Meryl Streep stars with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in 'Doubt.' - AP

When Meryl Met Oscar

Kate Winslet was 3 years old when Meryl Streep received the first of her record 15 Academy Award nominations.

Angelina Jolie, nominated this year for "Changeling" ... also 3 years old. Melissa Leo of "Frozen River" was 18. And the fifth nominee for the Oscar for Best Actress, Anne Hathaway of "Rachel Getting Married" ... a year away from being born.

Streep might joke that awards mean nothing to her anymore, but there's little doubt she remains the grande dame of the Oscars. This year's nomination, which breaks the tie she had with Katherine Hepburn, comes 30 years after her first nod — and an equally astounding 26 years since she actually was awarded the Oscar.

"Even though awards mean nothing to me anymore, I'm really happy," the 59-year-old Streep joked after collecting top honors earlier this month from the Screen Actors Guild.

Yet although Streep says her previous Oscar wins have given her a sense of validation, she admits that losing out tonight will still hurt.

"When you lose, you think my work wasn't any good. But it's an honor to be nominated, and it is. ... It is! ... But you just feel worse when you lose than you did before you got nominated," she said.

Not that he fellow nominees expect to have a chance against her.

"I'm not going to win," says Hathaway. "I'm in a dramatic category with Meryl Streep. No contest.

Streep's first Oscar win came for "Kramer vs Kramer," followed by a second as a Jewish concentration camp survivor forced to make a tragic decision in "Sophie's Choice."

She's been nominated for playing two writers, two actresses, an alcoholic, a nun, an Earth mother, a suicidal mother, a homicidal mother, a whistleblower and a music teacher. She's played real people, some based on real people and, once, a dual role of a fictional character AND and actress playing that fictional character in a movie within the movie.

"She is just divine," says Hathaway. "As a human being, she has basically accomplished everything that I want to do ... It's not that she just gets inside the character, she's just absolutely at the center of all of her choices, of the truth of the character."

Streep, though, has never been one to get carried away by the trappings of fame, preferring to live as anonymously as possible at her home, where she has raised her four children.

"Being famous gets in the way of a lot of things," she once said. "My family really does come first. It always did and always will."

Yet the reluctance to play the celebrity game has not interfered with the stellar trajectory of a career that has seen her acquire iconic status through the near mythical attention to detail she puts into her work.

For "Sophie's Choice" she learnt to speak Polish so well that many locals believed she was a Pole; for "Music of the Heart," she learned to play the violin, practicing six hours each day for eight weeks, for "A Cry in the Dark" she perfected an Australian twang.

"If I am not confident that I can portray the character perfectly on screen, I won?t even try," Streep says.

Her astonishing versatility was highlighted by her contrasting performances in two vastly different 2008 films "Doubt" and the big-screen adaptation of the ABBA musical "Mamma Mia!"

The technical mastery of her craft has sometimes divided Hollywood. Bette Davis wrote Streep a letter before her death praising her as America's finest actress; Hepburn once described Streep as her least favorite.

"It feels unbelievable to be mentioned in the same breath as Meryl Streep. It's inconceivable to me that this would even happen in my lifetime at all. It's such a dream," says Winslet, who's the other favorite tonight for her performance in "The Reader."

Nonesuch praise has eased Streep's perennial discomfort with the red-carpet frenzy associated with the Academy Awards.

"I don't know how to be," she says. "I just always feel like I'm in costume. And I am. And borrowed jewelry. The event is weird. The thing of feeling part of the community, the acting community and the film community ... that's kind of great.

"To see people whose work I really do admire and I really don't know them, so I get to come up like a fan and say, 'I really thought you were great in this.' That's fun. But not the hyperbole of the whole...," she struggles for a word. Hoopla? "It gets insane. Have you ever walked the red carpet?"

Actually, no.

"Your head explodes," she says, describing the experience. "And (the reporters are) shouting at you, 'What do you think? Are you excited?' Every year, I try to figure out how I can go to the Oscars and not do the red carpet."

And what should people expect should Streep break her "losing" streak and actually receive the Oscar tonight? For one thing, a memorable speech.

"My God, I was settling in for a long winter's nap," she said after winning a Golden Globe in 2002. "I've been nominated, like, 789 times, but it hasn't been since the Mesozoic Era that I've actually won."

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