Howard Fine on the cast of 'Sophie's Choice'

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Photo Source: Universal Pictures/Photofest
Let us examine the work of the actors in my favorite film, "Sophie's Choice," in terms of what makes the performances great and the skills that they needed to bring to the table from the get-go. What did Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Peter MacNicol need to have accomplished prior to the start of filming? Acting is a comprehensive art form, and it requires that actors be good at so many things. Some enter the acting profession as a default because they weren't good in school and failed to develop themselves in essential ways. They even lack a curiosity to acquire knowledge. In other words, they don't know what they don't know. Imagine going to an interview in the business world and answering the following questions in the negative. Are you organized? No. Are you a natural leader? No. Are you good with facts and figures? No. Now look at these questions in terms of a career as an actor. Are you well read? No. Are you emotionally available? No. Do you love to communicate through language? No. Pretty funny, and yet so many choose to pursue a profession without proper preparation. Many are concerned with marketing strategies for a product (You) that isn't very good.

What can we learn from the cast of "Sophie's Choice"? Nonactors could never handle this work. Streep, Kline, and MacNicol all had to be adept at handling language and poetry. Kline and MacNicol read passages from Emily Dickinson. We have to believe that all three of them are well read and have sharp intellectual capacities. Streep has to master German, Polish, French, and a Polish-American accent. She does this flawlessly. She is able to keep her full personality alive in each of the foreign-language sequences, which means that she wasn't listening to herself or self-conscious about tackling them. Kline has to master the medical condition of paranoid schizophrenia. We have to believe that MacNicol is an innocent who is new to the big city and yet has the mind and soul of a writer. The movie consists of real and extended scene work. No car chases or special effects. This demands a concentration skill that only actors who have done theater can attain. No attention deficit disorder (which is epidemic among young actors) here.

In terms of pure acting technique, the work here soars. One of the biggest traps with this type of subject matter is the tendency to play mood or to sit in the feelings. This would make the movie unwatchable. Instead, the actors are constantly making the story about life rather than death. Take the scene in the library when Sophie collapses and Nathan is trying to take care of her. She has the line "I think I am going to die," and rather than playing a victim and giving up, Streep evidences the opposite, which is a will to live. She consistently makes this correct acting choice. Her Sophie is infused with such a life force, that we feel unspeakable loss when she dies. To die in the middle of dying is sad; to die in the middle of living is a tragedy. Kline's Nathan is so utterly charming and passionate that we can see why Sophie and MacNicol's Stingo put up with his darker moods. The scene on the bridge in which Nathan toasts to Stingo's writing rises to the heavens. How could any of us avoid falling in love with him? MacNicol connects with the shy awkwardness and sexual longing of Stingo beautifully. When he first expresses his feelings to Sophie, he makes us feel every bit of his angst. Notice in every scene how the actors move through their emotions. Every time Sophie talks about her past she manages a smile, even when discussing the most painful parts of her memories. The scene in the concentration camp when Sophie has to make her "choice" is genius. Notice how Streep at first cannot comprehend what the Nazi officer is asking her to do. She is trying to process his outrageous demand. She doesn't know what to make of it, and then it sinks in and the full horror hits her. Actors, please know that she had the craft to do take after take of this, and each time as if for the first time.

I am inspired every time I watch "Sophie's Choice." It reminds me of what I love most about our profession. It demonstrates the intellectual, emotional, verbal, and physical talent of three exceptional actors along with great direction, supporting cast, music, costumes, sets, etc.

Howard Fine is an acting coach and author of "Fine on Acting, A Vision of the Craft." He has coached and taught such actors as Brad Pitt, Justin Timberlake, Michelle Williams, Kerry Washington, Bradley Cooper, Gerard Butler, Salma Hayek, Lindsay Lohan, and Carla Gugino, among numerous others. He is artistic director of the Howard Fine Acting Studio, located in the heart of Hollywood.