“Worst” is a relative term when talking about the always-impressive Meryl Streep — on their best day, any performer would be lucky to be as good as Meryl at her worst. But actors are the first to tell you they typically have little control over the finished product, as countless elements — direction, editing, scoring — contribute to the perceived “success” of a film.
Bad movies can boast great performances and wonderful films can be dragged down by awful acting. To this end, BuzzFeed focused solely on Streep’s contributions to each of the 50-plus films below and only took into account the work she did to bring these characters to life, rather than the overall quality of the films.
Note: In order to be included, Streep’s performance had to be in a project conceived for film or television. Which means that you won’t find Streep’s turn as the title character in Alice at the Palace, a truly surreal 1981 stage play that had one of its performances taped, or Kiss Me Petruchio listed below.
60. Blue Mecha, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
In Steven Speilberg’s sci-fi adventure, Streep provided expository narration at the film’s end.
Given the breadth of Streep’s work, and the paltry voice-over dialogue available to her here, this was an easy choice for “the worst” because it was also “the least.”
59. The Angel Australia, Angels in America (2003)
Streep played a quartet of roles for director Mike Nichols in HBO’s adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play: The Angel Australia, Hannah Pitt, Ethel Rosenberg, and The Rabbi. The Angel appears in a single scene toward the film’s end when Justin Kirk’s Prior Walter begs the elders to put an end to AIDS.
This perfectly fine performance simply pales in comparison to the opportunities afforded to Streep in the other three roles.
58. Anna, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)
In this cinematic adaptation of John Fowles’ novel of the same name, Streep — who was nominated for Best Actress — plays two roles: the titular character, Sarah Woodruff, and Anna, the actress bringing her to life in the film-within-a-film.
Anna is a more straightforward and simple character in comparison to the complex Sarah Woodruff, who we’ll get to much later. There’s little for Streep to do with this thinly drawn character, aside from recite the lines and (seemingly) wait to give her all in the Victorian story.
57. Aunt Esme Dauterive, King of the Hill (1999)
For “A Beer Can Named Desire,” a 1999 episode — heavily based on Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire — of Fox’s long-running animated comedy, Streep voiced Bill’s aunt, who the Hill family meets en route to a football game in New Orleans.
While Streep is the perfect choice to give this very Tennesse Williams-esque character life, the drawn-out drawl she evokes feels more lethargic than intentionally lackadaisical.
56. Violet Weston, August: Osage County (2013)
Streep earned her 18th Oscar nomination for playing the caustic matriarch of a deeply damaged brood in this star-studded adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.
Everything about this performance feels like Meryl Streep was actively chasing a Very Special Meryl Streep PerformanceTM and at no point did she disappear into Violet; each outburst, cutting comment, and exhale of smoke felt like a consciously calculated gift to whomever had the good fortune to pick the clip shown at awards show.
And perhaps that’s more to do with how we experience her films now that she’s become such an icon, but following a string of such successfully immersive roles, August: Osage County was over-the-top in the worst way possible.
55. Sharon Miller, The Deadliest Season (1977)
In her very first on-screen role, Streep played Sharon Miller, the wife of Gerry Miller (Michael Moriarty), a professional hockey player charged with manslaughter after a particularly violent on-ice altercation left an opposing player dead.
Athletes wives usually suffer in silence as their husbands sacrifice their brains and bodies for their sport, but Streep does an admirable job of conveying both concern for her husband’s well-being and fear over his newfound aggression. Granted, she’s not given much to do once the film enters the legal proceedings, but it’s easy to see why Hollywood started hiring her for meatier roles after this performance.
54. Susan Traherne, Plenty (1985)
Covering almost 20 years, from the early 1940s to the 1960s, the film revolves around Susan Traherne, an Englishwoman who is constantly chasing the adrenaline-fueled life she once led as a fighter for the French Resistance during World War II, when she returns to England after the war.
Undoubtedly a difficult role, it’s one of Streep’s most subtle and she does a commendable job of making Susan more than her symptoms as she becomes increasingly disillusioned, self-destructive, and indifferent to those around her. But it’s hard not to feel the same as the sparkle typically visible just under the surface is majorly dimmed here.
53. Queen, The Ant Bully (2006)
Along with Julia Roberts and Nicolas Cage, Streep lent her vocal stylings this story of an insect community that’s accidentally infiltrated by a young boy, who is taught a valuable lesson about overcoming adversity, no matter your size.
No one embodies regal elegance more than Streep, and her Zenned-out vocal performance is perfectly suited to the leader of zillions. But, again, there’s only so much she can do, given a small allotment of scenes.
52. Carolyn Ryan, Before and After (1996)
Along with Liam Neeson, Streep plays the frenzied parent of Jacob (Edward Furlong), who goes on the run after he’s accused of murdering his girlfriend.
Nobody does unbridled grief like Streep, but the seriously subpar script offers her little chance to excel beyond the baseline level of excellence she brings to every role. In fact, standing erect in an insane array of weighty floor length denim skirts and chunky cable knit sweaters seems like the most heavy lifting asked of her.
51. Donna, Mamma Mia! (2008)
The beloved jukebox musical came to life in a colorful movie stuffed with A-list actors getting their kitsch on. It earned more than $600 million globally, making it the biggest box office success of Streep’s career.
Singing has been one of the biggest recurring themes in Streep’s career — from single scenes to entire films — but there are some incredibly odd vocal choices made in adapting ABBA’s songs for the screen that seriously diminish the impact of her vocal prowess. Luckily, Streep compensates for that disappointing development by wearing Donna’s broken heart on her sleeve, ensuring the audience hopes she’s the winner who takes it all in the end.
50. Corrine Whitman, Rendition (2007)
With the Iraq War dominating headlines, and American’s lives, Streep starred in back-to-back 2007 films that tackled our post-9/11 world: Rendition and Lions for Lambs. In the former, she played a government suit who sanctions the torture of a supposed terrorist.
While it’s wonderful that Streep wanted to use her star-wattage to bring attention to this important topic, one wishes she A) chose a more compelling project to do so and B) found a more engaging character than Corrine Whitman, as she spends her few scenes either barking orders into phones or engaged in eyebrow Olympics as she feigns ignorance when countless people confront her about the missing man.
That said, one shudders to think of the lip-smacking villainess a lesser actress would have turned Whitman into.
49. Anne Marie, Julia (1977)
For her first film role, Streep played a New York City socialite in a pair of scenes opposite Jane Fonda in this World War II saga.
Even at the outset of her career, Streep made meals out of small roles, like this two-scene treat in which she refused to be overshadowed by luxe designs or an intimidating co-star. Anne Marie’s desperation to infiltrate Julia’s social circle was palpable in the ingenue’s hands.
48. Lila Ross, Evening (2007)
The film jumps between the 1950s and modern day to chronicle the life of Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave), and in a fun bit of casting, Streep dons old age makeup as the elderly version of Lila, played in the 1950s timeline by her daughter, Mamie Gummer.
Streep only appears at the very end of the film, to bookend the journey started by these two characters five decades earlier, but the wisdom and maturity she infuses her incarnation of Lila with makes the wait worth it.
47. Kay, Hope Springs (2012)
Through the framework of intensive therapy sessions, this adult drama offers a rarely seen (in cinemas, that is) examination of a mature marriage, delving into empty nest syndrome, the rut of routine, and getting sex back on the table.
One of the many upsides to Streep’s current star power is that her presence alone is enough to get thoughtful projects like this green-lit in a time when Hollywood seems to have a single-minded focus on dystopian franchises, teen dramas, and big budget action movies that clear $100 million on opening weekend.
But those movies often sacrifice heart in their pursuit of success, and that’s the reverse of Streep’s specialty. With Hope Springs, she brings so much genuine humanity to the performance that, from frame one, you become Kay’s biggest champion, rooting for her with a fervor rarely seen outside of those aforementioned tentpole movies that clear $100 million on their opening weekends.
46. Camilla Bowner, Web Therapy (2010–2012)
Lisa Kudrow tapped Streep to play Camilla Bowner, a renowned sexual orientation therapist who is attempting aversion therapy on Kip Wallace (Victor Garber), the husband of Kudrow’s Fiona, because he’s trying to sublimate his gayness in order to win a political office.
Kudrow is one of the most accomplished improvisers working today, and it’s a real treat seeing her and the impressively capable Streep go toe-to-toe in a handful of episodes. In Streep’s hands, Bowner’s tender and flighty facade intermittently falls away, to reveal her cunning true intentions. It’s an acting feat only a truly gifted thespian could achieve, given Web Therapy’s impromptu format.
45. Aunt Josephine, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
The Baudelaire orphans (Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, and Kara Hoffman) are subjected to a series of questionable potential guardians throughout the course of the film and Streep plays Aunt Josephine, a flibbertigibbet with an obsession for proper grammar.
The fantastical world depicted both in the books (written by Lemony Snicket, the pen name of American author Daniel Handler) and the film give an actor license to go as big and bold as possible. Which Streep handily does, embracing every adorably insane tendency we’ve seen in real life, but find her often required to snuff out in films.
44. Hannah Pitt, Angels in America (2003)
The second of Streep’s four roles is Hannah Pitt, the tough Mormon mother to the closeted Joe (Patrick Wilson), who travels to New York and, through a series of interactions, comes to see the world in a new way.
The least showy of the non-Angel roles is the only one that offers Streep the opportunity to take a character on an emotional journey. Hannah’s evolution (from small-minded homophobe to enlightened soul) also serves to represent how the tide has changed in terms of widespread gay acceptance by heterosexual culture.
And Streep thrives under the weight of such an important task, as Hannah’s latent homophobia is almost exclusively expressed by how she delivers the dialogue and her withdrawn physicality when encountering the film’s gay characters. So, by the end, she’s taken the viewer on an incredibly subtle and totally successful journey through the spectrum of emotions.
43. Clara del Valle, The House of the Spirits (1993)
Told in flashbacks, the film starts in post-colonial Chile with the del Valle family — specifically daughter Clara (Streep), who possesses psychic abilities — before spanning decades to chart her life and that of her daughter, Blanca (Winona Ryder).
While it’s a little jarring how little Streep’s character visibly ages, given the decades of time the movie spans, she gives an utterly elegant portrayal of this confounding character. The film’s highlight comes around the halfway mark, when Clara has a vision of her longtime confidant Ferula (Glenn Close). The realization that this means her friend has died washes over Clara and, in a moment of triumphant acting, a single tear falls from each of Streep’s eyes. In that instant, you must simply sit back and marvel at her skills.
42. Karen Blixen, Out of Africa (1985)
Out of Africa was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture, which it won, and Best Actress), and the only thing more popular in 1985 than director Sydney Pollack’s drama was the khaki costumes that permeated mainstream style for years.
Streep is, rightfully, celebrated for her ability to seamlessly master an accent, which makes it a little odd to hear her falling into a dodgy affectation sporadically throughout the film. The real triumph here is how thoughtfully and carefully she takes Karen on a journey of ever-changing strength.
From both a physical and emotional standpoint, the evolution feels impressively organic thanks to the ever-so-slight degrees of growth Streep lends her creation. So by the time she wields a whip and chases a lion back into the wilderness, there’s nary a shred of the woman who once begged a man for help.
41. Jessica Lovejoy, The Simpsons (1994)
The preacher’s daughter trope gets Simpsonized in “Bart’s Girlfriend” as Streep voices Reverend Lovejoy’s first born, Jessica — who, despite her angelic exterior, has a devious streak.
If you didn’t know Streep provided the voice for Jessica Lovejoy, watching the episode would provide no clues as she offers up an utterly unrecognizable performance, one that is both nefarious and sweet as pie.
40. Molly Gilmore, Falling in Love (1984)
Along with Robert DeNiro’s Frank Raftis, Streep reveals what it’s like when two married people meet and can’t deny the feeling that the universe brought them together for a reason.
Most cinematic portrayals of extramarital affairs focus on the sexy nature of the illicit coupling. Here, an emotional connection, not carnal lust, fuels Molly and Frank to flirt with infidelity and that results in, perhaps, the most humanized representation of cheating. Streep’s quiet performance ends up being crucial to selling the script’s thesis as she grounds Molly’s disbelief, making the audience identify with — and understand — the endless emotional confusion.
39. Joanna Silver, Dark Matter (2007)
In this film based on a true story, Streep plays the wealthy patron of a brilliant Chinese university student who responds violently when his chances for a Nobel Prize are dashed by school politics.
The film calls for Streep to play a kind, selfless, and compassionate woman who takes a young student (Liu Ye) under her wing…and not much else. While the role of Joanna is the film’s least showy, it’s an excellent vehicle for Streep’s maternal charms.
38. Chief Elder, The Giver (2014)
Streep plays Chief Elder — the seemingly-benevolent ruler of a dystopian society — in the disappointing film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Newberry Medal-winning novel.
Her long, grey hair is intended to imply wisdom, but Streep carries herself with a poise so rigid, it gives the character a degree of gravitas that makes the visual cue almost unnecessary. And when time comes for Chief Elder to lay her cards on the table, Streep ensures her character’s noble intentions behind dozens of unethical decisions are front and center with a surprisingly emotional final speech.
37. Inga Helms Weiss, Holocaust (1978)
Through the fictional Weiss family, this miniseries — for which Streep was nominated for, and won, her first Emmy — spans the length of the Nazi occupation and recounts what life was like inside and outside the concentration camps. Streep plays the newly married Inga, a Christian, whose husband Karl (James Woods), a German Jew, is taken by the Nazis. She spends the whole series attempting to reunite them.
In her first lead role, Streep (then 28 years old) commands the screen with a power and presence that has typified her entire career. As Inga, she exudes a headstrong dedication to her values, beliefs, and quest to find Karl — even in the face of endless stumbling blocks.
36. Janine Roth, Lions for Lambs (2007)
Told in three parts, Streep shares almost all her scenes with Tom Cruise’s Sen. Jasper Irving; she plays a political reporter who has been given exclusive access to a top secret mission in Afghanistan that is, unbeknownst to them, going horrifically awry.
For much of the movie, Streep is being acted at by Cruise, who gets the lion’s share of the hefty monologues during their scenes. It seems, for a while, that her character exists merely to be a exposition facilitator, but, thankfully, after 70 minutes, she’s given a killer monologue that expresses many of our collective frustrations with the war in Afghanistan that, in true Streep fashion, she obliterates.
35. Rachel Samstat, Heartburn (1986)
With a script written by Nora Ephron, and based on her semi-autobiographical novel, Heartburn looks at the ignoble beginning and tempestuous end of the marriage between Rachel (Streep) and Mark (Jack Nicholson, who plays a character based on Ephron’s second husband, Carl Bernstein, who had an affair with Margaret Jay, the daughter of former British Prime Minister James Callaghan).
Few are better with Ephron’s words than Streep, but (likely given the, perhaps, too-personal nature of the story) there’s an undeniably bitter sentiment coursing through the whole film that makes it difficult to invest in any of the characters, despite dynamic performances from both Streep and Nicholson.
34. Kate Mundy, Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)
Streep plays one of five incredibly close and unmarried sisters who live in rural Ireland during the 1930s.
First of all, the brogue Streep adopts for this film is so sublime, it creates an air of authenticity so thick there are genuinely moments where you completely cease to see her in the character. On top of that, as the family’s self-appointed matriarch, Streep transforms herself into the kind of emotionally domineering woman that only exists when you care too deeply for others. Those elements — along with the equally memorable performances from Catherine McCormack, Kathy Burke, Sophie Thompson, and Brid Brennan as Kate’s sisters — result in an incredibly powerful representation of the ties that bind.
33. Lee, Marvin’s Room (1996)
After her sister (Diane Keaton) is diagnosed with leukemia, Lee (Streep) returns to their childhood home, and brings her two sons — Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino) — in hopes of squashing a 20-year feud.
Streep has an uncanny ability to turn characters who are unlikeable on paper into incredibly relatable, three-dimensional people. That often insurmountable task is accomplished here by lending Lee a world weariness that tells you she’s been hardened by life, not by choice.
32. Lisa Metzger, Prime (2005)
Following her divorce, Rafi (Uma Thurman) starts dating David (Bryan Greenberg), an adorable twentysomething, and can’t stop gushing about their sex life to her therapist, Lisa (Streep), who comes to the unfortunate realization that Rafi is actually dating her son.
Streep plays a dutiful — and slightly clichéd — Jewish mother (Yiddish! Corned beef sandwiches! Insists her son marry a Jewess!) for the bulk of the film’s first half. But Streep, and Lisa, truly comes to life by being the first to realize her patient is actually dating her son! Through that discovery, and the ensuing secret-keeping, Streep delivers some wonderfully unhinged comedic moments as Lisa grapples with the conflict of her professional and motherly duties.
31. Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
The second adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 novel — the first was in 1962 with Angela Lansbury in this role — updates the action from the Cold War to the Iraq War, but proves brainwashing fears are timeless. Streep’s senator, also the mother to Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) — a U.S. representative from New York, who, through her doing, is forced into becoming a vice presidential candidate — is a character so devious and manipulative, Lady MacBeth would have been taken aback.
There is so much deliciousness at work with Streep’s portrayal of this power-hungry mother, who, following her husband’s death, has become unhealthily fixated on her son and his ascent up the political ladder. There’s the outward HBIC attitude she wants the world to see (a Streep speciality) and the hidden infatuation with her son that manifests in an overly affectionate relationship.
Those two warring forces inside Eleanor converge in the film’s most dynamic scene: After Raymond majorly disappoints his mother, Streep chomps down on a piece of ice with an intention so terrifying and dismissive, it sends a shiver up your spine.
30. Suzanne Vale, Postcards From the Edge (1990)
Substance-addicted actress Suzanne Vale (Streep), loosely based on the life of Carrie Fisher, who wrote both the screenplay and the book on which this film is based, struggles to maintain her sobriety and reclaim her Hollywood status after one too many tumbles off the wagon. Neither task is made easier by living with her mother, Hollywood icon Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine, based on Fisher’s own mother, Debbie Reynolds).
Upon first viewing, it’s MacLaine’s performance that stands out as Doris is a bold, in-your-face, larger-than-life personality prone to hopping up on any given piano and belting out a torch song. By comparison, Streep gives a surprisingly laid-back performance throughout Suzanne’s post-rehab life. But, one realizes by film’s end, that Streep had actually made an incredibly savvy choice to downplay Suzanne’s early days as it was necessary to properly distinguish the various degrees of frustration, exasperation, and, eventually, realization that dominated this addict’s recovery.
29. Sarah Woodruff, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)
For her second performance in the film, Streep plays Sarah Woodruff, a young social outcast who engages in an affair with Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons) during the Victorian Era.
While Anna, the film-within-a-film character, was an underwhelming role free of any truly standout moments, Streep is utterly captivating as Sarah, a misguided young woman who flits from mistake to mistake, seemingly incapable of avoiding self-sabotage. The sad complexity plastered across Streep’s face throughout this portion of the film stands in even starker contrast every time the action cuts back to Anna.
28. Linda, The Deer Hunter (1978)
The film is, at its core, the story of three men — Michael “Mike” Vronsky (Robert DeNiro), Steven Pushkov (John Savage), and Nikonar “Nick” Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) — and the horrors of war. Through Streep’s character, who was romantically entwined with Nick before he died abroad, The Deer Hunter explores the unpredictable ways everyone grieves.
The role of Linda was, according to Streep, a little thinly written so she and DeNiro ended up improvising many of their most emotional scenes — and that authenticity is incredibly apparent in the post-war scenes, as both struggle with the loss of Nick, his best friend and her lover.
Streep also injects a myriad of tiny moments into her performance — a bitten nail, a furrowed brow, a thought held at the last moment — that may seem insignificant on their own, but collectively work together to turn this supporting character into one of the film’s most fully fleshed-out.
27. Ethel Rosenberg, Angels in America (2003)
The third of four roles that earned Streep the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie Emmy in 2004 is Ethel Rosenberg, a ghost who haunts Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) in his final days.
Two particular scenes in this six-hour TV miniseries earned this performance such high placement: A prolonged two-hander where Ethel malevolently taunts a delirious Roy, who then turns the tables on her, and begs for mercy and her delivery of the kaddish prayer alongside Ben Shenkman’s Louis. Both moments are simultaneously infused with so many warring emotions that they’re often pointed to as high points of the entire endeavor.
26. Susan Orlean, Adaptation. (2002)
Charlie Kaufman’s brilliantly weird screenplay blurs the line between fact and fiction as he tries to adapt Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief, without any success, ending up in both his own script and a deadly confrontation with its subject.
Given the film’s untrustworthy narrator, it’s constantly unclear if the Susan Orlean we’re seeing at any given moment is Kaufman’s romanticized idea of her, his fractured version of her, how she truly was, or some combination of the three. Because of that, Streep is tasked with creating several slightly varied versions of the same character — all of which are inherently fascinating.
25. Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady (2011)
Streep won her third Academy Award for this portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, the longest-serving prime minister of the United Kingdom of the 20th century.
While Streep was lauded for the uncanny likeness she brought to Thatcher’s younger, and more public, years (which is remarkable), her strongest work actually comes during the contemporary timeline, during which an elderly Thatcher struggles to rectify the monumental responsibilities of her past with her routine present. The physicality and vocal intonation she adopts to play an 83-year-old version of Thatcher cements the entirety of this tremendous transformation.
24. Kate Gulden, One True Thing (1998)
A writer (Zellweger) returns home to care for her cancer-stricken mother (Streep) and discovers her seemingly perfect father (William Hurt) is anything but.
Prior to her diagnosis, Streep lends Kate a boundless amount of joyous energy. She’s a contemporary Donna Reed, constantly baking delectable treats, throwing elaborate parties, and basically putting everyone else’s needs first. So when time comes for someone to care for the woman who has dedicated her life to caring for others, it never threatens to make the character unsympathetic.
Adding to the audience’s compassion for the character, Streep puts herself through the wringer to accurately portray the ravaging effect this disease has one’s body. But what’s most incredible is that Streep doesn’t appear to lose any weight (a go-to trick in Hollywood) for the role, opting instead to contort her physique and carry herself in increasingly frail ways to achieve the same effect. It’s an astounding transformation.
23. Brooke Reynolds, Still of the Night (1982)
After a psychiatrist’s client is murdered, he begins sleeping with the man’s mistress (Streep) despite fears she may be the killer.
The actress embraces her inner Hitchcock blonde for this underrated thriller that boasts genuine scares and a sensational performance from Streep as she encases Brooke in a fantastic air of mystery, while also making her completely sympathetic, leaving the viewer guessing until the film’s shocking denouement.
22. Lori Reimuller, …First Do No Harm (1997)
This made-for-TV movie centers on one woman’s struggle against the medical establishment after her son is diagnosed with epilepsy.
While the TV movie genre typically devolves into histrionics as the running time ticks on, Streep ensures that’s not the case with this unexpectedly powerful tale of medical narrow-mindedness. She forces viewers to take this emotional journey with her character by making Lori’s frustration, confusion, sadness, anger, and indignation palpable.
And as Robbie (Seth Adkins) gets sicker and sicker, and his seizures become more commonplace, Streep never allows Lori’s reactions to infer a desensitization. Instead she rallies against that, lending each episode a new emotional reaction and an increasing fury that eventually leads her to take on the system.
21. Francesca Johnson, The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
A housewife in the 1960s enters a torrid, four-day affair with a photographer.
While other actors require pages and pages of dialogue to help convey who a character is to the audience, Streep simply requires a furtive glance, a coy smile, or a pensive twirl of her chestnut locks to express a dizzying array of emotions. That gift is utilized perfectly with this romantic saga as Streep makes it impossible not to, as Clint Eastwood’s Robert Kincaid does, immediately fall hard for Francesca.
20. Roberta Guaspari, Music of the Heart (1999)
Streep earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 2000 for director Wes Craven’s drama about one teacher’s quest to bring classical music to inner-city students.
Of all Streep’s work, this was the film that caught me most off-guard as I had long assumed it was Dangerous Minds with violins. And while, on some level, it is, there’s an unexpected amount of heart here that makes the wonderful Mr. Holland’s Opus a more appropriate comparison.
In Roberta, Streep has created an impressive woman by perfectly straddling the line between stern and sympathetic because, like all teachers, her love for the children shines through even when chastising them.
19. Jill, Manhattan (1979)
In Woody Allen’s acclaimed comedy, Streep plays the ex-wife of Allen’s Isaac who is now in love with a woman.
Early proof that Streep has always been able to make an impact with limited screentime. Calm in the face of Isaac’s insanity and always able to maintain her decorum despite his neuroses, Streep is able to paint a complete portrait of a person in just a handful of scenes.
18. Mrs. Fox, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated tale of a fox (voiced by George Clooney) who cannot let go of his formerly wild life and the ensuing fallout when his antics threaten to ruin the lives of everyone he loves.
Streep’s soothing voice was an inspired choice to bring the compassionate but frustrated Mrs. Fox to life as she fills the wife, mother, and aunt with endless amounts of heart and makes her more alluring than any animated animal ought to be.
17. Clarissa Vaughan, The Hours (2002)
Three women — Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), and Clarissa Vaughan (Streep) — are each affected by Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway in different ways.
Clarissa is given the first proper scene and Streep artfully sets the dramatic tone for the rest of the film, making Clarissa’s pain, sadness, longing, and love instantly palpable, ensuring those emotions haunt every other frame in the film.
16. Karen Silkwood, Silkwood (1983)
The Oscar-nominated story of Karen Silkwood, an employee at a plutonium-processing plant who was contaminated and possibly murdered to prevent her from revealing safety violations at her plant.
Despite the character’s gruff, overly confident, and polarizing personality, this is one of the most instantly compelling performances of Streep’s career. By leaning in to Karen’s messy tendencies, Streep is able to honor Karen’s truth without alienating the audience, and guarantees within 20 minutes of meeting her, you’re emotionally invested in Karen’s struggle.
15. Madeline Ashton, Death Becomes Her (1992)
Robert Zemeckis’ special effects-palooza is designed to serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of vanity, societal pressure, frenemies, boyfriend stealing, and frosting.
From a purely technical and physical standpoint, you have to marvel at what Streep and Goldie Hawn accomplished; they were twisted, contorted, broken down, unselfconscious balls of clay in Zemeckis’ capable hands. Visually, their contributions can not be understated.
In terms of acting, Streep is a zealous picture of total commitment when it comes to fully realizing Madeline Ashton’s journey from youth-obsessed fading star to supernaturally rejuvenated vixen.
14. Karen Traynor, The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)
Written by star Alan Alda, this political drama revolves around liberal Sen. Joe Tynan (Alda), who is forced to recalibrate his moral compass, and make a lot of personal sacrifices, in order to advance professionally. Streep plays Tynan’s newly hired right-hand woman, Karen Traynor, who ends up having an affair with her married boss.
This little-seen film premiered right before her big breakout in Kramer vs. Kramer, which is unfortunate because it’s a gem of a performance and, with Karen Traynor, Streep was given her first real opportunity to hone the sweet yet tart duality that recurs repeatedly throughout her career.
13. Gail Hartman, The River Wild (1994)
The Hartman family’s white water rafting trip turns deadly when they’re held hostage by two criminals on the run (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly), who demand Gail (Streep), a former rafting instructor, help them escape down the deadly river.
“Action-hero Meryl Streep” is something that Hollywood should have given audiences more often. Yes, she frequently plays emotionally tough and resilient characters, but few can hold a candle to Gail, who is equally strong in spirit but also in physicality.
And don’t even get me started on Streep’s steely stare — it’s enough to instantly repel even the dumbest criminals. Granted, you know from the beginning that Gail will triumph over her captors in the end, the fun simply comes from guessing how thoroughly she’ll trounce them.
12. Jane Adler, It’s Complicated (2009)
Writer/director Nancy Meyers explores fidelity — and the serious lack thereof — in this romantic comedy starring Streep as Jane Adler, Alec Baldwin as Jake Adler (the newly remarried ex-husband she’s having an affair with), and Steve Martin as Adam Schaffer (the man she should be dating).
Streep has never been more effervescent, unhinged, relatable, or lovable than she was in It’s Complicated, which deftly addresses aging, sex, dating, marriage, and the convergence of the four.
11. Yolanda Johnson, A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Robert Altman’s final film is a love letter to the old timey radio show, a format popularized in the early 20th century — and kept alive today by Garrison Keillor, who co-stars here. All the action takes place during the last broadcast of a fictional radio show and focuses on the performers accepting the program’s fate.
While not explicitly a musical, Companion features the best on-screen utilization of Streep’s vocal stylings; she plays Yolanda, one half of a singing sister act (along with Lily Tomlin’s Rhonda). Additionally, the film has a beautiful grasp of emotional expression through song, as evidenced by Streep’s duet of “Gold Watch and Chain” with Keillor, who plays her former lover; she weaves so much hope and longing into the performance, your heart will ache for her.
10. The Rabbi, Angels in America (2003)
The fourth — and best — Streep/Angels performance is also the least recognizable as she slathers on a gallon of spirit gum and fake facial hair in order to play a male rabbi.
Admittedly, the hair and makeup teams did a lot of the work, but the endeavor only works because Streep completely vanishes inside the performance. But that goes for Ethel and Hannah as well; Streep didn’t just play three different characters here, she created three entirely unique human beings.
9. Julia Child, Julie & Julia (2009)
A pseudo-biopic of iconic chef Julia Child that juxtaposes her culinary path with the cooking adventure that a New York City blogger (Amy Adams) embarks upon after deciding to attempt all the recipes in Child’s first book.
It’s a thin line between character and caricature, an issue Streep has repeatedly encountered — and triumphed over — in her career. The secret to her success lies in the fact that these performances never rely on mimicry of the subject’s most obvious character trait. Yes, she invoked Child’s signature speaking voice to bring this woman to life, but she also focused heavily on the developmental factors that turned her into such a strong-willed person, someone capable of revolutionizing an entire industry.
8. Lindy Chamberlain, A Cry in the Dark (1988)
A family vacation in the Outback results in the death of a young child and the most controversial court case in Australian history when police doubt the parents’ story that a wild dingo ate their baby.
While Streep is known for readily utilizing wigs and accents in her films, they are never acting crutches; they’re tools she thoughtfully extracts from her arsenal to help create a complete picture of the women she plays.
Here, those choices were made for her as Lindy Chamberlain is a real person. But the bowl cut and flawless Aussie accent work in tandem with a particularly gutting performance as endless legal issues forced Lindy to relive her daughter’s violent death for years before finally being imprisoned for a crime she did not commit.
7. Mary Fisher, She-Devil (1989)
Romance novelist Mary Fisher (Streep) accidentally becomes a pawn in one woman’s (Roseanne Barr) revenge fantasy against her philandering husband (Ed Begley Jr.).
Look, I know you think I’m insane for labeling this the seventh-best performance in Streep’s career since She-Devil is, at best, a gay cult classic. And while that’s true, the crappy production values and laughable special effects can’t mask the single best comedic performance Streep has ever given.
Since Mary is incredibly conscious of how she’s perceived by the public, every move, gesture, and glance is completely calculated by the character, and, therefore, by Streep as well. And as Mary’s facade falls, and her life quite literally crumbles in front of her eyes, the former queen of romance sinks deeper into the boring role life she believes life has chosen for her.
Brilliantly bitchy and wholly committed to lending an emotional reality to the insanity that’s about to befall Mary Fisher, Streep milks laughter from pain and attacks the role with the same intensity she would an Oscar-bait drama.
6. Sophie Zawistowski, Sophie’s Choice (1982)
In 1947, a young writer named Stingo (Peter MacNicol) moves into a Brooklyn house and befriends his neighbors: the hot-tempered Nathan (Kevin Kline) and the compassionate Polish immigrant Sophie (Streep). The three bond quickly and share a summer — and stories — that will change Stingo’s life forever.
The term “Sophie’s choice” has become so omnipresent in popular culture, that the film’s last act reveal no longer carries much of a shock. But the performance that precedes it is such a revelation, it almost seems dismissive of Streep’s work to reduce the nearly three-hour film to a two-word expression.
In her second Oscar-winning role, Streep marries a flawless accent with a painfully empathetic creation. Every word out of Sophie’s mouth is laced with so much emotion — at turns loneliness, despair, hope, and fear — she’s basically a walking wound of a woman simply looking for love, following the most tragic event a person can endure.
5. Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
In her first post-college job, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) finds herself at the beck and call of icy Runway Editor Miranda Priestly — the most feared woman in publishing (for good reason).
Streep encased herself in sartorial armor — rocking an eye-catching swath of silver hair, designs that redefine the term “power suit,” and sunglasses so large they could actually block out the sun — to bring this specter of a power player to life.
And while it’s endlessly fun to watch Miranda bark orders at a cowering Andy, the real precision in this performance becomes apparent when Streep is speaking softly or saying nothing at all. Whether it’s a pursing of the lips or muttering under her breath, Streep knows the truest display of Miranda’s control comes when others are forced to deduce what she wants.
4. Helen Archer, Ironweed (1987)
A homeless couple (Jack Nicholson and Streep) navigates the murky streets of Depression-era New York on Halloween night.
Streep is simply heart-wrenching as Helen, a former singer who’s fallen on hard times, delivering an impressive performance that relies heavily on a broken-down physicality — the downtrodden gait that drags her all over town is particularly powerful. As Streep and Nicholson lurch from shabby bar to temporary shelter — and back again — their night goes from bad to worse, and it quickly becomes apparent that an actor needs expert precision to play a character this sloppy.
3. Julia, Defending Your Life (1991)
Two strangers meet in Judgement City, the realm between heaven and Earth where a judge pores over the events of a recently deceased person’s lifetime to decide if they’re worthy of moving on to a higher plane of human existence or require another life on earth to become a properly evolved being.
Albert Brooks, who also wrote and directed the film, stars as Daniel, a 40-year-old advertising executive who is forced to confront his unimpressive life after getting hit by a bus. Standing in stark contrast to Daniel is Julia (Streep), a luminous woman he meets in Judgement City, where they begin to fall in love.
In Streep’s hands, the seemingly perfect Julia never comes across as holier than thou because there’s a sweet sincerity permeating every line. Brooks asks his audience to, like Daniel, quickly fall in love with Julia, an easy task as the unbridled passion for life that Streep brings to the role is utterly infectious, never cloying.
2. Sister Aloysius Beauvier, Doubt (2008)
With a sterling script adapted by John Patrick Shanley from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt, which Shanley also directed, offers an acting masterclass from its four main actors (Streep, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Viola Davis, all of whom earned Oscar nominations) as they each take a side when a nun suspects — and later accuses — a priest of molesting a male student.
“The dragon is hungry.” That’s how Hoffman’s Father Flynn describes Streep’s Sister Aloysius to another nun as she reprimands a student. While Streep clearly cottoned to that line, filling her character with an endless reserve of venomous fury, she was also careful to weave a sense of moral superiority into Sister Aloysius, so that when the stern nun defends her unfounded accusations by saying, “I have my certainty,” there’s weight behind that belief.
Streep’s truest moment of prowess, however, comes in the film’s closing scene, as the temporary pleasure she takes from having vanquished her opponent disappears and she’s laid emotionally bare by the insurmountable self-loathing she feels for having intentionally ignored the lingering sense of doubt throughout her quest.
1. Joanna Kramer, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
After being blindsided by a divorce, Ted (Dustin Hoffman) must learn how to be a single father to his son, Bill (Justin Henry). Then, 15 months after she walked out on them, Joanna (Streep) returns and sues for custody of their son. Streep won her first Oscar for the role, while Hoffman claimed Best Actor, and 8-year-old Henry became the youngest person ever nominated for an Academy Award.
As the movie opens on Streep’s porcelain face, you can feel the hurt, longing, and intense anhedonia that could cause someone to justify abandoning their family. And because Streep saturates Joanna with so much pain, and the script (which also claimed an Oscar) is careful to lay blame at both adults’ feet, it’s impossible to completely villainize her for the devastating events that transpire. Even at their most combustible, Streep’s honest acting choices make it crystal clear how these two people, now foes, once loved one another dearly.
Kramer vs. Kramer not only features the peak of Streep’s acting abilities, but it’s also the most deft use and application of her talents to date.
This post has been updated to include Meryl Streep’s performance in The Giver.