I recently spent a whole year watching a Meryl Streep film every week, and I thought I’d share with you some of the reviews I wrote for her many classic films!
Where does greatness begin? Even the best actors working today endured trying beginnings in their careers. Know what Tom Hanks’ first film was? A schlocky 1980 horror movie called He Knows You’re Alone. Leonardo DiCaprio received some of the best reviews of his career for The Wolf of Wall Street, but do you know where he started? Critters 3. Sandra Bullock, who was acclaimed the world over for her work in Gravity, started in a terrible, barely released B-movie called Hangmen. Of course there are your exceptions: Kate Winslet’s film debut is the haunting Heavenly Creatures, and Edward Norton somehow bypassed a turkey on the resume by dazzling audiences in Primal Fear.
So where did Meryl Streep, the greatest living film actress, get her start? You may be disappointed (or relieved) to learn that even her earliest work showcases not just her talent but her tremendous taste in material.
Meryl could have taken whatever work she could get (and has even said in interviews she did just that), but her first few films she made in the late 1970s include three Oscar winning films still wildly viewed and discussed today, along with a hugely popular TV mini-series that became her first major introduction to audiences around the world. She shot a little-seen (and currently unavailable) TV movie called The Deadliest Season in 1976 (and voiced a role in a film called Everybody Rides the Carousel a year earlier), but her first major part in a motion picture came in 1977, with her brief but memorable role in Julia.
Born June 22, 1949, as Mary Louise Streep, she first called Summit, New Jersey her home. Her mother was Mary Wolf, a commercial artist and art editor, who Meryl went on to say in her Golden Globes acceptance speech for Julie & Julia shared Julia Child’s verve and had a joy in living. Her father was Henry William Street, Jr., a pharmaceutical executive who Meryl once described as a romantic, and she has two brothers, Dana and Harry. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Drama from Vassar College in 1971, and her Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama.
Her stage career started in the mid-1970s, with featured roles in such plays as The Taming of the Shrew, Henry V, and Measure for Measure, the latter of which she starred opposite John Cazale, the powerhouse actor from The Godfather who she entered a relationship and stayed with until his death in 1978. She started auditioning for film roles, and didn’t succeed right away. (One film she didn’t get was King Kong, because producer Dino De Laurentiis didn’t find her sexy enough.)
She continued to appear on stage, receiving a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress for her role in Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, and she also played in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which Meryl later claimed caught Robert De Niro’s attention. She was doing such good work in play after play that it was inevitable that she would make the seamless transition to the screen, and the first director to give her a shot was director Fred Zinnemann.
While her second major film role in The Deer Hunter went on to garner Meryl her first Oscar nomination, her role in Julia is fleeting and only lasts a few minutes in the two-hour film. Zinnemann was so impressed by Meryl in her audition that he considered her for the title role of Julia, which eventually went to Vanessa Redgrave (who won the 1977 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress).
Unfortunately, she was a total unknown as a film actress at the time, so he decided to cast her in the smaller, less pivotal role as Anne Marie. It’s probably the only major film she appeared in that doesn’t give her a single title card in the credits — she’s listed in the beginning but among seven other actors — and it’s one of her shortest amounts of time on screen in a movie ever. But even though she’s given little to say and work with, boy, does she make an impression.
Julia tells the story of Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda), a struggling writer who reminisces about a magical childhood she spent with a best friend named Julia (Redgrave). After she finally writes a hit play, she becomes the toast of New York, and she’s invited to a writers’ conference in Russia. Julia, who has been battling against Nazism in Germany, asks Lillian to smuggle money on her trip to Russia to assist in Julia’s anti-Nazi cause.
Meryl plays Anne Marie, an old friend of Lillian’s who, in her first of two scenes, tries to make conversation with the newly celebrated playwright. Wearing a fancy pink dress and a long black wig, Meryl makes her first appearance on-screen in a major motion picture commanding the frame in what is otherwise Fonda’s movie. Meryl’s facial reaction upon seeing Fonda walk into the restaurant is priceless — she instantly infuses her character with a recognizable personality — and the disappointed look she gives her when she’s ignored allows backstory for the character, with almost no dialogue uttered at all.
Her second of two scenes offers the real meat of her performance in Julia, the only time she gets substantial dialogue and the opportunity to play off Fonda. This time, she dips her head a lot, and glances all around the bar, looking less excited to see her than she did the other night. Wearing an over-the-top red dress and a fur around her shoulders, she barely gives Fonda a chance to speak. And then, just when the viewer has become intrigued by this supporting character, she walks off, never to be seen again for the remainder of the picture. She’s so striking in these two moments that it’s a shame her character couldn’t have received more screen-time.
Meryl’s film debut doesn’t have the pizzazz of Winslet in Heavenly Creatures or Norton in Primal Fear, mostly because her screen-time is too limited. But there are far worse ways for an actor to get his or her start than in a major motion picture starring Jane Fonda, one that went on to be nominated for a whopping eleven Academy Award nominations, and winning three.
While the movie today is a bit dated at times and only works in certain sections, never as a cohesive whole, there is a lot to love about Julia, starting with Meryl’s oh-too-brief debut. At the 2014 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award to Fonda, Meryl began the ceremony by thanking Fonda publicly for recommending her to other producers and directors, which likely got Meryl her second job, and her third, and her fourth.
Who would have thought after appearing in less than five minutes in Julia all the decades of brilliant work that were to come.
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency.