Under the guise of ingenuity

Special to The Times

CONVENTIONAL wisdom holds that Meryl Streep can do no wrong. She is a thespian goddess among mere mortals. Her storied body of work is an acting canon unto itself. She harvests awards by the bushel and inspires acclaim from her peers as well as the reflexive genuflection of critics.

The most recent love fest, for her towering incarnation of fashionista hauteur in "The Devil Wears Prada" (out Tuesday on DVD), suggests that Streep is a lock for her 14th Academy Award nomination. If she misses out on what would be her third Oscar (she hasn't won one since "Sophie's Choice" in 1983), it will partly be because of the historic bias against comic performances. But it will also be because Streep -- in her own iconic, institutional way -- is, yes, underrated.

There is a sense in which Streep's greatness is taken for granted. Lost in the routine affirmations of her sacrosanct status is the uncanny probability that she is getting better -- and more surprising -- with age. At 57, she may be the bravest, most wildly inventive actor in American movies.

The standard line on Streep is that she's a fearsome technician. A hint of condescension often taints this appraisal, as if her precisely calibrated mannerisms amount to something less valid or true than the Method immersions of so many other all-time greats. In essence, Streep's approach unites the cerebral and the instinctive: She acts at the speed of thought. No other American actor can so deftly and economically convey the contradictory tumult of inner life. (One thing this chameleon cannot do is play dumb.) She makes every little word, look and motion count, but she's by no means a ham. If anything, she knows the tricks of screen acting better than almost anyone: the small gestures that will pay off big on-camera.

Her minimalist tour de force in "Prada" has a lot in common with that of her awards-season rival Helen Mirren in "The Queen." With showy restraint, both women breathe improbable life into outsize caricatures, revealing a glimmer of something unexpected: repressed wit in Mirren's Elizabeth II, latent humanity in Streep's fashion editrix Miranda Priestly.

But where Mirren's pained royal is necessarily based on mimicry, Streep's regal terror is very much her own idiosyncratic creation. She does not deign to channel the ostensible model, Anna Wintour (that task already ably handled by Johnny Depp in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"). Instead, as if taking her cue from Kabuki theater, she makes the character a study in exaggerated stillness, all arctic-freeze expressions, micro head tilts and a murmured stream of toxic hostility.

There was a time -- most of the '90s, in fact -- when it looked as if Streep would simply coast through middle age. She gave predictably robust performances in a series of increasingly wan films ("One True Thing," "Music of the Heart"). In retrospect, it's easy to trace the transformation to her high-wire act as writer turned orchid obsessive Susan Orlean in Spike Jonze's "Adaptation" (2002), which basically dramatized the loss of inhibitions that defines this phase of Streep's career.

In almost all of her films since, from "The Hours" to "A Prairie Home Companion," Streep has dared to offer up herself as a figure of absurdity (who somehow remains above ridicule). She has had plenty of opportunities to showcase that fabled technique. In "Angels in America," she pulled triple duty as a Mormon mother, a rabbi and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. No less than Miranda in "Prada," her crypto-Hillary senator in Jonathan Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate," crunching on ice cubes as she orchestrates power plays, is a complex portrait of careerist and materialist villainy.

Streep is not one to pretend that acting is an invisible art or that it requires a mystical dissolution of self. It's always clear that this one-woman United Nations of dead-on accents has done her research, read the literature, considered the psychology. One of the great pleasures of her work lies literally in watching her work. She doesn't make it look easy. That shouldn't be held against her.

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