Meryl Streep plays herself

With Let Them All Talk and The Prom, the actress enters her meta phase

Meryl Streep.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock, Netflix, HBO Max)

Earlier this month, The New York Times published a list of the 25 greatest actors of the 21st century, complete with the expected Hollywood chameleons (Daniel Day-Lewis, #3) and underrated international powerhouses (Zhao Tao, #8). But neither of the Times' co-chief film critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, had fully braced for the fury that would come from them leaving off the name "Meryl Streep."

Water is wet, the sky is blue, and Meryl Streep is one of the greatest living actresses. It's practically accepted as one of the laws of the universe — hence the internet's outrage over her exclusion. "I will riot in the streets until Meryl Streep is apologized to," went one sensible reaction.

But Streep's chops as an actress are, at this point, an expectation, so much discussed that I'd argue we've stopped always seeing Streep's characters in her movies, and started watching Streep playing her characters, through no fault of her own. No mere mortal could live up to the reputation that precedes Streep at this point, something Streep — ever humble — would agree with herself. (Remember when we all had to spend a week discussing if she was overrated or not, because the president claimed she was? Streep agreed with him.) Yet, in two films out this week, Let Them All Talk on HBO Max and The Prom on Netflix, Streep's reputation is smartly leveraged in a way that sidesteps the conversation that now trails the actress.

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Dargis and Scott had justified leaving Streep off their list because, although she has given "some very fine performances in the past 20 years," she has more of a "mixed record" recently, having given "some not very good [performances] that are showy and overdone" (cited as evidence: 2013's August: Osage County and her Academy Award-winning role as Margaret Thatcher in 2012's The Iron Lady). With three wins and a record 21 total Oscar nominations to her name, though, Streep's new roles do tend to be evaluated, rather unfairly, through the lens of: Will this one get her another? At this point in her career, it's even gotten a little ridiculous: I hadn't even heard of the movie called Florence Foster Jenkins before she was nominated for her role in it back in 2017. Glamour went as far as to write a piece pondering, "How Bad Does a Movie Have to Be for Meryl Streep to Not Get an Oscar Nomination?" (Pretty bad, apparently!)

In Let Them All Talk, out Thursday on HBO Max, Streep plays the sort of character we've come to be familiar with her inhabiting the past decade or so of her career: a formidable, refined, and complicated author named Alice, who wrote a runaway bestseller but considers her best work to be her lesser-known and poorer-selling novels. Alice has just won the prestigious British "Footling Prize" when the movie begins, and talks her agent (Gemma Chan) into offering her passage on the Queen Mary 2 across the Atlantic to accept it, since she refuses to fly. Alice also manages to comp tickets for her estranged college friends (played by Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen) and beloved nephew (Lucas Hedges).

Director Steven Soderbergh cheekily uses Streep to set up expectations of Let Them All Talk as another "elderly friends on an international adventure" movie, only to go an entirely different — more dramatic and tragic and fulfilling — direction. In an additional meta-twist, too, there seems to be an intentional echo of Streep in the character of Alice: The actress is rumored to consider her box office bomb, 1998's A Cry in the Dark (better known to some as the "dingo ate my baby" movie), as her best work — not her more popular roles like The Devil Wears Prada or Kramer vs. Kramer or Sophie's Choice.

Then on Friday, as if in demonstration of her impressive versatility, you can watch Streep in a role that couldn't possibly be more different than Alice. The Prom, a Netflix adaptation of the Broadway comedy/musical of the same name, stars Streep as Dee Dee Allen, a two-time Tony Award-winning legend whose latest musical has just bombed. In an attempt to rehabilitate her career and repair her reputation as a narcissist, Dee Dee and her fellow Broadway down-and-outers (played by James Corden, Andrew Rannells, and Nicole Kidman — who did make it onto the Times' top 25 list) decide to seek out good press by rallying to defend an Indiana high schooler named Emma (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), who's been banned from taking her girlfriend to the prom.

Cast as she is as an actress, albeit a satirical one, Streep's parallels to Dee Dee are easy to see — and further drummed up by the script as well as by the direction of Ryan Murphy. While it's fading star Dee Dee whose character is singing "we are liberals from Broadway" and "I read three quarters of a news story and knew I had to come," the use of real-life legend Streep in the part helps emphasize the uselessness of flashy celebrity causes (a particularly topical theme this year). Plus there's winking self-deprecation in Streep taking on the part: One moment, when the actress flips a cape over her shoulder while sighing "I'm just a really, really, really good actress," seems destined to be a gif tweeted from the official Netflix account.

Ironically, The Prom is exactly the sort of movie that generates Streep's Oscar buzz, meaning it plays into the same feedback loop that the actress and her current collaborators have started to lean winkingly into. "I've learned a lesson in my 15-plus years of prognosticating to not bet against Streep," Variety's Clayton Davis wrote ahead of the release of The Prom, adding: "With that said, her chances for securing her 22nd Oscar nomination are looking good, which would further extend her record." Streep is also considered a "strong contender" for a best actress nomination by the prognosticators at Gold Derby.

Indeed, maybe in April, Streep will win her fourth Best Actress award, putting her in a tie for most wins with Katharine Hepburn — though that won't silence critics who will point to her erratic statuettes as having little connection with the quality of her career (The Iron Lady!). But what it would do is further cement her in the public's consciousness as the greatest of all time — a reputation that might not be one she necessarily agrees with, but one she's more than willing to have fun with while it lasts.

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