By Michael Schulman

(published by Faber & Faber, £14.99)

Few film actors can boast the credentials of Meryl Streep – Oscar winner, three times over (and countless times a nominee); roles that encompass everything from high drama to musicals and comedy; an active career that spans 40 years; icon; trained singer; and someone with an ineffable way with accents and an almost supernatural ability to inhabit a real live character (from Karen Blixen to Lindy Chamberlain to Margaret Thatcher). She was dowdy in Ironweed, glamorous in The Devil Wears Prada, plain evil in Doubt and is instantly recognisable on the red carpet.

Accused of being a mannerist, over-solemn and too technical Streep remains a fascinating study. Her facility with accents is even a luvvie joke: “I haaad a faaarm in Aaafrica…”
But what lies behind the making of Meryl?

Talent, luck, persistence, intelligence and meeting the right people at the right time all played their part.  New Yorker contributor Michael Schulman’s book charts the actor’s beginnings from baton twirling in high school to Vassar and Yale Drama School, to summer workshops in New England and call-backs for Chekhov in New York, from gruelling repertory and off-Broadway productions to small walk-on movie roles. She went on to become a stalwart of new New Hollywood. Her rise to stardom was unstoppable as she garnered such accolades as the greatest actress of her generation and the most talented woman in pictures.

Even in bad movies (and she’s had her fair share of duds) her performance are almost always riveting. Schulman’s book is no mere portrait of the actor as a young woman and her artistic coming-of-age but a revealing account of the cultural ambiance of bankrupt New York City in the broken 1970s when garbage piled up in the streets. This study of a gifted young woman is a rare peek into the life of a hard-working stage actress before she became famous.

The book is about a time when movies were not high on Streep’s agenda. It’s said that she only took the defining role in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter because there was a role for her partner John Cazale (best known for his role as the ill-fated Fredo in The Godfather I and II). He made the film while undergoing radiation treatment for lung cancer. Cimino fought for Cazale to stay in the picture when the movie’s insurance company blanched at the idea. There was a story that Cazale’s buddy and co-star Robert De Niro put down his own money to act as insurance bond and that was what kept John Cazale in the cast.

In 1977 Cazale and Meryl lived in a loft in what was to become known as the Tribeca area of New York. The tale of Meryl at Cazale’s bedside as he lay dying is heart breaking. You often think that you know movie actors from the roles, magazine profiles and TV interviews. Of course you don’t.

When The Deer Hunter wrapped Streep went on to do the now nearly forgotten nine-hour TV epic Holocaust in 1978 for which she was to win an Emmy.

Streep famously picked roles that were controversial. When The Deer Hunter was released Vietnam veterans protested against it and critics went wild over its ambiguity (was it pro- or anti-American?). And in 1979 it was nominated for nine Academy Awards. Streep was nominated for best supporting actress but lost out to Maggie Smith for California Suite.

Streep’s big break in movies came with the genteel melodrama Kramer vs Kramer which supposedly lifted the lid on divorce American-style showed a vacillating mother demanding custody of the child she’d abandoned. The role as written depicted her as a bad mom but Streep gave the character of Joanna Kramer nuance that made her sympathetic and not an anti-feminist monster and won an Oscar for the role.

She was always troubled by her looks, yet her blue pellucid eyes, aquiline nose and Mona Lisa smile make her a gift for filmmakers and portrait photographers. Meryl Streep said in 2008 when she was asked what message she would send back to her younger self: ‘all I could see was this beautiful young woman who was anxious about whether she was too heavy or if her nose was too big. I felt like saying to her: ‘just relax and it will all be okay”‘.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing story of Streep’s formative years, how she fell into film acting almost by accident; a time when movies like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Silkwood and Out of Africa lay ahead.

Meryl Streep stars in Florence Foster Jenkins which is released next month.