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Meryl Streep's 25 greatest movie moments

No one can do what Meryl Streep does

With more than 20 Oscar nominations to her name, Meryl Streep is synonymous with success in Hollywood. Which means it’s really hard to pick out just a few of her greatest movie moments.

Since her breakthrough role in the 1978 drama The Deer Hunter, the decorated movie star has been one of Hollywood’s most beloved artists of all time. Renowned for her chameleonic abilities, Streep has practically lived a hundred lives on the silver screen; she’s played femme fatales, loving mothers, union leaders, ruthless politicians, celebrity chefs, monstrous magazine editors, strict Catholic nuns, and everything in between. 

Born and raised in New Jersey, Streep grew up attending Catholic school and was, as author Karina Longworth wrote in a 2013 biography, a “gawky kid with glasses and frizzy hair.” Though she appeared in many school plays, the soon-to-be star didn’t take acting seriously until she attended Vassar College, where her acclaimed performance in a production of Miss Julie generated serious buzz on campus. Vassar’s drama professor Clint J. Atkinson later remarked of Streep, “I don’t think anyone ever taught Meryl acting. She taught herself.”

To paraphrase her Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada: There is no one who can do what she does. To prove it, here are Meryl Streep’s all-time greatest movie moments.

(20th Century Studios)
Meet Cute in the Afterlife (Defending Your Life)

In Albert Brooks’ gorgeous and funny fantasy rom-com Defending Your Life, the deceased await judgment in what can be best described as a pleasant vacation getaway. (Fans of The Good Place will love this one.) While at a comedy club, Brooks’ lead Daniel, who died driving into a bus, meets a beautiful woman, Julia (Meryl Streep, of course), who died tripping over furniture and drowning in a pool. With the great unknown looming over them both, the two begin a whirlwind romance, including one hilarious seafood dinner where Meryl Streep shows that you can actually play with your food. Between Brooks’ sharp directing, whip-smart writing, and Streep’s enthusiastic performance, you can’t help but want what they’re both having.

(Warner Bros.)
Toes to the Camera (Adaptation)

In Spike Jonze’s meta comedy-drama Adaptation, Meryl Streep plays a (very) fictionalized version of real-life journalist Susan Orlean; the movie originated as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s attempt to pen a straightforward film version of her book The Orchid Thief, only to suffer from writer’s block and end up writing a movie about his own inability to do the job. Partway through the film, Streep’s Susan starts feeling, shall we say, funny about something, which Kaufman amusingly illustrates with Streep’s feet wiggling at the bottom of the camera frame. The rest of the scene is great too, with Streep impeccably playing someone in the throes of something really, really good.

(Sony Pictures Releasing)
“In My Own Words, I’m Contaminated” (Silkwood)

Right after Meryl Streep completed work on Sophie’s Choice, she delivered another transformative performance in Silkwood, based on a nonfiction book by Howard Kohn. Streep plays real-life nuclear whistle-blower Karen Silkwood, who raised alarms about hazardous negligence by her employers at Kerr-McGee and whose 1974 death by car accident has fueled conspiracy theories. Partway through the movie, Streep’s Karen discovers dangerously high levels of radiation in her home, which forces an evacuation and surrendering of her personal belongings – including her children’s photographs. Streep’s pleas for help are palpable through the screen, and her ominous words of “I’m dying” as she drives off pregnant with grim fate.

(20th Century Studios)
A Cabinet of “Cowardice” (The Iron Lady)

Meryl Streep was born and raised American. But for the 2011 biopic The Iron Lady, Streep eerily transformed into Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the stateswoman whose uncompromising politics characterized and polarized Britain throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. In collaboration with Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd, Streep is most chilling during a chaotic 1990 meeting, where an unhinged Thatcher scolds her staff and embarrasses Sir Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), her longest-serving cabinet member. While The Iron Lady bafflingly tries to conjure sympathy for the devil – the scene ends with Thatcher, alone, looking into her shaking hands – Streep is without question the one holding all the power in the room. For her performance, Streep won her third Oscar.

(The Weinstein Company)
Flowers (The Bridges of Madison County)

In this 1995 romantic drama from Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep co-stars as Francesca Johnson, an Iowa woman in a loveless marriage who starts an affair with a National Geographic photographer, Robert (Eastwood). While the movie deals with infidelity, it posits that some excitement can help inspire the thrill of being alive. In one memorable scene, Robert tries to woo Francesca with flowers he picked outside, though Francesca jokingly tells him they’re poisonous. They aren’t, but she’s having fun falling in love anyway.

(Warner Bros.)
“As Hot as a Stiff…” (Julie & Julia)

It’s honestly so hard to pick just one moment in Julie & Julia where Meryl Streep is delightful. She’s delightful in the whole movie. But who among us couldn’t help but giggle when Julia’s husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), while writing a letter to his brother in 1949, affectionately describes the way Julia moves in the kitchen and how Julia vulgarly described some searing hot cannelloni as being “hot as a stiff…” Cutting back to the modern day, even Julie Powell’s husband Eric (Chris Messina) couldn’t believe what she said. Neither could we! And that’s why Julie & Julia is another one of Streep’s best movies to date. 

(Sony Pictures Releasing)
War With Argentina (The Iron Lady)

The Iron Lady is a complicated film. It's a movie where Meryl Streep unleashes the full might of her powers to become one of history’s most feared antagonists ever to participate in national politics. But its montage-heavy structure arguably holds Streep back, reducing her to a figure in a series of tableaus than an active character in a narrative. Nevertheless, Streep’s intensity as Thatcher is most evident when the Prime Minister decides to engage with Argentina over the Falklands, kicking off the Falklands War of 1982. The sequence culminates with Thatcher telling off Alexander Haig (Matthew Marsh), the U.S. Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan.

(The Weinstein Company)
“The Winner Takes It All” (Mamma Mia!)

In 2008, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight saw some stiff competition in… Mamma Mia! Before Barbenheimier, the greatest unlikely summer double feature was Batman and Meryl Streep, with Streep headlining Phyllida Lloyd’s ensemble adaptation of the hit Broadway musical boasting the music of ABBA. Towards the end of the movie, Streep sings a stirring rendition of “The Winner Takes It All,” directed towards Sam (Pierce Brosnan) as she mulls over getting back together with him even after he broke her heart all those years ago.

(Universal)
“I’m Leaving You” (Kramer vs. Kramer)

Meryl Streep rose to fame with Kramer vs. Kramer, a 1979 legal drama about a married couple’s bitter divorce and subsequent struggle to pick up the pieces. At the start of the movie, Streep’s character Joanna Kramer abruptly delivers the news that she’s leaving to her (former) husband, Ted (Dustin Hoffman), to his shock and bewilderment. There are no fireworks displays of emotion or suspense in this scene. Just raw, hurt feelings that resonate with rare authenticity.

(Columbia Pictures)
Dinner and an Affair (It’s Complicated)

In the laid-back 2009 romantic comedy It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep plays Jane, the patron saint of all complicated relationships as a divorced woman who rekindles things with her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin) while falling in love with Adam (Steve Martin), an architect. During a relaxing 10-minute stretch in the middle of the movie, Jane entertains Adam over a cozy home cooked meal – and insists there isn’t anyone else in her life – while Jake comically hides outside in the bushes (with a great view of Jane from behind). Being the powerhouse actress she is, Streep’s chemistry with both actors is off the charts, allowing the movie to energetically live up to its title. Who will Jane choose? Her decision is, well, complicated.

(Universal)
They Hate Us (Julie & Julia)

Late into Julie & Julia, Amy Adams’ Julie Powell is devastated to learn that Julia Child, who got wind of Julie’s blog project, is not a fan. As the camera lingers on Julie with tears in her eyes, the movie zips back to Streep’s Julia, who herself feels crushing disappointment over a publisher’s rejection of her cookbook. “Eight years of our lives just turned out to be something for me to do,” Julia laments, echoing the struggles of anyone involved in a creative field. Even if Julie and Julia don’t see eye to eye, they have a lot more in common than they could know.

(Sony Pictures Releasing)
“I Will Do What Needs to Be Done” (Doubt)

Doubt, a 2008 period drama set in a Bronx Catholic school, stars Meryl Streep going toe-to-toe (at least, in terms of acting) with the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. A riveting drama about power, corruption, and faith, Streep plays the overly strict Sister Aloysius, who suspects something disturbing being committed by the charismatic priest, Father Flynn (Hoffman). Late in the movie, Aloysius and Flynn duke it out in Aloysius’ office. While a thunderstorm rages outside, their confrontation is equally roaring as Aloysius makes it clear she’ll do whatever it takes to stop Flynn, though she knows she’s powerless to stop him forever.

(Miramax)
Standing in the Rain (The Bridges of Madison County)

Before Ryan Gosling and Amy Adams broke hearts in The Notebook, Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood were cinema’s most tragic lovers in The Bridges of Madison County. Toward the end of the film, when presented their final opportunity to be with each other, Streep and Eastwood’s star-crossed characters decide painfully yet silently to ultimately go their separate ways. Streep’s white-knuckled grip of her husband’s car door handle says everything we also feel about letting the only thing we want pass us by. 

(Warner Bros.)
“Were You a Failure?” (Kramer vs. Kramer)

Towards the end of Kramer vs. Kramer, Meryl Streep proves why she’s Oscar-caliber in a silent but devastating exchange. In court, her ex-husband’s smug lawyer (played by Howard Duff) grills her if she considers herself a “failure” at the “one most important relationship” in her life. As Streep’s inviting hazel eyes fill with tears, she looks to Ted (Dustin Hoffman), who assures her from afar that she wasn’t. But Joanna Kramer, prone to punishing herself, responds in the affirmative. While the former Mrs. Kramer may think of herself so low, no one in their right mind can think the same of Meryl Streep in this heart-wrenching exhibition of her talent.

(Columbia Pictures)
Hiring the Smart, Fat Girl (The Devil Wears Prada)

In the enduring millennial classic dramedy The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep bedazzles as Miranda Priestly, a sinister magazine editor who reigns over the fashion underworld. Anne Hathaway leads the film as Andy, a principled aspiring journalist trying to break into publishing. Early in the film, Streep coldly strips Andy down (psychologically speaking) with a backhanded compliment, saying she chose poorly in hiring the “smart, fat girl.” (Cut to Anne Hathaway, looking viciously defeated.) Focus not on the awful body shaming here, but on Miranda’s self-serving manipulation to shape the people around her in her image – for better and worse.

(20th Century Studios)
“I Have Doubts” (Doubt)

It’s usually corny when characters verbalize the title of the movie. But Meryl Streep is not normal. As Sister Aloysius, Streep walks away with the movie in her pocket as she delivers a final monologue that summarizes the movie’s central conflict: What is the cost to doing the right thing? Minor spoilers here, but Sister Aloysius reveals to Sister James (Amy Adams) her own wrongdoings in order to purge Father Flynn from their parish. Sister Aloysius insists she is so certain of everything – to a point. In the end, however, she still has doubts.

(Miramax)
Shampoo By the River (Out of Africa)

Meryl Streep has simply never looked more beautiful – or more clean! – than in a tender wash of her hair by Robert Redford (as huntsman Denys) in Out of Africa. As Redford rubs his fingers through Streep’s hair, he recites the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in front of a scenic river. Sydney Pollack fixes his camera in close-ups on both Redford and Streep, conjuring feelings of profound intimacy in a most exotic place. They’re in love, and so are we. (Also, who wouldn’t want Robert Redford to wash their hair in an exotic jungle?)

(Universal)
A Pie to Jack Nicholson's Face (Heartburn)

By the end of Heartburn, Meryl Streep has had enough. Knowing that her second husband has cheated on her yet again, Streep’s character Rachel gives an eloquent but dispassionate monologue about faded love while at dinner with friends. As Rachel carefully prepares a homemade key lime pie, she punctuates the end of her speech by declaring everyone gets a choice – “You can stick with it, which is unbearable, or you can just go off and dream another dream” – before shoving the pie in her philandering husband’s face. As the rest of the table is silent, Rachel coldly asks for the keys to the car. 

(Universal)
“You’re Talking About My Baby Daughter” (A Cry in the Dark)

In this 1988 courtroom drama produced out of Australia – and based on a 1985 nonfiction book – Meryl Streep stars as Lindy Chamberlain, who for years was believed by the Australian public to have murdered her nine-week-old baby Azaria. Towards the end of the film, Lindy is seven months pregnant when she appears on the stand at trial. While her stoic attitude doesn’t curry sympathy with the jury (spoilers: she is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment), the scene is capped off with Streep coldly reminding everyone that they’re talking about her baby, “not some object.” A Cry in the Dark earned Streep another Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

(Warner Bros.)
Mother Vice President (The Manchurian Candidate)

Jonathan Demme’s modern remake of The Manchurian Candidate, released in the heated climate of post-9/11 America, stars Meryl Streep as a Virginia senator feverishly determined to see that her son, a U.S. Army veteran and congressman (Liev Schreiber), becomes Vice President of the United States. Early in the movie, Streep’s Senator Shaw delivers a stirring speech behind closed doors that sounds as if the Patriot Act has come to life to don a power suit and pearls. In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, film critic Mick LaSalle remarked that Streep “has the Hillary hair and Karen Hughes attack-dog energy” and described her as “a mad mommy and master politician rolled into one, a woman firing on so many levels that no one can keep up.”

(Paramount)
Truth Telling at the Table (August: Osage County)

Meryl Streep has played some of the best, most loving mothers ever to grace the silver screen. She’s also played the worst. In John Wells’ 2013 film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning play, Streep plays Violet Weston, the cancer-stricken, drug-addicted, narcissistic matriarch of an Oklahoman family. In a pivotal dinner scene, Violet unloads the family’s baggage in front of everyone, berating each of her grown daughters for being burdens and failures in her eyes. Only the equally formidable Julia Roberts, as eldest daughter Barbara, has the strength to wrestle her to the ground. 

(The Weinstein Company)
“Let’s Publish” (The Post)

Released in December 2017 during Trump’s first year in office, Steven Spielberg’s star-studded The Post felt like a paean for a free press to ensure a healthy democracy. A semi-fictional drama about the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Meryl Streep leads the film as Katharine Graham, an inexperienced publisher caught between outside pressure – including a hostile Nixon administration – and her own dream to keep the Post alive. So much of the movie feels like one giant inhalation before Streep’s Graham approves the publishing of classified documents that paint a horrific picture of the United States’ activities in Vietnam. With her direct instruction of “Let’s go. Let’s publish” delivered quietly over the phone, Streep shows that history isn’t made with drumrolls. It’s just made with words.

(20th Century Studios)
Mamma Meryl, Here She Goes Again (Mamma Mia!)

Mamma Mia! is a generational classic, and Meryl Streep is a huge reason why. Streep memorably kicks off the movie on a high note as Donna Sheridan, who realizes that one of her three past lovers could be the biological father to her daughter, Sophie (played by Amanda Seyfried). While Streep has sung in movies before, millennials of a certain age were undoubtedly blown away by the power of pipes Streep possessed. But it’s not just Streep’s singing that makes the scene iconic. Thanks in large part to director Phyllida Lord’s colorful direction, Streep practically de-ages into a hyperactive teenager, jumping and twirling and rolling around in navy denim overalls. Meryl Streep has range, y’all, and Mamma Mia! shows her fun side.

(Universal)
Silent Breakfast (The Deer Hunter)

Meryl Streep has quite the lore involving The Deer Hunter, a simmering drama about Pennsylvania steelworkers whose lives are turned upside down after the Vietnam War. First and foremost, the movie stands as the first film in Streep’s long list of Oscar nominations. Beyond that, during its production Streep was in a relationship with actor John Cazale, who was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Streep willingly took on the role of Linda, who in the script was little more than a stock girlfriend character, in order to be with Cazale as his condition worsened. (Cazale died shortly after filming.)  Because Streep’s character had little to do or say in the script, director Michael Cimino suggested to her she write her own lines. 

But even without saying much, Streep shows in the movie why she deserved Academy recognition. In the movie’s final scene, following a funeral for one of their own, the movie’s main characters assemble at their local watering hole where they silently set up a table. Everyone on screen moves around like zombies, unable to muster more than a few words. It’s not until someone at the bar hums “God Bless America” that Streep’s Linda starts singing, with equal parts sadness and defeat, compelling everyone else to join in. With the movie’s bleak exploration of the futility that was the Vietnam War, the grim irony of The Deer Hunter’s ending is that the only comfort this scarred generation of people have are themselves. 

(Universal)
The Choice (Sophie's Choice)

What if you had to make the worst decision in your life? In the 1982 drama Sophie’s Choice, based on William Styron’s novel, Meryl Streep plays a Polish immigrant in Brooklyn who is haunted by something deep in her past. The movie eventually reveals what it was: A choice. In a flashback to German-occupied Poland during World War II, Sophie – with Streep speaking almost perfect German – arrives with her children at Auschwitz when a Nazi soldier forces her to choose which of them should die. When the soldier threatens to kill both at once, Sophie gives up her daughter Eva (played by Jennifer Lawn). Streep’s Sophie lets out a silent, tearful scream while her baby yells for dear life off camera, creating a haunting moment no one can forget.

(Universal)

No one can do what Meryl Streep does