Armchair Oscars – 1993

Best Picture

THE WINNER:
Schindler’s List  (Directed by Steven Spielberg)
The Nominees: The FugitiveIn the Name of the FatherThe PianoThe Remains of the Day


MY CHOICE:
Schindler’s List (Directed by Steven Spielberg
)
My Nominees: The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese), Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kiaga), The Joy Luck Club (Wayne Wang), Menace II Society (Allen and Albert Hughes)The Piano (Jane Campion)The Remains of the Day (James Ivory), Ruby in Paradise (Victor Nunez), Short Cuts (Robert Altman)

1993-SchindlersList

By the beginning of Nineteen Ninety-Three, Steven Spielberg hadn’t achieved greatness in about eight years.  After his great epic The Color Purple in 1985 he hit a creative slump. His roster of films in that period was a look into possibly the most mediocre of his work, including Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Always and Hook. But 1993 would be the year of his comeback. He made the most popular film of the year and he made the best film of decade.

Jurassic Park would prove that he could still capture the summer box office, which was no surprise.  The surprise was Schindler’s List, an uncommonly moving emotional experience which proved that, as an artist, the cinema’s biggest little kid had grown into a great film artist.  Schindler’s List was like nothing that he had ever directed before and it was like nothing we had ever seen before. It moved me greatly as it did millions and so, for only time of the decade, I agree with the academy’s choice for Best Picture. Schindler’s List is like watching a train crash; you can’t stand to watch yet you cannot bear to look away. Shot in black and white it has a kind of documentary quality, peering with unblinking eyes into one of the most horrific events in modern human history – how the Nazis could take lives without rhyme or reason and then how they were robbed of a small number of their victims through one man’s kindness.

We meet that man Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) an alcoholic, a womanizer who joined the Nazi party because it was an easy way to fund his businesses through money given to him by throwing parties for high officials. He’s a not a great businessman but he is a great wheeler dealer, a man who knows how to grease palms and smooth talk his way in or out of anything.

Many said that Schindler’s List wasn’t like anything else he had ever made. That’s true in weight of the subject matter, but thematically it’s is exactly the same as his other works. Schindler’s struggle to save the Jews were really no different than the men battling the shark in Jaws, Indiana Jones tackling the Nazi’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Elliot trying to save E.T. from the government officials, the scientists battling the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, all of these had external struggles but nothing ever came as close to the bone. He used his skill for stories about struggles in fantasy films and put it to use with one of the darkest chapters of human history. He always said that he waited until he grew up as a person and as a filmmaker before he was ready to make the film.

That’s best because for a director known for his content, Schindler’s List is a film in which he shows great restraint. He shows us the murders and the horror that befell the Jews but he also knows that there is only so much that we can take so he shows us just enough (most of the murders take place in long or medium distance shots). He shot the film in black and white partly because the murders in a color would be too much to bear. Most amazingly each murder happens differently, all of the actors die in a different fashion. Spielberg wants us to witness the atrocities in all their horror and he also wants us to understand that each was an individual, a person. At one point a woman is shot for speaking out and as the Nazis grab her she is pulled up to the camera so we can look in her eyes and realize that a worthwhile life is about to end.

He also realizes that the scope of the holocaust is too vast for one movie so he slims it down to a smaller story. He was wise, with all those denying that it ever happened, to base the film on a true story, a single act of selfless heroism. But Oskar Schindler is not a conventional hero, he realizes that saving these people is an act of cunning in which one false move could mean instant death. He and his accountant work in code and in corners to insure that what they are doing is kept out of the spotlight. They realize that it would be suicide to take on the Nazi’s head on. After the Krakow ghetto his perspective changes and he begins a process of trying to save the Jews by buying them through bribes and personal favors. He watches his factory workers fall one by one through careless murders and into the gas chambers so he and his accountant Itzhak Stern (marvelously played by Ben Kingsley) draw up a list of people working for him (1,100) and the list becomes an island. “The list is an absolute good, the list is life” Stern says “All around it’s margins lies the gulf”. He uses his own money to buy each of the workers on his list even though it means that he will risk financial ruin (which he does). In his factory which has gone from making pots and pans to making mortar shells, he informs Stern in the end that “if this factory ever produces a shell that can actually be fired, I’ll be very unhappy.”

One of Schindler’s biggest obstacles is Amon Geoth (Ralph Fiennes) the commandant of the camp holding Schindler’s workers. If Schindler used the Nazi Party as a cover for his business interests Geoth uses the party as a cover for his psychopathic tendencies. He murders Jews at will, using a scope to shoot them from the balcony of his villa. He uses a minor incident involving a stolen chicken to shoot a line of Jewish men dead. He forgives a young boy who failed to clean his bathtub properly and lets him leave only to shoot him dead a moment later. Schindler’s advantage over Geoth is his tunnel vision and the fact that he is almost always drunk, a sober man with his attention at full would begin to spot.

Geoth shoots and kills at random which robs the Jews of any hope that the promised slogan “Arbiet Macht Frei” (“Work makes you free”) may have provided. Many critics cited the character of Geoth as a mistake, that putting a psychotic in the film robs us of a real sense of the Nazi functionaries, of how a man could dehumanize the Jews on the basis of his orders. I don’t think it’s a weakness, I think that understanding the psychotic nature of murdering the Jews helps us understand how the Nazi era began in the first place. Geoth can’t see the Jews as human beings and he stands for the maniacal tendencies of Hitler, Georring, Hess, Himmler who certainly weren’t functionaries. Geoth is a one-dimensional person but it’s that kind of narrow thinking that breed genocide in the first place. Schindler on the other hand represents those who recognize this as insanity, his character is so complex that we don’t get a sense of the man or his reasons, we only get a sense that this is a complex man driven to do a very good thing (think the opposite with Hitler and you understand).

The ending is one of the most emotional that I have ever seen. After the liberation the surviving Jews walk into the horizon and we wonder where they might be headed, what hope do they now have? Then we see the actors over the horizon and the film turns to color and we note that they are not actors anymore but the real Schindler’s Jews. We realize that they are there with their children and grandchildren born from Schindler’s single act of goodness. We realize that if one act of hatred can kill millions, a single act of kindness can save them and can create generations.


Best Actor

THE WINNER:
Tom Hanks (
Philadelphia)
The Nominees: Daniel Day-Lewis (In the Name of the Father), Anthony Hopkins (The Remains of the Day), Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got to do With It), Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List)


MY CHOICE:
Bill Murray (Groundhog Day)
My Nominees:
Jeff Bridges (Fearless), Daniel Day-Lewis (The Age of Innocence), Daniel Day-Lewis (In the Name of the Father), Harrison Ford (The Fugitive), Anthony Hopkins (The Remains of the Day), Kevin Kline (Dave), Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List), Tyrine Turner (Menace II Society)

1993-BillMurray

It was one of the most emotional moments in Oscar history as Tom Hanks accepted his first Oscar at the 66th Annual Academy Awards in a tearful requiem to the millions who had succumb to AIDS. In Philadelphia, he shed light on the subject by playing a gay lawyer afflicted with the disease who fights for his basic human dignity when his law firm dredges up a flimsy set of excuses to fire him.

I admire the movie more than Hanks’ performance. I admire him for taking on the subject and a role that many actors would have instinctively turned down. My problem with the academy’s choice has to do with the character that Hanks plays. Andrew Beckett is a heroic (though typically tragic) figure who battles the forces of ignorance and paranoia, but if you look beneath the issue at hand he doesn’t really emerge as much of a character. Take away the disease and there isn’t much interest. I think his moving three minute acceptance speech was 100 times better than anything he achieves in the movie.

Philadelphia turned Hanks from a light comedian into a respected dramatic actor, but I think that his best work (and another Oscar) were still ahead of him. The actors who were nominated for Best Actor of 1993 played tough, hard-bitten characters facing storms of oppression and repression (except Fishburne’s Ike Turner who is the perpetrator). In fact, most of the films nominated at the 66th Annual Academy Awards in all categories were deep, somber, heavy material with hardly a laugh among them. That’s too bad because 1993 was a surprisingly good year for comedy. With Kevin Kline in Dave, Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, Johnny Depp in Benny and Joon, Charlie Sheen in Hot Shots Part Deux!, John Goodman in Matinee, Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle and Richard Harris in Wrestling Earnest Hemingway, the academy had a chance to mix things up between the somber and the silly – they might have done this if they had opened the category up to 10 nominees.

The one performance that I think is criminally missing among the nominees is my choice for Best Actor of the year, Bill Murray for his great work as a weatherman who is forced to repeat the same day over and over in Harold Ramis’ Capra-esqe fantasy Groundhog Day. It would seem odd to suggest that Murray’s performance should have been named up there with Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day or Daniel Day-Lewis in In the Name of the Father, but I think he works just as hard as they do, maybe harder.

Murray has always been the most dependable of comedians. Like Groucho Marx or W.C. Field or Bill Cosby, he is best at playing a wise guy who uses his wise-acre commentary as a defense against the craziness around him. If you look at his work in Stripes, Tootsie, Ghostbusters, Little Shop of Horrors, Quick Change, Groundhog Day or What about Bob? you see that he is basically playing the same character. For most comedians that would get tiresome (as with Adam Sandler), but Murray has a natural gift for off-the-cuff one-liners so his act works with almost any formula.

With Groundhog Day, he found a formula that beautifully plays to his style of humor. He plays Phil Conners, a smug, self-obsessed weather man who is irritated that he is still stuck with his job in the same tiny Pittsburgh TV station. He reminds his co-worker that he is waiting for the networks to call and offer him something bigger. His bitter attitude toward his job has entered a passive-aggressive state and that extends to both his co-workers and the viewing audience.

He hates most of his assignments but he reserves his biggest dread for the job of covering the annual Groundhog Day celebration in the tiny hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This is where the town’s population gathers every February second to see the town officials in top hats pull out a live groundhog to see what the little rat predicts for the coming winter. Phil has been covering this nonsense for the past three years.

Punxsutawney is the kind of friendly, happy little Norman Rockwell-type town that is so far outside Phil’s bitter nature that he plans to beat it out of town as soon as his assignment is finished. Dragging along his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott), Phil’s disdain for this assignment even shows up on the air: “This is the one time when television fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrell predicting the weather.” He is excitied to be leaving town, but the fates aren’t with him and he is trapped in Punxsutawney by a blizzard that he reported would pass right over.

Then something bizarre happens. He wakes up the next morning to find that February 2nd has started all over again. To Phil, the day has repeated but to everyone else, it is exactly the same. Everyone does the same things, says the same things and goes through the same motions. He has the same conversation with the tenants at the Bed and Breakfast; he passes the same homeless man (Les Podewell); he is accosted by the same annoying high school aquintance (Stephen Toblowsky) and, of course, he has to cover the Groundhog Day festival all over again.

Everyone except Phil is completely oblivious to the fact that the day has repeated itself. He doesn’t really try to figure out why this bizarre event has taken place but initially can only hope that it will stop very soon. For Phil, repeating the same day in a town that he hates, this is a nightmare of which he broods: “I was in The Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster and drank piña coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters. Why couldn’t I get that day over and over?”

The answer comes in Phil’s journey, as Groundhog Day becomes the complex story of a man in a ridiculous circumstance that progressively changes his very soul. As the day repeats itself and Phil goes through a series of mental changes. He begins in total bafflement, attempting to get a handle on the situation. Then he enters into a kind of delrious state of self-destruction. Realizing that since the day will start all over the next morning, whatever he does the previous night won’t have any consequences. One night he tries to cheat death by driving a car down a set a railroad tracks, reminding himself of all the rules he’s been taught from childhood and then proclaiming “I’m not gonna live by their rules anymore!”

Then he realizes that he can use the daily repeats to get what he wants as when he spends several days getting small pieces of information about a pretty girl (Marita Geraghty) in order to sleep with her. That sets him off on a mission to romance Rita, getting small pieces of information about her through several daily conversations in order to win her heart. In several of the daily run-throughs he picks up small pieces of information about her that he can use on her to win her heart. Of course, Rita doesn’t know that Phil’s day is repeating so, for her, he is simply knowledgable about her life and her interests. It eventually backfires when she suspects that she is being manipulated. Worse, it backfires over and over and over. Phil realizes that it is always going to backfire on him no matter how many times he tries to correct his mistakes.

Rita repeated rejections cause Phil to fall into a suicidal depression. But that doesn’t end the cycle and he tries several means of killing himself until he decides that he must be immortal. He tells her that he believes that he is a god and demonstrates by telling her pieces of information about the townsfolk that he has accumulated. “Maybe the real God uses tricks” Phil reasons, “Maybe he’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long he knows everything.”

He believes that since he has gotten to intimately know everyone in town through the daily repeats he can somehow make their lives better. He becomes a genial and good man, spreading joy, happiness and good will wherever he can.  However, that only works up to a point.  There is a painful moment when his God-complex is broken when he tries to save a starving homeless man from dying but realizes that the man’s fate is beyond his control.  That becomes a turning point for Phil. Realizing that he is immortal but not infallable, he tries being the best man he can be. He learns as much as he can including piano lessions and ice sculpture and becomes an honored man in the town.

What has always come best from Bill Murray is a kind of flat, dead-pan delivery, a manner of looking at bizarre situations and sizing them up in a manner reserved only for the likes of people like W.C. Field, Bill Cosby or Groucho Marx. Remember in Ghostbusters when he comes to the apartment of his possessed girlfriend “I make it a point never to get involved with possessed people”. Or the moment in Tootsie when his male roommate fusses over his girdle – “I think we’re getting into a weird area here”. Or as the dentistry addict in Little Shop of Horrors “I think I need a root canal. I definitely need a long, slow root canal.”

Groundhog Day is right at home for Murray because it affords him at least two dozen moments like that. It is the perfect playground for his kind of humor. Yet, it is something more than that. Here he begins by playing a man who is smug and self-important and slowly transforms into a man who is happy. He has a difficult task of opening the film playing a perfect jerk, a role that in other hands might have made the film insufferable. What Murray does with the introductory scenes is present a man who is not boiling or screaming or lashing out but who has his resentment and cynacism burning just under the surface. It has become so ground-in that it has become his very nature.

What takes place after the daily repeats start is the reconditioning of his soul. He begins to learn, to contemplate, to theorize and finally he begins to learn things. As he runs through the gummet of bafflement, confusion, aggravation, misery and despair, he finds that – much like Superman – he can make a difference but he can’t do everything. It is more fulfilling, he finds, to be a good man.


Best Actress

THE WINNER:
Holly Hunter (The Piano)
The Nominees: Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to do With It?), Stockard Channing (Six Degrees of Separation), Emma Thompson (The Remains of the Day), Debra Winger (Shadowlands)


MY CHOICE:
Ashley Judd (Ruby in Paradise)
M
y Nominees: Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to do With It?), Holly Hunter (The Piano), Man San Lu (The Scent of Green Papaya), Michelle Pfieffer (The Age of Innocence), Tilda Swinton (The Ballad of Little Jo), Tilda Swinton (Orlando), Lily Taylor (Household Saints), Emma Thompson (Much Ado About Nothing), Emma Thompson (The Remains of the Day), Debra Winger (A Dangerous Woman)

1993-AshleyJudd

In rather predictable Oscar season, It was generally accepted that Holly Hunter would win the Oscar for Jane Campion’s The Piano, playing a stubborn deaf-mute in 19th century New Zealand who trades sexual favors with a neighbor to get her beloved piano back. But still there was opposition from Angela Bassett who gave a fierce performance as Tina Turner who suffers all manner of abuse from her husband Ike in Brian Gibson’s What’s Love Got To Do With It. I loved both performances and I almost gave my Armchair Oscar to both but then I started really studying 1993’s overwhelming amount of great roles for woman and found that I had a lot to choose from.

The difference between the quality of roles for women between Nineteen Ninety Two and Nineteen Ninety Three was about 180 degrees. While there were barely a handful of strong roles for women the year earlier, the bumper crop of strong women who graced the screen in 1993 was a breath of fresh air. One after another they came one brilliant performance after another, this was the best bunch of stronger, more individual characters since the 1930s.

I liked the five women nominated for Best Actress of 1993 but there were many more that deserved a chance that didn’t get nominated. I wish they had found room for Michelle Pfeiffer as a divorcee in The Age of Innocence or Tilda Swinton as an English duke who survives four centuries and a change of gender in Orlando or Juliette Binoche as a woman who loses her family in an accident and tries to throw it all away in Blue or any of the wonderful Chinese women of The Joy Luck Club. THIS was the year of the woman. Out of all those performances I wish the academy had found room for my choice for Best Actress, Ashley Judd as Ruby Lee Gissing, a young woman who dreams of independence in Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise.

Judd was best known for being part of a musical family but she broke away and proved herself to be one of the most natural actors of her generation with this film before starring in a string of forgettable thrillers. As the movie opens, Ruby Lee is moving to Florida to escape an unsatisfied life and start over. She has no showbiz ambitions, she’s not a budding athlete nor is she looking for a man. All she wants is to live on her own terms, working retail. To most this wouldn’t seem to be much more than a dream but to Ruby Lee, she has her agenda and she’s determined to live it.

She walks into a beachwear shop and asks for a job. Mildred, the proprietor, tells her that she doesn’t need her because the store doesn’t do much business in the off season. But Ruby is determined, she plants her feet and she makes the case that it’s not necessarily about the money, it’s about the work – she knows the business. Mildred eventually comes to respect this stubborn young woman but at first she doesn’t think much of her. Her one rule: Employees are not allowed to go out with her son Ricky. Ruby does anyway and loses her job. That spins her into a troubled time in which she sees her dream crumbling and considers alternatives.

Judd has moments when her body language tell us all we need to know. During her low point she briefly considers being a stripper but puts that idea behind her. The movie never says it but to a thoughtful viewer we understand why she chooses not to. Aside from the prospect of demeaning herself, the money would be good but she realizes that making a great deal of money stripping would mean that once she got in, she couldn’t go back. Its funny, in that scene I realized how many movies see strippers through the eyes of the male customers. Ruby is a beautiful woman and through Ashley Judd we understand how easy it would be for her to make a lucrative career through her looks. But she doesn’t’ want that, she wants a life putting her skills and her brain to good use.

Eventually she gets her job back because there was something in Ruby’s head for business that Mildred needed. She takes her to a convention and there’s a wonderful moment when Ruby sees another woman in a nice suit with a briefcase. There’s a look in her eyes that somehow sees where she would like to be. With Judd it’s all in the eyes, and her best moments are those when we just think we can read her thoughts.

Ruby in Paradise allows a woman to step into a genre that has been dominated by males. Like Sullivan’s Travels or Five Easy Pieces, the movie lets a woman take to the road to find her destiny. There is often a far away look in Judd’s eyes where she seems unwilling to settle for other’s definition of what her life should be. She carries a quiet dignity and we realize that her beauty could carry her to easy money. But there’s a reason that she doesn’t: She doesn’t want to.

What makes Judd’s performance so special is that she allows us to see her learning from her mistakes. We get no sense that Ricky is any good and Ruby disappoints us by sleeping with him. She meets another guy, an environmentally conscious longer named Mike who seems to be a perfect match. But soon cracks begin to show in his personality as he seems lack ambition. Ruby possesses something that is missing from most movie characters: a learning curve. I am inundated with movies are about people who have things all figured out but the best ones find characters that are three-dimentional, that grow and change. Ruby Lee Gissing goes through a process of growing and changing and what’s best about the film is that when it’s over we sense that she will continue to do so.

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