Excited over the release of Florence Foster Jenkins this weekend, here is a list of the Meryl Streep films I have seen so far. The “mighty Meryl” is indeed an actress like no other, with characters so disparate many of them seem to have nothing in common with another (from the tortured Holocaust victim in Sophie’s Choice to the giddy, simple-minded singer in A Prairie Home Companion). But this does not mean she is consistent. In addition to the work that legitimates her high status in the film industry, she has produced her share of lackluster performances. For each film represented on this list, I will give a grade for Meryl’s acting, not for the film as a whole.
The Deer Hunter (1978) C
Meryl inexplicably received her first Oscar nomination for this Vietnam film. She has an exceptionally small role, appearing only in the first few scenes before the main characters go to war. To give a grade to this performance is probably inappropriate since she doesn’t have room to show any talent or lack thereof through this performance. I give it the grade I do, only because of the ridiculous acclaim generally given to such a small, incidental performance.
Manhattan (1979) A-
Meryl first showed her ability for comedic greatness as Woody Allen’s first girlfriend seen in the course of the film. Her scenes with Woody continue the tradition he started two years earlier in Annie Hall. The conversations between these two, however, are even more intelligent, funnier, and began to establish Meryl’s potential for greatness in comedy.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) A+
The earliest movie to demonstrate a little of what we have come to know as the great talent that is Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer allowed her the opportunity to balance compassion with deep flaws. Her character Joanna makes decisions that immediately make her appear to be an unfit mother, what her ex-husband’s lawyer tries to prove. Because the movie never really offers an opinion regarding whether or not she should gain custody of her son, she walks a tightrope. She plays a character who believes she’s a fit mother but many of the people around her do not; she shows us both why other people believe she’s not and why she believes she is. She supports the purpose of the writers and the directors as she allows the audience to make up their own minds regarding the question at hand.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) A+
A very unique film, director Karel Reisz offers two stories in one: it is both an adaptation of the groundbreaking John Fowles novel with multiple endings and a story about a fictionalized attempt to create a film adaptation of the novel. Meryl plays plays two characters—both the Fowler character Sarah Woodruff and the actress playing Sarah. She is required to juggle these two roles in a way that allows the two to become enmeshed as one, showing the creative process actors often take to place themselves in their characters.
Sophie’s Choice (1982) A+
In her greatest performance to date, Meryl plays a Holocaust survivor attempting to write of her experiences. We see the titular “choice” she is forced to make in Auschwitz between the lives of her two children in flashback, revealed slowly. As an actress, Meryl beautifully shows two very different stages in the character’s life, both the events unspeakable trauma and a much later reflection on the trauma.
Silkwood (1983) B+
Meryl does an excellent job of showing physical and emotional strength as the real-life activist for fellow workers in a plutonium plant subject to workplace corruption that has caused contamination and cancer on many employees and the ultimate weakness caused from her own sickness. However, the movie’s meandering prevents her from being as great as she have been in this role.
Out of Africa (1985) B+
A beautiful looking epic with great romantic chemistry between Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, Meryl is solid as usual at this point in her career but is just not as risky a role as the previous ones mentioned. Both Streep and Redford, though the films lead, play second fiddle to the film’s gloriously shot cinematography and the supporting performance of Klaus Maria Brandaur.
Postcards from the Edge (1990) A
Like in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, here Meryl plays an actress. Her character is a fictionalized version of Carrie Fisher and deals with her relationship with her also-famous mother, her addiction, and her loveless affairs. Meryl’s transformation into another well-known actress is also a descent from fame, wealth, and the perception of success into addiction and despair.
Defending Your Life (1991) D
In Albert Brooks’ unfunny comedy about an afterlife courtroom, Meryl does exactly what the title suggests. Unfortunately, there is never a moment when her defense for why she should go to heaven is remotely enjoyable. This is mostly a fault of Brooks’ writing (which is usually wonderful, but not here). There is really nothing to say about Meryl’s acting except that she is as boring as the rest of the film.
Dancing at Lughnasa (1998) C
As a stern schoolteacher who lives with her sisters in 1930s Ireland, Meryl is given an opportunity to shine in two different worlds (one domineering and one being dominated). However, she never offers any conviction that anything is really at stake for her character in either aspect of her life.
One True Thing (1998) C-
While she is believable as a cancer patient, many actors have been. They have also played a character, which Meryl did not really do here. She showed how horrible cancer is, but she did nothing more than that.
Music of the Heart (1999) F
If real-life music teacher Roberta Guaspari were really as irritable, as mean, and as careless as Meryl portrays her, she could not have had any positive impact on her students as the film claims. Meryl acts more like a representative of the Gestapo than a caring yet stern teacher. She gives us no compelling reason to accept Roberta as a good teacher as the movie tries to communicate. In addition to some terrible acting on Meryl’s part, the overall film is very possibly the worst movie I have ever seen.
Adaptation (2002) A-
Meryl got back on track at the turn of the century with a performance detailing obsession. Playing an author who studies the obsessive actions of an orchid thief, she herself becomes obsessed with the thief and with the prospect of her book being adapted into a movie. Her descent from relative normalcy into absolute obsession is fascinating, dark, and awe-inspiring. The only problem (and it’s not really a problem at all but the justification for my grade of her performance) is how far she’s out-shined by the acting of Chris Cooper and Nicholas Cage.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004) F
While not nearly as bad of a movie as Music of the Heart, the worst performance I have seen Meryl give is in Jonathan Demme’s remake of the 1962 classic. Granted, she had a lot to live up to given Angela Lansbury’s terrifying performance in the original. Meryl, however, came off more like a successful politician than a villain. In the scene, where the story’s incestuous subplot is revealed, she makes her character appear more like a jealous lover than the abusive mother the character really is. Meryl’s acting confuses the story and prevents her fellow actors (especially Denzel Washington and Live Schreiver) from being their best (and they’re both very good in this film).
The Devil Wears Prada (2006) C-
Like in the previous film, her character here is supposed to be quite nefarious as the title suggests, but she plays her character more like a moody and spoiled teenager. Her attitudes against other people are just annoying; it’s difficult to see how any real harm can come from this character. Sure, she thinks she can ruin other peoples’ careers, but she never shows that she cares enough about her own career or is threatened enough by others to actually want to. She provides no motivation for her characters’ actions and does not add any depth to this thin-pointless story.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006) A+
Here Meryl gives her funniest performance to date, and also her most underrated. Singing with her sisters on a radio show (a fictionalized version of the real Garrison Keillor radio show that the movie is named after) and trying to reignite a relationship with the show’s host (known only as GK) that had been over for about forty years, every movement Meryl makes is delightful. She plays with her hair in ways that tell us what her character is thinking and feeling. Her perfect Minnesota accent, her constant delivery of stories that have no endings, and her singing are so perfectly time that if this were her only film, it would be a wonder she was never a regular cast member of SNL.
Doubt (2008) A+
A strict nun and teacher, Meryl’s character likes to show her rough exterior, making wild and dangerous accusations against others, even to the point of accusing her priest of sexually assaulting children that she taught. The story uses every appearance of this rough exterior to show us how she uses it to try to escape from her own doubt. Meryl shows the inner turmoil of her character marvelously in every second of this remarkable film written and directed by John Patrick Shanley.
Mama Mia (2008) F
After showing how wonderful her singing can be through scenes in Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge, and A Prairie Home Companion, she made her first musical in 2008. Both her singing and acting are better than Pierce Brosnin’s but that’s about all that can be said for her. Like her performance in The Devil Wears Prada, she makes her character nothing more than annoying.
Julie and Julia (2009) A+
Meryl never approached her role as Julia Child as mere imitation. She embodies the larger-than-life persona, so that Julia’s eccentricities are always seen as flowing out of the intricacies of her personality and her life experience, not just something to be laughed at. Nevertheless, Julia and Julia is a hilarious movie because of the deep compassion Meryl uses in bringing to life such a quirky and enjoyable person.
The Iron Lady (2011) B
Contrary to what she did in Julia and Julia, Meryl approached her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher as an imitation of exactly what we have come to expect from Margaret Thatcher. She does the imitation so well that I can’t fault her for it, but because of her lack of nuance, it puzzles me that she won her third Oscar for this film (Michelle Williams should have won for My Week with Marylin) when her nominated performances in both Doubt and Julia and Julia towered above her competitors (with Kate Winslet in The Reader and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side as the winners in the respective years).
Hope Springs (2012) A-
As a woman who feels completely alone in her marriage, Meryl gave one of her most heart-felt performance. She constantly brings the audience into her character’s deep urgency for her husband’s attention and intimacy. She approaches every one of her character’s desperate moves with caution and empathy. This is probably the most relatable character she has played.
August: Osage County (2013) A+
Following a character and film with so much heart, Meryl went to the polar opposite side with August: Osage County, playing her most unlikable character to date. She screams constantly, threatens and demeans everyone in her presence (imagine a female, cancer-stricken Donald Trump and you’ve got this character). What’s so remarkable about Meryl’s performance is that in spite of this, she approaches the character in a way that demonstrates sympathy for her. She doesn’t allow her to be caricatured as I did with my Donald Trump comparison. She helps us see (even better than the story’s progression does) why her character is the way she is and how depressing her deprived existence is.
Into the Woods (2014) A+
Meryl’s witch in this Rob Marshall musical is a mix of good and evil, the center of this fractured fairy tale that attempts to show what life is like for fairy tale characters after the “happily ever after.” Actually, there’s not much happy about their lives at all but there is a lot about life to learn (the original purpose of Grimm’s fairy tales which were astoundingly dark and terrifying; this film reaches much closer to those roots than the tamed versions of fairy tales recent generations have been exposed to). Meryl approaches the witch more as a teacher than as what most of us think of when we hear the word “witch.” That doesn’t mean she’s good though, but there is good to be learned through her. Meryl walks a very fine tightrope to pull that off as splendidly as she does.