I recently spent a whole year watching a Meryl Streep film every week, and I thought I’d share with you some of the reviews I wrote for her many classic films!
Sophie’s Choice (1982)
It can be argued that Meryl Streep didn’t become Meryl Streep until Sophie’s Choice. Sure, she had impressed in The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but Meryl’s Oscar-winning performance in the acclaimed 1982 drama solidified her status as one of the best actresses of her generation. When Sylvester Stallone proclaimed her the winner of the Academy Award, he called her the “marvelous” Meryl Streep. In 1982, only five years into her film career, she was already a national treasure.
Sophie’s Choice, based on the acclaimed 1979 novel by William Styron, features what still remains Meryl’s most complex and haunting film performance. She apparently got on her knees and begged director Alan J. Pakula (Klute, All the President’s Man) for the role, and it’s easy to see why.
As Sophie, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who is trying to make a new life for herself in New York City, she is almost unrecognizable at times (this was her first of many movies in which she worked with her longtime make-up artist and hairstylist J. Roy Helland), and her Polish accent is impeccable. One of Meryl’s great gifts over the decades has been disappearing into her roles, allowing viewers to eventually forget they’re watching her up there on the screen. Some of the best examples of this phenomenon include Silkwood, The Bridges of Madison County, Doubt, and The Iron Lady, and she’s probably never done it better than she did it in Sophie’s Choice.
Meryl is wholly convincing in her moments of sadness, joy, horror. If the movie was only Sophie in 1947 New York romancing her love Nathan (Kevin Kline) and befriending the writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol), her performance would still have been lauded. There’s a freedom and a yearning for fun the character exudes in these scenes that make for some of the most affecting moments of the movie.
One that particularly stands out is a scene when Sophie criticizes the English language for having so many words that mean fast, when in other languages there is typically just one word. It’s a cleverly written scene that Meryl plays beautifully, and the whole time you forget you’re watching an American actress whose first spoken language is English, playing a Polish character who speaks multiple languages and is learning English as an adult.
These scenes also crackle with energy because the chemistry she has with Kline has a charged intensity, while the scenes with MacNicol offer a quieter, more intimate look at a close friendship. This was Kline’s film debut, and he more than holds his own against Meryl. An acclaimed stage actor at the time, Kline came into movies late, at age thirty-five, and his talent shines through as an unstable man, almost bipolar at times, who yearns to love but sometimes fails to see the good in those around him. It seems unfair that Meryl received all of the awards attention for Sophie’s Choice, when Kline’s memorable performance should have been singled out, too.
MacNicol, who later appeared in 24 and Ally McBeal, is also effective as the young man who moves to New York to work on his writing. He too was brand new to movies — Dragonslayer was his film debut the year before — and he brings just the right amount of tenderness and warmth to the role, one that is just as important as Meryl’s; some might forget that, while Meryl is the star of Sophie’s Choice, the actual storyline is told from Stingo’s perspective, not Sophie’s.
Flashback scenes offer some of the most raw, emotional acting of Meryl’s film career, with a sad early moment when she begs a man to guide her toward finding poetry by a man named Dickens. A later moment, when Sophie begs an officer to free her son from the concentration camps, shows the depths of the character’s vulnerability. (Additionally, take note that Meryl’s sickly physical appearance in this scene is almost identical to Violet’s look sans black wig in August: Osage County.)
And then of course there is the scene, the one everyone thinks of when they think of this movie, when Sophie must make her defining choice. In the documentary about the making of the film, Meryl said that she only read the scene once in the script, and then during filming, she insisted on only one take, because she couldn’t think to put herself through the unthinkable horror of this moment more than once (she was, after all, a mother by this time).
Coming at the end of the movie, the scene is so heartbreaking that it overshadows almost everything that has come before it. When her daughter is snatched away from her, Sophie opens her mouth and starts trembling, but doesn’t make a sound. Meryl said in the documentary that she the actress thought she was screaming out loud during that moment, and didn’t find out until later that she wasn’t.
The film as a whole, however, is unfortunately more of a mixed bag. While Meryl’s performance is superb, the pacing of the narrative leaves a lot to be desired. At times the film grinds almost to a halt, and it seems likely a half-hour could have been shaved from the running time, without losing any important story elements.
The structure always keeps the viewer a little off balance, but not always in a good way. The flashbacks to Sophie’s past in the concentration camp and soon after almost seem randomly selected at times, and some of the dramatic power of these moments is lost when they merely serve as a story Sophie is telling in 1947 New York to Stingo. More focus on Sophie and less on Stingo would have improved the picture as a whole.
Meryl is the main reason to see Sophie’s Choice, with her hypnotic performance keeping the film in the public lexicon for the last three decades. The film itself is not one of her best — sadly, some of her better performances are bogged down in movies that are not worthy of her (The Iron Lady is a more recent example) — but her performance in Sophie’s Choice is one of the greatest any actress has ever given in a film.
When she’s on screen, she radiates, and showcases every aspect of her glorious talent. When she’s not on screen, the film suffers. While Meryl’s performance was acclaimed in most award shows and critic associations that year, the film itself was shut out of most other categories (although Roger Ebert did hail it as the best picture of the year).
Sophie’s Choice won Meryl the Academy Award for Best Actress, her only Oscar she earned in the leading category for nearly thirty years. She fought hard for this role, and in the end, she made it count. Meryl is always great in movie after movie, but rarely has she been as astonishingly brilliant in her long and varied film career as she was in Sophie’s Choice.
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency.