By selecting Meryl Streep to receive lifetime achievement award, the American Film Institute turned its 32nd annual fund-raising dinner into a master class in film acting Thursday.
While there were fulsome tributes paid to Streep’s virtues as a wife, mother and citizen, the evening, punctuated with film clips illustrating the diverse characters she has played, underscored the range of the actress. She has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won two.
“She’s had a greater variety of roles than Katharine Hepburn,” said Howard Stringer, chair of the AFI board of trustees. “She’s used more voices than Peter Sellers or Laurence Olivier, and in ‘Angels in America’ she crossed the gender divide by playing an 80-year-old rabbi.”
Added director Mike Nichols, “For other actors, Meryl is not only a life-giving force for those lucky enough to act with her because it immediately increases one’s talent one thousand percent simply to look at her in a scene, but she also defines what is possible for an actor as an artist, as a parent, as a citizen. Meryl creates, has created and will continue to create a series of unique human beings.”
For her part, Streep said the outpouring of praise was “really overwhelming.” Referring to the woman described by her collaborators, she added, “I really wish I were her — I really do.”
In an attempt to deflect some of the testimonials at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland, Streep delivered a humorous treatise on the subject of “tribute-itus,” which she described, in her down-to-earth manner, as a disease that can lead to a fat head.
Kicking off the long line of celebrity presenters, Jim Carrey, who appears with Streep in the upcoming “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” observed that unlike almost every other actor, Streep’s body of work includes no embarrassing footage — like TV commercial work or walk-on roles — since her career began with Fred Zinneman’s 1977 film, “Julia,” and Michael Cimino’s 1978 epic, “The Deer Hunter,” for which she received her first Oscar nomination.
“There is no bad film on this woman,” he exclaimed. “Where are all the flaws?”
Agreed Robert De Niro, “Meryl, from your very first appearances on screen, you were an incandescent presence, an unearthly talent with sensitivity, charm and above all grace.”
Arriving after the conclusion of the Lakers game, Jack Nicholson cut through some of the flowery compliments by saying to Streep, “You are perfect. That’s why they are making you a sacred cow. I know how much you like that. (But) I have this to say about that — Moo!”
Others who rose to pay tribute to Streep included Nora Ephron and Carrie Fisher, Tracy Ullman, Shirley MacLaine, James Woods, Kevin Kline, Clint Eastwood, Goldie Hawn, Claire Danes, Diane Keaton and costume designer Ann Roth.