Meryl Streep Is The Best Actor Ever

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

(Welcome to Best Actor Ever, an ongoing series where we explore the careers and performances of the greatest performers to ever grace the screen.)

At the outset of the 1980s, five years after earning her MFA from the Yale School of Drama in 1975, Meryl Streep had been nominated for two Oscars and won one (Best Supporting Actress for "Kramer vs. Kramer"). By the end of the decade, she had six more nominations to her name, and a Best Actress win for "Sophie's Choice." Though her penchant for flawlessly adopting a new accent with seemingly every role had begun to feel like something of a stunt, few could deny that each character felt fresh and fully realized. She became these women.

But who was Meryl Streep? Which of her characters most closely resembled the New Jersey-born daughter of an artist and a pharmaceutical executive? No one, not even her directors, could say for sure. According to Mike Nichols, "While we were making 'Silkwood,' I saw 'Sophie's Choice,' and I was deeply shocked. I thought we had the real Meryl but it turns out they had just as real a Meryl." Her co-stars were just as flummoxed. "I'm not sure I even met Meryl," said Shirley MacLaine, who played her domineering showbiz mother in "Postcards from the Edge." "She probably comes to work as the character so I don't know what she's like. She's telling people she was intimidated by me, but that's her character talking. How can you be intimidated when you're Meryl Streep?"

The mystery hasn't completely vanished over the last 20 years, but as Streep has opened up about her private life and grown more vocal politically, we've gotten a fuller sense of what's doing under the hood. She's a grounded woman and a proud mother of four children (all artists). Though she's been married to sculptor Don Gummer for 45 years, she freely admits that she will never stop mourning her partner John Cazale, a brilliant actor who was taken from us far too soon at the age of 42. She's also perfectly happy to let 'er rip as the star of mainstream blockbusters like "Mamma Mia!" She's no longer afraid to have fun.

In 2023, we kinda get Meryl Streep. And this makes her many transformations all the more remarkable.

The breakout

Streep's first Academy Award nomination was for Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter," where she plays Linda, a woman tepidly pursued by two Pennsylvania steel workers, Mike and Nick (Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken), who are preparing to serve their country in Vietnam. On the page, it's a close-to-nothing role. Streep understood this. She took the gig in part to help pay for Cazale's cancer treatment. As Pauline Kael observed in her The New Yorker review, "[L]inda is a presence rather than a character. She's a possibility glimpsed, rather than a woman, or even a sex object — least of all, a sex object."

There is, however, a hollowed-out despair lurking behind Linda's eyes, a resignation, conceded long ago, that her time on this planet will be spent serving and supporting whichever mediocrity she decides to marry. Linda could easily be a war movie cliche, but Streep wordlessly invests her with the dignity of self-awareness. These men and their macho pastimes like hunting animals for sport and killing the othered in a far-off land, these are the options. Linda doesn't vocalize her sorrow, possibly because she can't envision another way of living. But she knows something is off, if not unjust about her predicament. We sense this. Streep makes sure we sense this. "The Deer Hunter" remains a controversial film for a variety of reasons, but the greatness of Streep's performance is not up for debate. Linda may be relegated to the periphery by her suitors and the filmmaker, but she is, in the end, the only character with an inner life.

The career

We have Streep's "The Deer Hunter" co-star to thank for her even deciding to become a film actor. Coming out of Yale, she was focused on theater until she caught a screening of "Taxi Driver," and was knocked sideways by De Niro's deep-tissue portrait of alienation and obsession. "That's the kind of actor I want to be when I grow up," she thought to herself. After an undistinguished performance opposite Alan Alda in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" and a thankless supporting turn in Woody Allen's "Manhattan," Streep again wowed critics and Oscar voters as a profoundly unhappy woman who walks out on her husband and child in Robert Benton's divorce drama "Kramer vs. Kramer."

Though Benton adjusted his screenplay to address the actor's concerns about her character's one-dimensionality, the re-written script was still heavily tilted in Dustin Hoffman's favor. So, at Benton's urging, Streep wrote her big courtroom scene herself. This is where the character of Joanna finds the courage to explain, in unavoidably broad terms, the mental anguish she's endured since leaving her son. She wasn't a functioning human being at that moment in her life. Being a broken person around her boy would've, in her estimation, done far more damage than sticking it out. She believes it was the right thing to do, and Streep convinces us that it was the only responsible decision. "I'm his mother."

Streep's ascension to acting royalty began with that scene, and was accelerated with her double role in Karel Reisz's "The French Lieutenant's Woman." The poster accentuated the mystery of Streep's Sarah Woodruff. Her eyes betray a mess of emotions: sadness, yearning, fear and just a hint of lust. Her performance delivers everything that piece of key art promises. This should've been Streep's first Best Actress win, but Katharine Hepburn's career-capping turn in "On Golden Pond" was the sentimental favorite.

The 'slump'

Streep appeared in a couple of duds during the 1980s (Benton's "Still of the Night" and Ulu Grosbard's botched De Niro re-teaming "Falling in Love"), but they were wiped away by Oscar-nominated triumphs like "Silkwood," "Out of Africa" and "A Cry in the Dark." As recounted in Karina Longworth's essential "Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor," the star's first brush with a critical backlash arrived at the turn of the decade, when she tried her hand at comedy with "She-Devil," "Postcards from the Edge," "Defending Your Life" and "Death Becomes Her." That last title, a nasty dark comedy from Robert Zemeckis that shreds celebrities' vain love affair with plastic surgery, earned Streep some of the worst reviews of her career to date.

This so-called slump ended with Clint Eastwood's "The Bridges of Madison County," where Streep put on an Italian accent and broke our hearts (and Clint's) as a lovelorn war bride. It's been relatively smooth sailing ever since. Streep has unlimited leeway to make a clunker here and there because she is Meryl Streep. There isn't a filmmaker on the planet who wouldn't overhaul their screenplay for the opportunity to work with the greatest actor on Earth. And when they get her, if they get her, they will dream a big ol' dream and try to match Streep's career-best turn in Alan J. Pakula's "Sophie's Choice."

The defining performance

Based on William Styron's National Book Award-winning novel, Streep plays Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish Holocaust survivor caught up in an abusive love affair with mentally unstable biologist Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline). They both befriend Stingo (Peter MacNicol), an aspiring novelist who is helplessly captivated by Nathan's eloquent flights of grandeur and hopelessly in love with the sad-eyed Sophie. When Stingo finds himself the target of Nathan's cruelty, he pleads with Sophie to leave him. But the more he learns about Sophie, the more he begins to suspect that she's not being forthright about her life in Poland during World War II. When he discovers that her father was a Nazi collaborator, he assumes the worst. He has no idea.

Sophie relates her tragedy to Stingo in segments. She tells him how she was hired as Rudolf Höss' assistant at Auschwitz. Everything she did, every moral compromise she made, was to protect her two young children, Jan and Eva. But upon her arrival at Auschwitz, she was forced to make a compromise that could only protect one of them.

Eva's primal scream slices clean through you. The unfathomable betrayal. A vicious death camp supervisor has presented Sophie with the opportunity to save one child, and send another to the gas chamber. There is no negotiating. If she does not choose, both will die. Sophie elects to spare Jan. Eva is so very young, but not too young to understand that her mother has consigned her to death. I will never unhear that girl's shriek for her mama, nor unsee Streep's searing shame as her baby is carried away to her death. Her soul does not leave her body in this moment, but its contempt for the body it inhabits will never allow her another moment of happiness, let alone peace. Sophie hasn't survived. She's just been looking for a place to die like a sick animal. And so, after making love with Stingo, she imbibes cyanide with Nathan and ends her misery.

If you haven't read Styron's novel ahead of time, you really don't know what to think of Sophie. She is a smart, capable woman, but also verging on unsympathetic. She is, like so many of Streep's most fascinating characters, a mystery that you feel compelled to solve. But there is no saving Sophie. She's already dead. Pakula's film is, in essence, a ghost story, one that will haunt Stingo and us for as long as we live. And this is all because Streep, as she's done throughout her career, speaks an unspeakable truth.