En español | With 21 Academy Award nominations and three wins (for Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie's Choice and The Iron Lady), Meryl Streep, 71, is the undisputed queen of Hollywood honors; for reference, Jack Nicholson, 84, and Katharine Hepburn are tied for second with a relatively measly 12 nominations apiece. What has always set Streep apart is her incomparable range: She can sing (Into the Woods), she can master complicated accents (A Cry in the Dark), she can make us laugh (Postcards From the Edge), and she can play an elderly male rabbi (Angels in America), the world's worst opera singer (Florence Foster Jenkins) or the American president (in the upcoming Don't Look Up). Trying to pick her best roles is a fool's errand, but these 10 performances show off what we love about her most — a willingness to throw herself completely into any project. If your favorite didn't make the list, tell us about it in the comments below!
10. Donna Sheridan-Carmichael in Mamma Mia! (2008)
Much like the ABBA jukebox stage musical that spawned it, this film is the definition of a crowd-pleaser — even if critics didn't quite know what to make of its decidedly cheesy disco vibes. Nevertheless, audiences instantly warmed to Streep's casually lived-in performance as Donna, a hotel owner on a Greek island. Her bride-to-be daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) spices things up when she invites three men from Donna's past to her wedding to figure out which one is her father. Expect plenty of singing, dancing and flirting under the Aegean sun.
The Most Meryl Moment: After decades of intense roles, there's something immensely joyful about watching Meryl jumping on a bed in overalls as she sings “Dancing Queen” with her best friends and former bandmates, played by Julie Waters, 71, and Christine Baranski, 69.
Awards Attention: Golden Globes (nomination), plus 3 more critics award wins
Watch It: Mamma Mia!, on Peacock
9. Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes Her (1992)
In this comically macabre cult hit by Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis, 69, Streep and Goldie Hawn, 75, play rivals for the affection of plastic surgeon Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis, 66). When both women drink an elixir to stay eternally youthful, they learn that immortality is no walk in the park, and their undead rivalry yields increasingly grotesque results. The film won the Oscar for best visual effects for its cartoonish body horror, and both actresses are clearly having a hell of a good time in these deliciously vicious roles.
The Most Meryl Moment: Streep revels in over-the-top campiness during a Dynasty-style catfight that leaves her with a broken neck that bounces and twists like Silly Putty.
Awards Attention: Golden Globes (nomination)
Watch It: Death Becomes Her, on HBO Max
8. Linda in The Deer Hunter (1978)
The role that would earn Streep her first Oscar nod didn't immediately catch the future legend's eye — in fact, just the opposite. She called Linda “essentially a man's view of a woman,” marked by passivity and vulnerability, but she took the part to spend more time with her boyfriend, actor John Cazale, who was dying of lung cancer. In this brutal, three-hour Vietnam War epic, Linda stands out as the emotional core, and Streep mines real emotions from the stock “girl back home” character. It's easy to see why best friends Mike (Robert De Niro, 77) and Nick (Christopher Walken, 78) were both smitten with her.
The Most Meryl Moment: When Mike returns from Vietnam, Linda is the only one left at his welcome home party, and her warm and exuberant “Oh, Michael!” conveys so much about their shared history and affection.
Awards Attention: Academy Awards (nomination), BAFTAs (nomination), Golden Globes (nomination), plus wins from the American Movie Awards and the National Society of Film Critics Awards
Watch It: The Deer Hunter, on Peacock
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7. Susan Orlean in Adaptation (2002)
Be warned: This is a trippy movie! Nicolas Cage, 57, stars as the real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, 62 (and his fictional twin brother Donald), who is experiencing writer's block as he tries to adapt a (real) book about orchid poacher John Laroche (Chris Cooper, 69, who won an Oscar for the role) by (real) New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (Streep). Got that? The resulting film is filled with absurd, action-packed fictional twists, but at its center, Streep gives one of her most natural and unaffected performances to date, with no wigs or accents or character tics to fall back on. The real Susan Orlean, 65, was apprehensive about the movie at first but ultimately called it one of her favorite Streep performances.
The Most Meryl Moment: Orlean gets stoned on orchid powder and convinces Laroche to help her recreate the sound of a ringtone by harmonizing their hums. (We told you this is a weird movie.)
Awards Attention: Academy Awards (nomination), BAFTAs (nomination), Golden Globes (win)
Watch It: Adaptation, on Pluto TV
6. Julia Child in Julie & Julia (2009)
In the 1950s, Julia Child (Streep) moves to Paris with her husband (Stanley Tucci, 60), where she attends Le Cordon Bleu and works on a game-changing French cookbook for American housewives. Half a century later, a young New York writer, Julie Powell (Amy Adams), decides to recreate every recipe in that book over the course of a year. Streep went on to win her third Oscar three years later for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, but for our money, the more affecting portrait is this lovingly quirky turn in Nora Ephron's final film — which picked up an AARP Movies for Grownups Award for best grownup love story.
The Most Meryl Moment: Ever a vocal chameleon, Streep truly channels Child in recreated scenes from her 1960s cooking show The French Chef, including a daffy bit in which she tries unsuccessfully to flip a potato pancake.
Awards Attention: Academy Awards (nomination), BAFTAs (nomination), Golden Globes (win), SAG Awards (nomination), plus 11 more critics award wins
Watch It: Julie & Julia, on Netflix
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5. Karen Silkwood in Silkwood (1983)
The only Streep performance to appear on AFI's 100 Heroes & Villains list came in this Mike Nichols–directed, Nora Ephron–penned biographical drama about labor activist and whistleblower Karen Silkwood, who exposed the unsafe working conditions in a plutonium processing plant. This isn't some morality play with an angelic heroine railing against a corrupt system; Karen is an ordinary woman — often prickly and obsessive and polarizing — who just wants to make things right, and it's impossible not to root for this compelling crusader.
The Most Meryl Moment: In one of the most harrowing scenes in the film, Karen is blasted with water and scrubbed down by faceless factory workers after exposure to radiation.
Awards Attention: Academy Awards (nomination), BAFTAs (nomination), Golden Globes (nomination)
Watch It: Silkwood is not available on any streaming platform, but you can buy the Blu-ray on Amazon Prime for $19.99
4. Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
In this emotional wallop of a legal drama, disaffected wife and mother Joanna (Streep) decides to divorce her workaholic husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman, 83), leaving behind their son Billy (Justin Henry) to be raised by his dad. Fifteen months later, she returns for Billy, sparking a bruising custody battle. In lesser hands, the role of Joanna could have felt unsympathetic, and Streep even called the character as written in the source novel and script “an ogre, a princess, an ass.” She ultimately created a woman who is realistically flawed and human — and she won her first of three Oscars in the process.
The Most Meryl Moment: Streep is especially clear-eyed and persuasive in her big courtroom scene, during which she argues why she deserves custody.
Awards Attention: Academy Award (win), BAFTAs (nomination), Golden Globes (win), plus 5 more critics award wins
Watch It: Kramer vs. Kramer, on HBO Max
3. Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Based on Lauren Weisberger's 2003 novel, this comedy follows aspiring journalist Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), who nabs a coveted position at the fictitious fashion magazine Runway as the personal assistant of the fierce and fearsome editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly. What could have been a tyrannical villain role is, of course, given layers upon layers of nuance at the hands of Streep. How good was the performance? Vogue editor Anna Wintour, 71 — who the role was clearly based on — called the film “really entertaining” and singled out Streep's performance in particular.
The Most Meryl Moment: When Andy acts snobbish and dismissive of the fashion world, Streep delivers a withering monologue about the color cerulean that traces the trickle-down impact from haute couture runways to average consumers.
Awards Attention: Academy Awards (nomination), BAFTAs (nomination), Critics’ Choice Awards (nomination), Golden Globes (win), SAG Awards (nomination), plus 8 more critics award wins
2. Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Streep's acting can sometimes skew big and operatic, but her underrated performance in this Clint Eastwood–directed romance is as quiet and restrained as a haiku. Ranked 90th on AFI's 100 Years … 100 Passions list, the film traces a whirlwind, four-day love affair between an Italian war bride (Streep) and National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood, 90), who has traveled to Iowa to shoot covered bridges. Streep conveys multitudes in her stolen glances, her silent expressions and all that is left unsaid.
The Most Meryl Moment: You won't be able to shake the nearly wordless scene in which Francesca watches Robert from her husband's truck window as they're both stopped at a traffic light in the pouring rain.
Awards Attention: Academy Awards (nomination), Golden Globes (nomination)
1. Zofia “Sophie” Zawistowski in Sophie's Choice (1982)
Streep earned her second Oscar for this masterful portrait of a Polish-Catholic Auschwitz survivor dealing with the traumas of the Holocaust while living in a Brooklyn boarding house with her mercurial lover Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline, 73, in his feature film debut) and aspiring writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol, 67). And she really earned it: Streep learned both Polish and German for the role, and her Polish-American accent was so convincing that Roger Ebert called it “the first accent I've ever wanted to hug.”
The Most Meryl Moment: The scene in which Sophie must make her fateful choice (we won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen it) is one of the most gut-wrenching in cinema history.
Awards Attention: Academy Awards (win), Golden Globes (win), BAFTAs (nomination), plus 6 more critics award wins
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.