Today is the 67th birthday of Mary Louise “Meryl” Streep, a woman who is so deified in the popular imagination that we have decided to collectively forget that The Giver ever happened. She is of course considered the best actress of her generation, slipping on an accent as easily as the rest of us put on a pair of socks, and known far and wide for an ability to conjure an Oscar nomination every year she appears in a movie, even if the movie is just not that great.
But when I think of Meryl Streep, it is not on the red carpet, at a Hollywood premiere, or kissing her mysterious and little-seen husband Don Gummer. It is among the pots and pans, the refrigerator and the immersion blender, the food processor that is collecting dust and the dish towels that were a gift and can’t be thrown away no matter how ugly they are. It is Meryl in the kitchen, which is such a thing that there is a single-serve Tumblr about it.
Yes, Meryl Streep, at least in her movies, always seems to be creating a scene in the kitchen. So today we celebrate Meryl, not by giving her another bloody award, but for being the most consummate onscreen hostess there is.
As in life, there are many phases of Meryl’s relationship to the kitchen. Look at her in Manhattan, making dinner for her and Woody Allen’s son while ignoring her ex’s problems. This is the scraggly New York kitchen of youth, complete with experimental lesbian phase. We see more of these kitchens in Kramer Vs. Kramer and Silkwood—a woman who doesn’t have much, but has mastery over her space. She can’t afford to leave her home, so she’s trying to make the most of it there, even though it’s a struggle. In her sad deliberate kitchen in A Cry in the Dark, things are so desperate that she doesn’t even notice when a dingo eats her baby.
But as Meryl and her characters climbed in success, notoriety, and a bit of age, they venture out into the world. In She-Devil she was exactly the kind of woman who would never spend even a moment doing such pedestrian chores as baking. The same goes for Death Becomes Her, where she literally gets a hole blown through her before she would be caught dead boiling an egg. In The River Wild she’s too busy fending off Kevin Bacon in the wilderness and saving her son’s bacon amid those rapids to actually cook literal bacon.
Slowly, though, she is reintroduced to her favorite interior setting starting in movies like One True Thing, The Hours, and Bridges of Madison County, but the context is different this time around. She’s not in her kitchen because she has nowhere else to go, or nothing else to do. She has conquered the world and is back in the kitchen by choice. Now we see the Meryl in a beautiful room full of expensive appliances, copper cookware, and a family to care for. Julie and Julia, for one, falls squarely in this period. Meryl is not only situated in the most elaborate kitchens of any of her movies, but she’s playing Julia Child, master French cook and American icon.
This is the Meryl that we all love now—the one standing amid the Nancy Meyers kitchen porn of It’s Complicated. To us, she so fully inhabits the image of the upper-middle-class suburbanite that at times it feels like like every movie she’s in is a Nancy Meyers movie, but in fact there is only one. Even when Meryl is playing a loser, as she does in Ricki and the Flash, she can still be found backgrounded by the floral wallpaper of someone’s breakfast nook, sipping orange juice and tussling with family trauma. She would look out of place anywhere else.
This is what draws us in about Meryl. She’s the warm host who is as quick with a song from Mama Mia! as she is a monologue from Doubt. She laughs, she scolds, she entertains both in the theatrical sense and the Martha Stewart sense. She is everyone and at the same time she is the best of all of us.
Let's be clear: None of this is to suggest that Meryl belongs in the kitchen. It just happens to be where she’s at her best. And we all want to gather with her there, and maybe never leave.
Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt confess their crushes: