The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.
It’s worth pausing for a moment here to note that while Streep’s ascent was rapid, it was relatively invisible for those not familiar with the intricacies of the theater world. Unlike every other figure I've been studying, she did not have an apprenticeship in television. Clint Eastwood had Rawhide, Denzel Washington had St. Elsewhere, and Tom Hanks had Bosom Buddies. Jodie Foster lacked a regular perch, but did years of yeoman’s work on a variety of shows and spent a stretch of her early career at Disney. Hanks and Washington had real stage training, but only Daniel Day-Lewis, who also did a variety of television work, underwent as long or as rigorous a preparation as Streep did. When she finally did emerge in the mass media, her impact was uniquely swift and decisive: almost overnight, she became the gold standard of acting excellence across gender lines.
Ironically, it was television, a medium where Streep has done relatively little work, which made her a household name. After landing a supporting role in the 1977 NBC movie The Deadliest Season, as the wife of a hockey player played by Michael Moriarity, Streep was cast in a leading role in Holocaust, a 1978 ABC miniseries that followed in the wake of the hugely successful Roots (1976). Streep played Inga Helms Weiss, the gentile wife of a Jewish artist (James Woods), whose prosperous family is sucked into the Nazi vortex. (Her Deadliest Season colleague Moriarity plays Erik Dorff, a jobless drifter turned Reich functionary, giving a performance of satisfying inscrutability in an otherwise drearily high-minded affair.) Holocaust was not as successful as Roots in terms of its reception or subsequent reputation, but it premiered during the golden age of television as a mass medium, and was viewed by some 120 people, half the U.S. population. Streep, who won an Emmy for her work in the seven-part series, nevertheless correctly described her part in Holocaust as “unrelentingly noble,” and says she took it largely for the money, as her fiancé Cazale was terminally ill with cancer. Upon her return from Austria shooting the series, Streep nursed him to his death. (She began seeing, and married, Don Gummer later the same year.) Streep would return to television in 1997 as the mother of an epileptic child who insists in the face of skepticism that his condition can be improved by his diet in First, Do No Harm, for which she was also nominated for an Emmy. She won her second Emmy for her work in the 2003 HBO miniseries Angels in America, in a tour de force clutch of parts that included Ethel Rosenberg, an angel, and, most amusingly, an almost unrecognizable elderly male rabbi.
It was in movies, however, that Streep cast her lot. Her first film role was small but significant: a snarky friend of playwright Lillian Hellman in the 1977 film Julia, which starred Vanessa Redgrave in the title role and Jane Fonda as Hellman, both of whom won Oscars. Its importance is less a matter of the part itself (most of which ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor) than Julia’s status as a feminist statement. Though generically related to the “woman’s film” or “weepie” that was a staple of moviemaking in the mid-twentieth century, Julia was packaged and perceived as a sign of the new power and prestige of women in the movie business. While this would prove to a false dawn, Streep’s association with the project, directed by old-time Hollywood heavyweight Fred Zinneman, would position her as A-level talent. Fonda, twelve years Streep’s senior and a feminist trailblazer in the business, conferred her blessing: “This one will go far,” she told Zinneman.
Next: Streep's critics