In an industry where women battle ageism and sexism, Meryl Streep has managed to decide her own destiny – and roles, writes
There are movie stars, there are actors, and there is Meryl Streep. She is so successful — she’s been nominated for more Oscars than any other actor ever, and more Golden Globes (21 and 23 at last count) —- that her awards and nominations have their own Wikipedia page.
Despite the rampant ageism and sexism of Hollywood, where it’s not uncommon for female leads to be consigned to playing the mothers of leading men their same age — Streep, who was born in 1949, has kept going, kept getting better, and continues to punch upwards through glass ceilings. Without ever breaking a sweat.
Her devoted fanbase – which doesn’t include Donald Trump, who thinks she’s over-rated because she doesn’t like him — are known as Streepers. One of their most ardent members, entertainment industry journalist and author Erin Carlson, has just published Queen Meryl: The Iconic Roles, Heroic Deeds & Legendary Life of Meryl Streep.
Nineteen chapters look at every aspect of Streep’s life and career with a devotion to detail that should delight Streep’s keenest fans: Meryl the Lion, Meryl the Heartbreaker, Meryl the Martyr, Meryl the Immortal, Meryl the Romantic, the River Goddess, the Wallflower, the Shape-shifter, the Editrix, the Nun — you get the idea. Carlson’s biographical labour of love puts under the microscope the life and times of Hollywood’s greatest ever character actor. It’s bursting with Streep.
The subject of Carlson’s first book was the late writer and director Nora Ephron. “I wanted to focus on another famous and beloved Hollywood trailblazer,” Carlson tells me. “Meryl Streep was an obvious choice, perhaps, yet an intriguing one all the same. Unlike Nora, who was brutally honest about her life and her struggles, Meryl’s identity is not so easily defined. She is extremely private and tends to hide behind the roles she plays on screen.
“But her disappearing act is by design: The less people know about Meryl, the easier it is for her to portray the kind of complex, interesting characters she loves — without being typecast as playing herself. She never plays the same role twice.
“Whereas an A-lister like Julia Roberts has, to a certain extent, played herself on screen, Meryl is a shape-shifter who forever keeps us guessing. I wanted to discover how an ambitious young girl from New Jersey became the most respected actress of our lifetimes, but my central challenge was: Who is Meryl Streep?”
She is the ex-Mrs Kramer, the French Lieutenant’s Woman, Karen Blixen, Margaret Thatcher, Miranda Priestly, Florence Foster Jenkins, Karen Silkwood, Mrs Dalloway, the fantastic Mrs Fox, the all-singing, all- dancing mamma in Mamma Mia, and dozens more characters, each voice perfectly accented, each role immersive.
Streep has weathered the worst of Hollywood, decades before #MeToo. In 1976, still unknown outside New York theatre circles, the 27 year old auditioned for Dino De Laurentiis’s remake of King Kong. When the director remarked to his son in Italian, “This is so ugly. Why do you bring me this?”, Streep answered him in Italian: “I’m very sorry that I’m not as beautiful as I should be, but…this is what you get.” Then she walked out. She has not since looked back.
Carlson loves a Streep anecdote. Like the time Streep was playing the role of an imperious nun opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt; during a passionate exchange, she smashed a lamp — which was not in the script — and carried on without pause. “When Meryl is in her groove, nothing, not even a shattered set-prop, can break her focus,” says Carlson.
When filming the Devil Wears Prada, in which she played terrifying magazine editor Miranda Priestly, Streep used an icy whisper, and kept her distance from her co-star, Anne Hathaway, on set, to ramp up the discomfort of the power dynamic. She was Miranda Priestly all the time, even on her tea break.
“Meryl thought that you didn’t have to raise your voice and yell to exert authority and leadership,” says Carlson. “For Miranda, she used Clint Eastwood, who exudes quiet power, as inspiration. She purposely distanced herself from Hathaway on the set so that Hathaway would feel genuine fear when acting opposite her. It worked.” Streep was 56 when she played Miranda Priestly, and 59 in Mamma Mia, despite how Hollywood ages women in dog years.
Carlson says she was “the first woman to burst through the glass ceiling for screen actresses of a certain age in terms of bankability ... she grew her net worth while significantly broadening her box-office appeal.” (The first Mamma Mia movie, its plot as thin as Pierce Brosnan’s high notes, made €552m worldwide because of its intergenerational female audience, all of whom loved a joyous Abba singalong).
“Meryl had a sixth sense that it would be a hit that would appeal to an under-served audience,” says Carlson.
“That is, women who want to see themselves in the movies, and want to see themselves having fun. Meryl’s lifelong mission has been to celebrate women as they are, not as how men choose to see them.”
She is currently filming with Steven Soderbergh, although details remain secretive. As Streepers await their heroine’s next project they can immerse themselves in Queen Meryl. Or better still, be more Meryl. Which can be done, says Erin Carlson, by “not letting anyone define you or tell you who you are. You are in control of your identity and your destiny. Set boundaries — and break the rules once in a while.” And never, ever be defined by age or looks. That’s for amateurs.