Armchair Oscars – 1992

Best Picture

THE WINNER:
Unforgiven (Directed by Clint Eastwood)
The Nominees: The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, Howard’s End, Scent of a Woman


MY CHOICE:
Malcolm X (Directed by
Spike Lee)
My Nominees:
Bad Lieutenant (Able Ferrara), The Crying Game (Neal Jordan), Damage (Louis Malle), Flirting (John Duigan), Howard’s End (James Ivory), Light Sleeper (Paul Schrader), Passion Fish (John Sayles), The Player (Robert Altman)

1992-MalcolmX

Clint Eastwood had been around for over forty years before the academy gave him a single Oscar nomination. Having bypassed some of his best performances in Dirty Harry, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, The Outlaw Josey Whales, Jeremiah Johnson and his directorial work in Play Misty For Me, Bronco Billy and Bird, they rewarded him with two Oscars for one of the most mediocre westerns he ever made. Unforgiven was a well-meaning but limp revisionist western that takes place at a time when the west was turning from a reality into the stuff of popular fiction. The movie purports to detest violence and yet ends with a bloody shootout that pulls the rug out from under the rest of the film.

I think Eastwood’s best work as a director was still to come. Over the next two decades he would turn out a long list of great directorial work with films like A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River, Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, Hereafter, J. Edgar, and his World War II duology Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.  He would win the Oscar again for the much more deserving Million Dollar Baby a decade later.

For 1992, the academy was making up for lost time, by giving Oscars to two men who were long overdue (the other being Al Pacino).  For this particular year, I think one of the very best directors of his generation was unfairly overlooked as Spike Lee spent 1992 creating, Malcolm X, the film that would become his masterpiece. Lee is famous for butting heads with Hollywood but I think the academy overlooked the film because of their personal feelings for the director. That’s unfair because Malcolm X, despite what you think of it’s subject matter or it’s director, is still a work of filmmaking art.

To understand what makes Malcolm X work, you have to see it as a contrast to biopics that have come before. Lee chooses a subject that doesn’t come with a sainthood attached. He chooses a controversial subject and sees him through his lifelong transformation. That’s the brilliant arch of the picture, that he begins with Malcolm Little, born the son of a preacher who taught a separatist lesson that black people are strangers in a strange land and that they can never be themselves until they return to their ancestral homeland. Then he strips him down, takes all aspects of his given life away, builds him up at a muslim leader who speaks with anti-white speeches. Then the film follows him on a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca where he is transformed to a more tolerant leader.

We meet him at the beginning of his life when his father is murdered and taken from his mother into foster care. He is a bright kid but is repeatedly told that the best occupations lie in anything that doesn’t require a higher education because he is a negro. He works small jobs and by the 1940s, as a young man, he has become a low-level criminal. He goes to prison for 20 concurrent sentences where he is given nothing and every shred of his manhood is taken away.

What Lee does here is fascinating. He begins with a potential mind, born into a world where the social code won’t allow him to succeed. Then strips away all aspects of his manhood: His father dies, his mother is taken away, he has been left an orphan, he’s lost his moral code having to become a criminal. Then he goes to prison where he loses his freedom. Then he goes to solitary confinement where he is even robbed of the precious gift of light. The process of the movie sees Malcolm is stripped bare, a man without purpose, there is nothing left but an empty shell.

That’s Lee’s purpose, to strip away Malcolm Little then build him back up as Malcolm X. He meets an inspirational Muslim named Baines who gives him hard lessons about white people and reminds him that he has never met one that was any good. In one astonishing scene he introduces him to the English dictionary which describes the word “white” as pure, clean, and the word “black” as dirty and unclean. He learns to detest the white man and it lights a fire in his belly to be better than any white man and to teach others to do the same.

Out of prison he becomes an orator, preaching on the street corners that the white man is evil and that the circumstances of the black man lay in the crimes of the white. He rises to become a leader, a voice for the frustrated and the down-trodden. This is where we get the famous speech: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!” The most startling moment comes when a young white Berkley student stops him and asks what she can do to help his cause. “Nothing” he says coldly and moves on.

Then the movie makes a turn I didn’t expect. In the third act, Malcolm makes a pilgrimage to Mecca where he meets and mingles with Muslims who are black and who are white. This startles him and it begins to change his attitudes on race. When he comes back he is a changed man and it startles some around him.

Spike Lee was the perfect filmmaker to bring Malcom’s story to the screen. Lee has been railed as a fury-monger, as a man whose films are racist, but I don’t think that’s true. He makes films about race but brings the subject close so the audience can confront it. His films take an extremely uncomfortable subject and make us confront them. Here, he presents the story of a man whose early views are racist but that there is so much more to the man. He takes us along on the progression of a life of enormous change, that goes from street thug to prison inmate to rabble-rouser to inspiring leader. And at it’s center is Denzel Washington who carries us through the film and embodies those changes. His performance is such an embodiment that we sense different levels and different men as the film progresses.

Having seen the life of Malcolm X unfold through the prism of Spike Lee, I was left to wonder at the end of the film where it might have gone. He was assassinated in 1965 and I’m left to wonder if this man changed so much in a short 40 years, I’m left to ponder what, had he life, his life might have brought in later years.


Best Actor

THE WINNER:
Al Pacino (
Scent of a Woman)
The Nominees: Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin), Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven), Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), Denzel Washington (Malcolm X)


MY CHOICE:
Harvey Keitel (Bad Lieutenant)
My Nominees:
Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin), Jeremy Irons (Damage), Jack Lemmon (Glengarry Glen Ross), Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), Tim Robbins (The Player), Denzel Washington (Malcolm X)

1992-HarveyKietel

While taking time out to honor Clint Eastwood, the academy also got around to Al Pacino. Unlike Eastwood who had never been nominated, Pacino had been nominated by the academy eight times (five times for Best Actor and three for supporting) but remained one of it’s most prominent bridesmaids. Then he was featured in Martin Breast’s Scent of a Woman as Frank Slade a loud, crass, brutish blind ex-Army colonel who takes a young caretaker (Chris O’Donnell) on vacation with him where he intends to live it up and end it by committing suicide.

I was glad to finally see Pacino win an Oscar, but I wish it had been for a less hammy role. Frank Slade is hard to like and even harder to dislike, but it often feels more like an Al Pacino impression than an original creation. It contains all his classic Pacino-isms including that familiar thing where he speaks softly and shouts the last TWO WORDS! Oddly enough, though he received eight nominations in twenty years, he hasn’t been nominated since, despite better work in Heat, Donnie Brasco, The Devil’s Advocate, The Insider and Insomnia. I think he won because the academy was making up for lost time.

An actor who is just as brilliant is my choice for the Best Actor of 1992, Harvey Keitel who, despite 30 years worth of risk taking performances has only been nominated once, for his work as Mickey Cohen in Bugsy. I don’t know if the academy would ever have had the nerve to reward him for his ferocious performance in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant but that’s what I’m going to do anyway. I choose him over Denzel Washington because I feel that I’ve already rewarded the film with my Armchair Oscar for Best Picture.

Keitel occupies a role that other actors would have instinctively turned down or would have insisted be watered down to make the character less reprehensible. Under the direction of Abel Ferrara, Keitel plays a man at the end of his rope. He’s a bad cop, a bad father, a drug addict whose sense of all life seems to have washed away. He plays dealer to drug dealers taking their drugs and their cash in exchange for not arresting them. What passes for any emotional connections are nights spent with hookers.

This is not the story of a man maintaining his drug habit, but rather a portrait of a man in the late stages of self destruction. It was genius to make him a police officer because it affords him access to drugs and drug dealers that the ordinary man wouldn’t have. Meeting him at this stage in his drug addiction is crucial to the film’s effect because we see semblances of a life that has long-since made adjustments to his habits. He’s married with three kids but they serve as enablers who tolerate him. We see him taking the kids to school but there is a look in his eyes that he is only impatient for a fix. He is never given a name, a sign that such formalities no longer matter and the details of what was once his personality have washed away.

Between binges, hangovers and the search for money and drugs, a case crosses his path that gets his attention. A nun is raped in a church, and to the Lieutenant’s amazement, the nun will not identify her attackers. She forgives her attackers. For the Lieutenant, this is the kind of absolution that was probably out of his radar even when he wasn’t hooked on booze or drugs. He tries to reason with her: “But do you have the right? You’re not the only woman in the world. You’re not even the only nun. Your forgiveness will leave blood in its wake. What if these guys do something like this again? To other women, other virgins? Old women who die from the shock? Do you have the right to forgive them? Can you bear the burden, sister?”

A tiny crack begins to form in the haze of his addiction, maybe if two rapists can be forgiven, it may be possible for him to find it too. Late in the film he finds himself in a church, on his knees and has a hallucination that Jesus has appeared before him. Can God forgive him? “I’ve done so many bad things” he says.

Harvey Kietel has been one of our most reliable actors ever sense he appeared in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. He usually plays crooks, thugs and killers but he never plays a standard one. There is always something new that he brings to roles that have become static. He finds a note to play in Bad Lieutenant that makes him reprehensible, pitiful and beyond help. He has scenes that put him in an extremely negative light, we see him doing things that other actors would shy away from, concerned for their image. What makes the Lieutenant such an interesting character is that he never reaches out for our sympathy. He knows that he is beyond the pail, he never asks for our pity.


Best Actress

THE WINNER:
Emma Thompson (Howard’s End)
The Nominees: Catherine Denueve (Indochine), Mary McDonnell (Passion Fish), Michelle Pfeiffer (Love Field), Susan Sarandon (Lorenzo’s Oil)


MY CHOICE:
Mary McDonnell (Passion Fish)
M
y Nominees: Susan Sarandon (Lorenzo’s Oil), Susan Sarandon (Light Sleeper), Emma Thompson (Howard’s End), Cynda Williams (One False Move)

1992-MaryMcDonnell

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declared Nineteen Ninety Two to be it’s official “Year of the Woman” – This would not be the only that the academy had egg on it’s face. This was one of the worst years for women’s roles in decades, leaving one observer to say “Not since Mary Pickford reigned as America’s silent film sweetheart have women’s voices been so absent in film.” It was true, the bulk of strong roles for women were so miniscule that Oscar pundits were speculating on nominations for Michelle Pfieffer for Batman Returns, Sharon Stone for Basic Instinct and Whoopi Goldberg for Sister Act.

These were hardly the cream of the crop.The five nominees did play strong women but I don’t know if the academy made the right choice. I liked Emma Thompson in Howard’s End as Margaret Schlegel, a bourgeois spinster who befriends an elderly upperclass woman who eventually leaves her beloved home upon her death. The movie deals with her attempts to knit her middle class family with the upper class Wilcox’s but I don’t know if Thompson is a stand-out, she seems to me part of the ensemble.

I can only pin the term “strong roles for women” on two of the nominees. First is Susan Sarandon for her peerless performance in Lorenzo’s Oil as Michela Odonea, a mother trying to get help for her son who has a disease so rare that there is no research to find a cure. The other is my choice for Best Actress, Mary McDonnell in John Sayles Passion Fish, as a bitchy soap opera star who has to readjust to a new existence when a car crash leaves her unable to walk.

The movie opens with a close-up of her eyes, we’re going to join her in her new life. She was the star of a soap opera but she’s been in an accident that has left her unable to walk and this means that she won’t be able to work. We get a sense of this woman right off the bat, May-Alice Culhane is not a pleasant person to deal with. She’s spoiled, she’s temperamental and she’s difficult.

She does not score points in therapy, making the therapists job even harder and after that falls through, she moves back to her family home in the bayou to drink wine and soak happily in her misery. A colorful cast of hospice workers stop in to apply for the job, some get it and most regret the choice, leaving after only a few days. Then Chantelle comes around.

Chantelle needs the money and is willing to tough it out with this woman because the job is important to her. “Did they tell you I was a bitch?” asks May. “On wheels” Chantelle says without smiling.

What is most interesting about McDonnell’s performance is the way in which she suffers the people around her. Watch her current of irritation as she deals with a nurse obsessed with her soap opera. Watch how she smiles reluctantly at the group of actors who have come to visit her at her home. Watch the notes of frustration that filter through as she realizes . McDonnell handles the job of playing a self-centered miserable person cast into a tough situation but never has to make us feel that there is really a nice person underneath. May-Alice is difficult and stubborn. What she gets from Chantelle is not a friendship that turns a mean person into a nice person, what she finds is a budding sense of respect as she realizes what Chantelle can give her that no one else can. It’s hard to say that the two ever really become friends but connecting them, we see that both have personalities and a stubborn will that both need to find understanding.

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