Welcome to a new series here on Cinematical where we select an actor or actress and the role we think is their all time best.
Last August, "Meryl Streep" wrote an op-ed piece for The Onion called "Name One Masterpiece Of Cinema That I've Starred In." It was really written by the Onion staff, of course, but they (and Streep) made a good point. For a woman who is very possibly the finest living actor of any sex, she has made very few truly unforgettable films. Her resume doesn't contain anything quite like Rear Window, The Godfather, Chinatown or Pulp Fiction. Case in point: the article brings up Kramer vs. Kramer. "Streep" says "I'd watch it if it were on," but it isn't really a masterpiece. Also, it's more Dustin Hoffman's movie than Streep's movie, and if you look at it that way, it ranks pretty far down on Hoffman's list of classics.
Streep's two best bona-fide classics are without a doubt Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979) and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), but she has only tiny roles in both. Despite Streep's excellence, films like The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Sophie's Choice (1982), Silkwood (1983), Out of Africa (1985), Plenty (1985), Ironweed (1987), A Cry in the Dark (1988), Marvin's Room (1996), One True Thing (1998), Music of the Heart (1999) or The Hours (2002) aren't exactly compulsively watchable, nor do they turn up on very many lists of favorite films. You could also eliminate her comedies like She-Devil (1989), Postcards from the Edge (1990) and Death Becomes Her (1992), and her recent string of lightweight hits like The Manchurian Candidate (2004), The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Mamma Mia! (2008).
That leaves her work with the best and most interesting directors. Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion (2006) is a good film, with a great Streep performance, and it's easy to get attached to it since it was Altman's last. But it has so many weird, ineffective little touches, and it's really an ensemble piece. Likewise, she's amazing in Spike Jonze's Adaptation (2002), though her role takes a backseat to Nicolas Cage's twin screenwriters and Chris Cooper's orchid thief.
Which brings us to Streep's best role, in Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County (1995). Eastwood is arguably the greatest director Streep ever had, and the material suited her perfectly, from her age and appearance, all the way down to the necessity for an Italian accent (Streep has always been known for her flawless accents). It's also a much simpler, purer role than she had ever had; here she has nothing to do with lost children or political causes or social unrest. She's merely a woman who has suddenly begun to experience feelings she shouldn't be experiencing. And in her quietest moments she registers these conflicting emotions in the most delicate of ways. Consider also the generosity of her performance, sharing the screen with Eastwood -- who is the most minimalist of all actors -- and becoming an equal partner to him. Neither outshines the other, and they have definite chemistry.
It's also useful to consider the near miracle that this movie is. It came from an extremely popular, awful book; Steven Spielberg owned the rights and once considered directing it himself. (Just imagine how goopy that would have been.) But Eastwood and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese cut all the New Age-y mush out of the text and created a stripped-down masterpiece, so honest that the filmmakers actually filled one romantic kitchen scene with buzzing flies. If the movie doesn't have the reputation it deserves today, it's only because of its association with that darn book. Indeed, in her Onion op-ed, when "Streep" gets to this movie, her response is merely "don't even get me started on The Bridges of Madison County." Nothing else. Perhaps the writers behind the piece couldn't find a joke for this movie. There may not be one. It's a Brief Encounter romance worthy of Brief Encounter itself. And it's Streep's masterpiece of cinema.