In the flesh, she does not have an aura. She’s not lit from within. Heads do not snap in her direction when she walks through a hotel lobby in a baggy maxi-dress and brown calf-high boots, flanked by her dutiful makeup artist of 35 years and her imperious publicist — the few celebrity trappings of a woman who stubbornly considers herself a working actor, and nothing more.
And yet for half of her 62 years she has been dubbed either the Greatest Film Actress of Her Generation or, now, the Greatest Living Film Actress.
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?”
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.”
She tried working-class (“Silkwood”). She tried epic (“Out of Africa”), comedy (“Death Becomes Her”) and action (“The River Wild”). She tried and sometimes fell short of perfection, but even her flubs are gold, according to Clint Eastwood, who directed her in “The Bridges of Madison County” in 1995.
“When I showed her a rough cut of the film, she said, ‘You’ve printed all my mistakes!’ ” Eastwood says. “And I said, ‘Yeah, and they’re so good.’ ”
The source of this unassailable ability remains a mystery, even to her, says cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, who shot “Julie & Julia,” in which Streep channeled Julia Child, and the telepic “Angels in America,” in which Streep played four roles, including the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.
“I remember Mike [Nichols] asking her, ‘Why did you do this or that?’ in the scene where Ethel’s with Roy Cohn as he’s dying,” Goldblatt says. “And she said, ‘. . . I don’t know.’ And I really think that’s the essence. She’s so deep into it that she’s not having a conscious conversation as an artist, as an actor, with herself. It’s that good. It’s not even skill or artifice. It’s complete subjection to the character. She is no longer Meryl Streep.”
And yet she’s Meryl Streep here, in this room off the W’s lobby, hours before appearing at a gala for the National Women’s History Museum.
There is nothing to say about her handshake, her mood, her carriage. She has no smell. Her eyes, obscured by modish rectangular glasses, seem dark and colorless — until she begins to recite a verse by 8th-century poet Wang Wei to prove a point about an artist’s individual voice.
“I seem to be alone on the empty mountain,” Streep says in her silvery contralto, shifting her posture as if bracing for a blast of high-altitude air.
For an almost uncomfortable period of time.
“Yet suddenly I hear a voice . . .”
Another long pause.
Her eyes search the air. They are slate blue, sparkling.
“Is it sunshine entering a forest grove, shining back at me from the green moss?”
We get it now. The moss. Or, rather, the sunshine off it. That’s the mystical place where the Streepness originates. Recently, it’s shined on what she calls “big, terrifying” roles that make her nervous and therefore challenge her impeccable instrument. Her most recent mark is Margaret Thatcher, whom she plays in the upcoming “The Iron Lady.”
“For a girl from Jerrrsey to walk into an English soundstage with 40 of the best English actors and presuuume to be their first woman prime minister, it’s just like, ‘Oh my God, who do you think you arrre?’ ” Streep says. “It really does raise the stakes and makes the adrenaline flow.”
Her characters, she says, help her understand little things about herself, and she will continue to pick projects that fill in her own paint-by-numbers portrait. How does she dovetail with Thatcher?
“Terrifyingly close,” she says, cackling. “That dutifulness, that relentlessness, that desire to do well, do right. To act according to your convictions. To try, try, try. Keep trying, keep trying. Don’t let the bastards get you. Don’t let them say you’re too old.”
Old seems to work for Meryl. In the past five years, she has eased into her emerita-ness, turned each acceptance speech into a master class of diva comportment, relished roles in exuberant-if-commercial projects — and her box office receipts have started matching the volume of her critical praise. A string of movies made more than $100 million: “The Devil Wears Prada,” in which she nibbled scenery as an ice-queen fashion editor, “Mamma Mia!,” in which she belted Abba songs in the Greek Isles, and “It’s Complicated,” in which she bedded Alec Baldwin between 1,500-thread-count sheets.
Those dollars, she says, are the only reason she’s still employed. Simple as that.
“My generation of actresses — my friends, my cohort — should be working at the same level of endeavor as I am, and they’re not,” Streep says. “Why? Because to [businessmen], they’re old. And that bugs me. That’s wrong. Because the audience is there. They’ve just been shoved out of the theaters by the crap that they put out now to sell ancillary products. It’s just — ugh.”
Earlier in the week, she was in London for a tribute to Vanessa Redgrave, whom Streep calls “the pinnacle.” The film reel included a lengthy dinner scene from “Julia,” Streep’s first movie role.
“First of all, you’d never see a scene like that in a movie now,” Streep says. “The idea that a camera and the audience would be interested to just sit at a table for nine minutes and experience the tension that was going on in the scene. . . . Jesus. What is happening to this thing we love? Film! It’s so powerful.”
And she leans back in her chair, exhales and extends her arms in some strange supplication to her chosen medium, as if she has opened herself up as a sounding board, an instrument to be played by the universe, a lute suspended — absorbing and projecting, at this moment, a rich vibe of weary gratitude.
Between the hotel and the Ronald Reagan Building, she does not make a costume change. She appears onstage in the same baggy dress, with the same casual hair. She trumpets the idea of a National Women’s History Museum, ably performing her prepared remarks and then, in closing, decides to try something.
“As Margaret Thatcher would say — ” and without warning she drops her voice a half-tone, upholsters her throat with a bristly British accent, cocks her head to suggest a hairdo and blazer and strand of pearls that aren’t actually there, and the air in the theater suddenly turns chilly and electric, like a seance is afoot, and behind the rostrum now is a fully-formed life force radiating energy:
“ ‘If you want something spoken about, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.’ ”
The audience gasps at the quick-change and roars with approval, and then Streep snaps out of it, and Thatcher is gone, and so is she, replaced by applause.
See the rest of this year’s Kennedy Center Honorees:
Staff writer Ann Hornaday contributed to this report.