Trying to find a good film nowadays is akin to hunting for good music on the radio. Like a hit-and-run driver, commercialism runs unchecked on the silver screen. Brokered by gratuitous violence, characters ripped from the pages of comic books, and of course, sex, Hollywood promotes young, improbably gorgeous actors in an effort to make audiences forgive the lack of talent and the dearth of decent scripts. La-La Land is particularly hard on mature women who all too rarely serve as frontrunners in box office smashes. Meryl Streep is one of those rare talents transcending Hollywood’s myopia.
Born the eldest of three children in Summit, New Jersey, Streep was actually raised in Bernardsville. After graduating from Bernardsville High School, she pursued a B.A. in Drama from Vassar College and eventually earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale School of Drama. Roles on New York City stages followed her prestigious education. These led to film opportunities that she parlayed into an extensive and illustrious career.
Reams have been written about Streep’s earlier roles, including the ex-wife turned lesbian who rattles former husband Woody Allen’s manhood in “Manhattan”, the once ignored housewife and rising corporate star suing Dustin Hoffman for custody of their child in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the coffee farmer battling geographic and marital odds in “Out of Africa,” and the white water rafter who turns the tables on two escaped murderers in “The River Wild.” Like a fine wine, Streep has improved with age; unlike a good vintage, she has – thankfully – not mellowed. With each successive role, she makes a better case for the confidence, skill, courage, and brass ovaries of mature women who are as flawed as they are strong. And, she is unafraid to accept roles in which her characters may be construed as unpopular.
Witness Streep’s portrayal of Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada.” For those unfamiliar with the film, Streep was the she-devil in the title. The editor of a thinly disguised true-to-life fashion magazine, Miranda ran her publication the way that Julius Caesar ran the Roman Empire. Regal, icy, and undeniably au courant, Miranda struck terror into the hearts of her minions and couture designers alike. Upon her whims hung careers. Alternately terrified of and awed by her, no one in Miranda’s sphere of influence could fault her exacting standards, exquisite fashion sense, or “never say die” attitude. When her marriage dissolved under the demands of her job, Miranda shed a tear and moved on. When a competitor tried to cut her off at the knees, Miranda was one step ahead of her, sacrificing the long-awaited promotion of a trusted employee to solidify her own spot at the top of the food chain. And when her highly competent assistant, played by Anne Hathaway, left her high and dry during Fashion Week in Paris, Miranda Priestly allowed herself a moment’s surprise and disapproval before facing the paparazzi with aplomb. Streep’s character embodied the adage, “Never let them see you sweat.”
The actress took that adage one step further as the nun in charge of a Bronx elementary school during the racially charged 1960′s. While the sets of “Doubt” characterized the austere atmosphere of a Catholic school, Streep, wearing a habit reminiscent of Pilgrim women, embodied the character of a disciplinarian who took no nonsense from students and nun-teachers. A former lay person widowed before taking the veil, Sister Aloysius Beauvier ran her school with an iron fist and the wry awareness that her domain was subservient to the commands of priests and bishops. Despite the male-dominated pecking order, the nun locked horns with a well-liked priest, Father Brendan Flynn. Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the priest came under suspicion of sexually abusing one of the 8th grade students: the school’s sole black pupil. Denying any wrongdoing, the priest insisted that he was merely reaching out to a troubled youngster. Further complicating the plot was the boy’s mother’s confession to Sister Aloysius that her son was gay and would have been killed in any school other than the good sister’s carefully controlled institution.
Armed only with her convictions, the sickening notion that a child had been harmed while in her care, and not an ounce of hard evidence, the sister set a trap for the priest. In a game of cat and mouse set with psychological traps, she bested the Father, forcing him to request a transfer to another school in Brooklyn. At the end of the film, Sister Aloysius confided to the young nun who had begun the inquiry that she was not sure that Father Flynn was actually guilty. The penance for putting her convictions into action was to live with her own doubts.
Meryl Streep has capitalized upon her talent in portraying strong women on the silver screen, reaping praise from the critics, admiration from her fans, and the respect of her peers. She holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations (15) as well as the most Golden Globe Awards (6) ever received by an actor, tying, in the latter category, with celebrated performers Jack Nicholson and Angela Lansbury. Perhaps Streep has taken to heart Helen Gurley Brown’s advice that women who behave rarely make history. Or, it would seem, great films.