By John H. Foote
12. SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982)
Through the course of her extraordinary career Meryl Streep has won three Academy Awards and massed a total of 21 nominations, which shatters the closest rival. No, let’s be fair, no one is close. No one. She was been nominated for the Golden Globe Award 32 times, and won eight, along with their Lifetime Achievement, the Cecil B. De Mille Award. Four times she has won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award, three times for Best Actress, once for Best Supporting Actress. Across America, the New York Film Critics Circle have four times named her their Best Actress, once she has collected the prize for Supporting Actress, while the National Society of Film Critics have awarded her four awards, two for leading actress, two for supporting actress. The litany of awards she has won is simply unbelievable and still she continues.
When Streep was cast in the plum role of Sophie in Alan J. Pakula’s film adaptation of the massive William Styron novel Sophie’s Choice, she had made just five films. Believing he needed a European actress for the role of the shattered Holocaust survivor, he initially refused to see Streep, but once having seen her, he could not forget her. She was 31 years old when cast in the film, and in the years since has done brilliant work, but the truth being the truth, she has never either equally or surpassed her performance in this dark, troubling film.
I have been a film critic for more than 30 years and I saw the film for the first time as a student in college, studying acting. I have yet to see a greater performance, male or female, and will defend that to anyone who suggests otherwise. Streep was far beyond brilliant, she inhabited the role in every way, with every pore of her being, until she was not acting the role, she was the role.
By year’s end there was no question she would win every Best Actress prize available to her, one of those rare performances that swept the awards, taking home everything. So few, men or women, have accomplished this. She learned to speak both German and Polish for the film, then learned how to break each into English with the correct accent, she gained and lost weight, but more, she captured the dying soul of Sophie who had begun her very slow death in the death camps run by the Nazis. Forced to make a choice that was an abomination in humanity, she became a ghost that day, and has inhabited the earth ever since, both living and dead.
Stingo (Peter MacNicol) is a young, wide eyed Southern writer who comes to Brooklyn to work on his novel. He moves into a massive pink boarding house, which turns out to be the right price, encountering the beautiful but sad Sophie, who after seeing her tattoo realizes she was in a death camp. Later that night as they argue he meets Nathan (Kevin Kline) and they get off to a very bad start, though the next day they are the best of friends and it is a friendship that will define young Stingo. I suspect the subject of his book, was Sophie.
Though they are obviously in love, Nathan and Sophie fight often, make love with equal violence, and slowly Stingo realizes something is off with Nathan, his paranoia comes from nowhere, and though he initially believes it his obsession with Hitler and the Nazis, he learns Nathan is paranoid schizophrenic, or as his brother describes, “he is quite mad”, meaning utterly insane. Having told Stingo and Sophie that he is a biologist, he is nothing of the kind, working in a research library where he can stay out of trouble. His moods ranging from euphoric to dangerously murderous, Stingo learns to watch the signs, mourning for his brilliant friend, though loving him no less.
Nathan found Sophie starving and near death in a library and upon fainting he took her home and fed her, clothed her, allowed her to sleep and the two fell in love. There is no question Sophie loves him, adores him, but she understands him all too well. Like a ghost moving through life after the war, Sophie is alive when Nathan is high, she never truly learns to live among the living. She tells bits and pieces of her story to Stingo, how she discovered her father was a Nazi and believed in Hitler, how she discovered it, and the terrible treatment she received at the hands of him.
When Nathan promises to come after them both with a gun, they flee Brooklyn and Sophie finally tells Stingo her entire story. Flashing back to a death camp, Auschwitz, she has arrived there with her two children, a boy, about eight and her daughter, two. A guard tells her because she is Polish she may choose which child to keep. At first she does not understand what he is asking of her, but it becomes very clear at that moment he is asking to choose which child will be raised as a German and which will go to the gas chambers that night. Unable to decide, she panics and he threatens to kill them both before Sophie hands over her little girl, who she watches be taken away to be killed. As the child screams, Sophie opens her mouth and the scream we hear is the child, the image like the famous Munch pain ting The Scream. It is paralyzing. In an instant we understand why Sophie is forever a ghost, a mother cannot choose between her children! No parent could.
That night, drunk on alcohol and tortured by memories, she makes love with Stingo, but is gone the next morning.
He knows where.
Returning to the boarding house he finds them, as have the police, dead in their bed, having taken cyanide capsules, death finally releasing her from the intense torture of life, the voices haunting Nathan finally silenced. The living Sophie never came out of that camp, she was dead the moment they took her child, the moment she was forced to choose.
Streep was miraculous in the role, reaching a new realism in acting in a performance for the ages. This was not merely great, this was among the greatest, and as time has passed, we realize it is the greatest performance captured on film. She went so far into Sophie, any evidence of Meryl Streep is, was, gone. Her range is astonishing, as she is playful, sexy, happy, but always drawn back close to the grace, haunted by her memories and the melancholy envelopes her. I came out of the theatre into the crisp Toronto afternoon, knowing I had just galvanized in some manner, devastated and in awe of Meryl Streep, and I remain that way to this day. In the more than 30 years since seeing the film, I have yet to see one greater, and seriously doubt I ever will. Her beautiful, haunted face was the canvas upon which Pakula painted his film, his terrifying, haunting work.
Every single year end acting award was awarded to Streep for this role and she became the most honoured actress of her time, seemingly nominated for an Academy Award year after year. Yet incredibly she would go 29 years between wins, not winning again until 2011 when she did for The Iron Lady (2011). An entire generation went without seeing the greatest actress in film win an Oscar! Year after year, including even when she gave the year’s best performance, she lost! Madness. Every female performance I see I measures beside Sophie’s Choice; nothing has ever matched it.
Kevin Kline was charismatic and sublime as Nathan, brilliant beyond human measurement but mad as a hatter. When caught up in one of his delusions his bright eyes blazed with madness, not looking at anyone but rather looking through them in a bizarre delirium, caught up in voices only he can hear. There is no question he loves Sophie and Stingo, but when seized by his demons he is dangerous, even murderous. His charisma is never more evident than the scene where he wildly conducting an imaginary orchestra as his music blares, and he rushes Stingo away to the Brooklyn Bridge for the highest praise about his novel. Who could not fall in love with this man? It was an astounding performance from Kline, best known for his superb performance in The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway. How he was a nominee for Best Supporting Actor I have never understood.
Peter MacNicol was fine as Stingo, but the two other performances blew him off the screen. He was never weak, he was never bad, he did everything he was supposed to do, which essentially was make way for Streep and Kline. What he did best was listen, and that is a difficult thing to achieve for an actor.
Pakula knew the film belonged to Streep long before it was released, he knew it when cutting the picture together as he allows the camera to linger long on her beautiful face which masks a well of pain we could never possibly imagine. Upon seeing the film, one can imagine no other actress in the role, Streep was astonishing, a bright light on the silver screen, her pain for all to see, and my God, what horrific pain. Streep and Pakula captured the staggering guilt she feels for being alive when her entire family has perished. Her son might be alive, but finding him would be impossible. He died to her the moment the Nazis pulled him away.
Many of us reading this are parents, can we even begin to imagine the horror of that choice? Knowing death awaited that beautiful little girl within minutes, can we imagine the pain Sophie would go through? I cannot.
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Actress for Streep, which of course she won. I was very surprised the film’s cinematography lost the Oscar to Gandhi (1982), which was little more than a travelogue of India, the cutting between the past and present wonderful, the scenes in the death camp ugly, as though Sophie had been cast into hell on earth. It surprised me that the film was not a Best Picture and Best Director nominee, not to mention the aforementioned nomination for Kline, it was a beautifully created production, fiercely loyal to the Styron book, going far beyond being merely faithful.
The soul of the book is up there on the screen, Streep its beating heart.
Hers remains the single greatest performance I have ever seen through the history of the cinema. Streep gently strokes our souls with raw, perfect power.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.