Meryl Streep has made a lot of dreadful movies.
The likes of Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert Pattinson can afford to turn up their noses at lesser scripts, but women who want to stay busy have to say yes to iffy projects. Streep has garnered Oscar nominations (she has a record 21 of them) for movies she likely agreed to do because her character was compelling or the director might have something to teach her, despite a blah script.
Last year’s “The Laundromat” is an example: a busy farce that took a swing and missed but offered her three roles, one of which some viewers didn’t realize was her, and a chance to be directed by Steven Soderbergh. She reunites with him for one of two new Streeps out this week, the HBO Max comedy “Let Them All Talk.” (She’s also a narcissistic diva in “The Prom” on Netflix.)
“The Iron Lady” won Streep an Oscar but it’s dreck. “Music of the Heart” earned her a nomination, but it’s as dopey as the title. You can guess why Streep took on “Evening,” “Before and After” or “Dark Matter” — a new accent, an unusual character — but let’s face it, she has forged a career in a time when Hollywood barely cares about women. As evidence: Best actress Oscars routinely go to women whose movies are not best picture contenders, but that almost never happens with the best actor.
Because she has a master’s degree from Yale, Streep is thought of as an intellectual performer, and when she’s criticized, the usual beef is that her performances are too studied, or too reliant on accents or tricks such as a sideways glance, a giggle that comes out of nowhere or a shift in vocal register in the middle of a word. But every actor has behaviors they fall back on. Streep’s tics are noticeable because she has created so many characters, and because she’s so often called upon to perk up material that isn’t as good as she is.
The flip side is that Streep usually elevates roles. Would “Mamma Mia!” be watchable without her? Could anyone else make the tricky theatrical device of “Plenty” work on film? Would we listen to anyone else shriek those awful notes in “Florence Foster Jenkins”? Would a less confident actor tackle the role Angela Lansbury defined in the original “The Manchurian Candidate”?
The cliché with magnetic actors is that it would be entertaining to watch them read the phone book. I’d go further with Streep. I’d watch her play a haunted Chilean woman with telekinesis in a turgid adaptation of Isabel Allende’s “House of the Spirits,” and — when she’s on screen, anyway — I’d even believe it.
It’s cute that the trailer thinks Anne Hathaway is the star of the comedy, but we all know differently. Bette Davis has “All About Eve,” Vivien Leigh has “Gone With the Wind” and Meryl Streep has “Prada,” her most iconic and quotable role. Kicking off a midcareer surge, Streep brings a thrilling, fierce originality to her vituperative fashion guru. “Where are the belts for this dress? Why is no one rea-dy?” is not even written as a laugh line, but she makes it funny with an oddly musical rhythm that would make Stephen Sondheim green.
There can’t be many bigger acting challenges than playing a real person in a script written by that real person on a set where that real person is in attendance. That’s what Streep did in “Postcards,” adapted from Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical novel about carving out a Hollywood career in the shadow of mom Debbie Reynolds. They became pals — for years, Fisher ghostwrote Streep’s awards speeches — and why wouldn’t they? Streep captures the ache beneath Fisher’s lightning quickness and expertly belts a country song for the finale.
Streep likes to have a secret about her characters, one that’s not in the script but informs her choices. She revealed her secret for “Kramer,” and it adds a lot to re-watching the drama about a bitter custody battle: Her character never loved her ex. (Based on recent Streep interviews in which she accused co-star Dustin Hoffman of unprofessional behavior, it probably wasn’t hard to keep that in mind.)
Streep blissing out to a dial tone, flirting awkwardly with Chris Cooper, brushing her teeth while stoned, smiling at her toes. It all makes a lot more sense in the aftermath of a 2020 tweetstorm by Susan Orlean that earned her a place in social media history. Here, with a script Streep called the best she’d ever read, she brings verve to the witty, off-kilter writer.
Re-watching this movie, I worried it would feel too important or ossified. There’s a little of that in the narration, but Streep’s lighter-than-air performance works against any potential stodginess. It’s revelatory acting, particularly when you realize that Sophie herself is putting on an act, which means Streep is giving two performances.
I want an entire TV series of Streep as cooking legend Julia Child. She has a good wig and a decent approximation of the throaty voice, but the secret to “Julie & Julia” is joy. The delight that registers on Streep’s face, whether she is speaking with her sister or dining with her husband or chopping a flotilla of onions, is so infectious that you resent the “Julie” half of “Julie & Julia” because Streep isn’t in it.
It’s a small role, but Streep (and writer/director Greta Gerwig) helped me understand mean old Aunt March in a way I never had. She’s still not exactly a hugger, but Streep’s detailed performance reveals that her perceived nastiness is the result of having to maintain constant vigilance over a family of women with few resources.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367