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Women in Film Feature #7 – Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Sophie's_Choice1Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula
Written by: Alan J. Pakula (Based on Sophie’s Choice by William Styron)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol, Rita Karin

Since her early acting days in the 1970’s, American actress Meryl Streep has been widely regarded as being one of the best and most influential actresses of our time.  The incredibly prolific Streep has made a career of taking challenging and diverse roles, developing a wide variety of accents, eccentricities, and many personality traits.  These varied roles have led Meryl Streep to being one of the most decorated actresses in Hollywood history.  She currently holds three Academy Award wins (once for Best Supporting Actress, and twice for Best Actress), and was nominated for a further sixteen.  Her nineteen career Academy Award nominations makes Streep far and away the most nominated screen actor in history.  Streep’s most famous films include The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Silkwood, Out of Africa, A Cry in the Dark, The Devil Wears Prada, and Doubt.  The acclaimed actress has also been heavily involved with the National Women’s History Museum, serving as their spokesperson and even donating millions of dollars towards the cause.  She has served as a hero and role model to millions for nearly forty years, and continues to be a tremendous influence on and off the silver screen.

Sophie’s Choice marked the second career Academy Award win for lead actress Meryl Streep, and her first win for Best Actress in a Leading Role.  It’s one of the projects that propelled the actress into mainstream popularity, and furthered the acclaim she had already received for being a “chameleon”.  Based on the highly acclaimed novel of the same name by writer William Styron, Sophie’s Choice blends a coming-of-age story and romantic drama with tragic elements revolving around World War II and the survival of the Holocaust.  The film was directed by the famed Alan J. Pakula, who had produced the big screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and directed the critically acclaimed “paranoia trilogy” of Klute, The Parallax View, and Best Picture nominated All the President’s Men. Sophie’s Choice stars Meryl Streep as the titular Sophie, as well as Kevin Kline in his big screen debut, and Peter MacNicol.  The film was a tremendous box office success, more than tripling its budget of $9 million.  Pakula’s drama was also a critical hit, topping Roger Ebert’s 1982 year end list, and earning five Academy Award nominations including Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  Meryl Streep took home the movie’s only Oscar statuette, and officially cemented herself as one of the most successful performers in Hollywood.


Peter MacNicol, Meryl Streep, and Kevin Kline in 1982’s Oscar-winning Sophie’s Choice.

The film is narrated by the character of Stingo (Peter MacNicol on screen, Josef Sommer in narrated scenes), a young writer who settles in Brooklyn after finishing his schooling.  Stingo befriends the explosive couple of Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep), a Polish immigrant, and Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline), a highly unstable pharmaceutical researcher.  It is revealed that Sophie is a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and that Nathan had helped to ease her post-war transition and nursed her back to good health upon meeting. Nathan grows increasingly jealous and paranoid towards Stingo and Sophie, despite having no evidence to prove that the two are carrying on an affair.  His paranoia causes him to lash out at her in abusive and harassing ways, and has him constantly coming into and leaving Sophie’s life.  Sophie’s past is shown through a series of flashbacks; her father sympathized with the Nazis, while her lover led the Resistance movement against the German’s.  Sophie fears that this knowledge will fall into the wrong hands, and fears for the lives of her young children. Eventually Sophie’s lover is murdered, and her and her children are taken away by the Gestapo.  She is soon made to make an impossible decision that will change her life forever.  Meanwhile in real time, Stingo makes startling revelations about Nathan that furthers his distrust of the wildly eccentric man. To find out whether Sophie’s Choice ends on a positive or a tragic note, you’ll have to watch the film for yourself.

Sophie’s Choice is a film that I’ve been struggling with for more than a week now as I write this.  I have known of its legacy for years, but only brought myself to see it for the sake of the Women in Film marathon.  Its reputation for being incredibly sad and tragic is well-earned, but the amount of critical and audience acclaim for the movie that I’ve read seems pretty unbelievable.  My main gripe lays in the actually storytelling of the film, especially in its heavy reliance on flashbacks.  We learn a great deal about the character of Sophie through these flashbacks, and while they are often very moving and effective, they do little to actually move the plot or connect themselves with the actual narrative of the film. Sophie’s “choice” seems almost inconsequential by the end of the film, because it’s almost completely overshadowed between her struggle to choose between the two men who love her dearly (or worship her, in Stingo’s case).  The use of the Holocaust almost seems exploitative in many moments, especially towards the end of the flashback scenes.  We never spend any significant amount of time with Sophie’s wartime family, so none of it ever has any weight or gravity to it. Instead of caring about these heartbreaking events unfolding before my eyes, I was left scratching my head about why the scenes were even here in the first place.  Especially confusing is the emphasis on Stingo’s coming-of-age in the story, which clashes with the film’s tragic elements on every level and serves to further trivialize the film’s Holocaust subplot.  The writing and structure of Sophie’s Choice is unfortunately the worst element, and in a 2 ½ hour film, that most definitely matters a great deal.  All gripes aside, I have to admit that the acting in the film is incredible, and Meryl Streep’s performance as Sophie is absolutely phenomenal – quite possibly the best performance of the marathon up to this point.  Streep is almost unrecognizable at times, especially in flashbacks where Sophie is suffering from anemia after her liberation from the concentration camp.  She constantly seems meek and uncertain, especially when dealing with Nathan’s outbursts.  Meryl Streep’s Polish accent remains believable and consistent throughout, never mysteriously fading away as some “accents” tend to.  Complimenting Streep’s performance is the scene stealing Kevin Kline in his movie debut.  Though it’s only a supporting role, Kline does what he does best and chews the scenery in every scene he appears in.  His manic and unstable nature is completely believable, and you’re constantly wondering when his next outburst may come.  Sophie’s Choice is competently directed by a veteran of the game, who treats the film’s tragic subplot with a great deal of respect and level headedness.  While it’s not a flashy film, Pakula’s slow and steady direction mixed with rich and gorgeous cinematography by Nestor Almendros, helps to create a realistic atmosphere that is perfect for the time period the film takes place during.


Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline) in Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice.

Unfortunately for all those involved in the making of Sophie’s Choice, great acting and solid direction can’t make up for a highly confused and aimless screenplay.  While the dialogue is never bad or wasted, the film’s melodramatic treatment of the Holocaust as a story element and its subsequent focus on a coming-of-age love story just feels insulting.  Any elements of the film that would affect viewers in any way seem superficial because of the lack of actual substance to the film’s seemingly important subplot.  Sophie’s Choice feels like two great films that were sloppily edited into one mediocre one.  Fortunately, when the film gets something right, it gets it very right. Sophie’s Choice features an absolutely incredible and award-winning performance by a young chameleon Meryl Streep, and a fun supporting turn from breakout actor Kevin Kline.  We can thank it for its furthering of Meryl Streep’s acting career, but I fail to see any other reason why we’re still talking about it more than thirty years later.  Much to my disappointment, I must urge readers to view at your own discretion.

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