Icon: Meryl Streep


SLIDESHOW: Meryl Streep's films and colleague reflections

A curious thing happened in the middle of shooting Wes Craven's 1999 drama "Music of the Heart": Meryl Streep started to dance.

The dance was part of an elaborate hoax, as Craven tells it. "We were at lunch and somebody came in and said, 'We're ready for Dan's numbers,' meaning the budget," he recalls. Somehow, director of photography Peter Deming misheard "dance number."

It was too good for Streep to resist. "She said, 'Let's do a whole thing!' She threw it together in a matter of hours. Her hairdresser brought in a choreographer who, in a very flamboyant way, leaped and did pirouettes and jumped in a shower stall and ended by doing a cancan kick off a staircase, then fell backwards over the couch. Meryl said, 'I'll try it!' And then she did the whole thing perfectly -- jumping up, doing the cancan kick and falling backwards over the couch!"

Deming looked at her as if she'd gone mad. Only later did he learn the whole routine was a joke.

Practical jokes, hoaxes and gags are not the sort of thing one might associate with Streep, the grande dame of the silver screen, the woman so often referred to as the "greatest actress of our time," who has embraced such serious works as 1979's "Kramer vs. Kramer," 1982's "Sophie's Choice," 1985's "Out of Africa" and 2002's "The Hours."

But scratch the surface and a different Streep emerges: a far warmer and more down-to-earth person than the sometimes-cool movie icon.

She is "kind, principled, gracious, smart, funny and warm -- pretty much annoyingly wonderful," says Tom Rothman, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment and a longtime friend of Streep.

"She's vivacious, charming, sexy and smart, inclusive and downright funny," says another of her directors, Stephen Daldry ("The Hours"). "The best laughs always come from Meryl."

That's apparent from even a glance at Streep's less-rehearsed moments, like the speech she gave when receiving the American Film Institute's lifetime achievement award in 2004 -- a harbinger, perhaps, of the speech she'll give tonight when she is honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center at its annual gala.

Arriving onstage after the usual roasting and toasting, Streep flutters with mock-fatigue, then quips: "I'm exhausted. Imagine how you must feel!"

Her lines are delivered with perfect timing, in an exquisite deadpan. They hint at a woman with real reserves of humor and comedy, as well as the darker emotions she has tapped in some of the roles that earned her an actor's record of 14 Oscar nominations, including two wins.

And what roles! From her motion picture debut in 1977's "Julia" to her Emmy Award-winning television performance as a Catholic woman who marries into a Jewish family in 1978's "Holocaust," and on through her roles as a Holocaust survivor in "Sophie's Choice," a nuclear worker in 1983's "Silkwood," as novelist Isak Dinesen in "Out of Africa," as a modern-day publisher in "The Hours" and as a host of characters in HBO's 2003 miniseries "Angels in America," Streep has managed acts of self-transformation unrivaled by any performer of her era.

But those transformations have also made it maddeningly difficult for outsiders to pinpoint the real Streep. Indeed, what is so surprising about her, in a career that has spanned three decades of film and television, is how little she has revealed of herself, how greatly she has managed to keep her innermost being hidden from public view. Has any other major star since Greta Garbo been more private?

A few basic facts are known. Born Mary Louise Streep -- not Meryl -- in 1949, she grew up in New Jersey. The daughter of a pharmaceutical executive and a commercial artist, she started acting while in high school, eventually studying at Vassar College and the Yale School of Drama.

Even at Yale -- where her classmates included actress Sigourney Weaver and playwright Wendy Wasserstein -- she distinguished herself, and soon found work with Joseph Papp, the great theater director who helped her earn a Tony Award nomination in 1976 for "27 Wagons Full of Cotton."

After "Holocaust," Streep took roles in three movies that sealed her emerging identity as one of the most gifted actresses in America.

The first was a best picture Oscar winner and one of the few movies at the time to
tackle the Vietnam War, 1978's "The Deer Hunter," in which she played Christopher Walken's girlfriend, co-starring with her then-fiance, John Cazale. (Cazale passed away that same year from cancer.) The second was 1979's "Manhattan," the Woody Allen production that stands out as one of Streep's few successful comedies, where she played his embittered ex-wife. And the third was "Kramer vs. Kramer," which scooped four of the top five Oscars and won her a statuette of her own.

In all three Streep was tackling relatively contemporary, familiar people -- people we knew and could easily identify with, whether we liked them or not. But soon after, she embarked on a series of roles that were rather different, often marked by accents that made her characters seem more removed from our daily lives.

They included her role as Karen Traynor, the wily Southern lawyer in Alan Alda's "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" (1979); her dual roles as Sarah and Anna in the 1981 Victorian romance "The French Lieutenant's Woman"; and as Lindy Chamberlain, the Australian woman vilified for murdering her child when in fact the baby had been killed by a wild
dingo, in 1988's "A Cry in the Dark."

But more than these, two roles stamped her image on most audiences' minds.
In "Sophie's Choice," she returned to the Holocaust with her role as a woman whose life after World War II is haunted by her memories.

And in "Out of Africa," she played Karen Blixen (better known by her nom de plume as Danish novelist Isak Dinesen), the woman who recounts her love for Africa and big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford).

Streep drew rave reviews for her ability to capture these two women -- so far apart in time and place, so united by passions that haunt them. And yet one of the great talents Streep brought to bear in playing those roles -- her ability to slip seamlessly into a foreign accent -- may have made it even more challenging to define the real Streep.

More troubling, perhaps, for the actress, the roles added to another perception of her: that she was not the down-to-earth, humorous woman Craven recalls, but a somewhat distant, more chilly presence.

Perhaps Streep sensed this, because in the early 1990s she made two noticeable shifts. First, she left her longtime home on the East Coast for Los Angeles, where she and her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, found a house in Brentwood (they would eventually move back to Connecticut). At the same time, she began to take roles in several more obviously "commercial" movies that many critics deemed beneath her, such as the much-derided 1989 Roseanne Barr starrer "She-Devil," 1990's "Postcards From the Edge," 1991's "Defending Your Life" and 1992's "Death Becomes Her."

This may have been caused, in part, by the fact that good roles for women over 40 in Hollywood are few and far between. But the result was a fallow period where Streep's work didn't seem equal to her talent and where poor comedies blended with not-so-well-received dramas.

There were hits, of course, like the 1994 actioner "The River Wild" and the 1995 Clint Eastwood-directed "The Bridges of Madison County." But the enormous talent Streep had demonstrated in that brilliant outpouring from the late '70s through the mid-'80s seemed larger than the parts she was able to find now.

At one point her frustration may have bubbled over, according to reports at the time. When Mike Nichols, who had directed her in several movies, opted not to cast her in 1993's "The Remains of the Day," a film he planned to direct -- but which was ultimately directed by James Ivory and produced by Nichols -- Streep responded by leaving her longtime agent, Sam Cohn, and shifting to CAA. Later she told the New York Times, "I left because of something Mike did that I felt Sam should have protected me from. ... Mike knows what he did, but unfortunately Sam wore the scar."

Streep, who declined to be interviewed for this article, also expressed frustration at the lack of meaty roles for older women, a stark contrast to the roles that had previously
fallen her way.

And then she rebounded. After a two-year absence from the screen following "Music of the Heart," she had back-to-back triumphs as the depressed modern-day publisher Clarissa Vaughan in "The Hours" and as a fictionalized version of author Susan Orlean in 2002's "Adaptation."

Since then Streep has been on a roll, even finding the comedic success that for so many years eluded her with 2006's "The Devil Wears Prada," which also earned her her latest Oscar nomination.

"Who else would have chosen to play the Queen of Mean character in 'Prada' without ever once raising her voice above a whisper?" Rothman ponders. "Meryl told me, when I asked how she came to that, she realized that often the quietest person in the room controlled it. You see, on top of talent, she is also a brilliant mind and an exhaustive student of the human condition."

Curiously, the coldest of parts allowed audiences to see the other side of Streep that those close to her know so well -- the humorous woman who's able to see the funny side of such an icy character. But the more private Streep remains as hidden as ever.

Where she will go next is anybody's guess. Two films that might have surprised fans of the earlier, more somber Streep are in the works: Sony's "Julie & Julia," in which she plays cooking maestro Julia Child, a woman famous for her eccentric charm; and "Mamma Mia!" the musical in which Streep gets to sing, unveiling a well-trained voice she longed to use in the 1996 movie version of "Evita," and may well have done had Madonna not gotten the role.
As she approaches her 60th birthday, there is still hope that Streep will continue to
surprise us.

"She is the Tiger Woods of actresses," says Rothman, "a virtuoso talent that somehow exists on a higher plane than even the very best."