The character doing the growing up in Sophie’s Choice is named Stingo. He's from the south, is a virgin, is Christian, and has moved to 1947 Brooklyn with plans to write a novel. He’s skinny and big-toothed, bent with an aw-shucks disposition that ages him down. Played by Peter MacNicol with a knowing balance between innocence and weariness-in-the-making, Stingo begins a blank slate and ends a cynic in shambles. You bet this kid who’s inclined to say “howdy” comes of age in Sophie’s Choice, but a clichéd coming-of-age feature this isn’t: a boy’s becoming a man turns into a catalyst to tell the heartbreaking story of an older woman with whom Stingo falls in a tragic sort of love.
The woman in question is Zofia "Sophie" Zawistowski (Meryl Streep), a Pole who lives in the apartment directly above this hopeful 22-year-old’s. Always with her lover Nathan (Kevin Kline) by her side, Sophie is the sort of woman who’s perhaps only existed in Stingo’s dreams. She’s a comely blonde who possesses a certain kind of exoticism via her Polish background, and who seemingly bears a free-spiritedness that makes for a stark contrast from the women with whom Stingo grew up. Because she’s so beguiling in both her physicality and her personae, though, Stingo hardly seems to notice that pain is as prevalent in her eyes as the aquamarine in her irises.
Nathan and Sophie invite Stingo into their lives almost as soon as they become neighbors. Though the latter’s slightly skeptical of the way their relationship is a lived-in definition of the word “volatile” (Nathan’s prone to berating his lady love for apparently no reason over and over again), he grabs onto their unofficial invitation. He has no one else, after all, and
Sophie is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.
But this initial act of neighborly kindness, along with the dozens of hedonistic nights out upon which this threesome will eventually embark, can only inform the dynamic for so long before it becomes evident that Sophie’s a great deal more damaged than she appears – and that Nathan might not actually be the impassioned scholarly type he’s introduced as.
Sophie’s Choice thus reveals itself as something as a Russian doll. Narratively layered but careful in the way it sheds its many emotional jackets, it is the uncommon sort of character study so spellbinding that it sometimes is partial to feeling like a psychological thriller. Because we first meet Sophie and Nathan while in the midst an ugly moment in their relationship – reminiscent of a story beginning with “and” – we’re immediately certain that Pakula is keeping some of the characteristics of their romance hidden from us. Because the titular “choice” Sophie makes is not revealed until the last half-hour of the movie, we agonize for what feels like an eternity, contemplating what exactly she’ll be subjected to. (She is, as the film shows with increased candor, a Holocaust survivor.) And because Stingo is so sweet and emotionally immature, and because Nathan and Sophie are so comparatively abrasive, we anticipate an explosive end to their friendship just as much as we’d predict a bombastic finale in a Hitchcock movie.
As a result of subject and length, features like Sophie’s Choice are prone to being ineffective, and, as such, can be torturous to watch: chances that we’ll either be underwhelmed by the delving into the topic at hand or overwhelmed by the drawn-out sluggishness of it all are high. Intentions might be good and aspirations might be ample, but oftentimes do attempts at epic, slow-burning epic filmmaking cannibalize themselves, pushed further by self-indulgence on the part of their makers.
But not a wrong move is made in Sophie’s Choice; one might even consider it to be the utmost display of Pakula’s writing and directorial mastery (which had been so influential in the ‘70s – look in the direction of 1971’s Klute, 1976’s All the President’s Men, and more). While many might bill him a filmmaker at his best when uncovering conspiracies and social paranoia, Sophie’s Choice renders Pakula a great humanist. His empathy for his characters, along with his willingness to hold their hands as they undergo frequently heart-wrenching character arcs, never dries up.
Not a frame rings false. Some could argue that Nathan is one-notedly antagonistic, the bully who exists purely to rile us up. Or that Stingo’s boyish charms do not amount to much else besides mechanisms to tell Sophie’s story. Or that, as Sophie, Streep is so marvelous that she pulls a Funny Girl (1968) and causes the film supporting her to pale in comparison to her brilliance.
But such isn’t the case. After it’s acknowledged why Nathan’s so often a brute, we come to realize that his existence in the film brings life to the recurring reality that even after one escapes an unthinkable brand of victimhood, they can encounter another. Stingo’s formless, sitcom-esque chastity serves as a foil to the movie’s hard truths – and helps us better insinuate ourselves into this movie’s story, which turns out to be so unspeakably tragic. And while Streep is so good that the movie sometimes appears to lose its pulsing energy when not placing all its attention onto the eponymous Sophie, one might assert that our being hypnotized by her just furthers one of the movie’s many mantras: that no matter how much you might think the world revolves around you, there will always be someone who will have endured much, much more.
As we watch Sophie’s Choice, we feel this heaviness, not just because it is so thematically and performatively substantial, but also because there’s an underlying understanding that we’re watching an important movie, a classic which will always retain an unusual immediacy. This impression was made upon its release nearly 35 years ago, too: Streep, giving one of the best performances in the history of cinema (consider that a sizable portion of it is delivered in another language entirely), won her first Oscar for the role. The movie itself was among the heaviest hitters at the 1983 Academy Awards and the year-end box office.
And it remains a heavy hitter. While there’s a tendency for the biggest movies of the yesteryear to have lost some of their magic in the punishing sands of time, Sophie’s Choice is among the few to persist. It exemplifies the much-sought, rarely perfect marriage of accessible entertainment and visionary filmmaking. Streep’s magnificence guides that staying power. A
Alan J. Pakula
Stephen D. Newman
2 Hrs., 30 Mins.
ver the course of 160 thoughtful minutes, the naïve, 22-year-old protagonist of Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice (1982) learns a great many things. He learns that sometimes your ambitions do not always translate into actual success. That you can spend the evenings with intellectuals and try to emulate them all you want and still come across as a saucer-eyed kid with a lot to digest. That sex maybe isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. That sometimes you’re but a side story in the grand scheme of someone’s life. That simplistic happy endings do not exist.