Now that Meryl Streep's three big movies have dropped to the 400 screens-or-less mark -- The Devil Wears Prada (228 screens), The Ant Bully (78 screens) and A Prairie Home Companion (44 screens) -- I'd like to take a moment to celebrate her remarkable career. Sure, you're saying... hasn't she been celebrated enough? Not really. Few have noticed how Hollywood has chewed up and swallowed Streep, and yet she has come out the other side better than ever.

Born in New Jersey in 1949, Streep originally dreamed of the opera. She attended Vassar and Yale, performed regularly on stage and barely had to struggle before landing her first plumb movie role in Julia (1977). The following year she received an Oscar nomination for The Deer Hunter and a year later, won for Kramer vs. Kramer. She has received a total of 13 nominations, which ties her with Katharine Hepburn (one more, which could come this year, and she'll be the record holder).

What does Hollywood do with an actress like this? They give her the most prestigious material to cross the producer's desk. Adapt a classic novel, give her a frilly costume and a foreign accent and hope for another Oscar nomination. This method may result in a lovely resume for certain producers and some of the studios, but for the audience and for Streep, it resulted in a string of very boring pictures. Who wants to sit through the likes of The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Silkwood (1983), Plenty (1985), Out of Africa (1985) or Ironweed (1987) these days? Even her most acclaimed work in Sophie's Choice (1982) or A Cry in the Dark (1988) doesn't sound too appealing anymore. These were films with shelf lives designed to last not much longer than the year-end awards season. (Woody Allen's Manhattan is the only pic from her early period that I would bother watching again today.)

Around the late 1980s, Streep let it be known that she was tired of this high-minded seriousness and wanted to try some comedy. This led -- God help us all -- to films like She-Devil (1989, co-starring Rosanne Barr), as well as fluffy stuff like Postcards from the Edge (1990), Albert Brooks' failed Defending Your Life (1991) and the truly wretched Death Becomes Her.

Top that off with one more attempt at Oscar fodder, The House of the Spirits, and the nightmare ends. At this point, Streep found herself around 45-years-old, an age when most Hollywood women start playing grandmothers. Magically, Hollywood stopped caring about her.

This is when Streep got good.

Without anyone breathing down her neck about prestige and awards, she was free to do anything she wanted. She could take a supporting or a lead role. She could do a musical or a Western or a horror film. So she took a job working with Curtis Hanson, pre-L.A. Confidential, and still making glorified "B" pictures. The River Wild (1994) was Streep's first unhinged film, a real white-knuckler about a family confronted by killers in a mountain river.

From there, Streep went back to accents and best sellers, but this time her director was Clint Eastwood, who knew how to make a real movie and not just a Masterpiece Theater book on tape. The Bridges of Madison County (1995) told a passionate, illicit love story full of the raw, bold stuff of life. In this film, her earthy character had lived an entire lifetime before the film even started, and Streep struggles with this in every frame.

In 1999, she took a chance working with horror director Wes Craven, but unfortunately the result was the horrid, drippy Music of the Heart. She received another Oscar nomination.

But in 2002, she had perhaps her greatest role, in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, playing the writer Susan Orlean, enthralled by orchid hunter John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Around the same time she appeared in another prestigious film, The Hours, but this time her newfound relaxed freedom made her Mrs. Dalloway-type character all the more appealing.

Later, she found villainy in Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (both 2004); she understood that measured doses of sinister behavior outdoes over-the-top every time. In the underrated Prime (2005), she was hilarious as a shrink who discovers that her thirty-something patient (Uma Thurman) is dating her young twenty-something son. She's wonderfully nervy, upright and single-minded (I laugh every time I picture her holding her glass of red wine, chilled with ice cubes.)

Which brings us back to her new movies. Her regal voice performance in The Ant Bully is so brief that it doesn't really make or break the film, but the other two movies hinge on her presence. In A Prairie Home Companion, she plays a slightly deluded singer, having performed her whole life with no real success. She can't quite connect with those around her, and Streep somehow captures this failing, this concept of not quite getting the whole picture. But in The Devil Wears Prada, she is the whole picture, savvy, smart and exhausted from the sheer incompetence around her. It's another measured villainess part, but better than ever before. A simple glance or a murmured line reading has more power in her hands than all the roaring from Dante's Inferno.

All we have to do is look at these two films back-to-back to grasp that Streep, though she was already called the greatest actress in the world 20 years ago, is now capable of absolutely anything. I wouldn't be surprised if, in a hypothetical remake of David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, she could effectively reprise Jeremy Irons' twin gynecologists. Heck, she could probably pull off Stanley Kowalski. Well, maybe not that, but close. She's that good.
CATEGORIES Columns, Cinematical