Streep's performance was acclaimed, and she received the Academy Award for Best Actress. The film was nominated for Best Cinematography (Néstor Almendros), Costume Design (Albert Wolsky), Best Music (Marvin Hamlisch), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Alan J. Pakula).
British company ITC Entertainment produced the film, and Universal Pictures distributed and released it.
In 1947, Stingo relocates to Brooklyn in order to write a novel and is befriended by Sophie Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant, and her emotionally unstable lover, Nathan Landau.
One evening, Stingo learns from Sophie that she was married but her husband and her father were killed in a German work camp and that she was interned in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Nathan is constantly jealous, and when he is in one of his violent mood swings he convinces himself that Sophie is unfaithful to him and he abuses and harasses her. There is a flashback showing Nathan with Sophie who is near death due to anemia shortly after her immigration to the U.S.
Sophie eventually reveals that her father was a Nazi sympathizer. Sophie's wartime lover, Józef, who lived with his half-sister, Wanda, was a leader in the Resistance. Wanda tried to convince Sophie to translate some stolen Gestapo documents, but Sophie declined, fearing she might endanger her children. Two weeks later, Józef was murdered by the Gestapo, and Sophie was arrested and sent to Auschwitz with her children.
Nathan tells Sophie and Stingo that the research he is doing at a pharmaceutical company is so groundbreaking that he will win the Nobel Prize. At a meeting with Nathan's physician brother, Stingo learns that Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic and that all of the schools that Nathan had attended were "expensive funny farms." He has a job in the library of a pharmaceutical firm, which his brother got for him, and only occasionally assists with research.
After Nathan discharges a firearm over the telephone in a violent rage, Sophie and Stingo flee to a hotel. She reveals to him that, upon arrival at Auschwitz, she was forced to choose which one of her two children would be gassed and which would proceed to the labor camp. To avoid having both children killed, she chose her son, Jan, to be sent to the children's camp, and her daughter, Eva, to be sent to her death.
Sophie and Stingo make love, but while Stingo is sleeping Sophie returns to Nathan. Sophie and Nathan commit suicide by taking cyanide. Stingo recites the poem "Ample Make This Bed" by Emily Dickinson—the American poet that Sophie was fond of reading.
Stingo moves to a small farm his father recently inherited in southern Virginia to finish writing his novel.
Styron wrote the novel with Ursula Andress in mind for the part of Sophie, and Slovak actress Magdaléna Vášáryová was also considered. Streep was very determined to get the role. After obtaining a bootlegged copy of the script, she went after Pakula and threw herself on the ground, begging him to give her the part. Pakula’s first choice was Liv Ullmann for her ability to project the foreignness that would add to her appeal in the eyes of an impressionable, romantic Southerner.
The film was mostly shot in New York City, with Sophie's flashback scenes shot afterwards in Yugoslavia. Production for the film at times was more like a theatrical set than a film set. Pakula allowed the cast to rehearse for three weeks and was open to improvisation from the actors, "spontaneous things" according to Streep. Streep had to lose a lot of weight to film the scenes in Yugoslavia at the concentration camp.
Sophie's Choice received positive reviews. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, it currently holds a 79% rating based on 28 reviews. On Metacritic, the film has a 68 out of 100 rating based on 9 critics, signifying "generally favorable reviews".
The film won the Academy Award for Best Actress (Streep) and was nominated for Best Cinematography (Almendros), Costume Design (Wolsky), Best Music (Hamlisch), and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Pakula). Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen wrote, "Pakula's literal adaptation of Styron's Sophie's Choice is an admirable, if reverential, movie that crams this triangle into a 2-1/2 hour character study enriched by Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, and nearly destroyed by Peter MacNicol."
Streep's characterization was voted the third greatest movie performance of all time by Premiere Magazine. The film was also ranked number one in Roger Ebert's Top Ten List for 1982 and was listed on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition).
Awards and nominations
Academy AwardsBest Actress – Meryl Streep (won)
Best Cinematography – Nestor Almendros (nominated)
Best Costume Design – Albert Wolsky (nominated)
Best Original Score – Marvin Hamlisch (nominated)
Best Screenplay: Adapted – Pakula (nominated)
BAFTA AwardsBest Actress – Streep (nominated)
Most Outstanding Newcomer to Film – Kevin Kline (nominated)
Golden Globe AwardsBest Actress: Drama – Streep (won)
Best Film: Drama (nominated)
New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture: Male – Kline (nominated)
Writers Guild of AmericaBest Drama Adapted from Another Medium – Pakula (nominated)