There are movies and then there is Meryl Streep. I might be one of few awards enthusiasts who reflects on the decade and ranks “Envelopegate” as Oscar moment #2. The highlight, obviously, remains Meryl Streep’s Oscar win in 2012 for The Iron Lady. Her again. “But whatever,” as Meryl would say.
When the That Shelf team united to compile its list of the 100 best films of the decade, Jason Gorber asked me if I felt Meryl was adequately represented. Surprisingly enough, I said that she wasn’t, but aside from The Post, she wouldn’t be. The truth is that Meryl is often better than the movies in which she appears. And in fairness to the directors, she appeared in some strong films this past decade. But Streep has muscles that few artists can match.
So, as part of That Shelf’s look back on the decade, here are Meryl Streep’s best performances of the 2010s. From flyby cameos in Suffragette and The Homesman to a scene-stealing turn in Little Women, Streep’s decade in film proves that no role is too small to leave an impact when the character’s in the right hands.
The Top 10 Meryl Streep Performances of the Decade:
10. Web Therapy
This web series starring Lisa Kudrow suggested that Meryl could’ve thrived doing phone sex if acting didn’t pan out. (Although her knack for accents could have told us that.) Appearing in a handful of episodes as the aptly named Dr. Camilla Bowner, Streep was a sultry hoot. Playing a “renowned sexual orientation therapist” hired to straighten out the husband of Kudrow’s Fiona, Streep was the series’ best foil. She provided sporadic updates about Camilla’s “hands on” approach in deadpan hilarious video chats with Kudrow. Her breathy dumb blonde was a hidden gem worth seeking out. All of Meryl’s Web Therapy episodes are available via Simply Streep.
Nobody rocks harder than Meryl Streep does. In her second collaboration with Jonathan Demme (his final dramatic feature), the 63-year-old Streep defied age and ageism. Playing Ricki Randazzo, an over-the-hill rocker, Streep wasn’t afraid to look out of place while covering Bruce Springsteen. But that’s exactly the point and the charm of this underrated performance. Her turn in Ricki and the Flash challenged the idea that only men can live in the spotlight as they age. One really got to know Ricki through the pitch, timbre, and pain of her songs. Perhaps more than role in her career, Ricki proved that Streep really could play any part that comes her way. Meryl Streep is rock concert that always plays to 11.
8. Hope Springs
Streep followed up with her showstopping Oscar winner The Iron Lady with this delicate comedy. Reunited with The Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel, Streep gave one of her most natural and down to earth performances. Her heartbreakingly funny turn as Kay Soames was a polar opposite of her arch Margaret Thatcher. Dowdy, quiet, reserved, and bashful, Streep made even die-hard fans do double takes. Could this really be the same actress who shrieked as Thatcher only months before? But there’s a wonderful transformation to watch in Hopes Springs as Streep melted away Kay’s insecurities. Particularly in her therapy scenes with Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell, Streep hid behind Kay’s flowery blouse one moment and disarmed us the next as her character opened up, revealing new layers of awareness of her repressed sexuality. Hopes Springs enveloped audiences in its tale of newfound intimacy in the golden years.
Streep once joked that she was offered three witch roles within a year after she turned 40. It’s a shame she turned them all down. 25 years later, Streep finally bewitched audiences beneath frightful make-up, mangy hair, and gnarly teeth. (She also transformed into the sexiest witch ever in the film’s final act.) Streep slayed the witch’s big number early in Into the Woods and delivered the film’s highlight, “Stay with Me.” The film showed off Streep’s amazing pipes and her ability to harness the theatrical gusto of Broadway into film. Just listen to the dramatic inflection she gave the word “wolves” at the 1:30 mark, registering the bitterness and anger that inspires the witch to keep her daughter in isolation. It still brings chills five years later.
I think The Laundromat might be Meryl Streep’s most underrated/misunderstood performance. Streep was very funny as the film’s timid, passive, and polite mid-westerner who found herself in over her head. The final moments of The Laundromat offered one of the best scenes of Streep’s career as she recited the manifesto of John Doe, the whistleblower who leaked the “Pentagon Papers” and toppled several world leaders by exposing a network of offshore tax evasion. Playing a series of characters across the course of a single monologue delivered in one take, Streep demonstrated the range of her craft. She began in uber-theatrical gear before stripping away the artifice of her performance and dialing herself back. Knowing every inch of her costume, wigs within wigs, and using props as extensions of her performance, Streep ultimately presented herself in direct address for the film’s final rallying cry.
Would you believe that Meryl Streep studied opera before pursuing acting? One would hardly guess that to be that case after watching Florence Foster Jenkins. Streep screeched through the film as a tone-deaf socialite. She croaked through aria after aria, massacring classical numbers as Florence rehearsed for cruelly generous fans. However, it took a certain skill to do a good job of singing terribly. Amidst Florence’s chalkboard-grating caterwauling, Streep inspired some serious laughs while finding a tragic figure in a woman who simply wanted to pursue her passion. No matter how horribly Florence sang or how heartily Streep inhabited the King’s Speech-y spirit of the film, her performance hit Florence Foster Jenkins’ passion. The film invited one to laugh, but feel the courage behind Florence’s indefatigable love for music.
Each role on this list encapsulates some aspect of Streep’s talent, but The Iron Lady highlights Meryl’s most annoying talent: picking outstanding roles in films that aren’t very good. But Streep’s fearless role choices rewarded her. Streep won her third Oscar, and deservedly so, for her monumental performance as former British PM Margaret Thatcher. It’s a testament to Streep’s ability to captivate the screen. Donning a wig, a nifty accent, and career-best make-up work by her long-time collaborator J. Roy Helland, who also (finally) won an Oscar for the film, Streep completely transformed into the divisive political figure. This transformation went beyond the mere mechanics of playing a real character. Streep got inside Thatcher’s head to understand a figure who thought herself progressive when in actuality she was anything but. It’s a fascinating interpretation of power and the all-consuming destruction it breeds. Streep’s performance grounded Thatcher’s tyranny in reality.
Look no further for proof of Streep’s MVP status than Big Little Lies. Streep walked into the best ensemble on television and stole the show’s second season with her very first scream, which says a lot when the stacked cast included Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Laura Dern. Playing Meryl Louise, the wonderfully pious foil to the Monterey Five, Streep brought to life another damaged and wounded women whose cruelty sought to ease her pain. Streep’s inhabitation of Mary Louise highlighted her ability to use every element of her character to her advantage, especially costumes. It was marvellous to see how well Streep understood the geography of Mary Louise’s oversized glasses. She darted her eyes around the lenses to accentuate every hint of judgement the character had for others. Even better was her connection to Mary Louise’s golden cross, which she wielded as a weapon for virtue and judgement alike.
2. The Post
Some heroes wear capes, while others wear a caftan. Meryl provided the best hero of the decade with her performances as late Washington Post publisher Kay Graham. Tasked with the unenviable decision to take on President Richard Nixon by publishing the Pentagon Papers that revealed the White House’s grievous errors with the Vietnam War, Streep brought to life a parable of everyday people using their powers to hold leaders accountable for their actions. What The Post most remarkably conveyed about Meryl Streep is her ability to communicate shifts in consciousness. This feat is unmatched by any actor. It was most evident in Graham’s defining moment in which she weighed her responsibilities to her readers, summoned her courage, and made the call to publish. Streep conveyed all of The Post’s gravity in a brief flicker of a Goliath rousing from its sleep inside a David.
It takes a hurricane of a performance to top a decade’s worth of great performances by the best actor alive. Meryl Streep attacked the role of Violet Weston in August: Osage County with thunderous fury. It might be the best fusion of Streep’s funny bone and her dramatic heft. Her comedic timing gave the acid-tongued zingers of Tracey Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winning play an extra zing. But Streep’s ability to bring out the best in the worst of her characters was most evident in the empathy she invited for Violet.
Beneath the stormy surface of this dying matriarch was a timid deer. It’s a performance within a performance. Streep’s desire to give the audience something within her character made a viewing of August: Osage County much like the enchanting experience the actress herself described of watching Liza Minnelli: the tangible thrill of sensing not only the actor while she is performing, but of seeing how the actor’s delight in the performance raises the character to new heights. Violet is terrified of dying alone and Streep conveyed her character’s fear so fully one can almost smell it.
Cheers to a decade of great Meryl with many more great performances to come in the 2020s!