Meryl Streep: Bankable franchise

Actress has emerged as a summer boxoffice sensation

A partial list of this summer's best boxoffice bets: Optimus Prime, Manny the Woolly Mammoth and Meryl Streep.

It's understandable if that prompts the reading equivalent of a double-take, but despite turning 60 in June, the actress most synonymous with Oscar quietly has become one of the most reliable warm-weather draws at the multiplex. Streep drummed up nearly $1 billion in worldwide revenue from her previous two summer outings: Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada" in 2006 and Universal's "Mamma Mia!" in 2008.

She puts that streak on the line next weekend when Columbia's "Julie & Julia" opens opposite Paramount's testosterone fest "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra."

The female-and-food pic, tracking to open in the $20 million range domestically with older females driving interest, could solidify her status as the industry's only character actress who, in the right vehicle, can carry a midbudget movie to blockbuster status.

With movie-star reliability continuing to buckle and such younger male actors as Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell and Jack Black recently receiving the back of the hand from audiences, Streep's success in nontraditional summer fare is delicious indeed. It was enough that Forbes recently listed her among the industry's top female moneymakers. By the magazine's estimation, Streep placed behind only Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston in 2008 with income of $24 million.

"Isn't that magnificent?" Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman Amy Pascal says. "It's just awesome. It makes us all really happy."

Sony, which has fielded some notable underperformers this summer, is banking on an actress who has been nominated for 15 acting Oscars -- 12 lead and three supporting. On average, that's one every other year from 1979 ("The Deer Hunter") to 2009 ("Doubt"). She won statuettes for supporting in "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1980) and for leading in "Sophie's Choice" (1983).

But critical kudos often mean bupkis at the boxoffice. Such talented actresses as Kate Winslet and Hilary Swank -- both of whom are building impressive, award-winning bodies of work -- have, with one titanic exception, managed only modest returns at theaters. Although there are a handful of younger actresses who can get a prestige project off the ground, none approaches Streep's ability to trigger a green light for a nongenre, mainstream Hollywood movie.

Some forget that big boxoffice is not new to Streep. "The Bridges of Madison County" grossed $176 million worldwide in 1995; "Death Becomes Her," $149 million in 1992; "Out of Africa," $240 million in 1985; and "Kramer," $106 million in 1979. Without much fanfare and with an old-school lack of celebrity-tabloid gamesmanship, she has been drawing wide audiences to theaters for decades, often in (gasp!) challenging dramas.

"There's never quite been a career like this," says "Julia" director Nora Ephron, who remembers "Silkwood" director Mike Nichols predicting Streep's success in 1983. "It's hard to think of any woman who not only kept working after a certain age but didn't have to do character roles. This thing of hers, where she is as hot as Will Smith, it's hilarious, and it is such amazing news for those of us who write movies that she's perfect for."

Streep's longtime colleagues have their theories as to why she's capable of commanding interest on such a wide scale. "She plays people who we identify with or wish we could identify with," Pascal says. "And she's completely authentic."

Ephron explains it this way: "For a great many people, there is such pleasure in watching her hit another one out of the ballpark. That's the expression that the focus groups will say. They start talking about her as if she's a ballplayer who's hit (for) the cycle or something."

"Prada," in which Streep played a no-nonsense fashion-magazine diva, was released June 30, 2006, and grossed an unexpected $324 million worldwide. By contrast, "The Break-Up," an anti-romantic comedy released a few weeks earlier with Aniston in the lead, grossed $205 million.

When Streep sang, danced and flirted in the 2008 musical adaptation "Mamma Mia!," the film grossed $603 million globally, the fifth-highest-grossing release last year -- ahead of James Bond, "Iron Man" and "Sex and the City."

Streep certainly isn't above a bomb; such pics as "Dark Matter," "Evening," "Rendition" and "Lions for Lambs" have failed to resonate. But she remains in that increasingly rare position in Hollywood: She gets a movie greenlighted based solely on her interest.

"I'm sitting here knowing that I got a picture made because she wanted to do it," Ephron says. "How lucky is that for all of us who like to make movies about women?"

Streep's paychecks might not reach the eight-digit figures of Jolie or Reese Witherspoon -- she was paid about $5 million for "Julia" -- but she pulls first-dollar gross backend on movies including "Prada," "Mamma Mia!" and "Julia" (for which she traded some of her upfront quote).

Remarkably, Streep's star is still rising, with a major assist from a shrewd CAA team led by Kevin Huvane, her rep since 1991. She recently finished filming an untitled romantic comedy for writer-director Nancy Meyers that Universal will release Christmas Day. In the film, as in "Mamma Mia!," she plays a woman torn among the affections of several male contemporaries, this time played by Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. It's as if the industry still sees her as an ingenue.

For this role, her recent successes have pushed her paycheck to $7 million-$8 million.

Streep has achieved all of this and somehow maintained a home life with four kids. That her youngest is off at college might free her to do even more work and perhaps even produce, which she never has pursued.

Streep is a walking rebuttal to the persistent ageism that sidelines so many actresses. As such female stars as Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Naomi Watts and Sandra Bullock wade into their 40s -- which conventional wisdom holds is a wasteland for "aging" actresses -- surely there is promise in Streep's longevity.

Pascal is optimistic about what Streep's success means for others, saying, "I think it eradicates every argument."