Armchair Oscars – 1994

Best Picture

Forrest Gump
(Directed by Robert Zemekis)
The Nominees: Four Weddings and a FuneralPulp FictionQuiz ShowThe Shawshank Redemption

Pulp Fiction (Directed by Quentin Tarantino
My Nominees: Blue (Krystov Kieslowsky), Forrest Gump (Robert Zemekis), Fresh (Boaz Yakin), Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson), Hoop Dreams (Steve James), The Last Seduction (John Dahl), Quiz Show (Robert Redford), The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont), Speed (Jan DeBont)


An idiot ran off with the 67th Oscar for Best Picture and stole America’s hearts along the way. Forrest Gump was a glorious, whimsical fantasy, loosely based on a novel by Winston Groom, about a small town southern man with a big heart, lots of luck and limited intelligence who is carried on the winds of destiny through three turbulent decades of American history. Through an amazing whim of chance he manages to find himself present at most of the red letter moments of the 50s, 60s and 70 from Elvis to AIDS.

Those who carped over the the film weren’t looking deep enough. Forrest Gump is a portrait of our times, of the difficult things we’ve been through as a country told through the prism of a man born without the capacity to be jaded and cynical. Forrest moves like a feather on the wind from one lucky break to another carrying only the advice of his Mama, the love of his girl Jenny (who takes the low road into the hippie culture and the drug underground) and the loyalty to his friends.

The movie became a worldwide phenomenon and it was a lock to win Best Picture long before the nominations were announced but it did find stiff competition from the year’s other success story, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Here on the same Best Picture ballot were both the most popular film of the decade and the most influential film of the decade. Both films had their critics but I happen to like both equally, however in terms of a film I could easily sit down and watch right here, right now, I have to go with Tarantino.

Pulp Fiction is pure filmmaking, told with a twisty narrative thread that doesn’t make logistical sense but somehow makes the multiple stories more coherent. The snappy dialogue is relaxed, original and doesn’t simply serve the next pawn in the plot. It finds it’s characters who work and live in the criminal underground but this doesn’t define their personalities, just because they run in a criminal world doesn’t mean they have to act like it. There are at least two dozen characters in the movie and in order to tell their individual stories (of which there are at least five) Tarantino presents the film in a non-linear way so that the stories twist back upon themselves so that we can eventually see how a character got to the place where we first met them. The screenplay is written so well that we watch a scene at the very end containing a character whose death we witnessed in the middle of the film (The film actually ends in the same scene where it began).

The timeline is by now legendary but the key to the film is the dialogue which never feels written. Did you ever notice how most movie characters only speak to what is going on right there in the film and their dialogue only speaks to the plot? Real people don’t speak that way, they make idle conversation on their way to their destination, they discuss things that matter to them or make small talk that is often meaningless. The characters in Pulp Fiction talk the way most people do and some of it has become legendary. There is the famous interaction between Jules and Vincent about French hamburgers and Dutch French Fries. There’s an oddly-fascinating conversation about pot-bellies between Butch and his girl Fabienne. There is an opening interaction between Ringo and Yolanda about the nature of armed robbery. There is Emerelda’s keen curiosity in knowing what it feels like to kill someone. There’s the classic cameo by Christopher Walken who describes the incredible journey of his pocket watch through Vietnam and up where the sun don’t shine. Then there is the on-going discussion of the legend of a foot message that got Antoine “Tony Rocky Horror” Rockamora thrown off a four story balcony, leaving him alive but with a terrible stutter.

That actors get the dialogue, there isn’t a single weak performance in the film. This was lauded as the comeback for John Travolta who parlayed his television success into Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy into a decade of forgettable, nothing movies. By 1994, he had had a small success with Look Who’s Talking but this film effected his comeback. As Vincent Vega he is laid-back but not apathetic, slow-witted but not dull. Vincent is the fountain through which all of the movie’s biggest crises flow. Note that he is the one who is responsible for Mrs. Marsallis’ overdose, the Marvin situation and he is inadvertently responsible for the unfortunate events that take place in that pawn shop. I had never seen a performance like this from Travolta because he wasn’t forcing anything, he tried something new. It is a great performance.

While Travolta was experiencing his comeback, Samuel L. Jackson was steadying for his breakthrough. Jackson had tooled around Hollywood for more than ten years and had become one of those faces that you see all the time but you never knew his name. He got some notice playing Wesley Snipes crackhead brother Gator in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever but it was here that he got to introduce the personality that would make him a star. He is one of those eloquent actors who is so much fun to listen to especially in scenes like the one in which he and his partner are assigned to clean up the blood and brain matter from the back seat of his car and he is warned about not getting a man “in the red”. Jackson doesn’t hesitate, “Well, I’m a mushroom-cloud-layin’ motherfucker, motherfucker! Every time my fingers touch brain, I’m Superfly T.N.T., I’m the Guns of the Navarone!” I love the moment early on as he commands a scene like the one where he proclaims Ezekiel 25:17 before emptying his gun into a smartass kid who has stolen from his boss.

The dialogue got Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary the film’s only Oscar out of seven nominations. It became part of a very odd phenomenon that happens quite often when a young, hip, edgy, original film become a hit and then gets Oscar nominations. They receive multiple nominations but only win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, as if the voters were aggressive about nominating it but then shyed away when it came to actually giving award. In recent years I have seen this happen to Almost Famous, The Crying Game, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gosford Park, Juno, Lost in Translation and Sling Blade. The academy is always leary of such new, innovative films. They like rewarding familiar old standards and the edgier film experiments seem to get little notice.

Best Actor

Tom Hanks (
Forrest Gump)
The Nominees: Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption), Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George), Paul Newman (Nobody’s Fool), John Travolta (Pulp Fiction)

Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump)
My Nominees:
Nicholas Cage (It Could Happen to You), Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption), Ralph Fiennes (Quiz Show), Sean Nelson (Fresh), Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George), Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption)


Pundits predicted that the winner for the Best Actor prize of 1994 would be Paul Newman for playing a 70 year-old irresponsible rascal who’s uncomfortable reconnection with his family forces him to have to finally grow up, in Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool. Newman was touted as the winner for two reasons: First, he is a national treasure who’s presence in any film is welcome and second, Tom Hanks wasn’t likely to win a second consecutive Oscar. I think that if Newman had won it would have seemed more like a lifetime achievement then accolades for a single performance. Sully Sullivan doesn’t seem to bring anything new to his list of great characters.

Tom Hanks created something new in Robert Zemekis’ adaptation of Winton Groom’s pop novel Forrest Gump, creating a character that will live forever in movie history (you can’t say that about any of the other nominees). To appreciate his performance in this film, you have to understand how well he removes all traces of the personality we know from his other films. His walk, his speech, his voice, his eyes, everything is completely new.

He plays Forrest Gump, an idiot with an I.Q. of 75, born in the postage stamp-size town of Greenbow, Alabama. From his earliest memories he is guided by two inspirations. First is his mama (Sally Field), a good woman who teaches her slow-witted son that he is no different than anyone else. Of his low I.Q., she reminds him that “Stupid is as stupid does”. Of is leg braces she reminds him ” “If God intended everybody to be the same he’d have given us all braces on our legs.”

The other influence is the love of his life, Jenny Curren (Robin Wright), a little girl he meets on the school bus. She comes from an abusive home and finds comfort in Forrest’s good hearted simplicity. She will become the great love of his life even as she often leaves him and disappears into the counter-culture movement. Through his travels, she will come and go but she is always in his heart. Forrest’s world view is very narrow, he sees things as is and is guided by mama’s good advise and his love for Jenny.

Like a feather on the breeze, Forrest floats on the winds of chance. His narrow focus and lack of smarts make him a magnet for good deeds and good luck. He goes to college and becomes a football star. He goes to Vietnam and becomes a war hero. He picks up a ping pong paddle and the next thing you know, he’s competing against China’s greatest champion. He comes home and fulfills his late friend’s dream of opening a “shrimp’n bidniss”. Along the way he is present for most of the major milestones of the last 40 years. As a boy he teaches Elvis to dance. He runs from bullies and is spotted by Bear Bryant. He ends up at the mall on Washington during the protests. He inadvertently reports the Watergate break-in. He meets presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He ends up on The Dick Cavett Show, sitting right next to John Lennon. His travels and his good luck put him in front of the tapestry of our recent history.

All the while, Forrest never seems to glance at these events with anything but a matter-of-fact eye. His lack of cynicism allows him a scope on the world that is pure and innocent but it also allows him a great deal of luck because he never seems to fall by the wayside. He sees people for what is good in them, especially his reluctant friend Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), whose life is changed when he loses his legs in battle but by a slowly developing respect for Forrest finds his own self worth and becomes a success by investing in Apple Computers, or what Forrest describes as “some new fruit company” (Gary Sinise’s wonderful performance stands for all Vietnam Vets who came home wounded and diluted).

Tom Hanks is probably the only actor who could embody Forrest’s spirit. We spend time with a man we know is lacking in intelligence but is not immune to the realization of who he is (he just doesn’t express it). In the film’s most heartbreaking moment, Forrest visits his mother at her deathbed and leans forward to simply ask “What’s my destiny mama?” We’ve been present through most of his story and we’ve seen where the whims of chance carry him but he finally comes to wonder where all this will take him.

The best lesson his mother gives him to so put the past behind him. In the film’s most beautiful moment, having lost mama and Jenny, he begins a long-running job across America that takes him from one coast to the other. I think the point is that having lost the two things that he holds dearest in his heart, it is the one pain he can’t run away from.


Best Actress

Jessica Lange (Blue Sky)
The Nominees: Jodie Foster (Nell), Miranda Richardson (Tom & Viv), Winona Ryder (Little Women), Susan Sarandon (The Client)

Linda Fiorentino (The Last Seduction)
y Nominees: Juliet Binoche (Blue), Zelda Harris (Crooklyn), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle), Man San Lu (The Scent of Green Papaya), Andy McDowell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), Meg Ryan (When a Man Loves a Woman), Kate Winslet (Heavenly Creatures).


In the same year as the debacle surrounding Hoop Dreams, the academy used it’s muscle to keep another fine film out of the running, only this time they claimed that they were abiding by their own rules. The rule stated that no film or performance can be considered for an Oscar nomination if it has played on television even one time before it plays it’s required one week in a commercial theater.

John Dahl’s The Last Seduction had problems finding a distributor and was eventually scheduled for four showings on HBO. But when Dahl’s other thriller Red Rock West became a sleeper hit, critics began touting Seduction‘s star Linda Fiorentino as a possible Best Actress candidate. Despite the fact that she had been given The New York Film Critic’s Circle Award and The Independence Spirit Award, the academy dug in its heels and firmly held that she was disqualified. Even a lawsuit couldn’t provide enough pull to get the academy to loosen up and so the best performance of the year went unnominated.

The award went to Jessica Lange for another movie that seemed to have no future.  Tony Richardson’s Blue Sky was another film that found difficulties getting released, only this time it was due to the collapse of Orion Pictures.  It was made in 1991 and set on the shelf while the studio slipped into oblivion and it’s legendary director slipped into eternity.  When it came out three years later it was met with respectable reviews, and raves for Jessica Lange.  In a performance that perfectly fits the standard mold for the Oscar winner, she plays a mentally unstable woman, the wife of an Army colonel in the 1960s whose sexual liberties cause her family to have to move from one Army base to another.  I’m not a big fan of the movie.  Lange’s performance is nice, but typically pitiful.  She’s not a woman who throws her sexuality around because she likes it, but because there’s something broken inside.  My choice for Best Actress didn’t have that problem.

In The Last Seduction, Linda Fiorentino turns in a ferocious performance that reminds you of what Barbara Stanwyck might have done in her best days (though Fiorentino is allowed to go a lot further). Nineteen Ninety-Four was a year teeming with brilliant performance by actresses of every kind that sadly didn’t get nominated. From Jennifer Jason Lee’s brilliant portrayal of Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, to Meg Ryan as a down-but-not-out alcoholic in When a Man Love a Woman to Juliet Binoche as a woman who loses her family in an accident and then attempt to shed all memory of them in Blue, there were almost as many great performances as the previous year. Yet, the academy chose Jessica Lange from Tony Richardson’s Blue Sky, as Carly Marshall, a mentally unstable housewife in the 1960’s whose sexual dalliances become a scandalous thorn in the side of her very patient husband. The movie had languished on the shelf for three years during the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures and also the death of its director in 1991. I can’t call Blue Sky a bad film nor can I say it was worth the three year wait. There’s nothing special about Lange’s character, she’s just another sobbing female. In fact, despite a strong showing of female performances, none of the five finalists played a strong role except Susan Sarandon’s lawyer in The Client and it wasn’t her best work.

I don’t care for the academy’s rule that kept Fiorentino from being nominated and so she is my choice for Best Actress of 1994. In a performance reminiscent of Stanwyck’s Phyllis Neff in Double Indemnity, Fiorentino plays Bridget Gregory a clever predatory bitch who has the power to lure men to their doom under a spell of sex and manipulation. As the movie opens, she’s living with Clay, a med student who has sold a large amount of cocaine for $700,000. After a heated argument with Bridget, he backhands her and later that night, Clay’s money has disappeared along with Bridget.

She has to decide what to do next, should she divorce Clay or have him killed. The truest moment in the film comes from the late J.T. Walsh who observers “Anyone check you for a heartbeat lately”. Clay has sent people after her and she knows it and the only means of dealing with it is to come up with a plan of her own.

Making a stop in a backwoods country hole in the road for a drink where she meets Mike Swale. Mike is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, he’s a country boy running from his own problems back home. When he makes his moves on Bridget she tells him to get lost, when he brags about the size of his manly asset, she calls him on it. She has his number right away and realizes that this lunkhead might be her ticket to freedom. He doesn’t exactly resist, he becomes addicted to her wild sexual prowess.

Fiorentino’s gift in this film is her ability to carry out this role with a tone that’s almost casual. We never catch her acting and the most shocking moments in the film seem to come naturally. Note the way she calls Mike on his claim that he’s “hung like a horse”. He makes the claim and starts to walk away and without thinking she turns and says “Let’s see it”. There’s a tired challenge in her eyes and we sense that she’s been down this road before. She has a way of leading him by the nose almost without trying and that speaks to her ability to manipulate as much as it speaks of his inability to think with his head. She’s wicked in a way that’s almost sexy. She confirms my theory that the most entertaining characters are the villains because they have no scruples, no ethics, no rules. Bridget is completely self-serving, using sex and an entertainingly wicked ability crack the machismo. Mike falls for her because of the promise of sexual adventure that clouds his ability to think rationally.

In revisiting this film recently, I put it at the end of a marathon that included other femme fatale like Kathleen Turner’s Matty Walker in Body Heat, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Babyface and Jane Greer in Out of the Past and Sue Lyons in Lolita. What they have in common is their ability to use the aroma of sex to dizzy a man’s ability to think rationally and spins him into a state where he will do anything. But while those other women use their ability to melt his inhibitions, Bridget often chops at it.

What Fiorentino brings to the table is the casual cold-bloodedness of Bridget to the degree that as she takes over men’s lives, she also takes over the movie. We get involved in her plot and, like Mike, we end up sticking with her just to see what this unpredictable ice queen will do next.

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