Given that throughout her career Meryl Streep has been nominated for an Oscar 19 times, it would be a tall order to narrow down her best performances. However it would not be too much of a challenge to see the three films for which she has actually won. Her second win in her career was for Sophie’s Choice (1982), a searing drama whose title has become synonymous with making an impossible decision. Also noteworthy, it is the cinematic debut of Kevin Kline who delivers an equally powerful, but much more energetic performance.
For years I had heard the expression “Sophie’s Choice” in pop culture as a way to express a decision with no good outcome without fully understanding the reference. Last January the movie became available on Netflix and the answer to the question “what is Sophie’s Choice?” was revealed to me towards the end of Pakula’s and it is a choice that only truly evil people could give. If by any chance you have not yet seen the movie or read the book on which it is based on I won’t reveal the title’s meaning, but only say it is heart wrenching once it is explained.
Despite the very heavy material, Sophie’s Choice is a beautiful movie that is also a very New York story. The viewer sees the action unfold through the eyes of Peter MacNicol’s character, a southerner named Stingo who has come to Brooklyn in 1947 to become a writer. No matter the era, a writer in the New York City area is going to be struggling for money so Stingo has to live in a shared accommodation building. Two of his roommates in the building are hard to miss, as they occasionally have shouting matches for the whole street to hear.
The couple, Nathan Landau (Kline) and Sophie Zawistowski (Streep), seem to be diametrically opposed, but are quite charming and loving when they are not screaming. Sophie is a shy Polish immigrant who is having trouble adapting to the culture and language of her new homeland. In a sad scene she asks an impatient librarian for a book by Charles Dickinson, but the mean guy cannot understand she has mixed up Charles Dickens with Emily Dickinson. Nathan on the other hand is a loud and energetic man who is very knowledgeable on matters of science. At time he will mock Stingo for his southern roots with derogatory comments, but later will apologize and invite him for a fun day out.
On good days the three of them make for the best of friends, but Stingo soon gets plenty of life experience for his future writing career when he slowly learns about their secrets and their past. Flashbacks to Europe reveal Sophie’s involvement in the Holocaust, her time spent in a concentration camp, and the many horrors she faced there. She is ashamed to admit she had to do questionable things, which haunt her soul even in the safety of her new life.
Streep is of course amazing in her performance as Sophie, but Kline also does a lot of heavy lifting as the manic Nathan. In some scenes he is jovial and full of life, taking full command of a room as he makes his entrance, but in other scenes he threatens to use that energy for violence when he suspects Sophie of infidelity. When his secret is also revealed, it all makes perfect sense. Throughout his career Kline has delivered similarly animated performances, notably in A Fish Called Wanda, but eventually you realize Nathan’s mood swings are no laughing matter.
Nowadays twist endings seem to be mostly reserved for horror movies (looking at you M. Night Shyamalan), but Pakula’s film has a twist that leaves you both shaken and reflective. Once you find out the choice Sophie has to make you may feel free to judge her, however the question you may ponder for years is: what would you have done in her place?