February 03, 2003 12:00 PM

Meryl Streep needs an Oscar nomination. Not that the Golden Globe she won last week for her loopy incarnation of The Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean in Adaptation isn’t good enough. Or that after two Oscars—and a record 12 nominations—the 53-year-old costar of Adaptation as well as The Hours actually needs any more accolades at all. The thing is, the oldest three of Streep’s four children—Henry, 23, Mary Willa, 19, and Grace, 16—have each attended the Oscars with her. And as her youngest, Louisa, 11, sees it, her time has come. “She just wants to go and see the stars,” says Streep, laughing. “I say, ‘I’m a star.’ ”

Legend is more like it. And if Louisa doesn’t buy it, she can ask Claire Danes, 23, who acts with the woman she calls “my idol” in Hours, a day-in-the-life tale of a book editor (Streep), a housewife (Julianne Moore) and the writer Virginia Woolf (Golden Globe winner Nicole Kidman). Or bestselling novelist Orlean, who was “elated” that Streep chose to play her in Adaptation. Twenty-three years after winning her first Oscar, for Kramer vs. Kramer, Streep remains unrivaled, says Kidman, as “the Great One.”

Also the Scary One. Costars are all too aware that the New Jersey-born daughter of retired pharmaceutical exec Harry Jr. and commercial artist Mary, who died last year, has won kudos for just about every role and genre in Hollywood—from her concentration-camp survivor in 1982’s Sophie’s Choice (her second Oscar) to her action heroine in 1994’s The River Wild. Add in what Hours director Stephen Daldry calls the “extraordinary intellect” of the woman who studied opera at age 12 and drama at Vassar, Dartmouth and Yale—and, well, as Danes says, “I was almost shaking with anxiety about meeting her, never mind acting with her.”

Imagine the relief of colleagues to discover that though a typical evening for Streep does include hanging out backstage in a London theater talking Chekhov with British grande dame Vanessa Redgrave, she is also wont, says Adaptation director Spike Jonze, to giggle so hard during a scene “it shuts down the set.” Says her pal Carrie Fisher: “She’s as normal as can be and not have a normal job.”

And she’s remarkably humble. Out drinking Manhattans at the Halcyon bar in London after a day shooting The Hours last year, Streep and West Wing’s Allison Janney (who plays her lover) saw actor John Cleese walk into the adjacent restaurant. Having only met him once, Streep was convinced he wouldn’t remember her. So Janney devised a plan: “Go into the restaurant and he’ll see you and you’ll wave and then he’ll call you over.” Alas, Streep’s attempt to catch his eye failed. Says Janney: “All the way back to the bar I was saying, ‘He didn’t have his contacts on. Trust me, Meryl, he knows who you are.’ ”

Indeed, Streep is quick with the self-criticism. Never mind that on a recent girls-night-in watching “bad movies on TV,” says Carrie Fisher, “I made a soufflé and Meryl showed me a better way to separate the eggs.” Streep—who lives in Connecticut with sculptor Donald Gummer, 56, her husband of 24 years—insists she’s “a terrible cook.” Professionally, she says she still feels a “crisis of confidence” before and during filming: “You doubt your talent. You feel your invention flagged, you’re boring, you’re s—-, they’re going to find out.” Then there’s the ordeal of watching herself onscreen. Looking at a scene with costar Jeff Daniels, 47, in The Hours, he recalls her saying, “All I see is two middle-aged people. Let’s get back to Nicole and Julianne already.”

Juggling work (she’s now doing Angels in America for HBO) and motherhood takes “a lot of scheduling,” she says with a laugh. “I’m home most of the time.” She keeps busy going through piles of paper—mostly Louisa’s art projects—and trying to get New York University grad student Henry to try, say, medical school instead of acting. But part of her looks forward to the day when her hands-on mom duties lessen, and she can begin fashioning a new screen image: senior citizen Streep. As she says, “God willing.”

Karen S. Schneider

Natasha Stoynoff and Amy Longsdorf in New York City and Lorenzo Benet, Rachel Biermann and Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles

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