Armchair Oscars – 1986

| August 21, 2010

Best Picture

Platoon (Directed by Oliver Stone)
The Nominees: Children of a Lesser God, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Mission, A Room With a View

Platoon (Directed by Oliver Stone)
My Nominees: 
Blue Velvet (David Lynch), Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)Mona Lisa (Neal Jordan), Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola), ’round Midnight (Bertrand Travenier)


It took a long time before the public was really able to deal with the tragedy of The Vietnam War and Hollywood was no different. A long way from the all-American propaganda machine that existed between Hollywood and the government during World War II, Vietnam was controversial from one end to the other. In the early-seventies, in the wake of the war, no one had any interest in making big-budget films about Vietnam. But that would change before the decade was out.

Oliver Stone’s Platoon was a product of good timing.  Stone had wanted to make the film in the mid-seventies just after the war ended, but I think that would have been a mistake.  At the time most people on the homefront didn’t care about the Vietnam War, the American economy was good, the unemployment rate was down and the day that the peace treaty was signed, most Americans seemed to take little notice.  I think that, at the time, a film about the ground-level view of the war might have fallen by the wayside.

Late in the decade Hollywood began to acknowledge the war with a series of well-made, realistic films about that conflict like Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now that tried to see the conflict both on the battlefront and the homefront. This, along with the dedication of the Vietnam War memorial in 1982, proved that America was ready to honor the men and women who fought there.  Unfortunately, in the Reagan years, Hollywood’s view of the Vietnam conflict came in the form of silly, two-fisted action pictures like Rambo: First Blood Part II and Missing in Action.

This is why Stone’s film came along at the right time.  In the mid-eighties, when films about Vietnam were turning into mindless, bloodthirsty action films, Platoon was a cold water treatment, a reminder to the generation too young to remember what the conflict was all about.  In that respect, it was important that the film came from a man who had been in the conflict.

In 1965, Oliver Stone dropped out of Yale, volunteered for duty and was placed with the 25th Infantry along the border of Cambodia.  The film is about Stone’s experiences there and he is represented by a young volunteer named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) who arrives in Vietnam because he believes it is his duty to do so.  Everyone thinks he is insane and it isn’t long before he begins to have second thoughts.  There are no scenes that of his gradual awakening to the mess he has entered, right away he is put to grueling hikes, sleepless nights, flesh-chewing bugs, C-rations and surprise attacks.  He narrates the story in the form of letters that he writes to his grandmother. His introspective observances on his experience are surprisingly poetic: “Somebody once wrote ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason. That’s what this place feels like. Hell.”

From his quick education of how senseless this war is, we begin to understand the toll it is taking on the soldiers.  The order of morality is lost and Chris finds himself between a soulless Sergeant named Barnes (Tom Berenger) whose face is scarred leaving his troops to think he’s invinsible and the far more sensible Sgt. Elias (Willem DeFoe).  Their clash of morality comes to a head during a harrowing scene based on the infamous My Lai incident in which American Soldiers killed Vietnamese peasants they suspected were aiding the VC.  In that scene, Barnes plays God, threatening the people, shooting an old woman and threatening to kill a man’s children unless he confesses that he is working for the other side.  Elias intercedes and the two end up in a violent scrape that robs Barnes of his massacre. The soldiers burn down the village anyway.

I expected that conflict to lead to a court martial in a standard court scene, but it leads down a much darker path.  Platoon isn’t about any silly plot, it is about the day to day deadening impact that events like these have on the soldiers. They have become so disillusioned and so wrung out emotionally and mentally that the clear line between right and wrong, morality and immorality is completely swept away. Stone filmed in The Philippines and required his actors to go through a two week boot camp before shooting began. They were made to stay in a camp and live on C-rations. They were kept from ordinary daily routines like showers. They slept in the jungle and rotated a night watch. The result is that you can see a physical exhaustion on the actors . They aren’t squeaky clean kids who look like they’ve just stepped in front of a camera, we see young men who are absolutely worn down to the bone.

What brings the film home are the battle scenes which Stone wisely constructs without orientation. We have no idea from one moment to the next where the bullets are coming from or the positioning of the American soldiers from the Vietnamese. In some cases, we aren’t even sure if they aren’t shooting back at other Americans. There are moments when the violence springs up out of nowhere as in an ambush near a burned-out church. There are moments when the tension builds but the movie has established such an unpredictable order for the battles that we aren’t really sure what is going to happen. There’s a tense moment early in the film when Chris wakes up in the middle of the night and sees the Viet Kong approaching just a few yards away – he can’t move without being detected and he can’t reach his gun without moving. That’s the kind of scene that could be pumped full of a lot of quick-thinking and feux heroism but this movie earns that tension.

I would like to imagine what impact Platoon might have had if Stone had been able to make it in 1976. Would it have had the kind of general impact that it had later on a generation that came to it completely ignorant of the real life conflict? Stone’s message with this film is that when we try to guess what the Vietnam conflict was like, we should admit that those of us who weren’t there (and are thankful for it) don’t know what we are talking about. This is the first movie to see this war from the ground-level without a lot of movie theatrics and it could only have come from a man who witnessed it first hand.

Best Actor

Paul Newman (The Color of Money)
The Nominees: Dexter Gordon (’round midnight), William Hurt (Children of a Lesser God), Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa), James Woods (Salvadore)

Gary Oldman (Sid and Nancy)
My Nominees: Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Danny Devito (Ruthless People), Jeff Daniels (Something Wild), Harrison Ford (The Mosquito Coast), Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa)


It is hard to criticize one legend, let alone two.  Yet, in the case of The Color of Money, a follow-up to 1961’s The Hustler, I am obliged to observe that it is perhaps the weakest effort for both Paul Newman and director Martin Scorsese.  Conceived by Newman (who handpicked Scorsese to direct) and written by Richard Price, the film catches up with Edward “Fast Eddie” Felson 25 years later, recapturing the old days by teaching a young protégé (Tom Cruise) the delicate art of pool hustling.

It is always a joy to catch up with an iconic character years later but, in this case, there is a misstep in the fact that Felson is stuck in a formula master-and-student plot.  The movie never really gets down to the personality behind the pool cue, it observes Newman who always stands with quiet cool but who is so trapped in the formula plot that he doesn’t allow Felson or his young protégé any room to grow.  Newman was nominated for Best Actor 10 times in his career – plus two honorary awards – and it makes me a little sad that he received his only Oscar for a role that seemed frustratingly underwritten.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Newman.  I’ve given him my Armchair Oscar twice, first for Hud and then for Cool Hand Luke, but I think the academy was rewarding the man instead of the role.

There was nothing formula or underwritten about my choice for Best Actor of 1986.  Gary Oldman never gives less than 152%.  He can play anything, he disappears so convincingly inside a role that most of us are unfamiliar with his off-screen persona.  He is a great character actor who’s impressive range includes roles as varied as

Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, Rosencrantz, Mason Verger, Beethoven, The Devil, Sirius Black, Commissioner Gordon and Sid Vicious.  It is his performance as Sid Vicious that I am rewarding.  It was his breakthrough role, but I think the fact that in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy he comes off as a violent vulgarian may have put many people off and cost him a nomination.   Yet there was really no other way to play Sid Vicious, guitarist for the archaic Sex Pistols, who spent his time on stage imbuing musical talent and then off-stage drinking, screaming, vomiting, doing heroine and living a life equivalent to banging your head against a wall while swallowing nails.

As the movie opens, we meet Sid Vicious as he sits stone-faced while being questioned by the police about the stabbing death of his girlfriend, an American groupie named Nancy Spungeon (Chloe Webb).  He had been on a heroine binge the night before, but woke up to find her dead of a stab wound on the bathroom floor.  This will be the calmest moment we will see from him for quite some time.

This is not an easy film to sit through, it spends time with two unpleasant people who are high most of the time and screaming the rest. Those who are willing to put themselves through Sid and Nancy already know what to expect.  He was born John Ritchie in London to a flower child mother and a musician father that he never knew.  He dropped out of school at 15 and lived in a squalid neighborhood where he grew up around the kind violence and drugs that he would carry with him the rest of his short life.  He had nothing approaching passion but he had a manageable talent for the guitar and, at 17, he was the bass player for the punk sensation called The Sex Pistols.  It was the perfect venue for his personality. They were loud, violent and offensive, they were famous and they made a lot of money.

The only thing approaching direction in his life comes from Nancy Spungeon, an American groupie who was a loud-mouth, used drugs and mercilessly nagged Sid to move his career further.  She pushed him like a dutiful mother which, actually, is what he really needed.  He was young, out of control, immature, directionless and she was there for him even while she was following the same path.

The movie never paints this relationship in broad strokes.  There are no intimate moments except when they are together shooting heroine.  The only thing approaching a tender moment is a scene in which they are in bed discussing suicide. What passes for a charming romantic moment between them comes after Nancy has an argument with someone and Sid tries to make her laugh by banging his head against a brick wall.

Nancy stays in our minds mostly because she has the personality of a kid always throwing a temper tantrum.  But if we look underneath all the bluster and nagging we see a woman who has found a man-child that she feels compelled to nurture.  He, in turn, needs her too.  He is a boy, immature, who has the world at his disposal and who has limitless potential.  It is Gary Oldman who carries the load of an immature directionless kid who had money, fame, access to drugs and a girlfriend who was willing to help him get all three.

What we get from Sid is that, while he had only a reasonable talent for music, he had an amazing stage presence.  Several times throughout the film we see Sid on stage, none better than his famous punk rendition of “My Way” which begins with a mock imitation of Sinatra than segues into a rowdy punk chorus and ends with a fantasy sequence in which Sid shoots the members of the audience with pistol.  This is a great scene because we see this man filled with fire and energy.  Late in the film, after the heroine has taken control, we see him again onstage at an empty club, strung out, with a cigarette in one hand and a piece of paper containing his lyrics in the other. There are no moments that compel us to like Sid, he is a stupid kid with a manageable talent that slips away under his self-destruction.

That’s the most amazing thing about Sid and Nancy, director Alex Cox never paints either Sid or Nancy as wounded saints.  It shows the destruction of their minds, their bodies and their souls through drugs from the ground level.  Any less an we would have had to feel some pity for them.  The movie never flinches at showing his potential and his influence and his destruction through heroine. We can’t feel compelled to pity him (he brought his destruction on himself) but the saddest observation to be made about Sid Vicious is that his early death came as such a young age that he never really found himself.  Through Nancy Spungeon he find a tiny pinhole in his life that would give him direction.  She was no angel, but at least she was more positive than anyone else around him.

Best Actress

Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God)
The Nominees: Jane Fonda (The Morning After), Sissy Spacek (Crimes of the Heart), Kathleen Turner (Peggy Sue Got Married), Sigourney Weaver (Aliens)

Kathleen Turner (Peggy Sue Got Married)
My Nominees: Julie Andrews (Duet for One), Béatrice Dalle (Betty Blue), Geena Davis (The Fly), Melanie Griffith (Something Wild), Giulietta Masina (Ginger and Fred), Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God), Bette Midler (Down and Out in Beverly Hills), Sissy Spacek (Crimes of the Heart), Sigourney Weaver (Aliens), Chloe Webb (Sid and Nancy)


I run the risk of seeming like an ogre if I complain that the academy’s selection of a deaf woman for their Best Actress award in nineteen eighty-six was a mistake.  Fact is, I was not a fan of Children of a Lesser God but I do admire Marlee Matlin’s performance.  She is a very natural actress who has the ability to be part of the moment and not just an actor in front of the camera.  She possesses something that a lot of actors don’t have – she is a good actor but also a great re-actor, which may come naturally from her condition.  Also, I must mention that, while I’m not a fan of the film itself, I do admire the screenwriter for given her a character that is not always lovable.  Sarah Norman is stubborn and frustrated and not just some wounded saint.

I liked Matlin’s performance – it is among my nominees – but this is the year in which Kathleen Turner gave one of her best performances (the year’s best, in fact) in Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, as a woman who travels back in time 25 years and recaptures her teenage years even while retaining the mind and memories she has at 40.

Turner plays Peggy Sue Bodell and we meet her in the present as she prepares for her 25th high school reunion, meeting up with old friends like her buddies Carol (Catherine Hicks) and Maddy (Joan Allen).  She sees the kids from school: There is the most successful student, that nerdy kid Kevin Novik (Barry Miller) who has become a successful inventor.  There’s Marvin, the jock who use to pick on him.  There’s Jimmy (Jim Carrey), the class clown.  Then there’s that weird beatnik poet guy Michael Fitzsimmons (Kevin J. O’Conner).  But she isn’t in the best spirits during the proceedings because she and her husband Charlie are separated and about to be divorced.  He’s an appliance salesman who is frequently seen in television commercials as “Crazy Charlie” and has a reputation as a ladies man.  Peggy Sue worries about whether or not he will show up at the reunion and unfortunately he does.

Overwhelmed with emotions, her circumstance is made worse when she is crowned Queen and passes out on stage.  When she wakes up she is at a blood drive.  Looking around, she is shocked to discover that all of her old classmates are younger, that Charlie is still young and (sort-of) handsome and is still a lovesick teenager.  She discovers that she is in 1960, in the physical body she had at 17 but with the mind and memory she had at 40.

She visits her parents and laughs when dad buys a new Edsel.  She sees her kid sister who is still a gawky pre-teen.  Back in that old house she grew up in is a moment beyond belief especially when she sees the elements of her youth still in the place she remembered them.  She sits down to dinner and is elated to have the experience to be with her family again. “It’s it great”, she says “that we’re all here together?”  She goes to school where she sees all of her old classmates and friends, still young, still immature, and still uncertain about the world before them.

Of course, she also gets to fall in love with Charlie again.  Of course, she’s seen the end of their relationship and now gets to experience the early days when love was still new and the problems of their marriage were still years ahead.  There’s a perfect moment when she tells him that she wants to go all the way.  He is befuddled by it, leading to the first time in history that a guy is in the car with his girl and wants his car to start.  “That’s a guy’s line!” he tells her.

What is also amazing is that she has a chance to explore and make friends with people to whom, before, she would not have ever given the time of day.  She meets the scrawny Kevin, the geek who will grow up to be a great inventor and gives him information about the technology of the future.  She meets Mike Fitzsimmons, the broody beatnik who writes poetry and begins to like his fearlessness.  But the central relationship is with Charlie and Peggy Sue agonizes over a relationship that she knows is doomed to fail.  Can she prevent the mistakes of the past to change the future?

The movie would be nothing without Turner’s performance.  She runs the gamut of heavy emotions from joy to despair.  She has a perfect moment when she is overtaken with emotion when she picks up the phone and hears her grandmother’s voice. Her grandmother has been dead for many years and when Peggy Sue hears her voice again, it is almost more than she can take.

I loved the depth of the moment when she returns to the home her youth, her eyes well up with tears and she is almost beside herself.  But the best element of her performance is what she does with her body in this performance.  Peggy Sue is a 42 year old who suddenly finds herself in a 17 year old body and as she discovers the freedom and energy of the reclaimed youth, she becomes much freer with her movements.  Watch the way she behaves after she’s been in 1960 for a while and notice that she takes on the physical tics of a teenager dealing with an ever-changing body.  She does these things without ever pointing to them and that makes her performance more effective.

Peggy Sue Got Married is reminiscent of Back to the Future, wherein a teenage boy was propelled back to 1955 and has to repair the damage when he interrupts his parents first meeting and get himself home again.  Coppola’s film is different because it isn’t as interested in the plot details but in mood and tone.  He focuses less on the machinations of how she got back to 1960 and how she will get back to her own time but in how she reacts to having been given an opportunity to do something we would all like to experience.  That’s what makes the film so special, we get to focus on Turner’s performance, on her ability to convey her overwhelming inability to get a handle on the moment.


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About the Author:

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