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The Three Types Of Meryl Streep Movies

Meryl Streep is one of America’s finest actresses. Even though she bristles at a sweeping superlative — don’t call her the greatest living actress, that’s too much pressure — she’s earned a record-setting number of Oscar acting nominations and is widely recognized as one of the foremost performers in her field. But with greatness comes controversy: This year the three-time Oscar winner’s best actress nomination for “Florence Foster Jenkins” provoked a national debate — one that extended even to presidential politics — regarding the fundamental question at the heart of the American arts conversation: Is Meryl Streep overrated?

The answer is pretty obviously, “On the whole, no, but you can argue that a bunch of her performances are.” But which ones? Using a level of analysis historically reserved for the work of Dwayne Johnson, I watched all 20 of Streep’s Academy Award-nominated performances — just shy of two full days’ worth of Streep, a 42-hour odyssey all told — and applied our rigorous Hollywood Taxonomy heuristic to the project.

In short: I plotted all her Oscar-nominated films given their inflation-adjusted box office performance (according to The Numbers) and their Rotten Tomatoes score. I then broke them down into three categories — the bottom quartile based on Rotten Tomatoes score, the tight-knit top grouping and the rest. Given that for the vast majority of these movies the film lives or dies based on Streep’s performance, I’ve conveniently termed these categories “Overrated,” “Underrated” and “Correctly Rated.”

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Overrated

“Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.”

— Karen Blitzen, “Out of Africa”

Films: “Out of Africa” (1985), “Ironweed” (1987), “Music of the Heart” (1999), “The Iron Lady” (2011), “August: Osage County” (2013)

The overrated performances from the 1980s reveal the kind of variety Streep is capable of in just a two-year span. In 1985 you have best picture winner “Out of Africa,” in 1987 “Ironweed” (no best picture nomination). In the former, Streep adopts a Danish accent; and in the latter, a worn-out 1930s upstate New York accent. In one she plays a character who marries an aristocrat, in the other a character who masturbates a homeless man. She dates Robert Redford at near-peak Robert Redford in one and has to convincingly date Jack Nicholson at nadir Jack Nicholson in the other. That’s called range, people, and these two outings, while not her best, show she’s got it.

These two films introduce several Streep motifs. “Ironweed” is the first of the 20 in which Streep has a full-on solo musical number, which 30 percent of her nominated performances include. Both are films in which Streep plays someone who is ill — this is the case in a full 45 percent of her nominated performances. And in “Out of Africa,” Streep’s character beats syphilis, a disease that (oddly) strikes again in several of her films.1

There’s a pernicious fiction out there — presumably circulated by Streep saboteurs attempting to shield you from achievements such as “Postcards From the Edge” and “One True Thing” — that the 1990s were some sort of bad stretch for Streep. This is a lie.

Still, “Music of the Heart” (1999) is one of the worst goddamn movies I have ever seen.

“Music of the Heart” is by far the worst in the overrated category and is the only film where Streep’s character manages to be less interesting than everyone else in the movie. From the twisted mind of Wes Craven, we get a mopey melodrama about a white person teaching music to poor kids. All you need to know is that its Wikipedia page links to “white savior narrative in film,” “musical films based on actual events” and “films about educators” and you have the entire plot. The only good part is that the antagonist is essentially Rudy Giuliani, but you can tell they didn’t want to call him out by name.

The most recent of these five films is “August: Osage County,” one of those movies you enter saying, “Did you know that this movie is based on a play?” but leave saying, “That movie was very, very obviously based on a play.” You know, where they put all the characters in one room and have a conversation about the nature of motherhood? Where there’s a character (here played by Streep) designed entirely to show how good the playwright is at writing sick burns? Where a character has a physical ailment — say, mouth cancer — that is thematically linked to a personality failure — say, propensity for verbal cruelty — and you’re supposed to just let that self-indulgent crap go? There’s one of these every year,2 and “August: Osage County” is not a particularly good one.

Only one of these performances went on to win an Oscar though, and “The Iron Lady” remains her controversial win. Any argument that Streep is overrated comes back to this film. Still, viewing Streep’s broad career in the lens of one mediocre biopic about a British head of government is a profoundly short view of her accomplishments.. Which is to say that, yeah, Streep’s Academy Award-winning performance in “The Iron Lady” is slightly overrated. This would be a far better movie if it weren’t about Margaret Thatcher. The best parts — the parts where Streep earns Oscar No. 3, that is — are when she’s playing a woman who is slowly losing her mind and a hallucination of her recently deceased husband is attempting to goad personal growth out of her. There was no need for that woman to be the prime minister of the U.K.

The point is that when Streep is in a bad movie — and I will remind you that all of these films are good movies; a majority of critics enjoyed every single one — her performance is still usually compelling. They’re just movies that had bigger problems — they were too long or were adapted to the screen super poorly or were badly written — and Meryl couldn’t save them with a solid, if slightly overrated, performance.

Correctly rated

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Andrea. Everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us.”

— Miranda Priestly, “The Devil Wears Prada”

Films: “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981), “Sophie’s Choice” (1982), “Silkwood” (1983), “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), “Doubt” (2008), “Julie & Julia” (2009), “Into the Woods” (2014)

Streep has a reputation for effecting diverse vocal patterns, and that skill just couldn’t be better on display in these films. She does it so rigorously and regularly that it’s not even a stunt. Streep is just that good at preparation. She plays British (“The French Lieutenant’s Woman”), Polish (“Sophie’s Choice”), Oklahoman (“Silkwood”), Bronx (“Doubt”) and whatever the hell was going on with Julia Child’s voice (“Julie & Julia”).

“Kramer vs. Kramer” won Streep her first Oscar, in 1980, for best supporting actress. I personally can’t stand the movie, and it’s in this spot on our chart because of inflation, both in the “overinflated box office because it came out during a recession” sense and the “this is a bad movie that won Oscars so history thinks it looks better in retrospect” sense. Streep manages to make a badly written character with limited screen time look like the moral equal of Dustin Hoffman’s character, who has the advantage of having most of the screen time and the screenwriter’s sympathies. She acted her way past the writing, and for that she deserves an Oscar for this miserably critically overrated film.

“The French Lieutenant’s Woman” is a dull-in-the-beginning-but-once-you-get-it-great movie that Streep is delightful in. It’s the first time in this set of nominated performances that she goes for the accent. Streep is double-cast as both the eponymous woman in a torrid Victorian-era romance and the American actress playing her a century later. It’s hella po-mo, and it got her a best actress nomination.

A year later she’d win best actress for “Sophie’s Choice,” another film where she had to rebel against the writing to crush the role. She perfected the diction — she even spoke German with a Polish accent, which nails it for me — and won the Oscar.

With “Sophie’s Choice,” I’d like to introduce the concept of the Streep Consort. It comes from this idea: Prince Philip is married to Queen Elizabeth, but that doesn’t make him a king, it makes him king consort, or just the powerless guy lucky enough to be married to the queen. It’s the same for the leading men who get to date Streep’s character. Some are far weaker than others — comparing Peter MacNicol in “Sophie’s Choice” to Robert Redford in “Out of Africa” is just cruel — but a distinct trend emerges: As she became increasingly secure in her place as Hollywood luminary, Streep began to escape the gross gender age disparity in the industry.

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Her 1983 win for “Sophie’s Choice” was Streep’s last Oscar for several decades, but all of her best nominated work happened after it. “Silkwood” came next and was the first of many biographies she filmed; at least seven of her 20 nominations retell true stories, maybe 10, depending on where you fall on the pseudo-biographical “Postcards From the Edge” and “The Devil Wears Prada” — and whatever column “Adaptation” falls into.

Here we also see one of Streep’s great unsung achievements: She elevates her co-stars to the point where they become her competition. Movies with Streep were breakout roles for subsequent Oscar winners and contenders including Cher (“Silkwood”), Amy Adams and Viola Davis (“Doubt”) and Anne Hathaway (“The Devil Wears Prada”). It’s not fair to give Streep all the credit, but I think there’s a reason that people who have worked with her go out of their way to talk about how much it meant to them.

Most of Streep’s Oscar-nominated work of the 2000s — “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Doubt,” “Julie & Julia” — had Streep playing a character in a mentor position to a younger woman. “The Devil Wears Prada” is the truly great performance among these, and “Doubt” is excellent because the other performances were outstanding too, so Streep doesn’t have to carry it. “Julie & Julia” would be great if Streep’s B-plot were the A-plot and Amy Adams’s character weren’t terrible, but this is what happens when you option a blog for a movie.

“Into the Woods,” like “August: Osage County,” is very, very obviously based on a play, with all the disadvantages that brings. The musical film includes a return to Streep singing, but more significantly it’s a return to form of sorts: It involves Streep dying, via magical tar pit. She has died in seven of her 20 nominated performances, but “Into the Woods” was the first time she’d croaked in an Oscar-nominated performance since the ’90s.

Since we’ve now covered all three of her Academy Award-winning performances, the question is: What do they have in common? What’s the key to Streep gold? It’s not dying. It’s not being sick. It’s not dating a writer. It’s not being based on a true story. “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Iron Lady” all have two things in common: Streep plays a mom who errs in raising a child, and Streep’s character is directly referenced in the film title. Given that “Florence Foster Jenkins” satisfies only the latter requirement, I can safely say that this is not her year.

Underrated

“That’s right, I don’t want life to imitate art, I want life to be art.”

— Suzanne Vale, “Postcards From the Edge”

Films: “The Deer Hunter” (1978), “A Cry in the Dark” (1988), “Postcards From the Edge” (1990), “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), “One True Thing” (1998), “Adaptation” (2002), “Florence Foster Jenkins” (2016)

Streep’s performance in “The Deer Hunter” (1978) is an odd one. She’s present for the first 50 minutes, sidelined stateside while the Vietnam plot takes over for the next hour, and then back again holding her own against Robert De Niro at the top of his game. It’s one of her four supporting actress nominations and is by far the best of them. The other supporting role that we haven’t yet talked about — in “Adaptation” (2002) — is a very odd part in a very odd film, with Nicolas Cage pulling double duty, Streep playing a journalist who gets a bit too close to her source, and Judy Greer and Tilda Swinton in parts that are far too small. Streep’s character has been notably under the influence of drugs or alcohol four times in Oscar-nominated performances — including booze in “Ironweed,” painkillers in “August: Osage County” and cocaine in “Postcards From the Edge” — but she’s never better than when under the influence of a psychotropic orchid in “Adaptation.” Other themes tended to come up more often, though: Streep and the Academy just love those period pieces.

FILM WON OSCAR PERIOD PIECE TRUE STORY MOM SINGS CHEATS SICK DIES ACCENT
The Deer Hunter 🎵
Kramer vs. Kramer 🏆 👶 💋
The French Lieutenant’s Woman 💋 🇬🇧
Sophie’s Choice 🏆 👶 💋 🤒 🇵🇱
Silkwood 📕 🤒 🌾
Out of Africa 📕 💋 🤒 🇩🇰
Ironweed 🎵 🤒 🗽
A Cry in the Dark 📕 👶 🇦🇺
Postcards From the Edge ~ 🎵 🤒
The Bridges of Madison County 👶 💋 🇮🇹
One True Thing 👶 🎵 🤒
Music of the Heart 📕 👶
Adaptation ~ 💋
The Devil Wears Prada ~ 👶 💰
Doubt 🗽
Julie & Julia 📕
The Iron Lady 🏆 📕 👶 🤒 🇬🇧
August: Osage County 👶 🤒 🌾
Into the Woods 👶 🎵 🇬🇧
Florence Foster Jenkins 📕 🎵 🤒 🗽
Streep’s Oscar-nominated oeuvre, emojified

I have it on good authority that Streep herself considered “A Cry in the Dark” her finest performance, and I can absolutely understand why. It’s a great movie despite its reputation as merely the “dingo ate my baby” flick. She plays Lindy Chamberlain, the woman at the heart of Australia’s O.J. Simpson-style trial of the century, and nails the performance of a controversial person (while managing a nuanced New Zealand-Aussie accent). Her portrayal is simultaneously unlikable but innocent, and Sam Neill’s immense performance seals the deal. If she ever got robbed, it was here.

Still, “Postcards From the Edge” is by far her best work. She’s working with a fantastic script from Carrie Fisher, has great chemistry with Shirley MacLaine and dates peak Dennis Quaid. It’s by far the best demonstration that Streep has pipes and is the best movie she has ever been in. She lost to Kathy Bates in “Misery” that year, which is fine I guess, but this movie is the real gem of the Streep nominations.

I had been warned by a Streep completist I happen to be dating that Streep’s work in the ’90s can be a bit of a creative nadir, but the non-“Music of the Heart” films were huge surprises given my lowered expectations. She succeeds in “Bridges of Madison County” even though director Clint Eastwood ruins the audience’s suspension of disbelief by expecting us to believe he could be considered a sex symbol in 1995. Streep manages yet another accent win, doing the Italian immigrant to Iowa accent perfectly. And “One True Thing” was a total shocker: What I expected to be a mediocre melodrama turned out to be a really, really good melodrama.

This brings us to “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a film that shares a lot of DNA with “Into the Woods,” given that she plays a mediocre singer who dies in the end (albeit this time by tertiary syphilis, not fanciful tar pits erupting from the earth thanks to maligned legumes). Anyway, the film is evidently among her best, which seems apt given that it’s about an indefatigable performer who does it all for the love of the craft.

But this is the category that shows what sets Streep apart: incredible range that comes from doing the work. She made a badly written ’70s girlfriend part notable in “The Deer Hunter.” Ten years later she turned a schlocky true-crime story into a compelling character study in “A Cry in the Dark,” and two years later she was the only living human who could do drugged-out Carrie Fisher justice in “Postcards From the Edge.” She made a trashy romance novel into a romantic staple in “Bridges of Madison County,” elevated “One True Thing” from a saccharine Hallmark movie into something meaningful, and showed she can still do offbeat in “Adaptation.”

Streep can be a little overrated sometimes, sure. I’d argue that about four of these 20 performances probably didn’t merit an Oscar nomination based on the work alone. But Streep isn’t recognized as the performer she is because of individual works — show me one person on this earth who says Meryl Streep was the best actress in 2011 and I will show you a liar — but because of her dedication to the craft. Take it from someone who watched 42 hours of Oscar-nominated Streep performances: Above all else, Meryl Streep has what her detractors fundamentally lack: a sense of empathy that can sustain an “inexplicably wonderful” career of almost 40 years.


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Footnotes

  1. Consider this: Streep has syphilis in 10 percent of her Oscar-nominated performances. In (OK, slightly spurious) contrast, when the disease was tearing through the population in pre-World War I England and Wales, the estimated prevalence of syphilis for men in their 30s was only 7.8 percent, according to a University of Cambridge study.

  2. This year’s is “Fences.”

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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