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AFI 100: Sophie's Choice

Yesterday was Superbowl Sunday, so Pa Baldwin and I spent the afternoon as so many fathers and sons do around the nation: gathered in front of the big screen TV, drinking beer, and thrilling to the emotional rollercoaster that is Sophie's Choice.

All I really knew about the motion picture ahead of time was The Scene; from that I extrapolated that the whole film was set during the Holocaust. I was therefore confused when the film opened in 1947, with the eponymous Sophie safe and childless. Okay, thought I, it's a framing device: we'll get 10 minutes of this, an hour and a half of the main narrative, and then a brief epilogue. Wrong again, chief. The bulk of the film is a John Irvingesque relationship drama with genuinely funny moments, thanks to the comic styling of Kevin Kline (in his first movie!) and an extended sequence involving a reformed prude that can only be described as hilarious (an adjective I was pretty sure would not appear in this review). All this was good but not great. Without The Scene, I'm confident that Sophie's Choice would have long since been forgotten.

And, I must admit, the punch-in-the-gut impact of The Scene was somewhat muted by my (a) foreknowledge of the event it depicts, (b) familiarity with Streep's acting prowess, and (c) having previously endured Schindler's List, The Pianist, Into the Arms of Strangers, and probably a few more, the memories of which I have suppressed. Not enough to keep me from tearing up, but I didn't end the evening rocking in the corner, either. Definitely a haunter, though: The Scene has popped into my head half a dozen times since last night, and I keep watching the clip on Youtube*, seemingly against my will.

I'm finding it hard to assign a rating to Sophie's Choice, mostly because it was so unlike what I had expected. I think I'd need to watch it again to really form an opinion--maybe Pa Baldwin and I will do that on Father's Day. For now, 7.5/10.

Next up in the AFI 100 Project: Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

* A warning to those who have never seen Sophie's Choise: watching this will not "ruin" the move, but, as I have said, will undoubtedly lessens its impact to some degree. If you ever expect to watch the film in its entirely, I'd strongly recommend foregoing the clip.

Posted on February 05, 2008 to AFI 100


I hadn't seen the scene and just wikipedia'd it. Did I ruin the movie for myself?

Posted by: Jeremy on February 5, 2008 9:38 AM

You will love Bridge on the River Kwai. It somehow makes living in a Japanese POW camp hilarious, a feat I did not believe was possible until I saw the movie. The last part is absolutely riveting, as well.

Posted by: morgan on February 5, 2008 10:06 AM

Wow! I watched the clip on youtube because I've never seen the movie and I can't believe it. As the parent of a little girl I can't imagine having to make that choice. That scene is extremely powerful and I have to say that it shook me up.

Posted by: levyweasel on February 5, 2008 10:47 AM

I'm glad to hear that Sophie's Choice isn't all doom and gloom for the whole movie, as we'll be watching that soon. My husband and I were inspired by your efforts to trudge through those on the list that we hadn't collectively seen (45 of them). I wish I'd gone to film school so that I could better understand why some of these films are considered top 100 material. So far we've watched The French Connection, Raging Bull, Sunset Blvd., Bringing Up Baby, Network, The Philadelphia Story, The Godfather, and The Godfather II, and The Graduate. I will say that the acting in all of them has been outstanding, and there have been some really effective narrative devices and cinematography. But man, top 100? The Godfather and The Graduate were great - I get them being on the list. As for the rest, I guess maybe they seem tired and cliched because they were the films that everyone copyed to the point of cliche. I don't know. I'll have to talk to a film school graduate.

Posted by: janet on February 5, 2008 11:58 AM

I saw Sophie's Choice when it was new at the pichurshow and even after all these years, I still think about that 'scene'.

Becare about the Bridge Over the River Kwai...that song will stick in your head for the rest of your life. Yankee Doodle Dandy...read up about the ready George M. Cohan before you watch it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_M._Cohan

Posted by: Karan on February 5, 2008 2:42 PM

Your AFI project might just inspire me to do the same thing. My one bit of reluctance is films like Sophie's Choice - as I say, "my body started to betray me" several years ago, which means that my roommate often comes home to find me sobbing while watching something completely innocuous such as "Father of the Bride" (SHAME). I can't imagine what a mess I'd be at films like this.

Posted by: lengli on February 5, 2008 2:45 PM

Oh, man, "Yankee Doodle Dandy." A personal favorite. Try to keep in mind, when you're watching it, that although Cagney--to his dying day--thought of himself as a hoofer, not an actor, audiences had almost only seen him as a tough guy, a wise guy, or a gangster. He had danced in "Something to Sing About" five years earlier, but that was a small independent film that probably didn't get much play (he was in the middle of a contract dispute, and was not making studio films at the time). So, for the most part, people were seeing Cagney in a whole new way.

But, frankly, I think that even without that knowledge, Cagney's performance in YDD is pure pleasure. You may or may not know that there was a recent blogathon over what actors did or didn't deserve their best actor Oscars. The convening blogger read all the responses, thought it over, and when he compiled his list of the twenty most deserving Best Actor awards, Cagney's Cohan made the Top 10: http://eddieonfilm.blogspot.com/2008/02/best-best-actors.html

A fun fact: in the movie "Serenity," when the crew are in the Maidenhead bar with the twins, Captain Mal looks around and observes, "A fine bunch of reubens." This, I have to believe, knowing Joss Whedon's love of both film and musical theatre, is a direct steal from a line in the Cohan song "Only 45 Minutes from Broadway." No one I know who has seen the film has picked up on this other than me, so I have to believe that the Venn diagram that depicts the mutual set members of the "Space Westerns" and "American Musical Theatre" sets pretty much just has Joss and me in it.

Enjoy. I look forward to hearing your reactions.

Posted by: Karen on February 5, 2008 2:46 PM

The Bridge on the River Kwai is just a good movie. I joined Netflix recently and started picking up a bunch of classic films that I have heard a lot about but never seen. I usually don't like older films, but I can see now why these are classics. They're just good films.

Posted by: NSMike on February 5, 2008 3:16 PM

I love/hate Sophie's Choice. I've never liked the later story when she's living in the boarding house. I was really into the war story bit and impatiently read the other chapters (read it first but the movie's got the same problem for me) til I could get back to what I thought of as the "real" story. I suppose if you like the whole thing it works, but since I don't I've always felt like the "other" story got too much time.

Your AFI challenge inspired me to do the same thing, and Bridge on the River Kwai is up next for me, too! Cool. :)

Posted by: Erin on February 5, 2008 4:30 PM

I have to agree with Morgan. Bridge on the River Kwai, like Sophie's Choice, is a movie everyone's got on their "must watch" list but they don't know it's not just about the one or two famous pivotal scenes. There's a lot of humor in both movies, and it transcends the human tragedy of the characters' situations. I hope you like it.

Posted by: Rebecca on February 5, 2008 4:35 PM

Oh for God's sake.....


Cant believe you've never seen it.
Please watch it soon.

Posted by: susan on February 5, 2008 7:42 PM

The Scene took me by surprise as well. I watched Sophie's Choice after Schindler's List, so I was shocked when the Holocaust was seen in full color. It does seem that Kevin Kline plays the same role as in A Fish Called Wanda.

Posted by: The Lumberjack on February 5, 2008 7:50 PM

King Rat.

That Tom Courtenay is a real worry.

Posted by: david tiley on February 6, 2008 5:04 AM

Thanks, Karan, for mentioning the Bridge on the River Kwai song. Now I have it whistling in my head. Called "The Colonel Bogey March," they whistle the song in the movie as the words were too offensive for the day:

"Hitler has only got one ball
Goering's are awfully small
Himmler's are similar
And Gobels has no balls at all"

Posted by: T Grum on February 6, 2008 5:24 AM

Bridge over the River Kwai is one of my favorites. I had to watch it in a college class.

Loved it.

Posted by: J. Matt on February 6, 2008 7:02 AM

So...this is a horrible thing to admit, but up until this moment I had 'Sophie's Choice' confused with 'Sophie's World,' which I had been forced to slog through in high school...and I had been very confused as to why a good movie was supposed to have been made out of a book with such a thin plot. That movie being on the list makes a great deal more sense now.

Posted by: Bryna on February 6, 2008 9:53 AM

damn. i went to the youtube link to check out The Scene and it had already been removed. i have NO idea what scene youre talking about [ive never seen the movie] but now im DYING to see it.

Posted by: jkg on February 6, 2008 12:55 PM

You missed a good football game.

Posted by: Anon on February 6, 2008 1:19 PM

To anon: Never fear--Matthew and I both saw the football game, but not together. What a wild experience to move from a fun, exhilarating Super Bowl to such a sobering movie.

Posted by: Pa Baldwin on February 7, 2008 6:59 PM

The movie would appear a fair bit more effective than the book, in that she actually looks like she gave a sh*t about giving up her daughter in the movie.

If you haven't read the book, I can't say I reccommend it, although I'd like another person's opinion on it. It's not what I expected from hearing about the movie.

Posted by: wookie on February 11, 2008 10:35 AM