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  October 28th, 2012       Posted by Frederik       Display Comments

This Sunday’s spotlight features one of Meryl’s best performances of all time – in Alan Pakula’s 1982 “Sophie’s Choice”. To cover the film, lots of updates have been made. All of the production stills, promotional pictures and on-set pictures have been re-uploaded with many new additions, alongside photoshoot pictures to promote the film. Over 1.500 DVD screencaptures have been re-added as well. In the video archive, four new clips have been uploaded, and the 2001 documentary on the film, Death Dreams Of Mourning is still worth a watch. Production notes and review after the cut. As always, please share your thoughts on the film in the comments.

Production Notes

Alan J. Pakula’s “Sophie’s Choice”, from William Styron’s novel about the after-effects of Holocaust evil, gives us film’s most memorable incarnation of survivor’s guilt. If Meryl Streep had inscribed no performance other than this film’s tortured Polish woman who can’t forgive herself for continuing to live while witnessing so much wrenching death, it would have insured her place in film history. Sophie is forced to make many choices – not between life and death, but between death and even worse death. History, despite its overwhelming presence, isn’t what gives Sophie’s Choice its power. It’s Streep’s tragic heroine tearing at our hearts, as she lives and relives the agony she never can shake for long. She throws herself into desperate, fleeting breakouts into sex and drink, revolving around her American Jewish lover, Nathan (Kevin Kline), equally damaged in different ways. Life, intoxicating as it can get during these brief, heady interludes, is never a match for death. Sophie’s tragedy is that she can’t see how heroic she has been, and is. She thinks of herself as a failure. Streep’s pale-skinned, delicate features become a geography of human torment. Her immersion in the character of Sophie includes an immersion in the Polish language – not just impersonation, but internalization. She has spoken of connecting with her own inner gutteral sounds. So it’s not just a matter of getting the sound right – although her flawed, heavily accented English is pitch-perfect. It’s also a matter of pulling from her gut a primal depth of sound that contributes to Sophie’s innate earthiness, liveliness, integrity, never long able to escape being engulfed by an undertow of sadness. She’s not just an ambulatory accent; she’s a personification of soul-sickness, weariness, too much experience of the wrong kind, from the day her stomach convulses when she learns that the respected law professor father in Cracow, who she adored and whose love she craved, whose speeches she dutifully typed, was a rabid anti-Semite who helped devise the Final Solution. Being sympathetic to the Resistance but stopping short of getting actively involved doesn’t keep her from being rounded up with her two small children and stuffed into an Auschwitz-bound boxcar, a Polish Catholic as doomed as the Jews she accompanies. Streep is all the more affecting for having chosen to let us see the control Sophie exercises – most of the time.

Kevin and Peter are two of the great funny guys. People would say, ‘Was it sad to make?’ and I’d be chirping on and on, ‘No, we had the greatest time, it was so fun!’ It sounds dreaful, but we had to. In the olden days, when I had a memory, I could remember song lyrics from the first time I heard them, things like that. That’s a facility – it didn’t take a lot to learn the sound of the languages. I took a Berlitz course in Polish. And I read poetry out loud, in order to see what it felt like to move emotion through you in an alien way. By the time I finished, it was part of my larynx; it wasn’t separate from me. (Meryl Streep, Entertainment Weekly, March 2000)

Much of what she says is with her eyes, sometimes candid, sometimes breaking the gaze of her friend and confessor, Peter MacNicol’s young observer figure and Styron surrogate, Stingo. He literally gives the film much of its voice, as narrator and innocent novice who comes to Brooklyn from Virginia in 1947 to become a novelist, touchingly following in the footsteps of Thomas Wolfe and, inevitably in his literary style, Faulkner. Structurally, he’s necessary. He’s the one who hears Sophie’s secrets, hitherto hidden parts of her past she can’t divulge to Nathan – including one final soul-destroying one. Not that Styron – or Pakula – gives the Southern writer the best of anything. Of the character’s romantic ardor and talent with language there is no doubt. But he’s a bit of a pipsqueak, a blank slate, unformed, with the personality of sushi. Pakula, of Polish-Jewish lineage, has said that if his father hadn’t come to America, his family might well have perished at Auschwitz. Certainly, there is conviction in his film’s measured progression of moods. Its problematic flashbacks from the novel never break the momentum – although a lot of the tension in them comes from the frozen alertness and fear in Streep’s eyes as Sophie, hating herself more and more each time she falls back on survival reflexes. Pakula and his cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, take a chance by contrasting the desaturated Agfacolor-like concentration camp sequences with Sophie’s recollection of them in closeup, face framed by spun-gold hair, lips painted scarlet, visage bathed in icy blue light that reinforces her self-image as walking corpse, a vision of dead loveliness. It’s an esthetic gamble that wins. We understand viscerally why the young writer becomes drawn to her and longs to supplant Nathan as her lover. Today, you’d call Sophie and Nathan co-dependent enablers for their shared sado-masochism. They’re love and death in the same package. Since Sophie and Nathan have befriended the writer named Stingo, and drag him from his solitude in their restored Victorian Brooklyn rooming house to party and join their spirited capers, the element of betrayal is present in spades, too. After Sophie drinks with Stingo when Nathan isn’t around, Nathan accuses Stingo of moving in on “his girl” and accuses Sophie of letting him. Nathan’s paranoia on this score isn’t altogether unfounded. Still, the brilliant, impulsive and, on rare occasions, tender Nathan’s roller-coaster ups and downs suggest that not all is well with him either as he seesaws between manic elation and murderous depression. Nathan’s extremes leave Kline without the equivalent of Streep’s detailing – her brilliant, seemingly improvisatory way of sometimes letting the faintest curl of an extended finger, or a vocal hesitation, or a distracted tugging at a loose strand of her golden hair do the talking. She’s cool, but avoids mannerism. With Nathan, you quickly just wait for the next outsized gesture. Pakula, ever sensitive to mood, charges the emotional air with tense expectation. It gets the film past some slack pacing.

We don’t have HBO on our TV at home, but the HBO movies show up on the screen all scrambled. One night, ‘Sophie’s Choice’ came on. I could hear it, but I couldn’t see it. And I sat there for twenty minutes, and I looked at it – all scrambled and fuzzy, with little corners of the movie showing up on the screen. We had just bought a video camera to record the kids growing up. Home movies. And it occured to me as I was watching the scrambled-up ‘Sophie’s Choice’… you know, I have my own home movies. They’re my real movies. When other people see them, they may see the plot and the scenery and the actors. When I see them, though… I see something else. I’m watching a different movie. I see them and I think about the place where I lived when we were filming the movies, and where we ate, and the arguments we had about different scenes… that’s what I was thinking about when I watched the jumbled-up ‘Sophie’s Choice’. I have my own home movies, but everyone else gets to see them. They’re reminders of my life, and they’re right out there. (Meryl Streep, Esquire, December 1984)

Kline’s is a performance insufficiently appreciated for its choices and even subtlety, partly because Nathan’s paranoid schizophrenic mood swings make us uncomfortable, squirmy. MacNicol’s Stingo does, too, because whatever else he is – sensitive, good, chivalric – he’s also something of a drip. It was Streep who recommended Kline to Pakula even before she was cast as Sophie. Cloaked in inevitability as her Oscar®-winning performance is, it’s illuminating to recall that Streep was far from a shoo-in for the role. Styron went on record as favoring Ursula Andress as Sophie. Pakula’s first choice was Liv Ullmann for her ability to project the foreignness that would add to her appeal in the eyes of an impressionable, romantic Southerner. Ullmann went on to other projects when Pakula took two years to fashion the screenplay. Polish actress Magda Vasaryova, Barbra Streisand, Marthe Keller and Streep (like Pakula, a Yale Drama School grad) threw their hats in the ring. Finally, Streep prevailed, a Slavic Blanche DuBois, gallantly but vainly trying to outrun her conviction that she owes the universe a death – hers.

Frederik’s Review

In “Sophie’s Choice”, Meryl Streep not only gives one of the best performances of her career, but one of the best female performances in film history. Even thirty years after its release, Sophie still tops the list of critics’ favorite and best roles. In the beginning, the character comes off as a mystery. You don’t know why this Polish woman is in Brooklyn, why she lives in a relationship with Nathan, why she bears his temper and frail mind. Throughout the movie, the layers of the character are peels like an onion, and with each revelation the character grows in depth and tragedy. Maybe Mike Nichols put it best in an interview when he said, that it takes until the end of the film and its revelation that you realise this character has been dead inside from the very beginning of the film. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part as Meryl earns it from the first scene. The way she immerses into the character and the brilliant rendition of speaking German with a polish accent is a masterclass of acting. And while Meryl is wonderfully supported by Kline and MacNicol, the film feels very slow at times. Given the premise of the story, “Sophie’s Choice” doesn’t serve as an entertaining film but as a convincing adaptation of a novel, the kind of film that isn’t made anymore, because it has been hardly bankable back then and would be impossible to make these days. “Sophie’s Choice” is recommended to everybody wondering why Meryl has been the definite actress of the Eighties.

  • Tena

    This Movie is a Modern Masterpiece!
    Beautiful to Look at with an Amazing Cast and a Flawless Script!!
    And with a doubt, Meryl Gives one of the Most Heartbreaking Performances in the History of Cinema!
    And again……Meryl is Beyond Beautiful!
    She’s Completely Breathtaking!
    Meryl’s Every Move is Like Liquid Magic!
    Everyone should see this one……the Entire Film is Mesmerizing!

  • Mariana

    Just a personal experience: my life has completely changed after this film. Different emotions, philosophical thoughts, a new point of view about life and happiness, a shared project and a shared dream…that film has given me all these things. Meryl´s performances are always absolutely brilliant, but this performance is really lofty.

  • Manuel

    In my (minority) opinion, this movie has some aspects of a soap opera, ‘using’ the holocaust background to give it a darker tone – a slightly obscene mixture of things. In lesser hands, this would have become embarassing. The excellent acting elevates it above these considerations – up to a certain point. It is still interesting to see how people often speak about the acting, “gold standard”, advertisement language like “simply the best” etc., using even inappropriate words like “heartbreaking” for the inconceivably horrific choice motive (no offense intended; just random illustrations for where I’m going with this) – all of this praise completely skipping the CONTENT of the movie. This, IMO, is more than just an epiphenomenon. It’s an effect of the somewhat shallow brilliance of this movie, which doesn’t ponder on the problematic of showing certain things or intertwining certain motives, but uses them for the sake of effect instead.
    All this said, I completely agree: the acting IS brilliant, especially from Streep, the ‘threesome’ sequences are sometimes very funny and tender, Nathan as a character is hilarious, etc. A very well done exercise on a topic (surviving hell) which has been FAR more seriously and appropriately treated by a director like Polanski. I found the finale (the morality, that we should appreciate life more after seeing this ‘tragedy’) especially annoying. “exquisite and fair”? how kitschy is that? But it’s in the spirit of quite a few sequences of this narrative.

  • Kate

    I love this film and Meryl’s performance was beyond great; i was really impressed with her Polish accent. I’m Polish and i think she was doing an AMAZING Polish accent considering that she wasn’t familiar with that language. Her acting in this movie was flawless.

  • Sophie

    I own a copy of the movie, and I’ve started watching it numerous times but I can’t bring myself to finish it because I’m honestly scared to see what happens. The book is excellent as well.

  • Gilbert

    Meryl’s performance in the film is the barometer of acting excellence in evaluating female actor performances.

  • Sonja

    I’ve seen SC only once and it’s still haunting me.
    This scene… the “choice” scene alone would have gotten her the Oscar.
    I only have to think about it and I’m in tears.
    I can truely understand why Meryl rejects every time to watch that scene again.
    She was simply unbeatable that year and deservingly so.
    Of course I’m proud she won partly because of speaking my mother’s language (German) with a Polish accent.
    It’s also still a shame our country is connected with such a cruel history, but also important to never forget what has happened and praying such a thing will hopefully never happen again.
    It’s hard, so hard to watch, but it’s also THE Meryl movie everyone just has to watch.

  • brithna

    I’ve been sick for a few days…my partner brought home SC for me last night as ‘get well’ gift. Can’t wait to watch it.

  • Jane

    There really isn’t anything left to say about this performance – it’s just brilliant, a milestone in film history.
    I totally agree with the review. One of the things that impressed me most about this performance was the fact that she spoke German with a Polish accent which is – considering that she wasn’t familiar with either language – just unbelievable. I know Meryl doesn’t like this talk about accents but in this one it’s just spectacular.

  • Frédérique971

    when you saw Sophie’s Choice, you understand why people say Meryl Streep is the best living actress.
    And I totally agree whith Frederik’review.
    My favorite line: “Ich Kann night wählen !”

  • Harry

    I have been waiting for this day! Sophie’s choice is one of my all-time favorite movies. Meryl is just amazing and breathtaking. There is no word adequate enough to describe how good she is in this movie. Like Frederick mentions, it is one of the best performances by an actor or actress ever. Period! Every time I look at the choice scene, it breaks my heart. Every nuance Meryl captures on screen is unbelievable! Meryl completely embraces Sophie in every aspect. Her acting, accent, dialect, facial expression and gesture are all breathtaking. Every second Meryl is on screen is a treasure! It’s a great film! It deserves its place in AFI top 100 movies of all time. Kevin Kline as Nathan is superb as well. I can keep on talking about this film. This film together with The Devil Wears Prada makes me a die-hard fan of Meryl! I will say this. IF YOU ARE MERYL’S FAN AND YOU HAVEN’T SEEN SOPHIE’S CHOICE, THEN YOU ARE NOT 100% FAN YET. Do yourself a favor and witness one of the greatest performances of all time.

  • Marc

    Meryl’s best performance (gold standard) in my opinion. It was the first movie I saw her in (I didn’t know she was American, until after the seeing the movie).

  • Maria

    this movie made me understand her acting power… she’s perfection.

  • Mary

    BY FAR the GREATEST performance by anyone ever! Meryl Streep was just beyond amazing in Sophie’s Choice. No one can get into a character the way Meryl does in every role she portrays as she proves time and time again she is the greatest to ever be on the screen.
    I thought this was a great movie, heartbreaking, but great. Marvin Hamlisch did a superb job on the music also. This is a must see movie.

  • Saskia

    masterpiece. heartbreaking.