Armchair Oscars – 1987

Best Picture

The Last Emperor  (Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci)
The Nominees: Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction, Hope and Glory, Moonstruck

The Princess Bride (Directed by Rob Reiner
My Nominees:
Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick), House of Games (David Mamet, Ironweed (Hector Babenco), Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring (Claude Berri), Moonstruck (Norman Jewison), Roxanne (Fred Schepisi),


If I have one pet peeve about the voting academy is it that they stick by a silly obsession with selecting films for their Best Picture award that are prestigious, respectable and have a lot of agents and money behind them. I wish the academy voters would just drop all that nonsense and pick a film based on what is on the screen, not in the press kit.

I confess that I like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. I was swept along by this story of a bird in a gilded caged, of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China who was crowned at the age of three but was cast out of his palace after the revolution at the age of 12 into a world that was completely unknown to him. I was moved by final the image of Pu Yi at the end of his life as a penniless gardener who is happier in his humble quiet life then he ever was as ruler of his country. The problem is that I find the movie somewhat impersonal. While I got caught up in Pu Yi’s lifelong struggle I never felt that I got to know him.

Nineteen Eighty-Seven was a great year for films of all shapes and sizes and in every genre. The pack of nominees for the year’s Best Picture was among the most diverse of the decade. Although, I happen to think that there might have been outrage if my choice had been nominated for Best Picture. Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride contains no overriding epic sweep, no monumental performance, none of the watermarks that go along with the films usually selected for Best Picture.  Ironically, the only Oscar nomination the film received was for its weakest element: Willy Deville’s song “Storybook Love”

Directed by Rob Reiner from a novel by William Goldman, The Princess Bride is a whip smart fairy tale.  Like his now-legendary mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, which found it’s target in the overblown bravado of heavy metal bands, The Princess Bride targets those ridiculous fantasy epics of the early 80s like Krull and Legend. It contains the lightening quick kinds of dialogue of an Errol Flynn action picture of the 1930s. We get exchanges like this:

Swordsman #1: “You seem a decent fellow, I’d hate to kill you.
Swordsman #2: “You seem a decent fellow, I’d hate to die.

The Princess Bride is framed by a story of a grandfather who reads the titular story to his grandson (Fred Savage) who is sick in bed. The grandfather is played by Peter Falk with a sass in his voice and a twinkle in his eye that signals that we’re in for something special.  The grandson is, at first, not so convinced and asks with a gloom: “Is this a kissing book?”

He relays the story of Buttercup (Robin Wright), born on a small farm in the country of Florin who spends her days ordering around Westley the stable boy (Cary Elwes). His vocabulary only consists of the words “As you wish” which he says with a breathless passion (he’s really saying “I love you”, you see). Of course, they can’t be together without some sort of adventure, so she is kidnapped and he is presumed killed at sea. She is rescued later and reunited with Westley – who didn’t die but took up the long standing mantel of The Dread Pirate Roberts, a name that is passed along to the man who defeats or overtakes the previous Dread Pirate or when the former DPR wishes to vanish into retirement.

Buttercup is spellbound by the events that unfold while her true love Westley attempts to rescue her away from three crooks who kidnapped her. They include Vizzini (Wallace Shawm), a loudmouth who relies too heavily on his brain to get him out of trouble (he punctuates his sentences with a rapt “inconceivable!”); Inigo Montoya, a drunken swordsman who has spent the better part of his life looking for The Six-Fingered Man who murdered his father years ago; And Fezzik (Andre the Giant), a sweet-natured brute who lends his muscle to the cause.

Vizzini puts his men to work getting rid of Westley but he is craftier than any of them.  He out-swords the swordsman and out-muscles the muscleman and manages to put a twist on the old switcharoo cup game that leaves Vizzini dying laughing – literally!  Montoya and Fezzik, though defeated by Westley, never-the-less respect him so much that they join in his quest to rescue Buttercup from the snide Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon).  He wants to marry Buttercup, kill her and blame a neighboring country for it, or as he explains it: “I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it. I’m swamped.”

The joy of The Princess Bride is it does not have a busy plot.  The story is strung together in perfect little moments, in running gags and wise-ass dialogue that is cynical but not rude, funny but not obvious.  The characters have a manner of speaking that is not jokey but wells up out of an atmosphere made completely out of genteel characters who speak in a very relaxed way that is funny.

We can see this most especially in a scene after Westley is killed by a life-sucking machine and Inigo and Fezzik take him to the hovel of the wizened Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) who proclaims Westley not to be dead, but only mostly dead.  When Westley’s corpse wheezes the information that the only thing that can save him is True Love, Max denies it which brings his ragged crone of a wife (Carol Kane) out of backroom who proclaims to Max “I’m not a witch I’m your wife!”

The movie is a melding of fanciful fairy tale elements with a sense of humor. It doesn’t skewer the genre, it just doesn’t take it all that seriously. The story is only serious when it is absolutely necessary, in the love story between Buttercup and Westley and the love of Inigo for his late father.

What sets the film apart is the dialogue which exude timeless gems: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”; “Have Fun stormin’ the castle!”, and of course “Inconceivable!”. All of the supporting roles are filled with actors who know their parts and give performances that are probably far more than the roles demand. Casting is the key: Billy Crystal as the death-doubting Miracle Max; Mandy Patinkin as the vengeance-seeking drunken swordsman; Wallace Shawn as the brainy criminal Vizzini who punctuates his sentences with “Inconceivable!”; Andre the Giant as the soft-hearted brick Fezzick; Even Mel Smith as the wisecracking Albino who gets a frog in his throat just at the wrong time.

There are elements here that you never forget. This is a movie that includes a shop-talking swordfight, a screaming eel, rodents of unusual size, fire spurts, a holocaust cloak and a machine that literally takes years off your life. It contains sets that look like sets; trees look like rubber; rocks look like paper mache; sky looks all wrong; rooms look like sets and the ocean looks like it is in a tank. In any other movie that would be a fault but since the movie takes place within a storybook, we don’t mind. Like the matte painting in the backgrounds of The Wizard of Oz, it the cardboard look adds to the charm.  Like the Danny Kaye classic, The Court Jester, the movie is a mixture of brilliant comic invention and a tale worth telling.

Best Actor

Michael Douglas (
Wall Street)
The Nominees: William Hurt (Broadcast News), Marcello Mastroianni (Dark Eyes), Jack Nicholson (Ironweed), Robin Williams (Good Morning, Vietnam)

Joe Mantegna (House of Games)
My Nominees:
Dan Ackroyd (Dragnet), Nicholas Cage (Moonstruck), John Candy (Planes, Trains and Automobiles), Gerard Depardieu (Jean de Florette), Michael Douglas (Wall Street), Michael J. Fox (Light of Day), Steve Martin (Planes, Trains and Automobiles), Steve Martin (Roxanne), Marcello Mastroianni (Dark Eyes), Jack Nicholson (Ironweed), Dennis Quaid (The Big Easy), Mickey Rourke (Angel Heart), Mickey Rourke (Barfly), Robin Williams (Good Morning, Vietnam)


Movies are the great time-stamp of the last century.  They mark a particular moment in our culture and our world at that moment, as it happened, expressing the attitudes and ideals of a particular time in our history.  Wall Street is a movie like that.  It portrays the greed-fueled Reagan era world of corporate takeovers seen through the prism of heartless Wall Street shark Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas.  With his suspenders, slicked-back hair and the famous mantras “If you need a friend buy a dog” and “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good”, he creates a character without an ounce of human decency and by that creates one of the screen’s great villains.

Douglas is a wonderful actor and I think that his performance as Gordon Gekko was one of his best, reminding me of the kind of heartless rat that his father often played.  Watching Michael in Wall Street and then going back and looking at Kirk in Ace in the Hole I realize that they both have a facial structure that lends itself to play dishonest men. There is a curl around the corners of the mouth that reveal a self-satisfyed Cheshire cat smile.
I’m a fan of Michael Douglas and I am glad that he won the Oscar for a role for which he will best be remembered.  Yet, I am not selecting him here because I think his best was his unnominated performance in Paul Haggis’ Wonder Boys.  I’ll get to that performance in 2000.

Nineteen Eighty-Seven was an extraordinarily good year for actors in leading roles, the best of the decade: Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy, Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck, Michael J. Fox in Light of Day, Marcello Mastroianni in Dark Eyes, Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart and Barfly, Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam, Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles among others.  My favorite, however, is Joe Mantegna for his role as a slick con artist in David Mamet’s brilliant directorial debut House of Games.

I say “artist” because that’s the most apt description of Mike, a man so skilled at the art of the con that he can move from mood to mood, from confidence to fear to cold calculation.  We first meet him at the House of Games, in a pool hall where, through the door, walks Margaret Ford (Lindsey Crouse) an anal retentive psychoanalyst who is famous for her best-selling books on compulsive behavior.  She demands that he call off a $25,000 gambling debt that he is holding over one of her patients, a frightened kid named Billy.

Spoiler Note: Read no further if you haven’t seen House of Games, the following reveals major plot developments.

Mike takes a liking to Margaret and offers to call off the debt (which was actually only $800) if she will sit next to him at a poker game and look for “a tell” from George, the guy across the table (Mamet regular Ricky Jay) who has been winning all night.  Sitting beside Mike at the table she mistakenly thinks that George is revealing his hand when he twists his ring.  Mike loses and George pulls a gun when the winnings aren’t promptly produced.  Margaret offers to put up the money herself until she spots water dripping from the gun.  She breaks the con and Mike and George admit it was all a scam to take her money.

Rather than split, Margaret is curious, she asks Mike to show her some of his best cons as material for a book she may want to write on the subject.  He agrees and, knowing he’s a con man, we sense right away that he will turn the tables on her.  “It’s called a confidence game”, he tells her “Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”  Mike and his pal Joey show her some of the oldest cons like the one where you ask someone for change for a twenty, put the money in an envelope, lick the envelope and scoop the money into your mouth while you’re licking it.

He shows her others like a small-time scam involving a trip to a Western Union office where he convinces a Marine (William H. Macy) that he is waiting for some many from Western Union. The Marine is waiting for money to buy a bus ticket so he can get back to his base.  Mike strikes up a conversation and tells the guy that he also is a Marine, establishing a blood bond.  Mike offers to give the guy money for bus fare when it arrives.  The man’s money comes first and he offers some of it to Mike.  Mike is such a brilliant confidence man that he is able to work money from the guy without ever asking for money.

It doesn’t take long before Mike and his partner Joey (Mike Nussbaum) let Margaret in on a larger job, this one involving a suitcase full of money left on a sidewalk.  The three conspirators stand next to a businessman (J.T. Walsh), who will be their mark, and watch as a someone gets into a cab and leaves behind a briefcase.  They discover that the briefcase is full of money.  Taking the briefcase to a hotel room the four conspire to split the money four ways.  The businessman offers to pay a percentage in exchange for taking the briefcase, but Mike and Joey plan to switch the case at the last minute.

The plan goes off, but later Margaret overhears a phone conversation and discovers that the businessman is a cop running a sting operation.  Attempting to flee, Margaret struggles with the cop and shoots him dead.  She, Mike and Joey escape the hotel in a stolen car only to discover that the briefcase and the money have disappeared.  Mike panics, telling Margaret that the case contained $80,000 that he borrowed from the mob and that he is a dead man if he doesn’t reclaim it.  Margaret tells him that she can get the money, so they leave the stolen car and split up.

The next day Margaret sees the stolen car with Billy, her patient, behind the wheel.  She goes back to the House of Games and listens in on a conversation involving, not only Mike, Joey and George but also the businessman/cop she supposedly shot dead.  Overhearing the group split her $80,000 she realizes that she’s been scammed from the beginning.

Margaret decides to get back at Mike by following him to the airport where he is about to board a plane to Las Vegas.  She claims to have $250,000 on her and wants to go with him.  They talk privately in a secluded area of the hospital where Mike understands that she is scamming him when she misspeaks.  There is an argument and she shoots him dead.

Observant viewers will already know that Margaret is being scammed early on, what we don’t know is how far back into the story the scam begins.  Personally, I thought it began with the businessman and I was genuinely surprised to find that it began almost from the moment we met Margaret.  It is easy to see how she gets scammed, Mike is not only a master of the con but he is a master of the con within a con.  He doubles up on the confidence game so that we aren’t sure what is real and what is just a game.  When Mike is shot dead at the end, I began to wonder if he wouldn’t show up again.  I had learned not to trust him.

The key to Mike is that he makes us totally comfortable with him.  He isn’t only a confidence man, he is an actor, able to pull Margaret into any direction he wants.  By the end, when you realize that he’s been playing a rehearsed role the whole time, you think back on what an amazing performance he was able to pull off.

He’s slick, you never know where he’s coming from.  He has rules for himself like never pulling a job on someone who can’t afford it.  He has a very deliberate speaking style (Mantegna is a master of Mamet’s off-kilter dialogue) so that there is no question about what he’s saying.  He spaces his words so they can be understood and ingested.  He has an amazing delivery as when George pulls a gun on him over the poker game “Where am I from?” he says “I’m from the United States of kiss-my-ass”  or “Years from now, they’re gonna have to go to a museum to see a frame like this.”

He is also a romantic, slipping a hotel key into his pocket when the desk clerk turns his back then taking Margaret to the room so they can make love.  He instills in Margaret so much confidence that when the con goes bad, she hasn’t the slightest notion that she is being set up and neither do we.

He is able to pull from her, a hidden compulsion to be a thief.  When we meet her, she is straight as an arrow, her suit is flawless and she hasn’t a hair out of place.  Her office reveals her personality, nothing is out of place, nothing is there for show.  Yet, when she meets Mike there’s a softness in his eyes and in his voice (again, part of Mike’s performance) that touches her.  She likes the thrill of the moment and he provides her with a talent she didn’t know she had.

Mantegna, always a wonderful presence in the movies, could have been an actor in the 30s.  In his tailored suit, his sharpened accent and his soft eyes he reminds me a little of Cary Grant. He can carry himself easily from soft-hearted to cold-blooded.  He’s perfect for Mamet’s dialogue which seems to have a staccato edge and always sounds a little off.  He delivers his lines with a precision, lines like “I read a book once which said this: If you’re fired from your job, when you’re going home, take something. A pencil, something to assert yourself. Take a memento. Take something from life.”

I admit that I was taken by Mike.  I never knew if or when I could trust him.  When, in the end, it is revealed that Margaret has been the mark for the entire time we’ve known her, I still has no idea if I could trust anything.  In the end, I had reached the point where I had no idea what to expect from him.  Somehow, I wondered if his name was even Mike.

Best Actress

Cher (Moonstruck)
The Nominees: Glenn Close (Fatal Attaction), Holly Hunter (Broadcast News), Sally Kirkland (Anna), Meryl Streep (Ironweed)

Maggie Smith (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn)
y Nominees: Cher (Moonstruck), Holly Hunter (Broadcast News), Meryl Streep (Ironweed)


I knew Cher was a great performer so I wasn’t surprised to find that she could act.  What surprised me was what a relaxed, natural screen presence she has.  The academy had nominated her for Silkwood and then unfairly overlooked her work as the drug-addicted mother of a disfigured son in Mask.  I don’t know if the voters felt sheepish about overlooking her work in that film but I was happy that they didn’t overlook her wonderful performance in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck.  As an Italian-American woman who is desperately wooed by a one-armed butcher, she displays the rare gift to occupy this film and make you feel as if she’s been there for years.

I was dazzled by Cher’s performance and by many others in nineteen eighty-seven.  This was a great year for women in film, but I feel that everyone has already seen Moonstruck and in the interest of trying to introduce you, dear reader, to a performance that you may have missed, I am instead choosing Maggie Smith for her forgotten performance as the sad spinster in Jack Clayton’s little-seen The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

Maggie Smith has always occupied a role with dignity, refinement and with a certain charm.  As Judith Hearne she displays a vulnerability that surprised me.  She plays Judith, a homely spinster in her late forties who is respected in her Irish community but has arrived at the point in her life where she is becoming desperate to find some form of happiness.  In her sad eyes we sense that she has been burned emotionally, that she has suffered disappointments over and over and over.

Her comfort is the bottle.  She is a drunk who washes away her pain in a flood of alcohol. It is a routine that has gone on for years and years until it had become like a reflex.  She is lonely, she doesn’t seem to have any friends and what little family she connects with does so with tolerance.  She dreams of one day finding some semblance of love, of finding a man who will save her from a life of loneliness.

A brief moment of what seems to be happiness washes in. She meets James (Bob Hoskins), the brother of her landlady who has just returned to Dublin from a trip to New York City and they have breakfast together. The following Sunday he escorts her to church and afterwards he asks her to dinner and to a picture show. Judith’s is overwhelmed beyond words, she is delighted that he asked and he seems to be so happy that she has accepted. There is a certain joy that fills Judith’s heart because he seems so genuine and approaches her with the tenderness of a schoolboy.

James is not, alas, all that he seems.  It isn’t long before she discovers that he thinks she has money.  He is interested in setting up a hot-dog stand and wants the money that he has heard that she has stowed away.  When Judith learns of his deception, she is devastated but there’s a hint in her demeanor that suggests that she’s been through all this before.  She is disappointed and so are we because he seems so warm, so affectionate that we wanted it to work out.

Smith has two scenes in particular that are beautifully handled.  One comes after a disappointment when she walks into her closet to retrieve a bottle and starts drinking.  There’s a hint in her body language that suggests that this is a long-held routine and as she gets drunk and sings to herself there’s a brief happiness that we know will soon wash away.  The other scene is a devastating moment takes place when she visits the parish priest (Alan Radcliffe, father of Daniel) and asks about the validity of God.  The priest is outraged at her blasphemy.  There is a look on her face that suggests that she is completely serious, like a frightened child who needs some sense of reassurance.

The final passages of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne seem somewhat victorious.  We are led to believe that Judith getting a handle on her life, that she will pull through and find the happiness she seeks.  For me, it is a false hope.  Life has taught Judith that her life is an ongoing list of disappointment and false hope and when I see her happy at the end, I know it won’t last

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