Meryl Streep’s first foray into film, Fred Zinnemann’s 1977 drama Julia, was not her necessarily her big break: her role was minor, as she playing alongside the film’s radiant stars Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. It would take Streep several more films to establish herself as a major presence in Hollywood – while also balancing her blossoming career in New York City’s theater scene. It’s in light of these humble beginnings that Streep’s accomplishments seem highly pronounced, as she developed into the most nominated performer recognized by the Academy.

Four decades into her career, Meryl Streep is perhaps one of the world’s most popular and esteemed actresses. Her films range across nearly every genre – demonstrating she is as adept at playing for laughs as she is for saturating movie screens with pathos. However, it’s this very same chameleon-like versatility that has made her skills hard to examine as she has evolved. What qualities contribute to her everlasting and oft-recognized appeal to audiences and critics alike?