Fixing Oscar For One Film: Part Six 1980-1990
We all have that one movie we really wish had taken home the Best Picture Oscar that one time – even if we say we don’t care about the Oscars at all. At least most of us do if we’re reading an article on the subject on a pop culture blog on the internet. Well, LeBlog is teaming up with its readers to select one Best Picture loser from the previous eighty-nine years of the awards as our favorite also-ran. This is the picture we will be affording a unique honor here with the title of “Best-Loved Loser.” Come help us weed out the good from the great as we consider five more movies that came up just short on movies’ biggest night.
After covering what for many of us was our childhood and the origin of the modern day blockbuster in the 1970s, we continue some of that same progression in the 1980s with a push and pull of critically acclaimed hits alongside…well, mostly Scorsese as it turns out. Throw in a more personal and less fire and brimstone take on the network news and you’ve got five movies that very well could have worn the title “Oscar Winner” comfortably. Come help us figure out which one has the most suitable measurements for that particular suit.
Raging Bull (1980)
Give me great performances and amazing photography and you’re quite a long ways towards an excellent movie. Raging Bull then goes further with an intricate and unflinching look at personal tragedy and ego, making it one of the very best films of the 1980s. That the film would eventually be considered this way was not always a sure thing, though. Scorsese himself was rather uncertain about undertaking the project at all when it was initially suggested to him by Robert DeNiro. He was never a fan of boxing, which he has often called “boring,” and is not a fan of sports in general. His eventual obsessive attention to the post production and editing on the film was largely due to the director’s fear that Raging Bull might turn out to be his final feature film. When it was released, in fact, not only did it do relatively tepid business at the box office, but was faced with split opinion from the film critics of the day. Joseph McBride of Variety was particularly contemptuous of the film, calling DeNiro “one of the most repugnant and unlikable screen protagonists in some time” and declared the movie’s scenes as “perversely chosen to alienate the audience.” The film did manage to eke out a profit and in the end, critical consensus was gradually attained in its favor and last I checked, Scorsese was on Oscar-winner who still had several big projects still in the works.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Sound, Cinematography, Film Editing
Oscar Wins: Best Actor
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
When a genre picture is as tightly conceived and entertainingly boisterous as Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s only natural that it will become a favorite of both laypeople looking for a good time on a summer afternoon and of critics who are not so serious as to foolishly dismiss plain entertainment outright. The series was first imagined by Star Wars creator George Lucas under the name “Indiana Smith” prior to the completion of his space opera. It was not until he had seen amazing success and was on vacation in Hawaii to take a break from the pressure it had brought that he suggested the character to friend Steven Spielberg, saying it was “better than James Bond.” Spielberg initially resisted the project because it meant signing on for two sequels as well, but Lucas assured him that he had the sequels already written, leading Spielberg to agree, suggesting the last name “Jones” instead. If you’re familiar with the long game in the development of Lucas’ Star Wars series, it will be of no surprise to find that he hadn’t in fact written a syllable on the Indiana Jones sequels and that this fact didn’t pop up until it was time to start work on the first one.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Score, Cinematography
Oscar Wins: Best Sound, Art Direction, Film Editing, Visual Effects
E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Just one year after his Raiders of the Lost Ark was both a financial and critical success, Spielberg had perhaps an even more widely admired and loved creation of pop culture magic with his telling of his and Melissa Mathieson’s story of an alien who finds himself lost on Earth. This marooned element of the tale was pulled from a more traditional project about aggressive aliens called Night Skies, while Spielberg imagined the titular creature as the imaginary friend he used to help him through his parents’ divorce when he was thirteen (I’m not a child psychologist, but doesn’t thirteen seem slightly old for an imaginary friend?) He has identified E.T. as the first film he ever made for himself, and hey, if I was making a movie for myself and had a budget of over $10 million in the early eighties I would probably also get John Williams to write the score. Spielberg was so taken with Williams’ music for the final chase scene that he re-cut the scene to best suit the score rather than simply shoehorning the music in, as is done in so many movies. This is one of the most eighties movies in the entire history of the decade of the eighties. In fact, it’s the highest-grossing film of the entire decade. And it’s pretty darn great, too.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing
Oscar Wins: Best Original Score, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects
Broadcast News (1987)
Do we all see Albert Brooks’ character from Broadcast News a little differently now than we did when we first saw the film? I’ll admit that when I first sat down to watch the movie in 1988 I was solidly sympathetic with his Aaron Altman. And why not? Brooks is an appealing and funny performer who knows how to draw an audience’s understanding and relate with his frustrations. It’s a trick he has played to great effect in many of his performances and it almost always works on me. There are still big parts of Aaron that feel instantly relatable. But what really happens in Broadcast News is that the film sets up a false dichotomy, in which the Holly Hunter character is somehow required to select one of these two guys, and obviously we can’t have her truly taking up with William Hurt’s Tom Grunick, can we? The big moment of the entire film is when she, and we, get to see that Tom has performed a bit of dishonest theatre in how he shot an emotional interview. It’s a moment that dots the “i” on our existent suspicion that Tom isn’t just lacking serious credentials as a journalist, but an understanding of what the career is supposed to mean beyond his own success in it. He’s entirely unsuitable for Jane. What I didn’t remember until a more recent viewing was what an insufferable prick Aaron really is. But of course the film knew this even if I didn’t at first. The reveal that she has married a third man we never met before at a reunion a few year later really shouldn’t be a surprise, should it?
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing
Oscar Wins: None
Every time I sit down in a movie theater I truly am hoping that I’m about to fall in love with a film the way I did when I first saw Martin Scorsese’s stylish gangster drama Goodfellas. I was twenty years old on its release and I was only just beginning to understand the ways in which film was inherently different from a play in which the actors weren’t really there in the room with you. Part of the blame certainly had to go to the dominance of pan and scan presentations on video tape copies of all of the new and classic movies I had begun renting to see at home just a few years earlier. Without the aspect ratio intended by the director on these copies, how could I possibly be expected to truly appreciate the framing and camera movement in any of the post-fifties movies I was seeing at home? Of course my own immaturity factored into this majorly as well – and it took a couple of years for me to start making an actual effort to see the most interesting new releases I could. A few friends sure helped out by encouraging me to go with them to films at the old Naro arthouse cinema in nearby Norfolk where I started to really see movies worth seeing in the way that they ought to be seen. An evening trip with a friend to see Goodfellas was particularly breathtaking, as the movie’s 145 minute running time somehow zoomed along based on its wealth in acting and writing and visual storytelling and soundtrack and exciting subject matter. I now had a true inkling what a great filmmaker could do.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor
That’s a bookend of Scorsese flicks with some pretty appealing creamy eighties filling in the middle. Which one really should be known as an Oscar-winner?