Nicholson and MacLaine won Oscars for Terms of Endearment - Debra Winger will have to settle for being my serious childhood crush

The 56th annual Academy Awards for the film year 1983.  The nominations were announced on February 16, 1984 and the awards were held on April 9, 1984.

Best Picture:  Terms of Endearment

  • The Big Chill
  • The Right Stuff
  • The Dresser
  • Tender Mercies

Most Surprising Omission:  Fanny and Alexander

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Fanny and Alexander

Best Eligible English-Language Film Not Nominated:  Zelig

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #26

The Race: An article appeared in The New York Times in October from Aljean Harmetz.  According to the article Hollywood executives agreed “it has been a bad year for art,” and they believed “no movie released so far will be nominated for Best Picture.  Without hesitation most executives rattle off the names of the following five unreleased movies which they believe will be the probable nominees: The Right Stuff, Terms of Endearment, Star 80, Silkwood and Yentl.”  (I am relying on quotes from Inside Oscar because the article itself is behind the paywall of the Times.  If you want to read it, it’s from October 19, 1983.)

Thus we see two of the big problems with Oscar prognostication in one swoop.  First – you can’t just write off the early films, as much as you would like to.  While it has been “common knowledge” for years that you need to be a late release to compete for Oscars, that’s not really true.  Up until the late 90’s it was relatively common to have at least one film from before Memorial Day among the nominees (12 out of 18 years from 79 to 96) and 7 times in the last 30 years of five Best Picture nominees did all the nominees get released after Labor Day.  And so, of course, Tender Mercies, which had opened to strong reviews and word of mouth in April and The Big Chill, which opened to good reviews and strong box office in September, while written off by the executives, were still very much in the race.

The second thing you don’t do is bet on the films you haven’t seen (as fans of Dreamgirls learned all too well).  No matter the hype, you still have to wait to see how people respond to the film.  So Star 80, which didn’t get the reviews that people hoped and died at the box office was pretty much out of the running as soon as it opened.  The other films were in better shape.  The Right Stuff had the epic scope as well as a John Glenn presidential run behind it.  Terms of Endearment had great reviews and quickly became the biggest film of the year not connected to Star WarsSilkwood had the better reviews (and a Streep performance) while Yentl had Streisand doing publicity everywhere and slightly better business.  But sneaking in at the end, unheralded by the execs, were two British films: Educating Rita and The Dresser.

The National Board of Review went for Terms of Endearment (Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor), but also with Betrayal, yet another British film.  Its Best Foreign Film was Ingmar Bergman’s swan song, Fanny and Alexander, which had blown critics away.  Bergman was sweeping awards (Foreign Film from the LA Film Critics and New York Film Critics, Director from NYFC), but Terms of Endearment was taking home the big awards – Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor and Screenplay in LA and Picture, Actress and Supporting Actor in New York.

The big films at the Golden Globes were Terms of Endearment and Yentl, with 6 nominations each.  They would both take home Best Picture, with the former also winning Screenplay, Actress and Supporting Actor and the latter winning Director for Streisand.  But the Globes didn’t really solve the riddle of who would get nominated other than Star 80 being out (only getting an Actor nomination).  The Dresser, Fanny and Alexander and Educating Rita were all ineligible for Picture, but all were up for Foreign Film (where Fanny won) and the former two were nominated for Director while the latter won both acting categories.  And the other contenders – The Right Stuff, The Big Chill, Silkwood and Tender Mercies – were all nominated for Best Picture.

It was left to the Directors Guild to finally pare the films down.  Globe winner Streisand was out.  In the race were James L. Brooks (Terms), Lawrence Kasdan (Big Chill), Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies), Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) and Bergman and all the films but Bergman were in the Writers Guild race, along with Silkwood.

The Results: If they weren’t certain what was going to win before the nominations, the nominations ended all suspense.  Terms of Endearment had 11 nominations – three more than any other film, a margin that hadn’t been achieved since 1968.  In second place was The Right Stuff with 8 followed by Fanny and Alexander with 6.  But Kaufman was out and while Bergman was nominated twice, Fanny itself wasn’t in the Best Picture race.  In fact, the only two other films besides Terms with Picture / Director noms were The Dresser and Tender Mercies and they combined for 1 fewer nomination than Terms got on its own.  The Big Chill was the final Picture nominee but only scored 3 noms and Yentl only managed 5 – all in the technical categories except for Supporting Actress.

Then Brooks won both the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild and the only question left was how many Oscars it would win.  The answer turned out to be five.  It wouldn’t win any technical awards but would win all of the major awards that it could (both of the ones it lost – Actress and Supporting Actor – were to other performances also from the film).

11 Nominations. 5 Oscars. Not bad for a first time director.

Terms of Endearment

  • Director:  James L. Brooks
  • Writer:  James L. Brooks  (from the novel by Larry McMurtry)
  • Producer:  James L. Brooks
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jeff Daniels, Jack Nicholson, John Lithgow
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Actress (MacLaine), Actress (Winger), Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Supporting Actor (Lithgow), Editing, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  555
  • Length:  132 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $108.42 mil  (#2 – 1983)
  • Release Date:  23 November 1983
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #57  (nominees)  /  #20  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (MacLaine), Actress (Winger), Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Editing, Original Score
  • Nighthawk Points:  415

The Film:  James L. Brooks so obviously loves his characters.  And I do call them his characters instead of McMurtry’s, because the feel of the film is much different than the feel of the novel.  The novel sprang from other novels and is part of that McMurtry inter-connectivity.  These characters exist here, and we get glimpses of them from long before the novel begins.

That is part of the brilliance of the film.  We get a wider, deeper understanding of the relationship between Emma Horton and her mother, Aurora.  We don’t just start with the argument when Aurora finds out that Emma is pregnant.  We begin at the very beginning – with poor little baby Emma in the crib, paranoid Aurora convinced that she is dead and then, almost crawling into the crib before Emma wakes up and starts crying.  Of course, the crying doesn’t bother Aurora.  She just walks away in triumph, knowing her daughter is alive.  Then we get that wonderful music.

Those opening moments, the ones that last until the end of the main titles help establish everything else in the film.  We understand the complicated, conflicted relationship between mother and daughter, how close they become after Emma’s father dies, how her friends steer away from her, how Emma is smart and attractive but is aware of neither – we even get a little idea of the mysterious astronaut who lives next door.

For years I thought of this film as a sad drama.  It has very painful relationships at the core of it – a problematic mother/daughter relationship and two adulterous relationships, and then it moves on to cancer, the dreaded word that no one ever wants to talk about.  But, later, I would learn that this film actually won the Writers Guild Award for Best Adapted Comedy.  And slowly, I began to understand why.  There is also a lot of joy in this film – in the way the relationships are handled, in the characters themselves.  Even if only a few of the lines are designed to be laugh-out-loud-funny (“This is the strangest music to make love to,” Flap so aptly says with “Gee, Officer Krupke” playing in the background), the film overall could be viewed as a comedy.

I started keeping track of the films that I watched back in the spring of 1989.  I used to write them down in a notebook – the film, the year, the stars, and a rating (I began with five stars, but changed over to four stars in 1995).  I also began my Oscar notebook – an old 70 sheet Mead notebook that is now badly falling apart.  The first page was “Best Pictures I have Seen”.  On the list was The Sound of Music, then Platoon, then Terms of Endearment.  It was the first film I deliberately sought out because it had won Best Picture at the dawn of my Oscar obsession.  Even this I knew this film immediately for what it was – a fantastically written, well directed, phenomenally acted film – with several great performances (especially Debra Winger) and two performances for the ages from Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson.  It runs up against Fanny and Alexander so it doesn’t take home Picture or Director from me, but damn if it isn’t close.  It’s still enjoyable, still brilliant, even after all this time.  And I still seem to fall in love with Debra Winger.

I can hear "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" already

The Big Chill

  • Director:  Lawrence Kasdan
  • Writer:  Lawrence Kasdan  /  Barbara Benedek
  • Producer:  Michael Shamberg
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, JoBeth Williams, William Hurt, Jeff Goldblum, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Supporting Actress (Close)
  • Oscar Points:  120
  • Length:  105 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $56.34 mil  (#13 – 1983)
  • Release Date:  30 September 1983
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #72  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Kline), Supporting Actor (Hurt), Supporting Actress (Close), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  280

The Film:  My dislike of funerals stems from a funeral I didn’t even attend.  He was someone I went to school with in 8th grade.  I was going to say he was my classmate but even that word seems to imply a closer relationship than we had.  I was barely aware of his existence except for one day.  On that day, I was recovering from a sprained ankle, he wasn’t feeling well and neither was another guy in our gym class and the three of us sat on the bench and talked while the rest of the class was doing something else, what exactly, I can’t say.  I learned enough about him to know that he wasn’t a happy guy and for an afternoon it seemed like we were friends.  I don’t think I ever talked to him again.  A few weeks before the end of school he shot himself.

What followed was one of the most cynical things I have ever witnessed.  Most of the students took off from school to go to his funeral.  They didn’t know him.  Hell, the three of us talked a hell of a lot that afternoon and if anything was clear it was that almost no one at the school knew him.  So the two of us skipped the funeral, both of us disgusted with the hypocrisy of so many of our schoolmates.  So it became my policy not to go to funerals, not that there are a whole lot of funerals at that age.

What changed my mind, after a fashion, was The Big Chill.  Because while I would still avoid a show of naked cynicism like that one in middle school, I have come to understand something else about funerals.  They aren’t about the deceased.  They are about the survivors.  Depending on who it is for, you go, not to grieve over the loss of the deceased, but to celebrate the life that is left.  Sadly, funerals, like weddings, become about a gathering of those you love or have loved.  When you get older and start to spread out, there are only so many chances you get to see these people.  Or, as Randall says in Clerks, “I’m not gonna miss what is likely to be the social event of the season.”  Of course, that’s the cynicism of it, but there is joy to it as well.

The Big Chill is about that joy, about gathering together and discovering those people that you love.  Because no matter who your family was, is or has become, there are a certain kind of friends that you have, the kind of friends who will smile when they realize the recessional music being played at the funeral is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”  I had friends like that in college and I can imagine a gathering like this if one of us were to die.

This is such a great film because it starts with a group of characters and then it allows all of those characters to develop.  They all interact naturally, they all have distinct personalities, yet, we can also see the group dynamic.  We get an understanding of who they were and who they have become.  It helps that they are a great bunch of actors (two of them would soon win Oscars and another was in the midst of five Oscar nominations in seven years).  They all have great lines to deliver (“The last time Alex and I talked we had a fight.  I yelled at him.”  “That’s probably why he killed himself.”) and they all deliver them perfectly (“So, we were great then and we’re shit now?  I don’t buy that.”).  It begins with that great writing, moves forward with the great ensemble and becomes a masterpiece of a motion picture.  It helped kick off the great revival of sixties music with one of the great film soundtracks of all-time (it is currently certified 6X Platinum).  And it doesn’t just have great music – it knows how to use it.  How many films have such a brilliant opening, with the little boy in the tub, singing “Joy to the World” about his bullfrog, then the father turns and sees his wife with the tear and in comes “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” with the wonderful montage of funeral dressing and friends packing.  It is so amazingly effective as an introduction to all the characters and the story with the perfect music.  And of course, it all continues right through to the end with that wonderful last line (“We took a secret vote.  We’re not leaving.  We’re never leaving.”) and the beautiful fade into rock and roll.

the stuff of American mythology

The Right Stuff

  • Director:  Philip Kaufman
  • Writer:  Philip Kaufman  (from the book by Tom Wolfe)
  • Producer:  Irwin Winkler  /  Robert Chartoff
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Sam Shepard
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Supporting Actor (Shepard), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Effects Editing
  • Oscar Points:  285
  • Length:  193 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $21.19 mil  (#33 – 1983)
  • Release Date:  21 October 1983
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #163  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Shepard), Editing Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  300

The Film:  In both the film and novel Wonder Boys, Walter Gaskell speaks prosaically about “American mythopoetics,” and, specifically, the place of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe’s brief marriage as an image of such.  Of course, as lifelong Red Sox fan, I find that theory to be utter bullshit.  But there his overall idea of American mythopoetics is not a bad one (Chabon would kind of return to it with Summerland, trying to write an American mythology).  If you are going to write the American mythology, baseball is certainly not a bad place to start.  But in some ways, The Right Stuff is the story of American mythopoetics, of the America of the 50’s that was thriving having assured the triumph of the second World War on two fronts, only to face a challenge from the Russians in the space race.

If you look at The Right Stuff in this way that can help to explain some of the choices in the film.  First, there is the strange voiceover that really doesn’t belong – it only distracts from the early parts and makes a summation at the end of the film that is obvious.  Then there are the characters played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer – the rather bungling recruiters who seem completely out of place.  But both of them add something when looking at from this viewpoint.  They lend the story an epic scope and some comic relief (as does the scene where Alan Shepard is stuck waiting and finally has to pee in his spacesuit).  It also makes Philip Kaufman’s decision to include Chuck Yeager’s story the right choice (the first draft of the screenplay by William Goldman had excised all the early parts about the test pilots) – it makes it a dual story of two types of America – stressing the importance of the growing middle class, the college educated who would become the Mercury astronauts – while also paying credence to those hardy pioneers who came before.  That perfectly sets up the final scenes, where Yeager manages to reach for the stars on his own at the same time that Gordon Cooper finally becomes what he has always said – the greatest pilot you ever saw.

All of this combines to make it the perfect film for my best friend, John, who, now that I think about it, is the most American person I know.  He has long been an American history buff (especially the Civil War), he is the biggest fan of NASA I have ever met (he even drove out to Edwards once to watch the space shuttle land) and he is a devoted fan of that most American of sports, baseball.  In fact, he is a lifelong Dodgers fan.  And that is where the real American story comes from – the move of the Dodgers to L.A., making the World Series actually transcend the country and not just be another series of baseball games in New York.  This is one of his favorite films, and no wonder, for it tells the story of America itself.  Or, really, it tells exactly what the poster promises: How the future began.

the forgotten Best Picture nominee

The Dresser

  • Director:  Peter Yates
  • Writer:  Ronald Hardwood  (from his play)
  • Producer:  Peter Yates
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Courtenay), Actor (Finney)
  • Oscar Points:  205
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $5.31 mil  (#100 – 1983)
  • Release Date:  9 December 1983
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #27  (year)  /  #326  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Courtenay)
  • Nighthawk Points:  35

The Film:  The Dresser got nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and then promptly became one of the most forgotten Best Picture nominees of my lifetime.  No Best Picture nominee since has made less money at the box office and until the increase in nominees two years ago only two films (Secrets and Lies and Letters from Iwo Jima) had ranked as low in their respective year’s box office.  Not only does it have the fewest votes on the IMDb of any post-1978 nominee, but only A Soldier’s Story doesn’t have at least twice as many votes.  People just don’t seem to have seen it.  And what they’re missing . . .  Well, it screwed up the Oscars.  There’s no other way of putting it.  This is clearly the film that managed to slip in and take the spot that should have gone to Fanny and Alexander.  It didn’t make any money, didn’t have any critics awards and failed to get nominated by either the DGA or the WGA.  It was the odd man out and somehow it was in.

But what about the film itself?  Well, it’s a good film, but it’s nothing more than that.  It’s one of those filmed plays that manages to open things up a little bit (the key scene is the stopping of the train which clearly works well in the film, probably much better than it worked in the theater), but still feels very much like a play.  It contains very good performances from Albert Finney is Sir, an actor who has gone beyond his talent level in long tours of the English countryside, struggling to remember what Shakespeare play he is doing tonight.  Courtenay is his dresser, the man who makes certain that Sir is able to go on every night and sometimes is there just to remind him what play they are doing.  He is caustic and funny and sometimes brutal (especially when reveals to the young actress that she will be playing Cordelia, not because of any natural talent, but because she is light enough for Sir to carry her on stage at the end).  If I only nominate Courtenay it is no slight to Finney – he finishes sixth on my list for the year.

The film is good and you enjoy it while you watch but it does seem to slip away as soon as it is over.  It doesn’t linger for long.  And it just doesn’t belong on the list of nominees, not when it is the film that almost certainly managed to keep Bergman out.  It’s just far too forgettable and that’s never a characteristic you want out of your Oscar nominees.

Really? No Oscar for Apocalypse Now but an Oscar for Tender Mercies?

Tender Mercies

  • Director:  Bruce Beresford
  • Writer:  Horton Foote
  • Producer:  Philip S. Hobel
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Ellen Barkin
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Duvall), Song (“Over You”)
  • Oscar Points:  255
  • Length:  100 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Musical)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $8.44 mil  (#78 – 1983)
  • Release Date:  4 March 1983
  • Ebert Rating:  **** (retroactive)
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #36  (year)  /  #355  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  The first time I watched Tender Mercies, I thought to myself, “Really?  After all the great work he did in the seventies – M*A*S*H, both Godfather films, Network, Apocalypse Now – this is what they decided to give him an Oscar for?  Really?”  And now I have gone back to it for the first time in probably 15 years or so.  And what I think to myself now is “Jeff Bridges did this same role in Crazy Heart, except a lot better.  And that film had better music, a more interesting script and was just overall a better film.”

That may all sound a bit harsh.  Now, by no means do I think Tender Mercies is a bad film and by no means do I think that Robert Duvall gave a bad performance.  He does come in at seventh on my list for the year and Tender Mercies is a good film – in its own way very much like a country song – bittersweet at times, tender at times, making you want to cry with the occasional laugh.  And to its credit it seems to steer away from the fatal sentimentality of so much country music.  And there is the very good performance of Duvall at the heart of it, as well as the very good performance from Tess Harper as the widow with a young child who manages to form some sort of a life with this middle aged singer who realizes that he is on his last chance in life.

But this isn’t a list of good films.  It’s a list of films that were nominated for Best Picture and to me there is just not enough to this film.  It seems like it has the core for an excellent short story, maybe something by Annie Proulx or Larry McMurtry, but not enough to hang a whole film on.  And that comes from the script.  It just seems too thin to me and that’s not good enough, especially when you not only get nominated over Zelig and Local Hero, but also manage to win over The Big Chill, and, astoundingly, Fanny and Alexander. Now it’s not Horton Foote’s fault that the Academy chose to reward him rather than Bergman’s masterpiece.  But, unfortunately for him, that comparison is always going to be sitting there.