Armchair Oscars – 1988

Best Picture

THE WINNER:
Rain Man  (Directed by Barry Levinson)
The Nominees: The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, Working Girl


MY CHOICE:
The Last Temptation of Christ (Directed by Martin Scorsese
)
My Nominees:
The Accidental Tourist (Lawrence Kasden), The Accused (Jonathan Kaplan), A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Creighton), Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemekis)

1988-TheLastTemptationofChrist

The movies are nothing if not a learning experience. I have to admit that until I saw Rain Man, I had never even heard of autism. Until I saw Dustin Hoffman’s performance, I had no idea that anyone like Raymond Babbitt even existed.

With Rain Man, Barry Levinson takes a potential “Spotlight Disease” movie and turns it into a lovely, emotional journey of one man’s life that is changed by the brother he never knew he had. Tom Cruise plays a self-absorbed hustler who learns that his estranged father has died and left a fortune to his older brother. The movie then becomes a journey of discovery as the journey changes Charlie’s selfish heart.

The anchor of the film is Dustin Hoffman who disappears inside the mind of Raymond, who suffers from a childhood development disorder called Aspberger’s Syndrome, a condition associate with autism. His peculiar body language, his rotating vocabulary and his odd obsession with “The People’s Court” make him endearing but mostly made him fodder for stand-up comedians and Late Show monologues. This made it one of the most talked about films of the year and the most joked about.

Rain Man was one of the most talked about pictures of the year, and Hoffman’s performance became the year’s most familiar joke – leaving abundant fodder for late night monologues. My choice for the best picture of the year garnered just as much discussion but this time no one was laughing.

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was a bold attempt to examine the notion that Jesus was both God and man and furthers the possibility that he was more of the latter. It challenges the teachings of the Christian faith which teaches us men are not perfect, that every man sins, falls victim to the temptations of gluttony of greed and the flesh. If this is true, then Jesus must also have felt those desires. Therein lies the controversy.

The film’s controversy came from religious leaders who were offended by the notion that Jesus would be portrayed in a light that casts him away from the image of the pristine picture-postcard messiah. For some, the notion of a flawless messiah is dead solid and should never remain open to interpretation. That attitude, it seems to me, is extremely arrogant because it closes the door on questions and locks those who study the life of Jesus into a pious small space in which anything “out of the box” is deemed sinful and offensive.

Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader observe a “what if” scenario to study the mind and tormented soul that Jesus must have experienced. This is an area of expertise for this duo. With Raging Bull, they looked into the mind of a man for whom violence was almost a reflex. With Taxi Driver, they looked deep into the psychosis of a lonely cab driver who turns vigilante. In Bringing Out the Dead they saw into the tormented soul of a man who sees death cross his path night after night. But no one is more conflicted than Jesus. We see him as a man who knows his destiny, lives with the pain of the evil that men do, and wrestles with the prospect of what his fate must be.

Willem DeFoe plays Jesus on a different note than most actors. Previous actors who have occupied the role played Jesus as all-knowing, with a pleasing demeanor that suggests that he knows what you’re thinking before you do. DeFoe plays him as a man conflicted, frustrated, tormented. He sees sin all around him and tries to correct it. He sees maligned and down-trodden people and tries to assure them that he doesn’t judge them. DeFoe’s best quality is that he displays the fear and doubt that Jesus feels. The Jesus portrayed in this film understands the contradiction of being the son of God and the product of a human being capable of mistakes, desires and failures.

The movie has individual moments that are perfect. One of the most striking is a conversation in the desert with a creature who reveals himself to be the devil. Another is a quiet moment when he meets Mary Magdeline (Barbara Hershey) in a brothel – she is surprised when he doesn’t approach her as a predator. And of course there’s the moment that would ultimately spark the controversy, when Jesus is on the cross and in the moment of death has a vision of what his life might have been like were he allowed to live. He sees himself at harmony in domestic bliss with Mary as they make love, as they have children, as they grow old together. The scene suggests things about the life of Christ that no one probably considered, or wanted to.

The best achievement of The Last Temptation of Christ is the simple fact that Scorsese and Schrader challenge us to consider this man and his mind and what must have been bearing down on his soul. This film, and later The Passion of the Christ, examine his life from directors who are Catholics and therefore, having been taught in a manner that emphasizes the suffering rather than the resurrection, they want us to understand what he suffered both in life and on the cross. I don’t think the movie is a slap in the face to anyone’s beliefs because it so thoroughly tries to understand the weight upon his shoulders with clarity and compassion.

I think that if the academy had been brave enough, it might have nominated this film as one the best pictures of the year. Here is a movie the challenges us with are very basic, deepest beliefs and doesn’t ask us to subscribe to what the film gives us and asks us to consider a new possibility, not just following the illustrated Bible story version. Here was a man who’s whole life was a struggle between his nature and his flesh and we’re asked to consider it with maturity and an open mind.


Best Actor

THE WINNER:
Dustin Hoffman
(Rain Man)
The Nominees: Gene Hackman (Mississippi Burning), Tom Hanks (Big), Edward James Olmos (Stand and Deliver), Max von Sydow (Pelle the Conquerer)


MY CHOICE:
Michael Keaton (Clean and Sober)
My Nominees:
Michael Caine (Dirty Rotten Scoundrals), Chevy Chase (Funny Farm), Kevin Costner (Bull Durham), Tom Cruise (Rain Man), Daniel Day-Lewis (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Willem DeFoe (The Last Temptation of Christ), Robert De Niro (Midnight Run), Charles Grodin (Midnight Run), Gene Hackman (Mississippi Burning), Tom Hanks (Big), William Hurt (The Accidental Tourist), Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers), Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers), Eddie Murphy (Coming to America), Sean Penn (Colors), Leslie Nielson (The Naked Gun: From the Files of PoliceSquad), Forrest Whittaker (Bird)

1988-MichaelKeaton

If I thought I could sit through even half of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers for a second viewing then I might have chosen Jeremy Irons for my Best Actor prize. He does good work in a dual performance as identical twin brothers Elliott and Beverly Mantel, gynecologists who couldn’t be further apart mentally or emotionally. Irons manages to create two separate characters with two separate personalities, and is able to play both in such a way that we can distinguish one from the other. The problem is that this brilliant dual performance is trapped in a movie that is joyless, unpleasant and moves rapidly from a great character drama into an unwatchable piece of gothic horror.

I nearly chose Irons for his work but realizing that choosing his performance would be an endorsement of a film that I detested. I just couldn’t do that. The academy didn’t give him a nomination either. Nineteen Eighty-Eight was a year in which a lot of the best performances by lead actors went unnominated.

The actor who got the Oscar was Dustin Hoffman for playing Raymond Babbitt, a man afflicted with Aspberger’s Syndrome, a condition associated with autism. He figures into Rain Man when his brother Charlie – who never knew he existed – comes looking for him after his estranged father dies and leaves him a large amount of money. Raymond is a very particular man, who seems disassociated from the world around him. He is able to speak and respond but isn’t able to communicate in a direct way. He does, however, possess an amazing memory for numbers which his brother quickly uses in a trip to Vegas. Although I have my problems with Rain Man I can’t deny that Hoffman gives a good performance. He never allows Raymond to grow or to change, which is right for a man afflicted with his type of autism. Hoffman avoids the temptation to make Raymond cute and cuddly.

Hoffman won the Oscar, and I suppose I can’t argue with that, but I confess my full-on aggravation that my choice went unnominated. For a decade, Michael Keaton had always been one of our most likable clowns, but in nineteen eighty-eight he turned serious and gave the best performance of his career.

Perched between two megahits Beetlejuice and Batman, Keaton turned in a brilliant performance in director Glen Gordon Caron’s little-seen drama Clean and Sober playing a man addicted to cocaine and alcohol who is forced to take the first tentative steps toward cleaning up his messy life. He plays Daryl Poynter, a successful real-estate agent who believes he can sell anything. He possesses a lot of addictions, one of the worst is to his own personality. He has a smarmy charm that may have been effective at some point but some of that polish seems to have washed away in a haze of booze and cocaine. His addiction, as the film opens, has sent his most recent one night stand right into a coma.

The girl, named Karen (played by porn star Rachel Ryan), goes into the ICU and the investigating detective tell him not to leave town, but Daryl has another problem. He has taken $92,000 from an escrow account at work, and put it in the stock market and then lost the money. He needs to get it back, but in the meantime he needs a place to hide. He hears a radio ad for a treatment center with complete confidentiality. He ducks in, thinking that he can disappear while trying to find some way to recover the money.

After two days in detox he is introduced to the center’s counselor, a soft-spoken former addict named Craig (Morgan Freeman) who sizes Daryl up in an instant. Craig has heard every story, every line, every excuse, and can only smile when Daryl tries to sell him a new line of bull. Rehab offers Daryl neither a safe haven nor a solution to his problems. It brings him face to face with the fact that he is his own worst enemy. One of the best things about Clean and Sober is the fact that it doesn’t use rehab as a Daryl’s turnaround, but opens his eyes to what a train-wreck his life has become.

Daryl fights Craig and the recovery, sneaking into Craig’s office to call his connection so he can send him drugs through FedEx (he is always either on the phone or looking for one). He manages to stay off drugs long enough to be given privileges to leave the clinic. When he does, it only offers him passage back into the blistering maelstrom of his messy life. He finds that Karen has died and that her father is so enraged that he is plastering flyers all over place calling him a murderer. He sneaks into his office and tears the place up when he can’t find what he is looking for. When he is spotted by a cleaning lady he loses his job.

Attending an AA meeting one night, Craig encourages Darryl to find a sponsor. He immediately tries to put the charm on the women including Charlie Standers (Kathy Baker) an addict whom he has already hit on once before at the clinic. She turns him down cold. Outside, feeling dejected, he spots another payphone and waits for it to free up. It is then that he meets Richard (the invaluable M. Emmett Walsh), who understands Daryl better than anyone. “You really wanna make that call, don’t ya?” he tells Daryl then offers to be his sponsor and stuffs his phone number into his hand.

Daryl does manage to stay clean long enough to “graduate” from the treatment program, but that doesn’t mean he emerges into the sunshine of a new day. There are no happy endings, no moments of clarity. He tries to call a friend one night and accidentally calls Richard who encourages him to make a list of all the things he’s done wrong and all the people he has done wrong to. It is a sizable list, but still it was an encouragement to try something other than cocaine. He tries to do the right thing by trying to help Charlie. She’s an alcoholic who is also addicted to her thug boyfriend Lenny (Luca Bercovici), one of those pit bull-types who roars when he is angry and cries when she tries to leave. Daryl tries to give her safe haven, but Charlie doesn’t really want it. When he encourages her to call Lenny and break off the relationship, she gives in to Lenny’s pitiful pleas and goes home. That relationship doesn’t develop the way we expect. His connection to Charlie avoids all the cliches that usually follow this type of relationship and ends on a note that is far more realistic.

Realism is what distinguishes Clean and Sober . The screenplay, and Michael Keaton’s performance, avoid the traps of most films about recovery. When compared to lesser films of this type, this film spends very little time in the rehab center, but instead focuses in on Daryl’s crash and burn and later his pathetic attempts to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. What is amazing is that Keaton isn’t afraid to look foolish. Darryl is an obnoxious, sapostolic jerk who thinks only of himself. In fact, most of his obnoxious personality still remains when the film is over, despite the fact that he has clearly made some steps in the right direction.

Keaton is one of the most likable actors in the movies and that forces us to stay with Daryl even though we know that he pretty much deserves everything that is happening to him. There are moments that are painful to watch, most memorably when Daryl makes a phone call to his mother to ask for $30,000. When she says no he begs her to make an advance on the money she will leave him in her will. Another moment comes later when he asks Charlie out to a movie in an effort to open up to her and ask her to be his sponsor again, but it ends in disaster when she storms out. There are at least a dozen moments like that, and what they illustrate is how well the character is written and played.

Most films about addiction and recovery show the subject as a victim, as some kind of wounded saint who’s life can easily be redeemed by some form of sanctimonious revelation. Keaton makes it clear that Daryl is a victim of nothing. He is his own worst enemy, a magnet for his own chaos and he drags down anyone within his circle. Even when he tries to redeem himself, attempting to save Charlie to avoid another woman from meeting a tragic end, it only leads to chaos. When we get to the end, as Daryl receives his 30-day chip, we aren’t sure if he has fully found his way back into his life. He notes the things that are still wrong with this life and we understand that there are still a lot of fences to be mended. He hasn’t completed the road to recovery but, at that moment, we can be thankful that he at least acknowledges that there is one.


Best Actress

THE WINNER:
Jodie Foster (The Accused)
The Nominees: Glenn Close (Dangerous Liaisons), Melanie Griffith (Working Girl), Sigourney Weaver (Gorillas in the Mist), Meryl Streep (A Cry in the Dark)


MY CHOICE:
Jodie Foster (The Accused)
M
y Nominees: Barbara Hershey (A World Apart), Susan Sarandon (Bull Durham), Meryl Streep (A Cry in the Dark), Sigourney Weaver (Gorillas in the Mist)

1988-JodieFoster

I grew up watching Jodie Foster in the seventies when she starred in a series of squeaky clean Walt Disney comedies.  There was always something about her that made her seem wise beyond her years and it surprised no one that she grew up to be a competent and intelligent actress.  She shocked everyone, however, when she played a 12 year-old prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and earned her first Oscar nomination.  She ran with it, spending her post-adolescence redefining herself and shedding her childhood image.

She won an Oscar in 1989 playing against her public image in Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused and putting herself through a performance that can best be described as “heroic”.  She plays Sara Tobias who, as the movie opens, has been in a fight with her boyfriend. So she puts on a skimpy outfit, goes to a bar, gets drunk, starts a bump and grind with a stranger and and is soon gang raped in the back room.

What makes the story tricky is that Sarah is not a nice girl. She is an alcoholic, and a pothead. She lives in a trailer with a boyfriend who is a drug dealer. He has been arrested on a drug charge. Plus, she was wearing revealing clothes on the night of her attack and seemed to be inviting her attack from total strangers. These strikes against her get her attackers a sentence of only nine months.

We see Sarah moved through the medical and legal system, through a humiliating series of procedures on her way to a slim definition of something called “justice”.  The women at the hospital offer efficiency but not much sympathy.  After Sarah’s ordeal she meets her attorney, Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis), who is concerned when she begins to look into Sarah’s background to build a case.  It doesn’t look promising, especially when one of the attackers – a rich fraternity kid – gets help from his parent’s high-priced lawyer.  The charge is reduced down to aggravated assault.

Sarah is outraged.  This was not an aggravated assault but rape, humiliation with witnesses who cheered like fans at a football game.  She thinks Katheryn sold her case out and tells her “You don’t understand how I feel! I’m standing there with my pants down and my crotch hung out for the world to see and three guys are sticking it to me, a bunch of other guys are yelling and clapping and you’re standing there telling me that that’s the best you can do. Well, if that’s the best you could do, then your best sucks! Now, I don’t know what you got for selling me out, but I sure as shit hope it was worth it!”

Foster never makes the mistake of letting us feel great sympathy for Sarah.  We are challenged to look at the case the same way a juror might.  We are forced to make a decision as to whether or not she provoked her attackers, whether or not her lifestyle should have been taken into account.  When we see the assault replayed at the end, the purpose is to put us on the sidelines and ask what we would have done in that situation.  Kaplan shoots the scene in a glossy manner with flashing lights and choice shots of the men and then of Sarah struggling, frightened (remember she is stoned and drunk), and the music and the shouting are not heard.

She stands for all the women who have fallen victim to a rapist and then suffered through a legal system that looked at them with accusing eyes.  She is brilliant in the way she allows Sarah moments when she is lost for words.  In the beginning her voice is coarse, a whisper that gradually grows louder and louder until what comes out of her mouth is not scripted platitudes but raw emotion.  It is a scream for help that is finally being heard.

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