Armchair Oscars – 1983

Best Picture

Terms of Endearment (Directed by James L. Brooks)
The Nominees: The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff, Tender Mercies

The Right Stuff (Directed by Philip Kaufman)
My Nominees:
Cross Creek (Martin Ritt), Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman), Risky Business (Paul Brickman), Say Amen Somebody (George T. Nierenberg), Silkwood (Mike Nichols), Star 80 (Bob Fosse), Testament (Lynn Littman), To Be or Not To Be (Mel Brooks), Trading Places (John Landis), The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir)


Let’s face it, sometimes things just don’t work out the way we expect them to. Such was the case when Warner Brothers released Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s novel The Right Stuff which was expected to be a huge hit given the good feelings coming from the new Reagan era and the unveiling of the space shuttle. Yet, the movie floundered. While it was a favorite with critics it was a flop at the box office as the Star Wars generation made it clear that it wanted science fiction not science fact. The film also got little notice at the Golden Globes garnering only one nomination for Best Motion Picture Drama and losing to James L. Brooks Terms of Endearment, the same film that would best it at the Oscars.

Terms of Endearment was extremely popular, following the hot and cold 30-year relationship between a stubborn widow (Shirley MacLaine) and her capricious daughter who eventually succumbs to cancer.

I am sort of alone in disliking the film. I saw a portrait of a mother and a daughter who are at such odds with each other so much and for so long that they simply wore me out. MacLaine’s overbearing Aurora Greenway is loud and constant and dominating and Winger’s fly-wheel Emma Greenway turned me off the moment that she humiliates her son in the middle of a parking lot.

However, I am certainly not alone when it comes to my passionate love for The Right Stuff. While it did not find an audience in its initial run, those of us who were kids in the early 80s would grow up to gain a great deal of respect for the film especially after the tragedy the space shuttle Challenger.  That terrible event made the message of The Right Stuff all the more palatable, that the original seven Mercury astronauts were working in a program that was so dangerous that none of them had any idea if they would come back alive from the simplest experiment.  They knew they were walking a very thin tightrope without a net and the movie understands that it took a very special brand of human being to attempt to conquer this dangerous venture.

Based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 bestselling book, The Right Stuff chronicles the end of the era of the lonely solo pilots born from the legacy of The Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh and the beginning of a space race that pitted us against the Russians to be the first country to get a man into orbit. One could argue that the space race would never have gotten anywhere were it not for the Cold War. Certainly the government machinations were in place to beat the Russians into space and, very possibly, the sheer awesomeness of the accomplishment was the furthest thing from their minds. I am happy to say that the movie never shies away from that assumption.

The film begins, beautifully, in the Arizona desert where a group of air force test pilots are housed. They dress like cowboys and talk about the thrill of the speed of their aircraft almost like an extreme sport. Chief among them is Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) who, unlike his fellow pilots, doesn’t brag but lets those actions speak for themselves.  He sort of stands apart from the other pilots and they seem to regard him as something of a legend.  Among the pilots is a competition to see who can conquer the “demon in the sky” – the sound barrier which has sent so many pilots their deaths that the local watering hole has a wall of fame for those who have perished and an Air Force minister (Royal Dano) who hangs around the bar like the grim reaper waiting for his next funeral.

When Yeager breaks the sound barrier it opens the door to a recruitment of pilots to train to become astronauts. While the men, John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), Wally Schirra (Lance Henrikson), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin) and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) are chosen for the Mercury program, Yeager retreats to the background, remaining a test pilot. At first, none of the men see this new program as anything but a media freak show.  Yeager doesn’t see the point of having pilot in the program when their skills aren’t really required.  Ordered to simply sit tight while the capsule flies itself he refers to the volunteers as “spam in a can”.  Thus far in the program, only monkeys have been involved in space flight and it is hard for anyone to see the men as being otherwise.

The scientists were perfectly happy to have monkeys in the cockpit but the race for space needed human beings.  That led to a bizarre recruitment process in which it is suggested by two recruiters (Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum) the possibility of acrobats or stock car racers or even surfers.  The idea of pilots was initially sidelined because the capsules could fly themselves and really required no piloting skills at all.  The men don’t see it that way and begin to fight for control of a program that is putting their lives on the line.

That battle culminates in a wonderful scene in which the astronauts get a first look at their capsule and ask the German scientist Verner Von Braun why the capsule doesn’t have a window or a hatch with explosive bolts. Von Braun explains that there is no reason for the occupant to have a window (that’s a lack of imagination at work).  Yet Grissom and Glenn pull a sort of blackmail by explaining to Von Braun that without them there is no program and without a program there is no media coverage, and without media coverage there is no government funding and without government funding there is no program.  “No bucks, no Buck Rogers”, they tell him.

The media coverage comes becomes a vital element for the program.  The Russians were doing their testing in secret but the team at NASA needed to be able to prove that the public was behind them, and they could only do that with news coverage.  The space program was competing with more important government programs and could end up having their funding cut if the public lost interest (which, in the wake of the moon landing in 1969, is exactly what happened).  Therefore these pilots know they have NASA over a barrel.

The publicity machine works in the case of John Glenn when he survives a near disaster while orbiting the earth, but it comes back to bit Gus Grissom.  During a scheduled flight that would carry Glenn around the earth eight times, a problem erupts with his capsule that causes him to have to cut his trip short.  He uses his piloting skills to bring himself home and avert disaster.  This is proof that the program needs pilots, not monkeys.  Glenn becomes a hero in the eyes of the media but later, Grissom is made to look like a heel when, during his return trip, he panics and opens the escape hatch on the capsule too early.  Despite evidence to the contrary Grissom claims it was a glitch.

Kaufman is very interested in the personalities of the pilots, the most intriguing is Grissom who is seen competent but possesses a fragile ego. After the press mercilessly reports on his mishap in the capsule, he says over and over that it was a glitch. Something inside his emotions is bruised and isn’t helped when his wife Betty (Veronica Cartwright) complains that she won’t be able to have dinner with the First Lady. Glenn on the other hand comes off as an All-American hero. He is the proud vocal spokesman who takes the reigns during a crucial press conference. These men mature over the course of their adventure and what they thought was a silly prospect turns to a feeling of pride that they are representing their country.

The men realize that they are alone in a select group, the only people on the planet who have seen the curvature of the earth, the majesty of the heavens. There is a perfect moment late in the film when the astronauts are guests at a party thrown by President Lyndon Johnson (Donald Mofit).  There, in the glow of Sally Rand’s fan dance, the men sit in the audience and turn to look at one another.  What they know is that they have shared an experience that no others on earth ever have, the experience of going into space.  It is a communal experience for them and they know their experience is special.

I think The Right Stuff is more important now than it was when it was released. What these Mercury astronauts accomplished was the opening of a door that led eventually to a man walking on the moon, but they created a media frenzy that seemed to drop off once that awesome feat had been achieved. After the Apollo missions came a different kind of exploration, the kind done with machines not men. There was Voyager, Hubble and the Mars Rover which gave us incredible imagery of our own universe. They show us the universe but what is missing is the sheer thrill of having a human being – one of our own – reach out and touch the heavens. There is a moment at the end when Gordo Cooper looks out his capsule window and smiles “Oh what a heavenly light!”. You just can’t get that kind of exhilaration from a machine.

Best Actor

Robert Duvall (
Tender Mercies)
The Nominees: Michael Caine (Educating Rita), Tom Conti (Reuben Reuben), Tom Courtney (The Dresser), Albert Finney (The Dresser)

Al Pacino (Scarface
My Nominees:
Woody Allen (Zelig), Michael Caine (Educating Rita), Sean Connery (Never Say Never Again), Eddie Murphy (Trading Places), Nick Nolte (Under Fire), Eric Roberts (Star 80), Charles Martin Smith (Never Cry Wolf)


Watching Robert Duvall is like visiting a favorite uncle who always has a great story to tell.  It isn’t what he does, but how he does it.  Looking back over his career of nearly fifty years I cannot find a single lackluster performance.  From characters as varied as Boo Radley, Frank Burns, Tom Hagan, Colonel Kilgore and The Great Santini, it seems as if he can play anything.  He is a great American actor.

What is special about Duvall is that he never overplays his hand. He is an actor of great restraint. He has a way with playing silences and pauses that let you know that he is thinking. That was the key to the only performance that ever earned him an Oscar, that of Mac Sledge, an alcoholic country singer who finds comfort and the courage to get back on his feet from a kindly war widow and her young son. Duvall’s performance is special because Mac is a man who finds the willingness to change. In fact, out of the five nominees he is the only one whose character does go through a change over the course of the film (he’s also the only American).

The change effected by the character does not come about because of the plot gimmicks but from what is inside this man who has been damaged by life and damaged by alcohol. The best moments take place when he is quiet and we can feel a willingness to rediscover his own good nature. Compare this performance with the much broader character in Apocalypse Now, and you can see the full range of his talent.

There is nothing – and I mean nothing – quiet or poetic about my choice for Best Actor.  Al Pacino gives an explosive performance in Brian De Palma’s Scarface, a performance that has been both glorified and vilified for being over-the-top.  In nineteen eighty-three, the movie did not have many admirers. It was criticized for its excessive, graphic violence and for Pacino’s near-caracature of a performance.  Yet, the generation that followed would discover the film in the wake of Gangster Rap, “Grand Theft Auto” and “The Sopranos”.

Pacino creates a completely original character in Tony Montana, not mannered but controlled, relying on broad strokes and wild gestures.  He walks with a swagger, he jerks his upper torso when he talks.  When he speaks his lower jaw is slung forward and what comes out of his mouth is a thick accent that he practically chews on.  He is always dressed in suits with wide lapels, gold chains, rings on the fingers and an ever-present cigar which he sports like an entrepreneur.  He is prone to bursts of violence and when he is challenged, his lower jaw tightens and a weariness falls into his eyes as if he’s seen the tough guy routines a million times.  This isn’t the Little Man Syndrome, we sense that Tony really believes the over-inflated bravado of his own personality.

Those are the right note because if Pacino had played Tony Montana as a quiet, introspective guy it would have been fatal to the material.  Montana is a monster, a rat who kills for what he wants and sees his rise to the top as inevitable.  For the most part he steps on bodies to reach his peak and he never backs down from anything.  This is really the flip side to Michael Corleone who was deep and thoughtful where Montana is a hair-trigger.  In a way, Tony Montana and all that he represents is evocative of the direction of the mob that Vito Corleone had warned about, a business run less by tradition than by wretched excess and violent tempers.

We meet Tony Montana in 1980 when Castro opened the gates of Cuba to allow immigration to the United States and to empty his jails.  Montana arrives in South Florida, an ex-con who proudly calls himself “a political prisoner” and almost as soon as he is off the boat he is offered a job by a Cuban-American to kill another ex-con in exchange for his citizenship.  He knows he is meant to be more than a dollar-a-day dishwasher and he knows that the way out is through trafficking drugs.  He is told by a local drug dealer (F. Murray Abraham) that he can make $5,000 in one day and on his first day he finds himself in the home of a local drug dealer.  In a horrifying scene, we get a sense of Tony’s resilience when he has a gun to his head and is forced to watch his friend cut up with a chainsaw.  Tony never blinks.

He kills the dealer and his reputation soon gets him a job as a soldier for drug lord Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) who has made millions dealing cocaine.  Frank becomes a pseudo-mentor for Tony, telling him the two basic rules of the business: Never underestimate the other guy’s greed and Don’t get high on your own supply.  It doesn’t surprise us that eventually Tony breaks both of these rules.

Montana sees what he wants and takes it and that applies to Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), Frank’s mistress who is slender, blonde, beautiful and regards Tony with the same disgust that one might apply to an insect.  He knows he wants Elvira, but he doesn’t take a direct approach to get her – he has another plan in mind and she is just an added bonus.  He eventually gets her, but he sees her less as a lover and more of a trophy – she stays with him because he is a source of free drugs.  Instead, his eye is kept firmly on his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio) for whom we sense an incestuous urge.  He never acts on it, but he won’t let another man near her.  It is a rage so deep that he eventually kills his best friend Manny (Stephen Bauer) when he suspects that they’ve been intimate.

Tony has few loyalties (his own mother throws him out), he shifts from one partnership to another whichever will get him more money and more power.  There’s a harrowing moment when he makes a deal with a drug lord in Bolivia just after watching his partner murdered before his eyes.  “Don’t fuck me.” he is told.  “All I got in my life is my balls and my word”, Tony says, “and I don’t break them for nobody”.

He wants the world.  This becomes clear very early on.  At one point, he is high on his own product and he looks up at the blimp that tells him “The World Is Yours”.  He knows how to get to the top, he isn’t a deep thinker (that would require him to have a soul) but he has a voracious ambition.  He moves within the circle of drug lords, makes deals and especially makes enemies.  At one point he is in a nightclub when two assassins, sent by Frank, open fire on him and he kills them instead.  After which, he kills Frank.  Now he has Frank’s empire and his woman.

He marries Elvira, opens several business interests and shapes his empire.  She is not so much a wife as another trinket, an object that he has around his vast estate.  His estate is a display of his personality: Garish, overdone and decked out like a Vegas hotel complete with a fountain with a globe embossed with the words “The World is Yours”.  The colours of his palace-like office are all blacks and reds and golds with a large desk and a fleet of security monitors.  I love the touch of having his initials on the back of his throne-like desk chair, not just initials but garish letters like a corporate logo.  I love his over-sized bathtub with room for at least twenty.  All of these things are fed from Pacino’s performance as a guy absolutely in love with his own power.

It is too bad that he is too high and too paranoid to enjoy it.  Tony’s vast empire begins to shrink under the weight of his own excess, he becomes the target of an FBI sting, he makes enemies among other drug lords.  Elvira leaves him, He murders Manny and his last true supporter Gina turns on him.  In the end, when Tony goes to war with gangsters who have invaded his home and goes down in a hail of bullets, it is only fitting that this spectacular personality goes out with a bang.

Best Actress

Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment)
The Nominees: Jane Alexander (Testament), Meryl Streep (Silkwood), Julie Walters (Educating Rita), Debra Winger (Terms of Endearment)

Jane Alexander (Testament)
y Nominees: Anne Bancroft (To Be or Not to Be), Bonnie Bedelia (Heart Like a Wheel), Mary Steenburgen (Cross Creek), Meryl Streep (Silkwood), Barbara Streisand (Yentl)


Nineteen Eighty Three was a great year for women in a variety of film roles. We saw mothers dealing with the deaths of their children, women dealing with nuclear contamination, women dealing with Nazis. We saw women taking on careers dominated by men and at least one woman dealing with a drunken Michael Caine. One by one they came and they were all made with the intent to break women out of the stereotypical roles of sex objects and nagging housewives. One of these mother roles was occupied by Shirley MacLaine and for her role as Aurora Greenway, a mother dealing with her daughter’s illness in James L. Brooks Terms of Endearment, she won an Oscar.

There’s a lot to be admired in Terms of Endearment, but I’ve never been one of its great admirers. I can appreciate the family dynamic of the film, but there is so much hostility that it’s difficult for me to get a foothold on the characters. I like MacLaine but this character is so tough, so loud, so tactless and so erratic that I was simply turned off. Now, I know that the movie has it’s loyal followers but I’m sorry to say, I’m not one of them.

My choice has it a lot tougher. In Lynn Littman’s polarizing Testament, Jane Alexander’s Carol Wetherly deals with the sickness and death of two of her children and but the gradual loss of her very existence after a nuclear fallout. What Carol struggles through in this film is almost comparable to the heart-wrending experience of Meryl Streep’s Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice.

At the center of Testament is the Wetherly family, Carol (Jane Alexander), husband Tom (William Devane) and the three kids Mary (Roxane Zal), Brad (Rossie Harris) and little Scottie (Lucas Haas). This is the kind of family that you could imagine in one of those coffee ads where we see the kids off to school and Carol turning to the camera and saying “I love my family, but sometimes I need a little time to myself”. Littman allows the movie almost an hour before anything bad happens, allowing us to get to know this family and some of the intricate details of their inner lives.

They live in the small town of Hamlin, not far from San Francisco, a sort of picturesque town with a sweet small town flavor. There is time for us to get us comfortable with what we will later feel deteriorating from their lives. By the time bad things start happening, we have a feeling that we know these people.

One day, while watching television, the news frantically announces that nuclear strikes have hit New York and points along the east coast. The broadcast cuts out. A bomb (we’re told) has hit San Francisco. Hamlin is not in the epicenter but a blinding flash of light tells us that something bad has happened. Tom has left on a business trip, and on the answering machine he leaves a message that he is on his way home. After the bomb, however, he is never heard from again. Hamlin is not directly effected by the fire, but over time succums to the effects of the radiation in the air. People around town get sick and die and eventually so many have died so quickly that the cemetaries are all full. The survivors have get no news from the outside, nor any supplies and eventually the basic necessities become scarce. The effect is devistating for those left behind.

Carol takes charge, trying to be resourceful enough to make provisions and keep her family afloat. Her lifeline is Brad, who eventually becomes her only child. He never manages to lose his cool. He is as resourceful as his mother, riding around on his bike collecting things and helping out around town. Eventually it is not enough.

At the center of the film is Carol, who keeps a brave face in the middle of all the confusion. There is a light in her eyes, a glow on her face that dims and eventually grows sallow and dark. She refuses to have outbursts or to break into tears for a very long time, even in the face of Scottie’s death. The closest thing to an outburst comes when the family prepares his funeral in the back yard and the weary town priest wants to start even though she hasn’t found Scottie’s beloved teddy bear. Her face is a mask of detachment and passive disassociation as the supplies grow short, the graveyard fills up and eventually the townsfolk have to start burning the bodies of their beloved dead. Even in the face of having to rip up sheets to sew a shroud for her daughter, Carol remains in check. All of this leads up to a moment by a bonfire when she finally cracks.

Testament was released in the United States, the very same month as another film about nuclear devastation, The Day After, which premiered on American television a week later. Unlike that film, this one deals with human beings who are effected by the fallout over a long period of time. Littman is determined to show us the long-term psychological effects that such a disaster will have on a small town. There are no action scenes in this movie (the closest thing comes when a neighborhood bully breaks into Carol’s house to steal food). There are no mushroom clouds, no burning bodies, no twisted buildings. There are no scenes of mass riots or looting, no fights over food or supplies. The film doesn’t really even provide us with a villian. We never learn what exactly happened, who dropped the bomb or what the global effect might be. This film sees the day to day effects of such devastation and follows it week after week, month after month. The effects of death, shortage of supplies and what to do and how to live are right there in Carol’s eyes. The ending offers a glimmer of hope as Carol tries to reassure her son and an adopted son that they must live on. That ending may not work for some but, for me, it is a small ray of hope in the center of a film that focuses on how hope becomes an important weapon.

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