Meryl Streep in ‘Sophie’s Choice’: A look back at her second Oscar win and the competition

This article marks Part 4 of the 21-part Gold Derby series Meryl Streep at the Oscars. Join us as we look back at Meryl Streep’s nominations, the performances that competed with her, the results of each race and the overall rankings of the contenders.

After “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” in 1981, Meryl Streep lined up two exciting projects for the following year, both lead turns and both given prime late-year release dates for Academy Awards consideration.

First on tap was Streep’s much-anticipated reunion with “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) director Robert Benton. “Still of the Night” would mark her first big screen thriller to date, pairing Streep with two-time Oscar nominee Roy Scheider. Exciting, right? Well, the Benton picture came and went that November in the blink of an eye, failing to even crack the box office top 10. Not only were reviews for the film itself lukewarm but critics argued both Scheider and Streep were woefully miscast and devoid of the faintest chemistry.

Three weeks after the Benton film barnstormed theaters with a whimper, Streep’s second 1982 release, “Sophie’s Choice,” hit the screen in New York and Los Angeles and well, to put it mildly, let’s just say this effort was a bit of an improvement.

SEE 2018 Oscar nominations: Full list of Academy Awards nominees in all 24 categories

The 1982 Oscar nominees for Best Actress were:

Julie Andrews, “Victor/Victoria”
Andrews portrays Victoria Grant, a down-and-out entertainer who is discovered in Paris by cabaret performer Toddy (the delightful, Oscar-nominated Robert Preston). Toddy has an eyebrow-raiser of an idea – what if Victoria were to put on shows as a male impersonator…who’s pretending to be a female impersonator? The desperate Victoria goes for it and proves a grand success in the City of Lights. Enter a Chicago gangster (James Garner), who finds himself curiously taken with “Victor,” and his daffy moll (Lesley Ann Warren, also Oscar-nominated) and heaps of screwball comedy ensue. Andrews won a Golden Globe for this performance, which marked her third Oscar nomination.

Jessica Lange, “Frances”
Lange portrays Frances Farmer, the brilliant, beautiful and notoriously rebellious actress whose modest stardom on the stage and screen in the 1930s was steadily derailed by substance abuse, a reputation as impossible to work with and the ultimate Mother from Hell (Kim Stanley, in a quietly terrifying, Oscar-nominated turn), who institutionalizes her daughter after a nervous breakdown. This performance, alongside “Tootsie” (in Best Supporting Actress), marked Lange’s first appearance at the Oscars.

Sissy Spacek, “Missing”
Spacek portrays Beth, wife of the American journalist Charles Horman who mysteriously disappeared in the aftermath of the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat that removed from power President Salvador Allende. Beth finds no support from the American consulate and ultimately teams up with Charles’ father Ed (Jack Lemmon, also Oscar-nominated) in the search for her husband. While Ed can’t fathom there could possibly be some sort of conspiracy or cover-up, Beth isn’t so convinced. This performance marked Spacek’s third Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, “Sophie’s Choice”
Streep portrays Sophie Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant who resides in a Brooklyn boarding house alongside her paranoid schizophrenic lover Nathan (Kevin Kline) and new tenant Stingo (Peter MacNicol), an aspiring writer. Stingo comes to learn of Sophie’s survival in a concentration camp and the devastating decision she had to make upon arrival at Auschwitz. Streep swept the precursors that year, winning Best Actress honors from the Golden Globes, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle. Her sole loss came at BAFTA, where she fell short to Julie Walters (“Educating Rita”). This performance marked Streep’s fourth Oscar nomination and second victory.

Debra Winger, “An Officer and a Gentleman”
Winger portrays Paula Pokrifki, an unhappy factory worker whose rinky-dink town offers negligible opportunities. Enter fellow lost soul/aviator-in-training Zack Mayo (Richard Gere), however, and love might just lift her up where she belongs. This performance marked Winger’s first Oscar nomination.

SEE 2018 Oscar nominations by movie: ‘The Shape of Water’ leads with 13 Academy Awards bids, but how many will it win?

Overlooked Contenders: Carol Burnett, “Annie”; Diane Keaton, “Shoot the Moon”; Jennifer Jason Leigh, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”; Shelley Long, “Night Shift”; Dolly Parton, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”; JoBeth Williams, “Poltergeist”

Won: Meryl Streep, “Sophie’s Choice”

Should’ve won: “Jessica Lange, Frances”

Talk about a Sophie’s Choice.

The 1982 ceremony stands as one of the all-time most-watched Oscar telecasts, due to the year’s two highest-grossing films – Steven Spielberg‘s “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and Sydney Pollack‘s “Tootsie” – being up for a plethora of prizes. Moviegoers rooting for those two box office smashes watched in awe that evening as the films lost one award after another to Richard Attenborough‘s epic “Gandhi,” which scored eight wins from 11 nominations.

There was scant suspense in that year’s acting categories. Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”), Streep, Louis Gossett, Jr. (“An Officer and a Gentleman”) and Lange were the overwhelming favorites in their respective line-ups. That is not to say, however, that they did not face impressive competition. Dustin Hoffman (“Tootsie”), Jack Lemmon (“Missing”), Robert Preston (“Victor/Victoria”), Teri Garr (“Tootsie”) and Kim Stanley (“Frances”) were all dead-on brilliant too and probably could’ve prevailed in another year.

The contenders in Best Actress were an even stronger line-up as evidenced by the snub of Diane Keaton for her devastating turn in “Shoot the Moon,” which was arguably the finest dramatic work of her entire career. She should have grabbed the slot of an actress who was richly deserving of her nomination the following year (for “Terms of Endearment”) but didn’t really deserving recognition for the cornball romance that is “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

Debra Winger is a sensational actress, not only in her Oscar-nominated turns in “Terms of Endearment” (1983) and “Shadowlands” (1993), but also pictures like “Urban Cowboy” (1980), “Betrayed” (1988) and “Forget Paris” (1995). Even an actress of Winger’s caliber, however, could not make much out of Paula Pokrifki, an underwritten, borderline-Supporting character in a middling film. The kindest thing to say about her performance is she’s the most interesting part of the picture… which still hasn’t saying much.

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Now, on to the good stuff.

Contrary to how it might sound on paper, Andrews is very much the straight man of “Victor/Victoria.” That isn’t to say she isn’t wonderful but she (and Garner too) is often upstaged by fellow Oscar nominees Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren, who really have the juicier, more fun roles here. Andrews is still great, a master of screwball comedy (directed here by husband Blake Edwards), and “Le Jazz Hot” is one heck of a musical number, but it just isn’t a performance in the same league as Lange or Streep.

Likewise, Spacek is in strong form in the very underrated “Missing” (the best film overall of these five) but she’s largely playing second banana to Lemmon, whose Ed Horman runs a roller coaster of emotions (whereas Spacek’s hitting the same note for most of the picture). The nomination is reminiscent of Susan Sarandon’s from the year prior for “Atlantic City” (1981), in that both turns are terrific but just as “Atlantic City” was really a Burt Lancaster showcase, “Missing” belongs to leading man Lemmon.

While Andrews and Spacek turned in commendable work in 1982, this category is all about Lange and Streep, both turns among the strongest performances of any category in the decade. It’s a shame Lange had to compete here, as she would’ve prevailed in virtually any other year in the 1980s.

Let’s start with Lange, whose portrayal of doomed film star Frances Farmer is the most phenomenal work she’s ever done – no small feat, considering she’s turned in a dozen or more brilliant performances over the past four decades.

“Frances” as a film is a bit sloppy, and may not be the most accurate biographical take on Farmer’s tragic life. What it does work superbly as, however, is a showcase for two gangbusters actresses – Lange and Stanley, who is legitimately horrifying in her first big screen appearance in more than a decade. When these two acting titans go at it, it’s about as riveting as cinema can get. Lange also has several nice scenes (and heaps of chemistry) with Sam Shepard, who portrays Farmer’s on-and-off lover Harry.

The Lange film isn’t a subtle picture by any stretch, yet she manages to completely transcend the haphazard direction and screenwriting, even in scenes that otherwise raise eyebrows. The picture’s ending, in which Frances meets up with Harry for the first time since an involuntary lobotomy turned her into something out of “The Stepford Wives,” is downright devastating because Lange makes it so convincing.

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Speaking of imperfect cinema lifted by pitch-perfect performances, “Sophie’s Choice” is also not without its issues. It’s about half an hour too long and long stretches of the picture are tedious. Alan J. Pakula directed several marvelous films in the 1970s, among them “Klute” (1971) and “All the President’s Men” (1976), but by the 1980s, his output was more spotty. “Sophie’s Choice,” while not on the same level as his best, is his strongest effort of the 1980s.

Like “Frances,” “Sophie’s Choice” remains a must-see for its performances. Peter MacNicol‘s mesmerized turn as Stingo marked a memorable breakthrough for him. Even better is Kevin Kline, oozing with charisma yet also petrifying as the violently unstable Nathan. Fine as MacNicol and Kline may be, Streep still owns the film, in one of the most harrowing turns of her career.

Streep feels less constrained here than in prior pictures. It’s her first great leading role on the big screen and at last, she has the license to tear the screen apart from start to finish without sharing the camera with a leading man. Her Polish-American accent is remarkably convincing and while the performance is a heartbreaker, she has also rarely been so glowing or charming.

Having to choose between these two extraordinary performances is truly unfair. It’s an impossible decision right on-par with, for instance, Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” vs. Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the 1962 Best Actor Oscar race. Lange and Streep are both truly extraordinary and, in a perfect world, there would’ve been a tie.

There is something, however, about Lange’s Frances that lingers so strongly after watching “Frances,” even more so than Streep’s turn as Sophie. Still, it’s one tough call.

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The performances ranked (thus far):

1. Jessica Lange, “Frances”
2. Meryl Streep, “Sophie’s Choice”
3. Maureen Stapleton, “Interiors”
4. Mariel Hemingway, “Manhattan”
5. Marsha Mason, “Only When I Laugh”
6. Diane Keaton, “Reds”
7. Meryl Streep, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
8. Meryl Streep, “The Deer Hunter”
9. Jane Alexander, “Kramer vs. Kramer”
10. Julie Andrews, “Victor/Victoria”
11. Sissy Spacek, “Missing”
12. Susan Sarandon, “Atlantic City”
13. Candice Bergen, “Starting Over”
14. Maggie Smith, “California Suite”
15. Katharine Hepburn, “On Golden Pond”
16. Debra Winger, “An Officer and a Gentleman”
17. Meryl Streep, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”
18. Dyan Cannon, “Heaven Can Wait”
19. Penelope Milford, “Coming Home”
20. Barbara Barrie, “Breaking Away”

SEE Meryl Streep in ‘The Deer Hunter’
SEE Meryl Streep in ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’
SEE Meryl Streep in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’

Be sure to make your Oscar predictions so that Hollywood insiders can see how their films and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions until just before winners are announced on March 4. And join in the fierce debate over the 2018 Oscars taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our movie forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.

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