February 11, 2010

#91: Sophie's Choice

Sophie's Choice is based on the novel of the same name by William Styron, a great American novel that won the National Book Award for fiction in 1980. I'd seen it before but thinking about the novel and the narrative, I was struck by how much more effective it was the second time around. I'd seen it once several years ago, and all that stuck out to me when I started it again was the famous "choice scene," but I took a lot more away from it this time around. Needless to say, I'm pleasantly surprised.

Company: Me again. I tried to watch this last night with some friends but we were all in too talky a mood. It ended up being red-wine-chat bliss.

Cuisine: Chipotle fajita burrito bowl. How is this movie appropriate? Because I need comfort food for this one, folks.

The story opens on Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young Southern man moving to Brooklyn in 1947 hoping to be a writer. He rents out a room in this fantastic pink house and settles down to write, but doesn't get very far before he meets two people who will change his life forever. He admits, in an increasingly intolerable but not wholly obtrusive voiceover, that he is "unacquainted with love, and a stranger to death" -- well, he's about to get quite the education in both areas from his upstairs neighbors, a Polish Catholic survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and her Jewish lover.


Meryl Streep supposedly got down on her hands and knees and begged the director, Alan Pakula, for this role. It asks a lot of an actress: not only does she need to master a Polish dialect, but believably speak English, German and Polish. Plus, she lost a lot of weight of the flashback scenes in Auschwitz and she wore false teeth. And that's before she's even done anything on screen. There's a reason this is lauded as one of the great cinematic performances of all time, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Minuet for five hands: Sophie and Nathan, with Stingo wanting in.

Stingo becomes fast friends with Sophie and Nathan (played by first-time movie actor Kevin Kline), but immediately distrusts Nathan. This probably isn't helped by the fact that this naive writer is falling head over heels for Sophie, too. Their first appearance together is ultra-theatrical, a war of words resulting in a break-up on the stairs of the apartment. And throughout the movie, she keeps going back to Nathan as he keeps coming back. Why do these characters need each other so badly? We discover their own individual reasons through the course of the film, hers being a little more interesting than his. The movie is named after her, after all.

A cliched image, but an effective one.

The movie becomes a three-hander between Streep, Kline and MacNicol, but wouldn't work so well if it weren't for Streep. There are many scenes purely devoted to watching her tell a story -- as if the actress didn't have enough responsibility already, she is given extremely emotional stories to tell without any aid except her face. It's miraculous, how she searches for and occasionally misuses words. There is no sense that this performance has been worked on -- it is only lived in. Soon we reach into flashback and it's almost a relief: it's exhausting to watch her so devastated, yet so poised.

It's not quite black and white. There seems to be a dull color to this whole sequence, a sickly color.

Just when you wonder what Stingo's real function is in the plot, we see him become a sounding board for Sophie to tell her story, someone who longs to understand her. And halfway through the film, we see the cruelty put upon her, having been imprisoned and sent to the camps for a minor crime, regardless of the fact that she is Catholic. I don't think any of this sequence is especially masterful filmmaking, but it works to elevate her performance, which is the only thing about the film I think people will remember in fifty years. The flashback is spliced with her narration, delivered directly to the camera so as not to let the viewer off the hook. You will engage.

One particularly effective scene here is one in which she is accused of attempting to steal a radio by a girl who can be no more than twelve or thirteen years old. How humiliating to be talked down to by someone fifteen, twenty years younger than you.

She does everything she can to survive, but nothing prepares her for the title choice.

When Stingo says he loves her and wants a family with her, she tells him that "it will not be fair for your children to have me as a mother." She isn't kidding. I don't want to spoil it in case you want to be surprised, but it will surprise you. Streep did the scene in one take, according to her, because she didn't think she could do it twice.

Her child screams but she cannot. Like Helene Weigel.

The scene is everything it's cracked up to be -- primarily, horrifying and heartbreaking. We're fifteen minutes from the end of the film and we finally get to the scene we've been waiting for. Ultimately, the story uses her relationships with the two men in her life as a narrative base from which to tell her horror story, and I think William Styron's genius was interweaving the two narratives, one clearly more engaging than the other, as a way to comment on her final choice at the end. Once again, she has two options, and she knows what she must do.

I can forgive almost anything I didn't care for in the movie because Streep's performance is so layered, so rich in detail and so emotional that we fall for her completely, broken English, subtle beauty, and all. And in turn, we fall for the movie too. That's no easy task for an actress, but somehow she manages it. Magic. Can you believe this is the last Oscar she won? She's been nominated twelve times SINCE this performance, and probably won't win again this year (thanks, Sandra). But how does a girl top this? I'd love to see it.

What do you think? Does the movie stand up on its own without Meryl's help, or is it going to be remembered primarily as a showcase for a legendary performance?

That's ten movies done! Woopee!! A retrospective on the first ten is coming up, and then #90, the first musical on my list: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time!

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