1982 – Tootsie

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Tootsie – 1982

Suspension of disbelief is the name of the game when it comes to Tootsie.  If I didn’t ignore the elephant in the room, I would have never enjoyed the film.  Why? Because the whole premise of the movie is that an actor who cannot find work decides to dress as a woman, and when he does, he becomes a successful actress.  But nobody in a million years would ever have believed that Dustin Hoffman was a woman.

But I get it.  Be that as it may, there wouldn’t have been a movie if the rest of the characters didn’t believe that he was a woman.  And at least they made reference to the fact that he was not an attractive woman.  In addition to that, the film was not really about the cross-dressing, anyway.  I mean, it was, but not really.  The movie was a social commentary about sexism and the role of women in society and the work place.  It was also a bit of a farce, poking fun at the acting profession, and the challenges of acting in soap operas.  The cross-dressing was just the plot device that was used to make those points.

Hoffman played the out of work actor, Michael Dorsey.  He, like many actors, is a waiter who also teaches acting.  He is egotistical, opinionated, and self-absorbed.  He has earned a reputation as an actor who is difficult to work with because he takes his craft too seriously.  He believes that he knows how to play a role better than the director, and thus refuses to take direction.  For example, a story is told of how he was hired to be a tomato in a commercial, but when the director told him to move, he refused to do it, saying that tomatoes can’t move.

His casual girlfriend, Sandy, played by Teri Garr, is annoying and I often just wanted her to go away.  But her character was important because after Michael puts on the dress and the wig and gets a job on a daytime drama, he sees how women are treated.  He begins to fall in love with his female costar, Julie, played by Jessica Lang, though she is casually seeing the show’s director, Ron, played by Dabney Coleman.  He doesn’t like how Ron treats Julie, but eventually realizes that he is treating Sandy in the very same way.

The movie was a comedy, though none of the actors played it as one.  In fact, Hoffman was quoted as saying that he didn’t think the movie was a comedy at all.  But funny things did happen.  Even Bill Murray, a man famous for his comedic roles, playing Michael’s roommate, Jeff, played his part pretty straight.  Maybe it was a little predictable at times because some of the plot elements have all been done before, but things were done in an amusing and more modern way.

For instance, Michael is dressed as his alter ego, Dorothy Michaels, and after an intimate moment with Julie, he tries to kiss her.  Julie is shocked and horrified, and begins to believe that Dorothy is a lesbian.  Knowing that her father, Les, played by Charles Durning, is in love with Dorothy, Julie tells her that she has to confess her sexuality to him.  Some of the comedic dialogue was wonderfully witty, and I imagine it must have been difficult for the actors to spit it all out correctly.

Michael says, “You should have seen the look on her face when she thought I was a lesbian.”  To which his agent, George, played by Sidney Pollack, who was also the film’s director and producer, replies, “Lesbian?  You just said gay.”  “No, no, no,” says Michael.  “Sandy thinks I’m gay, Julie thinks I’m a lesbian.”  “I thought Dorothy was supposed to be straight.”  “Dorothy IS straight.  Tonight Les, the sweetest, nicest man in the world asked me to marry him.”  “A guy named Les wants YOU to marry him?”  “No, no, no – he wants to marry Dorothy.”  “Does he know she’s a lesbian?”  “Dorothy’s NOT a lesbian.”  “I know that.  Does HE know that?”  “Know WHAT?”  “That, er, I… I don’t know.”  Very clever.

Tootsie was a good movie because it did a good job of looking at sexism and doing it in a funny way.  It had some good acting and some tender, heart-felt moments that weren’t too sappy.  And it had some good things to say.  I liked that Dorothy’s success as an actress came from her refusal to play the stereotype of a weak-willed woman who allowed herself to be sexualized and victimized by the men around her, both on the soap, and in her personal life.   And I liked Michael’s character arc as he, through being a woman, gained a greater understanding and empathy for them.  It was a very cleverly written script.  Well done, everybody!

1982 – Missing

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Missing – 1982

This movie was mildly interesting, though I have a feeling it was much more topical in 1982.  It was a semi-political drama that was based on real events.  The story was set in the Chilean coup of 1973.  American journalist, Charles Horman, played by John Shea, lives in the city of Santiago with his wife, Beth, played by Sissy Spacek.  The two enjoy a happy life together until the coup d’état.

The military police take over everything, slaughtering anyone suspected of opposing the new government.  American citizens believed themselves to be safe.  But when Americans started disappearing as well, all bets seemed to be off.  Charles was among the missing, and the majority of the movie is about his father, Edmund, played by Jack Lemon and Beth’s search to find him, alive or dead.

They try to go through the officials at the US Embassy but get very few answers.  They get the feeling they are being driven in circles and given the runaround.  They begin their own investigation, interviewing friends and neighbors.  Eventually they begin to believe that the US Government was involved in Charles’ arrest and, as they eventually discover, his execution.

There was some interesting story-telling as we follow them in their search, but there was also some good drama as we follow the tense relationship between Edmund and Beth.  Edmund starts out as an old fashioned guy who believes in the infallibility of his own government.  It quickly becomes clear that Edmund disapproves not only of his son’s choice of career, but of his choice of wife, and his choice of where to live.  He and Beth star out arguing with each other about nearly everything.  But the character undergoes a major shift in beliefs by the end of the film, as he is ready to sue the US government and its Chilean representatives.

Lemon did a very good job and I have to give him proper credit.  I am only used to seeing him in comedic roles, but there was nothing comedic about his part in Missing.  Spacek also did a good job.  I’ve always thought that she is an actress that has a very meek and fragile look, and I am consistently pleasantly surprised when I see her portray strong characters with backbone and bravery.

But I have to mention one thing about the film that I was not impressed with.  The score.  Now I know my opinion might not be a popular one, but Vangelis is insufferable!  This film score was slow and unmoving, just like his award winning score for 1981’s Chariots of Fire.  The plodding and surrealistic use of slow and ominous electronic tone clusters failed to impress me.  I don’t get why everyone is so impressed with his style.

As with all films based on a true story, I did my research to find out just how accurately the story was told.  Apparently, it was pretty accurate on most counts.  According to the film, the poor guy was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He had a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant who happened to be a CIA operative, Andrew Babcock, played by Richard Bradford, who was very loose-lipped about the United States’ involvement in setting up and fomenting the coup d’état.  He heard too much and the GOC, the Government of Chile, had him killed because he “knew too much”.  But the worst part is that the CIA knew that Horman had been targeted by the GOC and turned a blind eye, knowing that his death would also serve their own interests.  Then when an investigation was done, they did everything in their power to block the investigation, flatly denying any US involvement.  My research doesn’t dispute any of this.

And lest I forget, I have to make honorable mention of two actors who each played their parts well.  Two people in Beth and Charlie’s circle of friends were Frank Teruggi and David Holloway, played by Joe Regalbuto and Keith Szarabajka.  Teruggi is also an American journalist who suffers the same fate as Horman.  The two actors both did their jobs well.

The film was engaging and the investigation was easy to follow.  The direction by Greek filmmaker, Costa-Gavras, did a good job building the tension and making the plot easy to identify with.  Maybe it was a little slow, but even that wasn’t too bad.  I’d say that it was a good enough film, though nothing I’ll be running out to watch again.

1982 – E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial

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E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – 1982

It has been many years since I have seen E.T. Not only was this great science fiction, it was a touching and heart-warming story.  Director, Stephen Spielberg, is at the top of his game.  The film was a world-wide phenomenon that was, at the time, the highest grossing film ever, having taken the spot from 1977’s Star Wars, until it was dethroned by another Spielberg film in 1993, Jurassic Park.

The story was engaging and the fantastical sci-fi special effects were amazing for their time.  Most of the main cast was made up of children, making the acting surprisingly wonderful.  Henry Thomas played the lead as Elliot, a 10 year old boy who befriends an alien from outer-space that is stranded in a California forest.  The adorable alien, eventually named E.T., is actually a botanist, and has a number of magical abilities.

He has telekinesis, telepathy, empathic powers, and healing powers.  He also seems to be incredibly intelligent and physically agile.  That last one may be a stretch, considering his tiny legs and his squat shape.  But remember, there were several times in the film where he is running through the forest, fast enough to evade his pursuers.

But it is his empathic powers that made him so interesting.  He quickly develops an empathic bond with Elliot so strong that the boy begins to not only feel his feelings, but his life force seems to be tied in to that of the alien.  The first sign of this is seen within the first 24 hours of their relationship.  When Elliot is looking into the refrigerator to find food for E.T. to eat, E.T. is in the bedroom, looking through Elliot’s things.  When the alien is frightened by the opening of a spring-loaded umbrella, the boy feels his fear and is left breathless.

Henry Thomas was fantastic for such a young actor.  He was so very believable in his portrayal of a young boy who falls in love with a new pet, which is almost how he treated E.T. in the beginning.  But it was fascinating to see how, as the psychic bond grew stronger, Elliot would speak of himself and the alien as one being, using the word “we” instead of “I”.  And this fact was not lost on his older brother, Michael, played by Robert MacNaughton.  His younger sister, Gertie, played by Drew Barrymore in her first big-screen role, treated him as a live doll.

Their mother, a recently divorced woman named Mary, played by Dee Wallace, was pretty clueless of E.T.’s existence until the emotional climax of the film.  And I love the way that whole scene was played out.  E.T. has grown sick and is dying, and because of the psychic connection, Elliot is dying as well.  When Mary walks in and sees the two lying on the bathroom floor, her first reaction is not to fall in love with the creature.  When the alien calls her Mom, she grabs her children and tries to get them away from a potentially dangerous animal.

But just then, the character known only as “Keys” arrives with the government agents who have been searching for E.T. since the beginning of the movie.  His character’s name is never revealed, but he is played by Peter Coyote.  Mary has the dying Elliot in her arms and is trying to get out of the house.  Suddenly, a man in a space suit blocks her way at the front door, walking into the house with his arms extended like a monster.  She turns and runs to the back door, only to find another man in a space suit.  But then another creepy space suit man starts thrusting his arms through the window blinds, as if he is trying to climb in through the window.  Why?  The only reason I can think of is that it made the home invasion seem even scarier… like they actually are being attacked by a bunch of zombies.

The part where E.T. is dying and is breaking the connection with Elliot was, for me, the emotional climax of the film.  Elliot’s cries of “Don’t leave me!” are just heart-wrenching, even more so than their emotional goodbye before E.T. gets on his space ship to go home.

Just as an interesting note, I occurs to me that the symbiotic emotional bond between E.T. and Elliot seems just a little more… odd, when you consider that Elliot is a 10 year old child, while E.T. is, presumably, an intelligent and emotionally mature adult of his species.  It makes me wonder which one of them was the “pet” and which one was the loving “owner”.  Think about it.

1981 – Reds

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Reds – 1981

This was a well-made movie.  There is no doubt about that.  However, a lot of it went over my head.  I have never been a very political person.  I’ll be honest.  Talk of politics and political history have always bored me.  I have never understood much about the American Communist Party or their ideals, nor have I ever cared to.  But that is what about 80% of this movie is about.  The other 20% is about the romance between the main protagonist and his wife.

The movie also felt like a political vehicle for Warren Beatty.  He was the movie’s screenwriter, producer, Director, and lead actor.  He was obviously very passionate about the subject matter, and he made a movie that was technically a marvel.  It was structured in a very clever and insightful way.  The acting was first rate.  The sets and costumes, as well as the set design and cinematography, were incredibly detailed and realistic.  I just wish I understood half of what was being said.

But I understood the romance.  I understood the love story.  The film starts out as the lead character, John “Jack” Reed, played by Beatty, meets the love of his life, Louise Bryant, played by Diane Keaton.  The two actors had a good on-screen chemistry, which made sense since they were a couple in real life.  Jack is a passionate journalist and political activist and Louise is a passionate journalist, though she seems to have little interest in politics.

The characters and the movie’s plot are based on real historical people and events.  The two had a difficult relationship as Jack was constantly leaving Louise to fight for idealistic political causes.  He was a brilliant journalist and an inspiring speaker.  His views tended toward counter-culture, and anti-establishment sentiments, which occasionally landed him in jail.  He was a firm believer in unions and the rights of the working class.

After the two meet, they start an affair, move to Greenwich Village in New York, and then to an artist’s community in Provincetown Massachusetts to focus on their writing.  They become friends with Emma Goldman, an anarchist and author, wonderfully played by Jean Stapleton, and poet/playwright Eugene O’Neill, played by Jack Nicholson.  During Jack’s absence at a Communist Labor Party labor strike, Louise has an affair with O’Neill.  She abruptly ends the affair upon Jack’s return.

The two marry, but Louise leaves him when he suggest that he has had casual affairs after the marriage.  She goes to Europe as a war correspondent.  Jack finds that he really loves her so he eventually goes to find her.  The two then go to Russia to cover the fall of the Czarist Empire and the events of the 1917 Revolution.  They move back to America but are parted again when Jack returns to Russia as a political activist.  He is imprisoned in Finland and his health deteriorates.

To make a long story short, Louise risks her life and her freedom to find him.  They are finally reunited just before his failing health claims his life.  The love story was understandable.  I didn’t really get all the political dogma that was being touted.  As a matter of fact, the last 45 minutes or so of the nearly three and a half hour movie was just gibberish – Jack standing in front of large crowds of people who didn’t speak English.  He was shouting, the crowds were shouting, and I couldn’t even understand was being said, let alone what they were speaking about.

But there was one aspect of the film that was really genius: the Witnesses.  All of the film’s exposition was wonderfully provided by a large group of really old men and women.  They were real people who had known the real Jack Reed and Louise Bryant.  They were interviewed in the style of a simple documentary, but the footage was spread out, inserted into key transitional moments in the narrative to set the scenes in a really fascinating way.  They gave first hand commentary, not only on Reed and Bryant, but on the events of the times.  The offered real and sometimes differing opinions on the couple, their friends, and their tumultuous relationship.  I have to really give Warren Beatty credit for such a great plot device.

It is interesting to note that Beatty, Keaton, Nicholson, and Stapleton were all nominated for Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress, though only Stapleton took home an Oscar for her performance.  Beatty got one, but for Best Director.

1981 – Raiders of the Lost Ark

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Raiders of the Lost Ark – 1981

This was a great movie.  It was fun and smart.  It was a fantasy that had great action, great villains, an awesome protagonist, an awesome plot, a sense of humor, and fantastic special effects.  Sure, I would have loved to see Raiders of the Lost Arc win the Award for Best Picture, but I know why it didn’t win.  Unfortunately, the Academy rarely takes action, adventure movies seriously.  It’s as if they think that movies like this are for kids because they don’t have any deep drama.

 Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones, a character that is so popular that he has become a staple of pop culture.  He is an archeologist that specializes in ancient civilizations and the occult.  But whereas most archeologists spend their time in the field, patiently digging or excavating a particular site, Jones spends his time stealing ancient artifacts from forbidden Peruvian temples or digging up buried treasure from Egyptian tombs.  His adventures require weapons like a gun or his trusty bullwhip. 

 He has a nefarious rival who will stop at nothing to obtain mythical prizes they are both after.  He is Rene Belloq, played by Paul Freeman.  Jones is contacted by the U.S. government and told that the Nazis are looking for, and believe they are close to finding the biblical Ark of the Covenant.  If Hitler gets the Ark, He and his armies will be invincible.  They hire Jones to find it first.

 And there’s the setup.  Sounds simple, right?  And in reality, it is.  But the adventure plays out in such a fun and interesting way, like a video game with a linear plot.  First you find the headpiece to the Staff of Ra.  Then you find someone to interpret the markings on it.  Then you go to the Map Room in the buried City of Tanis which is near Cairo.  Then you plant the staff in the proper hole in the floor at the right time of day to learn where the Well of the Souls is.  Then you get into the ancient tomb.  Doesn’t is sound like a kid’s fantasy?

 Sure it does, but that’s part of what makes it so fun.  And we also get to meet some wonderful characters along the way.  Karen Allen plays Marion Ravenwood, one of Indiana’s old flames who has the headpiece.  Salah, played by John Rhys-Davies, is his friend in Cairo who knows someone who can interpret the markings on the headpiece.  But the villains are just as awesome.  The Nazis, of course, are always great bad guys.  Wolf Kahier plays Colonel Dietrich, the ruthless man behind Hitler’s search for the Ark.  And the best bad guy of all, Major Arnold Toht, played by Ronald Lacey.  He is an interrogator for the Gestapo.  He is physically creepy and evil the core.  And then there is Belloq who is hired by the Nazis.  Such a great cast of characters.

 And then, of course, there is Jones, Himself.  He is handsome, smart, physically fit, and bold.  He is also dashing and witty, and charming.  Ford plays him perfectly, though the part was first offered to Tom Selleck.  Can you imagine?  I also loved Rhys-Davies as Sallah.  He was likable, loyal, and a great side-kick for Jones.  Karen Allen did a great job as his love interest and partner.  I like that she was not a damsel in distress who constantly needed to be rescued.  She was a tough woman who could take care of herself.

 The special effects were spectacular!  In the film’s climactic scene.  The Nazis have captured Jones, Marion, and the Ark.  They take it to a secret island where Belloq plans to open the Ark and claim its power for himself. Dietrich and Toht are with him.  The Ark is opened and the bad guys get more than they bargained for.  Angelic spirits come out of the Ark and destroy all the Nazi’s video and recording equipment.  But then their beautiful faces turn horrific as they reveal themselves as Angels of Death.  Then the wrath of God himself comes out in the form of a pillar of fire that kills all the Nazis.  Dietrich’s head shrivels to a withered husk, Toht’s face melts from his skull, and Belloq’s head explodes!

 Such an exciting scene!  Such an exciting movie!  And it was all enhance by a fantastic and memorable score by the master, himself, John Williams.  Who can forget that wonderful and thrilling main title theme?  But for me, the magic of this movie’s music is the majestic and yet creepy music played whenever the Ark of the Covenant is discussed or shown.  Such great film music!  This is the kind of movie that was just plain and simple fun for the whole family.

1981 – On Golden Pond

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On Golden Pond – 1981

This was a sweet movie.  It had some pretty big name actors, all of whom did a fantastic job creating likeable and realistic characters.  It had a beautifully lush and gorgeous score and some pretty amazing cinematography.  But on the flip side, it was very slow.  It made no bones about taking its own sweet time.  And the drama, while it was certainly present, was fairly shallow.  All these things added up to produce a film that, while well made, was a little bland.

The two biggest names in the film were Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda.  But not far behind them were Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman.  Joining them to round out the cast was a young 15 year old Doug McKeon.  The movie revolved around the theme of getting old and dealing with the unfortunate side effects of old age like the loss of memory and health.  But it also dealt with damaged relationships as well as sweet and loving ones.

Henry Fonda played Norman Thayer, a man who is turning 80 years old.  He is crotchety and cantankerous, which is a cover for a sweet and loving husband and father.  He seems to have a preoccupation with death which is growing ever closer.  Hepburn plays his wife Ethel.  She is nearly 10 years Norman’s junior and still has a zest for life.  She is a devoted wife, but also a wonderful mother to their daughter Chelsea, played by Jane Fonda.

The movie starts out as the elderly couple are returning to their summer cottage in a remote New England community called Golden Pond.  They are joined by Chelsea, her new boyfriend, Bill, played by Coleman, and his son, Billy Jr., played by McKeon.  It quickly becomes clear that Chelsea doesn’t get along with, and maybe even hates her father, but we don’t learn why until later in the movie.

Chelsea and Bill leave on a month-long trip to Europe, asking Norman and Ethel to take care of the boy.  They agree, and the main body of the movie follows the development of a strong bond between Norman and Billy Jr.  And therein lies the crux of the bad relationship between Chelsea and her father.  She thinks he has always been disappointed in her because she was born a girl and not a boy.  In her mind, this is the main reason they never developed a strong bond.  The fact that he is always crotchety with her doesn’t help either.  As I watched, I kept thinking, “Get over it and notice that he treats everybody that way.  Stop taking it personally.”  And this is really supposed to be the movie’s big drama.

Anyway, the bond between Norman and Billy Jr. grows because they learn to share a certain pastime together: fishing.  Fishing is an activity that requires a lot of time and patience.  And while the film, thankfully, did not spend much time showing them sitting in the boat and staring at the water, it did give the movie a slow and patient feel.  And this was intentional.  It was supposed to reflect how a person really slows down in his or her old age.  It is meant to show how the activities of the elderly are the peaceful ones that require time and patience.

And then, in the last 20 minutes or so of the film, three things happen.  First, after Norman and the boy have become close friends, Chelsea returns and becomes jealous.  Second, she has a little spat with her mother and makes an effort to reconcile with her father.  And third, Norman has chest pains that make him collapse and Ethel becomes terrified of losing him.

Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn really out-did themselves and turned in some fantastic performances.  They both won Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress, and I think they were well-deserved, especially Fonda.  He really created a wonderful character that was a perfect blend of a well-written script and a wonderful actor.  In fact, it was the last film he was ever in, and many have said that it was one of the best roles of his career.

This movie seemed to be designed with the Academy Awards in mind.  It seemed to have all the makings of a Best Picture winner.  It had a bit of drama, a bit of romance, and a bit of light humor.  It had some witty dialogue and some really great performances, and quite honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t take the top prize.  I think it should have won, but instead, it lost to Chariots of Fire… another incredibly slow movie.  I just hope this isn’t a trend.

1981 – Atlantic City

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Atlantic City – 1981

OK, I’ll start this review off with a little history lesson.  Atlantic City was incorporated in 1854 and was supposed to be a resort town.  It was immensely popular and sported many up-scale hotels.  It flourished during the Prohibition era of the 1920s, but it had a corrupt underbelly.  The city began to decline, especially during the post-WWII era, when modern conveniences like automobiles became more easily available to the public.  The decline went into overdrive when other things like air conditioning and swimming pools became more common among would-be summer vacationers.  But the city was somewhat revitalized in 1976 when voters passed a referendum to legalize gambling.

I mention all this to set the scene for the film.  The story takes place in the late 70s, during the early days of legalized gambling.  The history is important because the movie really captured the personality of the run-down and disintegrating city.  It really showed it as something seedy and almost crass.  Though you never saw any of them, it felt like there should have been pimps and hookers prowling the streets, along with racketeers, extortionists, and drug pushers.

Susan Sarandon plays Sally Matthews, a woman who is studying to be a card dealer at a casino.  Her estranged drug-dealing husband, Dave, played by Robert Joy, who had run off with her extremely child-like sister, Chrissie, played by Hollis McLaren, returns to her with a load of stolen cocaine.  Along the way, Dave meets Sally’s neighbor Lou Pascal, played by Burt Lancaster.  Dave is a former gangster from the Prohibition era.

And there’s the set-up.  Dave enlists Lou’s help in selling the cocaine, but is killed by the men from whom he had stolen the drugs before he could collect the money from Lou.  The rest of the movie follows the awkward romance between Lou and Sally as they try to evade Dave’s killers.  Of course, there is a lot more to it than that, but that is the bare-bones of the main plot.  There is a small sub-plot which involves Sally and Lou’s downstairs neighbor, Grace Pinza, played by Kate Reid, who pays Lou to take care of her daily needs and occasionally have sex with her.  It just added to the sleazy feel of the corrupt little city.

Lancaster was nominated for Best Actor for his performance, as was Sarandon for Best Actress.  They both did a great job, though I’m not sure if I would consider their performances as Oscar-worthy.  Lancaster was really the stand-out member of the cast, especially in a scene where he lustily tells Sally how he habitually watches her undress through her window.  It was a little creepy, but Lancaster played it in such a way as to make it seem like something more than mere perversion.  He seemed to see it as something beautiful, not just the cheap thrill of a peeping-tom.

Wikipedia describes the movie as a romantic crime film, though I think I’d call it a crime-drama.  I thought there was far more drama than romance and there were even a few scenes of suspense that a simple romance wouldn’t typically have.  Interestingly enough, Atlantic City was 1 of 41 films in Academy Award history to be nominated for the big 5: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.  Unfortunately, it is also 1 of 8 movies in that category to not win a single award.

But aside from all that, I’m having a difficult time liking this movie.  It wasn’t a bad movie, by any means, but overall, it had a mildly depressing feel.  It was a movie about unscrupulous people who were living in a town that seemed to be on the verge of death.  It was clear that Atlantic City had once been beautiful, but that was all gone.  It seemed that none of the characters wanted to be there.  They were all looking for a way to get out.

There seemed to be very little joy in the story.  The romance between Sally and Lou ended awkwardly with thievery and lies as Sally steals most of the drug-money from Lou’s wallet and leaves, presumably to be a card dealer in France, never to return to Atlantic City.  It was an end that was strangely acceptable to Lou as he spies on her taking the money, and clearly does not believe her excuse for wanting to go out without him.  It was an odd ending.  Appropriate, but odd.  Apparently, he loved her enough to let her take the cash and go.  And she had given him someone to love and protect, making him feel alive, if only for a short time.  Lancaster really seemed to understand the character, which is why he was so good.

1980 – Tess

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Tess – 1980

Tess was not a bad movie, but it would have been so much better if it weren’t for its lead actress.  I’m not saying that Nastassja Kinski couldn’t act.  I’m just saying that she was wrong for the part.  Why?  Because she was not British.  She was a German-born actress who, though she tried to deliver her dialogue with an English accent, couldn’t do it.  Everyone else in the cast was either British or had a believable accent.  She didn’t, and it stood out like a sore thumb to me.

But if you can get past that, I suppose she did just fine.  Not great, but fine… usually.  Well, I mean… there were times when her acting consisted of looking pouty and posing for the camera.  But there wasn’t too much of that.  She was very pretty, something that was essential for the character.  And in certain scenes, the character of Tess was actually sullen and pouty.

Tess was a film that followed the life of a poor country girl who, as it turns out, is the latest descendent of an aristocratic, but long destitute family, the d’Urbervilles.  When her poor and unscrupulous parents send her to the wealthy house of the modern day d’Urbervilles in hopes of getting money from them, Tess reluctantly goes.  She is hired on as a servant by the sleazy Alec d’Urberville, played by Leigh Lawson, though we soon find out that he really belongs to the Stokes family who bought the d’Urberville lands and name.

I call Alec sleazy because upon meeting her, he immediately tries to seduce her.  He eventually rapes her and gets her pregnant.  She runs back to her poor family and has the baby which dies in infancy.  She gets work as a milk maid on a dairy farm.  There, she meets a handsome young man who truly falls in love with her.  He is Angel Clare, played by Peter Firth, and the two eventually marry.

Unfortunately, after the wedding vows are taken, Tess tells him of her past and he rejects her, leaving her to travel abroad.  Meanwhile, Alec has learned of her whereabouts and still wants her, though he clearly does not love her.  As an evil aristocrat, he wants her as a beautiful possession.  Eventually Tess accepts his advances to escape her poverty.

Angel finally realizes that he still loves her and tries to get her back.  She tells him it is too late and sends him away.  But before he can get too far, she murders Alec and runs away with him.  Now faced with an impending murder charge, Tess and Angel go on the run.  But after spending the night in Stonehenge, Tess is caught.  Some epilogue text tells us that the young woman is convicted of murder and hanged.

The actors in the film that really stood out to me were Peter Firth and one of Tess’s closes friends among the poor farming stock, Marian, played by Carolyn Pickles.  I especially liked Firth in the final scenes when he returns to beg Tess’s forgiveness for abandoning her.  When she tries to send him away, the wretched and dismal on his poor face was very well portrayed.  I liked his character and felt really bad for him.  I agreed with her decision to turn him down, especially after the way he had treated her.  Then, when he tries to help her escape the law, I liked him even more.  I also liked the actress who played Tess’s mother, Mrs. Durbeyfield, played by Marion Martin.

And lest I forget, the cinematography was very striking.  The depiction of 18th century English peasants was very realistic.  I’m not a farmer, but I imagine that it is a hard life, and all the peasants were shown to live in extremely meager conditions, full of mud, sweat, and back-breaking physical labor.  And fortunately, Tess’s beauty did not make her exempt from these hard facts of peasant life.  Even more than that, there were some beautiful outdoor shots of the English countryside that were breathtaking.

The music, composed by Phillippe Sarde, was wonderfully lush and emotional, really helping to play up the romantic scenes between Tess and Angel.  In fact, Tess was nominated for six Academy Awards.  Aside from Best Picture, Tess was also nominated for Best Cinematography, a Best Director nod for Roman Polanski, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design, the last three making up its wins.

1980 – Raging Bull

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Raging Bull – 1980

Raging Bull was a biopic film about professional prize-fighter Jake LaMotta.  Robert De Niro took the lead and turned in a really surprising performance.  It was very impressive, considering the physical changes the actor undertook to play the part.  The character had two different physical personas.  First, there was the lean, mean, fighting machine.  When he was in training and in the ring, he was in prime condition, weighing in at 145 lbs.  The second was LaMotta’s post-boxing years, where he gained an amazing 60 lbs, bringing him up to 215 lbs.

Just as an interesting note, I found that De Niro gained all the weight by going on a culinary tour of Italy and France, bingeing on three large meals every day, with lots of pasta, meat, butter, ice cream, and beer.  He put the weight on in only 4 months and was quoted as saying, “The first 15 lbs was fun.  The rest was hard work.”  I call that real dedication to the role!

The biggest problem I had with the film is that the main character, Jake LaMotta, was the least likeable character in the entire film.  Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty played the top supporting cast, Jake’s brother and manager Joey LaMotta, and Jake’s wife Vickie.  They were both good people who did their best to support Jake, while putting up with being abused and mistreated by him.

One of the first scenes in the movie shows Jake at home with his first wife.  She is making him dinner and he picks a fight with her.  The argument escalates into shouting, and eventually, he hits her.  And that was it.  I lost all respect for the character.  Then he sees the beautiful Vickie, falls in love with her, pursues her, and cheats on his wife with her.  My respect level for him just kept dropping and dropping.  Then, eventually, after he marries Vickie, the pattern continues, and he starts to beat her as well.

It is hard for me to like a character, or a movie, for that matter, when the main protagonist is such a terrible person.  But that wasn’t the actor’s fault.  De Niro did a great job creating an unlikeable character.  Pesci and Moriarty, were both able to keep up with him and turned in some good performances as well.

The film follows LaMotta’s career as he works and strives for a shot at the title.  He goes into the boxing ring over and over again, winning fight after fight, except the one in which he is manipulated by the local mob boss, Tommy Como, played by Nicholas Colasanto, into taking a dive.  Eventually, he succeeds in becoming the middleweight champion.  He seems to have it all: a successful career, money, a beautiful wife, and a loving family.  But he becomes an irrationally jealous husband, accusing the innocent Vickie of having an affair with Joey.  He assaults Joey in front of his family, driving him away for good.

But then the movie also follows the man after his boxing career is over.  After losing the champion title to his long time professional rival, Sugar Ray Robinson, played by Johnny Barnes, he puts on weight and becomes a sleazy lounge act, telling bad jokes to drunk crowds who barely listen to him.  He buys his own night club, but his new career quickly spirals as he is found guilty of introducing underage girls to men in his bar.  Vickie leaves him and threatens to call the cops is he ever comes near her.

The end of the film is a sad commentary of a man who could have had it all, if only he had been a little smarter in his personal life.  He certainly had the ability and the drive to be the best in the ring.  And when it comes down to it, maybe that is why I feel so ambivalent about the film, in general.  I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to be sympathetic to his character or not.  Was I supposed to forgive him for how he abused those who cared about him?  Was I supposed to feel sorry for him because he lost everything?  I don’t know.

And just as a final thought, I have to mention that I was originally disappointed that the film was black and white.  But after reading director Martin Scorsese’s reasons for making that choice, I can see why he did it.  Apparently, he wanted to differentiate the film from Rocky, which had come out just 4 years earlier, and also for period authenticity.  Also, Scorsese didn’t want to show all the blood in the boxing scenes in color.

1980 – The Elephant Man

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The Elephant Man – 1980

This was a strange movie, but what did I expect from David Lynch.  He has always seemed to have a love for the grotesqueries of life.  He likes telling strange stories by being surrealistic and confusingly symbolic.  But in this case, I think he lucked into a story in which he could indulge his love for disturbing imagery while telling a compelling story at the same time.  It is no wonder that this is his only film that was ever nominated for Best Picture, though 5 of his films have been nominated for Oscars in other categories.

The Elephant Man was actually nominated for 7 other Academy Awards, including a Best Actor nod for John Hurt, playing the title role of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music: Original Score, and Best Writing: Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.  Unfortunately, it didn’t win a single award.

So what was it about the movie that made it such an engaging film?  I think it was the picture it painted of the human spirit, both in its cruelties and its kindnesses.  If you look at the plot a little metaphorically, you might say that we are all the Elephant Man.  We all have our ugly side.  But the challenge is to forgive the ugliness in ourselves and see past it in others.  It makes the point that ugliness, like beauty, is only skin deep.  True loveliness and true deformity really do come from within.  In this movie, the message was told with tact, power, and respect.

The Elephant man was a poor and unfortunate soul who was born with horrible physical deformity.  In medical terms, he had a severe case of neurofibromatosis.  This caused skin and bone growths which resulted in a horribly deformed head and face, severe curvature of the spine, and a bloated right arm and hand that could not be used, as well as neurological, pulmonary, and respiratory difficulties.

As the film begins, Frederick Treves, a prominent London surgeon, played by Anthony Hopkins, is investigating a freak show in hopes of finding a specimen to show off to his colleagues.  He ends up renting the Elephant Man for a day for his lecture.  The Elephant Man’s owner, a slimy individual named Mr. Bytes, wonderfully played by Freddie Jones, is a drunk who regularly beats the poor man.  When Treves returns him, Mr. Bytes beats him so severely, that he is forced to implore the help of Treves to keep him alive.  The doctor takes pity on the deformed creature and invites him to stay at the hospital as a resident.

Over the course of the movie, Treves gets the Elephant Man to open up, only to discover that his name is John Merrick, and that he is kind, gentle, and intelligent.  Treves befriends him, as does the hospital’s head nurse, Mrs. Mothershed, wonderfully played by Wendy Hiller.  Merrick’s case becomes a matter of public curiosity and he is visited by several kinds of people, both kind and cruel.  In the end, after enduring public humiliation and scorn, he achieves a kind of respect, and is finally recognized as a man, not a monster.

He is portrayed as the picture of innocence with a child-like wonder at the new experiences of acceptance and friendship.  He is even visited and looked upon without horror by the likes of Madge Kendall, played by Anne Bancroft, a beautiful stage actress who goes out of her way to treat him as a friend and not as a freak.  This just makes the cruelties of a terrible night porter at the hospital, Jim, played by Michael Elphick, even worse.  He charges people money to come see Merrick.  They break into his room and degrade him for their own amusement.  The scene where Mrs. Mothershed knocks him out and fires him from his job is very satisfying.

But while Hopkins, Hiller, Jones, and even Elphick did a great job, it was really Hurt who gave the movie its heart and its life.  He made me really feel for the poor Elephant Man, made me like him, despite his horrifying deformity.  I read that Hurt had to sit in the make-up chair for 5 hours every day before filming, and another 2 afterword to have the makeup removed.  The innocence of the character was beautifully portrayed and yet the emotion of self-pity and the unexpected tears when a woman first treated him as a man were all too believable.  Part of it was in the way that the character was written, but part of it was John Hurt’s wonderful portrayal.