To be honest, I was a little worried that I might be blowing my wad a bit early by choosing this film for my first review. But what better way to inaugurate this blog section than with the performance that many (myself included) consider to be one of the greatest roles ever brought to the screen? Let's get all the accolades out of the way. Awards Meryl garnered for this role included, but are not limited to, those from the National Society of Film Critics, the L.A. Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Golden Globes, and of course, the Academy Award for actress in a leading role in 1983. Chill out if you think I made a mistake by listing it as 1983 when in the post title it says "1982." We all know Oscars are awarded in the calendar year after they are released to theaters. Director Alan J. Pakula stated that it was the closest he had ever seen someone come to genius in acting. I absolutely love hearing shit like that about her. Hokay, on to the meat and potatoes.
So, what is the big deal about this performance? To start, it's an ostensibly challenging role to pull off. Meryl plays Sophie Zawistoska, a Polish concentration camp survivor during World War II who becomes a refugee in Brooklyn, NY. The film deals with Sophie's life in Brooklyn, where she lives with her schizophrenic boyfriend, Nathan, played by Kevin Kline in his film debut. They befriend a southern writer, Stingo (from whose point of view the story is told), played by Peter MacNicol, and spend a summer together.
As an American, Meryl had to learn to speak with a Polish accent, speak a lot of German and Polish, and even managed to figure out German with a Polish accent. I hope the Germans/Poles who have seen this film appreciate this last bit of mastery because, let's keep it real, nobody can tell Learning lines, and of course grappling with the difficult subject matter of the atrocities of the war are all rather perfunctory aspects of Meryl's approach. She has on more than one occasion made clear that these outward aspects of language and lines make up a very small portion of what goes into her roles (although it helps, duh).
Stingo (not a typo btw) totally has the hots for Sophie and tries to be a shoulder for her to cry on while she manages the ups and downs of Nathan's goofy behavior. About a third of the way through the film is where we first see Sophie and Stingo alone together. Stingo comes home from a failed date with hickeys all over his neck (a scene which includes my favorite line from the film, "fucking fantastic fucking"). Sophie starts to reveal some of the crap from her past in Poland, including her family and the war. Hands down, one of the most perfectly delivered scenes I've ever seen. Not relying simply on words, Meryl uses expressions, strategic pauses, and inflections, managing to convince me momentarily that this is the true history of the woman I'm seeing onscreen. See for yourself:
My personal favorite portion of the film is during the flashback to Poland and Auschwitz. Undoubtedly because Meryl is impressive with the languages, but more interestingly, it's where I notice a paradox in her character. While in Brooklyn, Sophie typically acts very bubbly, fun, playful, a bit ditzy, and she and Nathan get it on like rabbits. In the flashback scenes, which of course take place prior to her arrival in Brooklyn, we see a more reserved, careful person. Certainly it's in part because she's probably scared shitless of the Nazis, but I feel it's also Meryl being cognizant and sensitive about the fact that the Sophie prior to the Holocaust was a very likeable, comforting, maternal figure; someone we as audience members wouldn't dream of harming.
This contrast makes the horror of her "choice" scene that much more dramatic. Meryl in interviews has stated that she only read that scene once and couldn't stand reading it again. For those of you who haven't seen it, one, do so the instant you finish reading this, and two, I'm playing spoiler. Sophie is forced to decide which of her children she gets to keep. The other will be taken away and likely killed. She refuses, but at the risk of having them both taken away, she ultimately hands over her daughter. A great piece of cinematography/sound editing is used during this scene. While the little girl is being taken away screaming, we see Meryl with her mouth open and it sort of seems like it's her screaming and not her daughter. Meryl has said in an interview that she really thought she was screaming and that nothing came out. Not sure I believe that, but like Sydney Pollack once said, "I love Meryl Streep so much that I would never contradict anything she said."
Pretty heavy stuff in Sophie's Choice. It ends with Sophie and Nathan committing suicide by ingesting cyanide. Totally makes you want to Netflix it like right now doesn't it? Seriously though, if one is able to look past the unsettling nature of the subject matter, it's a powerhouse performance, a thinker, a tear-jerker (Entertainment Weekly listed it as the second best tear-jerker in history right behind Terms of Endearment), and overall a film absolutely worth seeing. Without question Meryl deserved every honor she received for this performance, and I feel it set the precedent by which all performances should be judged. Well done, Meryl. After seeing it, I think I rented nine Meryl movies and watched them all in two days. Shut up.