Meryl Streep has another academy to thank.
The star of films such as “Sophie’s Choice” and “Julie&Julia” has been named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an elite club that includes Toni Morrison, Stephen Sondheim and Jasper Johns. Not even two Oscars, seven Golden Globes and a lifetime achievement prize from the American Film Institute prepared Streep for this.
“I have to say that I was stunned, and when they sent me the roster of people in the academy I just burst into tears,” Streep said in a recent telephone interview. “I couldn’t believe that I’d be even allowed in the kitchen.”
The 112-year-old academy announced Monday that Streep and conductor James Levine had been elected to a specialcategory, established in 1983, for “Americans of great distinction in the arts whose work falls outside the traditional departments” of music (composition), literature and art.
Directors Woody Allen (with whom Streep worked in “Manhattan”) and Martin Scorsese and choreographers Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor are among the current members. While Allen and former member Orson Welles both worked extensively on screen, Streep is the first to be chosen solely for acting.
“Both of this year’s inductees are performing artists, and both are at the peak of their careers,” said poet and Academy President J.D. McClatchy. “James Levine’s conducting and Meryl Street’s acting are extraordinary examples of insight, depth and virtuosity.”
Architects Fumihiko Maki of Japan and Alvaro Siza of Portugal were added to the academy’s honorary category for foreign artists.
Inductees into the main body include authors Marilynne Robinson, Francine Prose, Thomas McGuane and Richard Powers, composers Tania Leon and Fred Lerdahl, architect Thom Mayne and painters Thomas Nozknowski and Peter Saul. Members are elected for life (openings are created when a member dies) and encouraged to serve on committees that distribute prizes, but there is no responsibility beyond agreeing to join.
Streep sums up her own category: “I’m in a particular subset of members that’s not even allowed to vote.”
The inductees demonstrate again how far the academy has changed from its frankly snobbish roots, when modernists, women, non-whites and Jews were not welcome and the presence of a “lowly” actress, even one as talented as Streep, might have set off mass resignations. Saul, for instance, is a founder of Pop Art whose lush and sometimes lurid works include “Donald Duck Crucifixion” and “Sex Deviant Being Executed.”
“I was quiet surprised and even shocked when I got the news because I always thought of myself as a’bad’ artist and that the academy was a place devoted to ‘good’ artists,” he said. “I felt a bit uncomfortable for a moment, but then I thought, ‘What the heck, why be childish?’ So I went with it.”
McGuane, whose novels include “Keep the Change” and “Ninety-Two in the Shade,” has been previously cited by the academy. He received an award in 1972 for his novel “Bushwhacked Piano” and remembered speaking at the ceremony with Bernard Malamud, Walker Percy and Eudora Welty.
“All those people are gone but remembering them and that event has made this a gratifying personal landmark,” he said.
New members will be inducted at an afternoon ceremony next month at the academy’s beaux arts complex in upper Manhattan, just off the Hudson River. Author Calvin Trillin, elected to the academy two years ago, will be a featured speaker. Streep plans to attend.
“I just hope to have lots of cocktails and talk about high-fallutin’ things,” Streep said.
Like they do in Hollywood.
“Uh, yeah, of course.”