Leah and I attended a sold-out event at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend, a sing-along version of the 1982 film “Sophie’s Choice.” Similar to the Bowl’s annual “Sound of Music” event, there were 18,000 die-hard fans repeating the film’s most memorable lines along with the actors on screen and singing along with Kevin Kline’s Nathan Landau during his musical moments. I saw hundreds of women and Drag Queens dressed as Meryl Streep’s Sophie Zawistoska at many different stages in her life, from her pre-war scenes in Poland, her internment in Auschwitz, and her life in 1947 Brooklyn. There were also a fair amount of Stingos, the young Southern character (based on author William Styron) who came to New York to become a writer and ended up falling in love with the mysterious Sophie. Many of the Stingos were dressed in his seersucker suit (which immigrant Sophie famously called his “cocksucker suit”).
Actor Peter MacNicol, who played Stingo, hosted the pre-show. He read emails he received from Streep and Kline welcoming everyone to the event, and he introduced other actors from the film to help him judge the costume contest. Greta Turken who played the bawdy Leslie Lapidus was there. Leslie was the object of Stingo’s unbridled lust until he realized that she was “only in the verbalization stage of her analysis.” In other words, as the narrator of the film pointed out, “Leslie Lapidus could say ‘fuck,’ but she could not do it.” MacNicol also brought Josh Mostel to the stage, Zero’s son, who played another resident of the Brooklyn “Pink Palace” where Sophie and Stingo rented rooms. Melanie Pianka, who played little Emmi Hoess in the flashback scenes was also present. Now a grown woman, Melanie talked about how she knew no English at the time but was convinced that Meryl Streep was German, that’s how good her language skills were (the actress knew no German or Polish before she was cast in this film). Pianka loved working with Streep, but admitted that she was slightly fearful of the actor who played her father Rudolph Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, and the only real-life historical figure depicted in the film.
Here are a few of the people who entered the costume contest. The crowd was not crazy about the woman on the left who wore Nazi-inspired haute couture, and some older patrons around me gasped at the man on the bottom right who came to the Bowl in an actual concentration camp uniform that belonged to his great-grandfather. The couple on the top right won the contest with their dead-on impersonations of tragic lovers, Nathan and Sophie.
During the screening, people pulled out props they brought from home such as bottles of red wine during the scene when Sophie takes her first sip and says to Nathan:
Mmm. You know, when you...when you live a good life...like a saint...and then you die, that must be what they make you to drink in paradise.
That line was repeated word for word by the entire crowd in Streep’s perfect Polish accent. We received goodie bags as we entered the Bowl and held up various items during certain scenes—the label from a can of Spam which we all flung in the air when Stingo knocked down a stack of them in the Brooklyn boarding house, Nazi armbands and Jewish stars which we waved during Sophie’s flashback scenes, and a Brooklyn Bridge button that we held high whenever the camera panned that famous landmark, including when Nathan first read Stingo’s manuscript and climbed up on the bridge to toast him with the following words:
On this bridge on which so many great Americans writers stood and reached out for words to give America its voice...looking toward the land that gave them Whitman…on this span of which Thomas Wolfe and Hart Crane wrote, we welcome Stingo into that pantheon of the Gods...whose words are all we know of immortality. TO STINGO!
Okay…should I stop before I really start offending readers who may believe that this event actually happened? Truth be told, Leah and I DID attend a sing-along at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend with 18,000 other rabid movie fans, but it was for the musical “Grease.” With more and more old films getting new life as community sing-alongs, I found myself saying as we trickled out of the Bowl, “Oy, what’s next…Sophie’s Choice?” and I couldn’t stop myself from ruminating about this fantasy event. My initial thoughts were far more macabre than I dared put in print (especially with some of the bona fide neo-Nazis who regularly troll my site) but thank you for indulging me anyway!
Incidentally, the last film I’d ever want to make fun of is “Sophie’s Choice.” In my opinion, the Alan J. Pakula film deserved all the accolades it received at the time. I saw it on opening day at the Carnegie Theatre in Chicago and I was floored. I think that Meryl Streep’s luminous and heart-wrenching portrayal of Sophie is one of the best performances ever put on film. I remember watching the Oscars in 1983 and preparing to storm the Academy if Streep didn’t win the award for Best Actress. But she did. Years later, when Streep was on “Oprah,” they screened the horrific “choice” scene which takes place at the gates of Auschwitz in the middle of the night. Streep still couldn’t watch it. The scene was so upsetting to her that she uncharacteristically told Pakula that she’d only do one take. He agreed, and that's what we see. I also heard the little girl who played her daughter speak later about how she didn’t really understand what was happening in that scene but how she was utterly terrified when the man playing the Nazi guard ripped her out of Streep’s arms and carried her away. Those were real screams on the part of both the little girl and Meryl Streep.
“Grease” was very fun. The pre-show was hosted by Didi Conn who played Frenchy in the film and she brought out many of her co-stars to help judge the costume contest which was populated by the usual mix of Drag Queens and toddlers dressed as the characters from the film. It’s hard to believe that Conn is almost 60 since she still looks and sounds as cute and youthful as she did in the film. Not that any of the actors were of high school age when they made the musical. Stockard Channing, who played Rizzo, was well into her 30s. Olivia Newton-John was in her late 20s and even John Travolta, who looks impossibly young, was 23 when the film was shot.
Of course the film is very different from the original play, which premiered at the Kingston Mines Theatre in Chicago in 1971 and was a much tougher look at the working-class kids of the 1950s. The original story was based on Jim Jacobs’ own experience at Taft High School in Chicago. The recent revivals of the play have included songs from the film and are very frothy confections, but next year, the original Kingston Mines production is going to be revived in Chicago for the 40th anniversary. Now that I'd like to see.
Conn and the other cast members walked us through our goodie bags and instructed us what to do during various scenes. I refused to “boo” goody-two-shoes Patty Symcox or trampy Cha Cha DiGrigorio as we were were told to do because I didn’t feel either character deserved the mob attack (I’m usually the only one at the “Sound of Music” sing-alongs who refuses to “boo” Baronness von Schrader). I love the gimmick the film used of casting a bunch of stars from the 1950s in the adult roles. What a treat to see people like Eve Arden, Sid Caesar, Joan Blondell, Edd Byrnes, Alice Ghostley, and Frankie Avalon again. Fannie Flagg played Rydell High's nurse, and Leah and I had to laugh because as we were watching her on the screen, Kendall and her mom were having dinner with her in Santa Barbara.
I’m tempted to end this post with an offensive Grease/Sophie’s Choice mash-up but instead I’ll tempt you with the trailer from the better film:
As Nathan said to Sophie just before the traumatic ending to the film:
I got chills...they're multiplyin'. And I'm losing control. 'Cause the power you're supplyin'...it's ELECTRIFYING!