Armchair Cinema – 1984

Best Picture

Amadeus (Directed by Milos Foreman)
The Nominees: The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, A Soldier’s Story

This is Spinal Tap (Directed by Rob Reiner
My Nominees:
My Nominees: Amadeus (Milos Foreman), The Karate Kid (John G. Avildson), The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe), Paris Texas (Wim Wenders), Romancing the Stone (Robert Zemekis), Secret Honor (Robert Altman), Starman (John Carpenter)


Milos Foreman is a director who specializes in portraits of not-so-lovable misfits. Three of those portraits have been biographies and none of his subjects (Mozart, Larry Flynt, Andy Kaufman) have been men of nobility.  Of the three, Amadeus is the best because it is seen, not through the eyes of the great composer, but through the jealous gaze of Anton Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) who sees Mozart as a ridiculous child who is unfairly granted the gift from God, the ability to compose beautiful music almost without trying.  Salieri, meanwhile, knows the notes but doesn’t have the passion and he sees his musical pursuits become long slow climb to the middle.

I’ve seen Amadeus many times, I love the way Foreman takes this story and turns it into a portrait of jealously and obsession, but his best achievement is in giving the film an equal balance of drama, comedy and horror. My only complaint is that after a strong first half the movie drags in the last third. Some of the dramatic tension seems to wear on.

My choice is also about feuding musicians.  Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap is one of the funniest films ever made, a fake documentary that examines the downward spiral of a heavy metal band whose best days have long passed.  The film plays like any number of pompous rock documentaries of the eighties, with all the preparations, problems, headaches, half-baked philosophies and petty feuds that come along with musicians that try to convince themselves that they are in the business for anything other then parties, booze and groupies.

Reiner himself plays a documentarian named Marty DiBergi who follows Spinal Tap on their 1982 U.S. tour.  We meet the guys in the the band: David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), the spaghetti-haired lead singer who assures us that there really was a Saint Hubbins (the patron saint of quality footwear).  Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), the lead guitarist who wears his heart on his sleeve and is passionately in love with his musical equipment (He is also in love with David and his heart breaks with the news that David’s girlfriend Jeannine is joining the tour).  And there is Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), the base guitarist whose most famous formidable endowment is revealed to be a lie during a trip through an airport metal detector.

We also meet Ian Faith, their long-suffering manager who carries a cricket bat which he explains is sort-of a talisman. “Certainly, in the topsy-turvy world of heavy rock”, he explains, “having a good solid piece of wood in your hand is often useful.” Then there’s a is montage in which that sort-of talisman smashes TV’s, desks, etc.  As we track the career of the band, we also learn that the band has been through at least 30 different members over the years including a rotating series of ill-fated drummers who all seem to meet a horrifying end.  We get a brief interview with their current drummer Mick Shrimpton who sits in a bath wearing the countenance of a man who knows that he is living on borrowed time.

We track the success and downward spiral of the band during the tour and through a brief journey of their career.  The guys in Spinal Tap don’t have any real creative talents of their own, they just seem to ride the coat-tails of what is popular at the moment.  Early on, they were an R&B group, then they modeled themselves after The Beatles, then into the flower power era and eventually into a hair band.  They are so caught up in their passion for being onstage with millions of screaming fans that they don’t recognize (or don’t want to) that they are playing smaller and smaller venues.  They’ve gone from 10,000 screaming fans to 1,200 and it gets worse as they go from playing a theme park to playing a dance in an airplane hanger.

There is a lot to be blamed for this crash and burn, but their music certainly doesn’t help.  Their songs seem made up of overheated pornographic numbers like “Big Bottom”, an apparent ode to anal sex that actually contains the words “flesh tuxedo”.  Later there’s “sex farm”, a gleefully demoralizing piece that equates farm equipment to their reproductive organs with lines like “My silo is risin’ high!”  I was amazed at how exaggerated their songs seemed until it dawned on me that they really aren’t any different from those produced by real bands.

The band’s latest album, “Smell the Glove”, becomes the source of a controversy when stores refuse to carry the album because the cover features a woman in chains being forced to follow the suggestion of the album’s title (“you should have seen what they wanted to use!”, Ian explains).  Later we learn that a fellow musician has a similar cover but no one objected because it was the man in place of a woman.

Some of the funniest moments in the film take place during onstage disasters like a moment when Nigel gets into his solo and falls to his knees but then needs help from the roadies to get back up.  Then there’s a mishap involving a strange embryonic chambers from which the members of the band are suppose to emerge during a performance, except that one doesn’t go quite as planned. Derek’s pod doesn’t open and, all through the number, workmen bang on the pod with a hammer in an attempt to get him out. When he is finally released, the number is over and his fellow bandmates step back into their pods.

My personal favorite is a brilliant moment when they are playing a tiny venue and they leave their dressing rooms but get lost on the way to the stage.  They stop and ask a handyman for directions but his directions lead them in a circle right back to where they started.

Certainly one of the most famous moments takes place when the band gets the idea to have a Druid theme as part of their show which includes a large prop in the shape of one of the monuments of stonehenge.  Nigel draws a scale of the prop, but a misunderstanding leaves them with a prop that is 18 inches, not feet (we see a brief shot of Jeannine smirking off the side – does she know he’s made a mistake?).  The mistake is revealed just before the concert between the designer and Ian so that we know what is going to happen and when it descends to the stage with dwarfs in pointed shoes dancing around it, the guys look on in slack-jawed horror.

The script was written by Reiner, McKean, Guest and Shearer but most of their dialogue was improv.  There’s a perfectly timed moment during a discussion between Marty and Nigel over his audio equipment in which the chattering guitarist brags about his specially-made amps that go up to 11.  “That’s like one louder, isn’t it?” he says almost with a smile.  But Marty can’t help asking “Why don’t you just make 10 louder?”.  Nigel is frozen for an answer and finally concludes “These go up to 11”.  Nigel is a man who has a theory but hasn’t quite worked his way down to logic.

This is Spinal Tap would not work if we didn’t care about these guys.  They are perpetual adolescents who blissfully refuse to believe that they holding on to a career that has long-since past them by.  There is sort of a comic-tragedy when we see them playing a theme park arena to an audience of about 20 people but if we weren’t so caught up in their giddiness at the idea of being rock stars, if we didn’t feel for them as they try to hold on to the last vestiges of their image, none of the material would work.  At the end, as the band stands in splinters, they get the information that they’ve been offered a chance to tour Japan. Not the perfect career move, but the guys in Tap are just happy for one more chance to hold on to the dream.

Best Actor

F. Murray Abraham (
The Nominees: Jeff Bridges (Starman), Albert Finney (Under the Volcano), Tom Hulce (Amadeus), Sam Waterston (The Killing Fields)

Phillip Baker Hall (Secret Honor: A Political Myth)
My Nominees:
Jeff Bridges (Starman), Albert Finney (Under the Volcano), Steve Martin (All of Me), Matthew Modine (Birdy), Joe Morton (The Brother From Another Planet), Bill Murray (Ghostbusters), Robin Williams (Moscow on the Hudson)


It was a long way from “Fruit of the Loom” commercials to Oscar’s stage but that’s how far F. Murray Abraham had come in just a decade. As the insanely jealous composer Antonio Salieri of Milos Foreman’s Amadeus, he is the picture of envy and frustration as he finds his musical pursuits to be a long and difficult journey to the middle. The lack of respect he receives for his God-given talents are not out of incompetent (which he is not) but because it lacks passion. Meanwhile, Mozart, a giggling kid with more interest in girls than music seems blessed by God with a gift that Salieri speculates might have been misplaced by the all-mighty.  “That was not Mozart laughing,” he says, “That was God laughing at me through that obscene giggle.”

Murray’s performance is brilliant, and I think it was a wise decision to reward his performance rather than Tom Hulce’s laughing, tormented Mozart.  Abraham has always been a dependable actor and I greatly admire his performance.  Had I been able to vote, Abraham would have been my choice without a second thought.  Yet, I would have also pushed for a write-in candidate so that my choice could have been included also.  While the other nominees all had great support, actor Phillip Baker Hall had none: his performance as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor: A Political Myth was a one-man show.

Based on the play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone,  Secret Honor: A Political Myth is a fictional narrative that takes place in Nixon’s private office sometime after the resignation and is a speculation on the inner-rage inside the 37th President of the United States. For 90 minutes we never leave his office and he never has contact with another single person other than making notes on a tape recorder to a personal assistant. This movie, in fact, is a one-man show – very odd for a director who is famous for working with a large cast.

Secret Honor: A Political Myth sees the disgraced Nixon stalking about his office, drinking, cursing and verbally destroying his political enemies, his personal enemies, and anyone who ever gave him any kind of insult or brush off in his life.  The movie sees his paranoia almost as a sickness. He keeps a loaded gun in a box on his desk; he keeps a row of security monitors running and, in fact, just before going into his office, we see him on the monitor looking behind him.

Hall isn’t the spitting image of Nixon, there only a passable resemblance, he was chosen for the role after having played it dozens of times on the stage. What he manages to portray brilliantly is Nixon’s visible insecurity, his manner of making mistakes but only possessing the ability to cover them up on the surface. It may or may not be true of the real thing but through Hall’s representation we see a man with deep, buried inner anger, of demons he can’t shed. His paranoia is represented by four security monitors that Altman cuts back to from time to time. There are moments of confession, to which some seem reasonable and some seem absurd. We’re not too surprised when he makes the assertion that Marylin Monroe was murdered by the CIA to keep her quiet but I take issue with that accusation that Kissinger was furnishing young boys for the Shah of Iran.  Nixon is angry with everyone starting from childhood on up.  He rails against the Kennedy family for their privilege and even Eisenhower for never affording him the proper respect (“Ike once introduced me to a crowd as Nick Dixon, for Christ’s sake!“).  The set adds to Nixon’s frustration, pine wood panels with large paintings of his so-called friends and historical figures, not just Ike but also Kissenger, Woodrow Wilson, and Washington while the tiny, humble pictures of his family reside in tiny frames on his credenza.  The paintings are hung in such a way that they lean forward just a bit as if jeering down at Nixon as if in judgement.

Hall’s performance is probably more caricature than biography but he gives us some idea of what may have been stirring in his soul.  The inner mindset of Nixon is one of the great question marks of American history.  He was driven by raging ambition that was soaked in crippling insecurity.  He wanted to be a public figure but demanded his privacy, strange for a man who chose a career in politics. That secrecy allows speculation of every kind in Secret Honor, a sort of confessional that sees a man buried by his own inner demons, accusing the outside world of never appreciating his hard work and of burying his contributions to public service because of social class.  Those of us who don’t rise to prominence through money or good looks feel a minor connection with the man despite our feelings about him or his missteps as the leader of the free world.

Inevitable comparisons will be made to Anthony Hopkins’ performance in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, a decade later. Yet while Stone’s film attempt to give us the full breadth of his life and speculations on his machinations, Secret Honor: A Political Myth attempts to climb into his mind. Because Hall’s performance is the movie, Hall is given more time to emote all the outward elements that we are familiar with (There’s a wonderfully funny opening scene when he has problems with the tape recorder) but also to peer inside the man’s heart and to understand what gave him such a complicated personality.  For me, I began to feel a kind of deep sympathy for this man.  Your results may vary.  Like anything else about Nixon, your reaction to this performance depends on the feelings you take with you.

What we see in Secret Honor may not be the most accurate picture of the former President, but what we see in Phillip Baker Hall’s performance is more or less the picture of the Nixon that we imagine that he was.  Hall, despite the drunken rambling and childish tirades, gives me some measure of sympathy for the man.  While I understand that much of Nixon’s downfall was his own fault (much of it was set by precedent).

I feel as sympathetic for Richard Nixon as I do for Salieri.  Both are men who worked their way through their chosen professions through hard work but seemed to have fallen under the looming shadow of men who were given a pass because of some element other than hard work (Salieri had Mozart; Nixon had Kennedy).  We can’t completely find a foothold in their madness but we get a sense of what drove them to destruction.  If the movies are the great window into which we can see and feel for people that we do not meet, then Phillip Baker Hall’s performance gives us some measure of a man that was impossible to know.  I can’t like Nixon because I still know in my heart that he was a crook, but Hall reminds me that he was a human being first.

Best Actress

Sally Field (Places in the Heart)
The Nominees: Judy Davis (A Passage to India), Jessica Lange (Country), Vanessa Redgrave (The Bostonians), Sissy Spacek (The River)

Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone)
y Nominees: Ann Bancroft (Garbo Talks), Drew Barrymore (Irreconcilible Differences), Judy Davis (A Passage to India), Melanie Griffith (Body Double), Jessica Lange (Country), Vanessa Redgrave (The Bostonians), Sissy Spacek (The River)


This means so much more to me this time, I don’t know why. I think the first time I hardly felt it because it was all too new. But I want to say ‘thank you’ to you. I haven’t had an orthodox career. And I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it. But this time I feel it. And I can’t deny the fact that you like me!… right now… you like me! Thank you!

It is so rare that we remember an Oscar speech, and who will ever forget the giddy Sally Field on Oscar’s stage receiving her second Best Actress Oscar in moment that has become Oscar folklore, and while some saw it as schmaltzy overpraise, I found it endearing. Every year the academy gives the nominees a course in Oscar speech etiquette, and they use Field’s speech as an example of what NOT to do if they win. But I say, ‘this is the moment of your career and if you want to gush then, by golly, go ahead and gush.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the performance for which she delivered that speech was not as compelling or as entertaining. In Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart, she played Edna Spalding, a dustbowl widow who owns a cotton farm that is under threat of foreclosure. After the banker suggests that she sell the farm and give her kids over to someone more fit to raise them, she determines to bring in the crop and keep her home and her family together. There isn’t anything new in this performance. Edna is all fierce determination, but there don’t seem to be any dimensions outside of that. We seem to be seeing Norma Rae transplanted to the dust bowl – Edna could be Norma Rae’s grandmother. Field has been nominated three times and won twice, but I wish the academy would have nominated her for better work in the films that would follow like Murphy’s Romance, Steel Magnolias, Not Without My Daughter and Forrest Gump.

The five actresses nominated for Best Actress of 1984 all played characters who were – in a word – humorless.

Judy Davis, Sally Field, Jessica Lange, Vanessa Redgrave and Sissy Spacek are the cream of the acting crop, but in truth I wouldn’t want to spend an evening with any of these performances.  If I did, I might need to chase it with a laugh, or at least some levity.  Perhaps something colorful, like my choice for Best Actress, Kathleen Turner as a romance novelist who gets dragged through the jungles of South America by a fortune hunter in Robert Zemekis’ wonderful jungle adventure Romancing the Stone.

By 1984, Turner was mostly known for her sultry performance (and film debut) as Matty Walker in the noir thriller Body Heat, but Romancing the Stone allowed us to see another side of her. Here she plays Joan Wilder, a hopeless romantic who pens those steamy adventure novels where the men are chiseled and the bosoms are bountiful. As the story opens, we find her putting the finishing touches on her latest work – it has made her cry so much that she’s run out of tissue.

Joan’s career is soaring, but her love life is a dry gulch.  Her publisher (Holland Taylor) accuses her of wasting her life waiting for the kind of man that she puts into her books.  She’s not far off, Joan wants a man who will sweep her off her feet.  You don’t have to guess too hard to figure out that she will eventually meet that guy, but first she finds herself embroiled in an adventure that begins when she receives a treasure map in the mail and then gets a phone call from her sister Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor) who is being held captive by a ring of smugglers in Cartagena, Columbia. Bring the map, she is told, or the sister dies.

Without a thought, Joan packs a suitcase and heads off for Columbia.  She has no idea what she is in for.  From the moment she steps off the plane she is pursued through the Colombian jungle by banditos, policía, milicia, asesinos, corte las gargantas, traficantes and Danny DeVito, all of them are itching to find what is at the other end of that map. She boards the wrong bus thanks to a sinister stranger (Manuel Ojeda) and later ends up being held up by that same stranger who demands, at gunpoint, that she hand over the map.  She is rescued by another stranger (this one means her no harm) an American fortune hunter named Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas) who chases the man away with his rifle.

A tense bond is formed between she and Jack as she hires him to take her through the jungle to a telephone. Along the way he discovers that she is wanted by the military police (led by the stranger who turns out to be a Columbian military General named Zolo) and decides to dump her before he realizes what they are after (and also because he has fallen in love with her), they want a very large emerald that is hidden somewhere in the region and Jack decides that they should go get the emerald and give the kidnappers the map as a diversion.

Meanwhile they fall in love.  What surprised me is that this union feels genuine, not manufactured by the plot.  We get the sense that these are two people who have fallen for one another and probably would have done so, even if they hadn’t had their jungle adventure.  I love their moments together.  He tells her about his dream to buy a sailboat and sail around the world. In bed together he tells her “I’d love to take you around the world and back again” and later she tells him “You’re the best time I’ve ever had”. The plot requires these two to fall in love but with Joan and Jack, we really feel that they have a connection.

Following the map they find the emerald buried in a cave under a waterfall, the jewel is so large that Jack’s first comment is “Aw Christ, we’re in a lot of trouble.” Arriving at the rendezvous, she gives the map to Ira but Zolo shows up and sets fire to the map, informing Ira that they have already found it. Zolo cuts Joan’s hand and threatens to feed it to the alligator unless she comes up with the stone. Jack tosses it to him and he catches it but the alligator catches Zolo’s hand and tears it off. A fierce gun-battle ensues that leaves Ira escaping without Ralph, and Zolo dead in a pit of alligators. Jack jumps into the ocean and chases the gator who has the stone in his belly.

Sometime later she has turned her adventure into a manuscript and given it to her publisher. Declaring herself a “hopeful romantic”, Jack finds her again, having bought his dream boat (and turned the gator into a pair of boots), They fall into each other’s arms and go sailing around the world.

Joan is interesting because she changes over the course of the film. She is unusual for an adventure film, in most of these adventures, the woman is only a prop to stand behind the man. In this case, Joan is the center of the film even when Jack is by her side. She is given room in the story to have a life, as we meet her she writes thrilling adventures but she is a homebody. She lives alone with her cat Romeo and stays home dreaming of love but lacks the courage and confidence to go out and actually look for someone.

Off to Columbia, her publisher remarks “You get car-sick, plane-sick, train-sick, you practically puke riding the escalators at Bloomingdales!” In Columbia, she is a fish out of water, possessing no survival skills she latches onto the only man in the jungle who isn’t trying to kill her. But that doesn’t mean she can trust him. Several times he tries to steal the map and at one point he tries to have it xeroxed. When they are separated by a river he is the one who ends up with the jewel but she isn’t sure if he will keep his end of the bargain and meet her at the hotel in town. Right up until the end she isn’t sure if she can trust him. He leaves to pursue the jewel but assures her that he isn’t leaving her.  Is his heart really with her or is he just playing a colorful con-game to get the stone for himself?

Returning home to New York, there is still doubt in her mind, until he shows up, boldly displaying that he not only caught the gator and got the stone but sold it to get the boat of his dreams.  Taking her in his arms he assures her that he only needs the girl of his dreams.  We’ve traveled with these two on a grand adventure and we smile as he tells her about the alligator, “The poor old yellow-tailed guy died right in my arms”.  “Well”, she says “If I were to die there’s no place I’d rather be” and we smile as she says it with confidence.

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