Is Meryl Streep the greatest ever?

Is Meryl Streep the greatest screen actress ever? Tom Ryan says yes.

Is Meryl Streep the greatest screen actress ever? Tom Ryan says yes.

THE past year was graced by several scintillating performances by women: Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kezvin, Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre, Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs, Rooney Mara in David Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But none can compare with Meryl Streep's incarnation of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

It is a screen performance against which all others can be measured. Mike Nichols, who has directed Streep four times - in Silkwood (1983), Heart-burn (1986), Postcards from the Edge (1990) and the Emmy Award-winning TV series Angels in America (2003) - clearly saw it coming when he presented her with an American Film Institute life achievement award in 2004, observing in his introduction that "she defines what is possible for an actor as an artist".

Those of us who have encountered the former British prime minister only through her public appearances as well as those who have known her personally have been equally astonished by Streep's uncanny ability to capture her look, voice, accent and demeanour so precisely. And given this latest virtuoso demonstration of her talent, it's not too much of a stretch to propose that Streep is the greatest screen actress of all time.

Other contenders leap to mind, not just for single performances, but for bodies of work that might match the way that Streep has been able to sustain such a high level of achievement in leading roles over three decades. Isabelle Huppert would certainly be among them, also with more than 30 years' worth of performances, many of them unforgettable: from The Lacemaker in 1977 through her Madame Bovary for Claude Chabrol (1991) to White Material (2009).

Then there's Katharine Hepburn, who lent an irresistible dignity to a series of screwball heroines in films such as Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Phil-adelphia Story (1940), as well as in the series of comedies she made with Spencer Tracy. And Setsuko Hara, best remembered outside Japan for her role in Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953), but who also starred in five other films for the revered director as well as more than 50 others between 1935 and her premature retirement in 1966 (she is still alive). And what about Juliette Binoche? Or Barbara Stanwyck? Or Tilda Swinton? Maybe Judi Dench, so at ease with whatever she does on screen, but more often than not a sublime support act to somebody else's fireworks? These women and many others of whom space precludes mention here are among the great screen actresses of world cinema. But none compares with Streep.

In a recent article in The Age on The Iron Lady, authorised Thatcher biographer Charles Moore notes that Streep, who has never met Thatcher, has somehow managed to simulate "virtually every mannerism and trick of speech: a slight movement of the lower lip after speaking, the smile that can suddenly frost over, the mixture of genuine courtesy to people in general and shattering rudeness to senior colleagues".

Of course, the actress had plenty of support - especially from the hair and make-up stylists and the costume and wardrobe department - but that would have meant nothing had she not been able to bring Thatcher to life so persuasively. The overwhelming power of her performance is not simply grounded in her ability to mimic Thatcher's mannerisms. Using Shakespeare's King Lear as a source of inspiration, Abi Morgan's expertly crafted screenplay provides Streep with the raw material to turn her tormented character into a tragic figure: a woman who has succeeded against the odds but whose fatal flaw (her inability to empathise) brings her undone.

Thirty years ago, following her graduation with a master of fine arts degree from the Yale School of Drama, where a co-student was Sigourney Weaver, and shortly before she made Sophie's Choice (1982), Rolling Stone magazine (with an Annie Leibovitz photo of a white-faced Streep on the cover) was noting how, in five years, she had "gone from drama school graduate to the most sought-after actress of her generation in Hollywood". While her career has occasionally gone into pause mode, not only has nothing effectively changed in three decades, but Streep's star burns even brighter.

Ironically, a week before she appeared on the cover of that Rolling Stone issue, she had been worrying to New York magazine about what lay ahead. "By the time an actress hits her mid-40s," she said, "no one's interested in her any more." The observation is both a testimony to the insecurity that seems to afflict all actors - perhaps it's actually endemic to the human condition - and an observation of Hollywood priorities at the time, and ever since. One can see why she might have been concerned about her future and it's always easy to look back and ask what on earth she could have been thinking. But still, what on earth was she thinking?

Born in 1949, she has received 16 Oscar nominations, with No. 17 due any day: 13 for best actress (she won for Sophie's Choice in 1983), three for supporting actress (winning for Kramer vs Kramer in 1980). Such sustained attention from the academy is no guarantee of anything, but it is a pretty strong indication. No other actor or actress has received more nominations. She has starred in romantic dramas and comedies, action adventures, political thrillers, social comedies and dramas, even a musical. She has often played real-life characters: among them Karen Silkwood, Ethel Rosenberg in Angels in Amer-ica, Karen Blixen in Out of Africa (1985), Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels (1988), Susan Orlean in Adaptation (2002), Julia Child in Julie & Julia (2009) and, of course, Margaret Thatcher.

That she is able to become all of them on screen lends persuasive testimony to her qualities as a chameleon and a perfectionist, her ability to step inside their fictionalised worlds and to emerge convincingly in their likeness. A range of different accents was required and she delivered. Even if the Australian one famously proved a bit elusive in Evil Angels, she is still able to play her character warts-and-all and make her not just sympathetic but heroic in her determination to clear her name.

"What? Am I going to do these characters in my own voice?" is her shrugged-shoulder response to questions about her dedication to getting the vocal intonations right. "For me," she told an audience at the American Screen Actors Guild in New York last December, "to capture how someone speaks is to capture them, because, on a certain level, how people speak delivers their personality . . . So, I don't think of it as separate from the other work of living as someone else and taking on their body, and their feelings, and their cares, and what they love, and who they miss." Her approach for Thatcher, she says, took her to somewhere below and behind her diaphragm.

Streep has made the Method her own, and her gift is her ability to become the character she is playing. There are a couple of roles where that doesn't mean much: in She-Devil (1989) and Death Becomes Her (1992). But these are exceptions, and even when she has taken parts in films that don't really deserve her, she has been able to rise above their limitations. In Wes Craven's Music from the Heart (1999), for example, she plays Roberta Guaspari, a real-life school teacher giving violin lessons to kids in Harlem, and manages to turn a role designed to reduce her character to an uncomplicated candidate for sainthood into a portrait of a flawed humanity, scarred by the messy realities of everyday life.

"I've never worked with an actor who seemed more different from the character she's playing - and who seems absolutely to be somebody else," writer-director Alan J. Pakula said after working with Streep on Sophie's Choice. Originally he had wanted to cast a European actress for the role of the Polish Holocaust survivor living in Brooklyn. Liv Ullmann if possible; maybe Marthe Keller or Hanna Schygulla. He settled on Magda Vasaryova, a Czech, but the production company (Marble Arch) nixed the choice and pushed him towards Streep.

The result is arguably the greatest of all screen performances by an American actress. Pakula's account of the first read-through of the script is instructive. He had told his key cast - Streep, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol - that all that was required was a relaxed reading. The two men gave him that, but Streep, who had learnt Polish to perfect the Polish-accented English she was to speak in the film, came in guns blazing. "I couldn't believe what was coming out of her," Pakula told Jared Brown in his 2005 biography of the director. "Kevin's mouth fell open. He could barely speak for the rest of the reading . . . I thought I was working with two separate people: Meryl Streep and Sophie Zawistowska."

Collaborators and peers echo Pakula's superlatives. Robert Benton, who directed her in Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and Still of the Night (1982), says: "Anything she says she can do, she can . . . She has always been able to find in characters a resonance and humanity that I sometimes was not even aware was there." Noting that Streep never uses dialogue coaches, Fred Schepisi, with whom she made Plenty (1985) and Evil Angels, says: "Meryl invades her characters and absorbs them."

Writer-director Nancy Meyers, who worked with her on It's Complicated (2009), enthuses about her adventurousness: "With so many actors, it's the familiar that you look forward to," she says. "And I think with her it's the originality that you look forward to." Claire Danes remembers that watching Sophie's Choice as a nine-year-old was "when I first learned that acting could be important". Diane Keaton simply describes her as "my generation's genius".

Over the years Streep has given herself over to three main kinds of character types. There are the troubled women: in films such as Kramer vs Kramer, Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, Out of Africa, Heartburn, Evil Angels, The Bridges of Madison County (1995), One True Thing (1998), Evening and Lions for Lambs (both 2007). Then there are the feisty femmes: in The River Wild (1994), Music of the Heart, The Hours (2002), Adapta-tion, Prime (2005), Mamma Mia! (2008), Julie & Julia and It's Complic-ated. And finally there are the tough gals, cold-blooded and unshakeable in their resolve, mostly appearing over the past decade: in Plenty, The Manchurian Candidate (2004), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Rendition (2007), Doubt (2008) and, now, The Iron Lady.

However, while such an overview of her gallery of character portraits does provide a convenient way of arranging them, it's also misleading. With a couple of exceptions - the ruthless CIA boss she plays in Rendition and the monstrous matriarch in The Manchurian Candidate - none of these characters can be so easily reduced to these labels. The troubled women (like the mother who flees the nightmare that her life has become at the start of Kramer vs Kramer, or the cancer-stricken housewife in One True Thing) turn out to be resilient in ways that aren't initially evident. And both the feisty femmes and the tough gals have a vulnerable side that makes them much more interesting than they first appear to be, with her "iron lady" providing the most recent example.

Along with her dedication to her craft, her readiness to take risks and her ability to step onto a set and become someone else, Streep excels because of the insight she is able to bring to her characters. Even when she is playing someone unworthy - and in my view, Margaret Thatcher's failure to concern herself with the social consequences of her government's policies makes her that - she is working to make them recognisably human.

She might publicly make light of her career. "Let's face it," I recall her quipping years ago at an awards ceremony. "We were all once three-year-olds who stood in the middle of the living room and everybody thought we were so adorable. Only some of us grow up and get paid for it." But her achievements point to the fundamental seriousness of her approach to her work and to her belief in the magical power of art to transform and transcend the everyday.

10 great screen performances by women1Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc in Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Her only major screen role.

2Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940): A role originally written for a man, Russell's motor-mouthed newspaperwoman is a match for all-comers, including Cary Grant.

3Setsuko Hara in Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953): A heartbreaking performance, exquisite in its simplicity and beautiful in its evocation of her character's emotional resilience.

4Giulietta Masina in Federico Fellini's La Strada (1954):

The director's wife in a performance filled with beauty and pain.

5Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959): The one film in which Marilyn's persona and performance harmonise to perfection.

6Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman's Face to Face (1976): As compelling a depiction of a breakdown as one is ever likely to see on screen

7Meryl Streep in Alan Pakula's Sophie's Choice (1982):

Incomparable.

8Jessica Lange in Graeme Clifford's Frances (1982): A magnificent performance that would have won the Oscar in 1983 were it not for Streep and Sophie.

9Tilda Swinton in Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love (2009): A breathtaking portrait of a woman on the verge.

10Meryl Streep The Iron Lady (2011): Extraordinary.

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