You can occasionally give New York a lot of credit. When a movie premieres that's as harrowing as "Sophie's Choice," the premiere audience here -- even though it's hauled in luxury buses from the theater to a huge party room, even though it is sated with gallons of red and white wine, even though its ears are pummeled by an eight-piece orchestra playing electronic rhumbas -- its memory does not evaporate.
The benefit party of "Sophie's Choice" tonight at a mirrored, futuristic high chimney of a room called The Atrium on Manhattan's East Side was subdued. Only four dancers were out on the floor, and it would have been hard to have watched any more than that after 2 1/2 hours of the screen adaptation of William Styron's novel, an adaptation whose impact left pain on the faces of a great many of the party's diners.
Director Alan Pakula, who found galleys of the book several years ago and found, after an all-night reading, he needed to make the movie, said that, despite the painful subject, "I've never loved making a movie more." He sat, his short, gray beard and crewcut flecked with sweat from the hard work of working the Amnesty International benefit that drew several hundred being given for his three-year project. "This movie meant more to me than anything I've ever done. At this point, I will only do pictures that mean something to me, and this was something about which I felt passionately. It's glorious to work on something about which you feel passionately. I think America will see 'Sophie's Choice' because it will move them, but I can't guess that any more than a politician can guess whether he will be elected."
The party was packed with a good portion of America's liberal establishment, and the sponsors read like a roster -- from Joan Baez to Arthur Schlesinger -- of idealists comfortable with a cause. During the movie itself, Styron sat impassively in the dark with his family and while the big East Side audience often wept, and more often sat quietly, took no notice, nervous or not, of their reaction.
His wife, Rose, who arranged the benefit, had introduced the picture standing before a white screen telling the guests who filled both Cinema I and its sister theater Cinema II (in a simultaneous showing) that, "I think we haven't all learned the lesson of the world of 'Sophie's Choice' yet."
Amnesty International supporters sat among big stars as an entire lineup that ranged from Carly Simon to Arthur Miller to Richard Widmark watched the huge screen images of Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol intertwine in the world of '40s New York and '30s Poland.
After the picture, when Streep entered the packed Atrium, she was met by long and hard theatrical applause. Her hair short, her mouth tight, she smiled with her introverted charisma hitting its targets of several TV cameras, and when an excited interviewer from "Good Morning America," which had exclusive rights to photograph inside the party, lunged at her behind a four-foot microphone and asked "Why did you fight so hard for this role?" Streep's tiny smile tightened her mouth into an almost indiscernable opening and she said, "because," pause. Long pause, "I," pause. Long pause, "wanted to do the movie," and she fled.
Kevin Kline, who plays Sophie's glamorous and dangerous lover Nathan, sat at a table with New York theater fans, all of whom could only seem to remember him as the Pirate King in the "Pirates of Penzance." "I loved you," said a man, grabbing Kline's wrist. "But I've got an idea for you that I personally would love to see you do." Kline shifted edgily in his chair. "Kiss Me, Kate," said the man, "you've got to do the Alfred Drake role in 'Kiss Me, Kate.' "
"I'm not sure I could do it as well as him," Kline said. "I'd better let a little time go by." Alfred Drake did "Kiss Me, Kate" on Broadway in 1949. Streep was talking to nobody, was watched by almost everybody. She sat for a little while, as long as she could take it, and then left early with a horde of other Sunday night partygoers, not ready to go mad on a business night for a complicated and literary picture. By 1:30 a.m., the tablecloths in The Atrium had been lifted and stuffed away and only Lauren Bacall was still around. Once she left, only the "Good Morning America" crew was left wrestling with the central dilemma of the evening. "Do you think we should say 'the stars came out last night for an Amnesty International premiere of "Sophie's Choice," the film adaptation of William Styron's best-selling novel about a woman who survives the horrors of Auschwitz and finds a new reason to live?' " asked the GMA reporter of her crew. "I think," said one of her co-workers, "you should take out 'the stars came out last night.' It might be in bad taste."
"Good point," said her producer.