Armchair Oscars – 1990

Best Picture

THE WINNER:
Dances With Wolves  (Directed by Kevin Costner)
The Nominees: Awakenings, Ghost, The Godfather Part III, Goodfellas


MY CHOICE:
Goodfellas (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
My Nominees:
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway), Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner), The Grifters (Stephen Frears), Reversal of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder)

1990-Goodfellas

The new decade opened with one of the most disappointing years for movies in recent memory.  Whereas Nineteen eighty-nine ended with one of the longest rosters of great films of the 80s, nineteen-ninety left a lot to be desired. It was amusing watching the Oscar pundits trying to pick through mounds of mediocrity to guess which five would end up as nominees for Best Picture. Of the final nominees, I think only the academy’s choice, Dances With Wolves, and my choice, Goodfellas, were worthy of a nomination.

Many found it easy to dismiss Kevin Coster’s three-hour western epic about a pacifist Civil War Lieutenant who is left alone at his post and gradually makes friends with a tribe of Sioux Indians, despite the fact that they are his sworn enemy. Had Dances With Wolves been a western in the traditional sense, I might have dismissed it too, but Costner allows an intimacy to his characters, to the hero John Dunbar and the individual members of the tribe that break them free of stereotypes.  We care what happens especially because we are aware that they are all basically doomed.

Yet, as magnificent as the movie is, I am troubled by the ending.  Dunbar, who has been branded a traitor by the United States Army, and his wife (Mary McDonnell) are separated from the Sioux who have to move on as the white man moves forward and will eventually wipe them out. I can’t understand why Costner’s character (please don’t flood me with emails) did not simply go with them, he would have been killed by the army either way so why not stay safely in numbers?

Costner did his best work as a director with Dances With Wolves but, curiously, he had trouble doubling that success.  His follow-up was the three hour post apocalyptic abomination called The Postman.  After that he directed a quiet little-seen western called Open Range, which wasn’t great but I enjoyed it. It showed that he still has the chops to be a great film director but, as of now, he remains a one-hit-wonder.

While Costner did he best work in nineteen-ninety, so did Martin Scorsese and there aren’t many who would disagree.  Goodfellas, a violent, stylish and often very funny adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 novel “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family” has been called the best film of his entire career.  It recounts the true story of Henry Hill, a poor Italian-American kid from New York who grows up watching the wiseguys in the local mob hanging around the taxi stands in his neighborhood. “As far back as I can remember,” he tells us in narration, “I always wanted to be a gangster”. Raised in a house by a mother and a father who made lousy money, he starts doing odd jobs for the head of the mob Paulie Ciscero (Paul Sorvino) who likes the kid, and as he grows up he gets to know the other wiseguys.

The focus of the movie is Henry’s complete intoxication with the lifestyle. “They weren’t like anybody else”, he says “I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.” We see this life through his eyes as he recalls the days when he worked with these mobsters and was initiated into their world.

Whereas Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather told it’s story only within the contained world of the mob, Goodfellas follows a man who comes from the outside. He isn’t part of a family unit but, through confidence, he gains a foothold within the world of organized crime. We see the film mostly through Henry’s eyes, especially in the beginning as he introduces us (in a brilliant point of view shot) to several figures in the neighborhood. They become as known to us as those in The Godfather‘s wedding scene. There is a Jimmy Conaway (Robert De Niro), a level-headed thief who steals because he just likes stealing. There’s Tommy DeVito (Supporting Actor winner Joe Peschi) who likes to tell jokes but has a violent hair-trigger temper. And there’s the mob patriarch Paulie Ciscero (Paul Sorvino) who instructs Henry like a grandfather.

The symbol of Henry’s path is laid out early in the film in a brilliant sequence done in one unbroken shot that takes place when he takes his date Karen (Lorraine Bracco) to the Copacabana Club. Beginning across the street, he hands someone $20 to watch his car, then they cross the street and enter the club through a service entrance and down the two flights of stairs. Then through a hallway stationed by some scary guys in suits who regard Henry with a smile (all the while he is handing everyone money). Then they move out through a very busy kitchen where they move with barely a word. Then out to the dining room where they pass waiting patrons and meets the Maitre’D who immediately calls for a waiter who is already moving a table from the back and down to the front of the stage where it is set up and Henry and Karen are seated. Then the punchline: Karen doesn’t look impressed so much as perplexed. “What do you do?” she asks him. “I’m in construction”, he says. “I don’t feel like you’re in construction”, she says. “I’m a union delegate” he concludes and his excuse is followed perfectly by a drummer’s rimshot from the stage.

Karen puts the perfect button on the scene, most actresses would play it as suitably impressed by Henry’s clout but she questions. When he leaves his car on the street, when he gives several people fistfulls of money, when they are finally seated, she wonders how he can manage this kind of access. Throughout the film, she provides the film’s second narration as she begins to understand what her boyfriend (and soon husband) does for a living. “I know women who would have gotten out of there the moment he brought home a gun.”, she tells us “But I gotta admit, it really turned me on.” She becomes part of his world too, not just a sideline but a willing participant who sees her moral code beginning to meld with his.

The moral code of this mobster society is dangerous, we see that in scene after scene. What is interesting about the community of the mob in Goodfellas is that there is an air of dangerous unpredictability (this will eventually bring about their end).  There is a scene that takes place in a bar, where Henry, Tommy and Jimmy meet a loudmouthed wiseguy named Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) who makes references to the fact that Tommy was, at one time, a shoeshine boy. Tommy, slightly irritated, tells him “Maybe you didn’t hear about it, you’ve been away a long time. They didn’t go up there and tell you. I don’t shine shoes anymore.”  There is a laugh, it was only kidding. Then Billy pushes a little more. There’s a warning, an insult, then it gets ugly. After Tommy gives Billy a savage beating, the three lock Billy in Henry’s trunk and take the body out to bury it. Problem: Billy isn’t dead. In any other gangster film they would have simply taken Billy out of the car, killed him and then buried him. But the scene takes a brilliant detour, they stop by Tommy’s mother’s house and enjoy a meal – it’s 2 in the morning – all so Tommy can borrow to finish Billy off is his mother’s butcher knife (he explains that they hit a deer and the hoof is caught in the car’s grill and he needs the knife to cut it off).  How many movies take this kind of time?  How many movies are willing to be this comically gruesome?  This is why Scorsese is the best.

There’s another similar sequence that take place over a card game.  Tommy starts kidding around with a gun, pretending to be Bogart in The Oklahoma Kid, and accidentally shoots an errand boy (Michael Imperioli) in the foot.  Later, we see the kid in a cast and there is some verbal kidding between Tommy and the kid. The kid gets up the nerve to tell Tommy where to go and Tommy shoots the kid dead.

Consider those two scenes and then consider the most famous in the film: It takes place in a restaurant as Henry sits at a table with the guys and Tommy tells a joke. “You’re a funny guy”, Henry says. “How am I funny?” Tommy asks quizzically. “The way you tell the story”, Henry says, growing nervous. Tommy begins a half-interrogation “Am I a clown? Do I amuse you?”, he grows angrier and the others at the table grow restless. We have been introduced to Tommy’s legendary temper, to the fact that when he grows violent, it isn’t pretty. The moments builds to a crescendo and there is a long pause before Henry laughs “Get the fuck outta here, Tommy” and the rest of the table, including Tommy, laughs.

That moment ends with a genuine laugh but there is an unpredictability because we never know what is going to escalate into violence and murder.  This is a test for Henry, he has to know what is kidding and when he has crossed the line.  This is the world into which he has entered and he needs to be prepared for it.

The unpredictability and a certain lack of common sense on the part of the gangsters is part of what leads to the third act when Henry becomes hooked on drugs.  There is a frantic scene in which he races from home where he is stirring pasta sauce, back to Jimmy where he has bought the wrong clips for automatic weapons and around to various criminal errands.  All the while a police helicopter follows his every move. The film’s editing (by Scorsese’s regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker) cuts quickly following Henry’s paranoia, he’s jittery, nervous and quickly moving.

The ending of the film, when the whole gangster empire has crumbled and Henry and Karen are forced by the FBI to turn over inside information and then go into the witness protection program are . We know we shouldn’t feel bad for Henry but somehow, having seen the lifestyle of these mobsters we sense that something has been lost. In the end, Henry becomes exactly what he never wanted, “Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend and then I’d either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies. Didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything. When I was broke, I’d go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over. And that’s the hardest part. Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food – right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” In a way, this is his eulogy.


Best Actor

THE WINNER:
Jeremy Irons (
Reversal of Fortune)
The Nominees: Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves), Robert De Niro (Awakenings), Gerard Depardieu (Cryano de Bergerac), Richard Harris (The Field)


MY CHOICE:
Michael Caine (A Shock to the System)
My Nominees:
Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves), John Cusack (The Grifters), Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune), Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), Al Pacino (The Godfather Part III), Robin Williams (Awakenings)

1990-MichaelCaine

To win an Oscar in 1990, it helped to stay just outside the law. All of the actors who won trophies at the 63rd Annual Academy Awards played some form of criminal: Jeremy Irons (attempted murder), Kathy Bates (kidnapping, torture and murder), Joe Peschi (racketeering and murder) and Whoopi Goldberg (con artist). The Best Actor winner was Jeremy Irons for Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune in which he gives his one-of-a-kind portrayal of Claus Von Bulow, the wealthy socialite who poisoned his wealthy wife into a coma and then hired a brilliant professor, Alan Dershwitz (the unfairly unnominated Ron Silver) to overturn the prosecution’s case. Reversal of Fortune works because of the prep work between Dershwitz and Von Bulow on how they would achieve this impossible task.

I liked Irons’ performance but for sheer craftiness I much preferred Michael Caine’s unnominated work in Jan Egleson’s little-seen A Shock to the System. While Irons’ character relies on his connections and his brilliant lawyer to get him out of a jam, Caine’s Graham Marshall has to rely on his wits and works without a net.

Caine is at his best in almost any role but Graham allows him a certain villainous charm brought forth by an overwhelming sense of frustration. He plays Graham Marshall, a likable fellow whose world is a stale series of minor irritations and boring routine. His wife is irritating in a calm, polite manner with her addiction to her over-sized electric stair-stepper that keeps shorting out the power in the house. At work, he is an average joe, a pleasant face who remains “one of the guys”, suffering fools gladly until his promotion comes. His office is not much better than home, the boys are the pat-on-the-back, brandy-and-cigar types who gather for lunch to drink and swap bad jokes. His goal is to do better than George Brewser, the sad sack who is retiring into a life of quiet drollery. He feels bad for the poor soul but part of Graham is ready for George to leave because he’s up for his job.

Graham’s tedium is broken by three events that occur within a short time. First, when he’s at home turning the electricity back on for the umpteenth time, he gets a shock that knocks him backwards. Second, he finds out that the promotion that he has been waiting for is going to a younger man (one of the fools he’s been suffering gladly), a pickle of a schmo named Bob Benham. Furious, he stalks away from work toward what will be the greenlight to his remedy to his rotten life: He accidentally kills a pan-handling bum in the subway.

Then he starts thinking.

What follows is a cat and mouse game with Caine setting up no-so-complicated traps for his victims to fall into. His wife, having been taught how to turn the electricity back on, is gullible enough not to ask questions when he teaches her how to turn on the electricity while holding a leaky pipe. Bob takes a little more work and Graham uses the man’s addiction to boating to rid himself of Bob and his lapdog Henry (who has moved his desk into Graham’s office). It’s all very clean, all very neat and all of it with a grin.

What is shocking about Graham is how he handles his crimes. He takes it with an heir of calm, a mask of serenity and politely mournful front. Caine’s best moment (one that I believe should be included in his eulogy montage) is the moment when he recieves a phone call that his wife has been killed. He sits on the phone, leaned back and the person on the other end breaks the news. Caine says “Oh . . . what a shock” and holds the phone to stifle a laugh. It is a pure Michael Caine moment and the moment when we realize that we want him to succeed.

What may be most shocking about Graham Marshall (that’s not a pun by the way) is that there isn’t any solid justification for doing any of these things. Graham’s evil comes along, not simply out of madness, not simply out of frustration but by choice. We never sense that he’s under the influence of any drug or demon to commit his crimes. We can see that getting rid of his wife will find him happiness in his love life and we sense that getting rid of Bob and his subsidiaries will rid him of opposition to move up the corporate ladder but’s it’s all a matter of choice.

If I could find a pattern to Graham’s crimes it is that he kills people who cling to materialistic goods. His wife obsesses over her exercise machine. Bob obsesses over his boat. The bum in the subway wants money. Even Henry takes possession of Graham’s office. The exception is Stella (Elizabeth McGovern), the pretty co-worker with the understanding smile who seems to be the polite alternative to the fools Graham suffers. He likes this cherubic sweetheart because she represents the kind of hearty romance that his marriage was lacking.

Director Jan Egleson’s achievement with film is the tone and the casting. The movie is very dry, sometimes quiet, it has the narrative tone of one of those old Alec Guinness comedies like The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets. Then in the middle he adds Michael Caine who takes the dry material and gives it a splash of color. He sells the material with a cheshire grin and the happy bounce of a man capable of evil deeds just to see if he can get away with them. I think that’s because we’re so familiar with him from other films. We like his smirking approach to a role like this so much that we know that when he gets screwed, this dog will have his day.


Best Actress

THE WINNER:
Kathy Bates (Misery)
The Nominees: Angelica Huston (The Grifters), Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman), Meryl Streep (Postcards from the Edge), Joanne Woodward (Mr. and Mrs. Bridge)


MY CHOICE:
Kathy Bates (Misery)
M
y Nominees: Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman), Joanne Woodward (Mr. and Mrs. Bridge)

1990-KathyBates

Kathy Bates hit the ground running. Over the next decade she would quickly become one of the most dependable actresses of her generation turning in one fine performance after another even if the movies sometimes fell by the wayside. As Annie Wilkes, Kathy Bates created a villian that will live in movie history, a realistic psychotic born at a time when Freddy and Jason were growing tiresome, even by the standards of the generation that made them famous. Born in the mind of Stephen King (based on feedback from nutty fans that he described as “a little loose in the shoes”), she represents the kind of fearful stalker mentality that keeps celebrity tabloids flourishing and keeps celebrities spending of fortune on security.

The story unspools when Paul Sheldon (James Caan) drops into Annie’s life. She couldn’t be more pleased. Paul, you see, is a popular novelist who has spent the past decade writing a successful series of romance novels featuring a 19th century heroine named Misery Chastaine. It has become the rock around his ankle and hasn’t allowed him room to explore anything else. Annie is his number one fan.

Returning home from a snowy retreat in which he has finished the manuscript for a book about slum kids, Paul’s car slides off the road and crashes in a snowbank. Annie pulls him to safety. She doesn’t take him to the hospital, but instead takes him to her lonely old house in the country where she seems willing to nurse him back to health. Both of his legs are broken so she has made him make-shift splints. “I’m your number one fan”, she keeps telling him and fawns over his greatness and how much the Misery Chastain books complete her life.

She goes on and on and it seems that her life is consumed by Paul’s work. Then she reads the final book in which he has killed her off and that’s when Annie comes comes unglued. What follows is a cat and mouse game as Annie shifts from joy to rage from melancholy to childish fits. She burns the manuscript of his new book (she doesn’t like the foul language) and forces him to write the exploits of Misery’s triumphant return.

What makes Annie Wilkes so effectively creepy is that she seems to wear the kind of mindset we associate with a celebrity stalker. She looks sweet, she sounds pleasant but when something dilutes her obsession it has unpredictable results. She reminds us of John Hinkley, Mark David Chapman and Robert John Bardo, because the mindset seems so focused. She has moments in which she beams, like the scene in which she holds the Misery book in her hand and proclaims it “a perfect thing”.

The complexity that Bates brings to the role is the ability to shift from one extreme to the other. At one moment, she is passive and pleasant but it can turn quickly and she grows dark and violent. Being unpredictable is the best quality a villain can have because it throws caution to the wind, but it may also be one of the most difficult for an actor to convincingly pull off. Off-setting the moments of outrage are quieter moments that can be just as unnerving, like a disturbing moment in which she looks out the window, depressed and tells Paul that someday she just might use her gun – if she ever gets the nerve to put bullets in it.

The moment in the film that is going to live forever is Annie’s ultimate act to keep Paul her slave. She uses a technique known as “hobbling” which requires her to put a block between his feet and smash her prisoner’s ankles with a sledge hammer to slow his healing. This is changed from the book in which Annie cuts off his foot and then cauterizes it with a blow torch but I think for the film, the sledge hammer works better. The ax would have turned the scene into just a gorefest, the hammer allows us to feel the scene on a visceral level.

You never know what mood is going to boil up next. Comparatively there are levels to her madness, one rage can be a childish hissy fit, as when Paul comments that she’s has bought typing paper that smudges and another can be dangerous as the frightening moment when she finds out that he has killed off Misery. She is nothing if not original, especially in her words. Spilling something she says “Oh, what an oogie mess”. Recalling a disappointing film she rants “He Didn’t Get Out of the CockaDoody Car!”. Angry at Paul’s decision to kill Misery she growls “You dirty birdy”.

What is funny, when I was reading the book I had Louise Fletcher in mind. When I saw the movie I realize how much of a mistake that might have been. Bates gives a full performance of a lunatic who doesn’t need a mask to commit evil. Her home is a lonely old place full of trinkets and desolation, far from anywhere. It represents the opposite of Annie’s personality, it is quiet and predictable where she is not.

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