Happy Birthday, Meryl Streep: Her 5 essential film roles

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Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

Dan Buffa, SPECIAL FOR THE JEWISH LIGHT

You may ask yourself from time to time, “Is Meryl Streep actually Jewish, or does she just enjoy playing one on screen?

While we ruminate on that answer, I will inform you that Streep has played Jewish writers, rabbis, and even a therapist in front of the camera. She is even the voice of the self-guided headphone tour at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan and has appeared in two groundbreaking Holocaust-themed works, including the epic 1978 made-for-TV, ‘Holocaust.’ Along the way, she’s collected three Oscars during a career that hasn’t reached 100 film/television roles, being nominated a staggering 373 times in various awards shows over the years.

She even long believed that her family traced its lineage back to Dutch Jews of Sephardic origin. There is an awful lot that’s Jew-ish about Meryl Streep — except that she’s not Jewish. Today, the greatest actress of a generation turns 72, so to honor her today, we wanted to take a look at her best work.  A week after tackling Steven Spielberg’s 10 finest works, I am going to cut the number in half and carve out my top 5 Streep roles. It’s rather fitting that my first choice is a collaboration between the two artists.

5) Katherine Graham in “The Post”

Arguably my favorite journalism film (not sorry, “All The President’s Men”), Streep went toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks here as the first female publisher of a major newspaper, The Washington Post. The cast was magnetic, Spielberg’s aim was true, and Streep poignantly portrayed a woman making history while under fire from her investors, editors, and President Nixon himself. A captivating film.

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4) Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada”

If you ever wanted to see Streep cut down Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt over and over again, this is the role for you. With a voice that could slice through butter without the stick even noticing it was actually cut, the actress commanded the screen as the boss of a popular fashion magazine. While her spoken scenes are tremendous, it’s the cold-hearted looks and stares Streep mastered here. If you run into Miranda in a Gap, just turn around and run.

3) Gail Hartman in “The River Runs Wild”

What else can Streep do very well? Hang tough in an action-hero role, facing off against the likes of a villainous Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly in this 1994 adrenaline kick on the water. Curtis Hanson (who would direct “L.A. Confidential” soon after this) dialed up the tension to 11 here, pitting Streep’s rafting expert against a pair of ex-cons as they all battled a highly dangerous river. Suspenseful Streep is a good variety.

2) Francesca Johnson in “The Bridges of Madison County”

Clint Eastwood romancing Streep in this slow-moving yet soulful unlikely romance was a real treat. One of his finer directing efforts saw the Western gunslinging star turn in his six shooter for a camera and she adopted an Italian accent with ease. Each let their guards down a little here, showing us that lightning can strike late in age, even in bittersweet fashion. Sporting brown hair and a smile that wouldn’t disappear. Streep was radiant and strong.

1) Joanna Kramer in “Kramer vs. Kramer”

Robert Benton’s film won five Oscars, and I mean the five juiciest trophies: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Supporting Actress. Streep took home her first Oscar as the woman who kicks the plot into action twice, first by leaving Dustin Hoffman’s Ted and then by returning to battle him in court for custody of their son. While this film wasn’t hers to own, Streep showed early on that she could blend compassion and strength into a vicious blend of motherhood… in a supporting role.

Those are my five favorite Streep roles. What are yours? Tell me on Facebook or Twitter, or jump on the Jewish Light social pages to let us know.

Oh, and it turns out Streep does share some Ashkenazi Jewish heritage with one of her parents, as well as sharing some ancestral connections with Jewish filmmaker Mike Nichols. So, while she plays a great Jew in the movies, Streep really does carry it with her as well. 72 years looks pretty good on her.