Meryl Streep Honored With Monte Cristo Award: 'Our Best Work Is Ahead of Us'

Meryl Streep
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Judith Light, Joe Grifasi, Tracy Letts, Tony Kushner and John Patrick Shanley shared anecdotes about the actress as she received the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's honor on Monday in NYC.

Meryl Streep was honored with the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Monte Cristo Award on Monday evening, and the gala served as a homecoming for the accomplished actress.

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“I’m glad to see some old friends and celebrate this wonderful theater -- it’s a home for new playwrights, writers, musicians, it’s a rare sort of conservatory for new talent and ideas,” she told reporters at the Edison Ballroom in New York City of the organization where she first worked as an actress after graduating from the Yale School of Drama.

What lesson from the intensive does she still carry with her to every role? “Don’t overthink,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “There was no time! We did five plays in six weeks, so that’s a week and a day for each play! It was very quick fire, you couldn’t labor anything.”

As plates of filet mignon and halibut swept the room, Streep spent the evening traveling from table to table, greeting guests and posing for photos. The program began with speeches and scene reenactments from Streep’s early stage productions: Dead and Never Call Me Mother in 1975 and Uncommon Women and Others in 1977. The evening also featured Frozen composers Robert Lopez and Kristen-Anderson Lopez, who performed an adaptation of their Disney song “Love Is an Open Door” to map Streep’s extensive career.

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Judith Light shared sentiments on behalf of the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, the past Monte Cristo Award honoree who featured Streep in Uncommon Women and Others: “I wish that Wendy were here with us tonight…she would be here, because she loved Meryl so much. Meryl, whom she regarded in the deepest respect and loved; Meryl, who is a very uncommon woman.”

The evening also included tribute clips from playwrights of many stage projects Streep helped bring to the big screen. Angels in America’s Tony Kushner recalled that he eventually finished writing a new translation of Mother Courage and Her Children, and on closing night, “after I fumbled my way through my attempt to describe how magnificent she’d been in the role of Mother Courage, she said, ‘Thanks, this was a wonderful series for me, I’m so glad.’ We hugged, and then she added, ‘And just think how much greater it could’ve been if you had delivered the script on time!’ ” He also admitted that the line “There are four points on a compass, and I’ve been pricked in every direction” was a result of Streep's improvisation.

Doubt’s John Patrick Shanley joked that during the production’s downtime, Streep would often sit outside her trailer in her nun costume and knit, and Amy Adams soon followed suit, in all black as well. “I began to have intonations that I was going to die!” he joked of the ominous visual. He said the role of a nun was perfect for Streep because “she is a nun -- she lives a life of service,” and praised her quiet professionalism: “It’s just nice to see somebody behaving so well for so long.”

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August: Osage County’s Tracy Letts, taking a night off from his onstage role in The Realistic Joneses, shared an infuriating moment during a post-screening Q&A at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, when the moderator mentioned that Streep showed up to the first table read off-book, which producer George Clooney and director John Wells confirmed but Letts angrily refuted.

“I’m very mistrustful of an actor who shows up knowing all of their lines, because that actor is not trusting the process," said Letts, explaining that memorization is the easiest part of the job. "She was learning her lines organically, the way we’re supposed to. The reason I got mad is because sometimes, I feel when they’re discussing Meryl they imbue her with mystical qualities: She’s a magician, a witch, god-given. She is a good actress because she works really, really hard. She didn’t work really hard at the O’Neill and then stop just because she became a movie star.” While actresses are always saying that Streep is their role model, Letts added, “That’s not gender-specific -- she’s my acting hero too.”

Deer Hunter co-star Joe Grifasi introduced Streep by sharing memories of their time at O’Neill together after graduating from the “Yale School of Trauma” to then be subjected to her fierce driving into NYC. One day they watched Jaws and visited the beach afterward, where she confessed that she wanted to meet her husband and have four children. “She wasn’t just another pair of fetching cheekbones with a goofy last name," he said. "No one expects a pretty girl to be that funny or insane.”

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Streep took the stage in high spirits to receive the 14th annual award. “I feel like I’m at the funeral, so I’m really happy! You usually don’t get to be there,” she said. While her speech included lighthearted jabs at her alma maters Yale and Vassar, she praised her Yale professors in attendance, Alvin EpsteinBetsy Parrish and Carmen De Lavallade, and praised the playwrights who shared anecdotes throughout the evening.

“I just think being an artist is the opportunity to learn all your life, just to soak everything up," said Streep. "Everybody here tonight, I’m gonna use this stuff in the future! You steal from everybody. Mostly, you steal from the writers, the people who give us whole worlds. They give us their interior world and their imagined one that we already know something about. That’s why the communication is even possible. That happened to your grandmother, Tracy, but somewhere it happened to us. We understand the pain. It’s a fabulous thing, and I’m in awe of these writers.”

Streep joked that she, like the O’Neill, “doesn’t like to think of themselves as a larded old institution” and hopes that, like the O’Neill, “our best work is ahead of us.” She closed her speech by thanking her husband, Don Gummer, “for those four children that I dreamed of on the beach that day. He came along, thank god!”

The evening also drew Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uncommon Women and Others director Steve Robman, Marcel RosenblattOrfeh, Alice Ripley, Susan Blackwell, and Rocky’s Andy Karl and Margot Seibert, among others.

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The Monte Cristo Award honors theater artists who exemplify the playwright Eugene O’Neill’s pioneering spirit, unceasing artistic commitment to excellence and accomplishment. Past recipients include Douglas, Wasserstein, Christopher Plummer, Hal Prince, Kevin Spacey, Brian Dennehy and James Earl Jones.

Before the event began, Streep's longtime friends and onscreen collaborators praised her on the red carpet. Her fellow Into the Woods cast member Billy Magnussen first unexpectedly met her after one of his Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike performances at Lincoln Center last season. “This woman comes into my dressing room to just say ‘Hey,’ and she just couldn’t be more kind and generous and nice to me. It’s unbelievable -- she has such a glow to her,” he said. His favorite of Streep’s roles? “Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, I even loved It’s Complicated!”

Founder and former Oxygen Network CEO Gerry Laybourne, who has known Streep since she was 18, praised her role in Hope Springs most. “I was talking to her about it, and the reason she did it was it could really help older couples that have gotten distant and cold,” Laybourne said on the red carpet. She noted that Streep’s admirers might be surprised to learn this of the poised actress: “Her Prius is old and messy, like a kid's car! That was shocking to me. She drives herself, and her car is not that neat.”

Read Streep’s full speech on the next page.

Twitter: @cashleelee

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