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Streep at her best exploring people

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- If there's one thing she can't stand, Meryl Streep said, it's the sensation that another actor is watching her act, while they do a scene together. That sense of scrutiny stands outside the scene and makes it difficult for her to work. She wonders if it isn't one of the reasons "The French Lieutenant's Woman" didn't succeed for her: "It didn't get my rocks off," she said, smiling charmingly during an onstage conversation at the 25th Telluride Film Festival. "I don't know any other way to say it."

Streep was here as the first of this year's winners of the Telluride Medallion, and after an hourlong look at scenes from many of her films, she took to the stage Thursday night for a refreshingly informal discussion of her work.

Looking at the scenes was a reminder of what an astonishing gallery of women she has played over the years: The woman waiting for her soldier lover in "The Deer Hunter," the brainy ex-wife in "Manhattan," the concentration camp survivor in "Sophie's Choice," the nuclear plant worker in "Silkwood," the Danish author in "Out Of Africa," the skid row survivor in "Ironweed," the Australian woman accused of murdering her baby in "A Cry in the Dark," the drug addicted actress in "Postcards from the Edge," the Italian-born Iowa housewife in "The Bridges Of Madison County."

Those were the clips that were shown. An equally interesting program could show her political worker in "The Seduction Of Joe Tynan," the divorced mother in "Kramer vs. Kramer," the resistance fighter in "Plenty," and so on.

What is impressive, seeing the scenes one after another, is that although she is, of course, a master of characters and accents, she is above all gifted at getting inside their skins, so that each character is fresh and new.

Asked about that gift, she said she had always been interested in the specific differences between people, and that she and her good pal Tracey Ullman love to explore the quirks of accents and behavior together. "I like to be a conduit," she said.

There's a moment in "The Deer Hunter" when she holds up a sweater she's knitted and finds it much too large for Robert De Niro, and then, before taking it away, allows her fingers to tap lightly across his chest. "Well, because he was so beautiful!" she said, to laughter, and then said little gestures come and go in various takes, and it's up to the director to find what he likes.

In the clip from "The French Lieutenant's Woman," she said, she felt she could see Jeremy Irons looking at her performance - but then the issue was complicated because, in a way, he was supposed to be: The film cut back and forth between the Victorian story, and the relationship between Streep and Irons as the modern actors playing the 19th century characters.

"It never really worked for me one way or the other," she mused. Were you thinking that even when you made the film? she was asked. "Lord, no! I was thinking, it's time for me to breast-feed. Only years and years later do these thoughts come to me."

The biggest laugh of the evening came when critic Stanley Kauffmann stood up to ask a question, and she asked him one instead: "When you were teaching at Yale Drama School and I was put on probation - how did you vote? For, or against?" Kauffmann said he was a part-timer without a vote, and was allowed to ask his question, which was about the way he thought she put an Italian peasant woman's walk into the character in "The Bridges of Madison County."

Streep's new film "Dancing at Lughnasa," about an Irish family in the 1930s, premiered here Saturday, and she has another important autumn film, "One True Thing," about a perfect housewife married to an imperfect English teacher, that opens Sept. 18. The one thing that influences her choices, she mused, was her family: "I have three daughters. I wouldn't want to make a film I didn't want them to see."

The Telluride festival continues through Labor Day weekend with premieres and revivals, and remains the only festival that film industry pros attend for fun. So far I've counted a dozen important directors here who do not have new films to promote or deals to sign, and are simply here to see the movies. Fancy that.

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