Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sophie’s Choice: The greatest performance ever by an actress?

Sophie's Choice movie poster (1982)

If one were to take a poll of “Who do you consider the greatest actress alive?” most respondents would likely choose Meryl Streep. In the same vein, if there is one female acting performance that is generally thought of as the best (or the greatest) of all time, it’s Streep’s performance in the 1982 movie Sophie’s Choice. The role itself is one of Streep’s best-known roles, and I’m sure most people who’ve seen the movie would say that Streep’s performance definitely ranks as one of the best ever by any actor or actress. Streep, being the queen of mastering foreign accents, takes on a Polish accent in this movie. She plays a Holocaust survivor from Poland who lives in a boarding house in Brooklyn, New York with an unstable, abusive boyfriend named Nathan (played by Kevin Kline). The couple befriends a new boarder at the house -- a novelist who’s known as Stingo (played by Peter MacNicol) who hails from the South.

Sophie's Choice houseStreep, Sophie's Choice
Kline, Streep, MacNicol, Sophie's ChoiceKline, Streep, MacNicol, Sophie's Choice

The movie, which takes place two years after the end of World War II, mainly focuses on the friendship of the trio as they go about their day-to-day lives in the boarding house and elsewhere. Sophie had been an inmate of the Auschwitz concentration camp during the war, and while there, she was chosen to work as a secretary for the camp’s Nazi commandant, due to her fluency in German. Once in the United States, and suffering from anemia, she was taken in and looked after by Nathan who works for a pharmaceutical company. As Stingo gets to know this couple better, he comes to discover that there’s more than meets the eye with them. Not only does Sophie have some skeletons in the closet, but it just so happens that Nathan harbors a shocking secret of his own.


The movie itself can be described as lukewarm at best. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, and having a runtime of 2 hours and 30 minutes, it's slow-paced and overlong for its subject matter (it’s primarily a story of friendship). Also, there aren't many scenes showing Sophie’s past, which is somewhat ironic, considering that the title of the movie refers to a choice she made during the war. The actual scene involving the revelation of Sophie’s “choice” is, for the most part, underwhelming.

Meryl Streep, Sophie's ChoiceMeryl Streep, Sophie's Choice

Nonetheless, Streep delivers a spellbinding performance, and she speaks three languages in the movie: English, Polish, and German -- rumor has it that she actually spoke German with a Polish accent. One particular scene, in which she delivers a lengthy monologue, is the best scene of the movie.

This performance remains Streep’s greatest performance ever, and nothing that she's done since has surpassed the caliber of it. Her performance in 1985’s Out of Africa is perhaps the only one that comes close. Streep rightfully won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Sophie’s Choice, and it’s bewildering that despite her multiple Oscar nominations since then, the Academy did not give her another Best Actress award until this year (for The Iron Lady, nearly 30 years after her win for Sophie‘s Choice).

When it comes to determining what’s the best performance ever given by an actor or actress, it’s all subjective. I’ve seen lots of films from several decades. To me, Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice is, without question, the best performance by any actress during the decade of the 80s. But the best performance ever? Sorry, Meryl, but that is an honor I can only reserve for someone else. As far as I’m concerned, THIS is the greatest female acting performance of all time:

And if you're wondering, the actress is Vanessa Redgrave, and the movie is Isadora (from 1968).

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