By L.S. Hilton
Eighteen months ago I was invited to the London premiere of “The Post”. I navigated the screaming crowds in Leicester Square and then a Chinese-box series of ever tinier VIP areas, until I found myself in a roped-off corner with five other people. One of them was some actor bloke called Tom, another was Meryl Streep. She gave me a radiant smile as we shook hands. “I’m Meryl.” She touched me. Her skin gleamed like very expensive soap, her eyes were bright and kind. I may have made a small squawking noise.
There was absolutely no way I could have an actual conversation with Meryl, because there was no way I could believe I was in the same space as Sophie Zawistowski, the actual French Lieutenant’s Woman and Donna from Mamma Mia!. I would either gush sycophantically or throw up on her court shoes. So I turned to the quiet, bespectacled man at her side. This must be Mr. Meryl, I thought. I felt sorry for Mr. Meryl. Imagine being married to a deity: no one would ever want to chat to you when they could be gazing. So I made determined small talk for about 20 minutes. He was very pleasant, if bemused. Then an assistant appeared, only to whisper reverently: “Mr Spielberg, they’re ready for you now.”
Meryl Streep has been doing that for almost five decades. Hers is a talent so luminous that it renders other actors — and even superstar directors — invisible. If that sounds sycophantic, then perhaps it’s a reasonable response to Hollywood’s most-nominated actress, not least because her off-screen presence is almost implausibly discreet and modest. She might be one of the world’s biggest stars, but as Streep celebrates her 70th birthday, she has retained a warmth and approachability that is the exact opposite of Miranda Priestly, the uber-bitch magazine editor she played in her 36th film, The Devil Wears Prada.
Mary Louise Streep was born in New Jersey in 1949. Although described as a “gawky kid with glasses and frizzy hair”, she became a cheerleader and her high school’s homecoming queen, but even as a young and beautiful woman, her looks never seemed the point. She cites her mother, Mary, an artist, as her earliest mentor, quoting her as saying: “If you’re lazy, you’re not going to get it done. But if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.” That determination is the source of the depth and rigour Streep has brought to all her roles, not just her extraordinary ability with accents, but a capacity to immerse herself entirely in her characters: for her 1999 movie “Music of the Heart’’, she took violin lessons for six hours a day for two months. Streep also cites her lack of obvious sexiness as key to her professional durability. She almost missed out on the role of the Danish writer Karen Blixen in “Out of Africa”, the 1985 film that established her as a superstar, as its director, Sydney Pollack, didn’t find her sufficiently sexy. But sex appeal has a shelf life — in Streep’s own words: “I wasn’t that [marriageable or f*******]… When I was a younger actress, that wasn’t the first thing about me.”
Streep has claimed that freeing herself from concern about her appearance as it pertained to her work was the most liberating thing she ever did, and while this approach chimes with the feminist culture finally gaining ground in Hollywood, she was an early pioneer. In 1990 she used a Screen Actors Guild conference as a platform to criticise the film industry for minimising women’s contribution. When she played opposite Dustin Hoffman in ’’Kramer vs Kramer’’, she was not afraid to complain that the script stereotyped her character, a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage who feels compelled to abandon her family.
Streep felt that the role lacked subtlety and nuance, and eventually the producers agreed, allowing her to write her own dialogue for two key scenes. She has always been drawn to complex, morally ambiguous characters, while battling against Hollywood’s tendency to straitjacket actresses according to their age. In one interview she recalled that when she turned 40, she was offered three witch roles in the same year. Her response was to take the role of Francesca in the schmaltzy but hugely successful “The Bridges of Madison County“, which she played with unapologetic eroticism, proving it was possible for a middle-aged woman to be taken seriously as a romantic lead.
Streep may have downplayed her beauty for much of her career, but as she enters her eighth decade, it’s more evident and more inspiring than ever. She embodies the French phrase bien dans sa peau — feeling good in your skin — and has always been adamant that anxiety about weight and the temptations of surgery are not for her. I had a good squint up close and her skin is a miracle.
In the past she has claimed that she “couldn’t care less about fashion” and once reportedly said: “Expensive clothes are a waste of time.” Nonetheless she is impressively and consistently stylish. She admits to being “a pain in the ass” to costume departments because of her pronounced opinions on what her characters should wear, which makes sense in terms of a professional technique based less on playing a character than on appearing to become them.
More than 40 years of public appearances have honed a style that is classic and confident, yet always fresh. Knowing what suits you and playing to your strengths might be fashion clichés, but that doesn’t make them easy to pull off. Streep often chooses striking all-white or black, defined with statement jewellery. She knows the value of a glamorous coat (at “The Post“ she was in a fabulous draped McQueen tuxedo) and often sets off basic soft trousers with a slinky, elegant kimono. Other signatures include jumpsuits, draping, an attention to a fluid yet defined line and a forgiving sleeve. Pretty much a masterclass in seemingly effortless elegance, which is not to say her look is dull. Her red-carpet choices include several stunners and she’s not averse to a bit of dazzle — she accepted her 1983 Academy Award for “Sophie’s Choice“ while pregnant with the second of her four children, wearing a fabulously embellished gold smock dress; the gold lamé Lanvin goddess gown she took to the 2012 Oscars was unforgettable; as was the sequined number by the same house the following year.
Yet unlike other actresses who often seem uncomfortably trussed-up and awkward in formal gowns, Streep wears hers with sass. There was a gorgeously moving moment at the 2018 Oscars ceremony when Frances McDormand accepted her award. She invited all the women in the audience to stand up as a gesture of solidarity, calling out: “Meryl, if you do it, everybody else will!” And up Streep gets, with her specs on. As the camera roves round the auditorium and one after the other the women stand to honour one another, there’s Streep, right at the front, jumping up and down in full-length scarlet Dior. Perhaps it’s that joyful exuberance, the ability not to take herself too seriously, that really sets the shine on her look. From the straddle jump in navy dungarees in Mamma Mia! to her delightfully daffy bell-skirted turn as Julia Child, what really sets Streep apart is her evident pleasure in clothes. Brilliant, serious and capable of acting anyone else off the screen, Streep’s most stylish asset is sometimes, just sometimes, being truly herself.
– The Sunday Times / The Interview People