Armchair Oscars – 1982

Best Picture

Gandhi (Directed by Richard Attenborough)
The Nominees: E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial, Missing, Tootsie, The Verdict

E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (Directed by Steven Spielberg)
My Nominees: 
Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen), Gandhi (Richard Attenborough), Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (Lou Adler), My Favorite Year (Richard Benjamin), Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula), Tootsie (Sydney Pollack), TRON (Steven Lisberger), The Verdict (Sydney Lumet)


Just before Steven Spielberg won the Oscar for Schindler’s List in 1994, he gave an interview to critic Gene Siskel in which he talked about his history as an Oscar bridesmaid. He showed an illustration that he had clipped from the newspaper, captioned “The Winners”, that depicted Gandhi holding and armload of Oscars while E.T. stood next to him holding an armload of cash. That’s pretty much the tone of the 55th Annual Academy Awards with the frontrunners being the little man with the great big cause battling the little alien with a great big heart.

I liked Attenborough’s Gandhi, which finds the intimate personal journey inside a large canvas. Yet, I feel that Gandhi is a film that I’m suppose to like, I call it a “Broccoli Movie”, a film that is undoubtedly great, but not something I am willing to revisit. I prefer Spielberg’s fairytale to Attenborough’s biography because it is a film that I could watch at any time. It stirs the soul, touches the heart and frees the imagination. That is certainly what I felt when the film came out in 1982.

I feel blessed that I was 10 years-old when E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial was released. The first time I saw the movie I was just at the threshold between childhood wonderment and pre-teen reality. I was still at the age at which I didn’t have to take a step backwards emotionally to enjoy it, I felt that it was a movie made just for me. Now I have to take a step back into my childhood, but fortunately cynicism doesn’t cloud my enjoyment.

E.T. is a glorious film, a story of friendship, frustration, love, responsibility, and also a red-blooded adventure and a lot of fun. It doesn’t talk down to its audience like a “children’s movie” would. Steven Spielberg presents the story at the level that a 10 year-old would tell it. You can tell that he is a kid at heart.

The story in E.T. is universally known and sweetly simple. A boy from a broken home, with no friends, absent of the ability to empathize, meets a creature from another world who has been left behind on this planet during a mission to collect plants. E.T. is alone, scared to death and knows that beings from this planet are searching high and low to find him. Why? He probably doesn’t want to know.

Wandering into a small California town he finds himself in the backyard shed of Elliott and after some moments and then some caution, they quickly realize that they can trust one another. Their bond is mutual, but it is also empathetic (each is lost on this planet) and telepathic. What the alien feels, the boy feels, and so he knows that hiding his new friend would probably be a good idea. His siblings have the same initial approach, but they come to love this alien. The movie is specific about the kids but wants them to stand for all kids, that’s why it isn’t specific about their lives other than the very basics (note that the movie never gives them a last name).

The casting of the kids is essential. 10 year-old Elliott is just the right age to deal with keeping E.T. hidden and dealing with the nature of their friendship. If Elliott were any younger he may have been scared away, any older and he might have called the authorities for help. He is flanked by an older, more cynical, teenage brother named Michael whose friends represent the kind of immature smart-aleck gawkiness that Elliott witnesses but has yet to experience. On the opposite side there is a younger sister, Gertie, who still lives in a world of dolls, dress-up and Sesame Street.

The movie explores E.T.’s domestic experience with all the usually “alien-around-the-house” destructiveness that is common in a fish-out-of-water tale. There’s the introduction of junk food, television, toys and the inevitable tussle with the frightening entity known as the family dog. Plus there is a strange connection with a resurrected geranium that, at one point, acts as E.T.’s pseudo-heart monitor.

E.T himself is a masterwork. He is really little more than a collection of rubber, paint and robotronics but fused so convincingly that the filmmakers were able to rise beyond just a clever puppet with blinking eyes. They gave him a life, an energy, they made him expressive so we feel what he feels. He’s not just an over-sized Muppet but a fully realized soul who, like Yoda before him, comes to life and is able to fool the eye with life-like details. And the movie would be nothing without the element of danger. All through the movie, as E.T. hides in the safety of the children’s closet, government scientists circle the area and close in on his location.

The movie has some things in common with another Spielberg production, Poltergeist, which was released exactly one week before this film. Both had Spielberg’s touch, but while he directed E.T. he only took a producer credit for Poltergeist and gave directing duties to Texas Chainsaw Massacre scribe Tobe Hooper (although it is still famously debated that Spielberg actually directed both). The two films are polar opposites of one another, where one film is about hope and love, the other is about fear and terror. Both films maintain their center in the children’s closet, Elliott hides E.T. away in the safety of his closet while the one in Poltergeist becomes the center from which the terror consistently flows. The best of both films is the way Spielberg allows his character’s personalities to drive the story, both have wonderful special effects but they don’t take over the film.

Spielberg is best as seeing through the eyes of his characters. He begins by seeing through the eyes of his alien to help understand how he sees our world. Revisiting the film, I noticed a shot in the beginning that illustrates this without a single word. As the movie opens E.T. and his alien crew are wandering through a California forest at night and the only light is the brightness from the interior of the ship, at one point he walks past the trunks of two giant redwood trees whose branches are hidden by the darkness. Look closely and the tree trunks almost resemble a pair of giant legs. What must the alien make of this? What fear does it put in his heart?

Look at another moment when the aliens turn a corner and a pick-up trunk turns in their direction. The headlights could be, to them, a pair of beaming eyes and I could swear the truck roars when it turns into the shot. Spielberg plays the scene as the aliens would see it.

Then there are the moments of pure exhilaration. Take the most famous moment in the movie when Elliot nestles E.T. into the basket of his bike and they ride into the forest to set up a makeshift communicator that they have built to signal the alien’s home planet. The bike takes off, flying through the night sky and the moment, coupled with John Williams uplifting score, is one of the cinema’s most thrilling moments. The polar opposite of course is E.T. ‘s death scene in which the scientists have pushed their way into Elliott’s home and begun experiments on the alien who is apparently dying. The tone and the emotion of that moment make for one of the most heart-tugging death scenes in movie history. Spielberg pulls us along emotionally but never tells us how to feel.

That scene is the one everyone remembers because it is hard not to cry. But for me, the most tearful moment in the film is the last one, as the two friends part company. Look closely at the scene, look at the lighting, the composition, the camera movement, coupled with Williams’ beautiful score and you see a moment that really reminds us of why we go to the movies.

When it was released in 1982, no one was more surprised by its success then Spielberg himself. He knew it would be popular but he never suspected that it would become the best selling movie of all time, outgrossing box office champ Star Wars (until Star Wars reclaimed it’s title 15 years later). The movie had almost the same kind of universal praise and merchandise as Star Wars but curiously E.T.‘s public reputation has slipped. Most of the audience who made it such a hit have grown up in a cynical age and generally sniff, dismissing it as a soppy children’s movie. An example of its slipping impact could be seen in it’s unsuccessful 20th anniversary rerelease in 2002, which used computer effects to make E.T. more expressive, added a curious but unnecessary bathtub scene and replaced the Fed’s guns with walkie-talkies. I wasn’t much of a fan of these changes, purity is the theme of this movie and I choose to watch its purity, I like it when it’s not dressed up for the 21st Century.

The world may have moved past E.T. but I never did. I still find it to be a wonderful experience, just as I did when I saw it at age 10. Back then I regarded it with wonder and awe. Now, as I slip ever-too-swiftly into middle-age, the magic of E.T. still enchants me. It has a winning heart that is timeless and beautiful.

Best Actor

Ben Kingsley (
The Nominees: Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie), Jack Lemmon (Missing), Peter O’Toole (My Favorite Year), Paul Newman (The Verdict)

Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie)
My Nominees:
Ben Kingsley (Gandhi), Steve Martin (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), Paul Newman (The Verdict), Peter O’Toole (My Favorite Year), Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot), Henry Thomas (E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial), Robin Williams (The World According to Garp)


I would probably have complained if the academy had given it’s Best Picture honor to Gandhi and not rewarded Ben Kingsley’s performance in the title role.  Kingsley, let’s face it, is the movie.  He bears a striking resemblance to Mohandas K. Gandhi and beautifully displays the great leader’s philosophies and passionate passive-resistance.  But, since I did not give Gandhi my Best Picture award, I don’t feel bad about taking away Kingsley’s award either. It is a great performance in a movie that I’m not ready to revisit.

Kingsley gives a fine performance – he is among my nominees. He does a wonderful job of playing Gandhi from early years as a young lawyer, through his days as a pacifist leader and on to his old age when he is assassinated.  But, as they say, dying is easy and comedy is hard.  That’s why I am rewarding Dustin Hoffman for his wonderful performance in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie, a pure screwball comedy that gave Hoffman a tricky performance that allowed him to create not one but two almost separate roles.

He plays Michael Dorsey, a New York actor who is talented and driven, but has earned a reputation of being impossible to work with.  He fights with directors, he throws tantrums on the set and his agent George (Sydney Pollack) assures him that “No one in this town will hire you” but also adds “no one in Hollywood wants to work with you either.”  Unable to find work and needing to fund a play written by his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray) called “Return to Love Canal”, a bombshell goes off in Michael’s mind after his friend Sandy (Teri Garr) loses an audition to play a hospital administrator on a daytime soap “Southwest General”.

Putting on make-up, a wig and a dress, Michael Dorsey turns himself into Dorothy Michaels and auditions for the role.  The pig-headed director Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman) immediately assures him (her?) that he is looking for “a certain type” but with an assertive jab and some quick ad-libbing, he (she?) gets the job. Dorothy becomes a sensation to the female viewers for her assertive, no-nonsense feminist stance and, from this, Michael becomes a better actor (he is, after all, giving two performances at once).  He also begins to understand that sometimes its hard to be a woman.  He quickly understands having to get up three hours earlier to get ready for work, dealing with dresses and underwear and make-up and nails.  He also feels pangs of being an unattractive middle-aged woman vying for space in a business that wants youth and beauty.  He finds himself fussing over clothes, over his looks, over the prospect of going out and not wearing the same outfit twice.  Michael is a good looking guy, but Dorothy is not a beautiful woman.  From this, Michael gives Dorothy a strong personality. She is sweet but assertive, and doesn’t hesitate to tell the chauvinistic director where to go.

He also has a problem when he falls desperately in love with Julie, a pretty co-star (Supporting Actress winner Jessica Lange) but she only knows him as Dorothy and considers Dorothy to be a great listener and a great friend.  It gnaws at him that he cannot express how he feels without revealing himself especially when he learns that her boyfriend is Ron and that Ron doesn’t feel that he needs to be faithful.  When Dorothy confronts Ron about his infidelity, we see that this is eating away at Michael.

The situation gets weirder as he has to keep his identity separate, while not letting Julie know that he is really a man (though he desperately wants to tell her).  He contends, also, with Julie’s widower father Leslie (Charles Durning) who falls in love with Dorothy and eventually proposes marriage.  Then he has to keep up with Sandy, who knows Michael but not Dorothy and there is a hilarious scene in which he arrives home as Dorothy while Jeff has to keep her at bay while Michael gets out of Dorothy and becomes Michael again.  It gets so complicated that it leads to a brilliant moment in which he gets tongue-tied trying to explain it all to George.

Hoffman explores every single possibility with the dual identity, but what makes the performance work is that Michael doesn’t give Dorothy a lot of feminine actorly mannerisms other than a high-pitched voice and a southern accent.  He doesn’t try to act like a woman.  He allows Dorothy to react to those around her with a newfound personality all her own and, for the most part, it becomes a 24 hours ad-lib.  He is able to create a character who adheres herself to what is going on around her.  The result is that Michael becomes, not a just better man, but a better listener and a better actor.  He has pulled off the ultimate acting job.  When we see in the closing credits that Michael and Dorothy are credited separately, it feels right because the movie has earned it and Hoffman deserves all the credit.

Best Actress

Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice)
The Nominees: Julie Andrews (Victor/Victoria), Jessica Lange (Frances), Sissy Spacek (Missing), Debra Winger (An Officer and a Gentleman)

Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice)
y Nominees: Jessica Lange (Frances), Gena Rowlands (Tempest)


It may surprise some to know that despite a thirty-five year career, seventeen Oscar nominations, fifty films and a reputation of being one of the best actors of her generation, Meryl Streep has been named Best Actress by the academy only twice. It first happened in 1983 with Sophie’s Choice and it wouldn’t happen again for 28 years when she won for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. I think Sophie’s Choice is still her best. Not that her subsequent roles haven’t been excellent, but it is within this sad melodrama that her best gifts are displayed.

Her achievements, on the surface, come from the way she prepared for the role. Her legendary ability with accents began here as she gives Sophie a polish accent and plays the flashback sequences speaking Polish and German. But those are the technical achievements, what she is able to portray in Sophie Zawistowski is a woman who is happy, playful and sexy, but just under the surface suffers a thinly veiled level of pain. Around the edges of her lips, in the closed in lines around her eyes, we sense there is a buried horror in her past.

We meet Sophie, a survivor of the death camps at Auschwitz, through the eyes of Stingo (Peter McNichol) a naive young kid from the south who has designs on being a great writer. This is 1947, in the years immediately following the war and he has moved north to Brooklyn, New York where he meets Sophie, a polish immigrant living with her lover, a brash older man named Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline). Sophie and Nathan become friends and their friendship gradually begins to break down the blinders of Stingo’s adolescence. There’s a level to Sophie that doesn’t become immediately clear, but also doesn’t reveal itself all at once. We learn that she was a polish-Catholic who was thrown into a concentration camp for trying to smuggle a ham. She lost both of her children in the camp and then survived the camps herself and immigrated to the United States.

She has experienced a lifetime of hurt and pain, of loss and of sorrow, but she tries to soldier on in her life by trying to put it all behind her. Yet, erasing all of her memories won’t make them go away, they still reside within her. Look at the way her makeup whitens her face, as if the experience has left her a ghost of her former self. Her voice is very sweet but her speech seems somewhat cautious as if telling stories about those experiences are too difficult to put into words. What I intuit from Sophie, whose present life has very few walls as she drinks and takes up with a lover, is that she spent so many years having to watch her step and keep herself within a small confined space that now she simply lives at will.

In her former life, in the death camps, she had to watch every move, every syllable, every motion. One of the best observances in the film is during one of the flashbacks in which she and a fellow inmate use the Auschwitz Walk, walking through deep areas of mud but trying to only step in the footprints of the people who have gone before. Observe how that scene connects to later scenes in which she is carefree and dances at will but when she is frightened, her footsteps are very small.

It may have seemed more rational to simply tell Sophie’s story through Sophie’s eyes without the narrative of Stingo’s growth from callow youth to a young man who, and how this experience makes him a better writer. But I think we need that understanding to bring her story to the surface. What happens to Sophie in the end is only fitting because her life in the wake of the holocaust was more or less meaningless except in it’s relation to Stingo’s understanding of human nature. There’s nothing left for her and finally, in the end, she has found some peace.

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