Saturday, January 7, 2012

Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice

It's an honor and a privilege to write my first review of the year about...

Meryl Streep who received her fourth Oscar nomination and second Academy Award for playing Sophie Zawistowska, a very mysterious and beautiful Polish woman haunted by a horrible secret. Meryl's win, in my opinion, was very obvious. The Academy came up with the perfect solution to reward the two actresses whose performances were hailed by almost everyone: Jessica Lange won in the supporting category (though everybody feels it's also an award for Frances) and Meryl won in leading. One of those unfortunate cases were happening where two actresses gave their greatest performances. I don't think there was a way Meryl was losing that Oscar. 

Sophie's Choice, in my opinion, is much better than most people think. It's certainly a bit symplified and some of the characters are not properly worked out, but for me it all worked. Although I don't think I want to see it again (for many reasons), it was a very emotional and unforgettable experience for me. Alan J. Pakula was a director who helped his actor deliver some of the very best performances of their careers (above all, Jane Fonda in Klute) and he works fabulously with his actors here as well. Kevin Kline gives a performance that was worthy of an Oscar nomination, but Peter McNicol has his moments, too. 

You know there's a term I really like to use with performances that completely steal their movies and that's why I'm saying that Sophie's Choice is The Meryl Streep Show. Like Klute is The Jane Fonda Show or Tootsie is The Dustin Hoffman Show, Sophie's Choice belongs entirely to Meryl Streep, this fantastic performer. In one of her interviews, Jane Fonda told Rosie O'Donell that she believes Meryl is a gift from Heaven. Although sometimes I try to dislike Meryl, it proves impossible whenever I see her in an actual movie. Then I really believe what Jane says about Meryl. She's a gift. When I reviewed Meryl's wonderful turn in Ironweed, I mentioned that story of Jack Nicholson when while shooting her character's death, he touched Meryl and felt that she had no pulse. Meryl is a natural born chameleon. 

She proves that in Sophie's Choice more than ever during her long, distinguished career. Meryl's hard work and long preparations are legendary, but she really outdid herself here. Because first, she speaks German and Polish so well that you actually refuse to believe that she's American (on a side note, I wonder how she would deal with the Hungarian language :-) ). Second, her accent (as always) is immaculate. Third, she has that very special type of radiant beauty that Polish women possess (this sounds a bit awkward but it's actually true). She perfected each and every movement of this character, timed her tears fabulously. As usual, Meryl solved the technical part of the performance perfectly. Some critics dismissed her performance at the time as way too technical and calculated (which is actually true but in my opinion, it only made her character even more authentic and believable) and Kate Hepburn also expressed how much she despised Meryl in general because of this. But for me, her very considered and careful acting is just a testament to how much she cherished her character. I always try to imagine Goldie Hawn or Natalie Wood in this part (as both of them wanted to play Sophie) or Ursula Andress, whom William Styron, the author of the book, had in mind while writing the story (though from what I've heard, the book's Sophie fits Ursula more than Meryl). 

For me, however, it's the emotionality of this part that gets me each and every time. Last time, with Ironweed I described how much I was taken by Meryl's singing "He's Me Pal" where I felt completely taken by her genious (no wonder that the great Diane Keaton described Meryl as her generation's genious). I felt that very rare feeling throughout Sophie's Choice. I don't think it's coincidence that she reminded me of Jane Fonda in Klute (after all, they had the same director): both of them took me on a ride on a rollercoaster, which may not be pleasant at all, but fulfills you in every possible way. For me, it was unbeliavable to see Meryl showing so many facets of this woman from so many angles. She captivated my mind and soul throughout the movie. It's very hard to keep the attention of a person alive, but it was no problem for Meryl: even if I only look at her, I see she's a genious and that's enough to keep me interested. However, she goes way beyond that in this film.

At the beginning of the story, we get to know Sophie as a wonderful beauty that you instantly fall in love with. However, even there we can sense something distant, sinister and unpleasant about her character. Mystery is all around her. We can see that in small, sudden movements on her body and small gestures by Meryl. She's like a deep sea that you dive deeper and deeper into as the movie goes on. Meryl takes you along and leads you to the most beautiful places. I believe she's never been more beautiful than she was as Sophie. Her shining blonde her, her big and very attractive teeth (I know, it's weird), her soft skin on her thigs that we almost feel ourselves. Not only does she have great chemistry with Kevin Kline and Peter McNicol, but also with the camera and us, the audience. It's as if we were a part of a passionate romance. It's not voyeuristic love, it's the type of love that medieval knights felt for their ideal ladies. But it's also a very sensual and sexualised characterisation by Meryl.

As we get to see more of Sophie, we get to realise her horrible past. The scenes where she tells her story could have easily been ruined by overacting or being too subtle. However, with her tics and small gestures, Meryl is able to make you speechless. Her small movements, her looks, her tears are much more heartbreaking than what she says. It's not about what, it's about how. In the scenes of her past, we don't see her acting in English anymore. She used the Polish and German language so well that she was even able to play with the emotions. We often command actors for being able to speak two or three sentences in another language but the real achievement is when you can use all the benefits of another language. In the scenes at the concentration camp and the Rudolf Hess' house, you can see her most Oscary moments. It's interesting that you would expect some very loud and over-the-top acting and in the end, she ends up being way more subtle than you would expect. She's wonderful while taking a shower: the quiet desperation, humiliation and fear she displays there is just terrifying. What's even more interesting that she keeps her radiant beauty even when she's skinny, pale and undernourished: her beauty shines through the horrible situation of her character, which makes it even more thrilling. 

It's her loud scenes are, however, that most of us remember: her desperation to save her son is played brilliantly by her when Sophie's on her knees, begging to Hess. She perfectly found the balance in that scene, which made incredibly heartwrenching and moving. 

And the choice... The choice scene is hands down one of the three best acted moments I've ever seen. You cannot communicate your feelings in words. She did it in one take and I bet that if she had done another one, it wouldn't have been quite as effective. You know, that's one of those VERY rare moments when I feel divine powers working in a performance. We cannot possibly imagine the horror of that event and the small part of it that we feel is just unbearable. When I first saw it at the age of 13, I was just terrified and shocked by that scene. It's one of the most horribly painful moments in movie history. Nothing can compare to the tension that Meryl created. It's incredibly draining and unbearable to watch, to say the least.

In the end, Sophie becomes more of a ghost that occasionally comes and haunts you. Her last scene is incredible: we can see that she's become tired of living and yet it's more of cathartic than devastating. People might call this performance too calculated and affected, which has some merit considering the fact that it's pretty obvious what Meryl tried to achieve, you cannot forget that she reached her goal to make the audience cringe. I must admit, though, that maybe she shouldn't have wanted it so hard, because she succeeded anyway.

To say that Meryl Streep is great in Sophie's Choice would be a major understatement. She goes beyond the boundaries of acting and completely becomes Sophie Zawistowska. While the technical part of this performance is brutally perfect, it's the emotional nature of Meryl's work that keeps you captivated. Nothing can compare to the horror and pain that Meryl displays on the screen. Unforgettable work. 
Who should be next? 


Anonymous said...

This one was undeniable. She's leaves SUCH an impression. Good work! :)

dinasztie said...

Thanks! :) I agree.

mrripley said...

I find her here to be truly excellent but i would have still picked Lange but agree she is phenomenal but I still believe her best performances came later esp The Bridges of Madison County.

dinasztie said...

mrripley: I'm really looking forward to that one. :)

Raguá said...

Amazing performance in an amazing film! Great writing by the way!

Greetings from Colombia!
And if you speak Spanish i recommend my blog

ThiagoTos said...

Amazing review!

Fritz said...

Beautiful review that did real justice to this shattering performance. Still, why did Meryl and Jessica have to compete in the same year???

dinasztie said...

Raguá: I'd love to read your blog but I speak no Spanish, unfortunately. I LOVE Columbia (and your famous Sofía Vergara :D).

ThiagoTos: Thanks!

Fritz: Thanks! I asked the same question and actually, the Academy did, too. :) I think they came up with a very good solution. Some say it wasn't the right thing but I think it was. I loved Lange in Tootsie as well. :)

Louis Morgan said...

Great review your absolutely right this is a tremendous performance and she is outstanding in the choice scene. I would disagree in that like Klute besides the great female lead performance the film has quite a few flaws.

dinasztie said...

Louis: Yes, it has flaws but I still liked. :) And thanks!

Anonymous said...

I agree! Great review, very different then your usual style!

That"s not an insult, BTW!

Anonymous said...

The choice scene is one of the most heart-wrenching and hauntng moments I have ever seen on film. The way that Streep's face crumbles with the pain is heatbreaking.

Polish woman said...

Great text but just a detail... if you spoke Polish or German you'd know her Polish is dreadful and her German just a little bit better than that (btw on the movie they mention her German is perfect, which is inaccurate, they could have cut that part of dialog).
Considering how difficult Polish pronunciation is, you can say she did do a good job, but it's misleading readers to say she speaks the languages well.

dinasztie said...

Polish woman: there we go, it seemed fine to me. :) You're probably right. In Music Box, when Jessica Lange spoke Hungarian and it wasn't so great, it was stated in the movie that she spoke little Hungarian.