Author William Styron - Wikimedia
I have never read William Styron’s book “Sophie’s Choice,” and just recently viewed the film which debuted in 1982. I had no idea what the story was about, but I know that anything by Meryl Streep must be good, so I watched it. I was highly disappointed that the film was such a downer for me. I almost wish I had not seen it.
The story is mainly about Sophie Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant to the United States who had spent time in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Her life is seen through the eyes of the young narrator called “Stingo” (Peter MacNicol). Peter came to New York City from down south because of his ambition to write a great novel. He found a room in a large boarding house in Brooklyn where his housemates were Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her unusual boyfriend Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline) who worked as a research biologist. Kline made his screen debut in “Sophie’s Choice.” Previously, he had a successful career as a stage actor.
Meryl Streep - Google
Meryl Streep’s Polish accent is the result of her in-depth study of the language in preparation for her role. Her use and misuse of English words are charming and cleverly calculated.
Stingo is elated to have the couple as his friends and spends all of his time with them. The trio spent a day at Coney Island, they have all their meals together, and Nathan and Sophie performed a little skit for Stingo, dressed up in southern costumes to remind Stingo of home. We soon learn, though, that Nathan is paranoid and accuses Stingo of having relations with Sophie, which has not happened. Nathan’s other traits come to the forefront, when he calls Sophie names, leaves for a while, and returns again asking for her forgiveness, which Sophie always gives. It is also a surprise when he returns from work one day to announce to Sophie and Stingo that he has made a ground-breaking discovery of a polio cure which should merit for him the Nobel Prize. His friends are happy for him.
That is, until the day when Nathan’s brother Larry, who is a doctor, stops by and tells Stingo that Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic who holds down a sinecure which Larry obtained for him, working in the library of a pharmaceutical firm. A sinecure is an undemanding job which has a salary but requires a minimum of work. Also, Nathan has spent considerable time in various mental health facilities. Larry said that Sophie is unaware of these facts, and made Stingo promise that he would never reveal it to her.
Kevin Kline - Wikimedia
Stingo and Sophie are thrown together a lot because Stingo does his writing at home, Sophie is at home, and Nathan is at work. Although Stingo is the true narrator of the story, the focus changes and Sophie becomes the narrator as she agrees to tell Stingo about her life in Poland and in Auschwitz.
Sophie’s family were devout Catholics in Poland. Her mother became very ill and Sophie knew where she could get some black market ham which would help her mother to get stronger. Only the Nazis were allowed to have ham. Returning on a train with the ham hidden on her to make her look pregnant, she was discovered with the ham by a German soldier, and she and her two children, a boy and a girl, were transported to Auschwitz. One of the guards told her that only one of the children could go with her, the other would be taken away. She had to choose. She screamed as they took her little girl away from her. It was a nightmare which stayed with her for her whole life. The term “Sophie’s Choice” is used today to mean an impossible choice which brings no good result either way.
Because Sophie had some secretarial skills, she was chosen to be the Commandant’s assistant. Of course, he harassed her. A member of the Resistance asked her if she would steal a radio which was in the Commandant’s offices. She tried but could not succeed; the Commandant’s young daughter discovered her attempting to take it. Somehow Sophie was spared and was able to travel to Brooklyn in the United States. She was one of the lucky ones who were freed from Auschwitz.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp - Wikimedia
Taking care of Nathan gave Sophie a reason to live. She put up with a great deal from him, but she had a purpose in her life now, and was able to block out the horrific memories from the past.
Meryl Streep’s Achievements
Oscar Statue - Credit: Loren Javier, Google
The ending was not pretty either. It is a mystery to me why this film is such a classic, except for the marvelous portrayal of Sophie by Meryl Streep. She won her first Academy Award for Best Actress for this performance in 1982. Prior to that she had won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1979. In 2011, Meryl Streep won a third Academy Award for her performance in “The Iron Lady,” the story of Margaret Thatcher. In all, she was nominated for an Academy Award 19 times, walking away three of those times with an Oscar.
I cannot recommend the film “Sophie’s Choice” to my good friends.