“An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us”

Whether portraying a traumatized immigrant or an overzealous Prime Minister, Meryl Streep finds a way to embody a character’s soul and bring it to life. As overdone as it may seem, there is never a bad time to pontificate about the gravity of one of the greatest (and most decorated) actresses to grace the silver screen. Almost 50 years in, yet it constantly feels like she’s just getting started. Here are a few roles that stood out as she waltzed through four decades while showcasing some of the most memorable character performances ever.

Karen – Silkwood. 1983

“Don’t make me choose.
please, I can’t”

From Joanna to Sophie

In the mid 70’s as her career was kicking off, she took on several pivotal characters, usually portraying an anchor to a family or love affair. From “The Deer Hunter” to “Manhattan” she epitomized the ‘perplexed partner’; but none of these stood up to her understated performance as Joanna in “Kramer vs. Kramer”.

Jill – Manhattan. 1979 (with Woody Allen)

First thing’s first; for any fan of 70’s films, one thing to note is the disillusionment of mother figures and the subsequent abandonment of their families that became prevalent in the cinematic narratives of the time; from Mary Tyler Moore in “Ordinary People” to Faye Dunaway in “The Champ”. This psychological undertone set the perfect backdrop for some of her most melodramatic depictions.

Sarah – The French Lieutenant’s Woman. 1981

“Kramer vs. Kramer” however, was distinctive as it dealt with the agony of divorce coupled with the frustration of single parenthood, and of course Joanna abandoned her son, Billy. As much as the audience is intentionally distanced from Streep’s rosy cheeked Joanna, one can’t help but empathize with her. Meryl brought a genuine vulnerability to Joanna’s cause that, albeit unrevealed in the script, it completely eclipsed the sympathy that one would naturally have for the constant onscreen struggle that Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ted experienced raising Billy alone.

Joanna – Kramer vs. Kramer. 1979

Streep took this vulnerability into the 80’s with her role in the heart wrenching “Sophie’s Choice”, as Zofia (Sophie), a Polish Immigrant whose father was killed in a work camp. How can anyone forget the choice scene; easily the second saddest scene I have ever seen – after the death scene in “The Champ”. In this role she gave ‘on-screen emotion’ a new definition, going beyond the notion of ‘acting’ and damn near into full transformation; she became Zofia Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant.

Sophie – Sophie’s Choice. 1982

Enduring the dehumanizing climatic scene is painful; “I can’t choose, please, I can’t choose… … take my little girl” – wait, what?! I will never forget the first time I saw this scene (“I Am Sam”-ish levels of heartache if you know what I mean). With her refined accent, soft slur and everything, it was the silent scream that was most capturing and really showed her depth.

Sophie – Sophie’s Choice. 1982

“I’m not a box, I don’t have sides. This is it. One side fits all.”

From Suzanne to Francesca

By the turn of the 90’s it seemed like Meryl was slowing down and taking a break from the heavy scripted emotional pictures to lighter, more comedic films. This decade was not Streep’s brightest, but a few roles kept her legacy intact and on the rise. In “Postcards from the Edge” she played Suzanne Vale, in a semi-autobiographical role about the late Carrie Fisher. Refining her craft under the directorship of Mike Nichols (their third film together) and sparring with the legendary Shirley MacLaine, she delivered a raw emotional performance about a woman going through the motions and trying to keep it all together.

Suzanne – Postcards from the Edge. 1990 (with Shirley MacLaine)

Later in the decade she starred as Italian war bride, Francesca Johnson, alongside Clint Eastwood in the romantic drama; “The Bridges of Madison County”. As you probably already guessed, she channels the most subtle Italian accent to give true life to the plight of Francesca as she explores a four day affair with a photographer while her family is out of town, and lives with the experience forever. If you remember her clutching onto that door handle then you probably remember enough.

Francesca – The Bridges of Madison County. 1995 (with Clint Eastwood)

“Where are the belts? …
Why is no one ready???”

From Miranda to Margaret

Neither Miranda Priestly nor Margaret Thatcher need any introduction. As Streep ages gracefully into the 21st century, we see her transition into the role of matriarch and mentor. The debate about the era of her prime is testament to the longevity of her brilliant career. “The Devil Wears Prada” stars Miranda as a fiery magazine editor, void of emotion and relentless in her pursuit for perfection. Once again, she channels a certain je ne sais quoi; quietly confident, charming and all-knowing. Meanwhile we all struggle to decide if we love her or hate her, but can’t shake the cold feeling that she wouldn’t care regardless. It’s all in her eyes. Miranda Priestly is widely considered the Meryl-Streepest performance and possibly her most recognized character in popular culture.

Miranda – The Devil Wears Prada. 2006

Five years after, she took on the role as The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher; the feisty leader of the British government in the 80’s. Needless to say, she channels her inner Brit and delivers a classic portrayal of regal feminist dominance, thrusting ol’ Maggie back into the spotlight and capturing her third Oscar and seventeenth nomination, the most by any actor/actress in history.

Margaret – The Iron Lady. 2011

No matter what role she steps into, it is almost a warranted assumption that you would be treated to a ground-breaking performance. One of the most indubitable artists in the history of cinema, Meryl Streep is a living legend that continues to shower the film world with her immaculate grace.

“That’s All”

Violet – August Osage County. 2013