Meryl Streep: Oscar Winner Established Her Career in Early Stage Roles

To celebrate Variety’s 115th anniversary, we went to the archives to see how some of Hollywood’s biggest stars first landed in the pages of our magazine. Read more from the archives here.

Meryl Streep first caught the public’s attention in a few high-class projects: in 1977, the Fred Zinnemann-directed “Julia”  and, in 1978, “Holocaust” and “The Deer Hunter,” where she earned her first Emmy and Oscar nominations, respectively. There were no bit parts in movies or TV show before then: She seemed to have sprung fully formed from the forehead of Zeus. But in fact, she had paid her dues for years onstage — and even those were leading roles in prestige productions.

Variety first mentioned her in a review of “The Possessed” at Yale Rep, with Andrzej Wadja directing his own adaptation of Dostoyevsky in 1974. That was soon followed by a review of the 1890s melodrama “Secret Service.” John Lithgow was praised for his performance as a secret agent in the Confederate army, and Streep “is believable in the difficult role of a confused Southern belle who loves him.”

“Believable in the difficult role” was one of the cornerstones of her career. So was being cast against type. On Dec. 11, 1974, Variety carried a positive review of the comedy “The Idiots Karamazov,” by then-unknown playwrights Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato. Included in the review: “There is a femme narrator, Meryl Streep, who belies her 23 years via an impersonation of a tart-tongued wheelchair-ridden ancient.”

Most of these productions were at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, and she also performed at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival at Lincoln Center.

In 1976, she starred with Sam Waterston and John Cazale in a production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. She also earned her first Tony nomination, as featured actress in a play, in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ one-act “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” Also in 1976, Joseph Papp for the first time created a resident acting company with a handful of actors including Raul Julia, Mary Beth Hurt and, of course, Streep.

Every actor with a long career inevitably gathers some bad reviews, but for Streep, even the negative ones included some praise.

In 1977, she appeared in a love-it-or-hate-it production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” directed by Andrei Serban. Longtime Variety critic Hobe Morrison sighed that the entire production was “inexcusably exhibitionistic,” which he attributed to the “drastically unorthodox direction, coupled with Jean-Claude van Italie’s new idiomatic translation … This is a production that cries out for that eternal artistic admonition: Simplify!”

Morrison said a few actors were restrained but “most of the others are encouraged to emote and apparently enjoyed it.”

He continued, “Meryl Streep, a young and clearly talented actress who has come to attention in the last several seasons, must have been urged to try virtually everything in her role of a housemaid desperate for a man. Her characterization is convincing and funny for a scene or two, but then goes beyond credibility to virtual burlesque.”

You can’t win ’em all.

But 1977 was her breakthrough year. Though she returned to stage occasionally, her time was devoted to raising a family plus work in movies and TV (three Oscar wins out of a record 21 nominations; 32 Golden Globe noms, eight wins including a Cecil B. DeMille Award; three Emmys out of five nominations).

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