Armchair Oscars – 1991

Best Picture

THE WINNER:
The Silence of the Lambs (Directed by Jonathan Demme)
The Nominees: Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides


MY CHOICE:
Beauty and the Beast (Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
)
My Nominees:
An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion), Boyz N the Hood (Jon Singleton), Grand Canyon (Lawrence Kasden), JFK (Oliver Stone), The Rapture (Michael Tolkin), The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme),Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott)

1991-BeautyandtheBeast

Between about 1970 and 1988, Walt Disney’s animated features had faltered into an uninspired era of forgettable mediocrity.  The studio that brought to life immortal classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Fantasia had lost their magic. The two decades after Walt Disney’s death produced yawners like Robin Hood, The Aristocats, The Fox and the Hound and Oliver and Company.

Then one day, writer-director Ron Clements was walking through a book store and found a book of Hans Christian Anderson tales and got an idea.  He wrote a draft and pitched his idea to Disney CEO Michael Eisner who immediately turned it down.  Then he went to Jeffrey Katzenberg who loved it.  The result was The Little Mermaid a wondrous adventure that combined state-of-the-art animation, bold storytelling and memorable songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman.  The film was such a success that Disney expanded its animation department and turned toward better storytelling and the new medium of computer animation.

The follow-up to The Little Mermaid was even better.  Beauty and the Beast, loosely based on Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s story was even more acclaimed, even better in its storytelling, and eventually became the first animated film ever nominated for an academy award for Best Picture (which wouldn’t happen again for another 19 years).  Between these two features, Disney created a renaissance in the world of animation that is  still growing today.  Over the next two decades animation would be reinvented and the movie musical (which was considered a dead genre) would be given new life.  Disney followed its double-success with Aladdin, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the new world of fully computer generated animation from Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monster’s Inc, The Incredibles, Cars and Wall-E. Inspired by this new renaissance, other studios, which had traditionally turned away from animated features (or flopped in trying), produced hits like Shrek, Madagascar, The Polar Express, The Prince of Egypt, and the underrated Anastasia.  All of this sprung from the inspiration of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Many people (myself included) felt that Beauty and the Beast was Disney’s peak, that it had recaptured the magic of the studio’s earlier glory.  It was so popular that it would be included in The National Film Preservation Board in 2002 and was the first animated feature ever nominated in the Best Picture category. By the beginning of the millineum, the prospect of a second animated nominee in the Best Picture category seemed grim. That was due to a decision made by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create a special category called Best Animated Feature. Many wondered if this would allow an unwritten rule that no animated feature could be included in the top category. It wasn’t, in 2010 the academy opened up the Best Picture category beyond the previously required five nominees. The results have seen nominations for two films from Pixar Up in 2009 and Toy Story 3 in 2010 (both of which lost in the top category but did nab the prize for Best Animated Feature).

When it was nominated for Best Picture, Beauty and the Beast was in the middle of one of strangest, most diverse group of nominees that had ever been on the the final ballot.  It was so diverse that the usual gaggle of Oscar prognosticators could not decide which would be the clear winner.  All they could find were reasons for these films not to win: Bugsy was Warren Beatty’s vanity project; JFK was too controversial; Beauty and the Beast was too much of an oddity; The Silence of the Lambs was considered a horror film that was more than a year old; The Prince of Tides had it’s detractors who believed that director Barbara Streisand was miscast in the role of Nick Nolte’s psychiatrist (Sela Ward would have been perfect).

The winner was The Silence of the Lambs and I’m glad that, for once, the winner was a popular entertainment and not just a bloated art film.  I like the film very much. It is a fine example of a writer (Ted Tally) and a director (Jonathan Demme) taking a worn-out genre and giving a heart and soul to make it more than another thriller. The uneasy human connection is what makes the film work, between Jodie Foster’s strong, but emotionally fractured FBI agent Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkin’s unforgettable serial killer psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter who feeds her clues to the identity of one of his former patients who is now murdering young girls. I like the film, but I think that if you take Lecter out of the film, you don’t have much left. He is the glue that holds the otherwise familiar material together. Without him, I think the film would have slipped into obsurity.

I am choosing Beauty and the Beast because I figure that if the academy was going to give the film a nomination, they should have gone ahead and named it Best Picture (it was the best of the nominees).  I feel that way because this was the best film of the year, by far, a breath of fresh air in lousy year at the movies.  Admittedly, I wasn’t looking forward to Beauty and the Beast.  I had been dazzled by The Little Mermaid but I wasn’t positive that lightening could strike twice.  Yet the film got around my (then) resistance to animated films and I was not only delighted but I gained a new appreciation for the medium.

The stars above must have been in the right place during the making of this film because this is one of those rare films in which all the pieces just fell into place.  It tells a story we are all familiar with and adds elements that other animated films lacked.  It tells the story of Belle, a bright young woman who lives in a world of books and as the movie opens, she dances down the street singing of her passion.  Here, we are introduced to an entire community, a world of vendors and bakers and shopkeeps and shoemakers.  There in an energy level in her little community with people moving in and out of the frame that I have never experienced in a film like this.  The characters all seem to be individual and as they pass Belle on the street we sense that they really live there.

Her story kicks off when her father becomes lost in the forest and is locked in the dungeon of the hideous Beast who lives in an oversized gothic castle.  Attempting to rescue him, she is imprisoned in the castle in exchange for her father’s freedom.  Beast, we’ve already learned, was a handsome young prince who was put under a curse that he would be a monster under a spell that could only be broken if he could find true love before his twenty-first birthday.

Trapped in the Beast’s castle, she meets the servants who are all fixtures: Lumiere is a French candlestick who talks and sings like Maurice Chevalier; Cogsworth is a snooty clock; Mrs. Potts is an observant teapot and her son Chip is a teacup.  Most of the supporting cast is made up of assorted household objects who talk and dance and greet Belle with the wonderful musical number “Be Our Guest”.  They help supply the background and the edges of the frame, much as the forest animals did for Snow White.  These characters serve, not just filler, but a purpose because they know that this headstrong beauty is just perfect to melt the Beast’s heart.

The heart of the film is, of course, the budding relationship between Belle and the Beast who tries to frighten her but she proves just as stubborn as he is.  She isn’t intimidated and as the two spend time together, get to know one another, Belle begins to understand that he really does have a heart.  Belle is a wonderful character, a woman who wants to learn, who is initially repulsed by the Beast but looks closer and finds that under his rough exterior really lies a beautiful heart.  And there’s the insecure Beast who doesn’t think than anyone could ever love him but something in Belle touches his soul.  There’s an effective message in Beauty and the Beast about finding love the resides in more than just the exterior.

The romance culminates in one of the most magical sequences in my moviegoing memory.  In the Beast’s ballroom, they waltz while the camera moves in on a crane shot . . . a crane shot! In an animated movie?!, which moves down past a grand chandelier and swoops to the lovers who are lost in each other’s eyes.  Meanwhile Angela Lansbury (who provides the voice of Mrs. Potts) sings the title song.  She isn’t a great singer but she feels the lyrics and so do we.

All through the film we have moments like that.  There are musical numbers (composed by Alan Menken and written by the late Howard Ashman) that are beautifully designed and are not repetitive.  There’s a wonderfully hilarious number involving the film’s egotistical villain Gaston who sings the praises of his own wonderful manliness.  There’s the “Be Our Guest” number performed by the household appliances that is so lively and joyous it would have made Busby Berkly proud.  There’s the lovely, “Something There” in which Mrs. Potts sings of the budding romance between the two lovers.  And there’s a frighteningly effective number sung by a mob, led by Gaston, who want to kill the Beast and rescue Belle.

Movies like this are so rare.  It is so rare to find a film in which all the pieces just come together.  It is an example of what attracts me to animation, the freedom of movement and the ability to convey levels of emotional content through music and mood and color and tone that you cannot get with live action.  Beauty and the Beast is proof that animation is the purest form of the film medium and when it is done right it can be pure magic.


Best Actor

THE WINNER:
Anthony Hopkins (
The Silence of the Lambs)
The Nominees: Warren Beatty (Bugsy), Robert DeNiro (Cape Fear), Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides), Robin Williams (The Fisher King)


MY CHOICE:
Anthony Hopkins
(The Silence of the Lambs)
My Nominees:
Kevin Costner (JFK), Robert DeNiro (Cape Fear), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Boyz N the Hood), Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides)

1991-AnthonyHopkins

Gene Hackman had his eye on The Silence of the Lambs even before the book came out in 1988.  He was so thrilled about the project that he helped finance it, and made it known his intentions to direct it and to cast himself in the role of Hannibal Lecter.  As time went on, Hackman retreated from the project and the financing fell through.  When Jonathan Demme was hired as director, he had Sean Connery in mind for the lead role, but the actor turned it down.

It is difficult to imagine what either Hackman or Connery might have brought to Hannibal Lecter.  Both are fine actors but in examining Anthony Hopkins performance, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have given it the snake charm that has made this one of the most beloved and iconic performance of the last third of the 20th century.  He created a screen persona that is going to live forever in movie history, taking what easily could have been a screaming, drooling psychopath and gave him charm, an animal like existence and an original personality. The character is given a murderous past that includes cannibalism but is also supplied with one of the most intimate and dangerous jobs you can have: He’s a psychologist.

The stature of his character becomes clear before we even see him, FBI trainee Clarice Starling is informed not get personal. “Believe me”, her superior warns, “You don’t want Lecter inside your head”. At the asylum she passes through many security posts, is given a lecture about safety procedures in his presence and is informed that a nurse, years before, had most of her face chewed off as a result. Then she ascends many flights of stairs into a dungeon-like passageway full of rabid, insane monsters..

By the time we get to him, standing in the middle of his plexiglas cell with a dim light over his head and a polite grin on his face, we think we know what we’re in for. All those precautions would seem to indicate that we’re going to be in the presence of a snarling monster. But we’re surprised when we meet a man whose evil is shrouded by culture and civility. Starling has come to ask him questions about one of his former patients who become one of the country’s most nefarious serial killers. Meeting Clarice Starling he begins with tactics that have probably scared away previous doctors and visitors. He makes himself charming but unpredictable. He never threatens, but like a tiger, there are polite warnings. I especially love a moment in which he feels that Starling has taken him for granted, he leans toward the glass and informs her that “A census taker once tried to test me, I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” and punctuates his sentence by sucking in his bottom lip.

Most characters get more interesting as we learn more about them. Lecter is actually more interesting the less we know about him (which is why I think the prequel Hannibal Rising was a mistake). What we come to understand about Lecter is that is feeds off inward psychological pain because his glass prison prevents physical harm. We know that he is dangerous even from that cell when we’re given a bit of information that talked the man in the next cell into swallowing his own tongue. He strikes up a deal with Starling: She can have a piece of information about the killer (known as “Buffalo Bill”) in exchange for pieces of information about her sad childhood.

That may be the most appealing aspect of Hannibal Lecter, here is a man so evil and so sly and so clever that he can perform his evil deeds while confined to an impenetrable cell. He’s so charming that we’re drawn in to his personality and so when, in the third act, he escapes, we’re with him. We don’t want to see him on the loose but it’s fun to see how he escapes. In Lecter, Hopkins created one of the greatest villains in motion picture history, not by wielding a knife but by a sharp intellect that we find, well, appetizing.

 


Best Actress

THE WINNER:
Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs)
The Nominees: Geena Davis (Thelma & Louise), Laura Dern (Rambling Rose), Bette Midler (For the Boys), Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise)


MY CHOICE:
Mimi Rogers (The Rapture)
M
y Nominees: Ellen Barkin (Switch), Annette Bening (Bugsy), Judy Davis (Impromptu), Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs), Patsy Kinset (Twenty-One), Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise), Lily Tomlin (The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe), Reese Witherspoon (The Man in the Moon)

1991-MimiRogers

With her Oscar win for The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster went 2 and O, two nominations, two wins and joined the likes of Luis Rainer and Katherine Hepburn as women who won two consecutive Best Actress awards. She was part of the movie’s five-award sweep and at the podium thanked “all the women who came before me”.Going eye to eye with Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant killer, Foster as FBI trainee Clarice Starling has many effective scenes, but the movie really belongs to Hopkins. Take him out of the picture and she doesn’t have much to work with. At the time, her character might have seemed a strong female lead but today it’s hard to marvel at her work so much as her resemblance to TV’s Dana Scully.

In a year in which the best roles for women got lost in smaller, unnoticed movies, the best was in a movie that got some of the worst reviews of the year. Joining the ranks of “we never knew she had it in her” was my choice for Best Actress of 1991, Mimi Rogers for her four-barrel performance as a faith rattled Christian in Michael Tolkien’s disturbing drama The Rapture.

This is a performance that the academy wouldn’t really know what to do with. It doesn’t feature a loveable lead character nor a detestable one. Rogers plays Sharon, a telephone operator who works in a dimly lit cubicle transferring calls. She’s part of the late 20 century world of instant communication – communication without ever really connecting. Her days are spent in a repetitive job, her nights are spent in a repetitive circle of parties, booze, cruising and sex orgies with her lover Vic (Patrick Bauchau). She has become bored and complacent with both, there’s nothing new even in the party world. One day at work she overhears news of a small group of people who have had dreams of a floating white pearl that is thought to be signaling the immanent coming of the Biblical end times. She hasn’t had the dream herself but it gets her thinking and she casts off her sinful, partying life and gives herself to God. She wakes up, breaks the news to Vic and then symbolizes her new life in Christ by changing the sheets.

Years pass and Sharon marries a former lover named Randy (David Duchovney) who also finds God and they have a daughter they name Mary. This is the point where most pious religious movies would end, but Tolkien is prepared to take Sharon in a devastating direction. She loses Randy to a crazed gunman and later thinks that she has received a message from above, telling her to go to the desert and wait for God. Sharon and Mary pack up their worldly belongings and drive into the desert to wait for the second coming. They wait and wait and wait and wait and wait. Sitting at a picnic ground under the blistering sun, bored to tears and frustrated beyond words, Sharon’s faith ever-so-slowly begins to wain. She wonders if God will even keep his promise and this cold reality sends her into a bizarre form of frustrated madness.

Weeks later, angry and delirious, she challenges God by shooting Mary in the back of the head. She nearly kills herself but just can’t because she feels that she can’t get into Heaven that way. Later, in the film’s best scene, she runs into a friendly police officer who has been checking in on Sharon and Mary and informs him of what she has done and that she is finished with God and all his promises. “I think he says that, basically, you have to love Him, no matter what. But I don’t love Him, not anymore. He has too many rules. He told me to meet him in the desert. And I did and I waited. He didn’t come. He broke his promise. He let me kill my little girl. And he still expects me to love him? I’m afraid of Hell, so I have to wait out my life, waiting for God”.

Mimi Rogers’ performance is full-blooded, taking her from a bored routine of sex to a sublime life in Christ to a frustrated fall from grace. I love the moments right after she takes Jesus into her heart, her face wearing a mask of contentment. There’s a sense that it’s a false mask and that she doesn’t really understand the life to which she has entered, she understands the fundamentals but doesn’t understand that she simply has to have patience and faith. The best parts of her performance take place late in the film when she begins to feels that God has jerked her around. I think Sharon’s sin was pride, the assumption that God would cure all ills and that her faith was a replacement for patience and common sense. By the time the rapture finally arrives, she’s fed up with what she feels is a god that is toying with her. The final moment is one of the most disturbing and uncompromising that I have ever experienced. Sharon stands on the shores of what we assume is a dimly lit Limbo. Her daughter stands by her side urging her to confess her love for God but she won’t. She chooses to remain on the shores across from Heaven forever.

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