Armchair Oscars – 1995

Best Picture

Braveheart  (Directed by Mel Gibson)
The Nominees: Apollo 13BabeIl PostinoSense and Sensibility

Leaving Las Vegas (Directed by Mike Figgis
My Nominees:
Apollo 13 (Ron Howard), Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins), My Family (Gregory Nava), Nixon (Oliver Stone), Se7en (David Fincher), Safe (Todd Haynes), Toy Story (John Lassiter)


In early Nineteen Ninety Six, about the time that nominees for The 68th Annual Academy Awards were announced, there was a lot of pressure in the 1995 Presidential race about the use of excessive sex and violence in the movies and on television. The dissenting voices came from the political platforms of both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and as a result the academy gave in to the pressure by nominating five films that were noble, upstanding and non-threatening. The nominated films were about astronauts, a brave pig, a lovesick postman, a noble Scottish warrior and the squeaky-clean story of three sisters in 19th century England who engage in a game of matrimonial hopscotch.

This skittishness from the academy left some of the best films of the year out of the Best Picture race. Had they not given in to the pressure than there might have been nominations for more risky topical films like Dead Man Walking (about the death penalty), Nixon (about the controversial leader), Safe (about the environment) and my choice Leaving Las Vegas.

Ironically, despite the political stance against violent content, the winner was one of the bloodiest films of the year. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart told the story of William Wallace, a Scotsman who defied the takeover by the British. The movie’s best scenes are on the battlefield as Gibson presents breathtaking visual of hand to hand combat. But I find the film impersonal. You can’t help but feel for William Wallace but there is never a real sense of who this man was. I think my choice understands it’s characters a little better and finds a tone for their loneliness.  Leaving Las Vegas has the qualities of a sad, tender love song, the sort that would usually accompany the last call. It contains the qualities of all great character studies in that it allows us to follow them into their lives and doesn’t manipulate them by the gimmicks of a plot.

It is a great temptation on the part of most screenwriters to make excuses for their characters. The idiotic notion is that characters who are spiraling into their own personal Hell better have a darn good reason for the trip and they better have a safety net when they get to the bottom. Leaving Las Vegas is a movie that avoids that useless theory, it’s a sad love song about two souls who don’t meet on the way into a personal spiral but are looking up at the world from rock bottom. They have individual reasons for doing so but it’s not the point and the movie is a portrait of how their hopeless lives intersect if only for a brief time.

The movie stars Nicholas Cage and Elizabeth Shue as two lonely souls who meet in the moment when the downhill paths of their lives no longer contain handrails. He is Ben Sanderson, an alcoholic who has filled his life with so much alcohol that it has pushed everyone else out and with no human contacts and no job left he exiles himself to Las Vegas to drink himself into the grave.

If there are nine levels of personal hell then as the movie opens we are meeting him somewhere around level four. His friends have mostly abandoned him, and those that he still contacts are little more than a source of funds (which they do just to get rid of him). The reactions from those around him are of concern, but there is a tone in their approach to Ben that suggests that they know that he is beyond help. His regular bartender says “If you could see what I see, you wouldn’t be doing this to yourself”. We sense that just under the swaggering and slurred speech, this body once occupied a charming and confident man. When he is fired, his boss isn’t angry but pities him as he sadly hands him a severance check and assures him, “We really enjoyed having you around here, Ben . . . but you understand”

Long ago, in better times, he had a wife and a son. They have abandoned him. There are large gaps in Ben’s memory, and he can’t remember if he started drinking because she left or if she left because of his drinking. In his apartment he burns all of his belongings and the state of the home suggests that the wife and son fled in a hurry. We never learn much about them, and our only glimpse is in a photograph that he throws into the fire.

Like a hopeless traveler, he wanders into the desert to die. No one knows him there, no one is fed up with him there and the anonymity of the hotel room leaves him alone with his exile. In this wasteland, he meets Sera, a streetwalker whose life has leveled down into a series of nightly encounters in hotel rooms. She doesn’t like him at first (if in fact anyone does) but a relationship develops between them based on mutual acceptance rather than tired platitudes. The closest thing to a Meet-Cute for this movie is that he runs a red light and nearly hits her with his car.

To understand how brilliantly the character of Ben Sanderson is written you have to see how it would have been handled in lesser hands. In the hands of a lesser screenwriter, Ben would have been seen as some kind of wounded saint and the movie wouldn’t follow him to collapse but would follow him to a recovery*. Life doesn’t always work like that but the movies always tend to see addicts as nice people who will inevitably seek help. Addiction by it’s very nature doesn’t have a light switch and it can’t be turned off, it’s a long and painful process that many never seek. It is easier for Ben to seek booze than it is to seek recovery.

He has moments when the haze of booze offers a mixed swirl of reality and fantasy. One brilliant moment happens just after he arrives in Vegas at motel with a red sign that reads: “The Whole Year Inn”. Sleepy-eyed he gazes at the sign and to him it reads: “The Hole You’re In.”

The key to Ben’s character is that he is a drunk, he doesn’t want help and he fully intends carrying out his mission to slowly but surely drink himself to death. Why? Because on the path between recovery and death, death seems closer.  The movie never provides him with an easy answer. Also it never makes the mistake of supplying him a way out of his problem with the help of a good woman. He meets and falls in love with Sera but their relationship is built on mutual acceptance. “You can never, ever ask me to stop drinking” he tells her “I know” she says.

Where the early scenes show us the remnants of the life Ben is leaving behind, we learn next to nothing about how Sera ended up on the streets. Instead we are witnesses to her exploitive and often humiliating encounters with clients night after night. Why does she do this? An early scene suggests that she does it out of fear from her pimp (Julian Sands) who beats her when she brings home only a few dollars (it frightens him because he is in debt with the mob). After he is killed, Sera is on her own and continues to walk the streets in order to pay the bills. Why? Because It’s obvious that she lacks the skills to do anything else that would reasonably support her and turning tricks brings in enough money to keep a roof over her head.

The movie returns occasionally to a curious conversation that she is having with someone that is offscreen (we never see or hear from that person). Sitting on a couch she bares her soul about the ugly details of her job and later her relationship with Ben. These passages can be interpreted many ways but I think these are her inner monologues as she tries to reason out why she puts herself through the humiliation of her job and why she sticks with a hopeless cause like Ben. They also help us understand the nastier sides of her nightly encounters without having to actually witness them.

These two hopeless cases meet in the barren wasteland of Las Vegas. They fall in love but it is not a romance in any conventional sense. Instead it is an attachment based on mutual tolerance. It’s important to see how others respond to them (most of the people they meet are asking them to leave) so that we can see why they connect to each other. In the wilderness of their loneliness, a tender bond develops not based on sex or phony love story trappings. The movie sees them as they really are and follows them as their personalities dictate. But what makes Sera care about this hopeless cause? I think it’s because he approaches her differently than anyone else. He isn’t interested in sex, he doesn’t throw her out and in several boozy hazes calls her “my angel”.

What makes Leaving Las Vegas so intriguing that it doesn’t tell us how to feel. We see the characters in the stages of self-destruction but the movie never gives them a reason for doing so. Why would a man drink himself to death? Why would a woman engage in sexual encounters with strangers? It helps to understand that there are people in life who do things like this for no particular reason (though the movies rarely think so). It is clear that both Ben and Sera have found themselves as the gum on the bottom of society’s shoe but Figgis never supplies them with a reason for getting there. Ben and Sera are wounded people who have found solace in their mutual acceptance of one another and Leaving Las Vegas asks us to do the same.

Best Actor

Nicholas Cage (
Leaving Las Vegas)
The Nominees: Richard Dreyfuss (Mr. Holland’s Opus), Anthony Hopkins (Nixon), Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking), Massimo Troisi (Il Postino)

Nicholas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas)
My Nominees:
Richard Dreyfuss (Mr. Holland’s Opus), Anthony Hopkins (Nixon), Ian McKellan (Richard III), Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking), Jimmy Smits (My Family), John Travolta (Get Shorty)


The nominees for Best Actor of 1995 were some of the best of the decade, save for one. I never found Massimo Troisi’s performance as a lovelorn postman in Il Postino to be all that compelling. Had he not died, he wouldn’t have been nominated. The other four found challenging roles in a variety of films. The best was the winner and my choice for best actor, Nicholas Cage as a sad, lonely alcoholic determined to drink himself to death in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas.

Cage’s performance has a kind of literary quality to it, with inflections and motivations that usually only work on the printed page. He plays Ben Sanderson not as a man with a drinking problem but as a man who has taken his addiction into his heart. He doesn’t believe there is any hope for so his solution is to simply drown in his vice. Early scenes show him as a man who has left friends and family behind, based on their reaction to him, we sense that he was once a likable and charming man. He loses his job and as his employer hands him a severance check and there is a great sadness in the man’s eyes as he tells Ben “It was nice having you around but . . . you understand.”

Ben wanders into the desert to die. Taking his severance check and his life savings, he exiles himself to Las Vegas so he can drink himself to death. He knows no one there and no one knows him. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas and it leaves him to his vice and to his suicidal mission. Not long after he arrives in Vegas he checks into a hotel called “The Whole Year Inn” and we see through is boozy haze that the sign reads “The Hole You’re In”.

He nearly runs over a prostitute at a stop light. Her name is Sera and at first she treats him like regular customer, talking the buzz words that are part of her sordid profession. Eventually she begins to see that this guy is something different, there’s something about his that seems wounded, maybe she can relate. He isn’t shy about telling her the facts of his chosen existence ” We both know that I’m a drunk. And I know you are a hooker. I hope you understand that I am a person who is totally at ease with that. Which is not to say that I’m indifferent or I don’t care, I do. It simply means that I trust and accept your judgment.”

The greatest gift of Cage’s performance is the lack of cliche. This is a man who has made his decision, sees no way out and wants no help. We sense that there were times when he was a charming and beloved man but that man is long gone. The movie hints at the life he once had, we see a scene in which he prepares to burn his bridges behind him by burning his belongings. This is the hint at a family that has long abandoned him. We’re meeting him at the end of his connection to a personal life when he meets a friend that gives him money to go away. We see him at a bar where even the bartender can’t help but observe “If you could see what I see, you wouldn’t do this to yourself”.

Most alcoholics in the movies are wounded saints who would be cured with the love of the right woman. But Cage avoids that cliche, he never asks for Sera’s sympathy but asks her to respect his desire to drink himself to death. He knows he is beyond help and that raises a question: Does he drink as a manner of dying or is dying a reason to drink. He has settled into the idea that what is behind him can’t be repaired. In a way, his first name sounds like a description.

Best Actress

Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking)
The Nominees: Elizabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas), Meryl Streep (The Bridges of Madison County), Sharon Stone (Casino), Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility)

Julianne Moore (Safe)
y Nominees: Nicole Kidman (To Die For), Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking), Elizabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas), Meryl Streep (The Bridges of Madison County), Emma Thompson (Carrington)


Like Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese, Susan Sarandon had to sit on Oscar’s sidelines a number of times before the academy finally got around to rewarding her. Four times she ended up on the final ballot and four times she came up on the losing end until she teamed up with her longtime love Tim Robbins for Dead Man Walking in which she played Sister Helen Prejean, a nun with a conscience who tries to spiritually aid a death row inmate (Sean Penn) through his final hours.

Sarandon gives the kind of strong performance that reminded me of the women’s empowerment movies of the 70’s and early 80’s like Silkwood, Klute, Norma Rae and Coming Home. What makes her performance work is the fact that Sister Helen is so confident in her beliefs and in her mission but she is also naive. Watch Sarandon’s eyes in a scene in which she tells the family of one of the victims about her plan. She’s wonderful in Dead Man Walking but, for me, the movie really belongs to Sean Penn. Both do good work but I think Penn has the tougher challenge of first presenting himself as a bastard who done horrible things and then convincing us to care about him.

I was happy with most of the nominees in this category but I was underwhelmed by Sharon Stone in Casino and Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility. I felt that their slots should have gone to Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For and my choice, Julianne Moore as a woman who becomes allergic to her environment in Todd Hayne’s little-seen drama Safe.

Moore plays Carol White an affluent, bored Southern California housewife whose existence centers around looking pretty, fussing after the maid and luncheons with other housewives with nothing to do.  What strikes us first is Carol’s personality which is so unlike what we’ve seen from Julianne Moore. She presents Carol as very delicate, very shy woman who sits quietly at parties listening to the conversation while the others forget that she is even there. Her voice is almost a delicate whisper as if she’s afraid she’ll be judged by every word. There is a submissive quality to Carol that seems unsettling because she seems to arrive at every little thing at the suggestion of others. Her friends urge her into a fruit diet and later she submits to an ungainly perm. In the very first scene she has sex with her husband and from the look on her face, she seems very uncomfortable. All of these things seem predestined for her as if her own capacity for independent thought has been drained out.

Then something happens. While driving one day, Carol gets behind a truck that is belching large amount of exhausted fumes and she finds herself unable to breath. She begins to have nose-bleeds, panic attacks, and her breathing becomes constricted. She consults a doctor but he can find nothing wrong with her. She stops wearing make-up, stops using unnecessary aerosols cans and begins carrying an oxygen tank. She begins to hear about “Environmental Illness”, a baffling allergic reaction to chemicals that has been given the name “The 20th Century Disease”. To the doctor, Carol seems perfectly healthy and he suggests that perhaps it is all in her head. Her surroundings certainly suggest that it might be true.

That’s when the careful observer notices that most scenes contain a low undercurrent of mechanical humming from radios, televisions, vacuum cleaners, kitchen devices, automobiles, and the busy humming of a hair salon. The world Carol lives in seems destined to drown her out.

She hears about a facility called Wrenwood, a sanctuary that helps people afflicted with this “disorder” and promises them a safe-haven from a noisy, dirty world that is killing them. What becomes clear is that the movie turns from environmental concerns to the world of scams put upon a person by so-called self-help programs. Joining the program (she found a flier at a health spa) is the first self-concious thing that we see her do and somehow it seems that this will be her first step toward moving out of her harsh.

We don’t notice it at first but what the film eventually comes to is a dissection of Carol’s world. She’s being pushed out of it piece by piece, her routines and her environment are broken down until she is left to stare at the mirror and only see herself, not her make-up, not her hair but herself. There’s a brilliant ending in which Carol has been stripped of everything and she stands looking in the mirror and only sees herself.

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