20 Years of Streep: 1982 ("Sophie's Choice")

After discovering the cure to insomnia with 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 Oscar contention.

First on tap was Streep's much-anticipated reunion with Kramer vs. Kramer 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 (still pretty hot off All That Jazz). 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 Hitchcockian film itself lukewarm but critics argued both Scheider and Streep were woefully miscast and devoid of the faintest chemistry. Streep herself went on to label Still of the Night the worst picture of her career.

Three weeks after the Benton film barnstormed theaters with a whimper, Streep's second 1982 release 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.

The 1982 Oscar nominees for Best Lead 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 (and to date, final) 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 1982's 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 made a killing in the precursors this year, winning Best Lead 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.

Overlooked: 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, no doubt in part 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 bloated epic Gandhi, which scored eight wins on 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, they had no 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 cycle.

The contenders in Best Lead Actress were no slouch either, though it could have, frankly, been an even stronger line-up. Diane Keaton's devastating dramatic turn in Shoot the Moon is, for my money, the finest work of her entire career and the picture should've netted acting nods for Albert Finney and Dana Hill to boot. Keaton should've grabbed the slot of an actress who was richly deserving of her nomination the year following but certainly did not deserve recognition for the cornball romance that is An Officer and a Gentleman.

I adore Debra Winger, not only in her Oscar-nominated turns in Terms of Endearment and Shadowlands, but also pictures like Urban Cowboy, Betrayed and Forget Paris. Even an actress of Winger's calibur, however, could not make much out of Paula Pokrifki, an underwritten, borderline-Supporting character in a real underwhelmer of a film. The kindest thing I can say about Winger's performance is she's the most compelling part of the picture but that just isn't saying a whole lot here. Even Legal Eagles had more to offer.

Now, on to the good stuff.

Just as I have an impossible time deciding between Lange and Streep, I find myself see-sawing between Andrews and Spacek in the second tier. These are two dynamite actresses and I support their nominations, even if neither is quite the strongest part of her respective film.

Contrary to how it might sound on paper, Andrews is actually very much the straight man of Victor/Victoria. That isn't to say she isn't wonderful - this is arguably the last truly great Andrews turn on the silver screen - but she (and Garner, for what it's worth) is constantly 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 hell 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 reminds me somewhat of Susan Sarandon's from the year prior, in that both turns are terrific but just as Atlantic City was the Burt Lancaster show, Missing belongs to Lemmon.

While Andrews and Spacek turned in commendable work in 1982, this category is of course all about Lange and Streep for me, both turns among the strongest performances of any category in the decade, arguably - and if this sounds like bombastic hyperbole, it's not - of all-time. It kills me that Lange had to compete here, as I suspect she would've prevailed in virtually any other year in the 1980s, sans maybe vs. Shirley MacLaine, Geraldine Page and Jessica Tandy (for career Oscar reasons).

Since I'm head-over-heels for these two turns at roughly the same level, I'll start alphabetically with Lange, whose Frances Farmer is the most flat-out phenomenal work she's ever done and ever will do - no small feat, considering she's turned in a dozen or more brilliant performances over the past half-century.

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 Kim 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 future husband 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 damn convincing.

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 simply tedious. Alan J. Pakula directed several marvelous films in the 1970s, among them Klute and All the President's Men, but by the 1980s, his output was decidedly less-than-exemplary. Sophie's Choice, in fact, might well be the only watchable picture Pakula delivered in the decade, before making a late-career comeback in 1990s with box office successes like Presumed Innocent and The Pelican Brief.

Still, 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 of course 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 non-Supporting turn 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. Lange and Streep are both just so, so, SO fantastic. I lean ever-so-slightly toward the former for now, as there's just something about Lange's Frances that lingers with me after viewing her picture - a real gut-punch - that isn't quite there with Streep and Sophie's Choice. But who knows, I can easily see myself flip-flopping on this one in the future.

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, The Deer Hunter
  8. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  9. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  10. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  11. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  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