The evolution of Meryl Streep

Everything you need to know about lady behind the Iron lady…

It has been a good week for Mary Louise Gummer, or, as she’s known to all of us poor chumps not related to her, Meryl Streep. On the same day that a tantalising teaser trailer was released for her upcoming Maggie Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady, Forbes magazine included La Streep in their top 10 list of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood for the past year. The wealth-tracking publication placed Streep 10th in its list of the biggest female box office champs, earning $10m in 2010 on the back of a trio of hit movies, Fantastic Mr Fox, Julie & Julia, and It’s Complicated.

It might be loose change compared to the two stars who topped the list – Angelina Jolie and Sarah Jessica Parker, who banked a massive $30m a piece – but what’s so remarkable about 62-year-old Streep is that she is in the fifth decade of her career and is the only actress above the age of 50 competing in the highest paid leagues alongside the likes of Jolie, Parker, Sandra Bullock, and Cameron Diaz, not to mention whippersnappers like Kristen Stewart and Katherine Heigl.

Streep’s career is pretty much unparalleled in Hollywood history. Having made her movie debut in the 1977 drama Julia, the icy-blonde, porcelain-skinned star quickly earned title of Greatest Living Actress through a stream of critically acclaimed, and often extravagantly accented roles in Kramer vs Kramer, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, Out of Africa, Ironweed and A Cry in the Dark.

But despite the mantelpiece-straining haul of awards and perennial critical regard, Streep was never a box office heavyweight. In fact, at the start of the 1990s, following a blazing turn in Postcards from the Edge, Streep’s career began to stall.

She took time off to raise her children (she has four now-adult offspring with her husband of 33 years, sculptor Don Gummer), but, by her own admission, the roles had started to dry up too.

That dearth of work, combined with a desire to further her range, saw Streep make some poorly-received moves into comedy in the likes of She-Devil and Death Becomes Her (which is a particular guilty favourite of this writer, critics be damned).

Streep kept busy, shining as a voiceover artist in The Simpsons (playing Bart’s first girlfriend Jessica Lovejoy), and pumping up to play an action star in The River Wild, but she mostly plied her trade in middle-of-the-road fare like The Bridges of Madison County, One True Thing and Music of the Heart, tackling an Irish brogue (with mixed results) in the movie adaptation of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa along the way.

Even when the movies themselves didn’t work, Streep was the best thing about them (which is still true to this day), but the fact remains that by the end of the 90s, Streep was like a piece of ageing, comfortable furniture in Hollywood, no longer generating any interest or curiosity.


All that changed in 2002, however, when Streep pulled off a whopper of a comeback with two wildly different movies: Spike Jones’ bizarre Adaptation, and the weighty literary drama The Hours, opposite Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore. She showed her villainous side in The Manchurian Candidate, and played three roles to multi-award winning effect in the mini-series Angels in America.

In 2006, Streep scored the biggest hit of her career up to that point, playing the monstrous fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada, a spiky office comedy that grossed a massive $300 million worldwide. She followed that up – and trumped those box office takings – with the love-it-or-hate-it jukebox musical Mamma Mia, which has to date grossed close to $1bn worldwide.

Suddenly, Streep was not only back at the top of her game – she was bankable, and is now the only actress over the age of 50 whom movie studios will trust to deliver a box office hit (the trio of duds Evening, Rendition, and Lions for Lambs notwithstanding).

For the past few years, studios have focused on delivering a ‘Meryl Streep movie’ for key release seasons: hence, we’ve gotten Doubt, Julie & Julia, and It’s Complicated. The Iron Lady, to be released in January 2012, has been building a buzz for months now, with carefully leaked teaser pictures of Streep in full Thatcher guise, and yesterday’s issue of a minute-long trailer that skews on just the right side of high-camp, revealing Streep’s take on the former British prime minister’s cut-glass English accent.

Already pundits are predicting that this will be the movie to bring Streep her third acting Oscar. Incredibly, despite amassing a record 16 nominations, the actress hasn’t actually won an Academy Award since Sophie’s Choice almost 30 years ago.


She’s come close since in the last few attempts, winning the influential Screen Actors Guild prize in 2008 for Doubt, before falling at the last hurdle to Kate Winslet for The Reader. Last year many wags thought she’d romp home with the gong for her Hyancith Bucket-on-acid turn in Julie & Julia, but she just couldn’t compete with the popular and commercial appeal of Hollywood’s favourite girl-next-door Sandra Bullock and her groan-inducing cheesefest The Blind Side.

The Iron Lady should be a big hit on both side of the Atlantic; plain curiosity in Ireland and the UK will drive audiences into cinemas for a peek, while elsewhere, including the US, Thatcher remains a giant of western political culture (why else would Sarah Palin be so desperate for a grip-and-grin photo-op with the now-frail ex-PM?).

The competition for next year’s Oscar looks set to be intense: Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, the overdue Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), and Michelle Williams and Naomi Watts in separate Marilyn Monroe biopics are all expected to be contenders. But, at this point, very few doubt Streep’s chances of transforming Iron into gold.

Words – Declan Cashin