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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, November 28, 2023

A Compendium of Actors: Meryl Streep — then and now

Graphic art for "A Compendium of Actors" column is pictured.

The influence of Meryl Streep is far-reaching, with her performances fundamentally changing the field of acting. Thus, to focus on just one or two of Streep’s performances as encompassing of her talents would be an exercise in futility. Rather, one must consider the sheer glut of content. So, for this week, let’s go back in time and do a decade-by-decade analysis of what makes up a Streep performance.

Streep earned her initial acting cache in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with performances in films like “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) and “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). Both films earned her Academy Awards, reflecting not only her own acting prowess but also her role within the broader industry. Her performances in these films are often harrowing and even devastating, whether it be complex trauma work within “Sophie’s Choice” or the more nuanced emotional grief of “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Ultimately, Streep’s work relied on her ability to portray devastation, and she does so brilliantly.

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s brought a new era for Streep: camp queen. This period brings a cult classic Streep performance in the iconic tale of youth potions and debauchery, “Death Becomes Her” (1992). The film is far astray from the emotional nuance of her previous era, featuring Streep being slapped with a shovel or blasting Goldie Hawn into a pool with a shotgun. This commitment to raunchy, violent comedy is also true of some of her other works within the era, like the classic “She-Devil” (1989). The new fold in Streep’s career is evident — she’s not just a strong dramatic actress but a funny one too. 

It was not until the 2000s, however, that Streep found her classics of today. This is likely because she expanded her comedy, moving from baudy fun to more nuanced, but still truly enjoyable, humor. This is true of what most would argue is her most iconic film, “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) but also of other hits like “Mamma Mia!” (2008) and “Julie & Julia” (2009). These films were international megahits and represent the power of Streep’s more approachable comedic performances: They surely pull crowds, and they have deep staying power.

Now, in the 2010s and 2020s, Streep has the power to do whatever she wants. Her years of experience allow her to assert a breadth of work unparalleled within the industry. This ranges from quiet dramas like “Let Them All Talk” (2020) to big movie musicals like “Into the Woods” (2014) and “The Prom” (2020), or from political farces like “Don’t Look Up” (2021) to literary adaptations like “Little Women” (2019). Streep has shown that she’s good at just about everything — now, she gets to do it. 

Maybe this was a useless exercise, doing a resume crawl of one of the most prolific actresses in Hollywood. It’s possible there’s no way to sum up Meryl Streep — in fact, it’s likely that I missed your favorite Streep performance. Nonetheless, it’s helpful to see what makes a career so distinctive and how actors can adapt. If Streep is anything, it’s surely adaptable.