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Great Movies Roundtable: Sophie’s Choice

#90 on AFI’s “100 Movies, 100 Years – 10th Anniversary Edition is “Sophie’s Choice.”

Directed by Alan J. Pakula (who is seriously underrated – he also made #77 and #25 on AFI’s list, but his is hardly a household name like Spielberg, Scorsese or Hitchcock) “Sophie’s Choice” is the story of a young Southern writer (Peter MacNichol) who moves to New York to work on his novel and “experience the world,” I guess. There he meets Nathan (Kevin Kline) and Sophie (Meryl Streep,) and the trio quickly become friends, and then a love triangle. Nathan is extremely mercurial and unpredictable, and Sophie is a Polish immigrant who survived the Nazi concentration camps. As the story progresses, we learn more about both of them, but most especially about Sophie, and the horrific choice she had to make, and the way that experience has forever marked her life.

General Thoughts?

WK: I have a pretty low tolerance for sentimentality, and “Sophie’s Choice” is pretty sentimental. There is power in Sophie’s story, but it bugs me that it’s couched in this larger story of a Southern boy falling in love and trying to rescue her. Compare this to a film like “Schindler’s List” and its faults become pretty apparent.

 CRH: Where can you buy that much Spam!

This is a decent movie but it’s pretty melodramatic.  The film has the classic love triangle. But I think my interest was piqued by the fact that there is an homage to The Great Gatsby as the film’s first part. Which ultimately foreshadows the tragedy. Stingo is trying to be a writer but inevitably comes across this very tragic story, which is what a writer usually looks for to record.
What Works?

WK: Meryl Streep. In my mind, she’s the only reason to watch “Sophie’s Choice,” but wow, what a reason. It’s pretty easy to build an argument that she is the greatest actress of all time (20 Oscar nominations, 30 Golden Globe nominations – no one else even comes close) and this is generally considered her greatest performance, which means this might be the greatest performance of all time. That’s rare air, but the statement holds up. Just the way she uses the accent should be studied (and probably is) by aspiring actors everywhere.  There is so much to this performance, and it is note-perfect. Astonishingly good.

CRH: The movie does a good job of showing what’s good about life and also the pain which might push someone to end it all. We get the scenes of joi de vivre as well as these heart-crushing scenes of the Holocaust. The movie is fairly soft and sentimental and I think that works for it as a melodrama. I enjoyed watching the first half but I had the creeping suspicion that the second half was coming which would cover the Holocaust. I think that’s an older story format that is kind of nice to look back on. Streep’s performance is phenomenal. It really shows the power of an actor or actress and how they can carry an entire film by their work. You could make this movie without Meryl Streep but it would not be worth watching today.
What Doesn’t Work?
CRH:  This movie’s biggest handicap is that it is a melodrama. I enjoy  your good dollop of sentimentality as much as the next guy but this was a little heavy-handed. There are a lot of films around this time that were using the Holocaust as a set-piece. Good or bad they made movies with a lot of horror in it but not a lot of humanity. This one has a good mix but that sentimentality is what they used to move the story along. The young man trying to save the older woman and the mad boyfriend motif  — it might as well be a soap opera! It dates the movie. They don’t make movies of the Holocaust like this anymore and probably for good reason.
WK: I have kind of a long list.  I really, really hate the score.  It’s overbearing and saccharine. Every time the music swells, I feel like I’m watching a Very Special Episode of “Little House on the Prairie.”

I know I sound like a prude, because I keep complaining about the sex scenes, but seriously, what is Leslie Lapidis doing in this film? How does that entire awful scene add anything but the cheapest kind of humor to a feeling striving for sophistication?  It’s terrible. If I were editing this, I’d cut that whole character out completely and not miss her a bit.

Kevin Kline gets on my nerves. Not just in this film, but in general – he always plays the same type of character more or less. I can’t help but feel like this would be a better movie if he were a bit less cartoonish and a bit more relatable. Human, even.

Favorite scene?
CRH: (spoiler alert, but come on… it’s a 35 year old film.) I think the scenes that really work are the scenes where Sophie makes her choice. The first one being where she chooses which child goes to the work Camp and the other goes to extermination. That scene is utterly crushing. Also, the scene at the end where Stingo comes back to the boarding house in silence to where Sophie made her second choice, which was to commit suicide with Nathan. The first one can still be in a modern film; the second scene is a lot more old-fashioned.  They work well together.
WK: Well, of course there’s the Choice scene, which is just brutal and heartbreaking. But really, in a movie that has lots of big scenes and verges on histrionic, my favorites are the quiet ones.  There’s a conversation between Stingo and Sophie about 45 minutes in – they are talking about his book, and his mother dying, and losing those you love – that is probably my favorite scene in the movie.
Buying or selling?
CRH: The rest of the movie is selling but I think people will be reviewing Streep’s performance for many years to come.
WK: Hmm… Overall, I don’t like it as a film. And yet it contains the greatest performance of all time.  It probably stays on the list, and its placing feels appropriate to me.

We’ve covered the bottom 10 films on the list so far.  How would you rank them?

WK:

  1. Goodfellas
  2. Do the Right Thing
  3. Toy Story
  4. Blade Runner
  5. Pulp Fiction
  6. The Last Picture Show
  7. Sophie’s Choice
  8. Yankee Doodle Dandy
  9. The French Connection
  10. Ben-Hur

CRH: 

  1. Goodfellas
  2. Do the Right thing
  3. Pulp Fiction
  4. Toy Story
  5. Blade Runner
  6. Ben Hur
  7. The Last picture Show
  8. Sophie’s Choice
  9. The French Connection
  10. Yankee Doodle Dandy

 

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Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, The Classic Movie Series.

2 Responses

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  1. Rick Chatham said

    Blade runner is easily the best on your lists. It needs to be seen in a theater to be appreciated.

  2. I would love to see it in a theater – that must be quite an experience!

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