Thanks to Out of Africa and Braveheart, Driving Miss Daisy is not the worst Best Picture of my lifetime.

The 62nd annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1989.  The nominations were announced on February 14, 1990 and the awards were held on March 26, 1990.

Best Picture:  Driving Miss Daisy

  • Field of Dreams
  • Born on the Fourth of July
  • My Left Foot
  • Dead Poets Society

Most Surprising Omission:  When Harry Met Sally

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Glory

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #18

The Race:  Everyone told Kevin Costner that he was crazy to make two baseball films in a row.  But when Field of Dreams came out in April, the reviews were even better than for Bull Durham and, without once ever winning the weekend, ended up the highest grossing film of the spring.  Then summer came, and while the biggest box office hits were Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it was Disney that had the film with the biggest Oscar potential.  Dead Poets Society had a built in Oscar pedigree of inspirational teacher and former Oscar nominees for Director (Peter Weir) and star (Robin Williams).  But, while it was a big box office hit, its critical acclaim paled next to the two most talked about films arriving from Cannes.

Do the Right Thing was the new Spike Lee joint and it had critics and audiences alike ready to boil over.  Lee himself had boiled over in France when his film lost the Palme d’Or to sex, lies and videotape, prompting Lee to complain about sex‘s first-time director, Steven Soderbergh, “they are always looking for a golden white boy.”  (Inside Oscar, p. 755).  By the time the film opened, conservative critics were predicting race riots, Siskel and Ebert were calling it one of the best films of the decade and it was even though to be influencing the upcoming New York mayoral election.  Meanwhile, Soderbergh’s film opened as well, boosted by the win at Cannes and also earned critical raves.  But neither film did more than scrape their way into the Top 10 of the box office in any weekend.  Meanwhile, sitting in positions ranging from 3 to 6 every weekend from mid-July to early October was When Harry Met Sally, the new Rob Reiner film which was joining the Cannes films in the great reviews column.

The serious films continued into the fall.  Woody Allen was back with Crimes and Misdemeanors, one of his most serious films yet and it was again earning great reviews.  There was also wunderkind Kenneth Branagh, the 28 year old Shakespearean actor who was making his directorial debut with Henry V – the same play that Olivier had made his own directorial debut with 45 years before that had earned a Best Picture nomination.  The reviews were through the roof and Branagh had suddenly made himself known.

Then, before the big Christmas releases were released came the first of the critics awards.  Winning the National Board of Review was Driving Miss Daisy, just as it hit theaters.  The adaptation of Alfred Uhry’s hit play had star Jessica Tandy making the transition in the lead role from stage to screen and getting the best reviews of her long career at age 80.  Also in the NBR’s Top 10 were Christmas releases Glory, about the black Massachusetts 54th Regiment who fought in the Civil War and Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone’s new Vietnam film starring Tom Cruise.  Branagh won Best Director and his film joined Field of Dreams, Dead Poets Society, Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Fabulous Baker Boys and My Left Foot, a small Irish film starring Daniel Day-Lewis from independent film company Miramax.

Next up were the L.A. Film Critics and they went with Do the Right Thing for Picture, Director and Supporting Actor.  They were followed two days later by the New York Critics, but the New Yorkers did not take favorite sons Spike Lee or Woody Allen.  They instead chose My Left Foot as Best Picture.  Do the Right Thing had lead in Picture and Director on the first ballot, but was blocked in later voting and ended up falling behind My Left Foot and Paul Mazursky, the director of Enemies A Love Story.  Later, the National Society of Film Critics would add in their opinion, but their major awards, Picture, Director and Screenplay, would all go to Gus Van Sant’s film about Portland drug addicts, Drugstore Cowboy, which was not expected to get any Oscar love.

When the Golden Globes were announced on December 27, Driving Miss Daisy, Born on the Fourth of July and Glory were all making good money in limited release.  All were nominated for Best Picture, but Daisy was competing in the less heralded Comedy / Musical category against When Harry Met Sally, War of the Roses, Shirley Valentine and The Little Mermaid and was also missing the all-important Best Director and Screenplay nominations.  Born and Glory were both in those categories, along with Harry, Dead Poets Society and Do the Right Thing (with Crimes and Misdemeanors getting the final Best Picture slot but no other nominations).  By the time of the awards ceremony on January 20, Born had been the #1 film in the country for three weeks straight.  Born reaped the rewards, taking home Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor.  Daisy also did well – sweeping the Comedy categories of Picture, Actor and Actress.  The other four Picture / Director / Screenplay nominated films combined for only one awards – Supporting Actor for Denzel Washington in Glory.

Stone was also considered the favorite to win the Directors Guild again.  This time he was competing against Weir, Allen, Reiner and Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams).  All five of those films were also nominated for Writers Guild awards, along with Soderbergh, Uhry and Kevin Jarre for Glory.  Stone did win at the DGA but lost to Uhry at the WGA while Woody Allen won yet another Writers Guild Award, his fourth.  Born was easily the safest bet headed into the Oscar nominations, followed by Daisy, Dead Poets Society and When Harry Met Sally, with Glory, Field of Dreams, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Do the Right Thing hoping for that final spot.  (I personally was convinced it would be Born, Daisy, Poets, Field and Glory).

The Results:  I sat there stunned when the announcements were made.  Glory, my favorite film of the year, was out.  My Left Foot was in.  And Rob Reiner had again fallen short in Picture and Director in spite of a DGA nom.  Field of Dreams had also managed to get in, though with only three nominations.  Dead Poets Society was in the big races – Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor, but only had those 4 nominations.  The five nominees had combined for only 29 nominations – the lowest total since 1952.  But the biggest shock was that Bruce Beresford had still not managed to impress anyone with his direction of Driving Miss DaisyDaisy had a leading 9 nominations, but no Director nomination, and no film had won Best Picture without it since 1932.  Instead, Born, with 8 nominations, including Stone as the favorite to win Best Director, was in the lead again.

But then the box office seemed to peek its head out again.  Born stopped making money and Daisy suddenly became the big film at the box office, outgrossing Born by a more than 2 to 1 margin between the nominations and the Oscars.  On the big night, it still looked okay for Born.  The two films were head to head in four categories and Born won the first one, Best Editing.  Then Daisy won Best Adapted Screenplay before Born won Best Director (and they both lost Best Actor to My Left Foot).  Coming into Best Picture, Daisy had 3 Oscars while Born had 2.  Either Born would end up with the fewest Oscars for a Best Picture winner in 13 years or Daisy would become the first film in 57 years to win Picture without a Director nomination.  The latter happened and Oscar prognosticators everywhere were stunned.

Best Picture? Really?

Driving Miss Daisy

  • Director:  Bruce Beresford
  • Writer:  Alfred Uhry  (from his play)
  • Producer:  Richard D. Zanuck  /  Lili Fini Zanuck
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman, Dan Aykroyd, Patti LuPone
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Adapted From Another Medium, Actor (Freeman), Actress (Tandy), Supporting Actor (Aykroyd), Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  395
  • Length:  99 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $106.59 mil  (#8  –  1989)
  • Release Date:  15 December 1989
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #51  (year)  /  #375  (nominees)  /  #75  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Points:  none
  • First Watched:  The week after it won Best Picture at Cinemopolis with my mother, father and younger sister

The Film:  I remember being confused when the Golden Globe nominations were announced and Driving Miss Daisy was in the Comedy / Musical category.  It seemed like a dry, stuffy drama, the kind of thing people love on stage but doesn’t really come to life as a film.  Rewatching it for the first time in over 20 years, I see it now.  It’s a comedy.  Not a laugh-out-loud comedy or even a comedy of manners, but a human comedy about two very different people and how they actually mesh.  I think even less of it now then I did then.

So why did this film win Best Picture?  What was it about it that won people over?  Especially given that it was the only film since 1932 to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination.  Is it because it approaches the question of race relations in such a relaxed way that works so well for the typical Hollywood liberal?  It certainly is easier to take than the hard-edged approach of Do the Right Thing and was far more popular the vastly superior Glory.  It has an enjoyable performance from Morgan Freeman, an actor that everyone seems to love.  It was also a chance for Hollywood to show appreciation for Jessica Tandy — clearly the only explanation for her beating out Michelle Pfeiffer, who, after the critics and the Globes, seemed headed straight for Oscar glory before the Daisy momentum began.

But the Academy got suckered.  Watching the film, it’s amazing how shallow it is.  By focusing on a plot with a black man and a white woman in the South during the years after the war, it gives the illusion of a greater level of depth than it actually has.  In his original New York Times review, Vincent Canby concluded with a comment about the scene where the cop is disgusted by seeing the black man and the Jewish woman driving together.  “It is unnecessary,” Canby writes.  “The movie is too good for that sort of reverse editorial comment.”  But this is the opposite.  This is the only time that the film seems to come alive.  Sure, the performances are alive and though I don’t give nominations to Freeman or Tandy, they are both very good and Aykroyd was certainly a pleasant surprise.  But it’s like the film takes place in a bubble, in an alternate reality where such genial things were happening.  It never feels like it’s happening in the time and place where it’s happening.  It’s just the soft little comedy about two people growing old together and discovering they are the best of friends.  And somehow the Academy swallowed that up and looked at the other four films – the four great films they had nominated and went with the soft little film.

Baseball films just don't get better than this

Field of Dreams

  • Director:  Phil Alden Robinson
  • Writer:  Phil Alden Robinson  (from the novel by W.P. Kinsella)
  • Producer:  Lawrence Gordon  /  Charles Gordon
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, Burt Lancaster
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Adapted from Another Medium, Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  115
  • Length:  107 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Sports)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $64.43 mil  (#19  –  1989)
  • Release Date:  21 April 1989
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #36  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Costner), Supporting Actor (Jones), Supporting Actress (Madigan), Editing, Cinematography, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  295
  • First Watched:  Opening weekend at the Century Cinedome with Jay Weiland

The Film:  I sat there watching Field of Dreams on Father’s Day before going to my son’s baseball game.  What could have been more appropriate?  There is no question that this film is about baseball – about the love of baseball, the lore of baseball, the church of baseball.  It is also about storytelling – about the way these stories get passed down.  Eight Men Out was a very good film, but it was about the specific events of the Black Sox scandal.  This film is about the way we have ingrained those events into our history and into our families.  But most of all, it is about how those stories get passed down – from father to son.

If you watch the extras on the disc, watch all the baseball players that were asked about the film and all they talk about was what it meant to them in relation to their fathers.  And that’s what this come down to – how Ray Kinsella looks for redemption in his relationship with his father through baseball – the same sport that marred the relationship.  But he also passes it down to his daughter – keeps it alive for another generation.  I am reminded of the line from City Slickers, when Daniel Stern explains that when he was a teenager and he and his father couldn’t agree on anything, they could still talk about baseball.

But all of that is just the extra.  It’s the emotional connection to the film, a film I absolutely love and have loved from the first minute I saw it.  I saw it on opening weekend, just after watching Major League, a film it is not only infinitely better than, but also funnier than (the line “No, I think you had two fifties and went right on to the seventies” got more laughs than any line in Major League).  But the film itself is a great film, one of the best of the decade.

It is, first and foremost, a perfect example of adapting a novel.  There were aspects of the novel that had to be dropped – Ray’s twin brother, for instance – or changed – you certainly couldn’t depict J.D. Salinger in the film.  But they found a way to perfectly take the ideas behind the film and bring them to the screen – even the brilliant notion of the longing for the father to reappear, and to move it to the finale.  It is that decision, more than any other, that gets to the emotional core of the film, and when Ray finally recognizes who the catcher is, it is an emotionally heartfelt moment, even for those who have seen the film dozens of times.

But there is also the acting.  Field of Dreams wasn’t nominated by any group for any acting awards.  But it is a masterfully acted film, from start to finish.  It has one of the best performances of Kevin Costner’s career, an absolute magnificent performance from James Earl Jones, very strong supporting performances from Ray Liotta and Amy Madigan, and a pitch-perfect performance from Burt Lancaster at the twilight of his career.

I could go on about how well made the film is, about the score, about the wonderful cinematography in the corn fields, about the sound of a ball hitting the bat, or about the direction, the writing, the acting.  But what it comes down to is how much it hits at the emotional core of something I have always loved and hits me now, as a father, in a way I never could have imagined.  It stays with me now, wherever I go.  And not many films can say that.

Oliver Stone wins a second Best Director Oscar but falls short in the Best Picture race

Born on the Fourth of July

  • Director:  Oliver Stone
  • Writer:  Oliver Stone  /  Ron Kovic  (from the book by Kovic)
  • Producer:  A. Kitman Ho  /  Oliver Stone
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Tom Cruise, Kyra Sedgwick, Willem DaFoe
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Adapted From Another Medium, Actor (Cruise), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  335
  • Length:  145 min
  • Genre:  War  (Vietnam)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $70.00 mil  (#17  –  1989)
  • Release Date:  22 December 1989
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #74  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Cruise), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  285
  • First Watched:  Christmas break at the Century Cinedome with Jay Weiland

The Film:  In a sense, this is a sequel to Platoon.  Not in the literal sense, of course, but more in the sense that this is what happens after.  If Platoon is a reflection of Oliver Stone’s experiences in Vietnam, then Born on the Fourth of July, even though it is the story of Ron Kovic, is a reflection of Stone’s experience of returning home.  Stone, like Kovic, volunteered for Vietnam, was wounded, and returned home.  Stone’s physical wounds were not nearly as bad as Kovic’s and the resulting psychological wounds manifested themselves differently.  But in both of them was a mounting sense of anger, disillusionment and betrayal – at first towards those who opposed the war and who, they felt, were blaming them for the horrors of the war.  Later, their anger turned towards those in power who had convinced them to go off to war in the first place and who continued to wage what they, by then, felt was a wasteful, unwinnable war.

Stone does a magnificent job of giving us all of Kovic’s story.  We see the young boy, born, as the title says, on the Fourth of July.  We see the expectations set for him by his mother and we see his desire to be something important in a country that is at war and in need of strong, brave young boys.  Tom Cruise was already a huge star and had already proved himself as an actor, but this was his true breakthrough role.  He is so believable, with the braces and youthful looks, as the teenager, in love with a girl and a country and forcing himself to choose between them.  Then, we see the illusion of his country and the war fall before his eyes as he is transformed by his experiences in the war.  Looking back at the film, it is surprising to remember how little of the film is actually spent in Vietnam.  And this is a different Vietnam than in Platoon – that was all jungles and trees and underbrush, this is sand and dunes and dusk light reflecting in your eyes.  In Platoon, you watched the men reduced to barbarism and killing themselves.  Here, they try desperately to do what they think is right and find themselves incapable of holding firm against the horror of war.

But, in a sense, this isn’t about what happened in Vietnam.  True, if Kovic had never been to Vietnam, he would never have been paralyzed.  But this is really about what happened to Kovic when he came home – the disillusionment he felt, the sense of a growing divide between himself and other people.  That’s what Stone does so magnificently.  We see how Kovic slowly distances himself – first from his family, then from people who don’t understand the war, then, even from himself.  The battle in the desert with the other man in the wheelchair?  It might have actually happened, but it’s really Kovic grappling with himself and slowly learning who he is.

The film is expertly made, of course.  It won the Oscar for Director and Editing, and though I give both to Glory, both are excellent choices.  The Cinematography is amazing – not just the scenes in Vietnam (though, the scene where Kovic shoots his own man is perfectly shot), but also the shots in America – the shots of Long Island and the shots from the wheelchair height of the world around.  Then there is the acting – all the people in the smaller roles are good, but this was Cruise’s film all the way through, the film that really showed that he wasn’t just a star, but also a first-rate actor.

This was the film that really should have won – that was headed towards the win, and somehow the Academy wanted something a little lighter.  It’s no stain on it that it didn’t win.  Many films that don’t win are the ones that are remembered much much longer.

Miramax breaks through into the Best Picture race

My Left Foot

  • Director:  Jim Sheridan
  • Writer:  Jim Sheridan  /  Shane Connaughton  (from the book by Christy Brown)
  • Producer:  Noel Pearson
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Ray McAnally, Hugh O’Conor
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Adapted From Another Medium, Actor (Day-Lewis), Supporting Actress (Fricker)
  • Oscar Points:  265
  • Length:  103 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $14.74 mil  (#68  –  1989)
  • Release Date:  10 November 1989
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #11  (year)  /  #204  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Day-Lewis), Supporting Actress (Fricker)
  • Nighthawk Points:  170
  • First Watched:  on video in late 1990

The Film:  It was a measure of relief when I finally had a chance to see My Left Foot and it really was a great film.  It was the little British independent film that suddenly sprang forth with the awards and leapt into the Oscar race before anyone was expecting it – paving the way in the next few years for similar appearances by The Crying Game and In the Name of the Father.  It could have been so easy for My Left Foot to be a typical biopic, a film full of the greatness of Christy Brown’s life, how he overcame his handicap to become an esteemed writer and painter.  But it doesn’t whitewash its subject and it doesn’t ever bore us.  It shows us, right from the beginning, how unlikely it was that Christy even survived, surrounded in the house with a father who though nothing of him at first, too many siblings and too little money.  Yet, Christy is fiercely intelligent and his intelligence manifests itself in anger, the kind of anger that kicks out against a soccer ball and against the world.

This was the role that put Daniel Day-Lewis on the Oscar map.  Yet, it just shows how little the Academy tends to pay attention.  By this time, Day-Lewis had already given a brilliant star turn in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and not one, but two of the best supporting performances of 1986 in My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room with a View.  This performance is more difficult and Day-Lewis does an incredible job of never hamming it up – he always stays well within the character.

And Christy Brown is not the most pleasant of characters.  He was an alcoholic, he could be awful to people and he cared very little about feelings.  He felt that the world had dealt him an awful blow, that he had to work hard to overcome it while everyone else presumed he didn’t know what was going on, and he was going to make the most of what he could.  He used his condition when he needed to, ignored it when he could.  But this is not a story like The Miracle Worker.  It’s not just the miracle of Christy being able to read and write.  That comes early enough in the film, and besides, the framing device of the film is for a reading of his book.  It’s what he was able to do beyond that that really makes it work.  Well, that and the performances.  For once the Academy really got it right – not just with Day-Lewis, but also with Brenda Fricker, who is absolutely marvelous as his long-toiling mother who loves him so much.  In fact, if there is one drawback to the two Oscar winning performances is that they make us forget how good young Hugh O’Conor is as the young Christy.

It came along just as I began to appreciate poetry

Dead Poets Society

  • Director:  Peter Weir
  • Writer:  Tom Schulman
  • Producer:  Steven Haft  /  Paul Junger Witt  /  Tony Thomas
  • Studio:  Buena Vista
  • Stars:  Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Kurtwood Smith, Lloyd Nolan, Josh Charles
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Williams)
  • Oscar Points:  210
  • Length:  128 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $95.86 mil  (#10  –  1989)
  • Release Date:  2 June 1989
  • Ebert Rating:  **
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #12  (year)  /  #212  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Original Score
  • Nighthawk Points:  65
  • First Watched:  November 1989 at the City Cinema with Jay Weiland

The Film:  Sometimes, you feel like you got suckered – when films blatantly twist your emotions.  Sometimes you get suckered in thinking a film is better than it is because of its subject matter.  But sometimes, you actually get suckered – not because the film does anything untoward.  Rather, the film builds so perfectly on an emotional arc and peaks just at the right moment, with the right mix of dialogue and music and you find yourself swept up in the emotions.

I love Dead Poets Society.  I have always loved Dead Poets Society and I always will.  And in a sense, I do get suckered, every time I watch it.  But I think the film earns it.  It works towards its conclusion so perfectly, that when those students stand on those desks and that absolutely amazing Maurice Jarre score plays, I feel what those kids are feeling, and what that teacher is feeling.  Everyone I know feels that during those moments.

It is easy enough to be cynical about this film – the current Anthony Lane review of Bad Teachers excorciates all films like this about inspirational teachers.  But there are a few things that are in its favor.  First of all, it has the performance from Robin Williams.  Williams perfectly uses his moments of crazed brilliance and situates them perfectly into his teaching – it is not showing off just for the sake of showing off – he amuses the students as much as he does us, and he is touching and smart just when he needs to be.  Then there is the performance by the students.  Ethan Hawke is precisely as whiny as he needs to be, Robert Sean Leonard is pitch perfect and Josh Charles is memorable enough to draw me into Sports Night a decade later.

The third, and most important, thing about the film is that it loves the poetry that it teaches about.  It really can inspire people because it really did inspire me.  That it came along when I was the right age and that at that same time I did have my most inspirational teacher only worked together in its favor.  I can say no more except that when I watch it, I feel it, deep down in my bones and in my soul and a film that can do that – well that’s a film worth remembering.

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