“It turns out I’m a bit of a slut.” When Meryl Streep makes that giggly confession in It’s Complicated—admitting, in a menopausal Sex and the City moment, that she’s having a raging affair with her ex-husband—you get the impression it’s a line she’s been dying to deliver all her life. For over three decades, Streep has reigned as Hollywood’s queen, earning a record number of Oscar nominations (15), and enjoying a career that’s the envy of every actress in search of a meaningful role. But lately, Streep has blithely thrown her gravitas to the wind. Taking flight in a string of confections, from The Devil Wears Prada to Mamma Mia!, she has starred in three comedies this past year—Julie & Julia, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and It’s Complicated. Our Most Serious Dramatic Actress has reinvented herself as a giddy comedienne. In the process, she has defied Hollywood’s laws of physics to prove that a 60-year-old woman can be both a romantic lead and a box office star. Well beyond the expiry date by which most leading ladies have retreated into character roles, Streep is basking in the greatest commercial success of her career.
But at what price? Well, though I’ve been enjoying Meryl’s triumphant populism as much as the next person, I’d argue that by turning herself into a more lavish performer, she has become a less credible actor.
Good acting, like good screenwriting, should be largely invisible. But in comedies, especially broad ones, actors routinely exaggerate to get a laugh. It’s expected; that’s what you sign on for. And Meryl has been merrily hamming it up for a while now. She probably caught the bug singing in a goofy sister act with Lily Tomlin in A Prairie Home Companion (2006), looking immensely pleased with herself. Two years later she’d become a flat-out dancing queen, mugging her way through the hit musical Mamma Mia! And even when she wasn’t bursting into song she was pushing the envelope of caricature—first with her bravura performance in The Devil Wears Prada, taking full advantage of the title’s satanic licence to play a fashionista from hell, then with her rollicking, slapstick impersonation of cooking legend Julia Child in Julie & Julia.
As Julia—who herself was over the top—Streep was priceless, and her energy was infectious. But I found myself watching the performance and marvelling at Meryl rather than being drawn into the character and believing she was who she was supposed to be. While this may be forgivable in comedy, it’s less so in drama. In Doubt (2008), Streep delivered an archly mannered portrayal of an intolerant nun, shamelessly stealing every scene—until the film’s moment of truth, when she was upbraided by a student’s mother, played by Viola Davis. Then, as Davis coldly blew Streep away, it felt like a victory of emotional truth over gestural virtuosity.
Still, showy, crowd-pleasing performances tend to win awards. This year Streep has scored Golden Globe nods for both Julie & Julia and It’s Complicated. But if she’s lucky, Oscar will recognize just one, or she’ll be competing with herself. Streep may be Oscar’s queen, but she’s also the perennial lady-in-waiting—she hasn’t won an Academy Award in 27 years, not since Sophie’s Choice. Most likely she’ll be nominated for Julie & Julia rather than It’s Complicated. In both films, she plays a self-possessed career woman who sees nothing wrong with cooking her way into a man’s heart. But Julia is the classier film, and with a performance that she finesses like a perfect pie crust, Streep embodies a magisterial real-life icon. (From Ray Charles to Queen Elizabeth II, Oscar has a soft spot for magisterial real-life icons.)
In It’s Complicated, Streep appears to be playing herself (without an accent) and having the time of her life. She’s hugely entertaining, but it’s not clear if her exuberance belongs to the character, or to an actress who’s overjoyed to be cast as a mature romantic lead, juggling two craven suitors. Laughing her way through the movie, Streep ricochets from eye-rolling consternation at her own behaviour to fanning her hot flashes. Her performance is so baroquely detailed that within a reaction shot that spans just a few seconds, she’ll spin through a virtual triple lutz of expression, from shock to delight to puzzlement. It’s as if, after all these years, the actress who always complained about the Hollywood boys’ club has finally cracked the crass ceiling of showbiz and is dancing as fast as she can before gravity finally catches up with her again.