Not every actor gets a Simpsons joke lauding their ability. But as far back as 1992, a gag like a perfume bottle shaped like an Oscar called “Meryl Streep's 'Versatility'” worked. Few film stars have the reputation she has for being a chameleon with voices and mannerisms, excelling in drama as well as comedy.
Streep, celebrating her 66th birthday today, has over 70 film and television credits in addition to her early work in New York theater. To try and pick her 10 best performances is difficult – she's been nominated for the Oscar a record 19 times! But if the New Jersey native can perfect a Polish, Australian, British or Italian accent, the least we can do is this.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
One of the first Hollywood movies to deal with the Vietnam War, this was Streep's first major film role, and her first Oscar nomination. Set mostly in a blue collar Pennsylvania town, with traumatic cuts to the violence in Southeast Asia, the original script kept her on the sidelines as merely a girlfriend to doomed Christopher Walken. But the 183 minute film broadened as director Michael Cimino allowed her to write her own lines. This was the only movie she worked on with her longtime companion John Cazale, who died soon thereafter.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
A striking documentary about divorce and child custody that, for 1979, was daring in suggesting that not all women were pre-programmed for motherhood. Streep won her first Oscar (for a supporting role) as the woman who leaves her husband (Dustin Hoffman) and young son simply because she is unhappy. While the movie does “side” with Hoffman, who is left somewhat adrift as a new Mr. Mom, Kramer vs. Kramer is still an extraordinary film that puts unique characters ahead of polemics. And try to watch this movie without a box of Kleenex – just try!
The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)
You want to see how versatile Meryl Streep can be? In this movie, she's not just one character, she's two! The French Lieutenant's Woman, based on a John Fowles novel and adapted by playwright Harold Pinter, is a sharp, moody affair that jumps between a Victorian period drama and then the film crew shooting that story. The relationship between Streep and co-star Jeremy Irons mirrors, to an extent, the film-within-the film. Watching this 1981 drama in 2015 makes it a double time capsule, in a way. Another Oscar nom for Streep.
Sophie's Choice (1982)
At the end of the day, possibly Meryl Streep's best role. It's a big performance in a big film, based on a big book. Sophie Zawitowski, is a Polish libertine living in Brooklyn with an unstable man played by Kevin Kline. They are each suffering from enormous emotional wounds and, in time, we'll learn about the brutality she suffered at the hands of the Nazis in the concentration camps. The “choice” of the title has both a literal and figurative meaning, each devastating. Director Alan J. Pakula was originally going to hire a non-American actress like Liv Ullman for the part, but Streep is said to have approached him, flung herself to the ground and begged for the shot. It won her her second Academy Award.
Postcards From The Edge (1990)
While ultimately a serious picture about familial relationships, this is our first funny film on our list. Based on Carrie Fisher's semi-autobiographical novel (yes, Princess Leia), Streep plays something completely foreign to her: a mediocre actress. She's recovering from drug addiction and playing bit parts in bum productions, but also figuring out how to connect with her legendary mother (Shirley MacLaine, loosely based on Debbie Reynolds.) Yet another Oscar nomination for Streep.
Defending Your Life (1991)
How about Meryl Streep in a high concept science-fiction romantic comedy? Let's do it. From the mind of Albert Brooks, Defending Your Life is a wonderful and creative look at the afterlife. Being dead is an enormous trial set in a strange land that looks like EPCOT Center. Streep, adorable, is the leading lady, and casting her was one of the smartest ideas in a movie overflowing with them. Hey, this is the first title on our list that didn't get Meryl an Oscar nomination. Even more of a reason to check this one out.
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
One of the very rare occasions in which the movie is better than the book. Clint Eastwood directs himself in this weepie based on Robert James Waller's best seller. While something of a great big advertisement for adultery, Streep's bored Italian immigrant wife stuck in Iowa falls for Clint, a photographer for National Geographic in the mid 1960s – probably due to that outdoor shower. Eastwood's noted “light touch” as a director serves Streep well – after Sophie's Choice, this might be the most heartbreaking work she's done. Guess what? She was nominated for an Academy Award.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
You thought your boss was bad? Meet Anna Win— excuse me, I mean, meet Amanda Priestly, the editor-in-chief of Vog—gosh, I don't know what's come over me? Editor-in-chief of Runway Magazine. While hardly a masterpiece, The Devil Wears Prada, which was Anne Hathaway's first non-Disney hit, is good dishy fun. Streep is having a ball playing the villain, and, of course, manages to bring a little bit of humanity to the role. Lemme check something. Oh, wouldn't you know? Streep was nominated for an Academy Award.
Let's talk some more about Streep and accents. As one with a mother-in-law that's a Bronx Irish Catholic, I can tell you that her performance as Sister Aloysius Beauvier is SPOT ON. Set at a Catholic school in the 1960s, this is essentially a filmed play that begins like a mystery and transforms into a grand exploration into faith, truth, justice and just about every other weighty issue. Her co-stars are Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. It's a powerhouse, and, yeah, Streep was once again nominated for an Oscar.
The Iron Lady (2011)
We're gonna close it out on a weird one. This is a bad movie! Only someone as talented as Meryl Streep can take it and make it essential viewing. It's a very basic biopic on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and likely a biased one at that. But put your opinions about politics off to the side and enjoy it on another level – watching Streep take no prisoners as a staunch woman ready to cut down her enemies. At the end of the day, it's very entertaining. And it won Streep her third Academy Award.