Add to your list of national crises the death of the American movie star. The obituary was written as soon as the summer grosses were in. Digital effects, franchising, and cartoons are the engines of boxoffice success this year, a familiar story. You have to go down to the current No. 10 slot to find a truly star-driven movie in a CGI-free context, and that is The Proposal, with a long-in-the-tooth Sandra Bullock wringing a few last dollars from romantic comedy.

Sandra, I loved you once, peaking somewhere around 1995, but girlfriend, you’re not growing. And I know you know it. And you know your audience knows it, too. You fooled them once this summer. But having to discover All About Steve, at your age, is as much a chore for them as it is for you. (“This finding-out-about-love shit again,” I imagine you muttering as you report for duty.)

How you, and all the other gals—and all the other guys, for that matter—must envy Meryl Streep. At age 60, with an astonishingly flab-free 32-year career in film, TV and theater behind her, and Katharine Hepburn-type longevity clearly ahead of her, Streep is at the top of her game, as an actor and as a genuine movie star, that rare performer who can get butts into seats without gimmicks. How does she do it? It’s simple—she plays real people uncannily well, and we respond to that knowingness.

I caught up with Julie and Julia, her latest hit, the other night. Writer-director Nora Ephron was correct to split the movie’s structure between her Julia Child and the blogger (rising sort-of star Amy Adams, her co-star in Doubt) who’s emulating her. Child was pretty much a happy, unconflicted personality, and happy, unconflicted personalities don’t make for good biopics. The critics were wrong—while I wish the movie weren’t as shapeless as it is in places, and that Adams’ scenes didn’t smack of manufactured crisis, I didn’t want more of Child. I got what I wanted, and that was Streep busting through Dan Aykroyd’s infamous parody (which Child loved, and which is shown in its entirety in the film) and the subject’s peculiar mannerisms to get at the marrow of the matter. The way Child responds to later-in-life husband Stanley Tucci’s declaration of love on Valentine’s Day, the way she masks her pain when sister Jane Lynch writes that she’s having a baby, the unstated heartache of her life (“I’m so…happy,” she exhales), her quiet whoops at finally having her cookbook published…that’s what I wanted to see, and I saw it so clearly through her acting. Wisely, Ephron doesn’t make a big deal of Child’s prowess in the kitchen and indulge in food porn—the point is that if you apply yourself, like Julia and Julie, you, too, can master the art of French cooking. It’s not Iron Chef. It’s a discipline, and Ephron knows we’ve come to see her star practice her craft.

The beauty of Meryl Streep (other than the fact that she’s strikingly lovely, with little evident tinkering) is that she’s transcended craft, by which I mean she’s no longer about the externals. Critics rapped her for this, and the accents and the mimickry made her an ice princess with viewers, admirable but intimidating. Whereas today’s stars-in-training go through a strict regimen of commercial fare to establish a boxoffice base—an effects movie, a superhero movie, a chick flick, an indie for critical cred, the whole Ryan Reynolds/Megan Fox thing—Streep had the good fortune to mentor with directors like Woody Allen and Robert Benton, which gave her a taste for finer, meatier roles. She’s startlingly opaque in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), not giving an inch to Dustin Hoffman in a difficult, unlikable part.

But by Sophie’s Choice (1982, pictured) and her second Oscar, we thought we had her number. The performance has aged well. But at the time awe at the achievement was tempered with a certain disdain for all the obvious effort that went into it. She wasn’t faking it, exactly, but she wasn’t living it, like Hepburn or Bette Davis or the great stars, who may not have had the same facility but burned with soul. The terror and eroticism of the part seemed to be all on the surface, at a remove. She’s more comfortable, I think, in Out of Africa (1985), and completely in her element playing another troubling and unknowable woman in 1988’s A Cry in the Dark—you’re less aware of the machinery. But as the Oscar nominations (15 and counting) piled up so I think did a useful dissatisfaction, which allowed her to move on.

Her Yale School of Drama classmates thought it funny that Streep became a great tragedienne, when her brightest student roles were comic. So did she: As Garbo talked, Streep laughed. Clad from head to toe in pink she’s the only outstanding element of 1989’s She-Devil, and perfectly at ease laughing at Albert Brooks’ jokes in Defending Your Life (1991). There were two great roles in this necessary loosening-up phase. According to legend the 41-year-old Streep was sought for the mother part in 1990’s Postcards from the Edge; the producers, aghast when Streep requested the daughter role, were let off the hook when Shirley MacLaine accepted it. That’s a funny story about ageism in Hollywood, but she laughed last as she embraced the contradictions of a struggling showbiz survivor with a nosediving career arc the opposite of her own. And she brought out the best in everyone; I’m not sure Dennis Quaid has ever been as good as he was when cheating on her.

Made before Robert Zemeckis went all Gumpy, 1992’s Death Becomes Her (pictured) is a personal favorite. It could be looked at as a concession to the effects-driven mentality that started to overrun Hollywood in the early ’90s. Whereas the flawlessly lacquered Angelina Jolie seems like an extension of the workstation when she’s running amuck, Streep and Goldie Hawn, another trooper in one of her last good parts, make the technology work for them. They’re hilariously mean-spirited in their physical and moral decay. I never thought Streep had such lowly rowdiness in her. The makeover was working; she was successfully upending expectations.

Part of Streep’s star quality is that she’s restless. She works a lot harder than her nominations-less brethren, with a handful of parts every year or so. Not always wisely: A good liberal, she probably felt obligated to wade into the quicksand of 2007’s war-on-terror duo Rendition and Lions for Lambs. 1994’s The River Wild, while a modest hit, was action territory she’s left to Jolie and a younger generation. But whatever she’s doing she never condescends. 1995’s The Bridges of Madison County is an “accent part” that grafts flesh-and-blood longing onto a role drawn from a potboiler, and she and the unlikely Clint Eastwood harmonized. It broadened the base, just as 2002’s Adaptation put her on the cutting edge with Spike Jonze and Charlie and Donald Kaufman.

Then came the rainmaker. I’m completely captivated by 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada (pictured), where from the ground up Streep reinvented a Joan Crawford part for a new audience that hadn’t seen such a finely tuned portrayal of malice and professionalism. It’s a fascinatingly clear-headed study of workplace politics swaddled in chick flick clothes, which I blogged about at length. And there were no longer any doubts: In her late 50s, Meryl Streep was an A-list movie star, which she consolidated with last year’s monster hit Mamma Mia!

Not such a surprise, that one. I’ve heard her sing onstage and in several movies, maybe predating 1987’s Ironweed. If only more of the cast had equivalent pipes. But there she was, Meryl Streep, fronting a full-fledged movie musical. There was nothing she couldn’t do.

The only problem with it is that it’s blotted out contemporaries like Jessica Lange, who haven’t been so fortunate. Everyone wants Meryl Streep, for mothers, daughters, what have you. Eat your heart out, Sandra; this Christmas brings a romantic comedy, It’s Complicated. But Streep, celebrated as one of the New Establishment 2009 in this month’s Vanity Fair, makes it all look easy, and on her own terms: Jolie’s ranked above her on the same list, but only as one-half of Brangelina. If Hollywood wants to get its star power back, I suggest cooking up a script that pairs her with Will Smith.

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