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  • Thank you, all. Thank you, President Spar, Ms. Golden, President Tilghman, Members of

  • the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, proud swelling parents and family, and gorgeous

  • class of 2010.

  • If you are all really, really lucky, and if you continue to work super hard, and you remember

  • your thank you notes and everybody's name; and you follow through on every task that's

  • asked of you and also somehow anticipate problems before they even arise and you somehow sidestep

  • disaster and score big. If you get great scores on your LSATS, or MSATS, or ERSATS or whatever.

  • And you get into your dream grad school or internship which leads to a super job with

  • a paycheck commensurate with responsibilities of leadership or if you somehow get that documentary edited

  • on a shoe-string budget and it gets accepted at Sundance and maybe it wins Sundance and

  • then you go on to be nominated for an Oscar and then you win the Oscar. Or if that money-making

  • website that you designed with your friends somehow suddenly attracts investors and advertisers

  • and becomes the go-to site for whatever it is you're selling, blogging, sharing, or net-casting

  • and success shinning, hoped-for but never really anticipated success comes your way

  • I guarantee you someone you know or love come to you and say, "Will you address the graduates

  • at my college?" And you'll say "Yeah sure, when is it? May 2010? 2010? Yeah sure, that's

  • months away" and then the nightmare begins. The nightmare we've all had and I assure you,

  • you'll continue to have even after graduation, 40 years after graduation. About a week before

  • the due date, you wake up in the middle of the night, "Huh, I have a paper due and I

  • haven't done the reading, Oh my god!"

  • If you have been touched by the success fairy, people think you know why. It's true. People think success

  • breeds enlightenment and you are duty bound to spread it around like manure, fertilize

  • those young minds, let them in on the secret, what is it that you know that no one else

  • knows, the self examination begins, one looks inward, one opens an interior door. Cobwebs,

  • black, the lights bulbs burned out, the airless dank refrigerator of an insanely over-scheduled,

  • unexamined life that usually just gets take-out. Where is my writer friend, Anna Quindlen when

  • I need her? On another book tour.

  • Hello I'm Meryl Streep. Today, Class of 2010... I am really, I am very honored, and

  • humbled to be asked to pass on tips and inspiration to you for achieving success in this next

  • part of your lives. President Spar, when I consider the other distinguished medal recipients

  • and venerable Board of Trustees, the many accomplished faculty and family members...people

  • who've actually done things, produced things, while I have pretended to do things. I can

  • think about 3,800 people who should have been on this list before me and you know since

  • my success has depended wholly on my putting things over on people. So I'm not sure parents

  • think I'm that great a role model anyway.

  • I am however an expert in pretending to be an expert in various areas, so just randomly

  • like everything else in this speech, I am or I was an expert in kissing on stage and

  • on screen. How did I prepare for this? Well most of my preparation took place in my suburban

  • high school or rather behind my suburban high school in New Jersey. One is obliged to do

  • great deal of kissing in my line of work. Air kissing, ass-kissing, kissing up and of

  • course actual kissing, much like hookers, actors have to do it with people we may not

  • like or even know. We may have to do it with friends, which, believe it or not is particularly

  • awkward, for people of my generation, it's awkward.

  • My other areas of fau expertise, river rafting, miming the effects of radiation poisoning,

  • knowing which shoes go with which bag, coffee plantation, Turkish, Polish, German, French,

  • Italian, that's Iowa-Italian from the bridges of Madison county, bit of the Bronx, Aramaic,

  • Yiddish, Irish clog dancing, cooking, singing, riding horses, knitting, playing the violin,

  • and simulating steamy sexual encounters, these are some of the areas in which, I have pretended

  • quite proficiently to be successful, or the other way around. As have many women here,

  • I'm sure.

  • Women, I feel I can say this authoritatively, especially at Barnard where they can't hear

  • us, what am I talking about? They professionally can't hear us. Women are better at acting

  • than men. Why? Because we have to be, if successfully convincing someone bigger than you are of

  • something he doesn't know is a survival skill, this is how women have survived through the

  • millennia. Pretending is not just play. Pretending is imagined possibility. Pretending or acting

  • is a very valuable life skill and we all do it, all the time. We don't want to be caught

  • doing it but nevertheless it's part of the adaptations of our species. We change who

  • we are to fit the exigencies of our time, and not just strategically, or to our own

  • advantage, sometimes sympathetically, without our even knowing it, for the betterment of

  • the whole group.

  • I remember very clearly my own first conscious attempt at acting. I was six placing my mother's

  • half slip over my head in preparation to play the Virgin Mary in our living room. As I swaddled

  • my Betsy Wetsy doll I felt quieted, holy, actually, and my transfigured face and very

  • changed demeanor captured on super-8 by my dad pulled my little brother Harry to play

  • Joseph and Dana too, a barnyard animal, into the trance. They were actually pulled into

  • this nativity scene by the intensity of my focus. In my usual technique for getting them

  • to do what I want, yelling at them never ever would have achieved and I learned something

  • on that day.

  • Later when I was nine, I remember taking my mother's eyebrow pencil and carefully drawing

  • lines all over my face, replicating the wrinkles that I had memorized on the face of my grandmother

  • whom I adored and made my mother take my picture and I look at it now and of course, I look

  • like myself now and my grandmother then. But I really do remember in my bones, how it was

  • possible on that day to feel her age. I stooped, I felt weighted down but cheerful, you know

  • I felt like her.

  • Empathy is at the heart of the actor's art. And in high school, another form of acting

  • took hold of me. I wanted to learn how to be appealing. So I studied the character I

  • imagined I wanted to be that of the generically pretty high school girl. I researched her

  • deeply, that is to say shallowly, in Vogue, in Seventeen, and in Mademoiselle Magazines.

  • I tried to imitate her hair, her lipstick, her lashes, the clothes of the lithesome,

  • beautiful and generically appealing high school girls that I saw in those pages. I ate an

  • apple a day, period. I peroxided my hair, ironed it straight. I demanded brand name

  • clothes, my mother shut me down on that one. But I did, I worked harder on this characterization

  • really than anyone I think I've ever done since. I worked on my giggle, I lightened

  • it. Because I like it when it went, kind of "ehuh" and the end, "eheeh" "ehaeaahaha" because

  • I thought it sounded child like, and cute. This was all about appealing to boys and at

  • the same time being accepted by the girls, a very tricky negotiation.

  • Often success in one area precludes succeeding in the other. And along with all my other

  • exterior choices, I worked on my, what actors call, my interior adjustment. I adjusted my

  • natural temperament which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, loud, a little

  • loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits, and I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness,

  • a breezy, natural sort of sweetness, even shyness if you will, which was very, very,

  • very effective on the boys. But the girls didn't buy it. They didn't like me; they sniffed

  • it out, the acting. And they were probably right, but I was committed, this was absolutely

  • not a cynical exercise, this was a vestigial survival courtship skill I was developing.

  • And I reached a point senior year, when my adjustment felt like me, I had actually convinced

  • myself that I was this person and she, me, pretty, talented, but not stuck-up. You know,

  • a girl who laughed a lot at every stupid thing every boy said and who lowered her eyes at

  • the right moment and deferred, who learned to defer when the boys took over the conversation,

  • I really remember this so clearly and I could tell it was working, I was much less annoying

  • to the guys than I had been, they liked me better and I like that, this was conscious

  • but it was at the same time motivated and fully-felt this was real, real acting.

  • I got to Vassar which 43 years ago was a single-sex institution, like all the colleges in what

  • they call the Seven Sisters, the female Ivy League and I made some quick but lifelong

  • and challenging friends. And with their help outside of any competition for boys my brain

  • woke up. I got up and I got outside myself and I found myself again. I didn't have to

  • pretend, I could be goofy, vehement, aggressive, and slovenly and open and funny and tough

  • and my friends let me. I didn't wash my hair for three weeks once. They accepted me like

  • the Velveteen Rabbit. I became real instead of an imagined stuffed bunny but I stockpiled

  • that character from high school and I breathed life into her again some years later as Linda

  • in the "Deer Hunter." There is probably not one of you graduates who has ever seen this

  • film but the "Deer Hunter" it won best picture in 1978 Robert De Niro, Chris Walken, not

  • funny at all. And I played Linda, a small town girl in a working class background, a

  • lovely, quiet, hapless girl, who waited for the boy she loved to come back from the war

  • in Vietnam. Often men my age, President Clinton, by the way, when I met him said, Men my age,

  • mention that character as their favorite of all the women I've played. And I have my

  • own secret understanding of why that is and it confirms every decision I made in high

  • school. This is not to denigrate that girl by the way or the men who are drawn to her

  • in anyway because she's still part of me and I'm part of her. She wasn't acting but she

  • was just behaving in a way that cowed girls, submissive girls, beaten up girls with very

  • few ways out have behaved forever and still do in many worlds. Now, in a measure of how

  • much the world has changed the character most men mention as their favorite is, Miranda

  • Priestly.

  • The beleaguered totalitarian at the head of Runway magazine in Devil Wears

  • Prada. To my mind this represents such an optimistic shift. They relate to Miranda.

  • They wanted to date Linda. They felt sorry for Linda but they feel like Miranda. They

  • can relate to her issues, the high standards she sets for herself and others. The thanklessness

  • of the leadership position. The "Nobody understands me" thing. The loneliness. They stand outside

  • one character and they pity her and they kind of fall in love with her but they look through

  • the eyes of this other character. This is a huge deal because as people in the movie

  • business know the absolute hardest thing in the whole world is to persuade a straight

  • male audience to identify with a woman protagonist to feel themselves embodied by her. This more

  • than any other factor explains why we get the movies we get and the paucity of the roles

  • where women drive the film. It's much easier for the female audience because we were all

  • grown up brought up identifying with male characters from Shakespeare to Salinger. We

  • have less trouble following Hamlet's dilemma viscerally or Romeo's or Tybalt or Huck Finn

  • or Peter Pan -- I remember holding that sword up to Hook -- I felt like him. But it is much

  • much much harder for heterosexual boys to be able to identify with Juliet or Desdemona, Wendy in

  • Peter Pan or Joe in Little Women or the Little Mermaid of Pocohontas. Why? I don't know, but

  • it just is. There has always been a resistance to imaginatively assume a persona, if that

  • persona is a she. But things are changing now and it's in your generation we're seeing

  • this. Men are adapting... about time...they are adapting consciously and also without

  • realizing it for the better of the whole group. They are changing

  • their deepest prejudices to accept and to regard as normal the things that their fathers would have found

  • very very difficult and their grandfathers would have abhorred and the door to this emotional

  • shift is empathy. As Jung said, "Emotion is the chief source of becoming conscious.There

  • can be no transforming of lightness into dark and apathy into movement without emotion." Or

  • as Leonard Cohen says, "Pay attention to the cracks because that's where the light gets in."

  • You, young women of Barnard have not had to squeeze yourself into the corset of being

  • cute or to muffle your opinions but then you haven't left campus yet. I'm just kidding. What you

  • have had is the privilege of a very specific education. You are people who may able to

  • draw on a completely different perspective to imagine a different possibility than women

  • and men who went to coed schools.

  • How this difference is going to serve you it's hard to quantify now, it may take you

  • forty years like it did me to look back and analyze your advantage. But today is about looking forward

  • into a world where so-called women's issues, human issues of gender inequality live at the

  • crux of global problems, everyone suffers from poverty to the AIDS crisis to the violent fundamentalist

  • juntas, human trafficking and human rights abuses and you're going to have the opportunity

  • and the obligation, by virtue of your providence, to speed progress in all those areas. And

  • this is a place where even though the need is very great, the news is too. This is your time and it

  • feels normal to you but really there is no normal. There's only change, and resistance

  • to it and then more change.

  • Never before in the history or country have most of the advanced degrees been awarded

  • to women but now they are. Since the dawn of man, it's hardly more than 100 years since

  • we were even allowed into these buildings except to clean them but soon most of law

  • and medical degrees will probably also go to women. Around the world, poor women now

  • own property who used to be property and according to Economist magazine, for the last two decades,

  • the increase of female employment in the rich world has been the main driving force of growth.

  • Those women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology

  • or the new giants India or china. Cracks in the ceiling, cracks in the door, cracks in

  • the Court and on the Senate floor.

  • You know, I gave a speech at Vassar 27 years ago. It was a really big hit. Everybody loved

  • it, really. Tom Brokaw said it was the very best commencement speech he had ever heard

  • and of course I believed this. And it was much easier to construct than this one. It

  • came out pretty easily because back then I knew so much. I was a new mother, I had two

  • academy awards and it was all coming together so nicely. I was smart and I understood boiler

  • plate and what sounded good and because I had been on the squad in high school, earnest

  • full-throated cheerleading was my specialty so that's what I did. But now, I feel like

  • I know about 1/16th of what that young woman knew. Things don't seem as certain today.

  • Now I'm 60, I have four adult children who are all facing the same challenges you are.

  • I'm more sanguine about all the things that I still don't know and I'm still curious about.

  • What I do know about success, fame, celebrity that would fill another speech. How it separates

  • you from your friends, from reality, from proportion. Your own sweet anonymity, a treasure

  • you don't even know you have until it's gone. How it makes things tough for your family

  • and whether being famous matters one bit, in the end, in the whole flux of time. I know

  • I was invited here because of how famous I am and how many awards I've won. And while

  • I am, I am overweeningly proud of the work that, believe me, I did not do on my own.

  • I can assure that awards have very little bearing on my own personal happiness. My own

  • sense of well-being and purpose in the world. That comes from studying the world feelingly,

  • with empathy in my work. It comes from staying alert and alive and involved in the lives

  • of the people that I love and the people in the wider world who need my help. No matter

  • what you see me or hear me saying when I'm on your TV holding a statuette and spewing, that's

  • acting.

  • Being a celebrity has taught me to hide but being an actor has opened my soul.

  • Being here today has forced me to look around inside there for something useful that I can

  • share with you and I'm really grateful that you gave me the chance.

  • You know you don't have to be famous. You just have to make your mother and father proud of you

  • and you already have. Bravo to you. Congratulations.

Thank you, all. Thank you, President Spar, Ms. Golden, President Tilghman, Members of

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B1 acting high school kissing success character felt

Meryl Streep, Barnard Commencement Speaker 2010, Columbia University

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    Piggy Joyce posted on 2014/03/01
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