Tom Hulce (Oscar nominee) and F. Murray Abraham (Oscar winner) in 1984's Best Picture: Amadeus

The 57th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1984.  The nominations were announced on February 6, 1985 and the awards were held on March 25, 1985.

Best Picture:  Amadeus

  • A Passage to India
  • The Killing Fields
  • A Soldier’s Story
  • Places in the Heart

Most Surprising Omission:  Broadway Danny Rose

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  This is Spinal Tap

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #15

The Race:  Although some of the films released early in the year would eventually end up with major Oscar nominations (most notably Greystoke and Broadway Danny Rose), the Oscar race didn’t begin in earnest until September.  Within eight days, three directors who had previously directed Best Picture winners released new films.  There was A Soldier’s Story, a murder mystery about a dead black sergeant in World War II era Louisiana from Norman Jewison.  Then came Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart, a dustbowl drama starring Sally Field with some of the best notices from a career that had already won her an Oscar.  Finally there was Amadeus, the adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s award-winning play directed by Milos Forman – the first he had made in his native Czechoslovakia since the Soviet invasion in 1968.  Of the three, it was Amadeus that earned the best notices as well as the best box office.

Following soon after was The Killing Fields, although this director, Roland Joffe, was directing his first feature film.  It was the story of a New York Times reporter who flees Cambodia during the revolution in 1975 and is forced to leave his interpreter behind and the journey of the two to reunite and it earned great notices, especially for Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a gynecologist who played the interpreter in his first film role.

The final big film of the year was from another Oscar-winning director.  David Lean was back with his first film in 14 years, A Passage to India, and the reviews were as good as any of his previous films, even the two Best Picture winners.  But most of the great press was aimed towards Peggy Ashcroft, the long-time British stage star.

Ashcroft’s role in the film would create awards confusion.  The LA and Boston Film Critics would give her Best Supporting Actress, while the New York Critics and the National Board of Review would end up giving her the award for Best Actress.  The film itself won Picture and Director from both New York and the NBR, while Amadeus would take the same two awards, as well as Screenplay in LA.  Passage would be limited to winning Best Foreign Film at the Globes, while Amadeus would take home the Best Picture (Drama) award over The Killing Fields, Places in the Heart, A Soldier’s Story and The Cotton Club, a film from yet another Oscar winning director – this time, Francis Ford Coppola.  Forman, Joffe, Lean and Coppola would be joined in the Best Director race by Sergio Leone for Once Upon a Time in America with Forman taking home the award.  The DGA announced their nominees just days before the Oscars and cemented front-runner status upon all five of its nominees: Amadeus, Passage, Places, Killing Fields and Soldier’s Story.

The Results:  For the third time, all five of the DGA nominated films were in the Best Picture race.  And like the previous two times, one director was out of the race – this time Norman Jewison, replaced instead by Woody Allen.  Amadeus and A Passage to India were leading the pack with 11 nominations each.  Joining them in the race for Picture, Director and Screenplay were The Killing Fields and Places in the Heart (which was the only Best Picture nominee nominated in the Original Screenplay category) with 7 nominations each, while A Soldier’s Story only managed 3 nominations.

The Writers Guild announced their annual nominees a week after the Oscars and finally had changed their categories to match the Oscars (five nominees in two categories – Adapted and Original).  Amadeus wasn’t among the nominees, so it slowed the momentum of the film just a little.  But it would then win the DGA, while The Killing Fields and Broadway Danny Rose would win the two WGA awards.  But nothing could stop the momentum for Amadeus.  On the big night it matched Gandhi, also winning 8 out of 11, including Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay.  But only A Soldier’s Story would go home empty-handed.  The other nominees would all win an acting award among their multiple Oscars (2 each for Passage and Places, 3 for Killing Fields).

For the first time since 1978 a film wins the Oscar and the Nighthawk for Best Picture!

Amadeus

  • Director:  Milos Forman
  • Writer:  Peter Shaffer  (from his play)
  • Producer:  Saul Zaentz
  • Studio:  Orion
  • Stars:  Tom Hulce, F. Murray Abraham, Elizabeth Berridge, Jeffrey Jones
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Abraham), Actor (Hulce), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  555
  • Length:  160 min
  • Genre:  Musical  (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $51.56 mil  (#12 – 1984)
  • Release Date:  21 September 1984
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #34  (nominees)  /  #11  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hulce), Actor (Abraham), Supporting Actress (Berridge), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  610

The Film:  There is probably no greater collection of music in one set than the soundtrack to Amadeus, unless maybe you want to count the limited edition box set of all the Beatles albums.  But music alone is not enough to make a great film.  After all, Immortal Beloved is filled with great Beethoven music and is still a distinctly mediocre film while Amadeus might rank as the best biopic ever made.  So what is it about this film that makes it so good that it managed to beat A Passage to India and The Killing Fields at the Oscars, and, more amazingly, actually deserve its Oscar (the only film in the eighties in my opinion to do so)?

It begins with a play.  Peter Shaffer, let us remember, isn’t just any playwright.  He had already written Equus, one of the great dramas ever put on stage before he ever got around to writing about Mozart.  He managed to make Mozart accessible to a modern audience in two ways – the first was to portray him almost like a punk rocker – vastly ahead of his time musically and a far more boisterous personality than his society could deal with.  The second was to allow us a viewpoint with which to identify.  It isn’t easy to empathize with the plight of a brilliant young prodigy who can play for the Emperor blind-folded at age six.  However, most of the world can certainly know what it is like to envy that man and his talent – to want to get rid of the man but still fall prey to the wondrous music that escapes from his mind.

The second thing was Forman’s wise decision not to use big stars in the part.  He felt that familiar faces would not be believable in the parts, so he went with stage actor F. Murray Abraham for the role of Salieri (though I wish I could have seen Ian McKellen – who played the part on Broadway) and Tom Hulce for Mozart.  He also made wise choices with Jeffrey Jones as the Emperor and Elizabeth Berridge as Constanze.  All of the acting is phenomenal, and while I may go more for Hulce’s tour de force than Abraham’s steady presence, it is a close call.  And Berridge definitely deserved a nomination.

But then there are the production values.  There are few films in all of film history that look as good as this one.  What possibly has better costumes?  Maybe Dangerous Liaisons?  And what film has better sound?  Not to mention the exquisite cinematography, the magnificent editing and the award winning art direction and makeup (both of which absolutely deserved their awards).

All of this comes together to make the film greater than the sum of its parts (and the sum of its parts were already pretty high).  For a three hour long film (the director’s cut runs 180 minutes) in a typically dry form (biopic), it never drags for an instant.  We are fascinated by these characters – and I do mean characters, for Salieri’s jealousy is the brilliant counterpoint to Mozart’s brilliance.  That is why this film works so well.  Because it doesn’t just give us a typical film.  It does it in a new and interesting way and when Salieri is wheeled through the room at the end, we can feel some absolution from his plea: “Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you.”

A Passage to India: David Lean's brilliant final film

A Passage to India

  • Director:  David Lean
  • Writer:  David Lean  (from the novel by E.M. Forster)
  • Producer:  John Brabourne  /  Richard Goodwin
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Victor Banerjee, Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft, Edward Fox
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Actress (Davis), Supporting Actress (Ashcroft), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  385
  • Length:  164 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $27.18 mil  (#34 – 1984)
  • Release Date:  14 December 1984
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #35  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Banerjee), Actress (Davis), Supporting Actor (Fox), Supporting Actress (Ashcroft), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  485

The Film:  There was really no one better suited to make this film than David Lean.  Having already made Lawrence of Arabia, having already explored the relationship of Britain to the East, having already proved that no other director could visually capture the feel of the book, he was a natural.  What emerged was a masterpiece – one of the best films from one of the best directors to ever live, visually stunning, intelligent, entertaining.  It simply had the bad luck, in terms of both the Oscars and the Nighthawks, to run up against Amadeus.  As a result, while it only wins three of my awards (and only two Oscars), it comes in second place in five other categories (a very close second at that).

As I said once before, Forster included an epigraph for Howards End that said “only connect,” which seems to be the exact opposite of PassagePassage is all about the inability to connect.  Sometimes it is literal (Fielding’s missing of the train), but it is more often metaphorical.  In a story, Forster manages to encompass the wide gulf between the India of its people and the India that Britain felt that it needed to maintain to keep alive the idea of the Empire.  That such an insightful novel, foreshadowing the eventual withdrawal of the British nearly 25 years before it actually happened.

This film has everything we would have expected from a Lean film – absolutely marvelous cinematography, a lush, wonderful Maurice Jarre score, strong editing that keeps even his epic-length films from lagging at all (this was, in fact, the first film that Lean himself, who began as an editor, cut in over 40 years) and wonderful art direction and costumes (this would be the third time that Lean would have a film nominated for all five major technical Oscars – Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction).  But, in all the talk of Lean’s photographic ability and the epic scope of his films, what is often overlooked is the acting in his films, even though every film he made from 1955 on earned at least one Oscar nomination for acting.  This might be the finest acted of all of Lean’s films, from Judy Davis’ masterful performance (she won the role with a wonderful explanation of what it is that causes Adela to freak out so badly in the caves) that should have won the Oscar over Sally Field, to Victor Banerjee, who somehow didn’t even get nominated for his wonderful performance, to Peggy Ashcroft, who ran away with just about every award.

Sadly, this would be it for David Lean.  After he made Ryan’s Daughter, which was savaged by critics, he felt so wounded that he moved away from films.  He worked on an adaptation of Mutiny on the Bounty for a while that eventually was filmed by Roger Donaldson, then finally got the rights to Passage, then spent the last seven years of his life trying to get a film version of Nostromo made.  I wish he had, for he is probably the only directer who really could have done it justice.  But we are left with this, certainly one of the greatest swan songs in cinematic history.

If you don't cry during the final scene than perhaps you are a robot

The Killing Fields

  • Director:  Roland Joffe
  • Writer:  Bruce Robinson  (from the articles by Sydney Schanberg)
  • Producer:  David Puttnam
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Waterston), Supporting Actor (Ngor), Editing, Cinematography
  • Oscar Points:  330
  • Length:  141 min
  • Genre:  War
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $34.70 mil  (#25 – 1984)
  • Release Date:  2 November 1984
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #72  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Waterston), Supporting Actor (Ngor), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound
  • Nighthawk Points:  325

The Film:  There are timeless themes that always make for good storytelling.  Which path you choose from these themes can shape the arc of your story and even the arc of your life (and don’t get me wrong – just because something is a true story, doesn’t make it not a story;  it’s still something that is being told).  It’s not just the question of love or hate, or peace or war.  There are even more specific themes.  Absolution or redemption (please do not confuse these two things – one involves the judgment of others and one does not); or revenge or forgiveness.  Hopefully you’ve caught up with me here.  Sydney Schanberg spent years trying to redeem himself – the only person who possibly could have absolved him of what he feels he did wrong was trapped a world away and hanging on by his fingertips to survival.  And when Schanberg was finally reunited with Dith Pran, Pran himself faced the choice, and for him, it was easy enough, and that is part of what makes this so heart-wrenching.  Their reunion, which begins with Schanberg stepping from a car and a certain song playing on the radio, to the song moving to soundtrack music and playing as Schanberg asks him that all important question is one of the great scenes and endings in all of film history and completes a journey that began in the heart of a dying war and ended in a distant camp in another country.

That is the heart-wrenching part.  What came before was much more gut-wrenching.  In many ways this is the best film ever made about Vietnam and it doesn’t even involve Vietnam.  What it does involve is the truly wrong-headed policy decisions made by several administrations, the choices that lead to 58,000 men never returning from Vietnam in order to stop communism, yet the decision to pull back and let Pol Pot take over Cambodia and wipe out millions of his own people.  Of course it has to end with John Lennon and those wise, wonderful words: “Imagine there’s no countries  /  It isn’t hard to do  /  Nothing to kill or die for  /  And no religion too”, for what other words can make sense out of all of this.  We’ve just sat through Dith Pran escaping over the Killing Fields – those fields of mud and bodies that littered his country, the country he loved and had to flee to have any chance at life.  And then when you remember that Pran is played by Haing S. Ngor, who was not a professional actor, but had been cast because the casting agent had seen a picture of him at a wedding reception.  Ngor gives an absolutely amazing performance, probably in part because his own life story was so similar (but actually more tragic, in that Ngor’s family had died, while Pran’s family was waiting for him in the States).  Then remember that Ngor (who would also be quite good in Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth) was killed in a robbery in 1996.

But what about the film itself?  It sits here down at third place, a film easily good enough to win Best Picture in a number of years.  It has the misfortune to be from the same year as Amadeus and A Passage to India.  It comes in third place in six categories – Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Editing and Cinematography (the latter two it actually won the Oscar for and they are good choices, even if they are not my choices).  In all of those cases it would win the award in many other years.  It is extremely well-made, intelligent, well-written, deep in its understanding of what was going on in Cambodia, yet never allowing us to feel lost.  It contains images that you are never likely to forget – Schanberg standing in the rain watching his friend walk away, Pran in the mud looking at the horror that surrounds him, Schanberg slowly emerging from the car.  And after the two are separated, and Schanberg is able to return to the States and spends the next four years trying to find his friend, the film does a perfect job of balancing the two stories – allowing us to watch his progress while also watching Pran’s desperate struggle to conceal who he is and survive in the brutal Khmer Rouge-run Cambodia.

Here’s the essential answer to the question of whether or not you should see The Killing Fields.  If you want a film that is expertly made, if you want a film that tells a great story of recent history, a story that reminds you of the danger that journalists live in while covering foreign wars (as if that wasn’t made so recently clear by the events in Libya), a story that will make your stomach wrench and then make your heart ache, then you need to watch The Killing Fields.  If none of those things are for you, then maybe your film for 1984 is The Muppets Take Manhattan.

A Soldier's Story - a Best Picture nominee you probably haven't seen

A Soldier’s Story

  • Director:  Norman Jewison
  • Writer:  Charles Fuller  (based on his play “A Soldier’s Play)
  • Producer:  Norman Jewison  /  Ronald L. Schwary  /  Patrick Palmer
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Howard Rollins Jr., Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Supporting Actor (Caesar)
  • Oscar Points:  120
  • Length:  101 min
  • Genre:  Mystery
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $21.82 mil  (#47 – 1984)
  • Release Date:  14 September 1984
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #20  (year)  /  #291  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Washington), Supporting Actor (Caesar)
  • Nighthawk Points:  100

The Film:  Do you penalize a film for its comparison to a previous film from the same director?  John Simon thought Star Wars unworthy of the creator of American Graffiti and Richard Schickel actually said to David Lean “How could the man who directed Brief Encounter make a piece of shit like Ryan’s Daughter?”

It isn’t hard to see where this is going.  Do we look at A Soldier’s Story for what it is, a well-made murder mystery, or for what it tries to stand up against, In the Heat of the Night, a film not only directed by the same director, Norman Jewison, but also one that ends with a handshake between a white Southerner and a black Northerner, both of whom have come to respect the other.

I try to look at films for what they are individually (which might be why I have a higher opinion of Phantom Menace than most people) and from that approach, A Soldier’s Story is a very good film.  It is well-written, taking the time to establish each individual character while also effectively telling the story of a self-hating black sergeant murdered in a Louisiana town.  It is also well-directed and allows for strong acting from several young black actors, the best of whom, Denzel Washington, is no surprise to us now, but would have been in 1984 when he was mainly known for doing “St. Elsewhere”.

Yet, it is not a great film (not as weak as Ebert thought – he clearly could not escape the comparison to the previous film), but simply very good.  In a good year for films, it probably would not have made it into the top 5 and it really doesn’t belong there – perhaps the Academy just couldn’t take the sustained comedy in Broadway Danny Rose enough (though the directors and the writers clearly likely it).  But outside of the top three films, the year just doesn’t hold up and a very good film with a Serious Subject could break on through.

The Academy liked her. I say "meh".

Places in the Heart

  • Director:  Robert Benton
  • Writer:  Robert Benton
  • Producer:  Arlene Donovan
  • Studio:  Tri-Star
  • Stars:  Sally Field, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Lindsay Crouse, John Malkovich, Danny Glover
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actress (Field), Supporting Actor (Malkovich), Supporting Actress (Crouse)
  • Oscar Points:  320
  • Length:  111 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $34.90 mil  (#24 – 1984)
  • Release Date:  21 September 1984
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #52  (year)  /  #370  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  Robert Benton is capable of so much better than this.  Yes, I am well aware that he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and that Sally Field won Best Actress.  But this film is nothing when held up to some of the other Benton films: Bonnie and Clyde (which he wrote), Kramer vs. Kramer, Nobody’s Fool.  This is Benton’s semi-romanticized memories of growing up but they lack the depth of characterization that Benton is capable of.  Field’s single mother trying to get by without selling the farm or letting relatives take care of the children in the Depression after her policeman husband is killed is the only character with any real depth and even that is still fairly shallow.

The film wants to give us an overview both of Field and her struggles, but also the town she is in and the secrets that lie behind everybody’s door.  But the sideplots (including an affair and the two boarders she takes in – one who is black and one who is blind, with a little visit from the Klan thrown in for good measure) just distract from the actual storyline.  And the fact is, that just makes you realize how thin the primary story is to begin with.  It’s the stuff of kids books for a hundred years.  Does anyone doubt for a second that she will let anyone take her children?  Or that things will somehow manage to work out for her?  There is very little original about the film and certainly not much worth celebrating.

Don’t get me wrong here.  This isn’t a bad film.  It’s well acted throughout, from thorough professionals (Field, Harris, Madigan, Malkovich, Glover, Crouse – all are good).  It’s fairly well made.  It’s just that there’s not that much to it.  It would be the kind of film that you could watch and then completely forget about again before too long.  It is not worthy of one major Oscar, let alone two.

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