A life-long win­ning Streep

The irony of get­ting to know the Great­est Liv­ing Film Ac­tress is that in per­son, she doesn’t give her­self away

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODPERFORMANCE - DAN ZAK

IN THE flesh, she does not have an aura. She’s not lit from within. Heads do not snap in her di­rec­tion when she walks through a ho­tel lobby in a baggy maxi-dress and brown calf-high boots, flanked by her du­ti­ful make-up artist of 35 years and her im­pe­ri­ous pub­li­cist – the few celebrity trap­pings of a wo­man who stub­bornly con­sid­ers her­self a work­ing ac­tor, and noth­ing more.

And yet for half of her 62 years she has been dubbed ei­ther the Great­est Film Ac­tress of Her Gen­er­a­tion or, now, the Great­est Liv­ing Film Ac­tress.

So how does Meryl Streep, work­ing ac­tor, ad­vance her artistry when she has noth­ing left to prove, when every­thing she does seems be­yond re­proach?

In a room off the lobby of the W ho­tel, she re­moves her glasses and hair clip and tosses both on a ta­ble.

She is beau­ti­ful – as she has al­ways been – in the re­mote, masky way a sculp­ture by Michelan­gelo is beau­ti­ful. Her pres­ence in per­son feels like the ab­sence of a char­ac­ter.

And for this ques­tion, she must play the Great­est Liv­ing Film Ac­tress.

“I feel more wor­ried be­cause, you know, the ex­pec­ta­tions are so high,” she says, brush­ing out her blonde-white hair into a mane. “I do work very hard. I think I’ve al­ways been that type of girl, from the very be­gin­ning. I’m the old­est, and I feel like I have to do a good job. I have to try re­ally re­ally, re­ally, re­ally hard. I mean that could be my epi­taph: she tried re­ally hard.”

She looks down, eyes glaz­ing over, as if see­ing her grave­stone.

“She tried,” she re­peats softly, shrug­ging, then re­leas­ing a husky gig­gle. “You know?” We know, Meryl. The mas­tery of for­eign ac­cents, the ex­haus­tive prepa­ra­tion and pin­point tech­nique, the 16 Os­car nom­i­na­tions from 46 fea­ture films over 35 years. You tried. And suc­ceeded.

There never wasn’t praise. Praise since a pro­fes­sor at Vas­sar called her act­ing “mind-bog­gling”, praise since her drama school days at Yale, where she gave her­self an ul­cer play­ing 40 stage roles in three years (Brecht, Weill, Shake­speare, Du­rang). Praise in 1975 when she first got to New York, where Joseph Papp called her the most re­mark­able ac­tress who’d ever come through his Pub­lic The­ater.

For­get cry­ing on cue. She was able to blush on cue, Papp said.

“She’s go­ing to be the Eleanor Roo­sevelt of act­ing,” said Dustin Hoff­man, her Kramer vs Kramer costar, in a 1980 Newsweek cover story that pro­claimed her A Star for the ’80s. Crit­ics in that era placed her at the van­guard of “the new Amer­i­can ac­tor” – trained within an inch of her life in mul­ti­ple gen­res and there­fore con­fi­dent and nim­ble enough to ex­plore wildly. To try.

She tried in So­phie’s Choice and en­tered the pan­theon at 33. The try­ing – the pre­ci­sion bor­der­ing on mimicry – was a turn-off for some.

“She has, as usual, put thought and ef­fort into her work,” wrote New Yorker critic Pauline Kael in her re­view of So­phie’s Choice. “It could be said that in her zeal to be an hon­est ac­tress she al­lows noth- ing to es­cape her con­cep­tion of a per­for­mance. In­stead of try­ing to achieve free­dom in front of the cam­era, she’s pre­de­ter­min­ing what it records.”

She tried work­ing-class (Silk­wood). She tried epic ( Out of Africa), com­edy ( Death Be­comes Her) and ac­tion (The River Wild).

She tried and some­times fell short of per­fec­tion, but even her flubs are gold, ac­cord­ing to Clint East­wood, who di­rected her in The Bridges of Madi­son County in 1995.

“When I showed her a rough cut of the film, she said: ‘You’ve printed all my mis­takes,’ ” East­wood says.

“And I said: ‘Yeah, and they’re so good.’ ”

The source of this unas­sail­able abil­ity re­mains a mys­tery, even to her, says cin­e­matog­ra­pher Stephen Gold­blatt, who shot Julie & Ju­lia, in which Streep chan­nelled Ju­lia Child, and the telepic An­gels in Amer­ica, in which Streep played four roles, in­clud­ing the ghost of Ethel Rosen­berg.

“I re­mem­ber Mike (Ni­chols) ask­ing her: ‘Why did you do this or that?’ in the scene where Ethel’s with Roy Cohn as he’s dy­ing,” Gold­blatt says. “And she said ‘… I don’t know.’ And I re­ally think that’s the essence. She’s so deep into it that she’s not hav­ing a con­scious con­ver­sa­tion as an artist, as an ac­tor, with her­self. It’s that good.

“It’s not even skill or ar­ti­fice. It’s com­plete sub­jec­tion to the char­ac­ter. She is no longer Meryl Streep.”

And yet she’s Meryl Streep here, in this room off the W’s lobby, hours be­fore ap­pear­ing at a gala for the National Women’s His­tory Mu­seum.

There is noth­ing to say about her hand­shake, her mood, her car­riage. She has no smell.

Her eyes, ob­scured by mod­ish rec­tan­gu­lar glasses, seem dark and colour­less – un­til she be­gins to re­cite a verse by eighth-cen­tury poet Wang Wei to prove a point about an artist’s in­di­vid­ual voice.

“I seem to be alone on the empty moun­tain,” Streep says in her sil­very con­tralto, shift­ing her pos­ture as if brac­ing for a blast of high-al­ti­tude air. She pauses. For an al­most un­com­fort­able pe­riod of time. “Yet sud­denly I hear a voice…” An­other long pause. Her eyes search the air. They are slate blue, sparkling.

“Is it sun­shine en­ter­ing a for­est grove, shin­ing back at me from the green moss?” And scene. We get it now. The moss. Or, rather, the sun­shine off it.

That’s the mys­ti­cal place where the Streep­ness orig­i­nates. Re­cently, it’s shone on what she calls “big, ter­ri­fy­ing” roles that make her ner­vous and there­fore chal­lenge her im­pec­ca­ble in­stru­ment.

Her most re­cent mark is Mar­garet Thatcher, whom she plays in the up­com­ing The Iron Lady.

“For a girl from Jer­rrsey to walk into an English sound­stage with 40 of the best English ac­tors and pre­su­u­ume to be their first wo­man prime min­is­ter, it’s just like: ‘Oh my God, who do you think you ar­rre?’ ” Streep says.

“It re­ally does raise the stakes and makes the adrenalin flow.”

Her char­ac­ters, she says, help her un­der­stand lit­tle things about her­self, and she will con­tinue to pick projects that fill in her own paint- by- numbers por­trait. How does she dove­tail with Thatcher?

“Ter­ri­fy­ingly close,” she says, cack­ling. “That du­ti­ful­ness, that re­lent­less­ness, that de­sire to do well, do right. To act ac­cord­ing to your con­vic­tions. To try, try, try. Keep try­ing, keep try­ing. Don’t let the bas­tards get you. Don’t let them say you’re too old.”

Old seems to work for Streep. In the past five years, she has eased into her emerita-ness, turned each ac­cep­tance speech into a mas­ter class of diva com­port­ment, rel­ished roles in ex­u­ber­ant-if-com­mer­cial projects – and her box of­fice re­ceipts have started match­ing the vol­ume of her crit­i­cal praise.

A string of movies made more than $100 mil­lion: The Devil Wears Prada, in which she nib­bled scenery as an ice-queen fash­ion editor, Mamma Mia!, in which she belted Abba songs in the Greek Isles, and It’s Com­pli­cated, in which she bed­ded Alec Baldwin be­tween 1 500-thread-count sheets.

Those dol­lars, she says, are the only rea­son she’s still em­ployed. Sim­ple as that.

“My gen­er­a­tion of actresses – my friends, my co­hort – should be work­ing at the same level of en­deav­our as I am, and they’re not,” Streep says.

“Why? Be­cause to ( busi­ness­men), they’re old. And that bugs me. That’s wrong. Be­cause the au­di­ence is there.

“They’ve just been shoved out of the the­atres by the crap that they put out now to sell an­cil­lary prod­ucts. It’s just – ugh.”

Be­tween the ho­tel and the gala, she does not make a cos­tume change. She ap­pears on stage in the same baggy dress, with the same ca­sual hair.

She trum­pets the idea of a National Women’s His­tory Mu­seum, ably per­form­ing her pre­pared re­marks and then, in clos­ing, de­cides to try some­thing.

“As Mar­garet Thatcher would say” – and with­out warn­ing she drops her voice a half-tone, up­hol­sters her throat with a bristly Bri­tish ac­cent, cocks her head to sug­gest a hairdo and blazer and strand of pearls that aren’t ac­tu­ally there, and the air in the the­atre sud­denly turns chilly and elec­tric, like a seance is afoot, and be­hind the ros­trum now is a fully formed life force ra­di­at­ing en­ergy: “‘If you want some­thing spo­ken about, ask a man. If you want some­thing done, ask a wo­man.’ ”

The au­di­ence gasps at the quick change and roars with ap­proval, and then Streep snaps out of it, and Thatcher is gone, and so is she, re­placed by ap­plause. – Washington Post

The Iron Lady,

CHAMELEON: Meryl Streep and Mar­garet Thatcher, whom she plays in

have their ‘try­ing’ na­ture in com­mon.

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