A three-time Academy Award winner with a record 21 nominations, Meryl Streep has been at the forefront of American actors since her debut in the late 1970s. Trained on the stage and able to juggle everything from searing drama to gut-busting comedy, she continues to reveal talents that astonish and delight us. Here are a few titles to get you started on the essential screen work of the one, the only, the utterly irrepressible Meryl Streep.
Streep earned her first Oscar nomination for her attention-getting role in Michael Cimino’s Best Picture winner, which took a harrowing look at the impact of the Vietnam War on a trio of Pennsylvania steelworker friends. As the woman left behind just after getting married, Streep turned in a performance that immediately made her one to watch.
’79 was a big year for Streep with memorable roles in Manhattan, The Seduction of Joe Tynan and this Best Picture winner that also snagged her first Academy Award win for Supporting Actress. This frank and often funny look at modern divorce finds her facing off against spouse Dustin Hoffman over custody of their son, which leads to a courtroom finale no viewer ever forgets.
Streep’s talent for accents was given a major showcase in this piercing drama that led to her first Oscar win for Best Actress. Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of the William Styron bestseller leaps between two time periods, showing the life of Polish immigrant Sophie, her turbulent romantic life and the horrific moment at Auschwitz that scarred her forever.
After her wide-ranging performances in Silkwood, Falling in Love and Plenty, Streep appeared in another Best Picture winner, also earning a nomination for her role as real-life author Karen Blixen (better known as Isak Dinesen). The beautifully shot story recounts Karen’s transformation upon moving with her husband to a farm in East Africa, where she embarks on a romance with an American hunter played by Robert Redford.
By the 1990s Streep was perceived as a very serious dramatic actress, so audiences were caught off guard when she shifted gears with a string of deft comedy performances. None showcases her effervescent charm better than Albert Brooks’ comic classic about what happens after you die—namely a process in which you get to look back on your life with a prosecutor and defender to determine whether you can move on to the afterlife or get reincarnated.
Not only did Streep prove she could do comedy by this point, but she also demonstrated her knack for special effects-driven extravaganzas with this hysterical pitch-black Robert Zemeckis comedy about a rivalry that goes to genuinely macabre extremes between Streep and onetime bestie Goldie Hawn. Once you’ve seen the contortions Streep goes through after consuming an elixir of eternal youth, you’ll never forget it.
Meryl Streep, action hero? Yes, indeed, and she’s a great one in this taut Curtis Hanson thriller about a family whitewater rafting trip that goes terribly wrong thanks to a pair of felons led by a particularly vicious Kevin Bacon. Filled with hair-raising stunts and featuring a rousing climax, it’s truly a side of Streep we’d never seen before.
The brain-twisting team of director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman blew viewers’ minds with this highly unorthodox look at the writing process based on Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, with Streep herself playing the writer in a quirky and charming performance that contrasts with Nicolas Cage’s wild performance(s) as Kaufman and his fictional brother.
Streep became an icon for a new generation of viewers as Miranda Priestly, the no-nonsense fashion magazine editor who puts new employee Andy (Anne Hathaway) through the wringer. Endlessly quotable, the film is now considered one of the key portraits of the fashion industry while providing the snow-haired Streep with a role for the ages.
Though she’d showed off her singing abilities before, Streep never did a full-on mainstream musical until this smash hit adaptation of the stage sensation built around the songs of ABBA. Here she anchors the story of a single mom on a Greek island whose colorful past with three men comes back to haunt her when her daughter (Amanda Seyfried) decides to track down her father. Streep would go on to more musical fun with Into the Woods (2014), The Prom (2020) and a cameo in the sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018).
Casting Streep as famed chef Julia Child seemed bizarre on paper, but the gamble paid off with this comedy paralleling a look at her life with the modern-day attempts of blogger Julie (Amy Adams) to execute all of Child’s recipes from her most famous cookbook in the span of a year. Nora Ephron’s film is savory enough on its own but be prepared to go out for a very fine meal when it’s over, too.
Streep won her third Oscar for her uncanny portrayal of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in this decades-hopping look at Thatcher’s life, from a childhood working at her family’s grocer’s shop to her ascension as one of the defining and most divisive politicians of the 1980s. Aided by Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland’s Oscar-winning makeup, she disappears so far into the role you have to remind yourself who’s actually playing the part.
Streep’s ability to slip into an ensemble was already established when she took on the role of Emmeline Pankhurst in this powerful look at the movement for women’s voting rights in the United Kingdom. Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter also headline as women who play a vital role in the suffragette movement that faced formidable obstacles on its way to securing an essential right for women across the country.