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Cecil B. DeMille Honoree Meryl Streep on Her Constant Search ‘To Create Myself’

Variety logo Variety 1/5/2017 Thelma Adams
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Meryl Streep needs another acting award like Minnesota needs more snow. But, as the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. prepares to give the versatile actress the honorary Cecil B. DeMille Award on Jan. 8, the prolific American filmmaker could have been describing Streep herself when he said: “The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. That is dedication.”

The honor, given last year to Denzel Washington, and previously awarded to such legends as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Lucille Ball, adds to an embarrassment of Golden Globe riches for the actress considered, much to her chagrin, as the finest of her generation. Since her first Globes nomination as supporting actress for “The Deer Hunter” in 1978, followed by her first win the following year, as supporting actress for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” Streep has racked up a record eight wins out of a whopping 30 nominations.

This year, in addition to Streep’s lifetime achievement recognition in the DeMille, she is again nominated for lead actress for her title role in “Florence Foster Jenkins.”

The musical-comedy celebrates the famed Manhattan amateur opera singer who discovered how to get to Carnegie Hall, but not how to satisfy an audience once she arrived. The Paramount-released film, written by Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears, features a lead role for which the New Jersey native, 67, has long prepared.

Last February at an intimate Berlinale masterclass for film students moderated by British journalist Peter Cowie, the star explained her musical roots with typical humorous self-deflection: “I love singing. I started out when I was 13 with singing lessons with a very serious coloratura teacher in New York. My mother had maybe an idea I’d go into opera or light opera. Then I was a cheerleader and ruined my voice yelling for the boys. Our sport was jumping up and down on the sidelines. Now I’ve come full circle,” she notes, in a film about “the worst opera singer in the world and I think I’m going to fulfill that.”

The HFPA nomination and largely positive reviews support her belief.

Her co-star — and fellow Globe nominee — Simon Helberg told Variety: “It’s almost redundant to say I was blown away by her. That’s her M.O.: knocking it out of the park in every field, on every location.”

Helberg, a talented pianist, discussed Streep’s drawing on her musical chops to perform as a character with a reputation as the world’s worst singer: “She’s standing there and singing some of the most complex pieces of coloratura in the canon. When we first started, she was singing Mozart well, more on key than not. She had learned these pieces well first in order to completely dismantle them. You can’t just flail around. She learned where the notes were and came up nearby … Meryl would first sing it well. Next, she would do a flawless impression of Florence and, then, ultimately do her own interpretation.”

According to Helberg, “What draws us to her is that there’s so much of Meryl in all of her characters and yet still so much of Meryl herself.”

While legendary as a dramatic actress, Streep has frequently returned to singing in such movies as “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Ricky and the Flash,” and “Into the Woods.”

And yet her signature talent is a mastery of accents.

In Berlin, she linked those abilities: “If you have a musical ear it helps. I can’t speak German at all, but I did think it would be important to learn Polish [for ‘Sophie’s Choice’]. I enrolled in a businessman’s course. I immersed myself in the language. … I won’t say it comes easily because I have to work, but I do hear it. The way we speak sometimes tells us something about the interior world of a person and it affects you.”

As she reflected on her evolution from lonely, misunderstood New Jersey teenager to accomplished artist, Streep said, “There’s a particular search that goes on in young women in my generation, which was different because there were not at that time so many opportunities open to women — there were few women in business, not so many women doctors. …There was also the search for how you were going to present to the world that comes from the culture, from what we expect from women — all that made me an artist because it made me want to create myself.”

This drive to create herself as an exceptional artist has resulted in a powerful vision of women’s potential for excellence in Hollywood, while Streep’s unwavering dedication to evolving as an actor over five decades has fulfilled DeMille’s definition of success.

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