Every Meryl Streep Performance, Ranked From Worst To Best
With 60 roles and 18 Oscar nominations (not to mention three wins) throughout her nearly 40-year career, Streep is considered our greatest living actress — but which of those performances should be considered her best? UPDATED through The Giver.
Justine Zwiebel for BuzzFeed
“Worst” is a relative term when talking about the always-impressive Meryl Streep — on their best day, any performer would be lucky to be as good as Meryl at her worst. But actors are the first to tell you they typically have little control over the finished product, as countless elements — direction, editing, scoring — contribute to the perceived “success” of a film.
Bad movies can boast great performances and wonderful films can be dragged down by awful acting. To this end, BuzzFeed focused solely on Streep’s contributions to each of the 50-plus films below and only took into account the work she did to bring these characters to life, rather than the overall quality of the films.
Note: In order to be included, Streep’s performance had to be in a project conceived for film or television. Which means that you won’t find Streep’s turn as the title character in Alice at the Palace, a truly surreal 1981 stage play that had one of its performances taped, or Kiss Me Petruchio listed below.
60. Blue Mecha, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
In Steven Speilberg’s sci-fi adventure, Streep provided expository narration at the film’s end.
Given the breadth of Streep’s work, and the paltry voice-over dialogue available to her here, this was an easy choice for “the worst” because it was also “the least.”
59. The Angel Australia, Angels in America (2003)
Streep played a quartet of roles for director Mike Nichols in HBO’s adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play: The Angel Australia, Hannah Pitt, Ethel Rosenberg, and The Rabbi. The Angel appears in a single scene toward the film’s end when Justin Kirk’s Prior Walter begs the elders to put an end to AIDS.
This perfectly fine performance simply pales in comparison to the opportunities afforded to Streep in the other three roles.
58. Anna, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)
United Artists / Courtesy Everett Collection
In this cinematic adaptation of John Fowles’ novel of the same name, Streep — who was nominated for Best Actress — plays two roles: the titular character, Sarah Woodruff, and Anna, the actress bringing her to life in the film-within-a-film.
Anna is a more straightforward and simple character in comparison to the complex Sarah Woodruff, who we’ll get to much later. There’s little for Streep to do with this thinly drawn character, aside from recite the lines and (seemingly) wait to give her all in the Victorian story.
57. Aunt Esme Dauterive, King of the Hill (1999)
For “A Beer Can Named Desire,” a 1999 episode — heavily based on Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire — of Fox’s long-running animated comedy, Streep voiced Bill’s aunt, who the Hill family meets en route to a football game in New Orleans.
While Streep is the perfect choice to give this very Tennesse Williams-esque character life, the drawn-out drawl she evokes feels more lethargic than intentionally lackadaisical.
56. Violet Weston, August: Osage County (2013)
The Weinstein Company
Streep earned her 18th Oscar nomination for playing the caustic matriarch of a deeply damaged brood in this star-studded adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.
Everything about this performance feels like Meryl Streep was actively chasing a Very Special Meryl Streep PerformanceTM and at no point did she disappear into Violet; each outburst, cutting comment, and exhale of smoke felt like a consciously calculated gift to whomever had the good fortune to pick the clip shown at awards show.
And perhaps that’s more to do with how we experience her films now that she’s become such an icon, but following a string of such successfully immersive roles, August: Osage County was over-the-top in the worst way possible.
55. Sharon Miller, The Deadliest Season (1977)
In her very first on-screen role, Streep played Sharon Miller, the wife of Gerry Miller (Michael Moriarty), a professional hockey player charged with manslaughter after a particularly violent on-ice altercation left an opposing player dead. Athletes wives usually suffer in silence as their husbands sacrifice their brains and bodies for their sport, but Streep does an admirable job of conveying both concern for her husband’s well-being and fear over his newfound aggression. Granted, she’s not given much to do once the film enters the legal proceedings, but it’s easy to see why Hollywood started hiring her for meatier roles after this performance.
54. Susan Traherne, Plenty (1985)
20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection
Covering almost 20 years, from the early 1940s to the 1960s, the film revolves around Susan Traherne, an Englishwoman who is constantly chasing the adrenaline-fueled life she once led as a fighter for the French Resistance during World War II, when she returns to England after the war.
Undoubtedly a difficult role, it’s one of Streep’s most subtle and she does a commendable job of making Susan more than her symptoms as she becomes increasingly disillusioned, self-destructive, and indifferent to those around her. But it’s hard not to feel the same as the sparkle typically visible just under the surface is majorly dimmed here.
53. Queen, The Ant Bully (2006)
Along with Julia Roberts and Nicolas Cage, Streep lent her vocal stylings this story of an insect community that’s accidentally infiltrated by a young boy, who is taught a valuable lesson about overcoming adversity, no matter your size.
No one embodies regal elegance more than Streep, and her Zenned-out vocal performance is perfectly suited to the leader of zillions. But, again, there’s only so much she can do, given a small allotment of scenes.
52. Carolyn Ryan, Before and After (1996)
Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
Along with Liam Neeson, Streep plays the frenzied parent of Jacob (Edward Furlong), who goes on the run after he’s accused of murdering his girlfriend.
Nobody does unbridled grief like Streep, but the seriously subpar script offers her little chance to excel beyond the baseline level of excellence she brings to every role. In fact, standing erect in an insane array of weighty floor length denim skirts and chunky cable knit sweaters seems like the most heavy lifting asked of her.
51. Donna, Mamma Mia! (2008)
The beloved jukebox musical came to life in a colorful movie stuffed with A-list actors getting their kitsch on. It earned more than $600 million globally, making it the biggest box office success of Streep’s career.
Singing has been one of the biggest recurring themes in Streep’s career — from single scenes to entire films — but there are some incredibly odd vocal choices made in adapting ABBA’s songs for the screen that seriously diminish the impact of her vocal prowess. Luckily, Streep compensates for that disappointing development by wearing Donna’s broken heart on her sleeve, ensuring the audience hopes she’s the winner who takes it all in the end.
50. Corrine Whitman, Rendition (2007)
Warner Bros. Pictures
With the Iraq War dominating headlines, and American’s lives, Streep starred in back-to-back 2007 films that tackled our post-9/11 world: Rendition and Lions for Lambs. In the former, she played a government suit who sanctions the torture of a supposed terrorist.
While it’s wonderful that Streep wanted to use her star-wattage to bring attention to this important topic, one wishes she A) chose a more compelling project to do so and B) found a more engaging character than Corrine Whitman, as she spends her few scenes either barking orders into phones or engaged in eyebrow Olympics as she feigns ignorance when countless people confront her about the missing man.
That said, one shudders to think of the lip-smacking villainess a lesser actress would have turned Whitman into.
49. Anne Marie, Julia (1977)
20th Century Fox
For her first film role, Streep played a New York City socialite in a pair of scenes opposite Jane Fonda in this World War II saga.
Even at the outset of her career, Streep made meals out of small roles, like this two-scene treat in which she refused to be overshadowed by luxe designs or an intimidating co-star. Anne Marie’s desperation to infiltrate Julia’s social circle was palpable in the ingenue’s hands.
48. Lila Ross, Evening (2007)
The film jumps between the 1950s and modern day to chronicle the life of Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave), and in a fun bit of casting, Streep dons old age makeup as the elderly version of Lila, played in the 1950s timeline by her daughter, Mamie Gummer.
Streep only appears at the very end of the film, to bookend the journey started by these two characters five decades earlier, but the wisdom and maturity she infuses her incarnation of Lila with makes the wait worth it.
47. Kay, Hope Springs (2012)
Through the framework of intensive therapy sessions, this adult drama offers a rarely seen (in cinemas, that is) examination of a mature marriage, delving into empty nest syndrome, the rut of routine, and getting sex back on the table.
One of the many upsides to Streep’s current star power is that her presence alone is enough to get thoughtful projects like this green-lit in a time when Hollywood seems to have a single-minded focus on dystopian franchises, teen dramas, and big budget action movies that clear $100 million on opening weekend.
But those movies often sacrifice heart in their pursuit of success, and that’s the reverse of Streep’s specialty. With Hope Springs, she brings so much genuine humanity to the performance that, from frame one, you become Kay’s biggest champion, rooting for her with a fervor rarely seen outside of those aforementioned tentpole movies that clear $100 million on their opening weekends.
46. Camilla Bowner, Web Therapy (2010–2012)
Lisa Kudrow tapped Streep to play Camilla Bowner, a renowned sexual orientation therapist who is attempting aversion therapy on Kip Wallace (Victor Garber), the husband of Kudrow’s Fiona, because he’s trying to sublimate his gayness in order to win a political office.
Kudrow is one of the most accomplished improvisers working today, and it’s a real treat seeing her and the impressively capable Streep go toe-to-toe in a handful of episodes. In Streep’s hands, Bowner’s tender and flighty facade intermittently falls away, to reveal her cunning true intentions. It’s an acting feat only a truly gifted thespian could achieve, given Web Therapy’s impromptu format.
45. Aunt Josephine, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
The Baudelaire orphans (Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, and Kara Hoffman) are subjected to a series of questionable potential guardians throughout the course of the film and Streep plays Aunt Josephine, a flibbertigibbet with an obsession for proper grammar.
The fantastical world depicted both in the books (written by Lemony Snicket, the pen name of American author Daniel Handler) and the film give an actor license to go as big and bold as possible. Which Streep handily does, embracing every adorably insane tendency we’ve seen in real life, but find her often required to snuff out in films.
44. Hannah Pitt, Angels in America (2003)
The second of Streep’s four roles is Hannah Pitt, the tough Mormon mother to the closeted Joe (Patrick Wilson), who travels to New York and, through a series of interactions, comes to see the world in a new way. The least showy of the non-Angel roles is the only one that offers Streep the opportunity to take a character on an emotional journey. Hannah’s evolution (from small-minded homophobe to enlightened soul) also serves to represent how the tide has changed in terms of widespread gay acceptance by heterosexual culture.
And Streep thrives under the weight of such an important task, as Hannah’s latent homophobia is almost exclusively expressed by how she delivers the dialogue and her withdrawn physicality when encountering the film’s gay characters. So, by the end, she’s taken the viewer on an incredibly subtle and totally successful journey through the spectrum of emotions.
43. Clara del Valle, The House of the Spirits (1993)
Costa do Castelo Filmes / Everett Collection
Told in flashbacks, the film starts in post-colonial Chile with the del Valle family — specifically daughter Clara (Streep), who possesses psychic abilities — before spanning decades to chart her life and that of her daughter, Blanca (Winona Ryder).
While it’s a little jarring how little Streep’s character visibly ages, given the decades of time the movie spans, she gives an utterly elegant portrayal of this confounding character. The film’s highlight comes around the halfway mark, when Clara has a vision of her longtime confidant Ferula (Glenn Close). The realization that this means her friend has died washes over Clara and, in a moment of triumphant acting, a single tear falls from each of Streep’s eyes. In that instant, you must simply sit back and marvel at her skills.
42. Karen Blixen, Out of Africa (1985)
MCA / Courtesy Everett Collection
Out of Africa was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture, which it won, and Best Actress), and the only thing more popular in 1985 than director Sydney Pollack’s drama was the khaki costumes that permeated mainstream style for years.
Streep is, rightfully, celebrated for her ability to seamlessly master an accent, which makes it a little odd to hear her falling into a dodgy affectation sporadically throughout the film. The real triumph here is how thoughtfully and carefully she takes Karen on a journey of ever-changing strength.
From both a physical and emotional standpoint, the evolution feels impressively organic thanks to the ever-so-slight degrees of growth Streep lends her creation. So by the time she wields a whip and chases a lion back into the wilderness, there’s nary a shred of the woman who once begged a man for help.
41. Jessica Lovejoy, The Simpsons (1994)
20th Century Fox
The preacher’s daughter trope gets Simpsonized in “Bart’s Girlfriend” as Streep voices Reverend Lovejoy’s first born, Jessica — who, despite her angelic exterior, has a devious streak.
If you didn’t know Streep provided the voice for Jessica Lovejoy, watching the episode would provide no clues as she offers up an utterly unrecognizable performance, one that is both nefarious and sweet as pie.
40. Molly Gilmore, Falling in Love (1984)
Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection
Along with Robert DeNiro’s Frank Raftis, Streep reveals what it’s like when two married people meet and can’t deny the feeling that the universe brought them together for a reason.
Most cinematic portrayals of extramarital affairs focus on the sexy nature of the illicit coupling. Here, an emotional connection, not carnal lust, fuels Molly and Frank to flirt with infidelity and that results in, perhaps, the most humanized representation of cheating. Streep’s quiet performance ends up being crucial to selling the script’s thesis as she grounds Molly’s disbelief, making the audience identify with — and understand — the endless emotional confusion.
39. Joanna Silver, Dark Matter (2007)
In this film based on a true story, Streep plays the wealthy patron of a brilliant Chinese university student who responds violently when his chances for a Nobel Prize are dashed by school politics.
The film calls for Streep to play a kind, selfless, and compassionate woman who takes a young student (Liu Ye) under her wing…and not much else. While the role of Joanna is the film’s least showy, it’s an excellent vehicle for Streep’s maternal charms.
38. Chief Elder, The Giver (2014)
The Weinstein Company
Streep plays Chief Elder — the seemingly-benevolent ruler of a dystopian society — in the disappointing film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Newberry Medal-winning novel.
Her long, grey hair is intended to imply wisdom, but Streep carries herself with a poise so rigid, it gives the character a degree of gravitas that makes the visual cue almost unnecessary. And when time comes for Chief Elder to lay her cards on the table, Streep ensures her character’s noble intentions behind dozens of unethical decisions are front and center with a surprisingly emotional final speech.
37. Inga Helms Weiss, Holocaust (1978)
Courtesy Everett Collection
Through the fictional Weiss family, this miniseries — for which Streep was nominated for, and won, her first Emmy — spans the length of the Nazi occupation and recounts what life was like inside and outside the concentration camps. Streep plays the newly married Inga, a Christian, whose husband Karl (James Woods), a German Jew, is taken by the Nazis. She spends the whole series attempting to reunite them.
In her first lead role, Streep (then 28 years old) commands the screen with a power and presence that has typified her entire career. As Inga, she exudes a headstrong dedication to her values, beliefs, and quest to find Karl — even in the face of endless stumbling blocks.
36. Janine Roth, Lions for Lambs (2007)
Told in three parts, Streep shares almost all her scenes with Tom Cruise’s Sen. Jasper Irving; she plays a political reporter who has been given exclusive access to a top secret mission in Afghanistan that is, unbeknownst to them, going horrifically awry.
For much of the movie, Streep is being acted at by Cruise, who gets the lion’s share of the hefty monologues during their scenes. It seems, for a while, that her character exists merely to be a exposition facilitator, but, thankfully, after 70 minutes, she’s given a killer monologue that expresses many of our collective frustrations with the war in Afghanistan that, in true Streep fashion, she obliterates.
35. Rachel Samstat, Heartburn (1986)
With a script written by Nora Ephron, and based on her semi-autobiographical novel, Heartburn looks at the ignoble beginning and tempestuous end of the marriage between Rachel (Streep) and Mark (Jack Nicholson, who plays a character based on Ephron’s second husband, Carl Bernstein, who had an affair with Margaret Jay, the daughter of former British Prime Minister James Callaghan).
Few are better with Ephron’s words than Streep, but (likely given the, perhaps, too-personal nature of the story) there’s an undeniably bitter sentiment coursing through the whole film that makes it difficult to invest in any of the characters, despite dynamic performances from both Streep and Nicholson.
34. Kate Mundy, Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)
Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Streep plays one of five incredibly close and unmarried sisters who live in rural Ireland during the 1930s.
First of all, the brogue Streep adopts for this film is so sublime, it creates an air of authenticity so thick there are genuinely moments where you completely cease to see her in the character. On top of that, as the family’s self-appointed matriarch, Streep transforms herself into the kind of emotionally domineering woman that only exists when you care too deeply for others. Those elements — along with the equally memorable performances from Catherine McCormack, Kathy Burke, Sophie Thompson, and Brid Brennan as Kate’s sisters — result in an incredibly powerful representation of the ties that bind.
33. Lee, Marvin’s Room (1996)
Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection
After her sister (Diane Keaton) is diagnosed with leukemia, Lee (Streep) returns to their childhood home, and brings her two sons — Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino) — in hopes of squashing a 20-year feud.
Streep has an uncanny ability to turn characters who are unlikeable on paper into incredibly relatable, three-dimensional people. That often insurmountable task is accomplished here by lending Lee a world weariness that tells you she’s been hardened by life, not by choice.
32. Lisa Metzger, Prime (2005)
Following her divorce, Rafi (Uma Thurman) starts dating David (Bryan Greenberg), an adorable twentysomething, and can’t stop gushing about their sex life to her therapist, Lisa (Streep), who comes to the unfortunate realization that Rafi is actually dating her son.
Streep plays a dutiful — and slightly clichéd — Jewish mother (Yiddish! Corned beef sandwiches! Insists her son marry a Jewess!) for the bulk of the film’s first half. But Streep, and Lisa, truly comes to life by being the first to realize her patient is actually dating her son! Through that discovery, and the ensuing secret-keeping, Streep delivers some wonderfully unhinged comedic moments as Lisa grapples with the conflict of her professional and motherly duties.
31. Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
The second adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 novel — the first was in 1962 with Angela Lansbury in this role — updates the action from the Cold War to the Iraq War, but proves brainwashing fears are timeless. Streep’s senator, also the mother to Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) — a U.S. representative from New York, who, through her doing, is forced into becoming a vice presidential candidate — is a character so devious and manipulative, Lady MacBeth would have been taken aback.
There is so much deliciousness at work with Streep’s portrayal of this power-hungry mother, who, following her husband’s death, has become unhealthily fixated on her son and his ascent up the political ladder. There’s the outward HBIC attitude she wants the world to see (a Streep speciality) and the hidden infatuation with her son that manifests in an overly affectionate relationship.
Those two warring forces inside Eleanor converge in the film’s most dynamic scene: After Raymond majorly disappoints his mother, Streep chomps down on a piece of ice with an intention so terrifying and dismissive, it sends a shiver up your spine.
30. Suzanne Vale, Postcards From the Edge (1990)
Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
Substance-addicted actress Suzanne Vale (Streep), loosely based on the life of Carrie Fisher, who wrote both the screenplay and the book on which this film is based, struggles to maintain her sobriety and reclaim her Hollywood status after one too many tumbles off the wagon. Neither task is made easier by living with her mother, Hollywood icon Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine, based on Fisher’s own mother, Debbie Reynolds).
Upon first viewing, it’s MacLaine’s performance that stands out as Doris is a bold, in-your-face, larger-than-life personality prone to hopping up on any given piano and belting out a torch song. By comparison, Streep gives a surprisingly laid-back performance throughout Suzanne’s post-rehab life. But, one realizes by film’s end, that Streep had actually made an incredibly savvy choice to downplay Suzanne’s early days as it was necessary to properly distinguish the various degrees of frustration, exasperation, and, eventually, realization that dominated this addict’s recovery.
29. Sarah Woodruff, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)
Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans
For her second performance in the film, Streep plays Sarah Woodruff, a young social outcast who engages in an affair with Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons) during the Victorian Era.
While Anna, the film-within-a-film character, was an underwhelming role free of any truly standout moments, Streep is utterly captivating as Sarah, a misguided young woman who flits from mistake to mistake, seemingly incapable of avoiding self-sabotage. The sad complexity plastered across Streep’s face throughout this portion of the film stands in even starker contrast every time the action cuts back to Anna.
28. Linda, The Deer Hunter (1978)
Universal / Courtesy Everett Collection
The film is, at its core, the story of three men — Michael “Mike” Vronsky (Robert DeNiro), Steven Pushkov (John Savage), and Nikonar “Nick” Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) — and the horrors of war. Through Streep’s character, who was romantically entwined with Nick before he died abroad, The Deer Hunter explores the unpredictable ways everyone grieves.
The role of Linda was, according to Streep, a little thinly written so she and DeNiro ended up improvising many of their most emotional scenes — and that authenticity is incredibly apparent in the post-war scenes, as both struggle with the loss of Nick, his best friend and her lover.
Streep also injects a myriad of tiny moments into her performance — a bitten nail, a furrowed brow, a thought held at the last moment — that may seem insignificant on their own, but collectively work together to turn this supporting character into one of the film’s most fully fleshed-out.
27. Ethel Rosenberg, Angels in America (2003)
The third of four roles that earned Streep the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie Emmy in 2004 is Ethel Rosenberg, a ghost who haunts Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) in his final days.
Two particular scenes in this six-hour TV miniseries earned this performance such high placement: A prolonged two-hander where Ethel malevolently taunts a delirious Roy, who then turns the tables on her, and begs for mercy and her delivery of the kaddish prayer alongside Ben Shenkman’s Louis. Both moments are simultaneously infused with so many warring emotions that they’re often pointed to as high points of the entire endeavor.
26. Susan Orlean, Adaptation. (2002)
Charlie Kaufman’s brilliantly weird screenplay blurs the line between fact and fiction as he tries to adapt Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief, without any success, ending up in both his own script and a deadly confrontation with its subject.
Given the film’s untrustworthy narrator, it’s constantly unclear if the Susan Orlean we’re seeing at any given moment is Kaufman’s romanticized idea of her, his fractured version of her, how she truly was, or some combination of the three. Because of that, Streep is tasked with creating several slightly varied versions of the same character — all of which are inherently fascinating.
25. Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady (2011)
Streep won her third Academy Award for this portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, the longest-serving prime minister of the United Kingdom of the 20th century.
While Streep was lauded for the uncanny likeness she brought to Thatcher’s younger, and more public, years (which is remarkable), her strongest work actually comes during the contemporary timeline, during which an elderly Thatcher struggles to rectify the monumental responsibilities of her past with her routine present. The physicality and vocal intonation she adopts to play an 83-year-old version of Thatcher cements the entirety of this tremendous transformation.
24. Kate Gulden, One True Thing (1998)
A writer (Zellweger) returns home to care for her cancer-stricken mother (Streep) and discovers her seemingly perfect father (William Hurt) is anything but.
Prior to her diagnosis, Streep lends Kate a boundless amount of joyous energy. She’s a contemporary Donna Reed, constantly baking delectable treats, throwing elaborate parties, and basically putting everyone else’s needs first. So when time comes for someone to care for the woman who has dedicated her life to caring for others, it never threatens to make the character unsympathetic.
Adding to the audience’s compassion for the character, Streep puts herself through the wringer to accurately portray the ravaging effect this disease has one’s body. But what’s most incredible is that Streep doesn’t appear to lose any weight (a go-to trick in Hollywood) for the role, opting instead to contort her physique and carry herself in increasingly frail ways to achieve the same effect. It’s an astounding transformation.
23. Brooke Reynolds, Still of the Night (1982)
United Artists / Courtesy Everett Collection
After a psychiatrist’s client is murdered, he begins sleeping with the man’s mistress (Streep) despite fears she may be the killer.
The actress embraces her inner Hitchcock blonde for this underrated thriller that boasts genuine scares and a sensational performance from Streep as she encases Brooke in a fantastic air of mystery, while also making her completely sympathetic, leaving the viewer guessing until the film’s shocking