Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
Alan J. Pakula’s woebegone demi-classic Sophie’s Choice (1982) remains famous for a few things: Meryl Streep’s diva-explosion tour de force as a Polish Auschwitz survivor with a cataclysmic secret, and of course that secret itself, such a corrosive piece of narrative poison that the which-child-dies choice of the title instantly became a part of the American language lexicon, with dictionary entries and everything. But the movie, however salty with tears, is also a Brooklyn love song, glowing with Avett-Brothers reverence for the borough as a sanctuary, a forgiving polyglot collection basin for the world’s lost, wounded and outcast. Certainly, no other film so conscientiously indexes Hart Crane and Walt Whitman as Brooklyn’s founding poet-fathers and mythmakers, and none has ever so movingly seen it as a final American landing zone for the traumas and hauntings of WWII.
Set in the summer of 1947, Pakula’s film is nostalgia spiked with arsenic, plunging Peter MacNicol’s southern greenhorn/novelist wannabe (and autobio avatar of novelist William Styron) into Flatbush like a naive Englishman wandering through the Maghreb. “A place as strange as Brooklyn” is how Styron, and the film’s narration, put it; strange, perhaps, in its leafy peacefulness, immigrant bustle, and tension between verdant idyll and urban congestion. The plot triangulates his witness with the combustive bond between Streep’s scarred shiksa and Kevin Kline’s schizophrenic American Jew, with ample (color-desaturated) flashbacks to Poland and the camps; the ghost of the war is never far, and summons an inevitably tragic ending. Mostly, we’re talking about the Colonel Alexander Bacon House at 101 Rugby Road, a majestic 1903 Queen Anne monster that served as the characters’ “Pink Palace” boarding house, its turrets and peaked gables still exuding a sense of antique amplitude today.
The interiors, though doubtless design-authentic to a necessary degree, were sets, but Pakula’s film is otherwise brimming with Whitmanic “stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!” passages, from a picnic on the Vale of Cashmere in Prospect Park to a visit to the Central Library in Flatbush. The crowning moment belongs to the Brooklyn Bridge, where Kline’s manic lifeforce salutes his friend’s fictional prospects with champagne while scaling a lamppost under the cables’ night lights, accompanied by a helicopter-shot swoon and Marvin Hamlisch’s bruisingly mournful score.
Was Brooklyn ever really like this? Old-timers interviewed by the Times in 1982 would claim that both the film and Styron’s rhapsodic novel got it exactly right—it was a postwar moment, an exhalation, in which the neighborhoods hummed together and life, so savaged and suspended, got back to the business of being life again. Of course, the tale told in Sophie’s Choice says something else altogether: that even in Brooklyn at its most perfect, the blight of history will finish its growth and take its dead, no matter where you go.