by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Alan J. Pakula
CAST: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 78% Certified Fresh
PLOT: Sophie, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, has found a reason to live with Nathan, a sparkling if unsteady American Jew obsessed with the Holocaust.
I have not seen a movie as stirring, as affecting, or as emotionally shattering as Sophie’s Choice in a very long time. For years, I was aware of the film’s cachet and of Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance, but the opportunity to watch the movie never presented itself until very recently. I was intellectually aware of the slang usage of having to make a “Sophie’s choice”, meaning that one had to choose between two equally undesirable options. I knew it had to do with the movie of the same name, but I had no other context. And for decades, the real context of Sophie’s choice had remained unknown to me until now.
That fact is one of the reasons Sophie’s Choice had such a devastating impact on me. The screenplay is another, and naturally, there’s Streep’s landmark performance.
The story opens with an older man’s narration while we watch his younger self onscreen. This is Stingo, played as a young man by Peter MacNicol. He’s an aspiring author, and he’s just moved into a large pink boarding house in a Brooklyn suburb shortly after the end of World War II. On his first day there, he encounters the two people who will irrevocably change his life, Sophie (Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline in his film debut). They appear to be a couple, but they are in the middle of a brutal verbal argument on the stairs, with Nathan yelling awful things to Sophie, calling her a Polack, saying how much he doesn’t need her. He leaves in a huff, Sophie is in tears, Stingo instinctively goes to comfort her, they get to talking, and the next morning Nathan returns, utterly contrite, at first suspicious of Stingo, but when Sophie assures him Stingo is just a friend, Nathan is all charm and goodwill and has nothing but good things to say about Sophie.
At this point, in my head, I had the movie all planned out. Okay, so we’ve got a love triangle with a writer/narrator coming between an unattainable beauty and the capricious brute who loves her. And this, I imagined, is what Sophie’s choice would eventually come down to: the penniless aspiring writer who is “safe” or the roguish charmer with the turn-on-a-dime temper. Ho hum, been there, done that, I thought, but wow, is Meryl Streep’s Polish accent spot-on or WHAT? Guess I’ll keep watching just so I can say I watched it.
That’s the ingenuity of the screenplay I mentioned earlier. It strings you along for close to an hour, making you believe it’s about the romantic relationship among the three leads. And then the movie springs one of the greatest head-fakes in film history. What started as a soapy melodrama becomes a character study of the limits of human endurance, with scenes as fraught with tension as anything written by Hitchcock or Tarantino.
(I am going to have to write very carefully from here on out because I want to convey how effective the movie is while preserving its revelations. It worked so well for me precisely because I knew very little about the plot, and I want to make sure you have the same experience, dear reader.)
Any appreciation of Sophie’s Choice must include a discussion of Meryl Streep’s performance as the title character. She reportedly begged director Alan J. Pakula for this role, even after he had lined up a Polish actress for the part. We can all thank the cinema gods Pakula went with Streep instead. This is, without a doubt, one of the top three or four performances I’ve ever seen by any actor, living or dead. Even leaving aside her mastery of the Polish accent…well, actually, let’s talk about that for a second. She learned to speak with a flawless Polish accent. Then there are scenes where she had to speak fluent Polish, so she learned Polish. Then there are scenes where Sophie also speaks German, so she learned how to speak fluent German with a Polish accent. I mean…it took me two weeks to learn two sentences in French and say them fluently. If there were a fan-fiction theory that Streep is really a magical drama teacher at Hogwarts, I’d believe it.
At times during Sophie’s Choice, Pakula’s camera simply stops and stares at Streep while she delivers a monologue about her days before the war, or about how she survived as a personal secretary to the chief commandant of Auschwitz. Her delivery during these scenes feels about as naturalistic as you can get. You don’t feel like you’re watching an actress give a performance anymore. It’s more like you’re watching a documentary about a Holocaust survivor. It’s a performance that simply must be seen to be believed.
Next to Streep, Kevin Kline as her beau, Nathan, is almost overdone, stagey, far too full of ebullience and rage and earnestness. Nathan is Jewish, and he is obsessed with the idea of tracking down the Nazis who escaped justice after the war. However, his antics are balanced by Sophie’s serenity and unconditional forgiveness. I look at it as a yin/yang kind of thing. It works.
There are questions, though, about their relationship, especially as the movie wraps up. Why does Sophie put up with this lout who whispers sweet nothings to her and impulsively proposes marriage in one moment, and in another moment is given to vicious accusations of infidelity and collaboration with the Nazis, then swings back again in a fit of contrition? Perhaps she was wracked with survivor’s guilt. Her parents, husband, and children never emerged from the concentration camps. Perhaps she felt it was her duty somehow to prop someone up and latch on to a soul like Nathan, someone whose outward cheerfulness masked internal demons. Perhaps being a helpmate for such a person keeps her own demons at bay. Just a thought.
When I’m watching a movie on my own, I can measure how effective it is by how many times I talk to myself or yell at the screen while it’s playing. With Sophie’s Choice, I didn’t do a lot of yelling until it performed its head-fake and veered into territories not even hinted at previously. After that, there was a lot of my Gods and holy craps and oh Jesus-es. The end of the movie is a roller-coaster that may not end in the happiest place ever, but it’s the kind of earned emotional catharsis that doesn’t happen very often at the movies. A movie like this is a treasure. I hope, if you’ve never seen it, you’ll make it a point to hunt down a copy and see for yourself what all the fuss is about.
And don’t let anyone spoil it for you.