Meryl Streep is generally cited as one of the greatest actors of our time. She’s got 21 Oscar nominations and three wins; the actors tied for second place—Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson—only have a measly 12 nominations apiece. She’s a master at accents, from Polish (Sophie’s Choice) to Australian (A Cry In The Dark), and her range is wide, allowing her to credibly embody everyone from a woman living on the streets in the Depression era (Ironweed) to a fashion icon (The Devil Wears Prada). She’s also believably embodied a number of real people, figures as varied as Margaret Thatcher, Kay Graham, and Julia Child.
You’re likely familiar with Streep’s many award-winning roles, and you may be one of the many viewers delighted with her rare foray into television on this season of Big Little Lies, where she plays quietly menacing mother-in-law Mary Louise. If this most recent turn has reignited your Streep admiration, but you’ve already seen Out Of Africa and The Bridges Of Madison County too many times to count, never fear: We’ve singled out five films from her long résumé that are a little off the beaten path but still well worth the watch; they offer the opportunity to see this great actor stretch herself further—literally, in the case of one head-twisting highlight below.
Silkwood (1983), which earned Meryl Streep one of her many Oscar nominations, was Nora Ephron’s first screenplay. A few years later, Streep basically played Ephron herself in Heartburn, directed by Mike Nichols. Based on Ephron’s novel of the same name, the movie is a lightly fictionalized account of her marriage to the adulterous Carl Bernstein, here renamed Mark Forman and played by Jack Nicholson. As food writer Rachel, Streep conveys the devastation of love gone wrong, as someone who was reluctant to get married, then falls in love with the blissful domestic life that follows, until everything falls apart. Thanks to Ephron’s wit and Streep’s sympathetic delivery, the movie manages to be quite funny—a perfect summation of marriage: “What are you shouting at me for?” “Because you’re the only one who’s here!”—and Carly Simon’s effervescent soundtrack suggests hope in the midst of heartbreak.
Availability: Hulu with Starz add-on and the major digital services
Defending Your Life (1991)
Good news: You’ve finally found the love of your life. Bad news: You’re both in a way station on the way to your next lives, and probably won’t be going to the same place. Writer-director Albert Brooks tackles the huge afterlife question in Defending Your Life, casting himself as Daniel, a man who let his fears rule his existence while on Earth. The Gallant to his Goofus is Julia, played by Streep, so brave that she was Prince Valiant in another life. Brooks’ mundane, Earth-like vision of purgatory, dubbed Judgment City, is fascinating. But the unlikely love story is the heart of the film. Perfect Julia could be super annoying played by anyone but Streep, effortlessly warm and wonderful here. (She’s the type of person who strolls back into a burning home to save the family cat.) Rachel’s also intrigued by the lesser Daniel, primarily because of how much he makes her laugh, leading to Daniel finally finding his true courage at last.
Availability: Hulu with Cinemax add-on and the major digital services
Death Becomes Her (1992)
Robert Zemeckis’ effects-laden comedy (it won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, but Streep disliked the experience so much she said she’d never work with a green screen again) is actually a sharp statement on the futile fixation with youth and beauty. Streep and Goldie Hawn play longtime frenemies Madeline and Helen (or Mad and Hel) who both discover the secret to eternal life. Bruce Willis is Ernest, the hapless doctor caught between them. Once Mad drinks the longevity potion, she discovers she can’t be killed, even as her body is flailed into all sorts of impossible positions. As always, Streep gamely jumps into the role, whether she’s performing a flop number from an ill-advised musical adaptation of Sweet Bird Of Youth or delivering an entire scene with her head spun around backwards. Ultimately, though, Ernest is the one who finds the secret to true longevity, while the women remain obsessed with maintaining a fading facade that no longer matters.
Availability: Hulu with Starz add-on and the major digital services
Meryl Streep, action hero? Curtin Hanson’s engaging thriller makes the case. Streep plays Gail, a history teacher and Boston mom who grew up as a river guide in the wilds of Montana. Her own family’s river vacation soon gets capsized by two criminals, played by Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly, who want her to lead them down a dangerous part of the rapids called The Gauntlet so that they can make their escape. If you’ve ever doubted that Meryl Streep can do anything, The River Wild is the one to see—not only does she ably lead the giant raft down treacherous waters (the outdoor action sequences will have you wondering how in the world they safely filmed them), she gloriously one-ups almost every man in the movie. Much is made of the fact that Gail is the alpha in her own home: The dog (and kids) primarily listen to her, not her buttoned-down architect husband (David Strathairn). So even Bacon’s treacherous charm is no match for Gail’s commanding competence.
Available: Netflix and the major digital services
Ricki And The Flash (2015)
Jonathan Demme’s final film didn’t seem to make much of a ripple on its release in 2015, but it’s still worth seeking out. Streep and her Sophie’s Choice co-star Kevin Kline reunite to play divorced parents of now-adult children. Streep uses a vocal register about an octave lower than her usual one to portray Ricki, a woman who appears to have given up her family to follow her dream of playing music; from her own perspective, she was pushed out by her domestic-minded husband and his new wife. Streep manages to wring sympathy even out of this potentially unsympathetic figure; now that her kids are older and her daughter’s in crisis, Ricki just wants to do the right thing, even though she’s not exactly sure what that is. Fortunately, she’s guided by her boyfriend, Greg (Rick Springfield, excellent in one of his first movie roles since 1984’s Hard To Hold) who reminds her that her job is to love her kids, and not worry so much about whether those feelings are returned. Streep learned to play guitar for Ricki—from Neil Young, no less! And while we’ve heard her sing in movies before, here she covers everyone from Tom Petty to Lady Gaga, backed by Springfield and the rest of the Flash. The movie’s high point is Ricki’s solo acoustic performance of the sentimental song “Cold One” for her ex and her struggling daughter, revealing her true feelings in a way mere words never could.
Available: Amazon Prime and the other major digital services