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She has to laugh

Abramowitz is a Times staff writer.

Meryl Streep loves to tell the story about how one learns to be king. It dates to her days at Yale Drama School, when the instructor asked the students how to portray a monarch. “And everybody said, ‘Oh you are assertive,’ and people would say, ‘Oh you speak in a slightly deeper voice.’ And the teacher said, ‘Wrong. The way to be king is to have everybody in the room quiet when you come in.’ The atmosphere changes. It’s all up to everybody else to make you king. I thought that was really powerful information.”

It’s hard not to think of that story after one meets Streep, perhaps the reigning queen of American movies, who in the last several years has had an unexpected career renaissance -- at 59 -- playing women who make the DNA of those who encounter her flutter and mutate. It’s a rare achievement. In modern Hollywood, only Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood have had comparable return engagements with audience affection, and they’re not actresses, who are routinely considered washed up at 40.

Now, after almost 30 years of being perennially more admired than beloved, the double Oscar winner has been defiantly connecting with the masses, first with her turn as the malevolent but unexpectedly vulnerable fashionatrix in “The Devil Wears Prada,” and then as the single mother singing “Dancing Queen” in the ABBA musical “Mamma Mia!,” which has so far raked in close to $600 million worldwide.

Her summer slot for 2009 has already been claimed by the much-buzzed-about “Julie & Julia,” a Nora Ephron film that blends the tale of a young temp secretary’s (Amy Adams) obsession with chef Julia Child (Streep) with the actual story of Child’s years spent in Paris in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Streep thinks of her incarnation of Child as a homage to her own mother, who died in 2001 but was much like Child -- “these outsize women, for some reason, who have decided who they are early on, and they’re fine with it, and that comfort with who they are makes everybody else comfortable and they’re able to live an existence with their energy. It’s energy and light. The room really lit up when she came in. And Julia had that. She really did.”

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The Hollywood circuit

It’s hard to imagine that Streep doesn’t also have this -- when she wants it, which is not always, given the rapacious attention paid to movie stars these days.

A recent afternoon found her squashed between round-table interviews and photo sessions for “Doubt,” her new film premiering Dec. 12, about the 1964 mano a mano between a nun (Streep) and a popular priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) she suspects of molesting a student, though there is no direct evidence.

Streep at first seems slightly daunted by the process of perma-sell that has descended on cinema, particularly Oscar-bait films like “Doubt,” which require their actors to not only personally sell their wares to the public but to practically every guild and academy member in America. Still, she quickly rallies, drawing on reservoirs of compassion, intelligence, strategic self-deprecation and a certain insouciant giddiness.

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She is dressed in jeans, an oversize olive shirt, with large wooden beads, which she fingers repeatedly when she’s not brushing her blond wispy hair behind her ears. Large glasses perch on her nose but can’t quite obscure her luminous complexion, the fine points of her famed cheekbones and the faintest of smile lines around her eyes. She does not appear to be in some death-knell battle against nature, gravity and food.

Mostly, Streep, who lives in Connecticut and New York, seems gleeful about her professional resurgence, which she says was completely unexpected, and she’s not quite sure how it actually happened. “I don’t make anything happen. I sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. Really,” she says. “Why these opportunities are coming up has less to do with me than all the things I don’t understand about how decisions are made here.”

Still, she notes that three of the last four movies she has made (including her upcoming untitled Nancy Meyers film) were directed by women, and “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Mamma Mia!” were championed by women movie executives and women producers. President of production “Donna Langley was our champion at Universal for ‘Mamma Mia!’ Nobody wanted to make that,” says Streep. “The smart guys banked on ‘Hellboy’ to carry them throughout the year. The ‘Mamma Mia!’ wagon is pulling all those movies that didn’t have any problem getting made. Our budget would have fit in the props budget of ‘Hellboy.’ ”

In the case of “Prada,” the filmmakers had to convince Fox Co-Chairman Tom Rothman, whom Streep has known for at least 30 years; he was the adolescent younger brother of a friend of hers. She does a killer imitation of Rothman’s nasally voice: “I . . . I . . . I . . . I don’t get it. I’m going to say it right now: Go ahead, make the movie, but it’s not my thing.”

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“So it’s hard for them,” she says. “People operate on instinct and they do things that kind of make them feel good on some level, and so every time we complain there’s not enough things for women, that’s because the people that are making the decisions are not turned on by material we are. It’s a very simple equation. But [Rothman] has two daughters and he has a wife and he has a lot of smart women executives that said, ‘Tommy, this will make money. This will make you a lot of money.’ And they were right.”

Streep gaily says she doesn’t care that “Mamma Mia!” earned her some of the worst reviews of her career. “I knew it would make lots of people happy and you know the reviews came out and when the bad reviews came out, the blogosphere just exploded with women empowered to say, ‘These people are crazy! What’s the matter with you? Life-hating, life-sucking, desiccated old farts.’ ”

The last time Streep won an Oscar was back in pre-history (1983, for “Sophie’s Choice”), when Ronald Reagan was president. Since then, she’s been to the ceremony 10 times as a nominee, including for “Out of Africa,” “Ironweed” and “Adaptation.” She’s spent many evenings looking cheerful as other actresses walked off with the prize. Sometimes she appeared dutifully glammed out by a professional stylist and on other occasions Streep seemed to have simply hauled clothes out of her closet, like most women in America do when they go out for fancy occasions.

The Oscars are still “very nerve-racking,” she says, laughing. “It doesn’t stop. It’s just like I had four children and it was just as terrifying and unsettling with the fourth one as it was with the first. I supposedly knew more but you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s just overwhelming . . . it’s not like childbirth although some evenings feel like it,” she giggles.

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As for her fashion sense, she chortles, “I don’t know how to be. I mean, I know how to be a lot of things, but I don’t know how to be a movie star. I’m trying to learn over time.” Streep says she likes the community aspect of the awards, getting to meet people whose works she admires, but the anarchy of the red carpet walk is daunting. “Your head explodes. And my mother said, ‘Why don’t you enjoy it. Stop being such a hair shirt.’ I thought, ‘Well, I wish I could, but I haven’t really figured out the way to act my way through it.’ ”

A matter of ‘Doubt’

“Doubt” is the kind of movie that could easily instigate another trip to the Kodak. In the first scene, Streep’s character, Sister Aloysius, is seen striding down the aisle during a church sermon, stridently imposing order on wayward parishioners, mostly children. She’s swathed in the dark fortress of the nun’s habit, but its dark folds only partly contain Sister Aloysius’ ferocious energy. She moves her arms with sharp little jabs and speaks in a thick New York accent.

Sister Aloysius is not meant to be initially sympathetic, and indeed, that’s part of the point of John Patrick Shanley’s film, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Sister Aloysius is a disciplinarian, a seeming killjoy in a battle with the popular, empathetic priest bent on making the church more accessible, more modern. Yet she’s also a relatively powerless woman fighting against the tide of ingrained patriarchy and occasional misogyny of this particular church. And she’s carrying out a private crusade against Hoffman’s character, based primarily on her intuition.

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“My friend Gavin de Becker [the security consultant] wrote a book called ‘The Gift of Fear.’ It was about women’s intuition and it was about . . . just basically saying if you sense that something’s off, if you feel unsafe, you probably are on some level. You’re not paranoid, you’re probably right,” she says. “We’re animals. We smell it. We smell danger and I think that Sister Aloysius senses something whether it’s from something she knows deep, deep in her past or what it is. She’s seen this before.”

Despite the nun’s harshness, Streep loves her. “I sympathized with her plight, with where she found herself in this world.” She was recently trying to explain to her three daughters, ages 17, 22 and 25, how different the world was in 1964. “The opportunities were different for smart, ambitious, directed women and I think [Sister Aloysius] is somebody who has a real pain in her past and sought the church for the solace, certainty, structure, ritual, the purposefulness of a life within the church.”

A lingering ‘Doubt’

Of course, this is Streep’s view -- not necessarily the viewpoint of the author. “Doubt” is inherent in every aspect of this joust over faith and authority, and ever since the play appeared on Broadway, audiences have debated whether the priest is guilty or not.

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Cherry Jones famously played the part on stage, but Shanley explained that when making the film, he wanted to make the experience his own, not simply repeat what stage director Doug Hughes had done. And Streep was perhaps the obvious choice.

The writer-director says that Streep is conscious of her stature as Meryl. “She uses the fact that she’s Meryl Streep in her initial situation with new people. She doesn’t give up being Meryl immediately, but it’s totally conscious. It’s just a ploy,” he says, laughing. In fact, although he marveled at her diligence and her facility in running the crescendo of human emotion, it was not until a day of reshoots when he finally glimpsed Streep’s doubts, the uncertainty that often accompanies great artistry. “I saw suddenly her vulnerability about the role, how deeply she cared, how worried she was that we got it. She was like a young girl, very vulnerable and very shaky.”

It’s that unadorned humility that’s fostered many of Streep’s greatest performances. In the early part of her career, critics noted that Streep often seemed devoted to bringing compassion to women who’ve been marginalized, like the holocaust survivor Sophie Zawistowski in “Sophie’s Choice” or activist Karen Silkwood in “Silkwood.”

Older women can feel marginalized, mistrusted or simply ignored. It’s hard not to think that Streep is doing her best to imbue her recent characters with traits that our culture sometimes denies them, qualities like sexuality, humor, dignity, compassion and basic humanity. “We’re conflicted about women in power. We saw it in Hillary’s campaign. We see it in Sarah Palin,” says Streep.

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“There’s a reason it was called ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ That’s why it was made. If it was ‘The Angel at the Head of Vogue Magazine,’ no one would go.”

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com


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