Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Look Back at the 1992 Oscars: 20 Years Later

Last time, we revisited 2002, and this time it’s 1992’s turn. Same rules apply – I rank Picture, Director and all four Acting categories from best to worst, and add in an overlooked film/director/actor for each one (limit of one mention per film there). Note, unlike 2002, I have not seen all the nominated performances from 1992 – so I cannot readily analyze them, so I don’t rank them and highlight them by putting them in italics – but I’ll offer a few thoughts (mainly excuses for not seeing them). Enjoy.

Best Picture
1.    Unforgiven (Winner)
One of the few years the Academy got it right. Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven was the best film of the year, and simultaneously redefined and pretty much killed the Western genre. After Unforgiven, there was pretty much nothing left to say – the move towards darker Western, started some 40 years before, was complete. Yes, there have been some fine Westerns since (Tombstone, Open Range, 3:10 to Yuma, The Applaloosa), and even some masterworks (The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but Eastwood pretty much issued the last statement the genre had to make – and did so brilliantly.

2.    The Crying Game
By the time I saw The Crying Game – a few years after it was released (give me a freaking break, I was 11 when it came out), the “secret” of the film was well known to everyone, including myself. And yet, knowing the twist did not dim the impact of this fascinating IRA thriller, with more depth to it that most. Jordan’s screenplay and direction are masterful, the performance by Steven Rea excellent, and everything else in the movie quite simply works. In short, The Crying Game is much more than just a twist.

3.    Howards End 
Howard’s End is not my favorite Merchant-Ivory film – that is 1993’s The Remains of the Day – but it’s a close second. This is a film about the difference between the classes – how the upper class gets away with things they would never let the lower classes do. It contains some great performances – Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave and Helena Bonham Carter chief among them – and is the type of film that gives this kind of period piece a good name.

4.    A Few Good Men
I have to admit it – other than Unforgiven, I’ve seen A Few Good Men more times than any other movie nominated this year. Which is odd because other than the first time I watched it, I have never once sat down with the intention of watching it. But the damn thing comes on TV all the time, and just like The American President (another Rob Reiner-Aaron Sorkin collaboration), I cannot help myself from stopping whenever I see it on TV. The film is far from a great film – it is clichéd in the extreme – but it has so much great dialogue, and a few excellent performances, and I cannot help being swept up in it every time. Perhaps a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

5.    Scent of a Woman
Sorry, I just do not understand the appeal of this movie. Sure, I get why the Academy felt the need to correct a decades long injustice of Al Pacino NOT having an Oscar, but why the hell did they have to go so overboard with love of the film itself? Because other than Pacino’s wildly enteraining, but completely over the top and unbelievable performance, there really is not a lot else here. This plays on TV a lot as well, and yet unlike A Few Good Men, I can never make it past a few minutes without an overwhelming urge to change the channel.

Overlooked: Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is one of the great screen biopics of all time – easily better than anything nominated other than Unforgiven. It has all the ingredients that usually spell Oscar nominations – a real life subject, an epic scope, great performances, meticulous attention to detail, a tragic ending, and yet for whatever reason, the Academy didn’t bite. I’d hate to think it was racism, but I do think that the mainly white Academy just didn’t have enough appreciation for this important historical figure. Nothing else makes sense.

Best Director

1.    Unforgiven  - Clint Eastwood (Winner)
Eastwood certainly had his supporter before Unforgiven, but this really was the film that kickstarted his now 2 decade long stint as one of the most acclaimed American directors working. This feels like a film that Eastwood felt he had to make, and the result is what I still think is his best film ever. Eastwood has never been the most daring director- his decisions are usually down the middle – but in a film like Unforgiven, that’s a good thing, not a bad one. A very deserving winner.

2.    The Player - Robert Altman 
Altman’s name certainly ranks up there with the likes of Kubrick and Hitchcock among the best directors to work primarily in America never to win an competitive Oscar. Sure, they gave him a lifetime achievement award a few years before his death (and it was richly deserved), but it’s a shame the Academy never honored him with a Best Director Oscar for his masterworks like MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, Three Women (my personal favorite), Secret Honor, Short Cuts, Gosford Park, or this film, The Player. Ironically, Altman was pretty much blacklisted from Hollywood throughout the 1980s, and saw The Player as his personal fuck you to Hollywood – and it ended up being the film that got him back in their good graces. The Player is one of the best Hollywood comedies of all time – and a great achievement for Altman.

3.    The Crying Game - Neil Jordan 
I mentioned that I think this film is much more than the twist – which is what everyone talks about – and I think that is very true. One of the great things about Jordan’s direction however, is how he manages to keep that secret in the film’s first half – and how he reveals it. It is one thing to write a twist like that, and another to keep it a secret during the movie itself, which Jordan carries off wonderfully well.

4.    Howard’s End  - James Ivory
James Ivory has never been the flasiest of directors – he prefers to set the scene, and let the actors dig into their dialogue written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. But his direction is subtle and effective in a film like Howard’s End – it may not draw attention to itself, but that doesn’t diminish just how good it is.

5.    Scent of a Woman  - Martin Brest
I cannot understand why the director’s followed suit along with the rest of the Academy and gave Martin Brest an Oscar nomination. A movie like Scent of a Woman is the kind of film that often gets into the Oscar race – but that the director’s have the good sense to nominate something else in its place. I guess we should feel lucky that they did recognize Altman’s brilliance, but I would look much more kindly had they nominated Rob Reiner for A Few Good Men instead of Brest, who has only made two films since – one of them being the god-awful Gigli.

Overlooked: Carl Franklin may not have had the career he wanted, but his debut film One False Move is a masterful crime drama. A great neo-noir about a trio of fugitives on the run from L.A. after some drug related murders, who end up in small town Arkansas – where they find a Sheriff with delusions of grandeur (Bill Paxton) and two LA cops waiting for them. The movie sounds like a typical crime movie, but is anything but – as it twists and turns along the way. Franklin’s direction is excellent throughout. He has not made a film as good since (his follow-up Devil in a Blue Dress comes closest), and mainly works in TV now, but for his first film, he hit a home run – and deserved a nomination.

Best Actor

1.    Malcolm X  - Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington has any number of great performances on his resume – not least of which is his nominated turn from Flight up this year – but no matter how great he is in everything else, he will never top his performance in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. It is a masterful performance taking the famed Nation of Islam leader from his days as a low level criminal, to his gradual religious awakening, to his time as the spokesperson of the Nation of Islam, and another awakening as he splits with the group. Washington nails the vocal inflections of Malcom X, but this performance goes well beyond impersonation into something altogether deeper – he makes this man human, and that’s tricky in biopics. This is perhaps the best lead actor performance of the entire 1990s – and should have won this award in a cakewalk.

2.    Unforgiven  - Clint Eastwood
Eastwood reportedly sat on the script for Unforgiven for a number of years until he felt he was old enough to play William Munny – a role he felt he had to play. And the decision paid off, because it is the best work Eastwood has ever done in front of the camera. His Munny is the de facto “hero” of Unforgiven, but Eastwood sees him with his eyes wide open – Munny is no hero, he’s not even better than the “bad” guys he kills. A great Eastwood performance.

3.    Chaplin  - Robert Downey Jr.
I don’t think that Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin is a great movie – I barely think it is a good movie – yet I do think that Robert Downey Jr’s performance in the title role is brilliant. Downey looks enough like Chaplin to pass for him, and is an extremely gifted physical comedian, so he can convincingly play the Chaplin from the movies we all know and love. But Downey goes beyond these two things – which would have made it a very good performance – by capturing Chaplin’s spirit. Despite the fact that I know Chaplin’s films inside and out, I never doubted for a moment that Downey’s Chaplin was the real Chaplin. Yes, the movie gets bogged down by cramming Chaplin into a traditional biopic, which misses much of what made Chaplin great, but Downey’s performance of the man is never less than brilliant. Too bad the movie didn’t live up to its central performance.

4.    The Crying Game - Stephen Rea 
Steven Rea is a great character actor, who too often has made bad films, because, well, he looks like Steven Rea, and men who do don’t get to play the leading man too often. But Rea makes the most of his opportunity in The Crying Game, where he plays an IRA man, who becomes too close to the man he has to kill, and then goes looking for the man’s girlfriend. He is essentially a good man, who got in over his head, and is struggling to get back on the right path. Rea excels at playing this type of everyman – and does so brilliantly here.

5.    Scent of a Woman  - Al Pacino (Winner)

Be honest, other than Oh-wa, do you remember anything else about Pacino’s performance in Scent of a Woman? Didn’t think so. This was clearly a makeup award – and no actor has ever deserved one more – but isn’t it a shame the Academy didn’t give him the Oscar for any of his previously nominated performances – The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, And Justice for All (at least a little better than this) or Dick Tracy? Or hell, even his supporting turn this year in Glenngarry Glen Ross? Or have waited five years to give him an Oscar for his brilliant work in Donnie Brasco (oh, yeah, they didn’t even nominate that one). Pacino should arguably have a few Oscars at home – and none of them are for Scent of a Woman.

Overlooked: Jack Lemmon had a terrific career, where he won Two Oscars , and was nominated for 6 more, but one of his very best performances, in Glengarry Glen Ross, was overlooked. As Shelley “The Machine” Levine (the inspiration for Gil on The Simpsons), Lemmon is perfect as an aging real estate salesman, who was once the hotshot at the office, and can now no longer sell anything to anyone. He is desperate – with a sick wife at home, and his job on the line, to close a deal – any deal – and there is a scene where he tries desperately to sell to a man who has no interest – and everyone, including Shelley knows it – but he keeps pushing and pushing. The rest of the cast of Glenngarry Glen Ross is all brilliant swagger, but Lemmon’s performance is the movie’s heart and soul – a pathetic man just trying to keep doing the only thing he knows.

Best Actress

1.    Howards End  - Emma Thompson (Winner)
It’s hard to argue with Emma Thompson’s win for Howard’s End. She is the calm, rational center of the movie, who tries very hard to get her stubborn husband (Anthony Hopkins) to see reason, but never can quite do it – so she has to watch her sister’s life pretty much destroyed. Thompson was a rising star at the time, and she is put through her paces – by both Hopkins and vet Vanessa Redgrave – and is more than up to the challenge. Once again, the Academy made the right call.

2.    Lorenzo's Oil  - Susan Sarandon
Susan Sarandon’s performance in Lorenzo’s Oil may not represent her best work, but it is still fine work indeed. She plays the mother of a child stricken by ADL, and while her husband (Nick Nolte) goes to research libraries to try and find a cure, she reads to him constantly, convinced that her son is still in there somewhere, although he shows no signs of it. It is a gutsy performance, and Sarandon quite a lot with it. The movie isn’t quite great, but it’s close, and Sarandon is excellent in it.

Indochine  - Catherine Deneuve
I love Catherine Deneuve, but despite that, and the fact the film won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year, I don’t think I’ve ever seriously considering watching Indochine – said to be a “French Gone with the Wind” about their time in Vietnam. Perhaps its because Roger Ebert’s review makes the film sound boring and dull – or the film’s long running time. I do think it’s a shame that this is Deneuve’s only Oscar nomination – she should have been nominated any number of time – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Repulsion, Belle de Jour, Tristana, Dancer in the Dark, Kings and Queen and A Christmas Tale for example.

Love Field  - Michelle Pfeiffer
From what I’ve read, the only reason to see Love Field – where Pfeiffer plays a woman obsessed with the Kennedys who goes on a cross country trip to attend JFK’s funeral – would be to satisfy the Oscar completest in me and so far, that hasn’t happened.

Passion Fish  - Mary McDonnell
I find it odd that I haven’t seen Passion Fish – it is one of only a few films directed by John Sayles that I have not seen. And the movie sounds interesting to boot – about a soap opera star who after being paralyzed comes home to Louisana, and develops a difficult relationship with her live in help (Alfre Woodard). More than the other two nominated performances, this is one I should see.

Overlooked: Apologies to any Love Field fans out there, but the general consensus now seems to be that the Academy would have been better served nominating Michelle Pfeiffer for Batman Returns rather than the melodrama that did earn her an Oscar nomination. And I must say, Pfeiffer’s performance in the film is my favorite thing about the film – and the best thing Pfieffer has ever done. Genre performances rarely get nominated, but Pfieffer’s sexy villainous should have been an exception to the rule.

Best Supporting Actor
1.    Unforgiven  - Gene Hackman  (Winner)
Another good choice by the Academy! Hackman already had an Oscar at home – for 1971’s The French Connection, but the Academy couldn’t resist giving him another one for his great performance as Little Bill in Clint Eastwood’s Western. He is the “bad guy” of the movie, but Hackman gives him human shading – his attempts to build his house for example – although when he gets bad, he’s scary (whipping Morgan Freeman, beating up Richard Harris), and his last scene is a great one. Hackman is one of the best actors of his generation, and it’s sad to me that he has pretty much retired (he hasn’t made a film since 2004’s Welcome to Mooseport). But he deserved this one.

2.    Glengarry Glen Ross  - Al Pacino
If the Academy was insistant on their need to award Al Pacino this year, couldn’t they have gone with his excellent work in Glengarry Glen Ross instead of Scent of a Woman? As Ricky Roma, the hotshot salesman, Pacino is at his charming best. He’s the only one who doesn’t really care about the new leads, because he’s killing it anyway. The great thing about the movie is that Pacino arguably doesn’t even have the best supporting role – that would Alec Baldwin’s one scene addition (it’s not in Mamet’s play) as the guy from head office sent to “inspire” the salesmen. But Pacino is great – and if they had to award this year, this was the performance to do it for.

3.    A Few Good Men - Jack Nicholson
Nicholson’s performance in A Few Good Men will remain one his best remembered simply because of his “You can’t handle the truth!” – but as great as Nicholson is in that scene, I prefer his earlier standoff with Tom Cruise on the base in Cuba, where he is all smug confidence and bravado (“You see Danny, I can deal with the bullets, and the bombs, and the blood. I don't want money, and I don't want medals. What I do want is for you to stand there in that faggoty white uniform and with your Harvard mouth extend me some fucking courtesy. You gotta ask me nicely.”) Brilliant.

4.    The Crying Game - Jaye Davidson
Jaye Davidson pretty only has four acting credits on his resume – only two of them features. The first was The Crying Game, where it was essential that Neil Jordan have an unknown so people wouldn’t see the surprise coming. Davidson is great in the movie – not just the shocking scene – but everything in it. After this, he did Stargate, and then returned to his normal life as a fashion assistant. It’s too bad, because he has real talent.

5.    Mr. Saturday Night  - David Paymer
Just because I put David Paymer last on this list, doesn’t mean I don’t quite like his performance in Mr. Saturday Night. He is the best part of the movie, about a standup comedian (Billy Crystal, who co-wrote and directed as well as stars) who always seems to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He’s an asshole, and Paymer’s performance is heartbreaking, because he isn’t. He is the main character’s brother and agent, is smarter, kinder and perhaps even funnier, but allows himself to be steamrolled, because he doesn’t really have another choice. It is the best role this good character actor has ever been given – and he makes the most of it.

Overlooked: 1992 was the year Quentin Tarantino burst onto the American indie scene. His film should have been nominated in several categories, but no one was more deserving than Steve Buscemi in Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs.  His Mr. Pink is, of course, the showpiece role – from his monologue about tips, to his arguments at the warehouse. This is the film that really made Buscemi a star – at least in the indie world. It is sad that this great character actor has never been nominated for an Oscar – not for this or Fargo or Ghost World or any of his other great performances.

Best Supporting Actress

1.    Husbands and Wives  - Judy Davis
Judy Davis is a favorite of Woody Allen’s – who has cast her five times over the years (most recently in the abysmal To Rome With Love) – but none of those roles is greater than her role in Husbands and Wives. Released around the time Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow hit the skids, the film is about two couples – one who divorces so they can both “grow” and one who sticks it out. Clearly, Allen was working through his own issues here (although, tellingly his character makes the opposite decision he made in real life). But Davis as the angry, bitter woman who divorces her husband, and just gets angrier and more bitter, delivers the best performance in the film (until, of course, things come full circle). Davis has had a very good career, but her performance in Husbands and Wives is her best – and should have won her the Oscar.

2.    Damage  - Miranda Richardson 
Miranda Richardson was wonderful in Best Picture nominee The Crying Game this year (and apparently also in Enchanted April), but her best work was in Louis Malle’s Damage – a tale of sexual obsession where Jeremy Irons falls for his son’s fiancée Juliette Binoche, and the two are powerless to stop their love affair. Richardson is Irons’ wife, who when the shit hits the fan, as it must, is quite obviously angry and lashes out at her husband. It is a terrific performance in one of those rare movies that deals with sexuality seriously. A terrific performance by a great actress.

3.    Howards End  - Vanessa Redgrave
The great, controversial Oscar winner (still, I can say with complete confidence, the only Oscar winner to use the phrase “Zionist hoodlums” in her acceptance speech) has a small, but wonderful role in Howards End. She plays Anthony Hopkins first wife, who while she is still alive essentially interviews Emma Thompson to take up her role when she dies, as she knows she will soon. Redgrave, a great actress if ever there was one, puts Thompson through her paces in this scene, seeing if the younger actress can keep up – and Thompson passes with flying colors. It is a great performance by Redgrave – and her last of six Oscar nominations (although she should have gotten number 7 for 2011’s Coriolanus).

4.    My Cousin Vinny  - Marisa Tomei (Winner)

You know how I know with 100% certainty that the oft-repeated myth that Marisa Tomei didn’t really win this year, but a confused Jack Palance just read the last name again, as so many have claimed? It isn’t that the Academy actually has a process in place in case this happened (as embarrassing as it would be for all involved) – it’s that I have heard four different versions of the story from four different sources – one with each of the other nominees the supposed “true” winner. Anyway, as odd as it seems, Tomei did win for her role in My Cousin Vinny, and she is hoot in the film. Personally, I think it took it a while to grow into her talent and sexuality – I would have loved to see her win for In The Bedroom (2001), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) or The Wrestler (2008) – all three show just how great she can be. But she didn’t. She won for this one – and I think it’s time we move past it.

Enchanted April  - Joan Plowright
I have always meant to see Mike Newell’s highly regarded Enchanted April, but somehow have never gotten around to it – it may well be because as much as I like Newell, I don’t love him, so every time I go to the video store, I find something else. Anyway, I’m sure sooner or later, I’ll get to this.

Overlooked: There is no doubt that Vanessa Redgrave had the showcase supporting role in the film, but I think Helena Bonham Carter in Howard’s End was just as deserving of receiving a nomination. In 2012, we know that Bonham Carter has pretty much given in to her weird side – whether it be for partner Tim Burton’s movies (where she can be great), or Harry Potter or Les Miserables or the upcoming Great Expectations, so it can be hard to remember just how good Bonham Carter can be in a more normal role. She is great in this film, and should have at least been considered for a nomination.

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