Armchair Oscars – 1998

Best Picture

Shakespeare in Love (Directed by John Madden)
The Nominees: ElizabethLa Vita e BellaSaving Private RyanThe Thin Red Line

Happiness (Directed by Todd Solondz)
My Nominees: Affliction (Paul Schrader), Elizabeth (Shekar Kapur), High Art (Lisa Cholodenko), La Vita e Bella (Roberto Benigni), Pleasantville (Gary Ross), Primary Colors (Mike Nichols), Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg), A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi), The Truman Show (Peter Weir), Waking Ned Devine (Kirk Jones)

, 1998-Happiness

There was a war going on in Hollywood as the 71st Annual Academy Awards geared up and it was over reasons that had nothing to do with artistic merit. Two films about the Elizabethan era took on three films about World War II and used their multi-million dollar Oscar campaigns as their ammunition. The Prize: Best Picture.

Astoundingly, the winner was Miramax’s willowy romance Shakespeare in Love (which had more money thrown into its campaign than any other movie in history) over Steven Spielberg’s far superior Saving Private Ryan. The argument will rage for generations over which film deserved the top award but I recently sat down and watched both films back to back, I think the academy was wrong. I liked Shakespeare in Love, I appreciated its loveliness and its ingenuity but Saving Private Ryan touched me more deeply. Both are fine films but while one is a simple bittersweet romance the other is an astounding ode to the sacrifice of my grandfather’s generation. Had it not been for the mega-million dollar ad campaign, the voters would have agreed.

Not to sound like a hypocrite but watching both films again I realized that even if they had made the right choice, I still wouldn’t agree with them. That’s because I followed both films with Todd Solondz’s Happiness. In the game of word association, I equate Happiness with the word “challenging” and it is challenging even to those who appreciate it. Solondz’s film isn’t out to be loved, it’s out to be a sock in the gut to our sanctimonious moral fibers and exposes the kinds of people who keep “American Justice”, “Jerry Springer”, “The National Enquirer” and Ken Starr alive and kicking.

The movie is a mosaic of the despicable, low-lifes who live happily among us, but delve into their unholy pleasures, petty problems and crimes behind closed doors. We meet Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-effacing loser whose mind is a flurry of pornographic fantasies that he describes to his psychiatrist. He doesn’t appear to have any real connection with anyone outside his wall of self-pity. He drinks, he masturbates into porn magazines and makes sexually threatening phone calls. His psychiatrist Bill (Dylan Baker) is a pederast who turns a bowl of birthday ice cream into the weapon of a sexual predator. We meet Joy (Jane Adams) who is suffering the brunt of breaking up with her loser boyfriend. We meet Bill’s wife, Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), the happy housewife who lives in her domestic bliss, completely unaware of her husband’s pedophilia. We neet Joy’s sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) who is happiest when she is bragging about the men who want her and gets excited when she becomes one of Allen’s phone victims. Then there is Joy’s father (Ben Gazzara) who, after years of marital stalemate decides that it is time to move on – not for fresher pastures but just to have some solitude. There’s Kristina (Camryn Manheim) Allen’s neighbor, a lonely overweight spinster who panics and murders the sexually over-zealous doorman then tries to dispose of the corpse piece by piece.

The common denominator here is sexual pervertion, depraved, degenerated, dehumanized. These unhappy inhabitants are completely devoid of the social rules that keep the rest of us from being sexual barbarians. That’s what they are in their own sordid way. They are blinded to the common practice of empathy in the face of selfish shameful sexual adventures. But this is not about breaking taboos so much as it is about exposing those who cross the line. They missed Jackie Gleason’s legendary advice: “You can think about it . . . but don’t do it

The most fascinating hat-trick that Solonz performs is the way he slowly unravels the connection between these people. Allen wants to bed Helen, his neighbor who doesn’t know that he is the source of the obscene phone calls. Helen holds her success over the heads of two sisters Joy and Trish, and we watch their interaction with each other as their parents marriage crumbles. Trish’s husband is Allen’s psychiatrist, . They all seem to live inside a bubble.

Solonz is able to connect these people without dejecting them. He doesn’t exploit but exposes them for the shallow frauds that they are. His most uneasy character is Bill, the pedophile who goes to his son’s little league game and sets his sights on one of the boy’s friends. That leads to one painful moment as he invites the boy over for a sleepover and turns a bowl of ice cream into a sleeping tablet wherein her molests his prey (mercifully, the act itself happens offscreen). When his secret is eventually revealed, it leads to one uneasy scene in which he is forced to explain his depravity to his son. It’s open, it’s honest and we cringe. What is fascinating about Bill is that Solondz hasn’t drawn him as the happy smiling monster of a thousand movies-of-the-week but he’s a pathetic man who buries his secret fetish behind a mask of domestic bliss. His whole demeanor carries the weight of shame and his slow delivery of words exude the tension of a man who is eternally forced to watch his Ps and Qs. When he cracks, the movie doesn’t pity him but asks us to decide what to make of his breakdown.

What works in Happiness is that Solondz stares at his characters but doesn’t stare them down. They have a take-it or leave-it quality that keeps us watching. He never does the thinking for us. We watch the events in these lives unfold but we are asked to make our own judgement. As the characters spiral into the abyss, beginning with Joy’s childishly hilarious breakup the movie spirals deeper and deeper into depravity as the situations and machinations grow darker and more grotesque. From Joy’s romantic troubles, to the porno geek, down to the murder and finally down to the pedofile, Solondz dares us to look into the abyss. And if you doubt that you would be the candidate for voyeurism, ask yourself why “CSI” and “American Justice” and “Forensic Files” are so popular.

Best Actor

Roberto Benigni (
La Vita è bella)
The Nominees: Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), Ian McKellan (Gods and Monsters), Nick Nolte (Affliction), Edward Norton (American History X)

Dennis Quaid (Savior)
My Nominees: Warren Beatty (Bulworth), Roberto Benigni (
La Vita è bella), Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski), Jim Carrey (The Truman Show), Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love), Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), Ian McKellan (Gods and Monsters), Nick Nolte (Affliction), Ian Michael Smith (Simon Birch), John Travolta (A Civil Action), Robin Williams (What Dreams May Come)


For the second year in a row, the Oscar winner for Best Actor came from a comedy. Roberto Benigni became the year’s most unlikely celebrity by writing, directing and starring in the heart-tugging Chaplin-esqe holocaust comedy Life is Beautiful. He was a superstar in his native Italy but was unknown to Americans save for the few who had the misfortune to actually see Son of the Pink Panther. With Life is Beautiful, Benigni became the first actor to be awarded Best Actor for a non-English speaking role. Also, he became the first actor since Lawrence Olivier to direct himself to an acting prize. Upon winning, he created one of the most memorable moments in Oscar history – When Sophia Loren called his name, the Italian clown climbed on the seats, waving his hands and shouting and then began running up and down the aisle.

In Life is Beautiful, Benigni played Guido a Jewish waiter in the midst of the Nazi occupied Italy who never allowed the terror and mayhem to break his gentle spirit. When he goes to the concentration camp he is able to shield his son by convincing him that this is all a big contest and the final reward for staying hidden will be his very own tank.

Benigni is ingenious in the way that he establishes this ruse as a way of shielding his son from the horrors of the death camp to keep the boy’s chin up. There are bold echoes to Chaplin in this movie especially in his performance which shows Benigni using his unique gift for physical comedy – this is the movie that will define him. Yet, if I must carp, it must be on the point that I didn’t find anything really deep in Guido’s character and the ending of the movie seems a little cold. Guido’s son never asks what happened to his father, the film ends with something of a loose end.

At the other end of the spectrum, also in the midst of war (but finding nothing to laugh about) is my choice for Best Actor of 1998, Dennis Quaid in Predrag Antonijevic’s gut-wrenching Savior. If Benigni’s role in Life is Beautiful will define his work, Quaid’s dark turn in this movie should define his. Yet, this is not a movie that many people can sit through especially those drawn to Quaid’s usual charm. Quaid abandons the trademarks that made him a movie star. Gone is the ordinary guy ebullience, the smooth ladies man demeanor and that broad trademark smile. All those things are gone and what we get is probably the most painful and effective character he is ever likely to play.

Quaid plays Joshua Rose who, as the movie pens, is sitting in a Parisian Café with his family when the place is bombed by Muslim terrorists. Joshua’s wife and son are killed. In a rage, he walks down the street to a monastery and murders some Muslims who are in prayer. He disappears, becoming a faceless soldier in the French Foreign Legion, shedding his name and becoming simply known as “Guy”. Six years later we find him fighting in the war between the Serbians against the Bosnians, on the side of the Serbs.

The official record about this conflict tells us that the war was fought over religion but Guy understands that this conflict has less to do with any religious issues and more to do with an animalistic idealism that allows an epidemic of misogyny, cruelty and rape to flourish. He enters a landscape that has adopted an “eye for an eye” mentality that has given rise to a flurry of heartless thugs hiding behind a military uniform (I’m not pointing any fingers I am just going by what is portrayed in this film).

We find that Guy isn’t exactly a saint either. Killing at will with his friend Dominic (Stellan Skarsgaard), Guy uses a sniper rifle to kill a young boy who is out looking for his lost goat. A flashback shows a Bosnian girl with a grenade killing Guy’s best friend. It’s obvious that Guy has given into this senseless revenge nonsense because he blames all Muslims for the death of his wife and child.

There is a turning point to his hatered however. Guy and his fellow soldier Goran (Sergej Trifunovic) detain a Serbian woman (Natasa Ninkovic) that Goran knows and decides to kill. The woman was raped and is now pregnant with a Bosnian child and in Goran’s twisted thinking should be executed for the crime of not killing herself. It is that kind of cold twisted logic that causes Guy’s change of heart. He kills Goran to save the woman’s life. This breaks Guy’s cold exterior. He decides to go against his oath and be a protector instead of marking woman, named Vera an easy target. The only problem is that Vera understands the twisted logic and refuses to nurse her Bosnian child.

There is no romance here though a crowd-pleasing mentality would seem to turn the screenplay in that direction. There is nothing mechancial or phony about the plot of this movie. The nature of the relationship between Guy and Vera is protector and resistor. There is a growing respect that developes between the two but it is severed by an ending that I found shocking. Through it all Quaid remains a broken man, a man whose insides have been gutted and for whom joy and happiness are merely concepts.

Most actors would instantly turn down a role like Guy, but Quaid abandons his public persona in favor of a performance that is haunted and haunting. His body language is a study in frustration and grief and he stays true to the character, he sees in Guy that he has suffered a deep spiritual and emotional wound that cannot be healed. This isn’t one of those soppy movies where the wounded soldier is brought out of his misery by the love of a good woman. In light of the story. Savior is not a fun movie but it is an enlightening one and Quaid is able to give it the right amount of depth and weight. Even in the end, which is not happy in the conventional sense, Guy seems to have been given a ray of hope even if it is only a pin-prick of light in the darkness.

Best Actress

Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love)
The Nominees: Fernanda Montenegro (Central Station), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth), Meryl Streep (One True Thing), Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie)

Ally Sheedy (High Art)
y Nominees: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth), Minnie Driver (The Governess), Lelee Sobieski (A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries)


Out of the ten women who won Best Actress in a Leading Role between 1990 and 1999, only one came from a straight-out comedy.  Unfortunately, it was Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets, one of the least deserving winners in the history of the academy awards.  This lack of affection for comedy on the part of the voting academy is nothing new. They seem to labor under the delusion that drama is harder to do than comedy, that comedy is a lark that doesn’t make for great artistic expression.  When a comic performance is recognized by the academy, it is usually surrounded by darker tones and sophisticated subject matter.

In a movie as lauded as Shakespeare in Love, it stands to reason that the academy wanted to reward the star of the moment. Gwyeneth Paltrow is a good actress, who proved herself before and after this film but there was something of a “swept along” vibe that seemed to follow her win for Best Actress of 1998. It is odd that she was nominated but her co-star Joseph Fiennes was completely ignored. Actually, I think he gave the better performance, giving us a view of the young William Shakespeare, not as a stuffy English lesson, but as a spirited lad whose best work was yet to come.

I think Paltrow won on sheer star power. She was relatively new, a box office draw and she had won the audience’s heart as Viola de Lessups who becomes Shakespeare’s muse and supposedly his inspiration for “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Twelfth Night”. Paltrow does not give an uninteresting performance in Shakespere in Love but it isn’t her best work. For that, you should consult Sliding Doors in which she plays two different versions of the same woman and the delightful Emma, in which she absolutely irresistible. Comparatively, her work in this film seems to lack the originality of those two better performances, which I think define her talent.

Of the nominees, my favorite is Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth. She isn’t just stuffed into a lot of pretty costumes, Blanchett really makes the 16th century monarch come alive, brilliantly conveying the frustrations of the queen who had to learn how to run a country with the power that is suddenly thrust into her hands.

I am always looking for the role that will be the defining role of a performer’s career, and it seems that Blanchett by the point has five or six. Most notible is her brilliant supporting work in Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator – chiefly because she won and Oscar for it – but for me Elizabeth will be her crowning achievement. I was all ready to choose her defining work for my Armchair Oscar but then I was reminded of a performance from 1998 that completely blindsided me. I don’t understand why the academy ignored Ally Sheedy for her work in the art house hit High Art but I am here to correct that blunder.

In Lisa Cholodenko’s wonderful character study, Sheedy plays Lucy, a once-great photographer who made a name for herself a decade ago but disappeared into and a circle of friends bound by the constant pursuit of heroine. Watching her home life, one is left to ask if she is hooked on drugs or if her career was sidelined by her stubborn devotion to her narcoleptic lover Greta (Patricia Clarkson). We sense right away that Lucy has lived a life in light and in darkness. She is thin, pale, a chain-smoker and attaches herself to Greta, which makes for a relationship that can make for a great discussion in film class. Greta is a heroine addict, Lucy is a lesbian. We don’t sense that Lucy would be a heroine addict without Greta and personally I never sense that Greta was a lesbian but stays with Lucy to have someone to hang on to for support. It is a love affair but not in the usual sense, it comes out of mutual need more than sex appeal. Their personal moments are defined by little touches as when Greta falls asleep just as Lucy is warming her up for sex.

Into Lucy’s life comes Syd (Radha Mitchell), her downstairs neighbor who drops by to ask why her ceiling is leaking and recognizes Lucy’s photographs. Syd is trying to further her career at Frame magazine and pitches the idea of publishing some of Lucy’s work. We correctly guess that it won’t take long before the line separating business and pleasure is erased and Syd and Lucy are drawn to one another, but we aren’t prepared for how the movie will handle the affair. This isn’t one of those tired melodramas where discoveries are made and feelings are hurt, this is a mature film that asks where love and loyalties lie. When Syd and Lucy finally have sex it is as clumsy and awkward as real life.

Their relationship works but I was more interested in Lucy’s connection with Greta. Lucy is a study in dependence but we wonder if Greta needs Lucy or the other way around. There are small details of their lives tucked in the corner of their apartment and in their dialogue. They epitomize my feeling that the best characters in the movies are those that we can believe had a life before the camera started rolling. Lucy and Greta are both drug addicts and I see them as a study in addiction and co-dependence. They don’t seem to have a conventional relationship but one made of ups, downs, parties, hangovers, sex, drugs, dropping in and passing out. In the end their relationship doesn’t seem to have grown or shrunk, it circles around and falls right back where it started.

The trick to Sheedy’s performance is that Lucy looks weathered and well-seasoned. We don’t feel that she is just a character that exists for the camera. The ending allows her a life-goes-on quality and it doesn’t cheat. My feeling is that it would have been outside her nature to make the change that we were expecting. This is a complete character who lives and breathes.

The opening sentence of Ally Sheedy’s epitaph is going to begin with four words: “Brat Pack” and “Breakfast Club” but for me she is going to be remembered for a role in which she put her teen image behind her and really took a chance to create a real character, the best kind, one with a past, a present and a very questionable future.

Year by Year Reviews | What is this? | Contact | Home

Home | What is all this? | Contact Me

2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998 | 1997 | 1996 | 1995 | 1994 | 1993 | 1992 | 1991 | 1990 | 1989 | 1988 | 1987 | 1986 | 1985 | 1984 | 1983 | 1982 | 1981 | 1980 | 1979 | 1978 | 1977 | 1976 | 1975 | 1974 | 1973 | 1972 | 1971 | 1970 | 1969 | 1968 | 1967 | 1966 | 1965 | 1964 | 1963 | 1962 | 1961 | 1960 | 1959 | 1958 | 1957 | 1956 | 1955 | 1954 | 1953 | 1952 | 1951 | 1950 | 1949 | 1948 | 1947 | 1946 | 1945 | 1944 | 1943 | 1942 | 1941 | 1940 | 1939 | 1938 | 1937 | 1936 | 1935 | 1934 | 1932-33 | 1931-32 | 1930-31 | 1929-30 | 1928-29 | 1927-28 |