The Best Picture Winners: Out of Africa (1985)

| January 1, 2018

Happy New Year!

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just 60 days away and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

When the 1985 Oscars faded into history, the Academy voters had overlooked the work of Steven Spielberg on, by this point, four separate occasions.  Curiously enough, when he lost the Academy Award for directing, it was almost always to a director known for his acting.  He lost his first to Woody Allen, the second to Warren Beatty, the third to Richard Attenborough and in 1985 to Sydney Pollack.

In the biggest “screw you” in the director’s career, his widely-received adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was nominated for 10 Oscars and won nothing – and furthermore Spielberg did not receive a nod for directing.  There were varying theories mostly (and probably most appropriately) aimed at the industry jealous of the most popular director in history.

Never-the-less they showed their disdain for his success by choosing the work of a director they felt more comfortable with.  At the time, Pollack’s adaptation of Out of Africa was respectable, gorgeous and safely uncontroversial.  Possibly for all of those reasons, today it is largely forgotten.

Based on the autobiographical works of Karen Blixen (who wrote under the pen name Isak Denisen) who married her late husband’s brother just because she liked him and then moved to a British colony in Africa to work on a coffee farm, the film follows her romantic adventures first with her shallow husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and then with a handsome big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) who succeeds at winning her heart.

I’ve seen Out of Africa twice in my life and I always come away with mixed feelings.  Surely, the film is gorgeous, a pictograph of the African savanna that is unlike anything that I have ever seen.  Yet, as for the story, while I appreciate Pollack’s pacing, I think the film sags after a promising first hour.  After Blixen begins to romance the hunky Hatton after he returns from The Great War, the movie seems to lose its forward momentum and it becomes a bit dull as it grinds toward a blisteringly inevitable conclusion.

I was also put off by some of the film’s technical inadequacies in which the long shots display the African landscapes, but close-ups and insert shots are clearly on badly lit sets. This is most evident in the film’s most famous scene in which the two lovers take a biplane over the African countryside. The scenes of the plane flying over the hills and mountains are spectacular but then there are close-ups of the two actors who look as though they are sitting in a mock-plane indoors with artificial lighting.

Out of Africa was nominated for eleven academy awards and won seven.  At the time, it had respectability all over it, and is a prime example of one of those safe choices that The Academy tends to make from time to time.  That’s really troubling in a movie that saw more exciting work like The Color Purple, Witness, After Hours, Mask, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Smooth Talk, The Trip to Bountiful, The Falcon and the Snowman, Lost in America and the criminally unnominated holocaust documentary Shoah.  Propped up next to those, Out of Africa feels like a beach trip on a cold day.  Historically, it languishes as one of the least screened of all the Best Picture winners and watching the film again I certainly get that.  I admire a great deal of it but there’s too much that I can’t overlook.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.