Let the River Run

Working Girl epitomizes the high powered businesswoman of the 1980’s. From big hair to shoulder pads. Working Girl earned high praise thanks to Oscar nominated director Mike Nichols and a dedicated A-list cast. Best Picture and Best Director went to fellow comedic drama Rain Man, but my mom recommended Working Girl just as much. Partly because it was a much better Best Actress nominated role for Melanie Griffith. Most of her previous work gave me the impression that she was just another sex symbol, but Tess McGill is so much more than that. She’s a New York secretary who just wants to be taken seriously in the workplace. Griffith has plenty of sexy scenes, but Tess has the brains to match. Though she was battling cocaine addiction at the time, Griffith gives the performance of her career.

The rest of the cast was either really big in the 80’s or just starting out. The former includes Philip Bosco as a business owner and Olympia Dukakis as a personal director. The latter includes Alec Baldwin as Tess’ sleazy boyfriend, Oliver Platt as her sleazy former boss, and Kevin Spacey as a sleazy potential boss. Ripley herself Sigourney Weaver is the perfect condescending female boss. Katherine Parker pretends to bond with Tess, but she outright steals her ideas before a freak skiing accident. Tess is only able to prove herself while pretending to be her boss. Joan Cusack plays the eccentric best friend who gives her a professional makeover.

Both Weaver and Cusack were also nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but the men are just as notable. Indiana Jones himself Harrison Ford is the perfect kind hearted businessman. Jack Trainer was originally part of Tess’ business plan, but they wind up falling in love. Which complicates things when certain truths are revealed. I don’t fully understand Mergers & Acquisitions or most of the business talk, but it was great to see Tess tell Katherine off and get the respect she deserved. The only Oscar Working Girl won was a much deserved win for Best Original Song. “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon is a spirited tune that makes Working Girl worth celebrating.

Working Girl

Tess comes between Jack and Katherine

The Life of Puyi

The Last Emperor is the first western film aloud entry into the Forbidden City. A fact the movie takes advantage of by showcasing the beauty and mystique of the golden palace. I was always curious to see The Last Emperor, but like the Forbidden City itself, I remained totally blind to it. Though directed by the Italian Bernardo Bertolucci and filmed in English, The Last Emperor is the first predominantly Asian movie to win Best Picture. Unlike Gandhi, screen legend Peter O’Toole is the only major western actor in the movie. Something about him in a foreign land seems to attract awards attention. Not since Gigi has a movie won all 9 of its Academy Awards. Including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, and Sound. Once again there were no acting nominations even though most of the Chinese cast deserved recognition.

John Lone plays Puyi, the titular last emperor of China who took the throne when he was just 2 years old. The film is framed with Puyi in prison, but nearly 3 hours are spent covering his entire life from emperor to citizen. As a toddler, Puyi is too childish to make his own decisions or appreciate the significance of his power. He wants to leave his sheltered life several times, but he does learn to accept his role later in life. As a child, Puyi tries to hold onto his youth, but it costs him his beloved wet nurse. The Last Emperor is actually the first PG-13 Best Picture winner. There’s one F bomb and some violence, but it’s mostly instances of brief nudity and sexual encounters. As a teenager, Puyi is given spectacles and his choice of an Empress.

Joan Chen plays his mostly content wife Wanrong who ultimately succumbs to opium addiction. Vivian Wu plays his unhappy secondary consort Wenxiu who ultimately leaves him. I know Puyi was probably harsher in real life, but the movie holds back a bit. Though he has many servants, Puyi’s most productive connection is with his English tutor Reginald Johnston played by O’Toole. Puyi learns a lot about western culture, but leaving the Forbidden City isn’t by choice. I don’t fully understand eastern politics, but I know Puyi ended up a puppet of the Japanese during the war when he reclaimed his title as Manchurian emperor. When the Red Army imprisons him, Ying Ruocheng plays the warden who reeducates him. When his sentence is up, the movie comes full circle when the elderly Puyi visits his former throne. The Last Emperor is a powerful story with humble beginnings.

The Last Emperor

Puyi sits on his throne

Sound & Silence

Children of a Lesser God speaks louder than words. The title refers to people who are deaf. Based on a 1979 play, Children of a Lesser God was one of the first productions made for and starring a member of the deaf community. The 1986 film adaptation was just as successful and became the first Best Picture nominee directed by a woman. Randa Haines gives equal attention to her cast of hearing and deaf actors, but the movie is mostly from a hearing perspective. Subtitles are actually substituted for the main character translating everything out loud. The Oscar nominated screenplay couldn’t have been easy to write.

Children of a Lesser God focuses on a New England romance that blooms between a hearing man and a deaf woman with all the emotional challenges that come with it. William Hurt continues his Best Actor nominated streak by playing the unconventional speech teacher of a school for the deaf. James Leeds helps the deaf use their voices and read lips. His use of music and other ideologies clash with the school’s beautiful young custodian Sarah Norman. Sarah is mysterious, closed off, and doesn’t believe in using her voice.

Swimming naked helps her relax and sex seems to be the primary language they both understand, but there’s something deeper going on. Through her mother, we discover Sarah’s unfortunate past. This was the second time Piper Laurie was nominated for playing a difficult mother, but the Oscar ended up going to her on-screen daughter. At only 21 years old, newcomer Marlee Matlin became the youngest Best Actress winner and the first deaf person to win an Oscar. Matlin conveys so much emotion through sign, body language, and facial expressions. Children of a Lesser God was a good sign of things to come.

Children of a Lesser God

James signs with Sarah

I Had a Farm in Africa…

Out of Africa is another nearly 3 hour epic romance with a beautiful backdrop. This time the focus is on Africa, but I don’t think it’s the African set female focused 1985 film that should’ve won Best Picture. That honor should’ve gone to The Color Purple, but the Academy made the safe choice. Both movies were nominated for 11 Oscars, but The Color Purple won nothing while Out of Africa won 7. Including Best Picture, Best Director Sydney Pollack, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Original Score, and Sound. Africa is truly breathtaking and the John Barry score helps to romanticize it. It’s just the story that feels like a minor step back. Out of Africa centers around English colonialism in Africa, but it’s not handled the same as Gandhi.

The original book is a memoir by the Danish aristocratic Karen Blixen who spent most of her time in British East Africa (or modern day Kenya). She marries Swedish nobleman Baron Bror Blixen who takes part in big-game hunts and buys them a coffee farm. Karen falls in love with Africa and its people while providing schools, medicine, and work for the local villagers. Though she does keep wealthy friends like Felicity and Berkeley. As I expected, the pace is incredibly slow and the movie didn’t really get interesting for me until the second half. Out of Africa is a little like Doctor Zhivago in how it slowly develops a romance over time. Since Bror is unfaithful, Karen starts to fall for fellow big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton.

He saves her from a lioness and they bond over their mutual love of stories. Though they’re separated by class and views of marriage, nothing can keep them apart. Not even the First World War led by colonist Lord Delamere. Their most romantic scenes are when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair and they ride over Africa in his biplane. Meryl Streep is unsurprisingly committed to her Danish accent and strong-willed Oscar nominated performance. Although English in real life, Robert Redford strangely remains American, but is equally committed to the rugged hunter. Though it was Klaus Maria Brandauer who was nominated as the husband in the middle of their love affair. Out of Africa isn’t exactly timeless, but it does make effective use of its setting.

Out of Africa

Denys teaches Karen to hunt

They Still Hate You

A Soldier’s Story uses themes of race to solve a murder mystery. Director Norman Jewison tackled a similar story decades before with the Best Picture winning In the Heat of the Night. A Soldier’s Story was only nominated for Best Picture, but my mom strongly recommended I watch it. Despite his previous success, A Soldier’s Story was something of a calculated risk for being predominantly black and dealing with World War II. Of course it became just as popular as the original A Soldier’s Play that it’s based on. Most of the play’s cast reprised their roles. Including Denzel Washington in his second film role as a rebellious soldier.

Washington would later win for a similar role, but it was Adolph Caesar who got all the Oscar attention. He plays the murdered Army Sergeant of an all-black company of soldiers that spends more time playing on the Negro league than seeing combat. Through flashbacks we see Caesar’s complex performance as a cruel drill instructor with internally racist views of some of his men. There’s plenty of white on black hate, but the movie is more about black on black hate. After his role in Ragtime, Howard Rollins was cast as the black superior officer Captain Davenport who was sent to investigate the murder.

Like In the Heat of the Night, Davenport faces resistance from Colonel Nivens, but cooperation from Captain Taylor. Davenport questions the soldiers including Washington’s resentful Peterson, Art Evans’ brown-nosing Wilkie, William Allen Young’s resistant Henson, David Harris’ nervous Smalls, and David Alan Grier’s friendly Cobb. Robert Townsend is another comedian who gives the film some levity. Meanwhile, Patti LaBelle gives the film some soul. Larry Riley stands out the most as the simple good-natured country boy C.J. Memphis who plays a key role in the mystery. The perpetrator didn’t surprise me, but the nuanced way to get there makes A Soldier’s Story work.

A Soldier's Story

Sgt. Waters accuses C.J. Memphis

Warm Friendship

The Big Chill is like a sitcom put to film. Seven Baby Boomer friends from college reunite under one roof when another friend commits suicide. The basis of the plot inspired lesser known TV shows like Hometown, A Million Little Things, and the more well known Thirtysomething. Although The Big Chill is another Best Picture nominated human interest story that was no competition for the more acclaimed Terms of Endearment. The best thing about it is actually the killer soundtrack with too many 60’s-70’s era classics to name.

The Big Chill is also notable for its before they were famous all-star cast. Some of whom previously worked with writer/director Lawrence Kasdan. Although Kevin Costner was cast as the deceased friend Alex, it was better that they didn’t show him. Tom Berenger is actor Sam Weber known for his Magnum P.I. style TV show. William Hurt is former Vietnam veteran turned drug taking talk-radio host Nick Carlton. Jeff Goldblum is the sex obsessed journalist Michael Gold. Kevin Kline is the soon to be wealthy owner of the house Harold Cooper.

Glenn Close is his loving doctor wife Sarah Cooper. JoBeth Williams is former writer Karen Bowens who’s stuck in a loveless marriage. Mary Kay Place is lawyer Meg Jones who wants a baby with one of the men. Meg Tilly is younger outsider Chole who was once Alex’s girlfriend. The Big Chill deals with everyone’s conflicting emotions about the suicide. Sam and Sarah are the most broken up, but only Close received a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Friends fight, forgive, and ultimately pair off in a sex filled climax. The Big Chill is warmer than it sounds.

The Big Chill

Friends sit down to breakfast

Nonviolent Resistance

Gandhi is the first British made Best Picture winner with a predominantly Indian cast. Mahatma Gandhi was the most influential practitioner of nonviolent resistance and passive protest. His methods would go on to inspire such civil rights activists as Martin Luther King. I’ve known about the Indian leader for years, but I only saw fragments of the movie when I was in school. Gandhi is of course another sprawling 3 hour epic with great production value. Gandhi won prestigious awards like Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay along with technical categories like Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Film Editing. I’m not surprised it won Best Picture, but everyone (even the director) agrees that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is the more timeless film that should’ve won. Richard Attenborough would go on to star in Jurassic Park after developing a friendship with Steven Spielberg.

Even still, Gandhi was a dream project for Attenborough. Several decades went by with similar movies like Lawrence of Arabia being made in its place. Non-Indians like Alec Guinness were considered to play Gandhi, but thankfully they went with the relatively unknown half Indian, half British Ben Kingsley. With the help of Oscar nominated makeup, Kingsley goes through a startling transformation. Mohandas K. Gandhi was once a young lawyer with hair and more English attire before embracing his Indian heritage with the bald head, mustache, glasses, and loincloth he became known for. Gandhi explores major events throughout his life including being thrown from a South African train, inspiring nonviolent protests, witnessing the aftermath of a violent massacre, and fasting for peace in his country. The movie focuses on Gandhi’s just cause to make India independent from British rule. I do find it a little ironic that a movie about resisting the British would follow such a pro-British movie like Chariots of Fire.

Nevertheless, Gandhi has an all-star British cast that complements the mostly unknown Indian cast. It was a major career boost for actors like Bernard Hill and even Daniel Day-Lewis. Gandhi is supported by his Indian wife, children, and friends like Roshan Seth as the anti-colonial Jawaharlal Nehru. British leaders like Edward Fox as the ruthless General Dyer try to resist Gandhi with violence, but he has many non-Indian supporters. Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen play journalists who document his accomplishments. There’s also his English daughter Mirabehn and his Christian priest friend Charlie played by Ian Charleson in his second consecutive Best Picture winner. Gandhi’s complicated faith is explored with a mix of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian principles. His last big fast is in response to a civil war between Hindu and Muslim Indians. The movie begins with Gandhi’s assassination, but you can’t fully appreciate the impact until the end. Gandhi goes to show what one small Indian man in a loincloth is capable of.

Gandhi

Gandhi has help walking

Running for God

Chariots of Fire was the first British Best Picture winner in over a decade. Most of the younger British cast was unknown and the director Hugh Hudson was more known for documentaries. Though Raiders of the Lost Ark left a stronger impact, Chariots of Fire did launch the careers of many Brits including Richard Griffiths, Kenneth Branagh, and Stephen Fry. For a long time I had no idea what the movie was about aside from one iconic scene. Most people are familiar with the scene where men are running in slow motion to the late Vangelis’ Oscar winning Best Original Score, but few know the context. Chariots of Fire is actually about the 1924 Olympics and the title is referenced in the Bible.

The historical aspect also won the movie Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design. Much like A Man for All Seasons, Chariots of Fire is about a man’s unwavering conviction to his faith. In this case, the story centers on two British athletes motivated by their respective religions. Harold Abrahams is the Jewish athlete who runs to fight anti-Semitism. Ben Cross is a little arrogant, but ultimately sympathetic in his desire to win. Harold’s personal life is seen with his attendance to Cambridge, love of Gilbert & Sullivan, and romance with singer Sybil played by a young Alice Krige.

Ian Holm was the only actor nominated for his portrayal of Harold’s passionate coach Mussabini. Eric Liddell is the devout Christian athlete who runs for God and refuses to work on the Sabbath. Ian Charleson is fully committed to Eric’s convictions. Although Harold and Eric are technically rivals, they rarely interact. More time is spent with their fellow runners Aubrey Montague and/or Lord Andrew Lindsay. Races are especially powerful with the rest of Vangelis’ often anachronistic sounding 80’s electronic score. Although Chariots of Fire isn’t my cup of tea as a slow-paced sports movie, I was won over by its strongly Christian themes and inspirational message.

Chariots of Fire

Eric (foreground) and Harold (background) run on the beach

How Does that Make You Feel?

Ordinary People is no ordinary Best Picture winner. It pretty much set the precedent for the cynical and often depressing 1980’s. Based on the 1976 novel by Judith Guest, Ordinary People deals with the aftermath of a son’s death and his brother who attempted suicide. A subject like this is guaranteed to draw acclaim from the Academy Awards. It was the best possible directorial debut for actor Robert Redford who ended up winning Best Director. The film is shot in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable and appropriately depressed. Even the “Canon in D Major” theme is depressing. Of course it’s also the unlikely cast that brings their best to Alvin Sargent’s Best Adapted Screenplay winning script.

The Jarrett family may seem ordinary on the surface, but they’re all dealing with grief a different way. Conrad is on edge after his suicide attempt caused by his brother Buck’s death in a boating accident. Flashbacks are used only when necessary. All we know is that he was recently released from a psychiatric hospital and trying to put his life back together. Yet Conrad quits the swim team, distances himself from his friends, and has problems at home. 20 year old newcomer Timothy Hutton became the youngest Best Supporting Actor winner with his complex performance. Arguably contributing to the surge in teen angst movies of the 80’s. A young Judd Hirsch was also nominated for his portrayal of Conrad’s caring no-nonsense psychiatrist Dr. Berger.

Conrad starts to feel better when he goes out with his crush Jeannie (played by a young Elizabeth McGovern), but even more tragedy holds him back. Conrad’s biggest obstacle is his own mother. After Kramer vs. Kramer, Beth became another seemingly coldhearted mother who retreats into her affluent lifestyle and doesn’t show her son affection. Lovable TV star Mary Tyler Moore is the last person you’d expect in a role like this, but she absolutely deserved her Best Actress nomination and Golden Globe win. Donald Sutherland shockingly wasn’t nominated for any Oscar, even though he’s just as good as everyone else. Calvin is a sensitive father trying to keep his family together and talking about their problems. Although movies like Raging Bull left a greater impact, Ordinary People sticks with you in a more personal way.

Ordinary People

Conrad tries to talk to his mother

It’s Showtime, Folks!

All that Jazz was the best way to end the flashy 1970’s. Making it the final musical nominated for Best Picture in over a decade. Music based film’s thrived in the 80’s, but they just weren’t as prestigious as they used to be. Bob Fosse kept them alive with Cabaret and made his last big mark with the semi-autobiographical All that Jazz. Joe Gideon is unmistakably Bob Fosse. Both are a director and choreographer with a series of vices. Joe is an overworked chainsmoker with the same routine of showering, popping pills, applying eye drops, and saying “It’s showtime, folks!” in the mirror. Joe’s most prominent vices are his frequent sexual conquests.

All that Jazz is loaded with scantily clad dancers and topless women. Joe frequently cheats on his girlfriend Katie played by Fosse’s real life partner Ann Reinking. Leland Palmer plays his supportive dancer ex-wife Audrey based on Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon. They not so surprisingly have a daughter named Michelle that he tries to do right by. Roy Schneider toes a fine line between sleazy and sympathetic. There’s a lot going on, but All that Jazz is easy to follow. Joe deals with editing a film called The Stand-Up based on Lenny. The movie plays in the background with actor Cliff Gorman going through the 5 stages of grief.

At the same time Joe works to choreograph the stage show NY/LA based on Chicago. The title is of course taken directly from the famous lyric. Sexually charged numbers like them are why All that Jazz won Best Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, and Original Score. The movie has more of a fantasy angle with Joe telling his life story to Jessica Lange as the angelic Angelique. Other before they were famous celebrities include John Lithgow as a fellow director. When Joe inevitably suffers a heart attack, he hallucinates an elaborate stage performance. There are plenty of good songs, but the final variety show number “Bye Bye Life” is a big standout. All that Jazz is a musical that gave the decade its last great performance and all that jazz.

All that Jazz

Dancers perform NY/LA