Living Legend: Meryl Streep

Haven’t we all felt we actually know some actors—so personal are their performances, so warm and real are their interviews…? I have always felt that way about Meryl Streep. She seems like the kind of compassionate, bright, honest gal that I’d like to hunker down with. And how can we not want to cozy up with someone who, in her terry cloth robe, makes her own martini and downs it, during the virtual birthday celebration for Steven Sondheim and the 50th anniversary of Company, with fellow thespians Audra McDonald and Christine Baranski (who only sipped their props), but of course I’m not alone. I did meet her once at an event for Goldie Hawn’s Mind Up (her organization to promote meditation in schools and beyond). Meryl was warm and gracious and generously posed for pictures with my daughter and me, and of course was there to support her friend Goldie and her charity. I learned, in researching this piece, that Meryl’s core is about generosity and compassion—whether inhabiting her characters with sensitivity and heart, or in her activism, supporting a myriad of important organizations and initiatives.

Meryl Streep in 1975. (Courtesy of Duane Michals, Courtesy Thames & Hudson)

Of course, her best-known moniker is that of the best actress of her generation (and I’d say, beyond). She has been nominated for 21 Academy Awards, won three, was nominated for 32 Golden globes with eight wins, and has also been nominated for BAFTAs, Tonys, Emmys, and Grammys, making her the most nominated and awarded actor in history—though I have to believe the work has been her true reward. She famously left her (third) Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, in the lady’s room.

Mary Louise Streep was born in Summit, New Jersey, to her artist mother, Mary Wilkinson Streep, and her pharma exec father, Harry William Streep. There, with her younger brothers, David and Harry III, she lived a sunny, suburban life, cheerleading at Bernards high School, serving as Homecoming Queen, and studying opera, which didn’t feel right. “I was singing something I didn’t understand—that was an important lesson, to find the thing I could feel truly.”

At Vassar, she found her true calling in acting, though after appearing in 12 productions in one year, and developing an ulcer, she thought about switching to law. Fortunately, she slept through her law school interview, and stayed the course, while also working as a typist and waitress.

Meryl went on the receive her MFA at Yale School of Drama, and soon after, appeared in Joseph Papp’s Trelawny of the Wells at The Public Theater, alongside John Lithgow and Mandy Patinkin—clearly Papp was a visionary. 

Alan Alda and Meryl Streep in 1979 (Getty Images)

Robert DeNiro saw Meryl in a production of The Cherry Orchard and cast her in The Deer Hunter. She had recently moved in with boyfriend, John Cazale (perhaps best known as Fredo, from The Godfather), who had just been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He was also cast in the film, and Meryl accepted, to be close to him. Sadly, he didn’t live to see his performance. When Meryl’s brother arrived at their SoHo apartment to help move her, he brought along a friend, Don Gummer. They soon became a couple and married in 1978.

Their son Henry, now a musician, was born in 1979. In 1983 Mary Willa (Mamie), an actress who made them grandparents last year, was born, followed by Grace Jane—also an actress—in 1986. And in 1991, Louisa Jacobson, now a model, was born. 

Meryl Streep and Queen Elizabeth II in London, 1980 (Graham Turner/Getty Images)

Meryl has always dug deep into her own life, love, and pain to inform her roles. She famously rewrote Jane Kramer’s words in Kramer vs. Kramer to create a more realistic mother, and was also famously (or perhaps infamously) goaded by Dustin Hoffman about her late beau, John Cazale, to achieve a more emotional performance. And during perhaps her most heart-wrenching role as Sophie, a mother who had to choose which of her children would live, she was pregnant.

Her body of work is incomparable, and a separate tome would be needed to do it all justice. And critics differ over which was her best performance. Was it Karen Blixen, “I had a farm in Africa” in Out of Africa? As a steely (no pun intended) Margaret Thatcher, in Iron Lady? The melting matriarch in Bridges of Madison County? A depleted Great depression victim in Ironweed? The independent outcast in The French Lieutenant’s Woman? Her restrained-till-it-wasn’t nun in Doubt? Julia Childs  in Julia and Julia (for which she gained a not easy to lose again, 15 pounds)? The Dingo-damned mother in Cry in the Dark? Or the imperious editor in The Devil Wears Prada (my kids are embarrassingly familiar with my rendition of the last scene where she lowers her glasses, smiles at the retreating Anne Hathaway, then snaps “Go” at the driver)? And aren’t we glad she’s joined the cast of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” as the “embodiment of the passive-aggressive granny.”

Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice (Getty Images)

Her work is best seen, though, not written about. What people may know less about, however, is her philanthropy. She has been honored publicly, many times over, almost always uses her acceptance speech to bring further attention to a need or wrong she has identified, or to be flat out hysterical. When she received her Golden Globes Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, she told us: “Thank you Hollywood Foreign Press. You and I belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it. Hollywood, foreigners, and the press. But who are we? And you know, what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and created in the public-school systems in New Jersey. Viola Davis was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina; Sarah Paulson was raised by a single mom in Brooklyn; Amy Adams was born in Italy; Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem; and Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, was born in Canada. Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. If you kick ‘em out, we’re left with nothing but nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not arts.” 

And later: “We need the press to hold power to account. That’s why our founders enshrined the press and it’s freedoms in our Constitution.”

When she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in Julia and Julia, it was days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Meryl accepted by saying, “I am honestly conflicted about how to have my happy movie self in the face of everything I’m aware of in the real world. I want to say that that’s when I have my mother’s voice coming to me saying, ‘Partners in Health. Shoot some money to Partners in Health. Put the dress on. Put on a smile and be damned grateful that you have the money to help, and the next day, and the next day.’ I am really grateful.”

Meryl Streep won her first Oscar on her second try for 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. (Associated Press / AP Photo)

In 2014, Streep received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Aside from her ability to “inhabit her characters so fully and compassionately,” President Obama also admitted: “I love Meryl Streep. Her husband knows I love her. Michelle knows I love her. There’s nothing they can do about it.”

Her mother’s influence has guided her, and she has supported a wide range of charities. Through her family foundation, The Silver Mountain Foundation for the Arts, she and her husband have donated millions of dollars and advocacy work to Oxfam, City Meals on Wheels, Coalition for the Homeless, The Actors Fund of America, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, The American Foundation for Aids Research, Segue Institute for Learning, Upward Bound, Indiana University Foundation, Brooklyn Poly Prep, Scenic Hudson, Children’s Health Coalition, Yale University School of Art, Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, the Arthur Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, The Public Theater (in honor of her friend Nora Ephron), and her mother’s beloved Partners in Health…among others!

Meryl donated her $1 million-dollar fee, appropriately, from The Iron Lady to The Women’s National History Museum, where she also serves as spokesperson.

She created two scholarships at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, the MS Endowed scholarship for English Major and the Joan Hertzberg Endowed Scholarship for Math Majors in honor of her Vassar classmate.

Alerted by the National Resource Defense Fund, to the dangers of pesticides in food, Meryl founded Mothers and Others, and seven years later, in 1996, helped get the Food Quality Protection Act passed.

In 2015 she founded The Writers Lab, a screenwriter’s lab for women over 40—not surprisingly, unique, run by New York women in film and IRIS, a collective of women in film.

Meryl Streep spoke at Barnard College in 2010.

Also, in 2015, she wrote an open letter to Angela Merkel Nkosazana Diamani, the co-heads of the G7 and AU in South Africa, urging them, to support the One Campaign for women at the U.N. summit. She also had time to send a letter to every member of Congress imploring them to support the Equal Rights Amendment wih a copy of the book, Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for ERA is Now by Jessica Newirth, President of the ERA Coalition.

And importantly, she also co-narrated the film Girl Rising for the U.N. Foundations Girl Up program, the U.N.’s largest, most influential, global organization, focused on girl’s empowerment.

Did I forget to mention that all that while, she was working, bringing us a range of complicated, fascinating funny women—from Katherine Graham (The Post), Mary Poppins, Mamma Mia H (again), Little Women’s’ Aunt March, and the audio comedy, Heads Will Roll.

Perhaps what will illuminate Meryl Streep’s remarkable soul, purpose, and extraordinary productivity is what she has done in the four weeks preceding this writing: Meryl recounted historic speeches for the virtual summit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19thAmendment for The 19th, a national not-for-profit newsroom focused on the unfinished business of the 19th Amendment, giving (white) women, the right to vote.

Meryl also recorded a talking statue monologue for Monumental Women, an all -volunteer, non-profit organization bringing the first statue depicting real women, to Central Park.

She was nominated for an Emmy for “Big Little Lies”.

HBO picked up her new show, steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk.

She restarted production on Ryan Murphy’s The Prom, co-starring her “Lies”  co-stars, Nicole Kidman and Kerry Washington.

The German TV channel, ARTE, aired a new documentary about Meryl, entitled: 

Die unverstelte Göttin, or, The Genuine Goddess.

I couldn’t have said it better. 

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.