Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
Monday, January 16, 2006
Friday, April 08, 2005
“But Almendros photographs Meryl Streep excellently, which is hardly an incidental matter since her performance as Sophie is the film's sole achievement. To begin with, she looks more translucently beautiful than ever, and she has the Polish accent right. (I know; some of my best friends are Polish.) What Streep has wrought, possibly with Pakula's help, is a psychological verity for Sophie that she reveals through patterns of motion: she seems often to be moving sideways to avoid confrontaion, she seems to be shunning the close scrutiny of others. Yes, of course, she often faces people, often embraces, kisses, converses with them, but the overall impression of her movement is sidling, gently attempting to hide herself in open space. Through this kinetic concept, Streep gives Sophie an aura of concealment. We know, without any grimaces or meaningful sighs, that she is not revealing her whole self to anyone, including her lover. When the truth about her father arrives, when we learn of her "choice," they seem like resolutions of suspended chords.
“Sometimes Pakula hands the picture over to Streep: the camera fixes on her in medium close-up and, virtually without any change of shot, she tells a long story. It's what Bergman has doen a number of times with Ullmann, and it's been done before with Streep. (It's done even in her recent abysmal thriller Still of the Night. She handles these moments like a virtuoso--a compliment that contains a hint of worry. Virtuosos like John Wood or George C. Scott can grow to consume their roles rather than portray them. Streep is nowhere near that solipsism yet, but she is at the point where her knowledge of her excellence has begun to accompany the excellence itself.
“This is not a quibble: it's a concern for a major talent. Here are two moments that are wonderful but in which we are aware that she knows it. When she first talks about her father, she sits on a piano bench, playing with a feather boa that hangs about her neck. She plays "off" the boa adroitly, but cleverly. Late she recalls a moment when, after she had reached Sweden following her rescue, she felt that Christ had turned away from her. Listen to what she does with the one word "Christ": the tiny pause just before it, the slow formation of the first consonants, the suspension of the middle, the almost reluctant close of the word. She makes the monosyllable an utterance. It's wonderful Very, very few American actors could do it, and it's something worth being able to do. Still, it's noticeable.
“None of which is to deny that the value of the film is in Streep's richness….”
New Republic, Jan. 10 & 17, 1983
Field of View, 209 ?
[Get/see whole review]
“To see within a few weeks Paul Newman in The Verdict, Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, and Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie is to be permitted some pride in American acting: and in its ability to triumph over American filmmaking conditions.”
The New Republic, Jan. 24, 1983
Field of View, 212
review of ?
“Alan Pakula, who directed Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo, Jane Fonda in Klute, and Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, is one of those directors who will sacrifice design of a film to details of performance. Actors and actresses love such a director, because he gives them plenty of room to breathe, but the rest of the movie can choke from lack of oxygen.
“Meryl Streep so fills the air of Sophie's Choice that there's no breathing space left for audience or co-stars. It's a claustrophobic performance, but technically mesmerizing. Streep insists on showing us the awkward and comical aspects of Sophie-the-Pidgin-English-speaking Polish refugee, as well as her more seductive qualities. In her anemic period, she really is the "Ting to scarr de birrds" as she says--rotting teeth, thinning hair, and green under the gills.
Vogue, February 1983, "Star Take"
Haskell wrote extensively about Streep in Sophie's Choice:
“Frances Farmer … and Sophie Zawistowska . . . are not only the biggest and most important roles for women to come along in some time, they are also the darkest. Jessica Lange's gallant but reckless Frances and Meryl Streep's ill-fated Sophie may reflect a new mood of pessimism among women, the future seen as a series of impossible choices rather than as one of limitless possibilities.
“Nonetheless I urge you to overcome your misgivings and see and savor these films for--if nothing else--two astonishing performances. Utterly unlike as they are, Lange and Streep are uncanny in the way they evoke existing legends while creating new ones of their own.
“…. [In Styron's novel], [w]ith one arm outstretched in sexual abandon; the other bearing the telltale identification number, Sophie was always something of a fantasy--the sort of improbable combination of qualities that might be conjured up when a young man's fancy turns to love, lust, literature, and large questions of Good and Evil.
“As filtered through the eyes of Stingo, the aspiring novelist … Sophie is more a succession of states (pitiable refugee, tantalizing older woman, demonically possessed lover, window onto the Holocaust, instrument of Stingo's awakening, etc.) than a real person.
“Alan Pakula's scrupulously faithful and richly atmospheric adaptation gives full rein to Streep's chameleon-like inventiveness in her most physical performance to date. She trips over "the English" in her charmingly comical Polish accent, falls on the floor with anemia, blossoms under the solicitude of her mad lover Nathan (Kevin Kline). But in the end, her guilt defines her, and we know no more about her interior life than we did at the beginning. What was missing from the character to begin with is still missing: some core identity that Meryl Streep, a mistress of self-disguise who will never be accused of just "playing herself," can't supply.
“It doesn't help that the two male parts have been pruned to give full prominence to Sophie, so that she seems to be acting directly for the audience rather than with her co-stars. For all these reasons, I found myself more intrigued by the actress than moved by the character, fascinated by Meryl's "choices" rather than Sophie's Choice.
“Frances is a distinctly inferior film…, yet Jessica Lange grabs one by the short hairs in a way that Streep never does.”
“…. Sophie’s Choice is a love story that fails to move us, a tale of horror that fails to grab us by the short hairs.
“Streep—did anyone doubt it?—is uncanny, so completely transforming into the refugee heroine that she not only speaks an impeccable halting English, her English seems actually to improve as she goes along. “You see how I butcher the English,” she says, as she does so, charmingly. She is a veritable chameleon of moods and physical states: pale and anemic one minute, her cheekbones cutting a silhouette against a hostile background; robust and voluptuous the next, having been nursed to loving health by the attentive Nathan.
“From Woody Allen’s lesbian ex-wife in Manhattan (1979) to the anomalous Victorian in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), Streep has made a career of playing enigmas. She is a genius at self-disguise, changing her look, her voice, her personality, her hair (oh, especially that hair!) from role to role. I happen to find this talent more suited to the theater than to movies, where one misses that core identity of an actress that underlies and gives resonance to every character. Still, there’s no denying that the mysterious Sophie, who can hide even behind a language barrier, was tailor-made for Streep. If she casts a spell, it is not the traditional spell that blinds a lover to one’s faults, but one that revels in them, forcing us to see and respond to klutziness, awkwardness and hesitation as well as grace, sensuality, amplitude.
“Actors who, by definition, care more for their own performances than for the overall design of a film, would love nothing better than a cinema that belongs to them, which is, in their jargon, all ‘moments,” all “choices.” That’s what Sophie’s Choice is: Meryl’s Choices. You can’t stop watching her, because every moment she is doing something, and she does nothing in a way that makes it impossible to watch anybody else. That, finally, is what unbalances the film: It is too much a one-woman show.”
Playgirl, March 1983
“Frances and Sophie's Choice belong to the category of films whose tragedies are set in the past, making their trouble and their troubling heroines somewhat less threatening. Not that these aren't towering roles for any age and by any criteria--strong, complex, hard-edged heroines played by women who can easily command center stage for two hours. Also, they are not victims in the classical sense. Their ordeals are to some extent self-inflicted. They choose, if it is only a Hobson's choice.
“But they are hardly free, either. Frances is swept along by the tide of her own destructiveness; Sophie by being a Pole under German occupation. Moreover, Sophie, vivid and memorable as she is, is further removed form her own consciousness by being a projection of William Styron's, through his young surrogate, Stingo. As directed by Alan Pakula, and played by the astonishing, chameleon-like Meryl Streep, Sophie is a phantom woman, appearing here as one (male) desire, there as another. She is alternately Stingo's muse, the instrument of his awakening to suffering and death, a ministering angel of sex, a surrogate mother, a martyr, a beauty who dies rather than face the reality of old age and possible rejection on a Virginia farm.
“Most important, she is an uninhibited sensualist. In the context of the '40s and Styron's portrait of the artist as a horny young man, she is a reproach to all the virgins and teases who gave the aspiring writer a hard time.
“As women, we can't help but sense in the apotheosis of a fantasy like Sophie, the rejection of all other less "giving," less abandoned women. She is an art-house Bo Derek, a thinking man's "10" by whose measure all other women are demoted….”
Psychology Today, January 1983
Haskell has continued to write ambivalently about Streep over the years, about her technical skill, her intellectual style, her tendency not to reveal herself on screen.
“For about half of Sophie's Choice, Meryl Streep gives the Meryl Streep performance we've been waiting for. As Sophie, an Auschwitz survivor living in Brooklyn, she isn't one of her usual quavery mystery women, hiding behind shimmering sheets of hair and a tense bud of a mouth. This is Streep in bloom, with cascading golden curls and a seductive raspberry-colored smile that softens the hard symmetries of her face. Sophie's Choice proves it--Streep needs a role with humor. Her best performance until now was in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, in which she was sexy and droll, delivering naughty dialogue in a Southern accent that oozed insinuation. Here she has an accent, too: Polish, and perfectly modulated. Streep gives us a Sophie who uses her foreigner's clumsiness, who turns her malapropisms into a form of high wit, who makes her hesitancy heavy-lidded, seductive. She's like a musician, playing that accent of hers, articulating a phrase in a way that gives it the inevitability of a remembered melody. [Could an actress for whom English is not native have done as well?] She's a master of pauses: she'll stretch one out and then suddenly swoop into a chatty line like a soloist into an arpeggio. But Sophie's Choice isn't content with her virtuosity; it digs behind her sunny character into the past that formed it. And when the movie drags us into flashbacks of Sophie in the camps, shaven-headed and spindly, Streep's acting turns glum. Instead of building a harrowing portrait of ravagement (the way Vanessa Redgrave did in TV's Playing for Time), Streep becomes a mystery woman again: silent, huddled, tense, hiding behind that stony mask….”
Boston Phoenix, January 23, 1983
Schiff on Streep in Kramer v. Kramer: “….[T]hough she radiates coolness and mystery, it's the mystery of a soul in turmoil …. What Streep does under the skin is more than what most actors accomplish with their whole bodies ….”
“After so many mysterious , insubstantial roles, Meryl Streep finally gets to hold the screen in Sophie's Choice… [as] Sophie Zawitowska, the heartbreaking Polish Catholic beauty…. Playing a European, Streep has a firmer identity than she had as any of those American women. We seem to be truly seeing her at last--the golden hair, which takes the light so magnificently, the peaches-and-cream complexion, the body that now, through some will transformation, seems fuller, heavier, more European than we had noticed…. Consuming food, wine, and music with amusement at her own greed, she is radiant yet melancholy, a woman burdened with more grief and guilt than se can easily unload.
“Meryl Streep is perhaps the first actress since the young Ingrid Bergman to make desolation ravishingly sexy. In the early stages of the movie, as Sophie smiles submissively at the fierce Nathan and basks in the adoration of young Stingo (Peter MacNicol), the glumly virginal southern-novelist-in-training, Streep does wonders with her hilarious Polish accent and the excruciating malapropisms that Pakula has invented for her. She makes Sophie a hurt but terribly sweet woman who is dying to take part in everything American. "You want to have a night hat with me?" she inquires fetchingly when Stingo, who also lives in the boardinghouse, returns from a date.
“Streep is great, but she's virtually the whole movie….”
New York, December 20, 1982
“…. [T]he performers, particularly Meryl Streep, make every effort to evoke Eros in a classically elliptical manner, a flash of stockings here, a slow, subtle rotation of the buttocks there…. Sophie… is more a creature of fantasy and desire, and since she was never all that real on the printed page, she becomes even more remote and unexamined on the screen, despite Meryl Streep's meticulously detailed characterization.
“…. Styron, for all his garrulousness and public-spirited confessions, has fashioned a surefire tearjerker of an emotional climax. It would have been virtually foolproof with any actress, but Meryl Streep has been particularly adept at letting the situation emerge by itself without any excessive hysteria, and for this masterly restraint, I suppose, she is fully entitled to any Oscars she may receive….
“As for Meryl Streep's claims for best actress in 1982, let me go on record retroactively to say that if I had been voting for Oscars in 1936, I would have voted not for Louise Rainer, the Viennese Meryl Streep of her time, in The Great Ziegfeld, but for Carole Lombard, the Jessica Lange of her time, in My Man Godfrey. It goes almost without saying that in 1937 I would have voted not for Louise Rainer in The Good Earth, but for Greta Garbo in Camille, but that is another story. Streep's Sophie is flawless, prodigious, and yet somehow lacking in fire and music. [Sarris’s homage to All About Eve.] I tire of her very quickly on the screen. It is now clear that she will never get very far just being; she clearly needs a Polish accent or its equivalent to display her expertise.”
Village Voice, December 21, 1982
“Sophie's Choice… is, I think, an infuriatingly bad movie….”
“As Sophie, Meryl Streep is colorful in the first, campy, late-forties scenes…, when, red-lipped and with bright-golden curls, she dimples flirtatiously and rattles on in Polish-accented, broken English, making her foreignness ssem zany. This giddy, trist Sophie charms Stingo (Peter MacNicol), … the stand-in for Styron… And there's an oddly affecting (though stagey) comic scene when Sophie and her lover, Nathan (Kevin Kline) babble to Stingo at the same time, seemingly unaware that each is drowning out the other. But once the flashbacks to Sophie's tormented past start up and the delayed revelations are sprung on us, and we know we're supposed to feel the lurid thrill of everything she did to survive, I felt more sympathy for Meryl Streep, the actress trying to put over these ultimate-horror scenes, than I could for Sophie herself. Streep is very beautiful at times, and she does amusing, nervous bits of business, like fidgeting with a furry boa--her fingers twiddling with our heartstrings. She has, as usual, put thought and effort into her work. But something about her puzzles me: after I've seen her in a movie, I can't visualize her from the neck down. Is it possible that as an actress she makes herself into a blank and then focusses all her attention on only one thing--the toss of her head, for example, in Manhattan, her accent here? Maybe, by bringing an unwarranted intensity to one facet of a performance, she in effect decorporealizes herself. This could explain why her movie heroines don't seem to be full characters, and why there are no incidental joys to be had from watching her. It could be that in her zeal to be an honest actress she allows nothing to escape her conception of a performance. Instead of trying to achieve freedom in front of the camera, she's predetermining what it records.
“Meryl Streep's work doesn't hold together here, but how could it? Sophie isn't a character, she's a pawn in this guilt-and-evil game played out by Sophie the Catholic, Nathan the Jew, and Stingo the Protestant. Styron got his three characters so gummed up with his idea of history that it's hard for us to find them even imaginable….”
The New Yorker, Dec. 27, 1982
“…. The searchlight sweep of Styron's book has narrowed down to an intimate focus on evil. This threatens to become claustrophobic, but the sheer power of the story, the sensitivity of Pakula's handling and the acting of Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline make this a gripping and oddly liberating film.
“…. But it's Meryl Streep's performance that lifts the film to a high plane of poignance and power. The camera stays close to her like a lover and an interrogator. She responds with an astonishing flow of raw feeling and subtle detail, capturing Sophie's sensuality and anguish, the horror of being forced into an attempted complicity with her Nazi tormentors, and the greater horror of her "choice" during her meeting with the absolute evil at the center of the story. Streep's accent and the expressive Polish and German she speaks in the European sequences are not virtuoso stunts; they are thrilling expressions of character, like the feats of a great musician or dancer that ravish the senses while they enlighten the heart.”
Newsweek, December 20, 1982
Michael Atkinson featured Streep's performance in the monthly "Greatish Performances" column of the October 1995 Movieline. Though not unanimous in his praise of all her performances, Atkinson terms Streep a "marvelous movie creature" who has "always been more than the sum of her formidable technique." Atkinson admires her "Raphaelite" beauty and calls her smile "the warmest … in Hollywood." Sophie's Choice was "the role of her career. The Academy nominated four other actresses that year just out of courtesy."
“… Sophie has survived Auschwitz, something her young children didn't manage, and so her entire persona is a tightrope walk between the present moment and the abyss of the past. Sophie covers up her scars by being, in essence, a technical actress, and Streep shows us both her fragmentation and her skill at shipping up emotional camouglage. Sophie's sad gaze is half helpless lie, half naked honesty. Streep has the Polish accent down, of course, but watch how she has Sophie use that accent differently in each scene, fumbling her English coquettishly in the company of some, grimly steadying it for others.
“Seeing Streep at work is like looking through a kaleidoscope; no other actress gives us so much to watch. And no other actress makes as much of close-ups. Every moment Sophie's alive is a struggle, and Streep lets us see the helter-skelter car chase of emotional turbulence run across her face. Yet it's so subtle you're not surprised when the movie's other characters never notice. [In her monologues and in the flashbacks, where Sophie is "forced into one sanity-ruining decision after another",] Streep shows us something new every second, while Sophie herself intends on revealing only a little. You see Sophie's fear, but it's cut with shrewdenss, self-loathing, wonder, humiliation and exhaustion. Streep somehow turns her character inside out for us, and yet there's no playing to the back rows, no Garboesque stoicism, no overripe psychodrama.
“In the end, Streep's daunting chameleon-ness and immaculate accents are profoundly beside the point. Sophie is hardly a collection of techniques--she's a complete person whose depths we have, by the movie's melancholy conclusion, only begun to explore. Like Sophie, Streep knows it's important to hide as much as you reveal. Most movie characters can be defined by a handful of adjectives; Sophie is a mystery you could spend a lifetime unraveling.”
Movieline, October, 1995
By contrast, in "The Naked and the Bred", an article on acting in the October 2, 1984 issue of the Boston Phoenix, Hal Hinson wrote that “…. Streep doesn't use her technique to release her emotions but as a substitute for them … [S]he tries to think her characters into existence. As a result, the insides of her characters are parched and dry; they're skinny-souled.”
Though he probably arrived at his conclusions independently, Hinson's article contains many of the same ideas you could get from reading Pauline Kael on Streep.. I've therefore left quite a bit of it out, but the following paragraph has some good lines:
“…. Streep is a classical actor in the purist sense. The reality she discovers in a performance isn't a personal reality. Her characterizations don't spring from her own experience, from her own personality. They are built to express a more universal, objective truth. Streep's personality on the screen is scaled to carry the big themes and the big literary characters are safe in her hands, because her style is measured and clean. The director can rest assured that her performance won't be unbalanced by personal eccentricities…. [In Sophie's Choice,], Streep carries the movie's heroine onto the screen with her margins intact.”
Hinson also notes that in moments in Sophie's Choice, Streep is more vivid physically than he usually finds her to be on screen.
During the 1980’s and early 1990’s, film actresses were frequently asked to comment upon Streep in interviews. Michelle Pfeiffer, Sissy Spacek, and Debra Winger all commented specifically upon Streep in Sophie’s Choice; and Diane Keaton, Jodie Foster, Glenn Close, Cher, and Shirley MacLaine all commented upon Streep generally.
Still need Thomson—or don’t include? After all, a reader could just have A Biographical Dictionary of Film handy. Get Wolcott.
Friday, January 21, 2005
From an interview with Lord Putnam, June 3, 2005:
LP: ... I had the experience, when seeing Raging Bull the first time in 79, of really thinking that maybe I should just jack the whole thing in, because it was so much better than anything I'd ever done and, frankly, the way it was made, I couldn't imagine getting to that.... Did you have a film like that?
JF: No, but I was in a play with Geraldine Page, a Eugene O'Neill play called Strange Interlude.... Monumental play, and first day of rehearsals, Geraldine Page came in and she not only knew the whole script - she'd memorised it - she inhabited it already. That was the time I said, "I'm packing it in, forget it, I am never going to do a play again." In movies, Sophie's Choice, I guess. I did Meryl Streep's first movie with her, and it was Julia. I'll never forget it. I'd never heard of her because she'd never done a movie. We had a scene where Lillian Hellman walks into Sardi's after the triumphant opening of Little Foxes. And there's a character called Anne Marie, with black hair and everything. I wasn't even paying any attention to this actress; I just did my stuff. The next day, I went to rushes, and the camera - Doug Slocombe, brilliant cinematographer - they bring me into Sardi's and they pan across several people, one of whom is this black-haired character called Anne Marie. Then I walk off and they stay on this Anne Marie, and with a slight gesture to her mouth, and a cloud across her eye, an entire character and all her thoughts about Lillian Hellman became apparent, and I went, "Holy shit!" Me and my partner were casting for Coming Home, and I went right to the phone and woke him up, I said, "Bruce [Gilbert], it's really a weird name, Meryl Streep. I'm telling you, this is the first actress since Geraldine Page. This is something phenomenal." I feel so honoured that I experienced that with her.
June 3, 2005, The Guardian Interviews at the National Film Theater
(original post by me Jan 21, 2006)