2004: Meryl Streep
32nd AFI Life Achievement Award

By Rochelle L. Levy

The trustees of the American Film Institute selected Meryl Streep to receive AFI's 32nd Life Achievement Award.

Meryl Streep is like no other. She's authentic yet ethereal. Self-possessed yet vulnerable. Intellectual yet instinctive. And she deftly combines these disparate qualities onscreen in a way that has made her a cinematic icon.

Meryl Streep has presence, resonating with both audiences and critics for the past 26 years. Beginning with THE DEER HUNTER in 1978-just her second film-Streep has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards, more than any other actor in history. She was named Best Supporting Actress for KRAMER VS. KRAMER in 1980 and Best Actress for SOPHIE'S CHOICE in 1983.

No matter the character, Streep's work is suffused with dignity and decency. She makes us believe. Which is no small thing, considering most actors find it difficult to separate their public persona from their onscreen portrayals. But Meryl Streep is not like most other actors. Her sense of self and understanding of those she is portraying result in realistic characters, regardless of their nationalities, ethnicities or physicalities.

The breadth of her talent seems limitless. No matter what the challenge, Streep commits fully, serving as the anchor in each of her films. She sings (SILKWOOD, IRONWEED, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE), dances (DEATH BECOMES HER), even plays violin (MUSIC OF THE HEART). And these extraordinary abilities are matched by her astounding facility for dialects. From Polish (SOPHIE'S CHOICE) to Australian (A CRY IN THE DARK) to Danish (OUT OF AFRICA), Streep's flawless vocal transformations imbue each role with a wealth of knowledge and experience, an innate understanding of life's foibles, blessings and mysteries. While making it all look effortless. Yet she calls this gift the "auto mechanics" of her craft, preferring to focus on the complete person rather than on any one characteristic.

Streep's most challenging role-as wife and mother-informs her career choices, both geographically and emotionally. Early in her career, she insisted she'd never give up theater, her first love. But being home for dinner and schoolwork with her four children is a top priority. So the stage must wait.

That maternal instinct is apparent onscreen as well. While the mothers she plays may not always be perfect, she brings a humanity to even the most troubled relationships. We're both repelled by and understanding of her decision to leave her little boy in KRAMER VS. KRAMER. We see the fierce love lying just beneath the surface as she battles with her rebellious teenage son in MARVIN'S ROOM. And, we respect her decision to live with a philandering husband-and accept the scorn of her daughter-in order to keep her family together in ONE TRUE THING.

An outspoken advocate for women, Streep is active in Equality Now, working for women's human rights around the world. She also fights for equal pay, in her own profession as well as in public education-an arena she knows well, since her children have gone on location with her to Africa, England, Australia, Texas, California, New York and Connecticut.

And she continues to take on new artistic challenges. In 2002, she starred in both THE HOURS and ADAPTATION, earning an Oscar nomination for the latter. Earlier this year, she played four different characters in HBO's ANGELS IN AMERICA, including her first male role, an aged rabbi.

American cinema has been graced by the presence of Meryl Streep. With a poise and eloquence all her own, Streep has continued to astonish audiences with her range of characters. Because of her unparalleled talent and integrity, the American Film Institute is honored to present Meryl Streep with AFI's 32nd Life Achievement Award.


About Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep's unique empathy for diverse women has led audiences into the lives of some of the most memorable characters on film. Regarded as one of the world's finest actors, she has portrayed an astonishing array of roles in a career that has cut its own unique path from the theatre through film and television. A two-time Academy Award winner and a recipient of a record-breaking thirteen Oscar nominations, Streep was seen most recently alongside Al Pacino and Emma Thompson in the HBO epic ANGELS IN AMERICA, directed by Mike Nichols from Tony Kushner's adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning plays. Playing four characters, she won the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Best Actress awards for this work.

Streep had never acted in a play before her sophomore year at Vassar College, when she won the title role in Strindberg's "Miss Julie." An honors exchange program led to Dartmouth where she studied playwriting as well as set and costume design. After graduating cum laude from Vassar, she won a scholarship to the Yale School of Drama where she received a Master of Fine Arts degree, and the Carol Dye Acting Award at graduation, becoming the first woman in the school's history to receive this honor.

After a summer with the O'Neill Playwrights conference in Connecticut, Streep moved to New York and made her debut in Joseph Papp's Lincoln Center production of "Trelawney of the Wells" with Mary Beth Hurt and John Lithgow. Critics began to take notice in that first season of the versatility, imagination and range that has distinguished her work from the beginning. She went from the Public Theatre to the Phoenix Repertory, where, in rotating productions, she played a nineteenth century Southern belle in the Civil War melodrama "Secret Service," a sleek secretary in Arthur Miller's one-act "A Memory of Two Mondays," and a slovenly floozy in Tennessee Williams' "27 Wagons Full of Cotton." For this virtuoso achievement, Streep won the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Theater World Award, and a Tony nomination. She performed in several productions in her first season in New York after graduation, including the New York Shakespeare Festival productions of "Henry V," and "Measure for Measure" opposite John Cazale and Sam Waterston. She starred on Broadway in the Brecht/Weill musical "Happy End" and won an Obie for her performance in the all-sung off-Broadway production of "Alice at the Palace." During this period she also won the Emmy for Best Actress for her portrayal of a devastated German wife in the controversial eight part mini-series HOLOCAUST.

Meryl Streep began her feature film career as Jane Fonda's society friend in JULIA, directed by Fred Zinneman. In her second screen role, Streep starred opposite Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken in THE DEERHUNTER, receiving her first Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a working-class Pennsylvania girl who's lonely, small-town life is irrevocably altered by the Vietnam War. Her next film was the political drama THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN, with Alan Alda.

She returned to the stage that summer to play Katherine opposite Raul Julia in "The Taming of the Shrew" for Joe Papp in his free Central Park production. She performed the Shakespeare at night, and during the day alternated filming MANHATTAN for Woody Allen and KRAMER VS. KRAMER with Dustin Hoffman. As Hoffman's troubled ex-wife in a custody battle, she garnered her first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

She won her third Oscar nomination and the British Academy Award for her next film, THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN, directed by Karel Reisz, in which she played the dual roles of a sophisticated contemporary actress and a tragic 19th century heroine. The following year, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her extraordinary performance in the title role of SOPHIE'S CHOICE, directed by Alan Pakula from his adaptation of William Styron's novel. She was nominated again, the next year, for her portrayal of Karen Silkwood, the activist/heroine of Mike Nichol's SILKWOOD. Reuniting with Robert DeNiro in her next film, FALLING IN LOVE, she won the David Award, the Italian equivalent of the Oscar.

Streep completed two films in 1985: Fred Schepisi's screen adaptation of David Hare's PLENTY, and Sydney Pollack's sweeping romantic adventure OUT OF AFRICA, for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress and another David award. She returned home and filmed two projects co-starring Jack Nicholson: Mike Nichol's HEARTBURN and IRONWEED, directed by Hector Babenco, for which she received her seventh Oscar nomination. She then traveled to Australia for Fred Schepisi's A CRY IN THE DARK. This performance as the infamous, unfairly maligned Lindy Chamberlain won Streep the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival, The New York Film Critics Circle, an AFI award and another Oscar nomination.

She next won Golden Globe nominations for her work in Susan Seidelman's SHE-DEVIL, and POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (with Nichols again) starring opposite Shirley MacLaine. This adaptation by Carrie Fisher from her own novel won Streep praise for her singing, and yet another Oscar nomination. She continued to find comedic work with Albert Brooks in his delicious contemplation of a neurotic's trial in purgatory in DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, and Robert Zemeckis' docu-drama on aging in L.A., DEATH BECOMES HER, co-starring Goldie Hawn. After returning to the States from Europe where she filmed Billie August's THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS from Isabel Allende's acclaimed novel, she tackled the physical challenges of an action movie in THE RIVER WILD, directed by Curtis Hanson, taking Kevin Bacon down Class IV rapids in Oregon and Montana. She next returned to television, co-producing with director Jim Abrahams the real-life drama FIRST DO NO HARM and earning an Emmy nomination for her work as the mother of an epileptic child who pursues alternative therapies.

Her next film, Clint Eastwood's THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, won her overwhelming acclaim and Screen Actor's Guild, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her complex portrayal of a lonely Iowa farm wife who opens her heart to a stranger. The following year she was seen opposite Liam Neeson in Barbet Schroeder's BEFORE AND AFTER, and opposite Diane Keaton and Leonardo Di Caprio in MARVIN'S ROOM, for which she received another Golden Globe nomination. In 1999 she teamed with Renee Zellweger in ONE TRUE THING from Anna Quindlen's prize winning novel about a prodigal daughter's return home to care for the mother whose life she had undervalued. Streep received SAG, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for this performance, as well as the Berlinale Camera Award at the Berlin Film Festival. That same year she appeared with an ensemble of extraordinary Irish and English actors in the critically lauded DANCING AT LUHGNASA, based on Brian Friel's play, directed by Pat O'Connor.

In 1999 Streep learned to play a Bach violin concerto for Wes Craven's MUSIC OF THE HEART. The film depicted the real life struggle of teacher and single mother Roberta Guaspari, who brings the violin to inner city kids, empowering their lives through music. She earned her twelfth Academy Award nomination for her work in this film.

Streep and her family moved to New York City in 2001, where she made another homecoming as well. She returned to Central Park's Delacorte Theatre in Mike Nichol's "The Seagull," a free production of the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theatre. The extraordinary cast included Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Marcia Gay Harden, Natalie Portman, John Goodman, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it was deliriously received by audiences and critics as well. In 2003, her work in THE HOURS won her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival together with her co-stars, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore, as well as SAG and Golden Globe nominations. In the same year, her eccentric portrayal of Susan Orlean in Spike Jonze's ADAPTATION, was recognized with a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and BAFTA and Oscar nominations. That year she was given the Honorary Cesar for Career Achievement in Paris, where she also was accorded a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest civilian honor given by the French government.

Streep finished filming Jonathan Demme's adaptation of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in New York this winter, in which she stars with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, and Jeffrey Wright, and will be seen next Christmas opposite Jim Carrey in A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS BY LEMONY SNICKET, both for Paramount.

Meryl Streep was a co-founder of Mothers and Others, a consumer advocacy group that worked successfully for 12 years to protect the health of children and the environment and to support organic and sustainable agriculture. She continues her advocacy work with the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, Scenic Hudson, and the Children's Health and Environment Coalition, as well as Equality Now, a champion of the rights of women and girls worldwide. She has been married for 25 years to artist Don Gummer; they are the parents of a son and three daughters.


NOTE: Due to licensing restrictions, the telecasts of the AFI Life Achievement Award Tribute are currently not available for distribution or purchase.

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