And the Oscar Should Have Gone to…
Oscar doesn’t often get it right. It doesn’t often even pick the right nominees, let alone the right winner out of those nominees. I thought I might embark on an occasional revisit of those pictures up for the top prize in a given year, and see how they shake out. And, since The Verdict had been on my mind as unjustly missed (you can probably guess how this is going), 1982 felt like as good a year as any to start with. The full reviews can be found elsewhere, but here, in summary, are those in contention, and their pros and cons.
The one that went home happy, the little man in the nappy. One might have expected the previous year’s toweringly hubristic pronouncements that “The British are coming” to meet their just reward (with Revolution, they arguably did), and one might argue a tale of the Empire’s defeat was just that, but Gandhi really rather legitimised the idea of a resurgent British film industry in the wake of Chariots of Fire.
The truth was, neither were particularly remarkable pictures, both keenly trading on the nation’s increasingly sole export, heritage, for recognition. Chariots, a likable but low-key piece, had been considerably (entirely?) buoyed by a last-minute inclusion of Vangelis’ main theme, one that didn’t even make it into the meat of the picture. So potent was it, it became the film, redressing it as a triumphant tale whose indomitable spirit caught the whims of voters.
Gandhi, on the other hand, was simply important. It was an important film made by a would-be important filmmaker, and it promoted important and weighty themes of resistance to injustice and strategic pacifism in the face of oppression. It couldn’t really fail with the Academy, and it didn’t, despite being rather stodgy and unapproachable, counting worthiness over insight into its subject and an ability to get to grips with the political situation its title character was opposing. It’s difficult to argue with the Kingsley’s win for actor (although at least two others were similarly meritorious) but Gandhi was definitely the over-inflated victor of the 1983 ceremony for no better reason than its perceived virtue.
Missing could be glad just to get a shoe in the door. Some will doubtless claim Costa-Gavras’ picture was the truly deserving true story of the awards, the one with current-affairs legitimacy that even caused the US State Department to get in a tizzy. And its account of US corruption, engineering the coup that brought Pinochet to power in Chile and killing an American citizen – or being complicit in his death – who stumbled upon the fact, is incendiary material, and worthy of feting.
But the film itself is rather thin, the actual revelation of the conspiracy lacking dramatic nourishment. In its stead we have an indulgent, over-emphatic performance from Jack Lemmon, essaying ignorance to awakening, to fill the gap. The picture has a strong, fearful atmosphere and an outstanding turn by Sissy Spacek as Lemmon’s daughter in law, but it’s only ever half a great picture, one that saw the Academy unite in support of its subject matter but which wasn’t quite up to the task of doing the material justice.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
The popular movie, the crowd-pleasing blockbuster, is often to be found in the holy five (well, holy up-to-ten now), one cynically assumes simply to swell viewing figures, rather than to stand any chance of actually taking the top prize. Occasionally, the popular movie is also the critically acclaimed one too, and occasionally it even wins out over basic sense (Titanic).
E.T. had been roundly celebrated as full of heart and innocence and wonder, and was loved by children and adults everywhere, but it’s undiluted appeal to the emotions and the unjaded – and the sentimental – would increasingly become Spielberg’s biggest stumbling block as a wannabe serious filmmaker. His previous flirtations with Oscar – Jaws, Raiders – were unashamed thrill rides, whip smart and without a trace of mawkishness, and I’d have gladly seen either take the statuette (although 1975 simply had too much strong competition). E.T. left me relatively unpersuaded by its appeals to the universal, and while I can get behind it as an accomplished piece of filmmaking, I have to agree it was rightly passed over.
Tootsie makes no great claims of supporting a worthy cause. It’s simply a very well-observed comedy, even if some of the trappings (Dave Grusin’s score especially) date it to the era in which it was made. With enough screenwriters to toss an unpalatable salad, it’s a miracle this comes together so well, and is so sustained, seemingly able to pluck endless ripe scenarios in support of Dustin Hoffman’s gender experimentation.
So much of this is dazzling, from a string of fine supporting players – Bill Murray, George Gaynes, Oscar-winning Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Charles Durning, and best of all Sydney Pollack as Michael Dorsey’s long-suffering agent – to Pollack the director applying a supreme and deceptive lightness of touch. But it’s Hoffman’s performances that make Tootsie shine, as he gamely plays on his own difficult reputation as an obsessive while displaying the sure timing of a great comedian. Comedies don’t often win big at the Oscars, but in another year, it would have been easy to see Tootsie, which did actually have something to say about some things, if not always very subtlety when it chose to say them outright, being rewarded. Ultimately, though, less fair than the film itself being missed is that Hoffman lost out.
If Missing portrays the awakening of a man who has gone through his life with his eyes blissfully closed to reality, The Verdict features one who has numbed the pain of that reality, stumbling through more than a decade-and-a-half of alcoholism, only to be offered the chance for salvation. This could easily have been become validating schmaltz, a Rocky tale of the broken man regaining the will to fight and coming out triumphant against the better-equipped, better-financed, and just plain better, opponent.
But, while it features all those vital elements, everything about Sidney Lumet’s film, from David Mamet’s sterling screenplay up, is disposed against the easy recourse, looking instead for the emotional reality in the situation. Paul Newman gives one of his very best – if not his very best – performances, and he’s ably supported by the likes of Jack Warden, James Mason, and an odious Milo O’Shea. Frank may be the protagonist, and he may be fighting for what’s right, but his motives are decidedly murky in terms of his client’s best interests. He isn’t a hero. This is tale where, if he had failed, he’d only have himself to blame. Perhaps the one misstep in a fine feature is the Charlotte Rampling character, used to over-egg the drama in a manner that is, in the balance of things, unnecessary.
And the Oscar should have gone to:
The Verdict, quite easily. Tootsie makes a strong runner-up, while I’d go as far as saying that winner Gandhi is the weakest of the finalists. But The Verdict remains the true classic of the five, and the one that has aged most gracefully.
And the rest
I don’t intend to plough through all the remaining categories, so just a sprinkling of the main ones, and some of note, follows:
Winner: Richard Attenborough
Should have won: Sidney Lumet
It fell to Lumet to receive the backhanded compliment of an honorary Oscar (meaning “Let’s get in there before you peg it”) in 2005, but he was nominated for Best Director four times, including The Verdict. Richard Attenborough barely manifested anything discernible to justify his award, while if Pollack really expected to be rewarded he would have nixed that Grusin score. Spielberg is (was) an assured hand, but I don’t think E.T. is his strongest showing, which leaves Wolfgang Peterson, with both his most impressive film and most impressive directorial effort. But Lumet, who doesn’t put a foot wrong with The Verdict, edges him. Unlike The Wiz, Sidney’s in his element.
Winner: Ben Kingsley (Gandhi)
Should have won: Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie)
Kingsley definitely should have an Oscar at home, but it’s Best Supporting Actor for Sexy Beast. Much as I love Peter O’Toole’s performance in My Favourite Year, he didn’t need to do much in the way of acting to pull it off. So this is between Hoffman and Newman, and while The Verdict is the film Newman should have won the Oscar for over The Color of Money, Hoffman’s sheer dexterity in Tootsie is jaw-dropping. It’s just an outstanding performance by any standards.
Winner: Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice)
Should have won: Sissy Spacek (Missing)
Oh God, bloody Sophie’s Choice, a dreadfully self-important, dreary, overrated picture. I don’t have strong feelings here, other than it shouldn’t have gone to Streep, and Debra Winger’s performance in An Officer and a Gentleman, likeable as it is, is not the stuff of Oscars. I’d have no argument with Julie Andrews for Victor/Victoria or Jessica Lange for Frances, but Spacek in Missing, showing Jack Lemmon how it should be done, gets my sympathy vote.
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Louis Gossett, Jr (An Officer and a Gentleman)
Should have won: John Lithgow (The World According to Garp)
I wouldn’t really argue with Gossett getting the statuette, just the film itself. Lithgow’s is probably the most affecting performance, and he’s an actor who really deserves to have won one by now. I’d put it between those two, as Charles Durning, James Mason and Robert Preston are all perfectly serviceable but don’t scream snub.
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Jessica Lange (Tootsie)
Should have won: Teri Garr (Tootsie)
Lange’s fine in Tootsie, but it’s a nice part, not a remarkable performance (You wonder how much of it was a Frances sympathy vote). Everyone here is good (Glenn Close, Kim Stanley, Lesley Ann Warren), but Garr’s particular brand of put-upon is a master class.
Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Gandhi (John Briley)
Should have won: Tootsie (Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal)
Tootsie’s screenplay is such a consistently inventive piece of work, I’d put it ahead of the nearest contender (Diner), while the others (E.T., An Office and a Gentleman) are more about the execution than the genius of the writing. Needless to say, Gandhi’s screenplay doesn’t really impress.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Missing (Costa-Gavras and Donald E Stewart)
Should have won: The Verdict (David Mamet)
Mamet’s screenplay is so clearly something apart, you know the Missing award was basically a statement. Sophie’s Choice’s screenplay stinks.
Best Original Song
Winner: Up Where We Belong (An Officer and a Gentleman)
Should have won: Eye of the Tiger (Rocky III)
I’m torn actually, as they’re both superior slices of ’80s cheese. One thing’s for sure, It Might Be You from Tootsie should never have been nominated.
Best Original Score
Winner: E.T. (John Williams)
Should have won: Poltergeist (Jerry Goldsmith)
E.T. is fine, but a bit too much in places, and Williams was doing so much better year-in, year-out at that point. Poltergeist is a smart, spooky piece of work, and it would have given Goldsmith a much-deserved Oscar.
Best Art Direction
Should have won: Blade Runner
Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?
Should have won: E.T.
I wouldn’t actually quibble with Gandhi getting this one, but both Das Boot and E.T. have just as strong work (how Blade Runner missed out, yet Tootise got a look in, though…)
Best Costume Design
Should have won: TRON
Iconic lycra, there.
Best Visual Effects
Should have won: Blade Runner
Both Blade Runner and Poltergeist have better effects work than E.T., while The Thing, and Star Trek II, didn’t even get a look in (or for makeup, which Quest for Fire took).
Of missed contenders in the big awards, it’s the usual science fiction fare of Blade Runner and The Thing, but neither were exactly critically lauded at the time. Despite being released in 1982, Year of Living Dangerously ended up in the 1983 nominations, but would otherwise have figured.
Gandhi followed the frequent course of being the most nominated (11) and winning the most awards (8), although Tootsie was next with 10 and took home just the one. E.T. received 9 and won 4, while reactionary An Officer and a Gentleman, a fine picture for Reaganite America, pulled 2 out of its 6 nominations.
My Top 5 Films of the Year
Spielberg’s anti-E.T. (the debate goes on, but many argue he ghost-directed this, rather than official helmer Tobe Hooper; given Hooper’s other work, it’s entirely plausible), with sinister spooks threatening a nice suburban family. Effective PG-shocks, and about the last time (I think) Spielberg didn’t keep a degree of a subsequent franchise control (you’d have thought he would have learned from Jaws).
Paul Newman and Sidney Newman at their best, in a genre that pays dividends even when it doesn’t play out to obvious effect (see also sports movies).
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
The best Star Trek film – so good they keep copying it but never remotely as well – and featuring some of the very best performances by the original crew (Shatner in particular is mighty). Even Pauline Kael loved it.
John Carpenter’s anti-E.T. in as much as it came out the same summer and one was a mega-hit while the other all-but flopped. But time has been very kind to the picture, now usually rated as the director’s best work, with effects that still look extraordinary and a dread end of the world depicted on a palpable, intimate level.
And this one is Sir Ridders’ best work, although it would be more pronouncedly downhill from him subsequently than for Carpenter, even if he then initiated a rather soulless upswing. A feverish, haunting marriage of performance, poetry, soundscapes and future noir imagery, Blade Runner remains seminal and was recently fortunate enough to get a great sequel (even if Scott pronounced it boring).