Oscar: Best Actress–Streep, Meryl in Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Sophie's Choice Sophie's Choice Sophie's Choice Annie Hall

Meryl Streep won her first Best Actress Oscar in 1982 for the Holocaust drama, “Sophie’s Choice.”  She had previously won the 1979 Supporting Actress Oscar for “Kramer Vs. Kramer.”

Her major competitor in 1982 was Jessica Lange in “Frances,” in a race that also included Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria,” Sissy Spacek in “Missing,” and Debra Winger in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

Director Alan J. Pakula adapted to the screen William Styron’s acclaimed novel about a Polish immigrant, Sophie Zawistowska (Meryl Streep), living in Brooklyn after WWII. She befriends a Southern writer, Stingo (Peter MacNicol), who lives in her building, who becomes intrigue with her and her lover Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline).

The trio, consisting of a Catholic Sophie, Jewish Nathan, and Protestant Sting, form a bizarre but intimate friendship. Gradually, Stingo (who Streep initially calls Stinko) learns the horrific story of Sophie as a concentration camp survivor, who was forced to make the most horrible “choice” a parent can make in order to survive the ordeal. The revelation leads to a disastrous ending for the central couple.

As writer and helmer, Pakula treats the story with respect and faithfulness, and though he manages to avoid sentimentality, two crucial elements are missing to make the film truly great: Authenticity (it looks and feels too much like a Hollywood movie) and emotional impact.

The flashback structure and narration (by Josef Sommer) may be too conventional for such a powerful story, which is overlong (157 minutes), too episodic, and occasionally plodding in pace.

At the time, some critics complain that film was too garish in its visuals and not illuminating enough in terms of characters and ideas. There was also some resentment that Sophie’s Choice” was positioned by the studio as a must-see event film, released in time for Oscar considerations.

Acting-wise, the film is uneven: MacNicol may be too young and immature a partner for Streep (he feels more like her brother), whereas Kline is unrestrained by his director, leading to some big and wild hysterical scenes.

Competently produced, the film benefits from a vigorous cinematography by ace Cuban-born Nestor Almendros. Despite the film’s flaws, the image of the sickly and saintly Sophie, all pale and white (like wearing a mask) as she recollects the ordeal in flashbacks, lingers in memory.

Oscar Nominations: 5

Actress: Meryl Streep Screenplay (Adapted): Alan J. Pakula Cinematography: Nestor Almendros Original Score: Marvin Hamlisch Costume Design: Albert Wolsky

Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context:

In 1982, the winners of the Adapted Screenplay Oscar were Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart for “Missing,” and John Williams nabbed the Scoring Oscar for Spielberg’s “E.T.” Gandhi, which swept most of the Oscars in 1982, including Best Picture, also won the Cinematography Oscar for Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor, and the Costume Oscar for John Mollo and Bhanu Athaiya.