As the old Blackglama mink ads used to ask, "What becomes a legend most?" For prestige alone, the answer is the Kennedy Center Honors. Meryl Steep is getting one for her string of 16 Oscar-nominated performances; she won two Academy Awards for very dramatic roles as two very different mothers, Sophie in "Sophie's Choice" and Joanna Kramer in "Kramer vs. Kramer."

She's become our conventional "great actress." But with the exception of "A Cry in the Dark" (above, 1988), I think her dramatic record is haphazard. She's actually most effective in the rare moments when she's unselfconsciously funny -- not bumptious as in "Mamma Mia" (2008) and "It's Complicated" (2009), but spontaneous and witty while in character.


Have you ever seen her as the alluring attorney in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" (1979)? She looked like a Viking queen on a lark. And in "A Prairie Home Companion" (2006), as the showboat half of a singing act, she was unaffectedly brilliant -- alternately histrionic and matter-of-fact. I wish there were more Streep performances like these.

My favorite moment in "Sophie's Choice' came when she made a Freudian slip about a, er, "something"-sucker suit. But something weird happens in a deep-dish Streep performance like Sophie. You don't experience the humor emerging from the character. It's as if Streep the actress is taking a pit stop from the rigor and tension of her effort -- as if Streep is supplying her performance with its own comic relief.

Streep is famous for focusing her considerable intelligence and technical skill on an array of challenges for every role. It's what made her Hollywood's "Magic Meryl" in films like "Sophie's Choice" and "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and "Plenty" -- roles that required her to speak in at least two variations of a foreign accent, to endure several major costume and hair-style changes, and to maintain shifts in her posture and carriage as the story teeter-tottered between historical periods.

But many of her big performances resemble a failed pointillist painting: an enormous canvas of small touches that never cohere, At her best she's a woman of mystery; at her worst, she's a woman of vagary. Early on, she connected directly with TV-watchers and moviegoers when she made her character's unhappiness palpable in the hockey TV-movie "The Deadliest Season" (1977) and in the Vietnam War epic "The Deer Hunter" (1978).

Since then, self-consciousness has gotten in the way. I think she was at her peak in Fred Schepisi's magnifcent social drama, "A Cry in the Dark," partly because the whole point of her character --- a woman who fails to convince her fellow Australians that a dingo grabbed her baby -- was her inability to connect with an audience. In recent years, Streep has kept her mythic stature by mixing up artistically ambitious and commercial projects. Streep showed lightness and charm -- the grasp of feathery halftones she has often displayed in interviews and rarely has had a chance to put on screen -- as a writer in "Adaptation" (2002).

Within severe constraints, she pulled off the role of the tyrranical fashion-mag editor in "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006), but it was a Pyrrhic victory -- "rounding out" a character that in print was simply undiluted evil. She expressed an exquisite sensibility in gestures that were regal mostly because she persuaded everyone to treat her like a queen. Too bad snarky titters were all this movie could muster (no snorts, no belly laughs).

I thought Streep was blanched-out as a book editor in "The Hours" (2002) and terrible as a drill-sergeant Catholic-school headmistress in "Doubt" (2008), huffing and puffing in a style that would be hyperbolic even for the comic antiheroine of Christopher Durang's "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You."

She was enjoyable in her exuberant, hammy turn as Julia Child in "Julie & Julia" (2009), transforming Julia Child into a human Big Bird. But Stanley Tucci is the one who made her success possible. (He was also a super foil for her in "The Devil Wears Prada.") As Julia's diplomat husband, Paul, he responded to her with such beautifully inflected ardor that some of his marital passion rubbed off on you. Tucci's simmering reality kept Streep from floating off into the ether like a runaway Thanksgiving Day balloon. By the end, I didn't love her, but I was awfully fond of her.

And In Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion," she formed an even better comic partnership with Lily Tomlin as the remaining members of a four-woman sister act. Streep made her character so disarmingly unpredictable she registered like a hilarious human question mark next to Tomlin's stark exclamation point.

I hope, in the fourth decade of her screen career, Streep finds more directing talents like Altman or Schepisi to guide her toward spontaneous invention or tap into her marrow-deep conviction. And when the Kennedy Center puts together a tribute to Streep, I hope they highlight "A Prairie Home Companion" and "A Cry in the Dark" as much as her official "great performances."