Armchair Oscars – 1989

Best Picture

Driving Miss Daisy  (Directed by Bruce Beresford)
The Nominees: Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown

Crimes and Misdemeanors (Directed by Woody Allen
My Nominees:
The Abyss (James Cameron), Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone), Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford), Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee), Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson), Henry V (Kenneth Branaugh), Lethal Weapon 2 (Richard Donner), The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements and John Musker), My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan), Parenthood (Ron Howard), say anything (Cameron Crowe), Glory (Edward Zwick), Valmont (Milos Foreman), When Harry . . . Met Sally (Rob Reiner)


Nineteen Eighty-Nine was a great year for movies in every genre. There were great commercial films, great indie films, great foreign films, great documentaries and the beginning of an animation renaissance with The Little Mermaid. Great films came from a variety of sources and it made for arguably the most diverse group of Best Picture nominees in the history of the award.

I admire all five of the nominees but as I look at this group, I sigh as I realize that the academy passed on the chance to nominate great films like Glory, Henry V, Do the Right Thing, Lethal Weapon 2, Parenthood, The Abyss, say anything, Crimes and Misdemeanors, When Harry Met Sally . . ., Sea of Love, Drugstore Cowboy, Heart of Midnight, and Valmont. Every one of these films are worthy of respect from the academy but few got it. I’m not saying that the nominated films were bad (though I’m not a fan of Dead Poets Society) but in a perfect world, with such a roster of diversity, the academy might have opened up the Best Picture category to, say, ten nominees.

I can’t even complain about the winner, I liked Driving Miss Daisy. It was a lovely film, based on the play by Alfred Uhry about the 40 year friendship that develops between a stubborn Jewish widow (Best Actress winner Jessica Tandy) and a kindly old black man that has been hired to be her driver (Morgan Freeman). The movie gives both characters their dignity by not pigeonholing them into stereotypes or shoving them into unreasonable plot developments. If I have any complaint about the film it is that the ending feels a little long and the last ten minutes or so kind of run out of gas.

My choice for Best Picture did not run too long and in fact, wasn’t long enough (no great film ever is), Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors is the best film he made since Manhattan a decade earlier. It brilliantly examines the weathers of the human soul, and the possibility of what one man is capable of getting away with. It features a dual story of comedy and tragedy and Allen is a genius at being able to juggle both at the same time.

Martin Landau gives one of his best performances as Judah Rosenthal, an eye doctor who, as the film opens, is being honored at a banquet for his years of service. He is a great guy, his wife Miriam (Claire Bloom) loves him and so do his kids. He is a pillar of the community and seemingly can do no wrong. He has all the material things that he could ever want. He lives on four acres, drives a sports car, and has just donated a hospital wing. But we soon see that he is no saint after he intercepts a letter written to Miriam by his mistress Dolores (Angelica Huston) who threatens to tell his wife about their two year affair if he doesn’t break off his marriage and commit to her.

Judah is trapped. He knows that such a confession would destroy his marriage and he would lose the respect of his friends and colleagues. He knows that he has created a situation with Dolores that he can’t easily put aside. The problem is that Dolores has come unglued. She is so in love with Judah that she is willing to destroy his life to be with him and he knows that he she will do it. She gets more and more desperate, calling him from a gas station during a dinner party and telling him to meet her there or she will call Miriam and confess the whole thing.

Judah tries to reason with Miriam but she is too irrational to be reasoned with. He talks to his brother-in-law Ben (Sam Waterston) but it doesn’t help him find a solution. Then he calls his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), who has mob connections. Jack lets him know that he “knows some people” who handle these types of situations. The idea of having Dolores killed seems rational from a certain perspective, but the more Judah thinks about it, the more it begins to hit home. “I can’t believe I’m talking about a human being,” He tells Jack, “She’s not just an insect to be stepped on.”

Here is where Woody Allen makes the film truly original. Consider: most characters in movies who commit murder (or hire someone) do so casually without even a thought. This film delves deep into the interior of a man’s soul and forces him to ask himself if he is capable of being responsible for the death of a fellow human being. Can he have this deed done? Can he live with himself? How can he live with the thought that he has committed the ultimate abomination in the eyes of God? We see flashbacks to his childhood in which his father taught his son that the almighty is watching our every move, that nothing escapes his eye. When Judah finds himself against the wall, an exit presents itself, but he still has to have time to consider the ramifications.

There is a brilliantly written scene that takes place between the first meeting with Jack and the phone call in which he is notified that the job has been done. It takes place during a rainstorm in which Judah talks with Ben about the possibility that he could be responsible for murder. Ben asks him straight out “Could you sleep nights?”. “God is a luxury I can’t afford,” Judah says “Jack lives in the real world. You live in the kingdom of heaven.” That scene is crucial to what happens later because it shows Judah making an attempt to ground himself in reality to rid himself of Dolores so he can, briefly, step out of God’s line of sight.

Yet Judah can’t escape his conscience. After the murder he nearly comes unglued and entertains thoughts of confessing his crime. He knows from his father’s teachings that he remains under the gaze of his maker and that leads him to his childhood home where he imagines a dinnertime discussion long ago in which his family intellectualizes over the consequences of a man’s guilt and his free will. The dialogue here is beautifully written (especially for his aunt who thinks the Bible is a lot of nonsense) and I was caught up in the conversation and shocked when the adult Judah is able to interject a question into a conversation that is not, in fact, taking place . . . yet he receives an answer!

The second story is actually comedy relief, a more standard Woody Allen plot, dealing with Clifford Stern (Allen) who is a maker of documentaries of no great significance. He gets a job making a documentary about Lester (Alan Alda), a producer of successful TV sitcoms but who doesn’t seem to have any other discernable talent – he is one of those guys who is always pulling out his tape recorder to make a note to himself when he gets a brilliant idea. Cliff thinks he’s a pompous ass especially when he is dispensing nonsense nuggets like “If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it’s not funny”.

While suffering through Lester’s insufferable fortune cookie advice like “Comedy is tragedy over time”, he meets a pretty production assistant named Halley (Mia Farrow). She likes him, they seem to have a lot in common and they like going to the movies together during lunch. Cliff is stuck in a marriage to Wendy (Joanna Gleason) that has long ago past its freshness. He thinks it may be time to move on and Halley is the person he wants to move on with. Halley however, who knows Cliff is married, doesn’t want a relationship with him even when the attraction is obviously there. She even takes four month gig out of town to let him cool off.

Four months later, they meet up again at a dinner party where he discovers that she is engaged to Lester. We’ve gotten the information that she didn’t really like Lester any more than Cliff did, but Lester is, after all, rich and has a great career. This, of course, breaks Cliff’s heart and he sits alone feeling dejected. Soon he is joined by another man with something on his mind . . . Judah Rosenthal. In a bit of brilliant writing, the eye doctor and the filmmaker sit together and the good doctor lays out his great idea for a movie about a man who gets in a situation where he lays out the entire messy episode but also informs us of what exactly has happened in the meantime. After Dolores’ murder he was wracked with guilt until, one day, he woke up to the sun shining. The crime was pinned on a man who already committed murder, that he has accepted that the situation has left him completely free.

Crimes and Misdemeanors breaks the soothing tide of most commercial movies. “Human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation” Judah says, “If you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie.” This is the movie that calls the bluff of a piece of nonsense like Fatal Attraction. This is about the weather of a man’s soul, not a lot of slasher theatrics. Allen doesn’t show us any details about the crime or the investigation (beyond a brief visit by a detective, which Judah handles perfectly). This is a movie about the reality, the grim reality. In the end, the guilty man goes scot-free but the innocent nice guy has his heart broken. That is reality.

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown)
The Nominees: Kenneth Branaugh (Henry V), Tom Cruise (Born on the Fourth of July), Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy), Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society)

Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown)
My Nominees:
Kenneth Branaugh (Henry V), Kevin Costner (Field of Dreams), Tom Cruise (Born on the Fourth of July), Billy Crystal (When Harry . . . Met Sally), John Cusack (Say Anything . . .), Matt Dillon (Drugstore Cowboy), Steve Martin (Parenthood), Jack Nicholson (Batman), Al Pacino (Sea of Love), James Spader (sex, lies and videotape)


It has often been said that the best way to win an Oscar is to play someone with physical or psychological problems.  This has been the case with Best Actor winners Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Tom Hanks, Geoffrey Rush and Jamie Foxx, all of whom in one way or another played characters afflicted with something.  Yet, I don’t think that any of these actors endured a more painful uphill climb than Daniel Day-Lewis in his performance in the title role of My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown.

For his performance as Christy Brown, the Irish artist who was born with cerebral palsy and was only able to control his left foot, he threw himself completely into the role.  He stayed in character between takes, and remained twisted-up in his wheelchair for so long that he broke two ribs. He also had assistance with his food just as Brown would have.  All for a movie that he thought no one would ever want to see.

I can imagine how he would view the film that way.  It would be easy to resist the film on the basis that it might be a sad, cliched movie-of-the-week with all kinds of shameless scenes and an 800 number over the closing credits.  Yet the movie (thanks to the screenplay by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan) goes far beyond any standard TV movie.  Here is the portrait of a specific, brilliant individual who was given the chance to prove his incredible artistic ability while trapped in a body that resisted his very movements.

We first meet Christy Brown in middle age as he is about to attend a benefit where he will be honored.  He is looked after by a kindly nurse (Ruth McCabe) who delves into his autobiography.  We flash back to the very beginning where he is born in a poor village in Ireland, one of 13 surviving children out of 22.  On the day he was born in 1932, his father Paddy Brown (Roy McAnally) is told “there’s a complication”, that Christy has cerebral palsy and it is likely that the boy will live his life as a vegetable.  There’s a suggestion that the boy be institutionalized but Paddy won’t hear of it.

The refusal to cast the boy away sets the course of Christy’s life. His family gathers around him, encourages him, includes him and treats him as a person.  An institution would have surely killed him.  We see him in his childhood (played by Hugh O’Conor whom Daniel Day-Lewis acknowledged on Oscar night) as a boy who’s body jerks and convulses, not as an involuntary action, but because he is stubbornly trying to move against a body that refuses to cooperate.  His only means of control come through his left foot which he uses even to get help for his mother when she falls down the stairs.

The family encourages Christy when he begins to show signs of intelligence.  He has an amazing ability to move himself about, to write, to communicate.  We can see in his eyes that there is a brilliant mind at work.  Early on he picks up a piece of chalk with his toes and writes the word “mother” on the floor, not Ma, not Mommy, Mother.  The family is surprised, but not his mother who knows there’s a person inside Christy struggling to communicate.  His mother (Supporting Actress winner Brenda Fricker) becomes his closest friend. She never doubts her son’s abilities, and sees something in his eyes that he wants to communicate.

Everyone is astonished that this young kid with limited controllable movement turns out to be an accomplished artist and writer, utilizing both his typewriter and his paintbrush just with the use of his toes.  When his art becomes famous, Christy, like most artists, isn’t happy with his work, and he becomes his own worst critic.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Christy from his teens into his adulthood.  We can see that this is a man completely capable of aiding himself, but who’s only obstacle was his afflicted body.  What is most refreshing is that Day-Lewis never asks for our sympathies. Christy is stubborn, difficult, he drinks too much and, at times, can be an S.O.B.  This is no wounded saint, we see inside of him that there is a man who gets frustrated and experiences heartbreak.  His mother introduces him to a physical therapist (Fiona Shaw) who understands him and helps him further his art.  From the moment they meet he is in love with her. but he is heartbroken when he later discovers that she won’t love him back – she’s engaged.

He speaks very little for a lead performance yet he probably speaks more than the real Christy Brown would have.  Most of his performance is in his body language, the way he jerks his head when trying to convey an idea, the way he jerks his body when he badly wants to do something.  The way he plays soccer with the kids in the neighborhood, acting as a very successful goalie.  When he does speak, it is limited but what he says is profound, “Fuck all love that is not 100 percent commitment!”  Buried under the jerky movements is an complete human being, a brilliant individual who understood the world around him but had only a limited manner in which to express it.

Best Actress

Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy)

The Nominees: Isabelle Adjani (Camille Claudel), Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine), Jessica Lange (Music Box), Michelle Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys)

Isabelle Adjani (Camille Claudel)
y Nominees: Nicole Kidman (Dead Calm), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Heart of Midnight), Emily Lloyd (Cookie), Emily Lloyd (In Country), Kelly Lynch (Drugstore Cowboy), Andie McDowell (sex, lies and videotape), Michelle Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys), Meg Ryan (When Harry . . . Met Sally), Winona Ryder (Heathers), Annabella Sciorra (True Love), Ruth Sheen (High Hopes),Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy), Emma Thompson (Henry V), Meg Tilly (The Girl in the Swing), Kathleen Turner (The War of the Roses), Liv Ullman (The Rosegarden), Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (Scandal)


At the age of 81, Jessica Tandy became the oldest actress ever to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In most cases, an actor receiving an Oscar at this age would be cause to accuse the academy of giving away a sympathy vote, but in Tandy’s case, she had given the best performance of her distinguished career. In Bruce Beresford’s adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winning play Driving Miss Daisy, Tandy plays Daisy Werthan, a stubborn former schoolteacher who’s son hires her a driver, an elderly black man named Hoke (Morgan Freeman), when it becomes clear that she can no longer drive herself.

What develops between Hoke and Miss Daisy is a 30 year friendship from their late sixties up into their early nineties. They are products of their time (the film takes us from the late 40s through the early 70s) and what comes from Miss Daisy is not a revelation about this man, but a tender and loving friendship grows gradually from the characters and without sentiment.

By winning the Oscar, Tandy trumped a great many actresses who were just as deserving. Nineteen Eighty-Nine was a great year for actresses in more diverse roles then had been seen in many years (look at my nominees). I had a difficult time sifting through the great performances of the year until I came to my favorite, French beauty Isabel Adjani for her heartbreaking performance as 19th century sculptor Camille Claudel. Tandy’s performance wasn’t bad, but I felt that Adjani had a more daunting task: convincingly proving to us that her mind was coming apart under the strain of a broken love affair and a career that was muted by gender.

Today, Camille Claudel has passed out of common knowledge, few outside the art world are aware of her story. That’s why I think that this film is so important, it portrays the unsuccessful struggle of a woman to succeed in a man’s profession in the decades just before the suffrage movement. The film is based on the book by Reine-Marie Paris, who was the granddaughter of Camille’s brother, poet Paul Claudel and tells her story as she relates to a man who shares her passion for art, but then rejects her until she goes mad.

As played by Isabel Adjani, we see a single-minded passion, the artist within her struggling to create. When we meet her it is 1884 as she is scrounging around in the dirt by the riverbed in the middle of the night for the right clay to make into art.  For a lady of this period to be rutting around in the mud in the dead of night was unheard of, and she becomes an embarrassment to her family, especially her mother. We can see what her mother cannot, that Camille sees possibilities in this filthy mud.  Like most artists, she has completed the work in her head before she has started.  Then she uses her God-given talent to free the artistic expression that lies at the center of the unformed lump.  She is a true artist, one who sees what others do not. There is an impulse inside of her, an engine that compels her toward her art. The problem is that despite her passion, she is working in an artform that is dominated by men who don’t believe that this is the area for a proper woman, and this kind of prejudice leads to her downfall.

Part of that downfall begins when she becomes the apprentice to the great sculptor August Rodin (Gerard Depardieu), known to most as the artist who created “The Thinker”.  He is 44 and carries on a longtime relationship with Rose. Based on that reputation, we assume that he is cold and crass toward women, that he gets what he wants and then tosses them away.  He is different, however. He is a man filled with passion for his work and eventually for Camille.  He takes little notice of her in the beginning, but it isn’t long before she becomes his lover.  When they begin to fall for one another there is a tenderness, a feeling that there is a passionate but restrained love that resides between them. The problem is that Rodin is a man who will only carry this romance so far. He does so with Camille but what she has brought into his studio is an intensity and passion in her work that would be the catalyst for his more revolutionary style.

The revolutionary style that was inspired by her work soon turns to resentment.  Working in his studio, Camille works making hands and feet but receives no credit.  He signs his name to her work and before long she begins to feel that she wants to crawl out from under his shadow.  We understand why, especially when we see her in his studio making clay into art, she sculpts with a fiery passion and furious energy.  Isabel Adjani has an expressive face that allows us to peer into her eyes and see the light the burns within her.  There is a joy in her face while she is creating and she conveys that joy beautifully.

At the other end of the spectrum, she is also capable of expressing Camille Claudel’s great despair.  She becomes frustrated at being in Rodin’s shadow, at never getting credit for her own work and wants to break out on her own. But this is impossible, the social code of her time will not allow a woman to express herself in such a way. She creates nudes, which is all but forbidden, and there is an emotional fire to her work that would have made her one of histories true originals. When she is denied an exhibition at The Exposition Universelle of 1900, she assumes that Rodin is secretly trying to ruin her. That night, she stands outside his home screaming his name and throwing rocks at his window. What is surprising is that this isn’t just an angry woman screaming but there is a howl of pain in her voice, a woman scorned and hurt to the deepest level of her soul.

Claudel would, of course, go mad. She spent part of her life in an asylum and one of the best things about Adjani’s performance is that she uses her open, expressive face to convincingly portray this woman’s decent into madness. In her eyes are the fire and intensity of the artist within and later her eyes grow dark as she falls into despair.

This is a beautiful performance because Adjani has to play many notes. She is never better than when she is sculpting, attacking the mass of unformed clay in an attempt to free the work that resides within. We catch her spirit, her intent to create and feel for her, we feel her compulsion to create, she simply has to and we feel the pain when she is stifled because she is told that she cannot.

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