Meryl Streep may just be the greatest actor of all time, and it’s not just her crowded shelf of awards that speak to that idea. Since she breezed onto the New York theater scene fresh from drama school in 1975, her career has been a whirlwind of success. From iconic roles such as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, Sophie in Sophie’s Choice, and Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Streep repeatedly awes us with her effortless ability to inhabit any character. But how much do you actually know about Hollywood’s most revered actress? To celebrate this leading lady’s 71st birthday, here are 11 fascinating facts you may not have known about your favorite thespian.
Her Real Name Isn't 'Meryl'
Meryl Streep’s real name is Mary Louise Streep. She was named “Mary” after her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, who all share the same first name. (Incidentally, her oldest daughter, Mamie Gummer, also shares the first name of “Mary”). The name “Louise” was given to her after her mother’s best friend. However, it’s her father who coined “Meryl” because he liked the nickname, and much to Streep’s distress, it stuck.
She Trained As an Opera Singer
At the age of 12, having shown some aptitude for singing, she studied opera for four years. However, she dropped singing in high school in favor of boys and cheerleading. Streep has said that she read fashion magazines, dyed her hair blonde, and adopted an effervescent personality in order to attract the opposite sex. She considers it her first exploration of acting.
She Suffered a Tragic Loss at 29
Meryl Streep was engaged to John Cazale (who played Fredo in The Godfather) after meeting him when the two played opposite each other in Measure for Measure at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park. Considered the first great love of her life, Meryl was with John for almost three years until he tragically passed away from lung cancer.
In fact, Meryl accepted her role in the film The Deer Hunter (for which she garnered her first Academy Award nomination) because Cazale was also cast in the film, and she wanted to be near him. Later, when the producers wanted to fire Cazale because of the high cost of insurance for his medical condition, Streep threatened to quit, and the producers relented and filmed all of his scenes first. Cazale never saw the finished film.
She Earned Her First Emmy Playing a Role She Accepted For the Money
Not only did Meryl Streep accept her role in The Deer Hunter to be closer to Cazale, but she also accepted her role in the television miniseries Holocaust (for which she won her first Emmy) in order to be able to pay the ever-increasing hospital bills for her fiancé’s cancer treatment. She shot on location in a concentration camp in Germany and Austria for two months before rushing home, only to find that Cazale’s situation had worsened. Streep stayed with him until his death on March 12, 1978. Al Pacino said of her, “When I saw that girl there with him like that I thought, ‘There’s nothing like that.’ I mean, that’s it for me. As great as she is in all her work, that’s what I think of when I think of her.”
She Met and Married Her Husband Within Six Months
Meryl Streep was evicted from her shared apartment with Cazale after his death, and the grieving actress needed a new place to stay. Her brother, who had come in to the city to help her move, brought along his sculptor friend, Don Gummer, to help as well. Her brother’s friend agreed to let her stay in his apartment while he was traveling, and after many long-distance letters and a passionate romance, Gummer and Streep were married in 1978 in her parents’ garden. Even in an industry known for quick marriages and even quicker divorces, Gummer and Streep have survived the odds. The couple will have been married for 42 years on September 30, 2020.
She Has Degrees From Four Ivy League Schools
Meryl Streep received a BA from Vassar College in 1969, an MFA from Yale School of Drama in 1975, and an Honorary Doctor of Arts from Dartmouth College in 1981. Since then, she has received honorary degrees from several other universities including Harvard University and Princeton University.
She Clashed With a Co-Star
During filming for her first Oscar win, Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman reportedly slapped her during filming, and continually harassed her by bringing up her deceased boyfriend, Cazale, in an attempt to use emotional recall to elicit the performance he thought she needed to give. In the final courtroom scene, the director, Robert Benton, allowed Streep to rewrite the emotional “Because I’m a mother” speech to reflect a more complex character, as opposed to the more shallow and one-dimensional female that was originally written. Streep performed the speech flawlessly and with full emotion each take, thereby silently proving to Hoffman that she didn’t need his emotional manipulation to be an authentic actress.
She Left Her Oscar in the Ladies Bathroom
After winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Kramer vs. Kramer, the actress left her Oscar in the ladies room. Thankfully, someone shouted, “Hey, someone left their Oscar in here!” and she quickly turned around to retrieve it. Meryl Streep holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations (21 in total — 17 for Best Actress and four for Best Supporting Actress), however, she is one Oscar shy of tying with Katherine Hepburn for the most wins. Hepburn has won four times, and Streep has won three: Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, and The Iron Lady.
She Is a Self-Proclaimed Feminist
A renowned feminist, Streep is known for taking female characters that are written, according to her, as “an ogre, a princess, an ass,” and turning them into full human beings with relatable thoughts and desires behind their actions — like her performance of Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer, Linda in Deer Hunter, and Kate in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. She also excels at humanizing villains — think Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt, and more recently, Mary Louise Wright in Big Little Lies.
She Donated Her 'Devil Wears Prada' Wardrobe to Charity
Meryl Streep donated her entire wardrobe from The Devil Wears Prada to a charity auction and reportedly convinced fellow cast member, Anne Hathaway, to do the same. Some of the proceeds went to Dress for Success, an organization that helps low-income women prepare for career development. She also donated her entire salary for The Iron Lady to the National Women’s History Museum, of which she is also the official spokesperson.
She Can Speak Polish and Play the Violin
In acting, Streep is known for her chameleon-like capabilities and her effortless ease with accents. She has flawlessly portrayed a variety of nationalities, including Polish, German, Danish, and British. Her relentless work ethic and her dedication to her craft are behind her learning to speak fluent Polish for her role in Sophie’s Choice, and how to play the violin for her role in Music of the Heart. The dedicated actress also gained 15 pounds for her role in Julie & Julia, in which she plays the iconic American chef Julia Child.
In 2009, when Meryl Streep was turning 60, she told her husband (referring to her career) that she had had a good ride, but as an older actress in Hollywood, she probably wouldn’t be cast in many more roles except for the occasional old lady. Not only was she wrong, but that very same year she played in the romantic comedy It’s Complicated opposite Alec Baldwin. Since then, she has starred in 23 more titles and at the beautiful age of 71, she continues to work without stopping. And we are all thankful for that. Happy birthday to the legend, artist, and genius that is Meryl Streep.