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 blond-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?”
‘Deep into it’
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” co-star, 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 turnoff 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 nothing to escape her conception of a performance. Instead of trying to achieve freedom in front of the camera, she’s predetermining what it records.”