Is Meryl Streep the greatest film actor of all time? That might just be the case judging from her record 21 Oscar nominations. Then again, with three wins she trails Katharine Hepburn, who still holds the record with four acting victories, so Streep still has a big brass ring to reach for if she wants to be the undisputed queen of screen actors. She earned her latest bid this year for her leading role as Washington Post publisher Kay Graham in Steven Spielberg‘s “The Post.” Where does her latest entry rank in her filmography? Even though it seems like she’s nominated for just about every performance she gives it’s not just those Oscar-anointed roles that count among her strongest achievements. Tour through our photo gallery above of Streep’s 25 greatest performances ranked from worst to best.
Streep snagged her first Oscar nomination 39 years ago: Best Supporting Actress for “The Deer Hunter” (1978). Then she picked up her first trophy in that category the very next year for “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979). It wasn’t long before she snagged her first prize in the lead category, for “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). But it took another 29 years for the academy to finally award her for a third time, Best Actress for “The Iron Lady” (2011). Will they make her wait that long for her fourth?
Streep has competed 17 other times at the Oscars, though surprisingly her nomination this year for “The Post” is her first for a Best Picture nominee since “Out of Africa” back in 1985. That was also the last film of hers to win the top prize (“The Deer Hunter” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” were also Best Picture victors). But how do they all measure up? Do all of her Oscar nominated performances make the cut? Take a look through our gallery of Meryl Streep’s 25 greatest films, including a few titles for which she didn’t receive nominations.
25. ONE TRUE THING (1998)
The quickest way to win an Oscar is playing a character dying nobly of cancer. Given that Streep had already won twice before she made “One True Thing,” it’s possible she had more virtuous motivations. This domestic drama from Carl Franklin stars Renee Zellweger as a woman who puts her career on hold to care for her sickly mother (Streep). She reaped a Best Actress bid for her work, losing to Gwyneth Paltrow (“Shakespeare in Love”).
24. MUSIC OF THE HEART (1999)
If dying of cancer won’t do the trick, the second easiest way to win an Oscar is playing an inspirational teacher. In this true life drama from horror-maestro Wes Craven, Streep plays Roberta Guaspari, a schoolteacher struggling to teach violin to students in Harlem. She lost this Best Actress nomination to Hilary Swank (“Boys Don’t Cry”).
23. INTO THE WOODS (2014)
While some will swear by “Mamma Mia!” (2008), our favorite Streep musical is Rob Marshall’s lavish adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony-winning stage hit. Streep stars as an evil witch who tasks a childless baker (JameS Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) with retrieving magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse on their family tree. The film brought her an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress, which she lost to Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”).
22. IRONWEED (1987)
If you’re looking for a fun night at the movies, this is not going to cheer you up. Hector Babenco’s searing drama is about two Depression-era drunks (Jack Nicholson and Streep) coming to terms with their haunted pasts. Streep was once again nominated as Best Actress for the film, this time losing to her “Silkwood” costar Cher (“Moonstruck”).
21. THE HOURS (2002)
Streep plays a modern day Mrs. Dalloway in this adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Directed by Stephen Daldry, the film centers on three women who are each affected by Virginia Woolf’s classic tale: Woolf herself (Nicole Kidman), a 1950s housewife reading the book (Julianne Moore), and a present-day publisher (Streep) preparing a party for her dying friend (Ed Harris). Surprisingly, although the Academy rewarded Kidman with Best Actress and nominated supporting players Moore and Harris, Streep was overlooked for the film.
20. FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016)
After proving her musical theater chops with “Mamma Mia!” and “Into the Woods,” Streep portrayed one of the worst singers of all time in Stephen Frears’ biographical comedy. She plays a New York socialite who dreams of becoming an Opera singer despite having a terrible voice. Streep received her 20th Oscar nomination for the film, losing the Best Actress prize to someone with a slightly better vocal range: Emma Stone (“La La Land”).
19. A CRY IN THE DARK (1988)
Based on a true story that captivated Australia, Streep plays Lindy Chamberlain, a mother whose nine-week-old baby was carried off by Dingos while camping in the outback. When she is wrongfully accused of murder, Chamberlain and her husband (Sam Neill) must clear their names in court. Streep competed as Best Actress for Fred Schepisi’s film, losing to Jodie Foster (“The Accused”). So iconic was Streep’s performance that it was later joked about on “Seinfeld,” when Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) ridicules an annoying party guest looking for her “baby.”
18. AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)
Streep goes full Southern-gothic in John Wells’ adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play. She plays Violet Weston, the pill-popping, chain-smoking matriarch of a large, dysfunctional family that has gathered for her husband’s (Sam Shepard) funeral. Streep lost another Best Actress Oscar for the role, this time to Cate Blanchett as a boozing, delusional socialite in “Blue Jasmine.”
17. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (2004)
Few actresses would dare compete with Angela Lansbury’s iconic performance as the manipulative, conniving mother of a brainwashed soldier. But few actresses have Streep’s balls of steel. This Jonathan Demme remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic updates the action and alters some of the characters, but its central story of a war hero (Liev Schreiber) made to do terrible things with the help of his “loving” mother remains the same. Unlike Lansbury, Streep failed to be nominated as Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, despite snagging Globe and BAFTA bids.
16. POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990)
Carrie Fisher adapted her own loosely autobiographical novel about a substance-addicted actress (Streep) forced to move back in with her mother (Shirley MacLaine). One can only imagine how much influence the actress drew from the late Princess Leia for this Mike Nichols-directed Hollywood satire. Streep reaped another Best Actress bid at the Oscars for the role, losing to Kathy Bates (“Misery”).
15. JULIE AND JULIA (2009)
In what would be her final film, Nora Ephron writes and directs this comedy that contrasts the life of French chef Julia Childs (Streep) with a New York blogger (Amy Adams) who aspires to cook all of her recipes in one year. Although the Julie sections of the film leave a lot to be desired, Streep is a hoot as the spirited cook during her formative years. She was once again nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars, losing to Sandra Bullock (“The Blind Side”).
14. OUT OF AFRICA (1985)
In yet another performance as a real life person with a heavy accent, Streep plays Karen Blixen, a Danish baroness and plantation owner in Kenya who falls in love with a charismatic big game hunter (Robert Redford). Though it’s often ridiculed, the film still works as a sort of “Gone with the Wind” in Africa. Sydney Pollack’s epic won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, yet Streep lost Best Actress to Geraldine Page (“The Trip to Bountiful”).
13. DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991)
You won’t often find it on lists of Streep’s best films, but she’s delightful in this Albert Brooks-directed afterlife comedy. Brooks stars as a recently deceased man who must defend his lifelong cowardice to a court in order to advance to the next phase of existence, or be sent back to Earth to do it all over again. Streep plays Julia, a virtuous woman who becomes the object of his affection. And it’s one of the few times she did not receive an Oscar nomination.
12. THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN (1981)
In adapting John Fowles’ unfilmable novel, director Karel Reisz and writer Harold Pinter create ironic distance and ambiguity in the story of a social outcast (Streep) who falls in love with a Victorian-era gentleman (Jeremy Irons) by contrasting it with a love affair between two actors (Streep and Irons) playing those same characters in a film. Streep was once again nominated as Best Actress for her dual role, but lost to Katharine Hepburn (“On Golden Pond”).
11. MANHATTAN (1979)
Streep has a small but memorable role as the lesbian ex-wife of a neurotic television writer (Woody Allen) in Allen’s black-and-white love letter to the Big Apple. That same year, Streep won her first Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for playing another difficult spouse in “Kramer vs. Kramer.” In fact, she beat out her “Manhattan” co-star Mariel Hemingway, who competed for playing the writer’s teenage love interest.
10. THE IRON LADY (2011)
As far as movie monsters go, there are few more frightening than former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Despite some spotty filmmaking, Streep is eerily uncanny as the controversial politician in Phyllida Lloyd’s biographical drama. After nearly 30 years and 12 failed nominations, Streep finally added a third Oscar to her shelf for the film, her second for Best Actress.
9. KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979)
Streep won her first Oscar for playing a mother bitterly fighting her ex-husband (Dustin Hoffman) for custody of their child (Justin Henry) in Robert Benton’s domestic drama. Despite being the female lead, Streep won in the supporting category over co-star Jane Alexander. The film also won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Benton), Best Actor (Hoffman), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Benton).
8. THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)
There’s the boss from Hell, and then there’s Miranda Priestly. In David Frankel’s adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s best-seller, Streep plays a fire-breathing fashion editor who terrorizes her assistant (Anne Hathaway) with impossible demands, from procuring an unpublished manuscript of the next “Harry Potter” book to finding a new wardrobe. Streep received another Best Actress Oscar nomination, losing to Helen Mirren (“The Queen”).
7. THE POST (2017)
It took 40 years for Streep to finally work with Steven Spielberg, but it was well worth the wait. She plays Kay Graham, the country’s first female newspaper publisher, who struggles with the decision of whether or not to print The Pentagon Papers in “The Washington Post.” Tom Hanks co-stars as hard-driving “Post” editor Ben Bradlee, who pushes Graham to publish despite the risk of imprisonment. Streep broke her own Oscar record by receiving her 21st nomination for the film, her 17th in lead.
6. THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995)
After a five year drought at the Oscars, Streep returned to the Best Actress race for playing an Italian housewife in the Midwest who falls in love with a charming photographer ( director and star Clint Eastwood). What could easily have been a Lifetime melodrama is instead a subtle, intimate story of lost love and sacrifice. Streep lost the Oscar to Susan Sarandon (“Dead Man Walking”), who finally triumphed after four losses.
5. DOUBT (2008)
If you’re a former alter boy, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) is your worst nightmare. In adapting his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, John Patrick Shanley provides the actress with one of her meatiest roles ever as a Catholic school principal who questions the ambiguous relationship between a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the school’s lone black student. Streep won her first SAG Award as Best Actress for the film, but lost at the Academy Awards to Kate Winslet (“The Reader”).
4. SILKWOOD (1983)
Few films have captured blue collar life as authentically as Mike Nichols’ “Silkwood.” A sort of “Norma Rae” for plutonium workers, the film tells the true story of Karen Silkwood (Streep), a labor union activist who was killed in a mysterious car crash after blowing the whistle on the power plant where she worked. Streep was once again nominated as Best Actress for the role, losing to Shirley MacLaine (“Terms of Endearment”).
3. ADAPTATION (2002)
There are few films as wild, weird, and labyrinthine as “Adaptation,” Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s self-referential satire about screenwriting and flowers. Nicolas Cage stars as Kaufman himself, who’s struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s (Streep) bestseller about her experiences with an eccentric orchid thief (Chris Cooper). Streep returned to the Oscars with a Best Supporting Actress nomination, losing to Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Chicago”).
2. THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
It’s hard to explain the seismic impact “The Deer Hunter” had upon its release in 1978. For a country still reeling from the Vietnam War, this elegiac epic about a group of returning veterans (Robert De Niro, John Savage, Christopher Walken) was like a three hour therapy session. Streep received her first Oscar nomination for playing Linda, the girlfriend of one of the men (Walken), who is psychologically damaged by his experiences in the war. The film won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Walken), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound, but Streep lost her Best Supporting Actress bid to Maggie Smith (“California Suite”).
1. SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982)
There’s little question that Alan J. Pakula’s Holocaust drama contains what might be the finest performance of Streep’s long career. She won the Oscar as Best Actress for playing Sophie Zawistowski, a Nazi death camp survivor living in New York with her passionate, schizophrenic lover (Kevin Kline). When they meet a young writer (Peter MacNichol), the ghosts of Sophie’s past begin to reemerge, including a long-ago decision that led to devastating consequences. Streep’s characterization is a high wire act of emotions: she’s both funny and sad, haunted and enchanting. It’s a dazzling portrait of a woman who has stared into the abyss of human suffering and lived to tell of its immeasurable horrors.