By John H. Foote
In a decade when artistic films seemed to disappear after the debacle of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), studios took back control over the filmmakers and ruled the day. Great films were less frequent, which hampered the industry and ended the director’s era, so exciting in the seventies. Obviously there were fewer great films, but in hindsight more than the decade is often given credit for. At the time it seemed box office mattered over all else, money ruled the industry. The issue is, of course, many of the Oscar winners did not deserve their awards, as there were stronger films, performances, cinematography, even score.
Think of Ordinary People (1980) besting Martin Scorsese’s searing Raging Bull (1980), Chariots of Fire (1981) shocking the industry and besting Reds (1981) a year later, Gandhi winning over E.T. (1982), it becomes painfully obvious other films were more worthy winners.
Let me state I do not include the snub of Best Director of Steven Spielberg for The Color Purple (1985) any kind of injustice at all. Spielberg took an angry, spiky, masterful book and turned it into a Disney-like reality that bore no semblance of realism to the Black Experience in the early part of the 20th century. None. As the chief creative artist on the film, he guided everyone else to their work, some of it laughable (that score?), so no, Spielberg did not deserve a nomination. Worse there are rumblings he truly believed the way to an Oscar was to direct something entirely out of his “type” of film! The greatest strength of that film, which I think is among his least movies, remains the astonishing performance of Whoopi Goldberg, remarkable. Mr. Spielberg, no.
Thankfully his greatest work was yet to come, in the nineties.
This is the second in a series of articles on Oscar’s greatest snubs.
1980 – BEST PICTURE AND DIRECTOR – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK AND IRVIN KERSHNER
Star Wars (1977) was nominated for 10 and won seven Academy Awards. The critical consensus was that The Empire Strikes Back was a great film all around – darker, richer in tone, just a magnificent sequel, vastly superior to the first film. But the Academy obviously did get that memo because The Empire Strikes Back was nominated for just four Academy Awards and subbed entirely for the major prizes – Best Picture and Best Director. Where to start about the images? The ice planet Hoth, Dagobah, the fantastic swamp planet where we encounter Yoda, the powerful Jedi master, the city in the clouds, and that fantastic light sabre battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, which delivers the greatest line of the eighties. Grander, more operatic, even darker than the first, clearly there was something much more meaningful within this film, as we raced towards the conclusion where Luke would finally encounter the villain again, only to learn that vile villain is in fact his father. The four most important words in cinema in the eighties became “I am your father”. I still remember the intake of breath by more than eight hundred movie goers (myself included) and the absolute silence to follow for the remainder of the film. People seems to forget to breathe for that time, it was astonishing to be a part of. As The Godfather Part II (1974) had proven, sequels could indeed surpass the first film, and in the process making themselves greater by the that singular achievement. Thirty years later, more Star Wars films have been created and seen, but towering above them all is The Empire Strikes Back.
1980 – BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY, BEST MAKE UP – THE ELEPHANT MAN
Though I stand by my belief that Raging Bull deserved to win the Oscar for Best Cinematography, and DID NOT, alongside the nomination for Raging Bull should have been one of two The Elephant Man did not receive. Freddie Francis gave The Elephant Man simply spectacular black and white cinematography, capturing the smoky, dirty Victorian England that existed just as the Industrial Revolution broke. The story of the man known as the Elephant Man, John Merrick, who became famous for the tormented life he led before being found by a Dr. Frederick Treves who thought him an imbecile but discovered he was a gentle, intelligent soul and they became lifelong friends. His poor body was covered in calcified tumors, including his skull, giving him a massive head, and twisted misshapen body that must have been agony and beyond painful. In making the film, Lynch made it unique in its look, surrealistic, like a dark dream from which we cannot escape. The shadows and beauty of the cinematography made the film quite extraordinary, recalling the banned American film Freaks (1932) by Todd Browning, capturing in every aspect the world as it was in England in that time. Was there color in such a dark, smoky, sooty place? The second award it deserved to be nominated for was Best Makeup and the howls of protest when there was no Makeup category, brought about the addition of one the very next year. At the very least a special achievement should have been voted to the film.
1981 – BEST PICTURE AND DIRECTOR – BLOW OUT AND BRIAN DE PALMA
Released in the summer months, usually the time audience pleasing popcorn fare is released, and such a foolish move on the part of the studio. They had a bona fide Oscar contender and blew it. Within three weeks, despite great reviews and strong word of mouth, Blow Out was out of theatres. On video and as a rental it thrived, developing a strong cult following that exists to this day. Audiences found it and celebrated the film for its genius. De Palma had his hit, his greatest film and one of the decade’s greatest movies. Entertaining, thrilling, taut, filled with tension and thrills it just never seems to cease moving and at the heart is John Travolta, giving the performance of his career. De Palma clearly loves the movies because every aspect here is crafted to perfection. Should have seven, or eight nominations minimum. A haunting thriller.
1981 – BEST ACTOR – JOHN TRAVOLTA IN BLOW OUT
As Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever (1977), Danny in Grease (1978), and the bull riding hotshot Buck in Urban Cowboy (1980), Travolta always was a young man at a crossroads in his life. In Blow Out, finally he portrayed an adult, and a very cynical one at that. Haunted by a terrible accident that cost a cop his life years before, Jack (Travolta) now works as a sound man for B grade horror films. After recording an assassination, he realizes he is in way over his head but stays on it because it is the right thing to do. Pauline Kael compared Travolta to a young Brando and critics went crazy praising him for his lived in, realistic performance. The best work of his career and yes, including Pulp Fiction (1994)
1981 – BEST ACTRESS – JESSICA LANGE IN THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE
As Cora, the startling woman who is the object of Frank’s desires, Lange was pure carnality in the film. She suggests sex; with every move of her body, every glance, every word she is sex. And she knows the effect she has on men, she has always known and always made it work, until she ended up in a dead-end marriage to a much older man, operating a roadside diner feeling the stares of the male customers. She and Frank connect, murder her husband and get away with it, but nothing is quite the same afterwards, as they pay the price. Lange is electrifying, and we understand why Frank, portrayed by the great Jack Nicholson would kill for her. Would you not? Not only should have been nominated, the lady should have won.
1982 – BEST ACTOR – HENRY THOMAS IN E.T.: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL
The greatest performance ever given by a child, period. Thomas was remarkable as Elliott, the 10-year-old who finds an alien living in his garden shed, takes him into the house, feeds him, takes care of him and mysteriously bonds with E.T. He realizes two things are happening: E.T. wants to go home and Elliott can help him, and the government is actively looking for an alien they know is on earth. The film is a dreamscape, superb visual effects, and it is extraordinary to remember that young Thomas does most of his scenes with a special effect, making his performance all the more impressive. A miraculous piece of acting from a little boy who onscreen soared above the trees across the moon and offscreen was recognized for his soaring work, which an Oscar nomination would have taken him into the heavens.
1982 – BEST ACTRESS — DIANE KEATON IN SHOOT THE MOON
Best known for her work in Woody Allen’s films, including his early comedies and the sublime Annie Hall (1977), but after stunning audiences in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) it was clear she was made for drama. Reds (1981) displayed her intellect as an actress, superb as Louise Bryant, but here she is heartbreaking as Faith, the wife of George who leaves her for a younger, superficial woman. Possibly the most realistic film about a divorce and the staggering impact on family, shattered by her husband’s rejection of her, she tries to survive it, throwing herself into the lives of her daughters. Her greatest scene here is in her bathtub, quietly smoking a joint as she begins to sing “If I Fell” heartbroken by the loss of her marriage. Both she and Albert Finney shine, and yes, both deserved to be nominated.
1983 – BEST ACTOR – ERIC ROBERTS IN STAR 80
As one of the most seething characters onscreen in the eighties, Eric Roberts was terrifying as Paul Snider, the man responsible for murdering Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten. He sodomized her, raped her and then turned the shotgun on himself. Roberts went as deep into the character as an actor could go, less a performance than a complete inhabitation of this repellant character. Too upsetting for the conservative Academy? Perhaps, but he should have been there among the five nominees. Rarely has such a dislikable lout been so utterly hypnotic to watch. We cannot wait to see what he will do next; he is a complete social outcast.
1983 – BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – JERRY LEWIS IN THE KING OF COMEDY
Worn down by his fame, Lewis is terrific as talk show host Jerry Langford, based obviously on Johnny Carson. Lonely, isolated, well-guarded from his frantic fans and tired of all the work going into his show. Watching him eat dinner alone high above New York City, he is a study in sadness, the proverbial bird in the gilded cage. Working with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro must have impacted Lewis to up his game and portray a character unlike any other he had ever played onscreen. We can see that as Pupkin invades Jerry’s world, it is a sort of rape, and the violation on Langford’s face becomes shattering. Deeply melancholy, he is brilliant as Langford.
1984 – BEST ACTOR – STEVE MARTIN IN ALL OF ME
Audiences, including myself, howled in laughter at Steve Martin’s antics in All of Me, one of the greatest physical performances ever given. As a man who has one side of his body taken over by the soul of a snooty rich woman, Martin unleashes his arsenal of physical comedy as man and woman fight for control of his every movement. Easily one of the greatest comedic performances ever given, it was no real shock with Martin won Best Actor awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle, however when he was not nominated for the Academy Award, those howls of giddy joy in watching the film became angry howls of rage he was passed over.
1984 – BEST ACTOR — ROBIN WILLIAMS IN MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON
Incredibly in the same year Martin was snubbed for All of Me, so was Robin Williams ignored for his wonderful performance in the melancholy comedy Moscow on the Hudson. As a Russian saxophonist working for the Moscow Circus, Vlad (Williams) travels from Russia to New York and much to his own surprise defects. Leaving his country and family behind is difficult for him, but he must be free, and though it is a painful decision to defect, he knows – as will his family – it is the right thing to do. The staggering culture shock in living in bustling New York City sends him into a breakdown but he gradually adapts and thrives. Williams is sublime, mastering the Russian language and then the broken English of a Russian immigrant, but more and much deeper, the profound sense of sadness that must be within one who will never see his family again. He should have been nominated along with Martin, no question.
1985 – BEST ACTRESS – CHER IN MASK
The charismatic singer with the big voice had begun dabbling in acting with a solid performance in Silkwood (1983) opposite Meryl Streep, no better mentor. She followed it with a blistering, raw, and brilliant performance as Rusty in Mask. The fierce mother of a young teen, Rocky (Eric Stoltz), with a disease not unlike that of John Merrick the Elephant Man, who lived a tormented life with huge growths on his head and twisted his boy. Rocky had those same growths of bone on his head but was otherwise normal and a brilliant student. His mom was a tough talking woman who wanted her son to have a normal life despite his appearance and she did not care who she offended to get him that life. Part of a motorcycle gang, Rocky’s best buddies are tough bikers who truly do love him. Cher is confident in the film, tough as nails and the love for her son is never questioned. The lady could indeed act.
1986 – BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – DENNIS HOPPER IN BLUE VELVET
As Frank Booth, actor Dennis Hopper delivered the finest performance of a villain ever put on screen. Hopped up on drugs and booze, escalated further by hits from the small tank of nitrous oxide on his hip, he is the devil incarnate, a monster from your nightmares. In David Lynch’s surrealistic nightmare, Hopper is the central villain in small town Lumberton where he has kidnapped the husband and child of a nightclub singer he is fixated upon. He arrives at her apartment and berates her, beats her, rapes her and leaves, over and over this is his routine. When he discovers she has been spending time with a younger man, he drags the kid along on a “joy ride” which proves anything but. Terrifying in his fury, in the throes of drugs, Hopper gives one of the greatest supporting performances in film history. Astounding in its brilliance, utterly fearless. No chance the cowardly Academy would nominate him for this, but he was nominated for a lesser performance in Hoosiers (1986). Pure psychosis has never been portrayed with such electrifying madness as Hopper does here, he is evil incarnate, madness incarnate. His work as Frank Booth is a howling, spectacular portrait of the kind of evil we have never seen before, a complete sociopathic psychopath who elevates his madness with drugs and that little tank. When we see that tank, that oxygen mask come out, we cringe, tighten up because we know some horrors from hell are about to be unleashed. In dreams indeed…only in dreams. Bizarre.
1986 – BEST ACTOR – SEAN PENN AND CHRISTOPHER WALKEN IN AT CLOSE RANGE
Two acting titans face off in this film, based on the true story of a father-son crime family that goes horribly wrong. Walken is Brad Sr., or Big Brad, while Penn is Little Brad. Seduced by his father’s constant roll of cash, fast cars and fast lifestyle, he joins the gang and they begin stealing expensive farm equipment from the surrounding farms. But the deeper into the gang he sinks, the more he is trusted by the members and he finally witnesses a murder. Nothing to Brad Sr., business as usual. Targeted by a grand jury for investigation, Brad Sr. begins killing off the members of the “kiddy gang” all of his son’s best friends including his brother Tommy (Chris Penn). Trying to send a warning to Brad Jr., his father rapes the boy’s girlfriend causing Little Brad to talk, and talk he does. In one last attempt to shut his son up, Brad Sr. arranges for an assassination, and Brad Jr. is badly wounded, his girlfriend murdered. Can the younger man stay awake after losing so much blood to keep his father at bay to be arrested? The actors are extraordinary, Walken delivering a performance as a man who is pure evil, a complete sociopath and psychopath who cares only about himself. For me it is the most terrifying performance in his impressive career, and he deserved to be nominated. Penn is his equal in every way, slowly coming to terms with what his mother has told him about his father, slowly realizing his father is a monster. Two of the finest American actors go toe to toe and never once let us down, delivering remarkable, realistic performances.
1987 – BEST DIRECTOR – JAMES L. BROOKS FOR BROADCAST NEWS
Brooks knew television. No question, the man could tell a story. Having produced and/or created The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis, Rhoda, Taxi and Cheers before he directed the multi-Oscar winning Terms of Endearment (1983), who better than Brooks to write and direct an insightful and accurate study of the inner workings of network news? He would add The Simpsons to his many credits later in his incredible career. In Broadcast News we meet a trio of characters who become involved one way or another, and those around them supporting their careers. William Hurt is the good looking, photogenic newsman who is dumb, dumb and dumb but knows how to sell himself. Holly Hunter is the brilliant producer of the news who cannot shut her mind off, even during her daily crying jags. She’s in love with Hurt, but ever loyal to her best friend, portrayed by Albert Brooks who is a jack of all trades for the news, able to do it all. Brooks loves Hunter but she loves Hurt, and Hurt seems incapable of loving anyone but himself. Jack Nicholson is a droll comic delight as the obscenely rich anchorman who wanders through the newsroom from time to time. Superbly acted by all, the lacerating expose on TV is both funny and intelligent. Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor (Hurt), and Actress (Hunter), the film’s director, the prime creative force was ignored.
1987 – BEST PICTURE, DIRECTOR – EMPIRE OF THE SUN AND STEVEN SPIELBERG
It never bothered me when Spielberg was snubbed as Best Director for The Color Purple because he took the grit and power out of the superb novel. Sanitizing it to be non-offensive, he weakened the film instead of bringing the urgency and power to the screen. Great performances could not save the zip a di doo dah mentality he gave it. But when snubbed for Empire of the Sun, one of the eighties greatest films, I felt nothing but anger and rage. A stunning film, war as seen through the eyes of a child, awe and majesty, horrors and wonder filling the screen, what Jamie (Christian Bale) sees, we see. Four years living in a Japanese camp as a prisoner of war, Jamie learns how to survive, living like an animal, finding food, foraging like a rat, always in motion, trying to remember what his parents look like. Bale was remarkable, but Spielberg is the star here with one of his finest films and greatest directorial achievements. When Jamie is finally united with his parents after what must seem a lifetime to a child, he allows his mother to hug him and the camera captures his ancient eyes, which finally, at peace, close to rest. But they are no longer the eyes of a child, they are the wise old eyes of a man who has seen too much and who will not be at home long. His childhood is gone, as is his innocence. The film is a masterpiece.
1988 – BEST ACTRESS — MICHELLE PFEIFFER IN MARRIED TO THE MOB
Pfeiffer had been on the rise for quite some time – Scarface (1983) her first great performance attesting to her talents, allowing her to survive Grease 2 (1982). In 1988 she had quite a year, bursting to the forefront of American actresses with a superb supporting performance in Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and a lead performance as a Mafia widow trying to break free of “the life” in Married to the Mob. Jonathan Demme was on the rise as a director to pay attention too, and he gave Pfeiffer this role on a hunch. She delivered a very fine performance, both funny and poignant as she tries, time and time again to break free of the mob. The trouble is the leader, Tony the Tiger (Dean Stockwell), wants her and is used to getting what he wants. Worse though, his wife from hell senses something and will kill before he does, the woman being chased. Pfeiffer is terrific throughout, toning down her initially garish performance under tons of makeup, and giving a young FBI detective a chance at real love, managing to trust someone again. She shines throughout.
1989 – BEST PICTURE AND BEST DIRECTOR – DO THE RIGHT THING AND SPIKE LEE
Jaws dropped when the nominations for excellence in film 1989 were announced by the Academy. Left out, inexplicably, was Spike Lee’s incendiary drama Do the Right Thing, which had by then won the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards for Best Film and Best Director. The most controversial of the year, a vicious attack and study on racism, the film took swipes at every form of racism. Audiences of course focused on the most obvious, black against white, and it lit audiences afire with its blazing honesty. In a black neighborhood in Brooklyn, a white Italian family owns a pizza parlor, frequented by everyone in the area. The father is quietly racist, the sons very different, one openly stating his dislike for African Americans, the other fine with everyone, seeing them as people. When violence explodes within the pizza place and a riot begins, Mookie, the delivery boy, throws a garbage can through the window igniting overwhelming violence and the place is burned out. Unsettling, electrifying, acted with authenticity and directed with astounding force and power. A cauldron of emotions that blazes out of control. That blaze was passed down into the audiences who often erupted in fury at screenings of the film. No other film has spoken to racism as this did, it simply cut to close to the bone for the conservative Academy.
1989 – BEST PICTURE AND BEST DIRECTOR – GLORY AND EDWARD ZWICK
Hailed by critics as a masterpiece, Glory was expected to be a major Oscar player when the nominations were announced. Five is nothing to sneeze at, but two more, for Best Picture and Edward Zwick for Best Director, were certainly deserving. The film explores the black troop from the North who trained and fought in the Civil War, possibly the most unknown story about that vile conflict that pit brother against brother. A young Colonel, Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), is tasked with creating the troop, training them and getting them battle ready. He finds the African Americans difficult to train because they are often so happy go lucky despite many being slaves and having been slaves. Their backs bear the scars of the whip and in some cases they have no love for the white man. Trip (Denzel Washington) is a runaway who finds a family in the military, while others do the same, forging a bond they never thought possible. They overcome infighting, petty behavior and insults from the other white troops to become a fighting force to behold. Eventually Shaw agrees to a suicide mission on the beaches of the Carolinas and, displaying extraordinary courage and valor, they come together as a unit, but with enormous losses. The film won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Washington), best cinematography and best sound, but it never has been enough because it richly deserved nods for Best Picture and to Mr. Zwick for his sublime direction.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.