Ben Kingsley in his Oscar winning role as Gandhi (1982)

The 55th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1982.  The nominations were announced on February 17, 1983 and the awards were held on April 11, 1983.

Best Picture:  Gandhi

  • The Verdict
  • Tootsie
  • Missing
  • E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial

Most Surprising Omission:  Das Boot

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Sophie’s Choice

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #22

The Race: The first critically acclaimed film of the year was making headlines before it was even released.  The State Department released a statement denying any involvement in the events portrayed in the new Costa-Gavras film Missing, and while it didn’t make for big box office, it did get critical attention.  Next up was Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria.  If the cross-dressing farce didn’t get quite as much critical attention, it did do much better at the box office.  There was also Das Boot, the tense German World War II film that was getting heaps of critical attention and was doing very well for a Foreign Film.  But then came summer.

With summer came the new Steven Spielberg film.  E.T. premiered on closing night at Cannes to roaring applause and instantly the critics and the fans were won over.  Before long it was the runaway hit of all-time, taking the box office crown back from Star Wars.  After that, there was nothing to do but wait until December when the Oscar fare was lined up.  In a flurry of activity before Christmas came Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, Sophie’s Choice (the adaptation of William Styron’s award winning novel), Tootsie – the new huge comedy with Dustin Hoffman and Richard Attenborough’s long-awaited biopic Gandhi.

It was Spielberg and the summer fare that won the first critics over.  The L.A. Film Critics, the same who had given Best Picture to Star Wars, now bestowed Picture and Director on Spielberg’s film, though major awards also went to Gandhi (Actor), Sophie’s Choice (Actress) and Tootsie (Screenplay).  Next up was the National Board of Review and they went for the more traditional awards fare of Gandhi for Picture and Actor, though going with Sidney Lumet for Director.  The New York Film Critics followed the NBR for the third year in a row and also chose Gandhi for Picture and Actor, though they went with Tootsie director Sydney Pollack.  Tootsie was the big winner at the National Society of Film Critics, taking home Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Screenplay, though, in the spirit of not aligning Picture and Director, their award went to Spielberg.

The Golden Globes listed Gandhi as a Foreign Film and thus it was ineligible for Best Picture.  But it would win Best Foreign Film, Director, Screenplay and Actor.  Tootsie and E.T. would split the Picture awards with Missing and The Verdict joining them in the Picture, Director and Screenplay races, but clearly the momentum was shifting to Gandhi.  The final two Best Picture (Drama) choices, Sophie’s Choice and An Officer and a Gentleman clearly were on the outside looking in.  The Directors Guild gave hope to Officer and Das Boot as both films were in instead of Missing and The Verdict, but even so, Gandhi, Tootsie and E.T. were clearly ahead.  All of the major films except Gandhi and Das Boot were in the Writers Guild race.

The Results: Gandhi was in the lead with 11 nominations, including all the majors.  Tootsie had 10 nominations and had the lead over E.T. (which had 9) with multiple acting nominations while E.T. had none.  The Verdict and Missing were in the race but were unlikely to contend, especially as Missing had missed out on the final Best Director nod, which instead went to Das Boot director Wolfgang Peterson.  Gandhi‘s momentum only increased with a win at the DGA a few weeks later.  E.T. and Tootsie gained some hopes with their WGA wins but on awards night it quickly became clear which way things were headed.  Unlike the year before where everything was still up in the air, and in spite of E.T.’s four awards, Gandhi, also with four awards looked strong headed into the final stretch.  Tootsie won Best Supporting Actress (its only award of the night) and Missing repeated its WGA win with Adapted Screenplay, but Gandhi won Original Screenplay over both WGA winners, and then finished the night with Director, pausing for Sophie’s Choice to win Actress, then taking Actor and, finally, Picture.

for the third year in a row an actor wins Best Director - this time Richard Attenborough for Gandhi

Gandhi

  • Director:  Richard Attenborough
  • Writer:  John Briley
  • Producer:  Richard Attenborough
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Ben Kingsley, Roshan Seth, Ian Charleson, Rohini Hattangadi
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Kingsley), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  565
  • Length:  191 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $52.76 mil  (#12 – 1982)
  • Release Date:  10 December 1982
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #19  (year)  /  #277  (nominees)  /  #59  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Kingsley), Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  110

The Film:  Now that’s what I’m talking about, the Academy seemed to say in 1982.  It was a big, long film – an epic in length in scope.  It was from their old buddies, the Brits, who were back in vogue, having just won Best Picture the year before with Chariots of Fire, but showed that they understood their problems as well as their strengths, for the Brits didn’t come off looking too well.  It was also directed by an actor turned director – just looking the two previous winners of the Best Director Oscar.  Plus, in telling the life story of Mahatma Gandhi, it allowed the members of the Hollywood left to smile in their knowing liberal way.  In short, it was everything the Academy loves to reward – especially since it is not exactly the kind of thing that hauls in buckets of cash and this kind of prestige makes the Academy look like they are rewarding art instead of just the popular thing of the moment.

But what about the film itself?  Was it really worthy of 8 Oscar among 11 nominations, including the big ones – Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Actor?  To be brief, no.  The most justifiable is the award for Best Actor to Ben Kingsley.  After all, Kingsley does a magnificent job – as believable as the idealistic young lawyer in South Africa as he is old and dying after being shot by a young man who does not believe that peace is the way.  And though I do not give him my award, I have my top four (Kingsley, Newman, Hoffman, Lemmon) as a virtual tie and have no real objections to the Oscar.  But what about Best Picture?  It certainly has that nice epic scope.  The problem is in trying to condense anyone’s life down to a few hours, especially when it intersects so much with the larger tale of history.  In the end, it often feels like a greatest hits package.  There is really a limit to how great any straight-forward biopic is going to be, no matter how good the performances or important the person.  It is a good film, but it does begin to drag in parts and you wonder why they felt the need to overwhelm us with so much history.  You begin to think, well, Gandhi was a great man and he went about things the right way, but non-violence sure does detract from the dramatic impact of a story.  The telling of the life story of a great man does not necessarily make for a great story.  That, I think, in a nutshell, also explains why it definitely shouldn’t have won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

Which leaves us with Best Director.  In 1980 it was Scorsese who saw his chances for an Oscar slip away in favor of an actor turned director.  And though Richard Attenborough had been directing for over 10 years by this point, it was Spielberg’s turn to feel his chance slip away.  In reality, no science-fiction film, especially one aimed at kids, was going to have a chance to win against a big epic biopic.  But Attenborough eventually wears you down with the big shots, as if saying, look, it’s history, this is important.  All of this is to say that Gandhi is a very good film, one anchored in an excellent performance.  But it is not a great film and cost the Academy the chance to reward several great films – which all of the other nominees were.

The Verdict - one of Newman's best performances (1982)

The Verdict

  • Director:  Sidney Lumet
  • Writer:  David Mamet  (based on the novel by Barry Reed)
  • Producer:  Richard D. Zanuck  /  David Brown
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, James Mason, Jack Warden
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Actor (Newman), Supporting Actor (Mason)
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  129 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Courtroom)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $53.97 mil  (#11 – 1982)
  • Release Date:  10 December 1982
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #160  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Newman), Supporting Actor (Mason)
  • Nighthawk Points:  235

The Film:  Marlon Brando faded out, then came back, then became a joke.  James Dean drove his way into immortality.  Montgomery Clift damaged his body, then his psyche, then was gone.  It was Paul Newman who outlasted them all.  Here, he is at his best as Frank Galvin.  Galvin is a washed up attorney, one who crashes a funeral to get clients, a drunk standing there at the pinball machine overlooking the cemetery on the edge of Boston Common.  He suddenly finds himself with a case in his hand that will hand him a tidy paycheck – a settlement over a medical malpractice suit.  Galvin is all set to take it, even when the number is smaller than he thought it would be.  But something happens inside of him and he realizes that he can not take it – that it will doom him to the life he is currently living.  This is his one chance to remember what it is like to be a lawyer and a man and he moves forward to trial.

What follows happens in a lot of films.  There is a defense attorney who is considered a slime bag (“He’s a good man,” Frank says about him, but his friend Mickey replies “He’s a good man?  Heh, heh.  He’s the Prince of fucking Darkness.”).  There is the judge who feels that Frank should have taken the settlement and has no sympathy for him (this judge is so reminiscent of the judge in A Civil Action, which also takes place in Boston and is based on a true story and both of them are perfect examples of that magnificent Boston judicial arrogance – that I have become the judge and you had better bow to my viewpoint).  There is the surprise witness that will change the course of the trial.  There is also even the old storyline of the person in the life of the lawyer who is not who she seems.  So much of this has come before and will come in films again.  So why is this film so different?  Why is this film the best of a very good crop of Oscar nominees?

Part of it is Newman’s performance, so magnificent as a man struggling to find his way through an alcoholic haze into a semblance of manhood.  He is able to say so much with just his eyes, especially in the way that he stares at the phone in the final scene.  Part of it is the sly, subtle performance from James Mason as the defense attorney.  So many people overplay the sleazy lawyer bit, but he perfectly underplays it, knowing exactly how to ask the questions and how to react.  There are few performances that seem more lawyerly.  But there is also the script, the way it so naturally builds and maintains every character within the framework that it has built.  Everyone does exactly what they would do in real life.  And there are nice subtle, human touches.  After the devastating testimony, which is stricken from the record, the Bishop asks about the testimony.  When the man he is talking to has his little joke, he asks again.  He genuinely wants to know the answer.  And therein lies the heart of the film – the beating, human heart of the film, that people actually care at times.  We are reminded of it again when the jury asks the question of the judge at the end – and the look in the judge’s eyes when he realizes what they have done.  Sometimes having all the power isn’t enough.  Just like having the money isn’t enough and that’s why Frank isn’t around to hear it.  He’s busy sitting in that room, not answering that phone and reminding himself of what life has to offer.

A hit then - a great film always: Tootsie (1982)

Tootsie

  • Director:  Sydney Pollack
  • Writer:  Don McGuire  /  Larry Gelbart  /  Murray Schisgal
  • Producer:  Sydney Pollack  /  Dick Richards
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Bill Murray, Sydney Pollack, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, George Gaynes
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Lange), Supporting Actress (Garr), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Original Song (“It Might Be You”)
  • Oscar Points:  340
  • Length:  116 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $177.20 mil  (#2 – 1982; #8 – all-time upon initial release)
  • Release Date:  17 December 1982
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #175  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor (Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Lange), Supporting Actress (Garr), Makeup, Original Song (“It Might Be You”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  275

The Film:  “Are you saying nobody in New York wants to work with me?” Michael Dorsey asks his agent.  “No, no, that’s too limited,” his agent replies.  “Nobody in Hollywood wants to work with you either.”  Having been told that he is essentially unemployable, Dorsey then makes a crazy decision – to try out for a soap opera as a female and see if he has the talent that he believes he has.  As it so happens he does, and what follows could easily be a trashy comedy that we have seen too often in recent years.  Instead, what follows, is a funny, charming, romantic comedy that is an absolute classic, as good now, almost 30 years later, as it was when it was released.

I don’t know that people remember how big Tootsie was.  When it finished its theatrical run it went out as the 8th biggest film of all-time.  It was a Romantic Comedy, one of the most critically ignored genres, yet won Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics – something no Romantic Comedy other than Annie Hall had ever done and no Romantic Comedy has done since.  It was nominated for 10 Oscars – which puts it on the same page as Roman Holiday, The Apartment, Tom Jones and Shakespeare in Love.

It does all this by finding its humor in the characters and what develops rather than create crass situations.  It starts with Dustin Hoffman in a fantastic performance as Michael Dorsey (1982 was a hell of year for Best Actor – poor Peter O’Toole didn’t stand a chance when confronted with Kingsley, Lemmon, Newman and Hoffman) who learns, as he says at the end, that he is a better man as a woman (supposedly the crew also thought this, only giving Hoffman bad news when he was dressed up as Dorothy because he was nicer).  Then there is Jessica Lange, who had proved in All That Jazz that she could actually act, and here walked away with nearly every year end award for Best Supporting Actress and was the first person in 40 years to earn nominations for lead and supporting in the same year (she lost Best Actress for her fine performance as Frances Farmer).  Then there is poor slighted Teri Garr, going a bit nuts as she tries to keep her shit together, who also earned an Oscar nomination.  Then there is the great slough of supporting male performances who went unnominated – George Gaynes, Charles Durning, Dabney Colemn, Sydney Pollack and Bill Murray, who pretty much hits gold with every word that comes out of his mouth (“I don’t like it when people come up to me after my plays and say, ‘I really dug your message, man.’ Or, ‘I really dug your play, man, I cried.’ You know. I like it when people come up to me the next day, or a week later, and they say, ‘I saw your play. What happened?’ “).  The best of them is Pollack, who also does an expert job at directing – far better than he did in his actual Oscar winning direction.  In just a few scenes, Pollack perfectly epitomizes the frustrated agent (“Sleep with her.”  “I slept with her and she still thinks I’m gay.”  “Oh, Michael, that’s not good.”).

It’s time to remember exactly how good this film is.  Clearly the voters at the IMDb need to be reminded.  It has a 7.4 – the same rating as San Francisco and The Bells of St Mary’s and lower than Scent of a Woman and Hollywood Revue of 1929.  At least the critics get it right – it sits fourth in the year on the Top 1000 and was on both AFI lists.  But have you seen it?  Do you realize how good it is?

Made in 1982 about events in 1973 that are timely now: Missing

Missing

  • Director:  Costa-Gavras
  • Writer:  Costa-Gavras  /  Donald Stewart  (from the book The Execution of Charles Horman by Thomas Hauser)
  • Producer:  Edward Lewis  /  Mildred Lewis
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Actor (Lemmon), Actress (Spacek)
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  122 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $14.00 mil  (#56 – 1982)
  • Release Date:  12 February 1982
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #190  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Lemmon), Actress (Spacek), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  135

The Film:  Costa-Gavras made some choices when filming Missing.  One of the key ones was that, in spite of it being based on real events, in spite of some specific identifying clues, the country in which the action takes place is not named.  Since this the true story of a real American man who disappeared during the 1973 coup in Chile and was murdered by Chilean authorities, possibly with the tacit approval of American authorities, why choose not to mention the country involved?  Certainly it had nothing to do with any desire to defer away from the controversy.  After all, everyone knew what the country was and Pinochet’s crimes were fairly well known by the time the film was released in 1982.  So why the choice and why does it turn out to be such a magnificent one?

Because this could be any time.  This could be Chile in 1973, when the CIA backed the coup that ended with the murder of Salvador Allende.  This could be 1982, when the film was released and we could be in Nicaragua or El Salvador or the other Central America countries where Reagan was trying to extend our influence and wasn’t particularly concerned about the brutalities carried out in the name of opposing Marxism.  Or we could jump forward to 2002 when the film was released on a Criterion disc and we could be talking about men undergoing rendition from Afghanistan to be tortured around the world, if not by Americans, then with American approval.  What was a story about one particular man becomes a timeless story about what happens when people disappear and we are not given answers.  It is rooted not only in the anger of what is done to people around the world, but in the frustration of never getting an answer.

It is that frustration and anger that motivates Ed and Beth, the father and wife of the missing man.  Ed is a conservative Christian Scientist who has come down after his son has disappeared and Jack Lemmon’s performance here is a reminder that he was always one of our best actors.  The pain that comes through when he finally discovers the fate of his son and the timeframe of that fate is gut-wrenching.  And Spacek is also extremely good, learning to trust and like this man whom she is so different from.  One of the best scenes in the film is early on when she is caught outside during curfew and witnesses first hand what happens in a country that is falling apart.

Missing is one of those films that I didn’t really want to come back to – a film like Midnight Express that is great and you are glad you saw it, but you don’t really ever want to see it again.  But it is a stark reminder, not only of what happens around the world, but what a film can say about it.

Spielberg's commercial triumph

E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial

  • Director:  Steven Spielberg
  • Writer:  Melissa Mathison
  • Producer:  Steven Spielberg  /  Kathleen Kennedy
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Robert MacNaughton
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing
  • Oscar Points:  355
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Science Fiction
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $359.19 mil  (#1 – 1982; #1 – all-time upon initial release; #6 – all-time)
  • Release Date:  11 June 1982
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7  (year)  /  #194  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  215

The Film:  I have never truly decided how I feel about this.  By all accounts, I should love it.  I was close in age to Henry Thomas, it came out when I was 8, I already loved sci-fi films, I was even living in one of the same type of Southern California suburbs (there was an alley just like the one that Michael rides through on the next block) .  Hell, when I toured Universal Studios in 1983, I even got to be the boy on the bike for the demonstration of how they shot the scene.  I even have a stuffed E.T. (it sits in the stuffed animal net above Thomas’ bed).  But I didn’t love it.  I wasn’t a huge fun.  I couldn’t understand why this film passed first Raiders, then Star Wars on its way to the top of the box office charts.  Even today I don’t love it.  I admire it, for the fantastic production values, for its strengths as a film, for the ways in which it fits into Spielberg’s oeuvre.  But I still don’t love it.

That’s not to say it’s not a great film.  It is most assuredly a great film.  It is extremely well directed and very well written and those two things work together.  First, look at how perceptive the film is about children – about how they interact with other kids, how they interact with parents (one of the most gut-wrenching scenes is when Elliot comments “Dad would believe me,” and then his mother realizes that their father is in Mexico).  It knows how they talk to each other and this film, unlike so many other films, doesn’t talk down to the kids.  In fact, that is part of the magic of the film.  It speaks to kids at their precise levels.  Look at how, for the first hour of the film, the only adult face we see is their mom.  Look how the camera constantly stays at their eye level.  Look at how much we learn through their eyes.  In one sense, this is a film for kids.  In another sense it is very much a film about kids.

But it also does so well with emotions.  In plays on the fear of the government.  It plays on fear of adults and the knowledge that what we are doing must be right.  It plays on the emotional connectivity within us all.  That, perhaps, is what spoke to so many people.  Not the magical moment of “E.T. phone home,” but the fact that Elliot and E.T. become connected at a basic emotional level so intensely that it carries over to the physical level.  And it plays to everything that we would want to do at that age.  Who wouldn’t want to find an alien and befriend him?  Who wouldn’t want to free the frogs and kiss the girl?  Who wouldn’t want to be the hero on the bike?  Well, me, I guess, because the film still doesn’t quite speak to me.  But I admire it for what it achieves and I think I understand better now why it was such a hit, why people kept going back.  Now if people could only explain to me what the hell drove people to keep going back to Titanic and Avatar.

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