SECRETS OF GOLEM HEIGHTS 

Is there a more highfalutin’ doom & gloomer from a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist than Sophies Choice by William Styron? (Maybe Toni Morrison’s Beloved?) Framed as remembrances of Styron’s early manhood in the Big Apple in 1947, the book is about the secrets of a pair of self-destructive golems. One is Sophie, a beautiful Catholic Pole survivor of the Nazi death camps, and the other is Nathan, a paranoid schizophrenic American Jew. Told in lofty “Walton”esque by Stingo, an aspiring Southern writer, the story feels like a black comedy: the psychological and racial twists falsely perverse, the laughs penetrating in ways Styron never intended. On the first page, Stingo recalls, “I found that the creative heat which at eighteen had nearly consumed me with its gorgeous, relentless flame had flickered out to a dim pilot light registering little more than a token glow in my breast, or wherever my hungriest aspirations once resided.” Giggling at the flourishes, hoping that as Stingo matured the gaudiness would evaporate, a few chapters later we get: “In that summer, twenty years almost to the month before the city of Newark burned down, and Negro blood flowed incarnadine in the gutters of Detroit, it was possible—if one was Dixie-born and sensitive and enlightened and aware of one’s fearsome and ungodly history—to smart beneath such a tongue-lashing, even when one knew that it partook heavily of renascent abolitionist self-righteousness, ascribing to itself moral superiority so hygienic as to provoke tolerant though mirthless amusement.” Talk about getting stuck in John Boy goo! Adapted by director Alan J. Pakula, the movie’s faithful to and, if it matters, better than the book. Way too long and darker-looking than need be, yet it’s tolerable, it has an air of sensibility, of intelligence, and there are a few fine moments, not the least of which is Sophie’s pivotal choice. Using Stryon’s mazy psycho turgidity, Pakula, while still spanking the Nazis, gives us a Christian-Judeo villain: Good becoming the very thing it hates most. As for Meryl Streep’s performance, well it’s still the most technically accomplished movie acting I’ve seen from an American actress. Sophie’s linguistic talents, accent, hesitation in speech (when translating to English whatever language she’s thinking in), her use of her body and clothes, her tears on cue—even her typing!—are executed as if a doctorate from Yale depended on them. You can’t for a second look away because you’re waiting for her to fuck up. She doesn’t; she’s as precise in her method as Vanessa Redgrave is in Arthur Miller’s “Playing for Time.” Redgrace had an advantage—playing Fania Fenelon, an Auschwitz survivor. The result is a moving portrayal, possibly more touching than the real, myopic Fenelon deserved. (Witness her bansheeism on a “60 Minutes” segment; she unwitingly exonerated the actress.) Streep had only Styron’s stinko novel to fall back on. Exacting as she is, and it’s truly amazing how perfectly ethereal she is at being hollow, Streep may have thought that the essential ingredient—getting the audience’s sympathies—was inherent in the material, that it would seep through the layered seriousness. If you like grand contrivance, then Streep earned her Oscar. But if you want to feel her achievement, you’ll have to pinch yourself.

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