Meryl Streep is famous for her accents: here she is as a Polish woman inSophie’s Choice; there she is mimicking Julia Child’s “distinctive patter”; now she’s an Irishwoman, a Dane, a woman from the Bronx, an Australian, a Brit. We praise her for her verisimilitude—how accurately she adopts these voices—and she does it incredibly well. But it’s less easy to say whether Streep displays any verisimilitude to an actual human being. What one can say for sure is that she is expert at representing humans in the manner we are accustomed to.
A friend of mine recently said about the art of acting, “Even when it’s good it’s bad.” I laughed, but understood intuitively what he meant. The actors we consider “best”—like Streep or Daniel Day Lewis or, closer to home, Sarah Polley—imbue their art with subtlety; they do the smallest amount necessary to get the emotion of the character across. For performing in this way, we call them “good,” while Elizabeth Berkeley inShowgirls is “bad.” We say she is overacting, and understand her portrayal to be implausible, phoney—not how a person behaves. When we see a “good” actor, we call her that because we imagine she is accurately representing a human. But what this “good” actor more accurately represents is an era. She presents the psychology, cosmology, religion and politics of the day—and, in so doing, embodies what we understand the human to be.