- Director: Alan J. Pakula
- Writer: Alan J. Pakula, based on a the novel by William Styron
- Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Peter MacNicol
- Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#91), 1 Oscar (Best Actress – Meryl Streep), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Costumes)
- Where to Watch: Free streaming on Hoopla and Kanopy (library apps), Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV
On the one hand, it is hard to think of a movie that is more aggressively not my thing than Sophie’s Choice, which includes (a) the Holocaust, (b) abusive relationships in which the lady keeps going back to the dude because she just loves him so much, and (c) mental illness used as a plot twist. On the other hand, Meryl Streep’s performance in this movie may seriously be the best one I’ve seen in my life. She communicates a huge range of emotions, despite having to speak either Polish or German (apparently authentically Polish-accented German) for a decent percentage of the movie, and for the rest of the movie playing someone who can only speak English haltingly. It’s as if you sent Aaron Rodgers out to play quarterback, but made him tie a hand behind his back and said all the plays would be yelled in to him in a foreign language, and then he won the Super Bowl anyway. That’s exactly what it’s like. So I respect that part of the movie, but will pretty definitely never, ever be watching it ever again.
Though based on a novel, Sophie’s Choice feels more like a play than pretty much any movie that’s actually based on a play. Set in 1947 Brooklyn, It takes place about 90% in one surprisingly large townhouse, and about 90% with just three characters: Polish refugee Sophie (Streep), her boyfriend Nathan (Kevin Kline), who we first see hitting her on the stairs, and the movie’s narrator, the shy writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol), who immediately becomes obsessed with both of them but won’t show them his novel. Where is getting his money to stay in Brooklyn for months hiding in his room all day? This isn’t 2020 where he can work from home.
Anyway, I love Kevin Kline, but he spends the movie’s overly long running time chewing on every bit of scenery he can get his teeth on, and I absolutely cannot stand his character. Wikipedia describes Nathan as “emotionally unstable,” which is one way of putting it. There are a couple of “big twists” in the plot, which I’m about to tell you because this movie is almost 40 years old. Nathan spends the first two thirds of the movie getting wildly, outlandishly jealous and yelling about how he’s “on the verge of a breakthrough” in his pharmaceuticals research, then Stingo talks to his brother about something and finds out that Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic and that all of his lines about his work are lies and/or delusions. At which point Sophie and Stingo run away to a hotel room, where she tells him all the terrible things she did to survive World War II. Most prominent and famously is the “Choice” of the title, which has become synonymous with any hard choice. I literally heard a Food Network judge just this week call choosing between two cakes a “Sophie’s Choice.” Which seems like a weird thing to say, considering the original “Choice” was Sophie choosing which of her children goes to the gas chamber and which one survives. Then Sophie and Stingo have sex, and he falls asleep because he is a dude, and when he wakes up she’s gone and he finds her back with Nathan and they’ve both killed themselves. He goes off to a farm where he gets to be a writer for reals. The end.
Director Alan J. Pakula, whose prior films included All the President’s Men and Klute, took the project intending to cast an actress who projected “foreignness” to American audiences as Sophie (whatever that means), and offered the part to Bergman muse Liv Ullmann and Slovak actress Magdalena Vasaryova. Streep, however, apparently “threw herself to the ground” while begging Pakula for the part, and eventually won out. The Concentration Camp scenes were shot in Zagreb, the present-day capital of Croatia, which was a somewhat unique proposition at the time considering it was on the wrong side of the iron curtain. The 1947 storyline was shot, then the production took a several-month break before shooting the flashbacks, during which time Streep lost a great deal of weight in order to realistically appear to be on the verge of starving to death during the Holocaust. I mean, I’d like an Oscar too, but I think we’ve just discovered one of the numerous reasons Meryl Streep has several and I have zero.
One of the things I love about movies is the way they can make you feel empathy for people you never would have thought you would be able to, or wouldn’t think of at all in the first place. But sometimes I worry that my own personal empathy well runs dry at strange times. Roger Ebert closed his original, 1982 review of Sophie’s Choice with this great sentence: “As [the characters] flounder in the bewilderment of being human in an age of madness, they become our friends, and we love them.” The difference in the levels of enjoyment derived by Mr. Ebert and I from this movie can be traced fairly straightforwardly to our difference of opinion on this point. Streep’s performance is undeniable, but I find myself rather vehemently disliking both Nathan and Stingo throughout this movie.
Even Nathan’s mental illness is no excuse, in my book, for the awful, abusive way he treats everyone else in the movie. And Stingo is an idealistic sop, for whom finding out that bad things happened to somebody else somehow opens up his eyes, pushes him into adulthood, and helps him be a real writer. In essence, Sophie’s truly harrowing experiences are at least partly redeemed, in the eyes of the movie, because Stingo got a novel out of it. To which I say, no, they weren’t. But I also think that your experience of this movie may be very, very different from mine, as evidenced by its many Oscar nominations for things unrelated to Streep’s performance. A performance that, in fact, lives up to all the hype, and is something that every moviegoer should probably see at least once.