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Meryl Streep

The Groundbreakers: Film

As Meryl Streep approaches her 60th birthday next spring, her status as a legendary female movie star is more than secure. She doesn’t have to accept unworthy character roles, sign autographs at nostalgia weekends, settle for dying from cancer in a cable channel feature or take out an ad in Variety to remind everyone of her credentials (a la Bette Davis in 1962).

On the contrary, Streep has become a cash-register triple-threat, with three more A-level roles in the can: her musical performance in the international box office hit “Mamma Mia!” (still in theaters), an Oscar-bait casting as a nun in the dramatic “Doubt” (scheduled for rollout in December) and a prestige appearance ready for an early 2009 release in the warmly comic “Julie and Julia.” It’s an astonishing trifecta.

Streep’s career began with a bang. In her very first year in movies, Screen World listed her as one of “the most promising actors of 1977,” alongside Lindsay Crouse, Tovah Feldshuh, Teri Garr, Kathleen Quinlan and Lily Tomlin. Only Streep is still contending for acting awards in top-ranked movies, and it’s not just her own generation she’s outdistancing. She is giving the legendary ladies of the golden era a challenge.

By the time Davis and Joan Crawford were Streep’s age, they were playing gargoyles. Garbo had walked away from Hollywood to walk the streets of New York, and Dietrich had started hiding in her Paris apartment. Myrna Loy gracefully accepted character roles, and Mary Astor had long since been playing moms and alcoholics. Katharine Hepburn had moved to Broadway and talkshows (where she explained how much she hated doing talkshows). Loretta Young and Barbara Stanwyck endured, but they had moved down off the bigscreen to television to keep working.

Unless Streep loses her drive to work, she’s on track to be the last woman standing on the list of legendary movie women. She already has more nominations than anyone: 14, with 11 for lead actress and three for supporting actress, for everything from “Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1979 to “The Devil Wears Prada” in 2006. (She won supporting for “Kramer” and lead for “Sophie’s Choice.”)

After her first appearance onscreen in a small (but important) role in “Julia” in 1977, Streep was quoted as saying, “I’m looking forward to bigger parts in the future.” We all knew she was going to get them. What’s amazing is that, 30 years later, we still know it’s true. If there’s a juicy female role out there, it’s going to go to the current Grand Dame of Movie Longevity. Who knows what she’ll be doing next? Meryl Streep as Peter Pan, as Hedda Gabler, as Lillian Russell, and, of course, as Wonder Woman.