Streep set the tone for the evening when, after she was introduced, she came onstage at the Kodak Theater with a digital camera in hand, snapping pictures of the audience that turned out to honor her.
Howard Stringer, chairman of the AFI board of trustees and chairman and chief executive officer of Sony Corporation of America, spoke not just of Streep's acting skills but also of her intellect. Recalling a time in the '80s when he headed CBS News, Stringer said Streep used to send him detailed critiques of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.
"She was astonishingly shrewd and insightful," said Stringer.
Before the proceedings went any further, Stringer called for a moment of silence in memory of former president -- and onetime Hollywood actor -- Ronald Reagan, who died at 93 on June 5. Stringer called Reagan "an actor who rode off into the sunset after playing one of the great roles in modern history."
AFI director and CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg led a parade of speakers who praised Streep not just for her work, but also for her devotion to her family. Streep and her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, have three daughters and a son, ranging in age from teenage to 25.
"You honor us with your art," said Firstenberg, "but you also honor us with your voice -- a voice for art, for women and for family."
Jim Carrey -- who co-stars with Streep in the upcoming movie version of the Lemony Snicket book series "A Series of Unfortunate Events" -- took a typically comic turn at the podium. He joked about Streep's reputation as one of the greatest actresses of all time.
"I didn't know what she would be like," he said about working with her, "but luckily for me, she was open and willing to learn."
But even Carrey could not resist the reverential atmosphere at the Kodak, as he turned serious for a moment.
"You drive all of us to new levels with your excellence," he said.
Streep's co-star in "The Deer Hunter," De Niro, received the AFI Life Award last year. From the stage, he told her nobody deserves the award more than she does.
"You are the real thing, and I love you for it," said De Niro.
Nora Ephron, who wrote "Heartburn" based on her personal story of a failed marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, joked about seeing herself played onscreen by Streep.
"She plays all of us better than we play ourselves," said Ephron, "although it's a little depressing knowing that if you audition for yourself, Meryl will beat you out for it."
Diane Keaton, who starred with Streep in "Marvin's Room," called her "my generation's genius." Tracey Ullman, who starred with Streep in "Plenty," credited Streep with achieving success on her own terms.
"You have earned this title not by playing the coquette or flaunting your sexuality in this still-male dominated world," said Ullman. "You're the cream of the crop."
As she accepted the award from her "Silkwood," "Postcards from the Edge" and "Angels in America" director Mike Nichols, Streep joked about what it's like to hear all those people say all those nice things about her.
"Can't we just do this every year?" she said.
But then Streep suggested that the testimonials must have been for someone more deserving than she is.
"This is overwhelming, and I wish I were her," she said. "I really do."
Continuing in a self-deprecating mode, Streep said she felt as though she had "stepped in the front of the line" of other deserving Hollywood women. She named Audrey Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as women who should have received the AFI Award already.
"I'm so proud and grateful," she said, "and I hope it's not the end."
Born Mary Louise Streep in Basking Ridge, N.J., Streep studied drama at Vassar and the Yale School of Drama. She appeared in numerous Broadway plays and was nominated for a Tony for her performance in Tennessee Williams' "27 Wagons Full of Cotton."
She made her Hollywood debut in "Julia" (1977), and earned her first Academy Award nomination the following year for "The Deer Hunter." In 1979 she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "Kramer Vs. Kramer."
Streep won the Best Actress Oscar in 1982 for "Sophie's Choice." Her nomination for "Adaptation" in 2002 was her 13th -- an Oscar record for a performer.
Streep is also an Emmy-winner, for her work in the 1978 miniseries "Holocaust," and a Golden Globe and SAG Award winner for her performance in the HBO miniseries "Angels in America." She is due in theaters this summer in director Jonathan Demme's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" with Denzel Washington.
Previous AFI Life Award recipients include Eastwood, Nicholson, Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Tom Hanks, Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Steven Spielberg, James Stewart, Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor.
The presentation was taped for broadcast later this month on the USA Network.
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