the first eerie shot of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The 64th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1991.  The nominations were announced on February 19, 1992 and the awards were held on March 30, 1992.

Best Picture:  The Silence of the Lambs

  • JFK
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Bugsy
  • The Prince of Tides

Most Surprising Omission:  Thelma and Louise

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Fisher King

Rank (out of 83) Among Best Picture Years:  #9

The Race:  In the 1980′s, only three films released in February earned Best Picture nominations: Missing, Witness and Hannah and Her Sisters.  And Witness was one of only two films to make the Top 10 in box office gross for the year (the other was Footloose) and they were the only two February releases to make more than $50 million.  So when two thrillers opened on consecutive weekends of February 1991, not much was expected.  But Sleeping with the Enemy and Silence of the Lambs would become the first two February films to gross over $100 million and Silence would start getting the kind of critical reviews to make people pay attention – even to a film released in February.  (Although, to be fair, since 1991 no film released in February and only four films released before May have earned Best Picture nominations and, in spite of inflation, only three films released in February have outgrossed Silence).

The summer brought the typical blockbuster films, but while Terminator 2 drew great critical acclaim for its craftsmanship and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and City Slickers earned praise for their supporting performances (Alan Rickman and Jack Palance, respectively), but weren’t ever going to be serious Oscar contenders.  The films that were getting all the praise, and a considerable amount of conversation were Thelma and Louise and Boyz N the Hood.  The former starred Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon and the critics couldn’t decide which deserved more praise for their feminist fantasy, complete with one of the more talked about endings of the year.  The latter was a film from a young USC grad named John Singleton who was only 23.  Boyz was about young teens growing up in Compton, hoping to escape the gang life and also featured a much talked about ending.

With the onset of fall, only one film managed break through with the critics.  Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King was the biggest film of September.  Unlike Gilliam’s previous films, he hadn’t written it, but also unlike his previous films, it was not a box office disaster.  The film, the script, the direction, and especially the performance of star Robin Williams were all earning praise.  Then came November, and two highly anticipated films, both bowing on the same day.  There was Cape Fear, which once again re-united Scorsese and DeNiro, but while DeNiro got praise, the film didn’t get nearly the acclaim that GoodFellas had gotten and was soon swept aside for Oscar consideration.  But there was also Beauty and the Beast, the newest Disney film, riding high on the critical and financial success of The Little Mermaid.  Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (who had died in March) were getting most of the praise for their wonderful songs, but the film itself quickly became the third biggest film of the year (behind T2 and Robin Hood) and the critical praise was so high that people began to wonder if an animated film could finally break through and earn a Best Picture nomination.

As usual, the bulk of the big Oscar films started coming out just before Christmas.  First came Barry Levinson’s Bugsy, with star Warren Beatty getting his best reviews in a decade.  The day after Bugsy opened, the LA Film Critics kicked off the awards season by giving it Best Picture, Director and Screenplay.  Two days later, the National Board of Review chimed in by naming Silence of the Lambs Best Picture and Director.  The New York Film Critics went the next day and for the first time in 7 years, they agreed with the National Board of Review, also bestowing Best Picture and Director on Silence.

Not lost among the awards was the new film by Oliver Stone.  JFK first started getting press back in May when an article in the Washington Post prompted Stone to write a rebuttal that also appeared in the Post.  Indeed, before the film was released on 20 December, enough newspaper articles and letters had been printed that they fill 71 pages of the published script.  But all the press, much of it negative, didn’t stop people from seeing the film and didn’t stop the critics from mostly praising it.  It was followed a week later by Barbra Streisand’s first directorial effort since Yentl, The Prince of Tides.

Two days later, both Prince of Tides and JFK joined Silence of the Lambs, The Fisher King and Bugsy in the Best Picture and Best Director races at the Golden Globes.  Thelma and Louise was the final Best Picture – Drama nominee.  The Fisher King looked set to win Best Picture – Comedy, since it was the only Comedy nominee with a Director nomination and only three times in Globe history had a film nominated for Best Director lost to a film that wasn’t (though one of those three was When Harry Met Sally, just two years earlier).  Bugsy had the most nominations (8) but JFK had all the attention on it.  The National Society of Film Critics didn’t help solve anything by giving Best Picture to Life is Sweet, a small British film from Mike Leigh and Best Director to David Cronenberg for his adaptation of Naked Lunch.

The Globe awards themselves didn’t sort out the Oscar race at all.  Of the five films nominated for Picture and Director, only Fisher King won more than one award – and it actually lost Picture to Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to ever win.  The five films took home Picture – Drama (Bugsy), Director (JFK), Actor – Drama (Prince of Tides), Actress – Drama (Silence of the Lambs) and Supporting Actress and Actor – Comedy (Fisher King).  Thelma and Louise won Best Screenplay while Beauty and the Beast also won Score and Song.

Next up were the guilds.  Silence of the Lambs was nominated for the Producers Guild alongside JFK, Prince of Tides, Boyz N The Hood, Globe – Comedy nominee The Commitments and At Play in the Fields of the Lord.  Streisand actually made it into the Directors Guild nominations for the first time, increasing the likelihood that she would be the first American female director to earn an Oscar nomination.  Joining her in the race, and helping to narrow the Oscar race were Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs), Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise), Levinson and Stone.  All five films were also in the Writers Guild race, along with Fisher King and Boyz N the Hood, keeping their Oscar hopes alive.

The Results:  Coming off the Globe win, Bugsy looked strongest on nomination morning, emerging with 10 nominations.  The good news was that no film with the most nominations (as opposed to tying) had lost Best Picture since 1981.  The bad news was that the last film to do it had also starred Warren Beatty: his own Reds.  While Silence (7 noms) and JFK (8 noms) both looked strong, the biggest surprise of the morning was a toss-up between Prince of Tides making it into the Best Picture race without Streisand in the Best Director race or that Beauty and the Beast had managed to do it and become the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture.  It was Thelma and Louise that had fallen by the wayside, though it had 6 nominations, including Director and was the favorite to win the Original Screenplay category.  No film had won it without a Best Picture nomination since 1980, but Thelma added the WGA Award to its haul and it looked like a shoo-in (making it the fourth straight film to win the Original Screenplay at the WGA after failing to earn a Best Picture nomination, joining Bull Durham, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Avalon).

Unfortunately for Bugsy, Silence was now racking up awards: the DGA, WGA and PGA.  The stumble at the Globes didn’t seem to be bothering it now and it looked set to perhaps become the first film since 1975 to win the big 5 awards: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress.  And sure enough, while the technical awards were going to JFK, Bugsy and Terminator 2 and Beauty and the Beast was winning the music awards, when it came down to it, all the big ones went the same way.  Silence of the Lambs had joined It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in immortality.

deserving winner of the big 5: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs

  • Director:  Jonathan Demme
  • Writer:  Ted Tally  (from the novel by Thomas Harris)
  • Producer:  Edward Saxon  /  Kenneth Utt  /  Ron Bozman
  • Studio:  Orion
  • Stars:  Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Scott Glenn
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Actor (Hopkins), Actress (Foster), Editing, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  455
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $130.74 mil  (#4 – 1991)
  • Release Date:  14 February 1991
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #24  (nominees)  /  #  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hopkins), Actress (Foster), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  605
  • First Watched:  opening night at Cinemopolis with Jake Bassett

The Film:  JFK is one of the best edited films of all-time.  It won the Oscar, ACE and BAFTA.  Yet, I have the gall to give the Nighthawk Award for Best Editing to Silence of the Lambs.  How can I possibly justify that?  Well, watch the DVD.  I don’t mean watch the film.  I mean watch the DVD.  Go to the deleted scenes and watch them.  Then watch the film again.  Then watch the deleted scenes again.  Every one of these scenes belonged on the cutting room floor.  None of them were bad scenes, but not a single one belonged in the film and that is a first, at least in my mind, when watching deleted scenes.  It just goes to show what kind of job Craig McKay did with this film.  Working with that brilliant script from Ted Tally and with absolute perfect direction from Jonathan Demme, they figured out exactly what needed to be in the film and left those in and exactly what needed to not be in the film and that was left on the floor (or, on the extras of the DVD to be precise).

Watch the middle of the film.  Watch them prepare to face Lector on the top of the elevator.  Then, in quick succession, comes the body coming through the top of the elevator, then the ambulance, the officer sitting up and pulling off that face (a scene that caused everyone in the theater to jump), then Starling’s roommate running down the hall, then her look of consternation.  All of it takes about 30 seconds.  It is a magnificent bit of film-making.  Everyone talks about Silence because it was one of those rare films that manage to win the big 5 Oscars – and in my opinion, the only one of those three that deserved all 5.  And, like the previous two films, it failed to win any technical Oscars.  But that’s because the acting is so unbelievably good – I say unbelievable because when you have careers like Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster and you give what is by far your best performances, it starts to seem beyond belief.  But this film is incredibly well-made.  True, the Academy did nominate it for Editing and Sound, but it won neither.  They didn’t reward its Editing or Cinematography with Oscars (namely because it was up against JFK, which is first rate in both of those categories), but it also didn’t nominate it’s nice subtle score, its incredible makeup work or the fantastic art direction.  Think of how instantly iconic Lector’s cells – not just the first one, but also the later one in Memphis – instantly became.  Anyone who knows anything about film would instantly recognize the scenes from Silence.

Thomas Harris’ novel is a very good thriller.  It brings to life the perfect fictional psychopath.  And it functions as a great blueprint for the film.  In fact, reading the book, it struck me that the last page was the only thing that wasn’t in the film (in the novel, Starling does go to bed with the doctor who was hitting on her and in the final line “she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.”  But the key is what isn’t in the book.  In the book, Lector has escaped and is holed up in a hotel planning his next move and sends letters off – including one to Dr. Chilton with a dangerous threat and one to Clarice.  But while some of the information in his letter to Clarice is the same as what he says on the phone, there is one vital difference and it was part of what immediately made this film one for the ages.  That brilliant ending, with that brilliant line is nowhere to be found in the book.  We can thank the makers of the film for giving us that eternally happy, yet disturbing ending, of Hannibal walking down the street after his old nemesis having uttered one of the great lines in movie history: “I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

a film that still stirs up controversy: Oliver Stone's JFK (1991)

JFK

  • Director:  Oliver Stone
  • Writer:  Oliver Stone  /  Zachary Sklar  (from the book On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison)
  • Producer:  A. Kitman Ho  /  Oliver Stone
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Supporting Actor (Jones), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  310
  • Length:  189 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $70.40 mil  (#17 – 1991)
  • Release Date:  20 December 1991
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #68  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  275
  • First Watched:  opening weekend at the Century Cinedome with my sister Stacy

The Film:  I don’t believe that Clay Shaw had anything to do with the death of John F. Kennedy.  I don’t think that Oliver Stone believes that Clay Shaw had anything to do with the death of John F. Kennedy.  I even have my doubts that Jim Garrison truly believed that Clay Shaw had anything to do with the death of John F. Kennedy.  And it might not really matter, because Shaw’s guilt (not even remotely proved, in life, or in this film) isn’t really the case.  This film is all about the doubts of who killed JFK.  After all, like the Stones once said “I shouted out who killed the Kennedys?  /  When after all, it was you and me.”

This film is not a documentary.  It never purports to be a documentary.  Even though it makes use of extensive historical research (the published screenplay has 340 notes that explain where various lines come from), the film never tries to be a historical record.  There are two things at play here.  One is that the film is a feature film record of the Clay Shaw trial and the work that Jim Garrison put into it and what it did to his life.  To that extent, it is telling a story that actually happened.  On the other hand, the published screenplay makes it clear that the film is not a transcript of life as it happened.  In the scene with X, one of the most fascinating scenes in the film, there is the following note: “This scene purports to illustrate the problems Garrison – and indeed, anyone investigating the Kennedy assassination – had with the FBI.”  It then adds that X is based loosely on Fletcher Prouty and “While the authors met with Prouty, Jim Garrison did not meet him until several years after the Clay Shaw trial.  However, over the course of his investigation Garrison came to believe that the root causes of the assassination loomed much larger than the plot in New Orleans.”  In other words, this scene didn’t actually happen in real life and Stone and Sklar aren’t claiming that it did.  But it serves a valuable point in the film and Sutherland’s performance is magnificent.

Now, I will pause to mention something that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote in an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal on January 10, 1992, which is also in the published screenplay.  “Robert Kennedy had his doubts about the Warren Commission,” Schlesinger writes.  “He regarded it is a poor job but was unwilling to criticize it and thereby re-open the whole tragic business.”  Schlesinger then mentions that in 67, RFK thought that Garrison might be on to something, but after NBC sent investigator Walter Sheridan to New Orleans and RFK talked to him, RFK told Schlesinger “Sheridan is satisfied that Garrison is a fraud.”  Schlesinger told Stone that and Stone “replied rather sharply that Mr. Sheridan had come to New Orleans with his mind made up, almost implying that Mr. Sheridan too was part of the conspiracy.  Conspiracy theory makes it dangerously easy to explain away all objections.”  This is all too true and is the problem with most books on the assassination of JFK.

I will mention something which some already know.  I am somewhat of a JFK conspiracy buff.  I have a lot of books on the subject, and to be frank, most of them are quite absurd.  They are entertaining and there are shreds of truth in all of them, but I find them all as utterly inconclusive as the actual Warren Report, which I also have and sits on the same shelf.  The most compelling reading is actually Garrison’s book itself On the Trail of the Assassins.  The best of them is The Encyclopedia of the JFK Assassination, which is precisely what it says it is and offers no specific conclusion.  The worst is the utterly ridiculous Blood, Money and Power: How LBJ Killed JFK.  But the more I read of these books, the less I believe any of their conclusions.  I buy into very little of the Warren Report, but the older I get, the less firmly believe anything other than that.  I just don’t know what happened.  And neither do you.

Neither does Oliver Stone, and I think he would admit it without hesitation.  Here’s the thing about this film: if you get your history of the events surrounding the events of the Shaw trial from the film, you’re doing okay.  But if you get your history of the events surrounding the assassination of JFK from this film, you are at best naive and at worst an idiot.  Likewise, if your beef with this film is that it uses a rather badly conceived case against Clay Shaw to examine the myths and confusion over the JFK assassination, you are at best nit-picking and at worst a jackass.  Schlesinger wrote, in that Op-Ed, that Stone’s “explosive style defeats the idea of the film as a judicious analysis of alternative theories.”  But Stone isn’t really showing us an analysis of anything, no matter how many research notes he gives us.  He is using one particular case to explore history.  Whether or not you agree with him or his conclusions (if you can really say that there are any actual conclusions), there is no questioning that it is an explosive style and that is the real core of the film.  Stone did make rather dubious claims about the authenticity of the events in the film, but really, he is using all of these things together, myths, legends, illusions, facts, to weave together a film that got everyone talking for months on end; the Reactions and Commentaries section of the published script covers 369 days and 343 pages.

Now, this film is a tricky thing.  In watching it, I am reminded of Irwin Shaw’s comment on Vonnegut: “If (young writers) become enthusiastic, it’s about someone like Kurt Vonnegut, who is uncopyable.  If they try to copy him, they’re in for a disaster.”  I love Vonnegut, but there is absolutely truth to Shaw’s comment.  I saw this in grad school when I read a novel by a fellow student that was obviously inspired by Vonnegut and it was almost unreadable.  Stone does something amazing here, with the way he constantly weaves the documentary footage, with historical re-enactments, the feature film in the present with the feature film in the past.  It is a style that works perfectly for this film and doesn’t really work in other films, no matter how much directors might try.  Stone tried it again with Nixon and it almost sank the film under the weight of its pretensions.  But here, with the masterful editing of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia, not to mention the marvelous cinematography of Robert Richardson (both of which won Oscars), everything works towards one goal.  A film that easily could have been an incoherent mess turns out to be a masterpiece.

Now, if you want to criticize the film for the way it is put together, I can understand that.  It is new and different and I often find myself explaining to people that just because Godard was new and different didn’t mean that he was good.  I think the film is brilliant in the way it works towards its end by making all of this work together.  It is magnificently directed, it is intelligent, it is interesting.  It has a massive cast that always works well together – hell when the biggest problem is that your star, the biggest star in the world at the time, doesn’t have the most believable accent, then you’re doing fairly well.  But, even with all the confusion with all the characters, you never lose sight of who is who.  It was the culmination of Costner’s stay at the top, it helped to make Gary Oldman a better-known actor and it earned Tommy Lee Jones his first Oscar nomination.  It only wins one Nighthawk Award – Best Original Score (and John Williams’ score is great, from start to finish), but it comes in second place to the same film for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing and Cinematography.  It is this film’s bad luck to be in the same year as Silence of the Lambs, and I think it might have walked away with Oscars for Picture and Director if not for Silence (and that Stone had already won two directing Oscars in the previous five years).

If you watch this film and you don’t like the way it is constructed, if it seems too much to you like much of the shoddy work and editing that would follow from so many films in the two decades since its release, then I can certainly understand that.  If your issue with this film is that you don’t like the way it presents its story and you think it distorts history, then you need to be re-introduced to the idea of the feature film.

an animated film breaks through to the Best Picture race: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Beauty and the Beast

  • Director:  Gary Trousdale  /  Kirk Wise
  • Writer:  Linda Woolverton  /  Roger Allers  /  Brenda Chapman  /  Burny Matinson  /  Brian Pimenthal  /  Joe Ranft  /  Kelly Asbury  /  Chris Sanders  /  Kevin Harkey  /  Bruce Woodside  /  Tom Ellery  /  Robert Lence  (from the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont)
  • Producer:  Don Hahn
  • Studio:  Disney
  • Stars:  Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, David Ogden Stiers, Jerry Orbach, Angela Lansbury
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Score, Sound, Original Song (“Beauty and the Beast”), Original Song (“Be Our Guest”), Original Song (“Belle”)
  • Oscar Points:  160
  • Length:  84 min
  • Genre:  Kids  (Animated Musical)
  • MPAA Rating:  G
  • Box Office Gross:  $145.86 mil  (#3 – 1991)
  • Release Date:  15 November 1991
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #74  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Original Score, Original Song (“Something There”), Original Song (“Beauty and the Beast”), Animated Film
  • Nighthawk Points:  210
  • First Watched:  opening night at the Brea Theater with Mary Hawkins (our first date)

The Film:  This is one of the great first date movies of all-time.  It’s no coincidence that I took Mary there.  But wait a minute, I was 17 and so was she and this was a Disney film.  Can I be serious?  Absolutely – a perfect first date movie.  Now, the Disney films of the 40′s and 50′s are great, but aside from possibly Sleeping Beauty, they’re not really date films.  There might be a prince waiting at the end of the story, but that doesn’t really make it romantic.  But The Little Mermaid caused a revolution.  The fairy tale romance, the fantastic animation, the absolutely magnificent songs from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman all combined for a first-rate film.  It was the first truly great Disney animated film in 30 years and the best in almost 50 years.  And then came Beauty and the Beast and they upped the ante.  Having seen The Little Mermaid a couple of dozen times, knowing that this was all the same talent involved, knowing the story, I knew that this was what I was looking for on our first date.

I was right.  Damn, was I ever right.  Beauty and the Beast is the only film since Little Mermaid to match it and it ranks third on the Disney list, behind only Bambi and Fantasia.  It has everything you could ever want in a Disney film.  First of all, it has a wonderful story, one of the most magnificent fairy tale stories and manages to almost keep pace with Cocteau’s version, one of the great films of all-time.  Second, it has a wonderful selection of voice actors, namely the three major supporting players of David Ogden Stiers, Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury.  It is their performances that truly make the film.  But then there is what they have to work with.  Unless you want to count the first two Beatles films there just aren’t musicals filled with as many wonderful songs as these two films – the very best of Menken and Ashman, a team that had already been cut short before this film was even released.  Just like with Little Mermaid, they proved here that they could combine romance (“Beauty and the Beast”) with wit (“Belle”) and humor (“Gaston”).  The humor is an intricate part of the film – a line like “Lefou I’m afraid I’ve been thinking” “A dangerous pasttime” “I know” or the look on the Beast’s face when Belle refuses to come down to dinner.  In fact, they did themselves proud with three Oscar nominated songs and, like with Mermaid, they didn’t even nominate what I think is the best song in the film (“Part of Your World” in Mermaid, “Something There” in Beauty).

But then there is the thing that they had started with Mermaid and they really developed here: Belle doesn’t have to wait for her Prince to come and kiss her at the end of the story (true, Ariel technically needed the kiss, but she was a much more active heroine than the traditional Disney princesses).  Belle is strong and smart and witty and willing to stand up to the Beast.  She is the best heroine that has ever come out of the Magic Kingdom and that deserves to be remembered.  Movies don’t have to be about positive role models.  But when you can have a film as good as this, as entertaining as this, hell, as magical as this, and it can still provide such a wonderful role model for young girls, then it deserves all the praise in the world.

I think Bugsy (1991) would have been better if Beatty had directed it

Bugsy

  • Director:  Barry Levinson
  • Writer:  James Toback
  • Producer:  Mark Johnson  /  Barry Levinson  /  Warren Beatty
  • Studio:  Tri-Star
  • Stars:  Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Beatty), Supporting Actor (Kingsley), Supporting Actor (Keitel), Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  350
  • Length:  136 min
  • Genre:  Crime  (Gangster)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $49.11 mil  (#25 – 1991)
  • Release Date:  13 December 1991
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #18  (year)  /  #243  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Beatty), Supporting Actor (Kingsley), Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  115
  • First Watched:  opening weekend at the Century Cinedome

The Film:  Barry Levinson is a very good director.  He is quite good with human dramas and comedies; his track record includes Diner, Tin Men, Rain Man, Avalon and Wag the Dog.  But he doesn’t do as well outside his comfort zone and his films can suffer for it – indeed, in the 20 years since Bugsy, Levinson has made 12 more films but only Wag the Dog is any good.  Bugsy is a very good film, but in the hands of another director, it possibly could have been a great film.  A director like Warren Beatty, perhaps.  Beatty has only directed four films – but with a romantic comedy, a historical epic, a comic book action film and a political satire, he has shown his wide range.

I remember watching Bugsy the first time, in the theater, and thinking that it lacked something.  It wasn’t that it wasn’t as good as GoodFellas – hell, nothing was going to be as good as GoodFellas.  It was a combination of things.  There was the disjointedness of the script – true, Bugsy Siegel himself was a bit disjointed and that surely had something to do with it, but it seemed like the script could have been tightened up a bit more.  Then there was the lack of chemistry between the stars – odd, given that Bening and Beatty were in the process of becoming real-life partners, but there was definitely something missing between them.  These are both things that a better director might have done more with.

Not to run down the film too much, though.  It is a very good film.  It looks absolutely great – with wonderful cinematography (it just misses out on a Nighthawk nomination), great art direction and costumes worthy of both the Nighthawk and the Oscar.  It is also, aside from Bening, who doesn’t quite seem to pull off Virginia Hill, very well acted.  It has good supporting performances from Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley and has, what in some ways, is the consummate Warren Beatty performance.  In spite of award worthy performances in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait and Reds, this was really the first time since Bonnie and Clyde that a film had really found the two things competing at the heart of Warren Beatty – the utter charm and confidence that could win over anybody (it makes me think of the famous moment where Jack Warner pointed at the Warner Bros. tower when Beatty was begging him to make Bonnie and Clyde and asking Beatty if his name was up there and Beatty replied, “No, but they’re my initials.”) and the explosiveness hiding just below the surface.  All of these combine together in a really winning way, but not a complete way.

I noticed it again when watching the film this time.  I had moved it up to a **** film during the intervening years, but after watching it again, it slipped back to ***.5.  It just doesn’t hold together completely.  The film tries to do a bit too much and all the loose ends seem to fray a little at the edges.  The goal seemed to be a little bit out of Levinson’s reach — too bad, since he was so much closer here than in all the years since.

The Prince of Tides (1991) gets a Best Picture nom. Director Barbra Streisand does not make it into the Director race.

The Prince of Tides

  • Director:  Barbra Streisand
  • Writer:  Pat Conroy  /  Becky Johnston  (from the novel by Pat Conroy)
  • Producer:  Barbra Streisand  /  Andrew Karsch
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand, Kate Nelligan
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Actor (Nolte), Supporting Actress (Nelligan), Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  225
  • Length:  132 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $74.78 mil  (#16 – 1991)
  • Release Date:  27 December 1991
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #33  (year)  /  #316  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Nolte), Supporting Actress (Nelligan)
  • Nighthawk Points:  65
  • First Watched:  opening weekend at the Century Cinedome with Jay Weiland and John Ramirez

The Film:  “Don’t psychanalyze me Mom.  Save it for your patients.”  Those are the words spoken to Susan Lowenstein by her son part way though The Prince of Tides.  “It must have suck to have a parent who would do that,” said my friend John as we sat and watched the film.  Then he and Jay turned and looked at me.  “It does,” I replied.  It made for an amusing moment while watching the film, but in some ways it gets to the core, both of relationships, and the film itself.

Her son doesn’t want her to look inside of him much as I didn’t want my mother, with her degree of psychology, trying to tell me why I did the things I did.  But Susan’s son will probably, like me, be thankful for those insights later on.  I can recognize my OCD, see my own depression and I have a great understanding of who I am.  Likewise, her son is likely to come to a good understanding of who he is.  Not so for Tom Wingo, the man who comes into Susan’s life because she was his sister’s psychiatrist – his sister who recently killed herself.  Tom doesn’t really know who he is so full of anger, especially towards his mother (not his father, the abusive drunk he survived, but his mother).  He doesn’t seem to know why his sister killed herself.  That’s because there are dark things at the heart of Tom’s history and Tom, in that traditional Southern way that asks you not to look too deep, doesn’t really know what’s inside – either his head or his past.  What Susan finds within Tom helps her to remember what she has in her own heart and helps Tom deal with his past and his anger.

But of course, that’s the movie of it all.  Not the reality.  In films, breakthroughs are vital.  They are the only thing that can move the story along.  If you have no breakthrough, then how can you have an ending?  But breakthroughs really don’t come like they do in this film.  In real life, psychoanalysis is more like Woody Allen lives it in Annie Hall – 15 years of therapy and still going back.  But Tom finds an amazing road back into his past and finds the horrible things that happened to him and his sister and he begins to understand all of his anger.  It is a tribute to the performance of Nick Nolte – the very finest of his career, that all of this doesn’t seem completely ridiculous.  But it is hard to watch the film and find yourself believing that things come through like this.

All of the film is well-made.  Streisand does a good job with the directing and a solid job in a rather silly role – the good-looking psychiatrist who must make a breakthrough with her client while also falling in love with him.  The film is well-shot, it looks great, it has a wonderful supporting performance by Kate Nelligan as a mother who really is rather easy to hate.  But the film relies too much on the necessary course of the plot and it just isn’t believable.  In the end, that’s what keeps it as a good film and doesn’t quite allow it to move into the higher level.