Armchair Oscars – 1985

| August 15, 2011 | 0 Comments

Best Picture

Out of Africa (Directed by Sydney Pollack)
The Nominees: The Color PurpleKiss of the Spider WomanPrizzi’s HonorWitness

Blood Simple.
(Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
My Nominees: After Hours (Martin Scorsese), Cocoon (Ron Howard), The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg), Mask (Peter Bogdanovich), The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen), Ran (Akira Kurosawa)


In Nineteen Eighty-Five Steven Spielberg, the most successful filmmaker of all time, took a break from his usual escapist entertainment and ventured into more serious territory.  His offering was a beautifully-made adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Color Purple”, which followed the emotional journey of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg in her film debut), a homely African-American girl (at least they call her that) in the early 20th century and her struggle to come out from under the thumb of the bully that she has been forced to marry (played by Danny Glover).

The Color Purple was a critical and box office success that would earn ten Oscar nominations, but, in the biggest “screw you” of his career, Spielberg was not nominated for Best Director.  To further express the voting academy’s distaste for his attempt to try something new, the film received no Oscars at all. There are a million theories as to why the academy had such a disdain for Spielberg, but I think they still saw him as a kid, an adolescent who made films for adolescents. Personally, I think they were jealous of his success.

The academy voters instead turned to the work of a director they were more comfortable with. Sydney Pollack won two Oscars for producing and directing Out of Africa, based on the autobiographical works of Karen Blixen (who wrote under the pen name Isak Denisen) who married her late husband’s brother because she liked him, then moved to a British colony in Africa to work on a coffee farm. The film follows her romantic adventures first with her shallow husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and then with a handsome big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) who wins her heart.

I have mixed feelings about Out of Africa. What stays with me are the beautifully shot images of the African savanna (photographed by David Watkin whose credits include Yentl and Chariots of Fire), which are breathtaking, and I appreciate Pollack’s patience in letting the story unfold slowly rather than push along to the next highlight. My problem is that after a wonderful start, I think the movie loses momentum in its second half. After Blixen begins her romance with Hatton, in the aftermath of World War I, the movie loses focus and gets a little dull until it grinds to a somewhat inevitable conclusion.

I was also put off by several scenes in which the actors are shot in close-up and are clearly on badly lit sets. The close-ups and the longshots don’t seem to match. This is most evident in the film’s most famous scene in which the two lovers take a biplane over the African countryside. The scenes of the plane flying over the hills and mountains are spectacular but then there are close-ups of the two actors who look as though they are sitting in a mock-plane indoors with artificial lighting. It kind of kills the moment.

Out of Africa was nominated for 11 academy awards and won 7. Yet, the film languishes as one of the least screened of all the Best Picture winners. Meanwhile, my favorite film of the year, Blood Simple, is even more popular today than it was when it was released. Directed, in a brilliant debut by Joel and Ethan Coen, it has a visual pallet that has become legendary and the brothers have become two of the most creative filmmakers of their generation. Blood Simple did only moderate box office in nineteen eighty-five but in the wake of the Coen’s other films Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, their fans have discovered Blood Simple, and it has earned them a cult fanbase.

Cult fans and box office aside, Blood Simple is a brilliant example of pure filmmaking. For every inch of its running time Blood Simple takes the shape of a film noir nightmare, the kind of film filled with scummy characters, dirty deeds, good people who find themselves doing the unthinkable and an ending that is built on screenwriting ingenuity.  The film is famous for it’s striking visual style (with brilliant camerawork by a young Barry Sonnenfeld) but what isn’t discussed nearly enough is the screenplay, which never allows the characters to completely understand what is happening from one moment to the next.  We in the audience are privy to everything that is happening but the characters are kept in the dark so that when two people are having an argument they aren’t on the same wave length.  In lesser hands this might be confusing, but the narrative structure is constructed in a way that the misinformation becomes a nice running joke.

The story is simple, but never simple minded.  It involves a saloon owner named Marty who hires a private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) to kill his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) and her lover, a saloon employee named Ray (John Getz).  Visser instructs Marty to take a fishing trip out of town and get himself noticed in order to establish a clean alibi.  When Visser comes back he lies to Marty, telling him that the job has been done and shows him doctored photographs of the bodies.  Marty pays Visser for the job and Visser responds by shooting Marty in the chest.  He’s got his money but he can’t have a witness, can he?

That would seem simple enough but what follows is an escalation of murder, double-crosses, disposal of a dead body, a surprise from that dead body, and a scene between two people in separate rooms in which one person is mistaken about the identity of the other.  It is difficult to discuss large chunks of Blood Simple without giving away some of the film’s best surprises  Suffice to say that nothing is ever what it seems, the dead don’t always stay dead and blood is far more difficult to clean up than you might think.

The key to the film is the lock-step storytelling.  Character’s motives are guided often by what they do not know.  At one point Visser steals Abby’s gun from her purse and later, when Ray discovers Marty’s dead body with Abby’s pistol on the scene he assumes that Abby has killed him.  That leads to a grisly scene in which Ray attempts to get rid of the body by doing something that he may never have done in other circumstances.  When Ray admits to Abby what he has done, she has no idea what he is talking about.  Neither have any idea about the hitman and when he comes to kill them, through a series of clever set-ups, they still have no idea even when the man enters their apartment.

The characters in the movie are not stock film characters.  This is really a four-character play in which all four players find themselves trapped in this whirlwind of betrayal and murder.  Each acts on instinct, none is especially bright, they all make stupid mistakes which prove fatal for some.

The casting is perfect.  Dan Hedaya, with that great bloodhound face just bearly masking a fountain of rage, plays Marty the husband as a man who has been betrayed but doesn’t exactly take great joy in how he is choosing to resolve it.  He doesn’t like the detective he has hired, but the man is efficient and probably the only man he could find who was slimy enough to do that job.  Visser is played brilliantly by the great veteran M. Emmett Walsh as a giggling hitman who doesn’t take the job too seriously but knows how to double cross his client and take the kitty for himself.

What you take with you from Blood Simple is the visual style, the Coens use all the tricks of the film noir genre and add moments we don’t expect.  I love that way the Coen brothers play with visual shots almost as an homage to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. There are high angle shots then low angle shots that look up at the actors.  There are point of view shots, the most memorable being from the perspective of a dog who runs toward Marty as he attacks his wife in her front yard.  There is a curious moment early on when the camera moves down the bar toward two talking participants and the camera moves upward to get over a drunk who is passed out.  There is a high ceiling shot when Visser enters the bathroom to kill Abby and we get a perspective of the entire room.  There are closeups of certain rooms followed by wide shots that allow us to see that the room is much larger than we had initially thought.

The movie plays with our perceptions and our expectations so that, while the story plays out in a very straightforward manner, elements pop up that take us completely off-guard.  Joel and Ethan Coen would take this style into their other features.  They are masters as playing with our expectations and adding characters and dialogue that are always written one level up from what we expect – when they write a character they always add an extra dimension.

Best Actor

William Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman)
The Nominees: Harrison Ford (Witness), James Garner (Murphy’s Romance), Jack Nicholson (Prizzi’s Honor), Jon Voight (Runaway Train

Eric Stoltz (Mask)
My Nominees: John Cusack (Better Off Dead), John Cusack (The Sure Thing), Harrison Ford (Witness), Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future), Val Kilmer (Real Genius), Matthew Modine (Vision Quest), Jack Nicholson (Prizzi’s Honor)


William Hurt is one those actors who seems to be able to play anything. He won his Oscar for playing Luis Molina, an openly gay inmate doing time in a South American prison for child molestation in Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. I’m not a fan of that film, it is dull and as I watch it, I can see Hurt putting on a performance that never feels natural. All through the film I kept waiting for him to drop the gay mannerisms and admit that it has all been a performance.

If you want to talk about natural performances, no one could claim to have done better work in nineteen-eighty five than Eric Stoltz, who gave a brilliant performance through heavy make-up in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask. Based on a true story, he plays Rocky Dennis, a teenager who was born with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, or “lionitis”, a rare sclerotic bone disorder that caused disfigurement in his face. But the movie isn’t about clinical details, there are no overriding strides to make him “normal”. This is simply the story of a young teenager and his often frustrating world.

When we meet him, the movie doesn’t point to his ailment. Our initial reaction is only natural but once we get comfortable with his personality, we hardly seem to notice. He is an average kid who lives with his mother Rusty (Cher) who travels in a circle of biker friends, takes drugs and has a never-ending series of rotating boyfriends. She is irresponsible, but a good mother who loves her son and we get a sense of routine when she tries to enroll him in school and the principal (visibly shocked) suggests that he might be better off in a school that would “be better suited to his needs”. “Do you have algebra?”, she asks. “Yes”, the man says. “Those are his needs.” she tells him. There is a tone to her voice and an urgency that suggests that she has had this conversation over and over and over. What makes the moment special is what Rocky says next, smiling at the principal he tells him “Don’t worry, Mr. Simms. I look weird, but otherwise I’m real normal. Everything’ll be cool. ”

Rocky has a specific personality, he has a way of disarming the initial shock of his looks the moment he begins to speak. He’s smart, he’s sensitive, he is growing aware of the world outside, of motorcycles and of girls. He writes poems about the things that he likes and has a dream of someday riding motorcycles across Europe with his best buddy.

His mother has always instilled in her son the constant reminder that he is completely normal, “You’re more beautiful on the inside than most people”, she tells him. He has a way of disarming people’s reaction like a scene at his locker at school when he notices a group of kids staring at at him. “What’s the matter? Haven’t you ever seen anyone from the planet Vulcan before?” Later, on his first day at summer camp, the counselor instructs him to take off his mask and Rocky, in good spirits, responds “I could try but I don’t think it’ll come off”. I love the way we see the principal’s initial reaction and then later we see the same man approach him as if he were an old friend.

The movie rarely points to Rocky’s looks, it only comes into the story sideways and only at specific moments. There is a moment at a carnival when he and his friends are looking in a funhouse mirror when he sees himself, he sees what he might look like with a normal face. The only time it ever becomes a hindrance is when he gets a girlfriend for the first time. Rocky becomes a counselor at a summer camp for the blind, where he meets Diana Adams (Laura Dern) a blind fellow counselor and the two falls in love in one of the most beautiful teen romances that I can remember. They share the kinds of wonderful moments that teenagers share, when love means having time together, not with sex, but just together doing the same things. The stumbling block happens when he meets her parents who are shocked by Rocky’s looks and don’t want their daughter involved with him. Returning home, he tries time and again to call but is told that she can’t come to the phone.

Most of this comes from Stoltz who plays this role outside the make-up, as if he’s playing a character without a disability. He creates a specific character that we care about from the moment that we hear him speak. I have a litmus test for a movie like this: Would the character be as interesting if he didn’t have this disorder? My problem with The Elephant Man is that if you looked under John Merrick’s physical deformity, there isn’t much of a character to care about. In the case of Rocky Dennis, he could have been portrayed as a teenager without a disfigurement and he would have been just as interesting.

Best Actress

Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful)
The Nominees: Ann Bancroft (Agnes of God), Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple), Jessica Lange (Sweet Dreams), Meryl Streep (Out of Africa), 

Laura Dern (Smooth talk)
My Nominees: Cher (Mask), Mia Farrow (The Purple Rose of Cairo), Whoopie Goldberg (The Color Purple), Frances McDormand (Blood Simple.), Tina Turner (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome)


For some reason, nineteen eighty-five was a great year for young people in the movies. This year produced a bumper crop of great coming-of-age films about real teenagers with real problems (although admittedly most were played by actors in their twenties). There were all different varieties: Back to the Future, Better Off Dead, Mask, My Life as a Dog, Real Genius, The Sure Thing, That Was Then . . .This Is Now, Vision Quest, Weird Science, the documentary Streetwise, and the seminal 80s teen drama The Breakfast Club all of which dealt with, in one way or another, the pains and trials of growing up. What was special is that they dealt with real issues, not manufactured TV movie cliches. Even the fantasy films had a sting of realism.

Yet, in this year of the youth, the academy gave the Best Actress prize to an elder. Geraldine Page had been working in films and on television for 35 years and was nominated by the academy seven times before finally receiving a late career accolade for her work in Peter Masterson’s adaptation of Horton Foote’s stage play The Trip to Bountiful.

In the film Page plays Miss Carrie Watts, a woman past 70 who is beginning to feel that the light of her golden years is fading fast and wants, before she dies, to see Bountiful, the now-defunct Texas town where she grew up. This despite the objections of her overbearing daughter-in-law (Carlin Glynn) and her weak-kneed son (John Heard) who won’t let her go because money is tight and her health isn’t great for traveling. So she makes a sort of escape, leaving their tiny apartment to take the trip anyway.

I love this performance because Page doesn’t make Carrie Watts into a sweet, lovable old lady. She is ornery, she is cantankerous, she is stubborn and she is determined to do what she wants. Page makes her into an original, not a cliche and when the material veers very close to over-sentimentality, Page pulls it back. But as much as I loved Geraldine Page’s performance, I’m still giving my Armchair Oscar to a young whipper-snapper.  More specifically Laura Dern as a 15 year-old girl who falls under the seductive spell of a very bad man in Joyce Chopra’s little-seen Smooth Talk.

Based on the story short “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates and adapted by Tom Cole, Smooth Talk is a cautionary tale about a girl named Connie Wyatt, a 15-year old with a mind that is beginning to experience some serious growing pains and a body that is older than it looks. She’s blonde, pretty, tall for her age (Dern was actually 18 at the time). She’s one of those kids who longs for something, you can see it in her sad eyes and you can hear it in her voice. There’s something more going on in her mind than anyone around her really understands. There’s a moment when she is parked with a boy over lover’s lane looking at the lights of the city below. She says, “I wish I could just travel somewhere”. These words could only come from someone who realizes that there are possibilities in her life, but who hasn’t been beaten down by life’s sad reality.

She is rebellious. She tells her parents that she is going to a baseball game but, instead, goes to the mall with her friends Laura (Margaret Welsh) and Jill (Sarah Inglis) where they duck into the bathroom, stuff their jackets in their bags, change their clothes, put on makeup and emerge looking like they are in their twenties. The sole purpose is to look older and attract the attention of older men. There is a stunning moment when we see Connie walking away in pants that cup her behind in a way that will not go unnoticed. They are delighted with their ability to attract the attention of older men but they aren’t sure how to handle it when it happens. At one point, when they are approached by two muscular guys, the girls get nervous and make a break for it.

The first hour of the film is simply observation about her home life, her social life and her rapidly emerging sexual awakening. Her mother Katharine (Mary Kay Place) drives at her and complains when she’s gone all day but makes few attempts to understand (she plays favorites – preferring Connie’s older sister). Her father Harry (Levon Helm) is a nice guy who smiles a lot but doesn’t seem to notice that this little girl has grown very fast into a young woman. Home life is half-life to Connie who is confused and fascinated by her own seductiveness.

Liking the attention they received at the mall, Connie and her friend go to a burger joint across the street, a place that has a crowd of much older men. That’s where she attracts the attention of Arnold Friend (Treat Williams). He’s “That Guy”, the good-looking guy with the tight pants who wears his sunglasses at night and has his name printed on the door of his car. He’s the kind of guy who lives and breathes his own machismo and who’s idea of a pick-up line is to simply point at a woman like a skilled hitter pointing where he’s going to hit the ball. She first sees him pulling into the burger joint, then she sees him leaning against his convertable where he uses his trademark point on her.

Paying him no real mind, Connie and her friends continue to play this grown up game of telling their parents that they are going to a movie, but sneaking around to the burger joint. It comes to a head one Sunday afternoon when Connie, down in the dumps, refuses to go to a family barbecue and stays home alone. Suddenly Arnold Friend shows up in his convertible with a mysterious buddy who barely speaks. Something about Arnold isn’t right. He approaches Connie in a way that isn’t merely predatory, it is something deeper. There is a glaze in his voice, a certain swagger that is far scarier than just a standard predator. He frightens Connie by asking her come for a ride with him, she tells him that she won’t, but he has an approach that is unusual. Like a vampire, he won’t come in the house uninvited, he doesn’t need to. His choice of words is very precise especially when he begins telling her personal things about herself and especially about her family’s current whereabouts.

What comes of the situation isn’t what we think, but what happens to Connie emotionally is something extraordinary. Something crosses over in her, in this strange experience some point of her naive childhood sensibility has been washed away and there are three scenes after Arnold leaves that assure us that Connie isn’t the same insecure girl that we met at the beginning. Laura Dern keeps this performance very close to herself, she doesn’t feel the need to be showy, she maintains the kinds of tics and bottled up fears that any girl her age might have.

Dern is always perfect at playing characters who are raging sexually but are forced to keep them bottled up. Her only Oscar nomination can six years later for Rambling Rose, playing another character who has a voracious appetite for sex but is restrained by the world around her. She has an ability to display everything in her sad eyes. Her voice displays a certain intelligence that, in this film, seems still unformed. Both Connie and Rose are women who test the waters of their own sexuality out of need. In Connie’s case, when we come to the end of the story, a whole world of experience has opened up in her mind.


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About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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