Armchair Oscars – 1996

Best Picture

The English Patient (Directed by Anthony Minghella)
The Nominees: Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets and Lies, Shine

Fargo (Directed by Joel Coen)
My Nominees: Bound (Larry and Andy Wachowski), Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier),
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise), Lone Star (John Sayles), Secrets and Lies (Mike Leigh)Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton)


There were a lot of Hollywood executives nervously tugging at their collars on the morning of February 11, 1997 when the nominees for the 69th annual academy awards were announced. Over 75% of the total number of nominees in all categories were films from independent studios. Among the best picture nominees, only Jerry Maguire came from a major studio. The message from the academy voters to the major studios was a potential sign post as to where the real filmmaking was coming from.

The winner, from Miramax, was Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, a sprawling, multi-character WWII epic about a badly burned Englishman who lies dying in a mosque while his story of how he got into this predicament is recounted. The movie has a brilliant narrative, telling its story slowly so that we have time to get an emotional investment in the characters.

It is hard to complain about The English Patient. It was adapted by Anthony Minghella from a novel by Michael Ondaaji and gorgeously photographed by John Seal (whose credits include The Firm, Gorillas in the Mist and Dead Poets Society). The performances are terrific from Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott-Thomas and especially Supporting Actress winner Juliette Binoche as the nurse who cares for Fiennes. Some suggested that the movie was made to be an Oscar winner, but the late Anthony Minghella disagreed, stating that there were no guarantees of the movie’s Oscar potential in the decade or so that he was unsuccessfully shopping the film around.

When it came out, it was met with almost universal praise, both from the critics and the awards from BAFTA and at the Golden Globes. Yet, in the years since its Oscar win, the movie seems to have slipped out of common knowledge. After the Academy Awards, the movie wasn’t universally talked about and the movie is rarely screened – it hardly ever shows up on television. It is beautiful, intelligent, evenly paced, but I don’t know anyone who would want to spend an evening with it over my choice for Best Picture, Fargo from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, the best reviewed and one of the most beloved films of the year.

As with The English Patient, Fargo is well made and didn’t insult the audience by making its intention clear at the beginning, but I am of the opinion that Fargo is far more entertaining. I’m not alone. When the AFI turned out it’s list of the 100 greatest films of all time in 1998, Fargo ended up as the youngest film on the list right there with Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars and many others. That pedigree is more than justified, Fargo is something special.

Fargo takes place in the snow-covered plains of North Dakota and centers on Jerry Lundergaard (Supporting Actor nominee William H. Macy) a car salesman and family man who is in deep trouble after some bad investments.  He needs money fast.  In order to work his way out of his financial problem, he engineers a plan that is impossibly stupid.  He hires two second-hand thugs Carl Showalter (Steve Bushemi) and Graer Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so he can then demand a ransom from his brassbound father-in-law (Harve Presnell) who regards Jerry with the kind of disdain that one might offer an ugly piece of furniture. Jerry’s plan is so silly and confounding that even one of the potential kidnappers can’t help but question it.  Still, they take the job because they are promised a portion of the ransom money and a rather unflattering Ciera (described as “burnt-umber”) from Jerry’s car lot.

Setting this half-assed plan in motion, it is followed by a series of unfortunate events. After hiring the thugs, Jerry finds out that he can get the money without the kidnapping and needs to call them off, but since the the crooks were hired second-hand he can’t get their phone number. The kidnappers prove so inept that when they break into Jerry’s house to kidnap his wife, she falls over and knocks herself unconscious. Then the bank starts hounding Jerry with phone calls because the serial numbers on his loan application for the Ciera are illegible. He either needs to provide them or they have to call back the money – which he doesn’t have. Meanwhile, on the way to their safehouse, Gaear murders a police officer and then two eye-witnesses.

It is this point that Fargo comes beautifully to life.

Into this bizarre melee of murder and kidnapping and fraud, comes a ray of sunshine. Her name is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) a local police chief who is very pregnant, very chipper and is very very good at her job. We suspect that when she arrives on the scene that the movie will follow an obsession as she follows the clues to the killers. We’re wrong as she surmises the events that led to the murders almost as if they were common sense. This is not the story of a dogged cop who puts her life on the line to solve the crime, but we see a woman who is very smart and sizes up the situation without a second thought. To Marge, this is just a job and one she does very well. She’s sweet, does her job effortlessly with a smile and an heir of good cheer.

Counterpoint to Marge is Jerry, brilliantly played by William H. Macy as a man who sets an unbelievably inept criminal plot into motion and then nearly comes apart at the seams as the plot collapses around him. His plan to get the money from his father-in-law is the working definition of the word “inane,” almost as if he has built it on theory but hasn’t quite worked it into logic.

Macy plays him as man who loves his wife and his son but who is so pathetic that most people regard him with disdain. Pay attention to his individual moments especially in a moment when he is so frustrated that just scraping the ice off his windshield turns into a an angry rage. Look also at a moment in the beginning when he looks so pitiful trying to talk a couple into paying for rust-proofing that they didn’t want. Then, of course, there is the moment when Marge comes to see him to question him about the missing burnt-umber Ciera and Macy is so nervous that he can’t seem to calm himself down. He tries smiling but then she hits him with the question that leaves him dumbfounded.

The kidnappers aren’t exactly professionals; Carl Showalter (Steve Buschemi) is a rat-like little man who is perpetually irritated by almost everyone. His partner is Gaear Grimsrud, a hulking, sleepy-eyed dope who barely speaks but is prone to sudden acts of violence. His speech is in such disuse that one of his first lines he fumbles “Where pancakes house”. The two have a scene in which they break into Jerry’s house to kidnap his wife but it’s so clumsy, the victim ends up knocking herself out before they have a chance.

The beauty of Fargo is the way the Coen brothers set three pathetic criminals in motion, with an even more pathetic plot and then add a dose of reality by putting a character on their trail who seems to come out of a droll reality. She’s not a manufactured cop out of Action Screenplays 101 but someone who is very perceptive, has very specific traits in that she is always eating, and even has a way of deflating moments of rudeness and danger with a manner of common sense. For me, her best scene comes at the end when she has caught the killer and sort of lectures him “There’s more to life than a little money ya’know. Don’t you know that?” and than mournfully exhales “Such a nice day, too”.

The Godfather taught us how to see the criminal world from the inside, out and a generation of filmmakers have attempted to repeat the formula until it has become a cliche. Fargo begins on that note but when we meet Marge and her husband Norm, there’s a pleasant tone that plays against the terrible crimes being committed. Think of it this way, the crimes being committed are set in motion by characters who have no common sense, who act and react out of anger and fear and greed. The reason they’re caught is because their counterpoint is a perceptive person who steps back, looks at the crime and is able to size it up almost effortlessly. If the cop where as dogged and determined as they are, the crimes might never convincingly be solved.

Best Actor

Geoffrey Rush (
The Nominees: Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire), Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient), Woody Harrelson (The People vs. Larry Flynt), Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade)

Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade)
My Nominees: Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet), Albert Brooks (Mother), Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient)


It has been said that the best way to win an Oscar is to play someone who either dies or faces a disability (sometimes you get double points if you do both).  That was true of Geoffrey Rush who seemed to have won every award in the book for playing David Helfgott, the piano genius who is driven into a mental disability by his pressuring father in Scott Hicks’ Shine. To be sure, compared with the real thing, Rush did his homework. He displays all of the babbling tics but, seeing the film again, I realized that all of the heavy-lifting in the film belongs to Noah Taylor who plays Helfgott from his early teens up through his college years.

Through Taylor we see the deterioration of David’s mental stability, a happy kid who is gradually ground down.  From Rush we get the results, he plays Helfgott past his thirties and his half of the performance seems a little one-dimensional. Plus, given the total amount of actual screen time, I think Geoffrey Rush’s role seems more suited to a supporting nomination.

Also playing a mentally challenged man, but with far more complexity, is Billy Bob Thornton for his unforgettable performance Karl Childers in Sling Blade.  This was a character Thorton said he invented one morning in his bathroom, eventually turning it into a short film “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade” (which consisted mostly of the same opening speech from the movie) and then adapted it into a feature film. The voting academy would give him an Oscar for his screenplay but I think his script and his performance are equally good. In my opinion, he should have received both.

When we meet Karl, it is hard not to stereotype him in our minds.  He has a shaved head, a serious underbite, a gravelly voice and spends a lot of time staring out the window. His voice sounds like a pained growl, always punctuated by “Mmm Hmm.”  Yet, as we look deeper, we can see that his eyes betray a heart full of pain. Karl has been in a mental institution for 25 years for murdering his mother and the man she was sleeping with.  Upon his release, he remarks “I reckon I got no reason to kill nobody”.

Back in the world after a quarter of a century he takes a small job fixing lawnmowers. He meets Frank (Lucas Black), a 14 year-old boy with a good heart but a great deal of sadness. He meets Frank’s mother Linda (Natalie Canerday), a nice lady who works as a waitress to make ends meet and her best friend Vaughn (John Ritter) a co-worker who is gay. Unfortunately, there is also her boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), one of those loud-mouthed good old boys who loafs on the couch sucking back beers and spews ignorant observations about people who are not just like him. This is where Karl reckons the sadness in Frank comes from.

Linda allows Karl to move in to the garage bedroom despite the derition by Doyle. Karl, knowing what domestic problems can do to a nice kid like Frank, become a father-figure to the boy. He worries about the damage that Doyle can and will do and tried to keep him safe. Years before, Karl tried to protect his mother and ended up killing her and the man she was having sex with. Now, he sees a similar pattern of domestic terrorism and tries to prevent it from happening. He wants to do the right thing without repeating his mistake. Karl had a rough time as a child and he sees the seeds of discord and pain being sown into Frank and wants to do something about it.

What is distinct about Karl lies far beyond his physical appearance. It is odd, yes, with his slumping gate, his odd haircut, his forword-slung jaw and his raspy growl of a voice. We might be compelled to assume that he only has a half-track mind but something more complex is going on. His eyes are sad and a bit haunted. When he looks out the window of the ward at the mental hospital, we can immediately see that he has something on his mind. Karl has limited intelligence but he is not a limited man. His moral structure comes from what he has read in the Bible. He does as instructed by the good book but he doesn’t use it to block others, yet he knows a bad situation when he sees one. The situation with Doyle can only lead to despair and the film’s climax sort of seems inevitable. But this isn’t a movie about loose ends, it is a story of a damaged man who sees something wrong and tries to correct it.

Best Actress

Frances McDormand (Fargo)
The Nominees: Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies), Diane Keaton (Marvin’s Room), Kristen Scott Thomas (The English Patient), Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves)

Frances McDormand (Fargo)
y Nominees: Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies), Glenn Close (101 Dalmations), Gina Gershon (Bound), Courtney Love (The People vs. Larry Flynt), Nicole Kidman (The Portrait of a Lady), Madonna (Evita), Debbie Reynolds (Mother), Jennifer Tilly (Bound), Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves)


For the better part of Nineteen Ninety-Six, I had no faith that Frances McDormand would be nominated for Best Actress for her performance in Fargo. When I saw the movie in the early part of the year it never occurred to me that she might be a possibility and even when Oscar talk began in the fall, I still thought it was outside their radar. That is not to say that I did not like her performance (obviously) but I didn’t think that voters would take her seriously because Marge Gunderson was a character that was too comic and not the kind of deep, serious performance usually wins Oscars.

When the nominations were announced, I thought the winner was going to be Emily Watson for her breakout role in Lars Von Teirs’ Breaking the Waves. I like Watson’s performance (I nearly chose her over McDormand) but there was hope in my heart that McDormand would win and – darn tootin’ – she did. What McDormand and the brothers Coen created was a true original. A character that we have never met, a woman who’s speech, who’s personality, who’s very essence are so foreign to anything else we’ve ever seen.

McDormand plays Marge Gunderson, a police chief in a snow-covered area of Minnesota investigating “some malfeasance.” This is not a dogged cop of so many cookie-cutter action films. What Frances McDormand and Joel and Ethan Coen created in Marge is a complete original. Marge is a character we’ve never met before in a movie, she has a warm and pleasing face, a cheery soft voice reminicent of a kindergarten teacher and a talent for sizing things up almost immediately. She may be a cop but that doesn’t mean that she has to be hard-boiled, she approaches every moment with politeness and good cheer. Just to make things more interesting, she’s pregnant, which isn’t integral to the plot but Joel and Ethan Coen have such confidence that they have given us an interesting character that we won’t question it.

It is amazing. Here, in middle of this bizarre kidnapping plot that also involves theft, embezzlement and multiple murders comes a woman with complete confidence who doesn’t obsess over the crime but simply sees the job and does it. Her best scene comes when she arrives on the scene of a triple murder and almost immediately sums up the crime “Okay, so there’s a high speed chase and then this execution type deal”. Later in the car leaving the scene, her partner confidently announces that he’s got an APB out on a car with a DLR plate. She politely tells him “I’m not with you 100% on your police work there, Lou. DLR means dealer plates”. Then she disarms his astonishment with a lame joke.

Watch her closely in certain scenes like the one where she goes to interview Jerry Lundergaard who has had his own wife kidnapped so he could get the ransom money from his immovable father-in-law. She doesn’t know that he’s in on it of course but there he sits behind his desk, a bundle of nerves while she approaches with casual pleasantries.

This leads to a moment, later on, when she gets a call from Mike Yamageta (Steve Park) a man she went to high school with. When she meets him he admits that he married his high school sweetheart but she died of a terminal illness. Only a short time after that she finds out that the woman is very much alive and that she had a restraining order against Mike to keep him away. This scene seems to be a complete non-sequiter but there’s a brief moment when we see her in her car as she wonders if this guy wasn’t all that he seemed, what might Lundergaard be hiding?

We can always see Marge thinking but we know that her entire life isn’t given over to the investigation. She does the job but doesn’t live it. Only at the end does she take an emotional stake in what has happened, during a beautifully written scene in which she drives the hulking killer off to the police station, quietly lecturing him. With sadness in her eyes she tells him “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and its a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”

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