A leading lady that needs no introduction, Meryl Streep is one of Hollywood’s most successful actors

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Actress Meryl Streep, winner of the Best Actress Award for 'The Iron Lady,' poses in the press room at the 84th Annual Academy Awards held at the Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California. Jason Merritt/Getty Images/AFP

If anyone were to compile a ‘best of’ list of contemporary Hollywood actors, a name that would undoubtedly appear near the very top would be Meryl Streep. Hollywood acting royalty, she has enjoyed a long and successful career with few peers.

Since making her film debut in 1977, Streep has been nominated for 20 Academy Awards and 30 Golden Globe Awards, winning three and eight respectively – the latter a record for Golden Globe wins. In fact, if you were to tally up all the global acting awards Streep has won to date, the number would be a staggering 157. That’s quite a performance.

“I let the actions of my life stand for what I am as a human being. Contend with that, not the words,” says Streep, who with her very human performances, it must be said, is one of the finest actors of her – or for that matter any – generation. Despite her worldwide acclaim and the respect she commands as an actress, Streep remains steadfastly humble. “You can’t get spoiled if you do your own ironing,” says Streep. She also has been quoted as saying, “Expensive clothes are a waste of money.”

Never one to seek the limelight, Streep is not prone to Kanye West-esque impromptu rants or emotional outbursts. As such, when the queen of the big screen does speak – always eloquently and intelligently – people sit up and take notice.

“Everything we say signifies, everything counts, that we put out into the world. It impacts on kids, it impacts on the zeitgeist of the time,” says Streep, whose recent acceptance speech at the Golden Globes in particular had quite the impact, both from a social and political perspective.

Death becomes Her Year : 1992 USA Director: Robert Zemeckis Meryl Streep

Seizing the opportunity, Streep made a few remarks aimed at the latest President of the United States that even earned her a now-famous Twitter rebuff from Trump who called her “an overrated actress” in response. Streep’s critique of the world’s most powerful man included: “This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modelled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everyone’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing,” and, “Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose,” which resulted in a huge round of applause.

Born Mary Louise Streep in June 1949 in Summit, New Jersey, Streep is the daughter of Mary Wolf Wilkinson and Harry William Streep – a commercial artist/art editor and pharmaceutical executive respectively – and the eldest of three siblings. At a young age, Streep displayed talent for the arts, having been selected to sing at a school recital aged 12. However, she remained uninterested in serious theatre until she acted in the play Miss Julie while attending Vassar College. Clinton J. Atkinson, Streep’s drama professor at the time, noted, “I don’t think anyone ever taught Meryl acting. She really taught herself.”

After receiving a BA at Vassar, Streep enrolled in the Yale School of Drama where she starred in over a dozen stage productions a year. Upon graduation in 1975, Streep’s first foray into the world of professional dramatics came in the theatre. Initially Streep was uninterested in the big screen until Robert De Niro’s performance in Taxi Driver inspired the young thespian to try her hand in Hollywood. Her first feature film appearance came opposite Jane Fonda in Julia in 1977 in a small role that was almost entirely edited out of the film.

“I had a bad wig and they took the words from the scene I shot with Jane and put them in my mouth in a different scene. I thought, I’ve made a terrible mistake, no more movies. I hate this business,” Streep later recalled.

Her breakthrough came when she played the role of a girlfriend of one of the protagonists of The Deer Hunter in 1978, for which she earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She did not have to wait long, however, for her first Academy Award, which she took home for her role in Kramer vs Kramer in 1979 opposite Dustin Hoffman, along with a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Streep famously left her coveted Oscar statuette in the ladies’ room after giving her acceptance speech.

Out of Africa 1986 Sidney Pollack Meryl Streep

In Kramer vs Kramer, Streep played a woman who abandons her husband and children. Her performance was noted for an emotional intensity, while Streep herself was noted for her hardworking approach, especially starring opposite Hoffman who apparently hated her guts. Not a problem for a headstrong Streep who says, “The minute you start caring about what other people think, is the minute you stop being yourself.”

In 1981 Streep won her first leading role in Hollywood in The French Lieutenant’s Woman but she did not taste real success until she starred in Sophie’s Choice in 1982, for which she was lauded with critical acclaim as well as an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Although it might sound like Streep enjoyed a relatively easy path to stardom, the very opposite is true – best summed up by her failed audition for King Kong. The film’s director, Dino de Laurentis, remarked in Italian to his son, “This is so ugly. Why did you bring me this?” To which Streep, who unbeknownst to De Laurentis understood Italian, replied, “I’m very sorry that I’m not beautiful as I should be but, you know – this is it.”

“I think the most liberating thing I did early on was to free myself from any concern with my looks as they pertained to my work,” explains Streep.

It was Streep’s portrayal of Danish writer Karen Blixen in Out of Africa (1985) that catapulted the young actress to superstardom. Of her performance, critic Stanley Kaufmann wrote, “Meryl Streep is back in top form. This means her performance in Out of Africa is at the highest level of acting in film today.”

“The work itself is the reward, and if I choose challenging work, it’ll pay me back with interest. At least I’ll be interested, even if nobody else is,” says Streep. At the time, it was in fact the success of Out of Africa that prompted something of a backlash in the years that followed, particularly among critics who scoffed at the US$4 million she was then demanding for her acting services.

An unfazed Streep continued to star in a string of moderately successful pictures. “Don’t give up or give in in the face of patronising ridicule, amused distain, or being ignored,” says Streep, “You just have to keep on doing what you do… keep going. Start by starting.”

La dame de fer The Iron Lady 2012 Real Phyllida Lloyd Meryl Streep. COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL © Pathe / Film4

Streep worked steadily through the ‘90s, expanding her repertoire to include comedies. A stark contrast to the otherwise serious dramatic roles she had been known for up until that point. Notable was the black comedy Death Becomes Her alongside Bruce Willis and Goldie Hawn. But her most successful film of the decade would be the Clint Eastwood-directed romantic book adaptation The Bridges of Madison County, where Streep played a middle-aged Italian farmer’s wife who engages in a love affair with a National Geographic photographer on assignment (Eastwood).

It was refreshing for women to see a middle-aged heroine of sorts being portrayed in Hollywood. Up until that point Hollywood was exclusively a young actress’ game and it has been Streep, among others, who have helped change the prevailing attitude. Says Streep: “America doesn’t reward people of my age, either in day-to-day life or for their performances.”

Streep continues to enjoy a celebrated career. She garnered great acclaim as the beastly Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, in which she torments her hapless assistant (played by Anne Hathaway) with fiendish verve. Streep has even found time to provide voice-overs in children’s animations – most notably Fantastic Mr. Fox. She won her most recent Academy Award in 2011 for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in 2011’s The Iron Lady.

Alongside her glittering career, Streep has also found the time to raise a family and now has three grown daughters. Although she admits: “My family really does come first. It always did and always will.”

With no signs of calling it a day, it looks like we are set to enjoy much more of Streep’s immense talent for years to come. As Streep herself says, “It is well that the earth is round, that we do not see too far ahead.”

Text: Hans Schlaikier

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