In the mid-seventies, I asked an acquaintance, an instructor at the Yale School of Drama, about a student who’d dazzled me in productions at the Yale Repertory Theatre. “She is the greatest actress in America,” he said, without hesitation. And offstage? “She can sit across from you over coffee and fix you with her eyes and do something small—twist a lock of her hair—and psych you out so completely that you won’t be able to speak.”
She still can. With Meryl Streep, the devil is in the details. No, the microdetails. A heavenward tilt of the head and the tiniest sigh of impatience and The Devil Wears Prada becomes, so briefly, a Restoration comedy. Along with the film’s protagonist, you comb the character’s face—an immaculate mask of entitlement—for signs of approval or disapproval. And the actress waits you out: slyly withholding, parceling out her reactions in sadistic microdoses. The precision is breathtaking.
Streep has been criticized for the whiff of fussiness that attends such precision onscreen, which doubtless reflects an American prejudice in favor of the Method. We don’t just want to see the character suffer; we want to believe that the actor is suffering, too—that there’s an emotional cost, that whatever we’ve just witnessed could never be repeated. But Streep is so on-the-button perfect you imagine she could reproduce a bit of business take after take or, in the theater, night after night. It’s just Meryl doing her virtuosity number!
The criticism is brushed aside—angrily—by people who have worked with Streep. Jeff Daniels told me, “What might be ‘fussy’ to some people are instincts flying through her at a hundred miles an hour. Between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ it’s more alive with Meryl than with anybody I’ve worked with. You can’t be false. You see the tiniest flutter—it’s like she’s saying, ‘Don’t do that unless you really believe it.’ ”
She even psychs out other actors!
This is the summer of Streep. The Devil Wears Prada. A Prairie Home Companion. Even The Ant Bully. And, starting this week, Brecht in Central Park.
Those of us who have seen Streep in the theater are privileged. Watching her onstage, you can savor her physical and vocal daring. And those microdetails don’t come off as fussy but as the most imaginative—and direct—expression of her characters’ inner lives. Could there be a better role for Streep right now than Mother Courage? Brecht’s tragic war profiteer might be the ultimate test: a woman so sensational at selling her damnable wares that she psychs herself out.