The following is a script of "The Many Meryls" which aired on Dec. 18, 2011. Morley Safer is the correspondent. David Browning, producer.
In Britain, they honor their distinguished actors with royal titles - Lord Olivier, Dame Helen Mirren. The best we can do is nominate them for Oscars - an annual hyped-up competition for a glossy little statue. If we did have a royal list the name of Meryl Streep would surely be at the very top. She's won two Oscars, been nominated a record 16 times, and doubtless will be again for a new film about one of the most controversial political figures of the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher, in life and on film, the "Iron Lady."
[Meryl Streep, portraying Thatcher: This is a day to put differences aside. To hold one's head high. And take pride in being British!]
Ms. Streep has a unique gift for not just portraying a character, but literally becoming her. On the stage of the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, where she first starred 35 years ago, I asked how real it seems to her while she's performing.
Meryl Streep: I mean, I'm not insane. I do know that I'm acting. But you forget about it. Yeah. You kind of...you know when you're doing it right, there's a thrilling suspension of the day-to-day and you're in someone else's head.
On this day, in a London film studio, that someone else is Margaret Thatcher, dancing with a make-believe Ronald Reagan, Thatcher's fellow Cold War warrior.
[Streep, as Thatcher: There you go again. Why not?]
It's the latest tour de force from Streep, a woman of many faces: Sophie in "Sophie's Choice." As Julia Child. As the French lieutenant's woman. As the devil wearing Prada.
[Streep, as Thatcher: Worried about our careers, are we?]
And now, the Iron Lady.
[Streep, as Thatcher: We can restore the health of the British economy and we will do just that!]
Morley Safer: What particularly attracted you to the Margaret Thatcher role?
Streep: Everything. Just the opportunity to deal with the deep, buried discomfort that people still have, men and women, with women in leadership positions.
As British prime minister, Thatcher strode the world stage for more than a decade. Leaving heel prints on the backs of her own Conservative Party's old boys club.
Safer: Did you like her?
Streep: I am in awe of what she did. The policies you can argue with. But to sit in the hot seat, I can't even imagine having that steadfastness.
[Streep, as Thatcher: I'll just have a small one because I'm watching my figure.]
Their stories are both about transformation. The actress transforming herself into the politician who transformed herself to outthink, outwork and outwit the men around her.
Streep: One of the things she did was get a drama teacher to tell her how to support her voice.
[From the "Iron Lady": Breathing in, and (Margaret) Denis!]
Streep: Because her voice was sort of lighter, like mine is. And they taught her to support it, to bring it up from the depths of her place, where the conviction lies, and to carry it through without a breath, until the end of a thought. And then not to give 'em a chance to interrupt her.
Safer: She was also, love her or hate her, remarkably single-minded and confident that her way was the only way.
Streep: Oh yes...yes. I have a lot of that.
Safer: It was typecasting, was it?
Streep: A little bit.
At age 62, Meryl Streep is still at the top of her game, one of the recipients at this year's Kennedy Center Honors. That's her husband of 33 years, sculptor Don Gummer. And their children: a son and three daughters, two of them actresses themselves.
Safer: There's something I want to show you.
On the theory that high school is destiny, we took her back to the days long before she became Meryl of the movies.
Streep: Oh, this is my high school yearbook picture.
Back then, in Bernardsville, New Jersey, she was just plain Mary Louise Streep.
Well, not so plain.
Streep: Pretty. Blonde. Vivacious. Cheerleader. Our homecoming queen. Where the boys are.
Safer: Where the boys are indeed.
Streep: Oh, God. Bernardian art editor. That's what I was. And the morning announcer. Diane Sawyer, eat your heart out.
Home movies made it clear: the camera loved her from an early age. But the homecoming queen didn't care much for the movies of the day. She was fascinated by the classics.
Streep: There was one channel that had older movies. And I loved Carole Lombard and I loved Kate Hepburn and Bette Davis. And Barbara Stanwyck. I like girls with attitude. You know? Moxie. There's an old word.
Though she had dabbled in acting, she got serious about it at the Yale Drama School. That led to an audition with the Public Theater director, Joe Papp.
Safer: Joe Papp could be a taskmaster, yes?
Streep: Yes, not to me.
Papp gave her her first break on Broadway: a small role in a period piece called "Trelawny of the 'Wells.'"
Safer: Joe Papp asked if you could do a Southern accent?
Streep: Yes. And he said, 'Wait. Try, do this, uh, Southern. Can ya, can ya do a Southern accent?' I'm from not even southern New Jersey, you know? I pulled it up out of probably some 4 o'clock movie somewhere.
Safer: I heard it was from "The Dinah Shore Show."
Streep: Oh, yeah. Maybe that was it. (singing) "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet." Remember that?
Streep: Oh, God, wasn't she divine?
[Streep at Delacorte Theater: Here's where I forgot my lines in "The Seagull"...]
Soon, she was doing the classics on this outdoor stage. Competing with airplanes, heat, rain and more.
Streep: Quack, quack.
Streep: Do you hear that?
Her career took off so fast that one summer, she did "Taming of the Shrew" here at night.
[Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer vs. Kramer": Hey, hey, hey!]
And during the day, shot two movies: "Kramer vs. Kramer," and Woody Allen's "Manhattan." She was well on her way.
[Woody Allen in "Manhattan": Are you writing a book about our marriage?
Streep: Will you leave me alone?]
Her range was astonishing. One year, a Texan, Karen Silkwood.
[Streep: Let's not fight.]
The next, Danish in "Out of Africa."
[Streep: Bror has asked me for a divorce. He has found someone that he wants to marry.]
She wore spandex for "Mamma Mia." A nun's habit for "Doubt." And a beard, playing a rabbi in "Angels in America."
Streep: It always really bothers me when people imagine that characters that don't look like you, or have the same accent as you do, are far from you. The great actress Sybil Thorndike said "I think we all have the germ of every other person inside of us." And I think we do.
[Reporter in "Iron Lady": Baroness Thatcher, how are you feeling?]
Margaret Thatcher is 86 now. Her daughter Carol has written openly about her mother's slide into the darkness of dementia. The film tackles the issue head on.
Safer: Did you have any concerns about showing this once remarkably vital woman having lost it all?
Streep: Well, that was the part that most intrigued me. First of all, I don't feel there's any shame in dementia, in people that suffer from it.
[Thatcher's daughter in "Iron Lady": And you're not Prime Minister any more.]
Streep: To tell an honest story about a big life in its ebb, you have to, you have to deal with this part of it.
There's one observation that gets her back up: when people note that she's played a lot of strong-minded women.
Streep: No one has ever asked an actor, 'You're playing a strong-minded man.' We assume that men are strong-minded, or have opinions. But a strong-minded woman is a different animal.
She's the public face of a movement to build a National Women's History Museum in Washington.
Streep: Margaret Thatcher said, "If you want something spoken about, ask a man. If you want it done, ask a woman."
The museum - near the National Mall - would showcase little known stories about women in America. Wandering the Massachusetts countryside, not far from her home, she insisted on taking us to the scene of one such story, clearing the brush so our camera crews wouldn't trip.
Streep: Look in that window.
It's the house where in 1781 a slave called Mum Bett intervened when a young slave girl was threatened by the lady of the house.
Streep: She took a red-hot fireplace shovel and tried to strike the child. And Mum Bett saved the little girl and burned her arm all the way up the arm. And that was the last straw.
Mum Bett sued in court and gained her freedom, taking the new name Elizabeth Freeman. The case lead to the abolition of slavery in the state.
Morley: ...by 1790, the Census recorded no enslaved people in Massachusetts.
As for women in Hollywood, Streep is an exception to the rule that most leading ladies have a short shelf life. Four of her most recent films have been directed by women. But one thing that drives her crazy is the snail's pace of movie making: shooting the same scene time and time again.
Streep: I don't like to go over things, and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. I don't like that.
Safer: That happens a lot, though, doesn't it, in movies?
Streep: Yeah, but I guess I have less tolerance for it, I like movies that have a little budget, and so they can't do that.
Safer: Do you think the movies are better, getting better than when you started?
Streep: I think the acting's better. I think the acting is better than in the classic days, frankly, of movies.
Safer: But if you look at the movies being made, the big movies that are being made, are-- are about comic strips.
Streep: Well, I don't see those.
Safer: Or vampires. Or gross behavior.
Safer: All aimed at what, 18-year-old boys?
Streep: Yes. That's called the narrowing of the audience. The movie business has worked very assiduously to discourage you and other intelligent, discerning people from the theater, from the movie theater. They have worked hard to get rid of you, because you don't go then and buy toys and games.
And then there is the Streep enigma: that hint of a Mona Lisa smile. Or as the Italians call the painting: La Giaconda.
Safer: Jack Nicholson said of you, "It's the Giaconda smile, the mystery of Meryl that appeals."
Streep: Is that a snake? What is a Giaconda?
Safer: No, you're thinking of an anaconda! You're the Mona Lisa!
Streep: Okay, okay. Fine. Sorry. All that education down the drain. Okay, fine. I thought, what does he mean? It's good to have something that is undiscoverable, which frankly, I think every human being has. I don't think I'm that mysterious. But I'm glad he thinks so.
We'll soon know what audiences and Oscar voters think of Streep's portrayal. The actress, the prime minister: no doubt at odds politically, but each compelled to leave their mark. Two brilliant performers. Two sisters under the skin.
Safer: Did you discover anything of yourself in her?
Streep: No, what do you mean? Yes. Of course. My dutifulness, my desire to work hard, my desire to do the right thing. To, you know, be a good girl. All those things I think she grew up with and so did I.