Everyone talks about how short Tom Cruise is - but notice how much taller than Hoffman he is?

The 61st annual Academy Awards for the film year 1988.  The nominations were announced on February 14, 1989 and the awards were held on March 29, 1989.

Best Picture:  Rain Man

  • Dangerous Liaisons
  • Mississippi Burning
  • The Accidental Tourist
  • Working Girl

Most Surprising Omission:  A Fish Called Wanda

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #35

The Race:  The summer had big hits that also earned critical acclaim.  There was Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the biggest film of the summer and a fantastic crossover between children and adults.  There was the very R rated A Fish Called Wanda, with American stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline joining Monty Python members John Cleese and Michael Palin.  There was Kevin Costner – the big star of 1987 (The Untouchables, No Way Out) making baseball very sexy with Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham and wowing critics and audiences.  There was the massive amounts of controversy from Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ.

Yet, it was December that really go things going.  The critics were already giving out awards before the biggest Oscar-bait films of the year had even been released.  So, the L.A. Film Critics, announcing on 10 December, ignored Mississippi Burning, which was released the day before, and the films ready to go on the following two Fridays: Rain Man, Dangerous Liaisons, Working Girl and The Accidental Tourist.  The LA Critics gave their Best Picture to a 6 hour adaptation of Dickens’ Little Dorrit and their Best Director to Canadian David Cronenberg for Dead Ringers.  A few days later, the National Board of Review showed they were paying attention to recent releases; the haul they gave to Mississippi Burning (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress) was one of the biggest in the group’s history.  The New York Film Critics, on the following weekend, showed they weren’t going to be swayed by the other groups and gave Best Picture to The Accidental Tourist and Best Director to Chris Menges for A World Apart.  The National Society of Film Critics bestowed their Picture and Director on The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  Then, the Boston Society of Film Critics made it a clean sweep of non-consensus by giving Best Picture to Bull Durham.  The critics had agreed on nothing.

But the Globes hoped to sort things out.  For the first time since 1972, there were five films nominated for Picture, Director and Screenplay: Rain Man, Working Girl, Mississippi Burning, Running on Empty and A Cry in the Dark.  With Working Girl having an easy path to Best Picture (Comedy) there was a race for Best Picture (Drama).  Running on Empty would win Screenplay and Working Girl would win 4 awards (including Picture (Comedy)), but Rain Man would take home the big prize.  But all five films fell short in the Director category to Bird, the Clint Eastwood film which hadn’t received a Best Picture nomination.

It was left to the guilds to start sorting things out.  The Directors Guild went first and immediately moved five films into the front-runner positions: Rain Man, Working Girl, Mississippi Burning, A Fish Called Wanda and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the latter two of which had lost to Working Girl in the Picture (Comedy) category.  Of the five films, only Mississippi Burning missed out on a Writers Guild nomination.  Rain Man won the DGA, immediately making it the front-runner for a Best Picture win at the Oscars, but Bull Durham and Dangerous Liaisons each gained a bit of momentum by winning the two WGA awards.

The Results:  Rain Man was in the lead with 8 nominations.  More importantly, it was the only film nominated for Picture, Director and Screenplay; the last two times that had happened the film had won Best Picture (Marty and Tom Jones).  Some of the summer films had made it into the big races, but it was the December releases that had filled out the Best Picture slots.  Working Girl and Mississippi Burning had 6 and 7 nominations and both were up for Director.  A Fish Called Wanda and Last Temptation of Christ had also made it into the directors picture, but it was The Accidental Tourist and Dangerous Liaisons that took the Best Picture slots.

Early in the night, Rain Man looked vulnerable.  It lost all four of the technical nominations it was up for.  But no film had won Best Picture without a Screenplay nomination since 1965 and no film had done it without a Best Director nomination since 1932.  History stayed true and Rain Man ended up the fourth film in 10 years to take home Picture, Actor, Director and Screenplay (after Kramer vs. Kramer, Gandhi and Amadeus) and the fourth in the last 10 years, after Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment, to win Best Picture without any technical Oscars.

Rain Man - the first Best Picture winner I ever saw in the theater

Rain Man

  • Director:  Barry Levinson
  • Writer:  Barry Morrow  /  Ronald Bass
  • Producer:  Mark Johnson
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Valeria Golino
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Hoffman), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  445
  • Length: 133 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $172.82 mil  (#1 – 1988)
  • Release Date:  16 December 1988
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #10  (year)  /  #199  (nominees)  /  #48  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor  (Hoffman), Original Score
  • Nighthawk Points:  95

The Film:  When I first saw this film, the first Best Picture I had ever seen in the theater, and the first film I had deliberately set out to see because of the Oscars (though I saw it prior to the win, as the only film nominated for Picture, Director and Screenplay, it was easy to see it was going to win), I was blown away by Dustin Hoffman’s performance.  I figured it was a pure cinch to win the Oscar.  I was right, of course, and it did win the Oscar, even over the masterful performance of his old roommate, Gene Hackman, in Mississippi Burning.  It was only later, when I began to pay more attention to film that I realized, while he had won the Globe and the Oscar (both of which I watched), he hadn’t won any critics awards.  In later years, I would begin to see other performances that I felt equal to Hoffman’s – Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.  But, in spite of everything, I kept coming back to Hoffman’s performance.  Of all the categories in all the years for the Nighthawk Awards, the one thing that has absolutely never changed has been Best Actor of 1988.

That was before.

This is now.

What now is, is a time when I can look at Rain Man as a whole and see some of the construction of the plot.  I can see that it didn’t deserve a lot of its nominations – especially the technical ones in a year with technical virtuosos like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Dangerous Liaisons and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  I can see that the direction, while solid, is not on the level of the best of the year – Zemeckis, Frears, Kaufman, Crichton, Parker.  The script feels like a script, not like anything that could have possibly happened.

That is not to say it isn’t a great film.  To say that it doesn’t rise to the level of the top 5 in those categories is not the same thing as criticizing it in those categories.  It is well made, with a wonderful score, strong editing and some very good writing.  While the story feels pushed at times, the relationship between the two brothers seems to develop naturally.  And Tom Cruise, completely over-looked here, as he was in 1986 when he supported another older actor who would win the Oscar (Paul Newman in The Color of Money), is actually very good.  We sense his anger and frustration with his father, his desire to prove himself, his striking out at the world.  That he has the less showy role makes it even more important for him to give a good performance because his actions move the film forward.  It’s not one of the 5 best of the year, but it is a four star film.

So now we come back to Hoffman’s performance.  “Get Richard Dreyfuss,” Hoffman told director Barry Levinson three weeks into the shoot.  “Get somebody, Barry, because this is the worst work of my life.”  But Levinson convinced him to stay with the film and they reshot the early scenes.  The reviews were very strong, and, of course, it lead to the Oscar.

Watching it now, I am stunned at, not only how marvelous it is, but also how realistic.  I can picture Hoffman in my mind freaking out in the film and I can think back just a couple of hours to Thomas locking his brain around something and melting down.  Watching this film at 14, just beginning to have a true, deep love of film, I never could have imagined that twenty years later I would be living out some of this film in my own life.  Watching it again took as much out of me as any film other than The Diary of Anne Frank.  This performance seems to spring straight out of my life.  It shows how truly talented Hoffman always has been, one of the most gifted actors to ever grace the screen.

the best of the 1988 nominees - Dangerous Liaisons

Dangerous Liaisons

  • Director:  Stephen Frears
  • Writer:  Christopher Hampton  (from his play, adapted from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos)
  • Producer:  Norman Heymen  /  Hank Moonjean
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Actress (Close), Supporting Actress (Pfeiffer), Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  290
  • Length: 119 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $34.67 mil  (#32 – 1988)
  • Release Date:  23 December 1988
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #133  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Close), Supporting Actress (Pfeiffer), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  425

The Film:  “Why do we always feel compelled to chase the ones who run away?” Valmont asks, late in the film.  “Immaturity,” is the reply he gets from his friend, the Marquise de Merteuil.  But that’s not really the answer.  It’s the duality of it – the contradiction.  For instance, this film is filled with sex and lust.  We see the young, beautiful Uma Thurman nude and we see some glorious sex.  But the most erotic scenes in the film take place fully clothed and involve nothing more than words.

The film won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, the BAFTA and the Writers Guild.  It is magnificently written, adapted, originally from the classic novel into a stage play, then by the playwright, Christopher Hampton, into the film.  It is opened up so well it never feels like a filmed play.  It feels like a living, breathing film, with wonderful cinematography, some of the best costumes and sets ever put on film, very good music and solid editing.  It is a complete film (most especially in its direction – Frears was mostly ignored by the awards groups, but he does a great job here and it is one of his best films).

Then of course, there is the acting.    Dangerous Liaisons gets the same description that Much Ado About Nothing has on that front – it is so perfectly acted, with every player exquisitely matched to their part that even the presence of Keanu Reeves can do nothing to mar the film.  In this film he even is perfectly suited as the brash young man who is still learning about the world.  Of course, he is nothing compared to Glenn Close (in what is probably her best performance and which was the best of the Oscar nominees), John Malkovich (possibly his best performance – perfectly full of malice and intrigue at just the right moments) and Michelle Pfeiffer (who definitely deserved the Oscar both here and the next year for Fabulous Baker Boys and instead is one of the great actresses to never win).

There are those who would argue that there is, in fact, too much talking in this film (I’m looking at you, Roger Ebert).  But there really is just the right amount.  This film was never about a big payoff.  If there is a payoff it is the climactic duel and the boos at the opera.  This film, like The Age of Innocence would be after it, is a reminder that oftentimes the most erotic moments occur when the lights and the clothes are still on.

Alan Parker returns to the Oscar race with Mississippi Burning (1988)

Mississippi Burning

  • Director:  Alan Parker
  • Writer:  Chris Geralmo
  • Producer:  Frederick Zollo  /  Robert F. Colesberry
  • Studio:  Orion
  • Stars:  Gene Hackman, Willem DaFoe, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Hackman), Supporting Actress (McDormand), Editing, Cinematography, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  255
  • Length: 128 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Social)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $34.63 mil  (#33 – 1988)
  • Release Date:  9 December 1988
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #175  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Actor (Hackman), Supporting Actress (McDormand), Cinematography
  • Nighthawk Points:  135

The Film:  Much as most of us would like to be, we are not living in a post-racial society.  The surest evidence of that is not the ridiculous idiotic beliefs about President Obama’s birthplace; rather, it is in the elections results from November 2008 – the ones that those who are hopeful, or those who want to just say that racism is dead and not be able to be hung with the term racists anymore keep pointing to.  Yes, we elected an African-American as President, with a resounding victory.  Indeed, when Jesse Jackson was running in 1988, I can’t imagine he would have thought that just 20 years later an African-American would receive more votes for President than anyone in history – over 66 million.  But is not the votes for Obama that are the telling statistic.  It is the votes for McCain.  Specifically, it is the branch of the country that actually had stronger results for the Republican ticket in 2008 than it had in 2004.  Look here and click on the voting shifts and watch which parts of the country got redder – Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, the Appalachian hills of Kentucky, northern Alabama, southern Louisiana.  We are talking about some of the poorest parts of the country and some of the ones where the idea of a black man taking the top position in this country would be least tolerated.

Mississippi was not one of the states that veered more towards the red in 2008, but it has its own long history of violent racism.  Mississippi Burning looks at a particular moment in that history through a fictional eye with two lenses.  All three of these things are important.  The first is that it is a fiction film, not a documentary.  It drew quite a bit of criticism when it was first released for distorting history and giving more credit than was due to the FBI and their involvement in the Civil Rights struggle and in particular to their investigation into the deaths of three Freedom Workers.  But the film never claimed to be a historical re-enactment.

The second part of it is the the two different lenses, as represented by the two different FBI agents.  The one in charge is played by Willem DaFoe, with the horn-rimmed glasses, and of course, no hat (a nod to the hatless JFK – a notion that continues to bloom in spite of its historical inaccuracy).  He is a Northern liberal, moving over from Justice (“a Kennedy boy” his partner refers to him, and though he bristles at the notion of being a boy, it is a good description), determined to change the world.  It is the lesser role, not because DaFoe is not good, but because it is written without a whole lot of depth and without much humor.  And it is only gradually that we look through the other eyes.

The other half of the partnership is Gene Hackman, who plays a former Southern sheriff who is now an FBI agent.  In its depth, its humor, its violence, even its romance, this portrayal reminds us that Gene Hackman has always, from the first minute he stepped into film, been one of the best actors that Hollywood has ever found.  Part of what makes him so great is that, unlike any other star (and let’s not for a moment think that Hackman isn’t a star – there is a reason that he was billed above the title in Superman), he can disappear into his characters.  In a sense, he is the character actor who became a star.  Hackman’s character knows exactly how to move around in this town, how to get information, who to talk to, who to sweet-talk to.  Of course, one of the dangers of sweet-talking someone is that you might find yourself falling in love with that person.  That this happens to Hackman, in spite of a large age difference, is a testament to how real his character is.

It is also a testament to the magnificent performance of Frances McDormand.  When this film came out I had never seen Blood Simple (and, judging from its initial release and lack of box office gross or awards, neither had anyone else), so I didn’t know who she was.  She was, to be frank, a revelation, touching and sweet and you would want to save her as well and you would realize how wonderful she is in just the amount that she wants to be saved and the amount that she doesn’t.  She is married to Brad Dourif, the dirty, brutal racist in the sheriff’s department and his performance is also magnificent.

But the heart of Hackman’s performance, the heart of his understanding of what is going on, the heart at the core of those 2008 election statistics is in a line that Hackman says part way through the film.  He and DaFoe are sitting in a hotel room, talking about the case and Hackman starts to talk about his father.  He talks about the way his father hated blacks and the way he was raised.  DaFoe asks him if that’s supposed to be an excuse.  Hackman explains that it’s no excuse, it’s just a story about his daddy.  But then comes the line, the all-important line that explains so much.  “My old man was just so full of hate that he didn’t know that bein’ poor was what was killin’ him.”

The Accidental Tourist - a film the IMDb users rate lower than Cleopatra

The Accidental Tourist

  • Director:  Lawrence Kasdan
  • Writer:  Lawrence Kasdan  /  Frank Galati  (from the novel by Anne Tyler)
  • Producer:  Lawrence Kasdan  /  Charles Okun  /  Michael Grillo
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  William Hurt, Geena Davis, Kathleen Turner
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Supporting Actress (Davis), Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  175
  • Length: 121 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $32.63 mil  (#35 – 1988)
  • Release Date:  23 December 1988
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #11  (year)  /  #214  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Davis), Original Score
  • Nighthawk Points:  95

The Film:  In 1987, Hope and Glory finished 88th at the box office.  The top three films for the year were Three Men and a Baby, Fatal Attraction and Beverly Hills Cop II.  Clearly, we can’t rely on box office figures for determining great films (I hope you’re reading that note Avatar fans).  Now, in 1988, we have The Accidental Tourist.  It was nominated for the Oscar (not my choice, but not a bad choice), won the New York Film Critics and earned four stars from Roger Ebert.  Yet, it earns a 6.7 from IMDb raters, lower than 450 other nominees.  It sits at the same rating as The Broadway Melody and The Alamo and below both Cleopatra films and Fatal Attraction.  So clearly the IMDb rating is not necessarily the way to go either.

Of course, critical opinion of a film can vary greatly.  It sits at a 53 on Metacritic, namely because there are so few reviews and the 10 it gets from Pauline Kael just kills it.  So, Ebert loves it and Kael hated it.  But there is no end-all-be-all of film criticism – I like Ebert because he is the most accessible, he has such a large collection of reviews, he uses a star system and his reviews are all online.  But he has occasionally given high reviews to terrible films (2012) and hated films that have a large critical support base (Blue Velvet).  As for Kael, having just finished two of her books, I must say, I always find her enjoyable to read but I rarely agree with her.  I remember hearing John Simon once described as hating everything not directed by Ingmar Bergman.  Well, Kael is not quite that closed off, but she seems to dislike a large number of the films she reviews – entertainingly, but not always convincingly.

So, who can you trust?  Well, you can trust yourself.  You can trust me if you want, or, you can use my reviews as a base to decide whether or not you think a film might be worth watching.  Or maybe, hopefully, you will just enjoy my review whether or not you agree with it.

I think The Accidental Tourist is a low-level great film.  On a 100 point scale, it comes in at an 88.  But, on a four star scale system (with half stars as well), that comes in as the lowest end of the four star films.  So it is in the category of great films.  So now comes the question, why?

Well, part of it might be the genre.  When I first watched this, way back in 1989, I thought of it as a drama.  Looking back now (and also having read the novel), I can see it more as a comedy.  It is not a laugh out loud comedy, but a smart comedy about the way people are, the way they internalize their behavior and the way they suddenly can lack the ability to relate to anybody of their own race.  It is a well-written film about a man, having lost his son, having lost his wife because of losing his son, learns how to find himself, and within himself, the ability to communicate with other people again.

It is well-written and it is interesting.  It paints a very good portrait of a very specific type of man and then we understand him, partially because we also get a very good look at the household from which he emerged (given the household he emerges from it’s amazing that he can relate to anyone at all).  Then we also get to watch his relationships – with his ex-wife, with his new lover, with his publisher.  None of it is forced (except for some of the stuff with his new lover and that is not the script forcing things, but the character herself forcing things).

All of these roles are played with impeccable charm (except the lover) and wit.  We have William Hurt playing the man, Mason, in the midst of one of the great stretches of acting in film history, and he almost manages to pull off a fourth straight Oscar nomination.  Kathleen Turner is luminous and charming as the ex-wife and we understand what he sees in her and why she distances herself.  Bill Pullman, in an early important role shows the same kind of odd charm that he would later use so well in Zero Effect (a vastly under-rated film).  That leaves us with Geena Davis.  My earlier comments might make it sound like she doesn’t give a good performance.  Quite the contrary.  While I think Michelle Pfeiffer should have won the Oscar, Davis gives a great performance and does deserve her Oscar.  She’s not charming and she’s not witty, she’s a force of life coming straight into poor Mason’s life.  We see exactly why he avoids her and then finds himself pulled into her gravitational field.  It seems that anyone in his situation would.

Working Girl - possibly the first time someone was nominated for Supporting (Weaver) billed above someone nominated for lead (Griffith)

Working Girl

  • Director:  Mike Nichols
  • Writer:  Kevin Wade
  • Producer:  Douglas Wick
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Cusack
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actress (Griffith), Supporting Actress (Weaver), Supporting Actress (Cusack), Original Song (“Let the River Run”)
  • Oscar Points:  210
  • Length: 113 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $63.77 mil  (#11 – 1988)
  • Release Date:  23 December 1988
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #56  (year)  /  #367  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Song  (“Let the River Run”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  20

The Film:  My first thought was to make the same kind of comment that I did in my review of Fatal Attraction, about how this film is an embarrassment to the actors involved.  But that’s not really fair to Working Girl.  First of all, while Fatal Attraction is quite frankly, a bad film, Working Girl is actually a good film.  It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination and it doesn’t belong anywhere near the Oscar race.  But it is a perfectly serviceable romantic comedy.  And, what’s more, it actually has much better acting than Fatal Attraction does.

Melanie Griffith is quite good as the young smart businesswoman who knows how to do things but fails to be taken seriously, partially because she’s from the suburbs and has the accent, and partially because she doesn’t dress or look in a manner to be taken seriously (the fact that this film was made in the late 80’s, when big hair reached its ascendency works perfectly into that aspect of the storyline – it’s natural that she would have such ridiculous looking hair because so does everyone else).  Sigourney Weaver is very good as the stern, authoritative boss who steals her idea for her own but luckily spends most of the film out of the way.  Joan Cusack is surprisingly good (and a rather surprising Oscar nominee) as the best friend who supports Griffith.  Also good, but left out of the Oscar race is Harrison Ford in a role very different than those that he had been playing.

But it’s really just the acting in Working Girl that makes it rise above the fray.  The plot itself isn’t really that original and most of the lines are rather painful to listen on a second watching.  Most of the credit really seems to fall to director Mike Nichols and his reputation.  Nichols was already one of the very few directors to win Best Director for a Comedy and the only one besides John Ford to win it without winning Best Picture.  And here we have yet another rarity – a comedy nominated for Best Director but not for its script.  It shows that the weight of Nichols reputation.  It didn’t hurt that Griffith had been headed towards stardom (especially after her breakthrough performance in Something Wild) and Weaver was headed towards being only the third actress in history to get nominated in both Oscar categories in one year.  But that’s all.  Looking back again, it just doesn’t seem like there’s enough there.

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