Meryl Streep is the gold standard when it comes to film acting. When it comes to acting, it’s her world and everyone else just seems to be living in it. She’s the best actor of her generation, she’s remained at the top of her game for 38 years with over fifty films and hardly a slouch in the bunch. Therefore it surprises a great deal of people when I mention that despite 19 nominations, she has won the Oscar for Best Actress only twice.
Most recently she was rewarded for giving a great performance Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd’s lousy, threadbare biopic The Iron Lady. That film proved that she could overcome bad material. Yet, I think the film that will be her legacy will be Sophie’s Choice, which must contain the most excruciatingly sad performance in the history of film. Streep plays Sophia Zawistowski, a Polish holocaust survivor who was not a Jew but none-the-less witness horror beyond imagining. Yet she is a woman who is happy, playful and sexy, but just under the surface suffers a thinly veiled level of pain. Around the edges of her lips, in the closed in lines around her eyes, we sense there is a buried horror in her past.
We meet Sophie, a survivor of the death camps at Auschwitz, through the eyes of Stingo (Peter McNichol) a naive young kid from the south who has designs on being a great writer. This is 1947, in the years immediately following the war and he has moved north to Brooklyn, New York where he meets Sophie, a polish immigrant living with her lover, a brash older man named Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline). Sophie and Nathan become friends and their friendship gradually begins to break down the blinders of Stingo’s adolescence. There’s a level to Sophie that doesn’t become immediately clear, but also doesn’t reveal itself all at once. We learn that she was a polish-Catholic who was thrown into a concentration camp for trying to smuggle a ham. She lost both of her children in the camp and then survived the camps herself and immigrated to the United States.
She has experienced a lifetime of hurt and pain, of loss and of sorrow, but she tries to soldier on in her life by trying to put it all behind her. Yet, erasing all of her memories won’t make them go away, they still reside within her. Look at the way her makeup whitens her face, as if the experience has left her a ghost of her former self. Her voice is very sweet but her speech seems somewhat cautious as if telling stories about those experiences are too difficult to put into words. What I intuit from Sophie, whose present life has very few walls as she drinks and takes up with a lover, is that she spent so many years having to watch her step and keep herself within a small confined space that now she simply lives at will.
In her former life, in the death camps, she had to watch every move, every syllable, every motion. One of the best observances in the film is during one of the flashbacks in which she and a fellow inmate use the Auschwitz Walk, walking through deep areas of mud but trying to only step in the footprints of the people who have gone before. Observe how that scene connects to later scenes in which she is carefree and dances at will but when she is frightened, her footsteps are very small.
It may have seemed more rational to simply tell Sophie’s story through Sophie’s eyes without the narrative of Stingo’s growth from callow youth to a young man who, and how this experience makes him a better writer. But I think we need that understanding to bring her story to the surface. What happens to Sophie in the end is only fitting because her life in the wake of the holocaust was more or less meaningless except in it’s relation to Stingo’s understanding of human nature. There’s nothing left for her and finally, in the end, she has found some peace.
Much of this review is reprinted from my site “Armchair Oscars.”