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A triumph of effort

hollywood Updated: Dec 04, 2011 00:56 IST
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In the flesh, she doesn't have an aura. She's not lit from within. Heads don't snap in her direction when she walks through a hotel lobby in a baggy maxi-dress and brown calf-high boots, flanked by her dutiful makeup artist of 35 years and her imperious publicist - the few celebrity trappings of a woman who stubbornly considers herself a working actor, and nothing more.

And yet for half of her 62 years she has been dubbed either the Greatest Film Actress of Her Generation or, now, the Greatest Living Film Actress.

So how does Meryl Streep, working actor, advance her artistry when she has nothing left to prove, when everything she does seems beyond reproach?

In a room off the lobby of the W hotel, she removes her glasses and hair clip and tosses both on a table. She is beautiful, as she has always been. Her presence in person feels like the absence of a character.

"I feel more worried because, you know, the expectations are so high," she says, brushing out her blond-white hair into a mane. "I do work very hard. I think I've always been that type of girl, from the very beginning. I'm the oldest and I feel like I have to do a good job. I have to try really really really really hard. I mean that could be my epitaph: She tried really hard."

"She tried," she repeats softly, shrugging, then releasing a husky giggle. "You know?"

The mastery of foreign accents, the exhaustive preparation and pinpoint technique, the 16 Oscar nominations from 46 feature films over 35 years. You tried. And succeeded.

There never wasn't praise. Praise since a professor at Vassar called her acting "mind-boggling," praise since her drama school days at Yale, where she gave herself an ulcer playing 40 stage roles in three years (Brecht, Weill, Shakespeare, Durang). Praise in 1975 when she first got to New York, where Joseph Papp called her the most remarkable actress who'd ever come through his Public Theater.

Forget crying on cue. She was able to blush on cue, Papp said.

The source of this unassailable ability remains a mystery, even to her, says cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, who shot Julie & Julia, in which Streep channeled Julia Child, and the telepic Angels in America, in which Streep played four roles, including the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

"I remember Mike (Nichols) asking her, 'Why did you do this or that?' in the scene where Ethel's with Roy Cohn as he's dying," Goldblatt says. "And she said '. . . I don't know.' And I really think that's the essence. She's so deep into it that she's not having a conscious conversation as an artist, as an actor, with herself. It's that good. It's not even skill or artifice. It's complete subjection to the character. She is no longer Meryl Streep."

And yet she's Meryl Streep here, in this room off the W's lobby, hours before appearing at a gala for the National Women's History Museum.

"I seem to be alone on the empty mountain," Streep says in her silvery contralto, shifting her posture as if bracing for a blast of high-altitude air.

She pauses. For an almost uncomfortable period of time.

"Yet suddenly I hear a voice . . ."

Another long pause. Her eyes search the air. They are slate blue, sparkling.

"Is it sunshine entering a forest grove, shining back at me from the green moss?"

That's the mystical place where the Streepness originates. Recently, it's shined on what she calls "big, terrifying" roles that make her nervous. Her most recent mark is Margaret Thatcher, whom she plays in the upcoming The Iron Lady.

"For a girl from Jersey to walk into an English soundstage with 40 of the best English actors and presume to be their first woman prime minister, it's just like, 'Oh my God, who do you think you are?' " Streep says.

How does she dovetail with Thatcher? "Terrifyingly close," she says, cackling. "That dutifulness, that relentlessness, that desire to do well, do right. To act according to your convictions. To try, try, try. Keep trying, keep trying. Don't let them say you're too old."

Old seems to work for Meryl. In the past five years, she has eased into her emerita-ness, turned each acceptance speech into a master class of diva comportment, relished roles in exuberant-if-commercial projects and her box office receipts have started matching the volume of her critical praise.

"My generation of actresses - my friends, my cohort should be working at the same level of endeavor as I am, and they're not," Streep says. "Why? Because to (businessmen), they're old. And that bugs me. That's wrong. Because the audience is there. They've just been shoved out of the theaters by the crap that they put out now to sell ancillary products."

Between the hotel and the gala, she does not make a costume change. She trumpets the idea of a National Women's History Museum, ably performing her prepared remarks and then, in closing, decides to try something.

"As Margaret Thatcher would say - " and without warning she drops her voice a half-tone, upholsters her throat with a bristly British accent, cocks her head to suggest a hairdo and blazer and strand of pearls that aren't actually there, and the air in the theater suddenly turns chilly and electric, like a seance is afoot, and behind the rostrum now is a fully-formed life force radiating energy:

"'If you want something spoken about, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.'"

The audience gasps at the quick-change and roars with approval, and then Streep snaps out of it, and Thatcher is gone, and so is she, replaced by applause.

(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post. For more log on to www.washingtonpost.com )