By William Wolf


The Film Society of Lincoln Center has a long history of honoring greats of the film world at annual galas, some greater than others. Its latest honoree, Meryl Streep, feted on April 14, 2008, is an especially deserving choice, as she is clearly the most outstanding film actress of our time. The array of clips offered in scanning her work, much to the delight of the audience, provided more than ample evidence of her skill and range, whether breaking one’s heart in “Sophie’s Choice,” in probably the defining role of her career, or being wonderfully funny as the resentful wife smashing a pie in the face of Jack Nicholson in “Heartburn.”

A retinue of notables came to praise Streep, but darned if she didn’t steal the show from all of them with the most consummate acceptance performance I’ve ever seen at these galas. She was at once the friendly, lovely, openly real human being as extolled, but also blended into the mix a radiant example of her larger-than-life talent by making the most of a super-appropriate anecdote with enviably expert delivery and flawless timing.

Streep recalled an incident when she was a college freshman taking an acting class, imitating the professor haughtily asking the students to improvise a speech that reveals something very sad. (You have to hear Streep tell the story to get the full flair and impact.) Archly dismissing the first few young women to go up as presenting banalities, she described how she blithely went on stage and impulsively pretended to be an aging actress of 60—that got a big laugh at the gala—after a great career and giving a farewell to the profession speech before a huge tribute audience at none other than Avery Fisher Hall, the scene of the present gala, with tears streaming down her cheeks as the grande dame in the college setting.

Now there were no tears visible, but the flamboyant gestures and self-deprecating humor by a star with her young vision having come true, and her amusement at the coincidence of it all were triumphant. Then Streep provided the topper to negate the schoolgirl farewell fantasy. “I’m not leaving,” she asserted with a broad smile. She walked briskly toward the wings, then hurried back to pick up her trophy from the table.

Thus the star outshone those who came to laud her skill and her as a person, all of whom worked with her in one capacity or another—Robert Redford, Robert Di Nero Mike Nichols, Christopher Walken, Uma Thurman, Stanley Tucci, Johnathan Demme, Garrison Keillor and Amy Adams—and after most of the aggregation had delighted the audience with their own wit.

Redford spoke about the actor in pursuit of craft and how successful Streep has ben in mastering it. “She could play the Brooklyn Bridge and make it believable,” he said. Di Nero was funny as well as admiring, noting how he couldn’t recall the sort of anecdotes people like to hear. No funny incidents he could remember, he said. “And I didn’t sleep with her,” he added, with a mischievous pause for an extra laugh.

What came through from the various comments is the elusiveness of trying to pin down exactly what accounts for Streep’s amazing ability. She doesn’t like to analyze her work or act like a diva. There is consensus about her normality on the set and her concern for fellow artists. What seems to be the case is that she takes such joy in acting, as if, no matter the film or acting on stage, there is always immense pleasure for her evident in what she is doing. Her meticulous preparation, such as learning accents for her roles, is well known. So is her shying from becoming a publicity-seeking star, but insisting on a normal family life that she keeps private. None of the speakers claimed the ability to put a finger on precisely finding any one key to her professional achievement.

But the results could be seen on screen in the plethora of well-edited clips from such works as “Julia,” “Out of Africa,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “The Seduction of Joe Tynan,” “Plenty,” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Silkwood,” “Angels in America” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Prime,” “Ironweed,” “Adaptation,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Prairie Home Companion,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and the forthcoming “Mamma Mia!”

The writer for the gala was Joanna Ney, and the Director and Tribute Editor was Wendy Keys, who was applauded heartily in response to her moving and gracious speech announcing that after having had the pleasure of doing 30 such tributes over the years, she was making way for successors, but would still remain active with the Film Society.


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