by David Krauss
Over the past three weeks, we've examined Best Picture winners from the 1920s and 1930s, the 1940s and 1950s, and the 1960s and 1970s. This week, we turn our attention to the 1980s, the decade of big hair, shoulder pads, leg warmers, Reaganomics, Iran-Contra, Cabbage Patch Kids, the Reebok Pump, 'Dallas,' and 'Dynasty.' Everything was big in '80s, and movies were no exception. This was the beginning of huge budgets and astronomical salaries, of blockbuster sci-fi and action flicks. Gory slasher films courted teen viewers, while sprawling epics and the quiet sophistication of Merchant and Ivory captivated their parents. The era would spawn 10 Best Picture winners. Nine are currently available on Blu-ray, and they are…
'Chariots of Fire' (1981) – Some have called the anointment of 'Chariots of Fire' as Best Picture the biggest travesty in Oscar history, but I disagree. While Hugh Hudson's beautifully filmed, veddy veddy British account of how two runners from vastly different backgrounds overcome considerable odds to become Olympic champions in 1924 certainly stands as one of the Academy's most unexpected winners, the inspiring story, sophisticated presentation, and thoughtful performances make the movie worthy of the honor. Sure, 'Reds' possesses that sweeping, epic feel, and 'On Golden Pond' tugs at the heart strings, but 'Chariots of Fire' celebrates the human spirit and steadfast commitment to core ideals in such a poetic, forthright manner, it easily wins our favor. And more than 30 years later, despite the trivialization of Vangelis' instantly recognizable and Oscar-winning score, it still delivers the goods.
'Gandhi' (1982) – Give me a man in drag over a barefoot, impassioned religious leader any day of the week. Though I recognize the importance of this politically relevant, stunningly filmed, well-acted (except for a miscast Candice Bergen), yet hopelessly bloated biopic directed by Richard Attenborough and featuring an amazing performance by Ben Kingsley in the difficult title role (both men won Oscars), what can I say? My heart will always belong to 'Tootsie.' 'Gandhi' is grand Hollywood moviemaking in the David Lean tradition, but despite chronicling the triumphs, hardships, and far-reaching influence of one of the world's most fascinating figures, this production leaves me cold. Long, indulgent, and at times heavy-handed, 'Gandhi' the film and Gandhi the man earn our admiration, but not our heart, and without the deep emotional connection that distinguishes the other four Best Picture nominees ('Tootsie,' 'The Verdict,' 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,' and 'Missing'), it's tough to fully embrace this finely crafted yet sterile motion picture, despite its eight Academy Awards.
'Terms of Endearment' (1983) – Maybe as a backlash from the previous year, Oscar went small in 1983, honoring this intensely emotional, often bitingly funny portrait of a close yet volatile mother-daughter relationship. Shirley MacLaine won the Best Actress Oscar for arguably her best film performance as the vain, domineering, proper yet bawdy, and completely devoted Aurora Greenway, who helps her fiercely independent daughter (Debra Winger, also Oscar nominated) navigate the turbulent tides of her troubled yet satisfying life. Jack Nicholson won his second Academy Award (this time in the supporting category) for his alternately uproarious and touching portrayal of the man who cracks Aurora's shell, and writer-director James L. Brooks received a pair of statuettes for his screenplay and direction. Often criticized for the 180-degree turn it takes during its final quarter, 'Terms of Endearment' aptly reflects the unpredictability of life, and depicts its joys and sorrows with incisive humor and boundless warmth.
'Amadeus' (1984) – It was a riveting, intimate, Tony Award-winning play on Broadway, but when transferred to the screen by Milos Forman (who took home that year's Best Director Oscar), 'Amadeus' evolved into an opulent, grandiose period epic. Sumptuous sets and costumes, an engrossing story, masterful performances, and, most of all, some of the most beautiful music ever written distinguish this fascinating film, which chronicles the real or imagined rivalry between perhaps the world's greatest musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), and journeyman composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), whose fanatical jealousy drives him to despair…and worse. Abraham was justly awarded the Best Actor prize for his deliciously droll and devious portrayal, and the movie also was cited for its adapted screenplay, art direction-set decoration, costume design, sound, and makeup. You don't have to love classical music to love 'Amadeus,' but after watching this impeccably mounted, gloriously scored production, you will.
'Out of Africa' (1985) – "I had a farm in Ahhfrica…" So says Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep), a Danish author and plantation owner who wrote under the nom de plume Isak Dinesen and documented her experiences living in the Dark Continent. This romanticized account of those years focuses on Blixen's unhappy marriage of convenience to a serial philanderer (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and passionate affair with the detached, free-spirited adventurer, Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford at his wooden, emotionless worst). Streep's bravura performance (which includes, of course, another flawless accent) and the wild, breathtakingly beautiful African scenery inject just enough life into this plodding, talky tale to make it bearable. After two prior nominations (for 'Tootsie' and 'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?'), Sydney Pollack at last won a Best Director Oscar, and the film also was honored for its adapted screenplay, lush cinematography, art direction-set decoration, sound, and majestic music score.
'Platoon' (1986) – After the controversies surrounding the accuracy of the Vietnam War's depiction in 'The Deer Hunter' and 'Apocalypse Now,' director Oliver Stone – himself a controversial figure – sought to tell the real story of the conflict through the eyes of the men who fought and died. The result was the hard-hitting 'Platoon,' based in part on Stone's own experiences as an infantryman, and though this film, too, endured its share of controversy and criticism, it remains a perceptive – albeit harrowing – look at innocence lost, idealism betrayed, and how the forces of good and evil converged and clashed in the jungles of Southeast Asia. In addition to Stone's Best Director Oscar, the movie was honored for its sound and editing, and features excellent performances from a young Charlie Sheen (before he became a caricature), as well as Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger, both of whom received nominations for Best Supporting Actor.
'The Last Emperor' (1987) – Though not the longest Best Picture winner of the decade (that distinction goes to the 191-minute 'Gandhi'), Bernardo Bertolucci's grand historical chronicle of the brief reign and protracted downfall of China's final royal ruler continues the '80s trend of butt-busting epics, clocking in at a hefty 163 minutes. Yet unlike the portrait of the legendary Indian ruler, this film thrills the senses in almost every regard and tells a little-known, exotic, and altogether fascinating tale in an episodic fashion that keeps us transfixed throughout. 'The Last Emperor' received nine Academy Award nominations and won all nine awards – a rare feat in Oscar history, especially for a film with so many nominations. Though shut out of the acting categories, the movie's outstanding technical achievements were justly rewarded. Bertolucci received the Best Director prize, and other honors included adapted screenplay, cinematography, art direction-set decoration, costume design, sound, editing, and original score.
'Rain Man' (1988) – This emotionally charged but largely saccharine-free tale of two long-lost yet vastly different brothers – one (Dustin Hoffman) is an autistic savant and the other (Tom Cruise) a self-centered, greedy, and resentful jerk – who come to terms during a rollicking cross-country road trip wormed its way into moviegoers' hearts and won four Oscars, including Best Director (Barry Levinson), Best Original Screenplay, and a second Best Actor award for Hoffman. Touching, funny, and inspiring, 'Rain Man' is all about personal development, and it works because of the exceptional Hoffman-Cruise chemistry and sensitive, straightforward presentation by Levinson, who makes the film more of a buddy movie than a clinical chronicle of a disability. Memorable lines ("I'm an excellent driver") and situations abound, but it's the gradual bonding of two disparate souls that lends this memorable motion picture its resonance and grace.
'Driving Miss Daisy' (1989) – Just as the performances in 'Rain Man' lofted that film to the Best Picture prize, so too do the memorable and finely etched portrayals in the simple yet affecting 'Driving Miss Daisy.' And just as 'Rain Man' focuses on the developing bond between two brothers, 'Driving Miss Daisy' chronicles the two-decade relationship between a rich, bigoted Jewish widow (Jessica Tandy) and her devoted black chauffeur (Morgan Freeman), and how barriers of race, class, and religion slowly break down over time, allowing an abiding friendship to develop. Adapted from a hit Broadway play, the movie addresses prejudice and tolerance within the framework of the Civil Rights Movement, yet any strongly telegraphed messages take a back seat to the marvelous acting on display. Tandy, who at age 80 became the oldest performer to win an Academy Award, was named Best Actress for her wonderfully nuanced work, and both Freeman and Dan Aykroyd, as Tandy's son, received well-deserved nominations. Director Bruce Beresford was snubbed by the Academy (Oliver Stone took home his second Oscar for 'Born on the Fourth of July'), but the film did garner awards for its adapted screenplay and makeup. Ironically, the final Best Picture winner of the big '80s was a small movie, but it was a popular choice.
Best Picture Winners of the 1980s Not Yet Available on Blu-ray:
'Ordinary People' (1980)
Best Picture Nominees of the 1980s Available on Blu-ray:
'Coal Miner's Daughter' (1980)
'The Elephant Man' (1980)
'Raging Bull' (1980)
'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981)
'The Verdict' (1982)
'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial' (1982)
'The Right Stuff' (1983)
'A Soldier's Story' (1984)
'A Passage to India' (1984)
'The Killing Fields' (1984)
'Kiss of the Spider Woman' (1985)
'The Color Purple' (1985)
'The Mission' (1986)
'A Room With a View' (1986)
'Hannah and Her Sisters' (1986)
'Fatal Attraction' (1987)
'Broadcast News' (1987)
'Dangerous Liaisons' (1988)
'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)
'Dead Poets Society' (1989)
'Field of Dreams' (1989)
Next week: The 1990s