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Curtis Hanson's 'The River Wild.'

What America does not need is another instance of the way that our film world chews up talent, especially acting talent. But the troublesome news is that Meryl Streep is giving us another such instance.

About her talent there has been so little doubt that, almost from the moment she became visible, a chief concern was whether our theater-film world would allow her to fulfill herself. When I saw her some twenty years ago in productions at the Yale School of Drama, I was struck, as were others, by her gifts; and I worried, as did others, about her chances for fulfillment.

At first--a long first, in fact--our worries seemed foolish. Streep, invited by Joseph Papp, came down to New York after Yale and began to play interesting parts successfully. Films soon called her, of course. Her film debut was in Julia (1977), and obviously they hadn't yet learned how to photograph her. That problem was solved in The Deer Hunter; her film career took off.

During her early Hollywood years Streep made a point of returning occasionally to the theater, not as penance for the movie money she was making (which those returns seem for some film stars) but apparently because she wanted to keep exercising theater skills and because she wanted parts that films couldn't provide. In the summer of 1978, while she was shooting Kramer vs. Kramer and Manhattan in New York, she was also playing Kate in The Taming of the Shrew for Joe Papp at night. (Ten years or so later, when Papp knew his health was going, Streep was his first choice to take his place. She declined because she knew her job was to act.)

Then her returns to the theater dwindled and disappeared. This was understandable, even (to put it presumptuously) forgivable, because she was offered so many good film roles--in The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, Out of Africa, Plenty and Ironweed. But even in those fruitful years, there were some curious lapses, such as Still of the Night and Falling in Love, which seemed attempts to "normalize" her as a movie star. Then, as it became clear that her talent and her Oscars were not translating into the box office, she began to grab more patently for popularity, in She-Devil, Postcards from the Edge, Defending Your Life, none of which did much for her in any way.

Now, after a considerable absence, she returns in The River Wild (Universal), in which the greatest demands on her are for strenuous paddling while white-water rafting. A stale product of Movieland mechanics, diluted from Griffith's Way Down East and John Boorman's Deliverance, this picture is just one more reason to worry about an outstanding talent.

Along with this unworthy film come interviews telling us that Streep is now 45, a difficult age for female film stars, that she is trapped by her age and her need to boom at the box office, that her career is in danger. But who made this trap? The answer, I suggest, is Streep. Not because of her ill-judged grabs at commercial success, not because (though this must be painfully true) good material is hard to find, but because for the last fifteen years or so she has defined the fulfillment of her talent solely by films.

Here is a dream--sparked perhaps by the fact that Joe Papp made her that offer. I dream that Streep attaches herself--which she could do virtually at will--to one of the pre-eminent resident theaters in this country and at that theater does some of the roles in great plays that impatiently await her. Or, dreaming right along, I see her forming a company of her own, possibly with another wasting talent, Robert Duvall, and doing some seasons of great plays, in one place or on tour. I dream, in short, that she refuses to let Hollywood dictate what an acting career is. (Wryly enough, such a move might well improve her Hollywood prospects.)

Is this dream really so wild? In Britain and Germany and Sweden, to name only three countries, film careers don't straiten acting talent. Think of the film-plus-theater careers of Olivier and Albert Finney and Glenda Jackson, of Bruno Ganz and Edith Clever and Jutta Lampe, or Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson. The pat objection to the examples of such people is that they live in markedly different theater-film cultures. Certainly. But if someone with Streep's power and gifts doesn't move to alter our compartmentalized film world, our disregard for the nurture of talents instead of careers, who will do it?

From this hopeful dream, I awake--to learn that Streep is to do the female lead in the film of The Bridges of Madison County. Hope deferred maketh even a critic's heart sick.... Still, good luck to her.

Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann