Elias (Willem DaFoe) and Barnes (Tom Berenger) - the light and darkness of Platoon.

The 59th annual Academy Awards for the film year 1986.  The nominations were announced on February 11, 1987  and the awards were held on March 30, 1987.

Best Picture:  Platoon

  • Hannah and Her Sisters
  • A Room with a View
  • Children of a Lesser God
  • The Mission

Most Surprising Omission:  Blue Velvet

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Blue Velvet

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #15The Race:  “In compiling their 1985 ten-best lists, many critics couldn’t resist saying that none of the year’s movies could equal the Woody Allen movie due to open in February.”  (Inside Oscar, p. 682)  Hannah and Her Sisters immediately became a critical hit and was Allen’s biggest hit in almost a decade with heaps of praise landing on Allen, Michael Caine and Diane Wiest.  Caine was also busy in Mona Lisa, a low budget gangster film from director Neil Jordan starring Bob Hoskins.  Hoskins had wowed the press at Cannes, winning Best Actor and was finally getting some acclaim for his acting.

During the summer, while Top Gun and Aliens were raking in the big bucks (with Aliens getting some good notices for Sigourney Weaver’s return performance as Ripley) it was the small independent films that were taking in the critics.  Leading the pack was the newest Merchant-Ivory costume drama, A Room with a View, adapted from E.M. Forster’s acclaimed novel.  Next came Oscar winning writer Oliver Stone’s first foray into directing in a dozen years, Salvador, about journalist Richard Boyle.  Then there was the strangest film of them all: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.  Lynch’s film was not a hit with all the critics (Rex Reed and Roger Ebert both fervently hated it) but Lynch himself and Dennis Hopper, in a comeback role as the psychotic killer, were both getting a lot of notice.

With the fall came a film that gave hope to American women.  It wasn’t the part of Sarah played by Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God, though she was getting rave reviews.  It was the fact that the film was directed by Randa Haines and stood a good chance of being the first film ever directed by a female to earn a Best Picture nomination with Haines vying for a chance to be the second woman (after Lina Wertmuller) and first American woman to earn a Best Director nomination.

At Christmas came the second half of Oliver Stone’s 1-2 punch.  Opening for just a week at Christmas to qualify for the Oscars was his new film, Platoon, a gut-wrenching film about Vietnam.  Stone, a Vietnam Vet, had been trying to get the film made for over a decade and finally had gotten enough money from Orion to get his cast and crew to the Philippines and make the film.

But before Platoon could win over the critics, many of them were already voting in the year end awards.  Up first was the National Board of Review and they gave Best Picture to A Room with a View and Best Director to Woody Allen.  Next up was the L.A. Film Critics and they gave Woody’s film Best Picture but reserved their Best Director award for David Lynch.  The New York Film Critics went with Woody for both awards while the National Society of Film Critics went with Blue Velvet for Picture and Director.

Platoon and Hannah and Her Sisters were in the driver’s seat at the Golden Globes, in the race for Picture, Director and Screenplay.  Joining them unexpectedly was The Mission, a film from Oscar-winning producer David Puttnam that had won the Golden Palm at Cannes.  Also up for Picture and Director were A Room with a View and Stand By Me, Rob Reiner’s sweet adaptation of a novella from Stephen King.  Platoon would take Picture and Director with Hannah taking Picture (Comedy) but The Mission would stay in the race by winning Best Screenplay.  Stand By Me would get a boost from the guilds, earning nominations from the DGA and the WGA where The Mission was absent from both.  Joining Stand By Me in both races was Platoon, Hannah and Her Sisters, A Room with a View and Children of a Lesser God (with Randa Haines becoming the first female American to earn a DGA nom).

The Results:  For the first time in six years no film was in double digits for nominations.  Platoon and A Room with a View were in the lead with 8 nominations each with Hannah and Her Sisters and The Mission right behind with 7.  The Mission had managed to displace Stand By Me for Picture and Director (it only had a nomination for its script).  Aliens also had 7 nominations but it was Children of a Lesser God that earned the 5th Best Picture nomination.  Randa Haines had become the first female to direct a Best Picture nominee but she wasn’t among the nominees, having been bumped off for David Lynch.

After the nominations came the guild winners – with Stone taking Director, Woody Allen winning Original Screenplay and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala winning Adapted Screenplay (for A Room with a View).  All of them would repeat again at the Oscars.  While Platoon would only take home 4 awards and become the first film since The Deer Hunter to win Picture and Director but not Screenplay, it was still the biggest winner on Oscar night as no other film took home more than 3.

Platoon: Vietnam as experienced, not as plotted

Platoon

  • Director:  Oliver Stone
  • Writer:  Oliver Stone
  • Producer:  Arnold Kopelson
  • Studio:  Orion
  • Stars:  Charlie Sheen, Willem DaFoe, Tom Berenger, John C. McGinley
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen, Supporting Actor (DaFoe), Supporting Actor (Berenger), Editing, Cinematography, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  405
  • Length: 120 min
  • Genre:  War  (Vietnam)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $138.53 mil  (#3 – 1986)
  • Release Date:  19 December 1986
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #36  (nominees)  /  #12  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (DaFoe), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  300

The Film:  In a sense, Platoon is the first major Vietnam film.  There was The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, of course, but those weren’t really about Vietnam.  Both of those focused on the plot, with The Deer Hunter exaggerating the menace of the Viet Cong and Apocalypse Now using the narrative as a metaphor.  This film, written and directed by a Vietnam vet, was actually about the experience.

What would have been the thought had this film actually been made in 1968 like The Green Berets, which it is in part, a response to?  Would audiences have been prepared for the incompetence of Lt. Wolfe or the attack on the villagers?  But after My Lai it is easy enough to believe everything in this film.

So many films make the excitement, the adrenalene of war obvious.  There are few films that truly make apparent the waste and insanity of war and perhaps only All Quiet on the Western Front does this as well as Platoon.  I won’t go in to the bizarre lines of reasoning behind the Domino Principle, the strange road that lead to the deaths of 58,000 Americans in a land that had nothing to do with us – a war that young men were forced to go fight in (or be jailed).

Chris is correct at the end when he says “As I look back now, we did not fight the enemy.  We fought ourselves.  And the enemy was in us.”  He comes to Vietnam a boy and emerges, perhaps not a man, but certainly something more than he has been.  He is indeed born of those two fathers – the dark efficiency of Barnes, the lighter but more withdrawn spiritualism of Elias.  One of the best scenes in the film is the contrast between the two tents (and not just because of the wonderful use of both “White Rabbit” and “Tracks of My Tears”).  It shows us what was the essential choice at the time – not just for those trying to decide whether to go or not, but also for those who went.  On one side we have naked aggression, the epitome of Middle America, but ones who make brutally effective soldiers (and it is this side that the pathetic Lieutenant comes to in the hope to find some friendship).  On the other side is the dropping out – the sliding away into drugs and music to forget the pain of what is going on outside that tent.  It is telling that Chris, who has dropped out of college to volunteer and come to the Nam that he finds his peace on this side.

Platoon is as well-made as any independent film with this kind of budget.  It has fantastic direction, amazing cinematography and brilliant editing.  It takes two actors and flips them from their normal roles (Berenger was mostly known for playing straight up guys and DaFoe for playing villains) and establishes them as almost iconic characters.  If Charlie Sheen seems a bit lost in it all, perhaps it is because his character Chris is very lost in this jungle of darkness.

Note:  Watching the end credits, I pointed out to Veronica, “If I had told you 25 years ago that one of these people in 25 years would be the biggest star in the world and one would be the biggest lunatic in Hollywood, you never would have known which was which.  And, if five years after this film, I had said one of them would be the biggest lunatic in Hollywood in 20 years, you absolutely would have put your money on Johnny Depp.”

Hannah and Her Sisters: Woody's greatest film

Hannah and Her Sisters

  • Director:  Woody Allen
  • Writer:  Woody Allen
  • Producer:  Robert Greenhut
  • Studio:  Orion
  • Stars:  Mia Farrow, Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Diane Wiest, Barbara Hershey
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen, Supporting Actor (Caine), Supporting Actress (Wiest), Editing, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  340
  • Length: 103 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $35.39 mil  (#30 – 1986)
  • Release Date:  7 February 1986
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #20  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Caine), Supporting Actress (Wiest), Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  485

The Film:  To me, there are six perfect works of literature – six pieces of art that I can not, for a minute, imagine living life without.  Hannah and Her Sisters was my introduction to one of them and is an echo of a second.  It is perfect evidence that both the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes do screenwriters short shrift by not honoring them, for the works that they created became the dominant art form of the 20th Century.

When I first saw Hannah and Her Sisters in my Film and Lit class in January of 1995, I had never read “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond”.  This would be surprising to anyone who has met me, anyone who has read my novel (in your most frail gesture – which is from a line that not quoted in the film) or who was at my wedding (where it was one of the poems I chose to have read).  But I had never before heard these words before Elliot (played so perfectly by Michael Caine) points them out to Lee (played very well by Barbara Hershey) and she reads the second and fifth stanzas.  It is the perfect poem at the perfect moment in the film and there can be no question in either mind what has happened with the passing on of this poem.

So now we come to the echo.  In my mind there is no better short story than Joyce’s “The Dead”.  It is an absolute perfect story ending with one of the greatest lines in all of literature (“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”).  So, what does a story about an Irish couple have to do with a Woody Allen film?  “The Dead” is the final story in Dubliners, probably the greatest short story collection ever written, a series of stories that are not directly related, except in that they all take place in Dublin.  And, in a sense, this is Woody Allen’s response.  This isn’t just a hilarious story of a failed couple like in Annie Hall or one man’s screwed up romantic life like in Manhattan.  This is several vignettes of characters in New York City in the mid-80’s.  They are smart and literate and they talk about art and films and poetry and they are connected through the three sisters of the title, but in a sense, they are all parts of separate short stories.  This easily could have been a collection like Dubliners and in a sense, it is.

It is this aspect of the writing that makes this Woody Allen’s best film.  He started out as a comedian and a television writer and he moved into films by writing fast moving, literate comedies.  He eventually wanted to mature as a film-maker and start writing about relationships and people and the turning point between the two, Annie Hall, is perhaps his funniest film and certainly one of his best and best-loved.  But in the second phase of his career it is Hannah that stands out and that won him his second writing Oscar.  It not only contains his best writing, it also contains his best direction (and, not coincidentally, won two acting Oscars with perhaps the best performances from Michael Caine and Diane Wiest, both of whom would go on to win additional Oscars).  It is perfectly constructed, with small cue cards marking the turning points (or marking the transition between the stories if you want to look at it that way – in the published screenplay it actually uses the stills of those cards to mark the transitions).  And more so, he took the character that he was playing, and instead of making him the focal point of the story, pushed him slightly to the side and used him for the comic relief.  And, even better, he uses him to transition us to a wonderful happy ending that we never could have expected.

In a year with a film as powerful and well-made as Platoon it is the mark of the depth and humor and tenderness of Hannah and Her Sisters that it manages to rise up and make itself known as the best film of the year.  If you have someone who doesn’t want to watch Woody Allen films, who doesn’t like his personality, this is the film to treat them to.  It gives you everything that you need.

Note:  The other works?  1 play – Hamlet.  1 other poem – “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.  2 novels – The Sound and the Fury and The Brothers Karamazov.

Note #2:  only the second and fifth stanzas are quoted in the film

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

ee cummings

1931

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

A Room with a View (1986): a poster so perfect it used to hang in my apartment

A Room with a View

  • Director:  James Ivory
  • Writer:  Ruth Prawer Jhabvala  (from the novel by E.M. Forster)
  • Producer:  Ismail Merchant
  • Studio:  Cinecom
  • Stars:  Helena Bonham-Carter, Julian Sands, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Adapted From Other Material, Supporting Actor (Elliot), Supporting Actress (Smith), Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  330
  • Length: 117 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Romance)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $20.96 mil  (#44 – 1986)
  • Release Date:  7 March 1986
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #67  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Elliot), Supporting Actor (Day-Lewis), Supporting Actress (Smith), Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  385

The Film:  Oh what a lush, beautiful and romantic film.  There are those who see the Merchant / Ivory film as the worst of British cinema – as up-tight pretentiousness that has nothing to say about modern society and is simply a larger-scale version of Masterpiece Theatre (there is a scene in the novel High Fidelity that makes use of this viewpoint).  They could not be further from the truth.  A Room with a View, written in 1908, released as a film in 1986 has much to say about modern society, probably more than most contemporary British films.  It talks about why we end up with who we end up with and the usefulness of love in life.

First, there is the source novel.  It is a short, beautiful book (just look at this line: “Lucy – to descend from bright heaven to earth, whereon there are shadows because there are hills – Lucy was at first plunged into despair, but settled after a little thought that it did not matter in the very least.”) that just barely misses out on my Top 100.  In just over 200 pages, Forster gives us one of the great romantic books of all-time (that he did not think the happy ending likely to last is irrelevant – it is very easy to pick out books with happy endings that are unlikely to last).  Jhabvala, the talented third member of the Merchant / Ivory team does a magnificent adaptation of the novel, not letting a single scene slip away.

Then there is the casting.  There is, of course, Helena Bonham-Carter, so perfectly cast as Lucy (as she would also be perfectly cast as Helen in Howard’s End).  Many also remember Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot, who were both (deservedly) nominated for Oscars and come as close to winning Nighthawk Awards as any non-winners ever have.  But there is also the magnificent cast that you don’t remember.  There is Daniel Day-Lewis, and what a revelation as the snobbish, uptight Cecil he is in the same year as the gay punk in My Beautiful Laundrette.  There is also Simon Callow as the vicar and Judi Dench as the writer.  Everywhere you turn there are truly great British actors lighting up the screen.

But the cast isn’t even necessary to light up the screen.  There is the romance, of course, with the wonderful kiss in the lush, romantic Italian countryside, as well as the streets of Florence and the lawns of Tunbridge Wells.  There was no question of this film winning the Oscars for Art Direction and Costume Design.  It looks as good as almost any film ever made.

How often does this happen?  How often can a great book be so perfectly turned into a great film?  Would Forster, who resisted allowing his novels to be adapted in his lifetime, be astounded that three of his novels have become three of the best ever novel-to-film adaptations?  Could he have imagined the conversation between Mr. Emerson and Lucy so perfectly staged with the wonderful, charming Denholm Elliot so perfectly mastering every line, only to cut outside to Lucy running towards the carriage with tears of joy in her eyes?  I would hope that Forster would have approved.

Children of a Lesser God (1986): like an Afterschol Special, but with great acting and sex

Children of a Lesser God

  • Director:  Randa Haines
  • Writer:  Hesper Anderson  /  Mark Medoff  (from the play by Medoff)
  • Producer:  Burt Sugarman  /  Patrick Palmer
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay – Adapted From Other Material, Actor (Hurt), Actress (Matlin), Supporting Actress (Laurie)
  • Oscar Points:  225
  • Length: 119 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $31.85 mil  (#32 – 1986)
  • Release Date:  3 October 1986
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #29  (year)  /  #315  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Hurt), Actress (Matlin), Supporting Actress (Laurie)
  • Nighthawk Points:  135

The Film:  On one level, it is easy to watch this film and think to yourself, wow, that was an ABC Afterschool Special on what it is like to be deaf.  And that might have been the angriest female protagonist ever in an ABC Afterschool Special.  And wait, why were there nude scenes in an Afterschool Special?

If you think about it, it is easy to dismiss this film on that level.  It what is referred to as a “social drama”, a film that highlights some specific issue and deals with that issue.  Of course, in typical Hollywood fashion, it uses a romance to get to the core of that issue.  But, first, that isn’t really fair to the original play, which was a big success on Broadway and won the Tony Award (in between The Elephant Man and Amadeus – even though Elephant Man wasn’t really adapted from the play, these are the only three Tony winners since 1963 to get made into Best Picture nominated films).

But the second thing is the part of the film that really makes it rise above that level of Afterschool Special, where you feel like you’re being lectured on disabilities and how you should treat people.  That second thing is the acting.  The whole cast is good, especially Piper Laurie, who earned an Oscar nomination for a rather small performance, but it really hinges on the two leads – Marlee Matlin who is smart and sexy and angry and vulnerable all at once and deserved her Oscar win and William Hurt, in the middle of one of the great stretches of film acting and the last actor to get nominated for Best Actor three years in a row.  They take what could easily be sappy, melodramatic material and they turn it into a fine motion picture.  Not quite good enough to place it in the running for Best Picture, but certainly a good film.

The Mission (1986): Not the only winner of the Palme d'Or to be boring (I'm looking at you Paris, Texas)

The Mission

  • Director:  Roland Joffe
  • Writer:  Robert Bolt
  • Producer:  Fernando Ghia  /  David Puttnam
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Jeremy Irons, Robert DeNiro, Ray McAnally, Liam Neeson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  230
  • Length: 125 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $17.21 mil  (#52 – 1986)
  • Release Date:  31 October 1986
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #48  (year)  /  #368  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Cinematography, Original Score, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  65

The Film:  If all that was necessary for a great film was beautiful cinematography and entrancing music than The Mission would deserve its place among the Best Picture nominees.  Chris Menges, the gifted cinematographer who won Oscars for this just two years after winning the Oscar for The Killing Fields gives pause to every shot, from the breath-taking shots of the priest on the cross going over the waterfall (which makes for a fantastic poster) to stunning shots of the plantation at work.  And Ennio Morricone delivers with one of his best scores, building from the early scenes where it is played by one of the characters on the oboe to full orchestral versions set the wonderful photography.

But it takes more than that to make a complete film.  Robert Bolt, who wrote this film, also wrote several of David Lean’s films, most notably the ones for which Lean was criticized that he had photographed rather than directed them (Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter).  At times, Bolt is absolutely able to cut to the core of a story, to find a way to match the dialogue to the epic grandeur of a film (like in Lawrence of Arabia or Zhivago or in his play A Man for All Seasons).  But at other times he is lost, piling cliche upon cliche, unable to focus on the story while the film sweeps him by.  That was the problem with Ryan’s Daughter and it is the problem here as well.

The film is set in South America in the middle of the 18th Century, among the struggles between priests who are trying to bring “civilization” to the natives and the traders who want to profit from them.  Caught between the politics of states and the politics of the Vatican is a Cardinal (well played by Ray McAnally) who must decide the fate of a mission up above the falls.  On the side of the natives are two priests – one, a pacifist, played well by Jeremy Irons.  The other, a former slave trader, is played not quite as well by Robert De Niro.  The contrast is troubling because De Niro has the meatier role but is unable to do as much with it, while Irons is stuck repeating pacifist platitudes until the world tightens in around him.

The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, perhaps as much because it wants to criticize the state as much as the church and note how both sides failed to make the right choices.  And it really does look wonderful.  In fact, it might have made a better silent film with an orchestral score, devoid of dialogue.  Perhaps then we could have figured the story out on our own instead of watching the actors blindly feel their way through it and we could have sat back and listened to that gorgeous music and taken in the breath-taking sights.

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