By Cecilia Ford, Ph.D.

Few would argue that Meryl Streep is the best actress of our generation. If awards are a measure of anything, she can claim  a record 15 Oscar nominations (two wins);  an astonishing record of 25 Golden Globe nominations (six awards); and has won prizes from every other imaginable group and organization relating to film, drama, theatre, and television.

What does this remarkable woman and her roles reflect about her time and her peers? I believe that it is her special talent to be able to play a breath-taking range of women (and at least one man), and yet it is a reflection of our time that these roles are even made available to a leading lady. In the “old days”, there were “character actresses” available to play to the parts with, well, character. The attractive women were relegated to playing the romantic lead, who was a remarkably similar person from picture to picture. Of course there were exceptions, like Rosalind Russell in “The Front Page”, but of course that role was originally written for a man. Some unforgettable leading charaters like Scarlett O’Hara were derived from vivid novels.

Streep, on the other hand, is a leading “lady” who, even when her role is as a woman from another era, such as Sophie in Sophie’s Choice or Karen Blixen in Out Of Africa, makes an indelible portrait of a fully realized, three dimensional, unforgettable character.  (This is true even when she is involved in a romance opposite a trite and wooden performance, as with  Robert Redford in Out of Africa.) Every one of her modern characters, meanwhile, is as original and diverse as people on a New York sidewalk.

This year alone, she appeared in Mamma Mia! as a free-thinking ex-hippie and pop singer and a rigid, narrow-minded, severe Mother Superior in Doubt. There is definitely no such thing as a “Meryl Streep” role as there was in the days of stars like Katharine Hepburn.

Likewise, women today are free to be whomever and whatever they like. Unlike the fifties housewife played by Julianne Moore in The Hours (a film with another great performance by Streep), we are not limited to only one and two options. Having the freedom to choose any path and not to mention the chance to reinvent ourselves at will at different times of our lives has been a great blessing for actresses included. Poor Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Gloria Swanson were forced to played madwomen or at best, demented ex-movie stars as they got older, but Streep gives up the sense that, like the rest of her generation, she’s done it all: marriage, children, career, and watch out: she’s just now reaching her peak years and has lots of great roles ahead of her. Best of luck to Streep tonight, but whoever wins, she’s our star.

Meryl Streep Films to See if you missed them: A Far-from-Complete List

The Deer Hunter (1978)…..she’s a Vietnam vet’s blue-collar Pennsylvanian girlfriend
Manhattan (1978) A very small part in a very good movie…..she’s a sophisticated urban bi-sexual
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) Oscar….she’s a yuppie career woman who leaves her husband and son

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)….she’s a 19th century scientist’s mysterious mistress, AND the modern actress who plays her in a movie.
Sophie’s Choice (1982) Oscar ….she’s a traumatized Polish Holocaust victim living in Brooklyn after the War.
Silkwood (1983) great, underrated film….she’s a working class nuclear plant employee who protests poor safety standards and dies
Out of Africa (1985)….she’s a Danish aristocrat who owns and manages a coffee plantation in the 1920s.

Dancing at Lughnasa (1996)…. She’s a member of an impoverished family of sisters in rural Ireland
The Hours (2002)…she’s a Greenwich Village gay woman whose close friend is dying of AIDS.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) ….she’s the haughty, invincible editor of the world’s premier fashion magazine
Doubt (2008)….she’s a very strict, old fashioned principal of a parochial school for boys in the 1960’s

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