“Is there anything she can’t do?” This is a common reaction to Meryl Streep, who will next be seen in Stephen Frears’ lovely Florence Foster Jenkins. It’s an accurate-enough but broad way of responding to one of Streep’s abilities to embody a variety of character types, empathetic or despicable, strong-willed or weak, funny or deathly serious. Even when her face is not on screen, such as in Wes Anderson’s sublime Fantastic Mr. Fox, not only the distinct timbre of her voice but her presence is felt, shining through the character, and that, more specifically, is what remains the most potent element of Streep’s skill set: to imbue each character with as much of her own persona, her inimitable physical gesticulations, motions, and tics, as the characteristics written into the DNA of the role by the scripter.
It’s apropos, then, that in The Devil Wears Prada, one of the great unexpected delights of 2006, Stanley Tucci’s character at one point breaks down Streep’s Miranda Priestly, a veiled take on Anna Wintour, in terms of her facial reactions to fashion lines. In that movie, directed by David Frankel, the actress’ studied variations of delivery and physicality proved even more crucial than ever in revealing Priestly’s brazenly cruel and condescending persona as a constructed apparatus to protect herself from intimacy; an understandable tactic, considering her barbed relationship with her husband, which is explained in a quick but key scene. Unlike reports of Wintour’s volcanic behavior, Streep’s Priestly is all sharp, measured critiques and dismissals, like those exquisite utterances of “that’s all” that seem to hang in the air like poisonous perfume.
The best moment of The Devil Wears Prada remains her near-surgical dismantling of Anne Hathaway’s character when she scoffs at her employer weighing the differences between two seemingly similar belts, which stresses a specified knowledge and taste in the arts. She similarly finds the wild pulse of creative inspiration and particular yet expansive intelligence in Julie & Julia, wherein she plays the great Julia Child, spanning the time period between when Child began learning to cook and the publishing of her iconic “Mastering The Art of French Cooking.” Streep is, in fact, at her best when playing a character embroiled in learning, honing, or recalibrating their chosen art form, offering a reflexivity to her own craft. In Julie & Julia especially, she radiates a joy in every barking laugh, excited whoop, and gasp of anger or exhaustion that Child was famed for, while also showing an unperceivable control over the wild chopping, flailing, and ambulating of the character.
Effervescence is Streep’s most graceful and satisfying utility; even if Priestly isn’t, her performance barely conceals her giddy delight in bringing out the salient details of her character’s oversized ego. It’s similarly apparent in her role as the devilish, manipulative mother in Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate, but even more so in The Iron Lady, a compromised take on the rise of Margaret Thatcher, England’s answer to Ronald Reagan. Where others might have tried to tailor their performances to expert mimicry, Streep’s Thatcher feels more in the moment, active and visceral in her discussions about the societal turmoil of 1980s England, while the filmmaking felt staunchly tied to the not-so-great script. Even underneath the wig and make-up, Streep’s portrayal of a woman demanding respect in a classically masculine career seethed with anger that transcended the overworked period details in the dialogue and aesthetic.
Still, Streep’s most memorable and endearing performance was one that required no historic consideration of a public character but rather contemplation of existence itself. As the empathetic, heroic, and kind Julia in Defending Your Life, she proved to be an ideal foil and romantic sparring partner for Albert Brooks’ cynical Daniel Miller, a coward who must explain the meaning and substance of his life to get into heaven. The film is now (rightly) considered a comedy classic, a riff on the Pressburger/Powell masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death, and at the center of Brooks’s dizzyingly inventive afterlife is a duel of perspectives: Brooks’s pickled and fearful executive versus Streep’s lover of life. In her best roles, Streep has similarly been the exuberant guide through a director’s world, beaming with a heartening and sincere hunger for experience and interactions, even when her characters seems to be frightened or tarnished by such ventures. This rousing attitude is so effortlessly endearing that it nearly made It’s Complicated palatable, but more importantly, it’s given all her characters the verve of a vibrant, complicated interior life, which is often enough the only palpable sign of life in modern major-studio filmmaking.