Armchair Oscars – 1997

Best Picture

Titanic (Directed by James Cameron)
The Nominees: As Good As it Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential

The Sweet Hereafter (Directed by Atom Egoyan)
My Nominees:
Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson), Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen)Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons), In the Company of Men (Neil LeBute)Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)L.A. Confidential (Curtin Hansen), Titanic (James Cameron)


As a ship and as a movie, Titanic was a fascinating irony. Titanic was the technological juggernaut of its time, the biggest, the fastest the most expensive ship ever built, utilizing the latest inventions of the early 20th century. It was a symbol of the might of the industrial revolution but it was also the victim of overconfidence. The movie was seen in much the same way, the biggest, most expensive production ever made, utilizing the latest technological inventions of late 20th century filmmaking. It was a symbol of revolution of state of the art special effects, but the expectations weren’t much better.

In July of 1997, a headline read: “’Is Cameron steering ‘Titanic’ into Waterworld’?”. The budget had ballooned to $200 million dollars and it had been delayed due to production problems. Everyone was sure that he could pull off the technical end but weren’t sure if he could develop a compelling story. This was the problem that had plagued Waterworld two years earlier and no one was confident that Cameron would succeed. Even by the end of November, the news still didn’t look good. Then came December 18 and all doubts were quieted as the movie opened to 53 million dollars and glowing reviews from some of the critics who had been putting it down.

The public’s adoration for the film came in the form of a worldwide take of $538 million dollars and 13 Oscar nominations. I am among it’s fan. Titanic is a lavish production, reminding us of the epics by D.W. Griffith with its sweeping historical structure and the intimate story in its center. Cameron had succeeded and the academy noticed, rewarding the film with 11 Oscars which tied the record with Ben-Hur.

What Titanic represented was that Hollywood productions had returned after the Academy Award nominations had been swamped by independent films the year before. I liked Titanic (it was on my ten best list) but it wasn’t my favorite film of the year. For me, the best film of the year was Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, another story of tragedy and heartache, only this one was quieter and the wounds were far deeper.

The movie takes place in a small snow-blanketed Canadian community that is suffering under the bitter cold of tragedy. Fourteen children were killed when a school bus careened off the road and onto a frozen lake where it broke through the ice. They drowned in what seemed to be an accident, pure and simple. Into this mourning landscape comes Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), a lawyer who is too old to chase ambulances and too fragile a human being to continue trying to be a father. He has lost a child too, a daughter who resides in an ugly tidepool of drugs. When he first see him he is talking to her on the phone, “I don’t know who I’m talking to.”

The idea of a lawyer coming into a town besieged by an accident would sound like a David and Goliath story on the vein of John Grisham, but Egoyan is too smart for that. Holm suggests to the parents that they hire him to go after those responsible but the characters never leave us with the impression that everything will work out if the giant is slain. The tone of the movie always remind us that a tragedy has taken place, that children are gone and are not coming back and that there will be no cheering courtroom victory at the end. In fact, even if there is a victory and a settlement is made, feelings will be hurt, wounds will be opened and grudges will be fused.

As Holm visits the parents we see that they are a fascinating group of people, not broken saints but ordinary people living a nightmare. We also understand that they are flawed, sometimes maddeningly so. He begins with the Risa and Wendell Walker (Alberta Watson and Maury Chaykin) who own the motel and lost their son. Wendell does not have a loving opinion of the other parents, and Risa apparently doesn’t have a loving opinion of Wendell because she’s cheating on him. Her lover is Bill Ansell (Bruce Greenwood) who was following the bus in a pick-up truck and waving to his children moments before the accident. He was the man who serviced the bus and wants Stevens to drop the case and leave town. We meet the Ottos, Hartley and Wanda (Arsinee Khanjian and Earl Pastko) artists who lost their adopted son.

We meet two survivors. One is Dolores (Gabrielle Rose), the bus driver who is rattled with guilt and grief and seems almost on the verge of falling apart. The other is Nicole (Sarah Polly), the teen survivor of the crash who is now confined to a wheelchair. What is fascinating is that Egoyan draws these people in small details rather than broad strokes. The film moves back and fourth in time to show the relationships and the grudges that will be cemented when the tragedy falls upon them. He establishes a full tapestry of imperfect people and helps us to understand their bitterness.

In the center is Ian Holm in his best performance as a man who sees in these parents the grief that he will eventually face with his own daughter. He finds a human connection in Nicole, whose caring, wounded face leads him to tell a touching story of how his daughter nearly died at the age of three.

The Sweet Hereafter is a haunting film, a quiet story of the irreparable damage inflicted by tragedy and grief. Egoyan doesn’t tie up the ending with a hambone conclusion but gives it a life-goes-painfully-on quality that is less despair and more consolation. Watching the film again along with Titanic I find that both films are similar in theme but the approach is different. Cameron’s film sees the life aboard the famous ship so that we can feel and understand those who were lost. Egoyan’s film sees the young life aboard that bus so that we can understand those who were left behind.

Best Actor

Jack Nicholson (
As Good As It Gets)
The Nominees: Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting), Robert Duvall (The Apostle), Peter Fonda (Ulee’s Gold), Dustin Hoffman (Wag the Dog)

Peter Fonda (Ulee’s Gold)
My Nominees: Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential), Daniel Day-Lewis (The Boxer), Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic), Robert Duvall (The Apostle), Djimon Housou (Amistad), Samuel L. Jackson (Jackie Brown), Al Pacino (The Devil’s Avocate), Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights)


It is hard to resist Jack Nicholson when he does that Jack Nicholson thing. The calm, rapid-fire insults, the eyebrow, the voice, the wicked smile remind us why he became a movie star in the first place. The academy voters like it too.  That is why they’ve given him three Oscars for playing up this persona.  For me, I’m always impressed when Nicholson sheds his actorly tricks and creates a completely new character.  I’m fond of his range more than his persona.

I can’t say that Melvin Udall is a completely new creation though I admire him for giving Melvin some less confidence tics.  He is a novelist, an obsessive compulsive who has no use for his fellow human being and no filter on his mouth. In James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets, a ditzy formula romantic comedy, he creates a role that might have been darker and more interesting in another film because Melvin is much more interesting than the movie that surrounds him.  Mark Andrus’ script is doggedly determined to wrench this SOB into a romance with a sweet waitress (Best Actress winner Helen Hunt) despite the fact that we sense the he deserves to be alone.

The academy has rewarded Nicholson three times for playing variations on the same character.  I am more interested in his range as an actor in films like Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, Ironweed, Hoffa, About Schmidt and The Departed.  Yet most people like the rascally persona that he first employed in his breakthrough role, riding on the back of Dennis Hopper’s motorcycle in Easy Rider. Nicholson was able to use this breakthrough role in Easy Rider as a launch pad for a brilliant career, but Peter Fonda wasn’t so lucky.  While Nicholson explored various roles, Fonda seemed to stray into a series of forgettable action pictures that were all wrong for his quiet demeanor.  He seemed stuck in the biker mode and that was all wrong for him.

The best example of what Peter Fonda can do as an actor came in Victor Nunez’s Ulee’s Gold, a film that took advantage of his strong, quiet nature.  Nunez is a director who knows how to bring the best out of his actors.  That was true of Ed Harris in A Flash of Green and especially of Ashley Judd in the wonderful Ruby in Paradise.  He makes films that observe characters and their world and he found the best qualities of Peter Fonda as an actor.

Fonda plays Ulee Jackson, a beekeeper on the Florida panhandle, who is caring for two grandchildren while their father is in prison.  Ulee is a quiet man with sad eyes, who works hard and seems to have no patience with those around him.  He is a hard man to get to know and an even harder man to like.  His family is a mess, son Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in prison for robbery, his daughter-in-law Helen (Christine Dunford) is a drug addict and his older granddaughter Casey (Jessica Biel) is a smart-mouthed teenager who dresses like a slut and thinks only of herself.  His only pure relationship is with Penny, his twelve year-old granddaughter who has yet to inherit the family apathy.

Ulee has no interest in correcting any of these problems, they are not his concern.  He is an introvert, a Vietnam war veteran and the only member of his unit to come back alive.  His wife is gone and he seems to have no close relationships outside his family.  “We don’t ask outsiders for help”, he tells Penny.

Then one day Jimmy calls from prison after two years of silence.  He needs Ulee to go and pick up Helen who has fallen into drugs and is staying with Eddie and Ferris, the two men who were his accomplices in the robbery.  He finds the two men living in a run-down flophouse and, sure enough, they have Helen passed out on drugs in their bedroom.  Before leaving with Helen, Eddie informs Ulee that Jimmy has hidden the money from the robbery and that if he doesn’t bring it too them, he and Ferris will go after his granddaughters.

When Ulee brings home the drug-induced Helen, the girls see that their mother is in need of help and break their father’s credo of not asking for outside help by bringing Connie over to help.  She lives across the street, is a nurse who has been twice divorced.  She knows how to help Helen, which unfortunately involved sedatives and restraints.

What comes of this story is not what we expect.  The framework of the story seems to suggest a standard thriller but Nunez is smarter than that.  He allows his characters to be led by the strength of their personalities.  Peter Fonda understands this and plays Ulee with more depth and hidden dimensions than we thought he was capable of portraying.  Ulee has a heart that has been hardened by tragedy and messy family relationships.  He is quiet, stubborn and keeps a distance from those around him.  Yet, he is an honorable man, a man of the old school who believes in the value of hard work and of keeping his word.  He finds something in his bees that is missing from the people around him, an orderly life, a symbiotic relationship that isn’t based on selfish needs.  “You take care of them”, he tells Penny “and they’ll take care of you”.

Best Actress

Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets)
The Nominees: Helena Bonham Carter (The Wings of the Dove), Julie Christie (Afterglow), Judi Dench (Mrs. Brown), Kate Winslet (Titanic)

Pam Grier (Jackie Brown)
y Nominees: Helena Bonham Carter (The Wings of the Dove), Julie Christie (Afterglow), Judi Dench (Mrs. Brown), Jodie Foster (Contact), Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy), Jennifer Lopez (Selena), Jurnee Smollett (Eve’s Bayou), Sarah Polly (The Sweet Hereafter), Kate Winslet (Titanic)


For Helen Hunt, Nineteen Ninety-Seven was a very good year. She became the first actress in history to win an Emmy award, a Tony award and an Oscar in the same year. It is hard to dislike her but most people (myself included) were a little baffled about why she won the Oscar for As Good As It Gets.

Hunt did a serviceable job, playing Carol Connelly, a waitress who struggles with her son’s health problems at the same time that she suffers the brutish insults of Jack Nicholson’s obsessive compulsive with whom she shares an awkward relationship. But there’s nothing new here, it’s the same Helen Hunt we’ve seen before in movies and on television and at her Oscar win, even her fellow nominees were a little stumped. I think maybe she won because she was the star of the moment, she was on magazine covers and she was lauded in the press so that by the time the Oscars came around, it may have been hard not to get swept up in the frenzy.

I wish the academy had dug a little deeper and given some recognition to my choice, Pam Grier who made a phenomenal comeback in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown based on the book “Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard. Grier had made her name two decades earlier in blaxploitation film of the 70s in films like Coffy and Foxy Brown, the kinds of films that Tarantino grew up watching. He liked her so much that he changed the name of the character from Jackie Burke to Jackie Brown and changed the character from a white California girl to a middle-aged African-American woman.

As Jackie, Grier gives one of those “we never knew you had it in you” performances, playing a flight attendant who can see 50 just over the horizon. Early in the film, she is picked up by Federal agents and we learn that she once had a nice career but after muling drugs for her pilot husband she made a deal and stayed out of jail. But it kept her from getting work with a reputable company and now she works for Cabo Airlines, a third-rate service with flights from Los Angelas to Mexico.

There’s something in Grier’s eyes that suggests a lifetime of regret. There’s a haggard, weariness and the realization that she knows she’s stuck in this job until she can retire. She still needs money and now she’s working with an arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) to transport money in and out of the country. That’s when the feds pick her up with a bag full of money on her way back home. She goes to jail and is bailed out by Ordell who she quickly learns is ready to retire but needs to cut himself loose from his associates. When he cuts himself loose from his first connection by shooting him in the trunk of his car, she figures she might be next. He has her bailed out by Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman who falls for her the moment he sees her. The moment that Max sees her for the first time is pure magic. There is a look in his eye that is so much more romantic than in most films that prattle on about love.

The scenes between Max and Jackie are some of the most mature and telling of any couple I’ve ever seen. They don’t have a romance in the conventional sense, but it is a meeting of life experience and of intelligence and maturity. Study the scene in which he sits at her kitchen table and they just talk about themselves and you witness the way people really talk.

That scene slowly sets in motion what will happen for the rest of the film. Jackie realizes that she is in Ordell’s cross-hairs and she is on the radar of two ATF agents who are setting her up to recieve his “retirement fund”. Jackie sets up an elaborate scheme to steal the money from Ordell while making off with the money herself. It’s a tricky set-up and if it weren’t for some clever writing and smart characters we wouldn’t believe a word of it. We sense what Jackie already knows, that the people who are plotting against her are desperate and murderous but aren’t very bright. Of the ATF, she sees two man who love their jobs and have a mindset that stays within those borders.

But robbing the ATF and a dangerous criminal at the same time sounds impossible, even laughable. Grier has a moment before her plan goes into motion where she talks to Max and says

There’s a weariness in Grier’s eyes as she embodies this woman who’s whole life is a mess. She knows that what she faces in retirement is worse than what she faces with Ordell. We realize what is at stake early in the film as she lays out her situation to Max: “I’ve flown seven million miles. And I’ve been waiting on people almost 20 years. The best job I could get after my bust was Cabo Air, which is the worst job you can get in this industry. I make about sixteen thousand, with retirement benefits that ain’t worth a damn. And now with this arrest hanging over my head, I’m scared. If I lose my job I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with. I’ll be stuck with whatever I can get. And that shit is scarier than Ordell.”

To watch Pam Grier in this performance is not just to watch a piece of the plot but a three-dimentional character who lives with a sad history and risks her life to establish herself a retirement that is more than just time and heartache. I wish the academy voters had seen it that way and rewarded her work, I wish they could have appreciated all that she brought to the role, looked at their ballots and realized that this performance is as good as it gets.

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