Monthly Archives: March 2014

My Year With Meryl: Out of Africa (1985)

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Meryl is universally considered the greatest living actress currently working in film today, and she has spent more than thirty-five years proving her talent in movie after movie, now more than fifty in total. She has been nominated for eighteen Academy Awards — by far the record — with surely many more nominations in her future.

And yet it might be surprising to learn that of all the films she’s made over the decades, and of all the acclaimed performances she’s given, only a small handful of her movies have actually gone on to be acknowledged in the top categories at the Academy Awards. Her film debut Julia, in 1977, racked up a whopping eleven nominations, and two films she did soon after that won Best Picture — The Deer Hunter and Kramer Vs. Kramer. But following that 1979 film, only two more of her films to date would go on to even be nominated for the big prize. The Hours was nominated, in 2003. The only other film she appeared in that was not only nominated but also won? 1985’s Out of Africa.

Sydney Pollack’s sweeping two-hour-and-forty-minute epic had all the makings of an award-friendly movie. It tells an epic true story, set in 1916 Africa, filled with warmth and heart and romance and tragedy. It paired two of our finest actors — Meryl and Robert Redford — in a film for the first and still only time (although Redford directed Meryl in his 2007 disappointment Lions for Lambs). It’s the kind of film Academy members love, and it was honored with many of the top prizes, despite intense competition that year from other great films like Prizzi’s Honor, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and The Color Purple, Spielberg’s terrific achievement that scored eleven nominations but won nothing. (Of course many, including myself, would consider The Breakfast Club and Back to the Future as the two greatest movies of 1985!)

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Out of Africa won seven Oscars, including Best Score, Best Screenplay, Best Director for Pollack, and Best Picture of the year. But is Out of Africa one of Meryl’s best pictures? Has it held up well all these years later? While there is more interest to be found here than in the somber, slow-moving Plenty, Out of Africa remains one of Meryl’s most overrated films.

She plays Karen Blixen, a Danish baroness who establishes a plantation in 1916 Kenya, Africa. Like in Plenty, she is torn between more than one man — in this case, there’s the husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer, in an Oscar-nominated supporting role) who she married out of convenience, and the valiant, free-spirited hunter Denys (played by Redford). Based on the writings of Blixen herself (published under the pen name Isak Dinesen), Out of Africa shows in great detail the many ups and downs of Karen’s complicated life, like troubles on the plantations, war, schooling of the natives, and catching siphilis from her husband, which nearly takes her life and prevents her from ever being able to bear children. But of course there’s always Denys, who ultimately changes her life for the better. Will the two walk hand-in-hand into the sunset together? Or will their love end in tragedy?

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Director Pollack initially didn’t even consider Meryl for the part of Karen Blixen. He thought she wasn’t sexy enough to play the character, and probably assumed she wouldn’t have the right chemistry with the handsome leading man Redford. And Meryl, who has fought hard for more roles than one might think, went to a meeting with Pollack wearing a low-cut blouse and a push-up bra—and the rest is history. Even though she never comes across as all that sexy in Out of Africa, she does give the richer, fuller performance in the movie. and while both stars are top billed, this is definitely much more Meryl’s movie than it is Redford’s. Those who haven’t seen it in awhile might be surprised to see Redford missing for most of the film’s first half, a clever tactic used by Pollack and screenwriter Kurt Luedtke to keep them from getting involved romantically for as long as possible.

Of course Redford sticks out like a sore thumb in this period movie — Gene Siskel in his original review rightly says that Redford never manages to create a character here we think of as anything but himself — but Meryl is her typical transformative best. Nominated for her sixth Academy Award (in just eight years!), she sports brown curly hair and a realistic as usual accent, this time Danish. While Plenty, released the same year, provided a rare character she didn’t really disappear into that much, she plays the kind of character in Out of Africa that yet again makes us forget we’re watching Meryl up there on the screen. She shows pain and sadness, love and longing, and in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, pure unadulterated terror, when a lion approaches her on dangerous terrain. And the reaction she displays upon learning of the film’s closing tragedy is subtle and effective.

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However, too much of the film, same as in Plenty, drones on and on. Let’s consider 1985 as the year of the overindulgent Streep. Plenty and Out of Africa both have a few terrific moments, but if it weren’t for Meryl’s stellar performances, these movies would register hardly at all. Out of Africa includes sumptuous Oscar-winning cinematography by David Watkin, incredible views of the African countryside, but to what end? The film is too episodic in its first half, with too many scenes of strained dialogue and lack of excitement, and by the time we arrive to the central relationship between Meryl and Redford it comes off as more awkward than tender — not as awkward as Meryl and Sting in Plenty, but awkward nonetheless. While Meryl and Redford probably would have made a great couple in a traditional ’80s modern romance, they never quite gel here.

While Meryl would go on later in her career to branch off into different genres, budgets and scopes in her work, she focused arguably too much in the 1980s on important, slow-moving historical dramas, many of which netted her Oscar nominations, but few of which offer emotionally involving experiences. Even Sophie’s Choice, probably her best of the ’80s historical dramas she starred in, is flawed, and a bit on the long side. She would go on to make Ironweed and A Cry in the Dark but finally took a break from dramas to make a string of four light-hearted comedies in a row. While by 1985 Meryl was considered one of the best, audiences had no idea yet just what she was capable of.

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My Year With Meryl: Plenty (1985)

Has Meryl Streep ever made a boring movie? She has made the occasional lackluster drama over her thirty-five-year career, but she always manages to give even her lesser films her special spark. Ironweed, her 1987 period film with Jack Nicholson, is an example of a slow, rather uninvolving movie that still manages to entertain due to Meryl’s amazing performance. There’s One True Thing, and Music of the Heart, and Lions for Lambs, and even The Iron Lady, which despite the Oscar for Meryl is one of her most uneven films.

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But whether uneven or well constructed, whether packed to the brim with action or loaded only with scenes of people talking. Meryl’s films are almost always endlessly watchable. But… then there was Plenty. It’s not a terrible movie. The performances are fine. Meryl does what she can. But I would argue that in a career of more than fifty films, the most boring of them all would have to be Plenty.

1985 was a stellar year for Meryl. She was coming off of three back-to-back Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a row, which included a win for Sophie’s Choice, and she had not one but two films come out. One was Out of Africa, the superb Sydney Pollack historical drama co-starring Robert Redford that went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture of the year. And opening a few months before Out of Africa was the less popular but still well-reviewed historical drama Plenty.

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This is a film that was not brushed aside like her 1996 misfire Before and After, or the highly anticipated but quickly discarded 2007 disappointment Rendition. Plenty was given two thumbs up by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, it received a pair of BAFTA Award nominations, and the legendary John Gielgud was awarded two major honors, from the Los Angeles Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics, for his short but excellent supporting turn. It was essentially overshadowed that awards season, though, by Out of Africa, the same way Mud was overshadowed by Dallas Buyer’s Club in 2013. And again, while it’s well made and not completely lacking of merit, Plenty is definitely one of Meryl’s least essential films.

Directed by Fred Schepisi, who also directed Meryl in 1988’s A Cry in the Dark, and written by David Hare, who adapted his award-winning play of the same name, Plenty stars Meryl as a young Englishwoman named Susan Traherne who spends twenty years trying to make a life for herself during post-World War II England. Yes, Meryl ages twenty years throughout the movie, and yes, she does so convincingly, living different kinds of lives with different kinds of men. As the film opens, she is irreparably altered by her experience as a fighter for the French Resistance, and after the war ends, she returns to England and tries to be someone she’s not.

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The main issue with Plenty is that it rarely comes to life on the screen. At two hours in length, it at times feels longer than the three-hour Deer Hunter. It doesn’t help that Meryl plays a main character who is so rarely likable, often reduced to scenes of bickering and shouting, shooting bullets at the wall, and making out and having sex with one man after another. When she romances a man named Lazar (Sam Neill) toward the beginning, their making out feels entirely warranted. When she’s riding Sting’s penis on a couch—definitely in the top three most awkward Meryl Streep scenes ever—any good nature one might have had toward her character is tossed away for good.

The cast of Plenty is superb, and it’s sad that the material doesn’t live up to the great talent that was assembled. In supporting roles, some big and some small, Charles Dance, Tracey Ullman, John Gielgud, Sting, Ian McKellan, and Sam Neill all make appearances throughout the film’s running time. Sting is surprisingly quite good, playing one of Susan’s lovers Mick, and McKellan is so strong in a brief scene that it’s a shame his character wasn’t utilized more. It is especially interesting to see Ullman in a rare dramatic role, one that she was given to her early in her career. But again, few of these actors make much of an impression, because the characters are given so little to do.

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Meryl, in the lead, of course gets a lot to do, but even she feels a bit lost throughout the film’s running time. She has the occasional effective moment, like when she lashes out at the guests at a fancy dinner party, and when she runs away from one of her (many) lovers, only to treat the man’s injury after he breaks his nose upon slamming it against a closed door. Her British accent is stellar, as expected, and she does feel like a different woman toward the end than she did at the beginning. She took over the role from Kate Nelligan, who originated the character on the stage in London in 1978 and reprised her character in the first New York City production in 1982. Who knows what Nelligan could have done with the part in the film, but ultimately this is one of the rare dramatic lead performances Meryl has given that leaves little of an impression.

Ultimately, Plenty lacks focus, and its ending, which leaves a luminous Meryl on an English countryside taking in a gorgeous view, feels like something out of a different movie. This might have been courageous and energetic and thought-provoking viewing on the stage, but as a film, most of the scenes feel stilted, like something is missing. Plenty offers another solid Meryl performance but in a career that includes such incredibly moving dramas as Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Bridges of Madison County, the underrated Marvin’s Room, and The Hours, Plenty just doesn’t make the cut.

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My Year With Meryl: Falling in Love (1984)

The 1980s for Meryl Streep marked one triumph after another. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, Out of Africa, A Cry in the Dark. All of these films netted her Oscar nominations and created indelible impressions on audiences all over the world. But, of course, no one, not even Meryl, is perfect. Still of the Night was a lame Hitchcock ripoff, and Meryl ended the decade by appearing alongside Roseanne in She-Devil, easily one of the most inexplicable choices of her career.

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But her 1984 film Falling in Love, co-starring Robert De Niro, might be one of her more unusual choices of all, mostly because this movie, while entertaining and highly watchable, is just so damn safe. Here was the one time that Meryl and De Niro, who shared screen-time together in The Deer Hunter (and later in Marvin’s Room), and who are arguably the two finest actors of their generation, were the two leads of a movie. They had wanted to do another film together after The Deer Hunter, could have found something very special to do together—and yet they settled on this?

Up until 1984, De Niro had impressed with haunting characters in films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The King of Comedy (all directed by Martin Scorsese), as well as The Godfather Part II and Once Upon a Time in America (the long version). He had at this point won two Academy Awards and was sought after for many excellent projects. He hadn’t ever played the lead in a modern romantic movie before, so maybe that aspect intrigued De Niro, playing a faithful husband with two children who ends up, most surprising of all to him, falling for another woman.

Meryl had stretched her dramatic chops in movie after movie, and here she plays a reasonably happy wife who feels like something’s missing. Unlike most of her films up to this time, she looks and talks just like Meryl the person, with her trademark long blonde hair and normal American accident. Obviously in a movie like this it would have been odd for her to be sporting, say, red hair, and talking with a Southern twang or a Russian dialect, but because she’s so known for her ability to lose herself in a role, it’s always a bit unusual to see her in a movie looking and talking just like herself.

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Falling in Love is an odd beast, because, again, it’s such a simple movie. The screenplay by Michael Cristofer offers few surprises, and Ulu Grosbard, who directed De Niro in 1981’s True Confessions and didn’t make another movie for eleven more years, offers little flash or point of view to the proceedings. The plot goes like this: Frank and Molly (De Niro and Meryl) bump into each other in a bookstore during the busy Christmas season, then see each other again on a train three months later. They get to talking, then talking again on the next train ride, and soon they’re spending time together, first as friends, but quickly as lovers.

The movie has all the required scenes: the moment Frank realizes he’s in love with her, the moment Molly realizes she can’t be with Frank any longer, the moments both spouses (David Clennon and Jane Kaczmarek) realize what’s going on and make their confrontations. Even the ending, which takes place on a train — as expected — comes off as too convenient to be fully effective as a happily-ever-after ending.

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Despite the film’s various shortcomings, though, Grosbard assembled a cast so incredible that the film is far better than it has any right to be. One would expect a 1984 film with the blasé title Falling in Love, written and directed by men with few significant credits behind them, to star a pair of B-list 80s actors like Harry Hamlin and Pia Zadora. Or maybe Richard Benjamin and Blair Brown? Instead, we get Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, two of the finest actors who have ever lived.

But that’s not where the greatness of this cast ends: Harvey Keitel plays De Niro’s best friend, and Dianne Weist plays Meryl’s best friend! Obviously the Keitel factor is a fascinating one, since he and De Niro shared the screen in the masterpieces Mean Streets and Taxi Driver (and later in the underrated Cop Land). What are they doing here, sitting in fine restaurants and chatting about their love lives? It seems so trivial compared to what these two have accomplished on-screen together before.

And then there’s Meryl and Weist, so natural in their scenes, which mostly consists of them chatting about their love lives while walking along New York City sidewalks. Since the sight of Weist in any film, especially one made in the 80s, immediately brings to mind Woody Allen — she starred in four of his films between 1985 and 1987 — these entertaining but fleeting moments in Falling in Love feel like deleted scenes from one of Allen’s movies. One wishes that screenwriter Cristofer could have expanded on both of these friend roles more. (Also keep an eye out for a young Jesse Bradford, as Frank’s son Joe, and Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy, hilarious in a small bit as a waitress.)

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Meryl appeared in eleven films between 1981 and 1989, and was nominated for an Academy Award for six of those performances. That means that she was nominated for more movies that she appeared in during this decade than films she wasn’t nominated for. One could make a case for her being nominated for Plenty and Heartburn, but few would argue that Falling in Love is one of the few films she’s ever made that never really warranted awards attention. She is fine in this movie, breathing much more life into Molly than surely there was on the page, but this is not among her memorable performances.

There are a few great quiet moments, like when she tells Frank the exact time she’ll be on the train on Friday, and then stares out the window, slowly realizing what she’s just done. And a scene toward the end, where she finds herself stranded in front of railroad tracks, is an effective one. Mostly she succeeds here in that we don’t come to hate her. She is, after all, agreeing to spend time with Frank when she knows he is married and has two little kids at home. In the hands of another actress, Molly might have been a character we turned against, but throughout the film she is always relatable and understandable in her actions. However, there is little for Meryl to play here, especially in relation to her other movies of the time, so it’s hard to understand, besides the opportunity to act again with De Niro, what attracted her to this project.

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And yet, with all its faults, Falling in Love is immensely watchable. As embarrassing as it might be to admit, I found myself more drawn into this film than I was with The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, and Silkwood. Part of it may be that I had already seen those three films, and I had never watched this one before. Part of it may be the curiosity factor of such a simple romantic movie starring not just two but four of our great actors. Part of it may also be that this film doesn’t overstay its welcome at 105 minutes, while Sophie’s Choice and Silkwood in particular ran (arguably) too long at more than two hours. While Falling in Love will never be remembered as one of Meryl’s best movies or performances, there is an ineffable charm to the film that keeps you watching all the way to the end, the same way a good book keeps you turning the pages.

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My Year With Meryl: Silkwood (1983)

After winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep could have done anything she wanted. She could have taken a break. She could have sold out and made a summer blockbuster. So what did she do? Just two and a half weeks after she wrapped Sophie’s Choice, she started filming Silkwood, the acclaimed 1983 drama co-starring Cher and Kurt Russell. That brief hiatus between movies was probably stressful on Meryl, but she couldn’t have picked a better follow-up to Sophie’s Choice. With Silkwood, she began her close working relationship with the Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols, who would go on to direct her in Heartburn, Postcards from the Edge, and the HBO mini-series Angels in America. She also stunned in another lead performance, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress her third year in a row.

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While much of Sophie’s Choice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman featured Meryl in period roles, Silkwood allowed Meryl to stretch her muscles in a wholly modern story, one based on true events. She plays Karen Silkwood, a metallurgy worker at a plutonium processing plant. She makes plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors, where she deals with possible exposure to radiation. She doesn’t love her job but does what she have to to stay afloat. She has a steady relationship with her boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell) and loves spending time with her best friend Dolly (an almost unrecognizable Cher)—it doesn’t hurt matters that they both work at the same plant. When Karen and others become contaminated by radiation, plant officials blame her for the incident, and she begins an investigation into the various wrongdoings at the company. But before she is able to make it to a New York Times reporter with her findings, Karen dies in a mysterious car crash.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Alice Arlen and Nora Ephron (who would go on to direct Meryl twenty-five years later in Julie and Julia) is delicate in its handling of Karen’s controversial death. While the film doesn’t offer any answers, it also doesn’t glorify the death in any way or use it in a tacky manner just to create tension. Other directors might have used the car crash as a wrap-around to the central story, possibly opening the movie with the accident and then coming back to it in the end. Director Nichols and screenwriters Arlen and Ephron are much more interested in Karen’s human story, and the film plays out much more like a drama than a thriller.

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Like Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood is a two-plus-hour slow-moving picture, one that has as many moments developing the characters and their relationships as it does scenes that propel the narrative forward. Nichols is concerned with allowing the viewer to really get to know these people, and this town, all of which are on the brink of collapse. The movie is a little slow at times, and, like Sophie’s Choice, could have been cut down by twenty to thirty minutes. But the film pulls you in from the beginning and keeps you engaged because of all the superb performances. Nichols has always been a genius when it came to directing actors, and he cast Silkwood with a fantastic ensemble that include the aforementioned Russell and Cher, as well as Craig T. Nelson, Fred Ward, Diana Scarwid, Ron Silver, Josef Summer, and a young David Straithairn, who would go on to play Meryl’s estranged husband in the action adventure The River Wild.

The most significant actors in the film are the main trio—Meryl, Cher, and Russell. Up to this point, Russell was more known for his action roles in the John Carpenter cult classics Escape From New York and The Thing, and not so much for his dramatic chops. He gets few explosive moments in Silkwood, but Russell proves here that he can hold his own with someone like Meryl. Russell’s real life partner Goldie Hawn would go on to battle Meryl mano a mano in the visual effects black comedy Death Becomes Her ten years later, but Russell had an opportunity in Silkwood to play a much quieter character than he was used to, one who sticks by his girlfriend’s side, even when she’s panicking about the levels of radiation that might be eating its way through her body.

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Cher, in her second significant role on film following Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, effectively loses herself in a plain, make-up free lesbian character Dolly and proves, just like she did in 1987’s Moonstruck, she can be a commanding film actress when given the right material. She won a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for her performance, and it wasn’t just because she shed her singer image; she is a revelation in this movie, her character so effectively underplayed that she feels like a real person right from the beginning. Very few directors at the time would give Cher a chance, but Nichols, who gave the unknown Dustin Hoffman a chance on The Graduate, obviously saw something in Cher that he knew would work beautifully for this character, and it did.

From the beginning of her career, Meryl kept topping herself, year after year. The Deer Hunter, Kramer Vs. Kramer, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Sophie’s Choice—the performances just got richer and richer. While nothing she’s done since Sophie’s Choice can outdo the brilliance of her performance in that movie, Silkwood can be considered another show-stopper because Meryl really does become Karen Silkwood, and somehow, almost unfathomably, makes us forget about those memorable characters she had played before. After Sophie’s Choice, Meryl might have been pigeonholed into period roles, ones like she would go on to play in Out of Africa and Ironweed, but Silkwood showed that she could play a complex leading role set in the modern era.

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As Karen, Meryl speaks her mind, shows her emotion without abandon, and manages to make a sometimes unsympathetic character one we are always rooting for. The film offers Meryl lighter moments—her playfulness in early scenes at work, and her priceless reaction to a joke told by Fred Ward—as well as terrifying ones—each subsequent body scrub down looks to be rougher, harder. The hope she exudes when the doctors tell her the amount of radiation in her body does not exceed the maximum safety amount shows her willingness to live, and the speck of fear in her eyes when she sees the headlights behind her car as she driving to the reporter shows the growing panic that all might not end well. The film also gives Meryl a chance to sing, which is always welcome. In Silkwood, she quietly performs “Amazing Grace” while driving back home after seeing her children, and the song repeats at the end, in a haunting manner, as Karen’s fate is finally met in the tragic car accident. Some great actors don’t have great singing voices, but Meryl’s is enchanting, and rarely has it been used in a more effective way than in Silkwood.

Meryl would next go on to make two questionable film projects — the entertaining but forgettable Falling in Love and the well-acted but lackluster Plenty — but with Silkwood she capped an extraordinary five-year run of great films that started with The Deer Hunter. She had this early in her career already impressed audiences the world over with her diverse performances, her impeccable accents, her almost unhuman-like ability to lose herself in her characters. In 1984, Meryl lost the Best Actress Oscar to Shirley Maclaine for Terms of Endearment, but at this point, she had already won.

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My Year With Meryl: Sophie’s Choice (1982)

It can be argued that Meryl Streep didn’t become Meryl Streep until Sophie’s Choice. Sure, she had impressed in The Deer Hunter, Kramer Vs. Kramer, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but Meryl’s Oscar-winning performance in the acclaimed 1982 drama solidified her status as one of the best actresses of her generation. When Sylvester Stallone proclaimed her the winner of the Academy Award, he called her the “marvelous” Meryl Streep. Even in 1982, only five years into her film career, she was already a national treasure.

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Sophie’s Choice, based on the acclaimed 1979 novel by William Styron, features what still remains Meryl’s most complex and haunting film performance. She apparently got on her knees and begged director Alan J. Pakula (Klute, All the President’s Man) for the role, and it’s easy to see why. As Sophie, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who is trying to make a new life for herself in New York City, she is almost unrecognizable at times (this was her first of many movies in which she worked with her longtime make-up artist and hairstylist Roy Helland), and her Polish accent is impeccable. One of Meryl’s great gifts over the decades has been disappearing into her roles, where the audience walks into a Meryl Streep movie and at a certain point forget they’re watching Meryl up there on the screen. Some of the best examples of this phenomenon include Silkwood, The Bridges of Madison County, Doubt, and The Iron Lady, and she might never have done it better than she did in Sophie’s Choice.

Meryl is wholly convincing in her moments of sadness, joy, horror. If the movie was only Sophie in 1947 New York romancing her love Nathan (Kevin Kline) and befriending the writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol), her performance would still have been lauded. There’s a freedom and a yearning for fun the character exudes in these scenes that make for some of the most affecting moments of the movie. One that particularly stands out is a scene when Sophie criticizes the English language for having so many words that mean fast, when in other languages there is typically just one word. It’s a cleverly written scene that Meryl plays beautifully, and the whole time you forget you’re watching an American actress whose first spoken language is English, playing a Polish character who speaks multiple languages and is learning English as an adult.

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These scenes also crackle with great energy because the chemistry she has with Kline has a charged intensity, and the scenes with MacNicol offer a quieter, more intimate look at a close friendship. This was Kline’s film debut, and he more than holds his own with Meryl. An acclaimed stage actor at that time, Kline came into movies late, at age 35, and his talent shines through here as an unstable man, almost bipolar at times, who yearns to love but sometimes fails to see the good in those around him. It seems unfair that Meryl received all of the awards attention for Sophie’s Choice, when Kline’s memorable performance should have been singled out, too. MacNicol, who in his later years moved to more roles in television than in film, is also effective as the young man who moves to New York to work on his writing. He too was brand new to movies—Dragonslayer was his film debut the year before—and he brings just the right amount of tenderness and warmth to the role. Those who haven’t seen the movie in awhile might forget that, while Meryl is the star of Sophie’s Choice, the actual storyline is told from Stingo’s perspective, not Sophie’s.

Flashback scenes offer some of the most raw, emotional acting of Meryl’s film career, with a sad early moment when she begs a man to guide her toward finding poetry by a man named Dickens, only to then faint right in front of him. A later moment, when Sophie begs an officer to free her son from the concentration camps, shows the depths of the character’s vulnerability. (Additionally, take note that Meryl’s satiated physical appearance in this scene is almost identical to Violet’s look sans black wig in the recent August: Osage County.)

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And then of course there is the scene, the one everyone thinks of when they think of this movie, when Sophie must make her choice. In the documentary about the making of the film, Meryl said that she only read the scene once in the script, and never read it again. And then for the movie itself, Meryl insisted on only one take, that she couldn’t think to put herself through the unthinkable horror of this moment more than once (she was, after all, a mother by this time). Coming at the very end of the movie, the scene is so raw and heartbreaking that it overshadows almost everything that has come before it. When her daughter is snatched away from her, Sophie opens her mouth, starts trembling. Meryl said in the documentary that she the actress thought she was screaming, and didn’t find out until later that no sound came out.

Sophie’s Choice, as a film, is unfortunately more of a mixed bag. While Meryl’s performance is superb, the pacing of the narrative leaves a lot to be desired. At times the film grinds almost to a halt, and it seems likely a half-hour could have been shaved from the running time, without losing any important story elements. The structure always keeps the viewer a little off balance, but not always in a good way. The flashbacks to Sophie’s past in the concentration camp and soon after almost seem randomly selected at times, and some of the dramatic power of these moments is lost when they merely serve as a story Sophie is telling in 1947 New York to the writer. More focus on Sophie and less on Stingo would have improved the picture as a whole.

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Meryl is the main reason to see Sophie’s Choice, with her hypnotic performance keeping the film in the public lexicon for the last three decades. The film itself is not one of her very best—sadly enough some of her better performances are bogged down in movies that are not worthy of her (The Iron Lady is a recent example)—but her performance is one of the greatest any actress has given in the movies. When she’s on screen, she radiates, and showcases every aspect of her glorious talent. When she’s not on screen, the film suffers. While Meryl’s performance was acclaimed in most award shows and critic associations that year, the film itself was shut out of most other categories (although Roger Ebert did hail it as the best picture of the year).

Sophie’s Choice won Meryl the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama (her second in a row, having won the year before for The French Lieutenant’s Woman), and the Academy Award for Best Actress, her only Oscar in the leading category she would win for nearly thirty years. She fought hard for this role, and in the end, she made it count. Meryl is always great, in movie after movie, but rarely has she been as astonishingly brilliant in her long and varied film career as she was in Sophie’s Choice.

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