetry out loud, in order to see what it felt like to move emotion through you in an alien way. By the time I finished, it was part of my larynx; it wasn’t separate from me” in Entertainment Weekly, March 2000.

Author Bio: Cristina Valente currently works as a copywriter for TVI (a portuguese TV Channel). Wordplay is her main occupation, Cinema her dream at heart. Being clumsy is just a side effect of an acute case of daydreaming.