He might be the emperor, but he is also still just a little boy. Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987)

The 60th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1987.  The nominations were announced on February 17, 1988 and the awards were held on April 11, 1988.

Best Picture:  The Last Emperor

  • Hope and Glory
  • Broadcast News
  • Moonstruck
  • Fatal Attraction

Most Surprising Omission:  Empire of the Sun

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Princess Bride

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #52

The Race:  Unlike the year before, when Hannah and Her Sisters and A Room with a View were wowing critics early, headed into the fall there was almost no Oscar buzz among films that were already out.  My Life as a Dog, a Swedish film, had generated a lot of love among the art-house patrons and The Untouchables had made good money and looked good in several categories, but the big slate of Best Picture hopefuls was yet to be seen.

In fact, the first film to start generating buzz was hardly a typical Oscar film.  Fatal Attraction had gone through a title change, several directors changes and even an altered ending before finally seeing release in September.  But it quickly became one of the biggest hits of the year and with Michael Douglas getting attention for the soon to be released Wall Street and with Glenn Close having become a perennial Oscar nominee (three nominations in the previous four years) it suddenly had people talking about its hopes.

John Boorman, the director of Deliverance and Excalibur, was one of those who had passed on the project.  When the box office results were pointed out to him he said “It wouldn’t have made as much money if I’d taken the assignment.  For one thing, I wouldn’t have allowed you to use that ending.”  (Inside Oscar, p 705).  Instead, Boorman had his own pet project – a memoir of growing up during the Blitz.  And, of all things, he had turned it into a comedy.  After having numerous studios pass on it, he got fellow Brit David Puttnam, the Oscar-winning producer of Chariots of Fire who was now in charge of Columbia Pictures, to release it.  It was an instant critical success with Pauline Kael leading the way.

But, before Boorman’s film could win over audiences, Puttnam was ousted at Columbia.  The studio, fighting with Cineplex Odeon, then dumped the film in only 50 theaters with no hope for more.  And Boorman wasn’t the only one affected.  Bernardo Bertolucci had spent two years making a film about Pu Yi, the ousted emperor of China from the early 20th Century.  Puttnam had loved the film, The Last Emperor and taken it on, but was ousted from Columbia before it could be released.  Columbia, not wanting any credit to go to Puttnam, then reneged on a deal to play the film in 150 Cineplex Odeon theaters, suddenly damaging their Oscar hopes for their two biggest films of the fall.

Warner Bros., on the other hand, had a film that combined aspects of both Columbia films and they were backing their film.  Steven Spielberg’s new film, Empire of the Sun, was about a boy who is left behind in Shanghai in World War II and spends the war in an internment camp.  But studio support wasn’t enough to drive people to a 2 1/2 hour long film about the bleakness of a child at war and the film was Spielberg’s lowest grossing feature film since his debut Sugarland Express.

At Christmas came two different films from the same genre – the romantic comedy.  Both were directed by former Best Picture winning directors.  The first was Moonstruck, a film that immediately became a box office hit and earned Cher the best notices of her career from director Norman Jewison.  Then there was Broadcast News.  It was the second film from James L. Brooks, who had won three Oscars for Terms of Endearment and starred William Hurt (who was coming off successive Oscar nominations in Best Picture nominated films) and newcomer Holly Hunter, with Brooks’ friend Albert Brooks (who had a voice cameo in Terms) as the third point of a triangle.

Broadcast News opened at the perfect time.  The day before it had won Best Picture, Director, Actress and Screenplay at the New York Film Critics.  It would be competing for Oscars with Empire of the Sun, which had won the opening critics group, The National Board of Review, awards for Best Picture and Director.  Then, over the ensuing weekend, the L.A. Film Critics gave out their awards, with Picture, Director and Screenplay going to Hope and Glory.  The Boston Society of Film Critics split their awards, giving Hope and Glory Best Picture, but bestowing Actor, Actress and Screenplay on Broadcast News (and throwing Best Director to Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket).  The last major critics group, the National Society of Film Critics, gave their Best Picture award to John Huston’s final film, The Dead, but their Director, Screenplay and Cinematography awards all went to Hope and Glory.

When the Golden Globes nominations were announced on January 5, it reminded everybody that The Last Emperor was still in the race.  It joined Hope and Glory and Broadcast News in the race for Picture, Director and Screenplay, but as the only one of the three in the prestigious Drama category, it looked to be in the best shape.  Fatal Attraction was in the race, with nominations for Picture and Director as were Cry Freedom, Richard Attenborough’s film about South Africa (Picture and Director noms) and Moonstruck which was tied with Last Emperor with the most nominations (5) and was nominated for Picture and Screenplay.  Empire of the Sun had a Picture nomination but nothing else.

Three weeks later it was The Last Emperor which had leapt ahead, becoming the only film aside from Amadeus in the last decade to sweep Picture, Director and Screenplay.  With a win for Picture (Comedy), Hope and Glory was also in good shape.  Next up was the Writers Guild Awards, where all the front-runners (Hope and Glory, Broadcast News, The Last Emperor) were in the Original Screenplay category and all lost out to Moonstruck (Roxanne won the Adapted category over Fatal Attraction and The Untouchables).  Then came the Directors Guild nominations.  John Boorman was out, and no film had won Best Picture at the Oscars without a DGA nomination since 1956.  Instead, joining Bertolucci, Spielberg and Brooks were Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) and Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog).  But Spielberg was quoted at the National Board of Review awards saying “I have a strong feeling I won’t be nominated this year; just a hunch.”

The Results:  Spielberg was right.  Empire of the Sun was nominated for 6 awards but was the first film nominated for all the major technical awards without a Best Picture nom since Spielberg’s Close Encounters and this time he didn’t get a bone from the Director’s Branch – the third time in 13 years he had been nominated for the DGA but not the Oscar.  In the director’s race, along with their films, were Bertolucci, Boorman, Lyne and Jewison.  Broadcast News had 7 nominations, second behind Last Emperor‘s 9, but this time Brooks was only in the Picture and Screenplay race – he had been passed over for the Director nomination for Hallstrom.  With 9 nominations and competing against three comedies and a thriller, it seemed like the race was pretty much already won by The Last Emperor, a thought bolstered by Bertolucci winning the Directors Guild.  No film had won Best Picture without any acting nominations since Gigi in 1958, but on Oscar night, The Last Emperor became not only the first film to do that, but also the first film to sweep since Gigi, matching the musical’s 9 Oscars with 9 of its own.  Moonstruck managed to save face with 3 Oscars, all in major categories (Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actress), but the other three all went home winless – the first time in 15 years that three Best Picture nominees had done so.

The Last Emperor - the only film to sweep the Oscars between 1958 and 2003

The Last Emperor

  • Director:  Bernardo Bertolucci
  • Writer:  Enzo Ungari  /  Mark Peploe  /  Bernardo Bertolucci  (from the autobiography by Henry Pu-Yi)
  • Producer:  Jeremy Thomas
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  530
  • Length: 163 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical Epic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $43.98 mil  (#25 – 1987)
  • Release Date:  20 November 1987
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #176  (nominees)  /  #46  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  195

The Film:  On the one hand, there is the immediate instinct to compare the film to Gandhi.  Both films are long epic biopics.  Both films depict lives that were lived in the Far East during the first half of the 20th Century.  Both films were big winners at the Oscars (8 and 9 Oscars, respectively and 7 of those overlap) that look very nice.  And both films have long stretches that drag and don’t have nearly the reputation today that they did at the time.  They were even both released by the same studio (Columbia).

But they really are quite different films.  For one thing, Bertolucci’s is the superior film, and part of that may be wrapped into the big difference.  Gandhi was a man who did extraordinary things, a remarkable man who worked to change his world.  Pu Yi, on the other hand, was a man who was born into extraordinary circumstances, a man who lived in remarkable times and had his world change around him.  One of them was active, the other passive.  And it is the man who is not the great man, the man who lets the world happen to him that is in the better film.  This might be because Attenborough was constrained by the actions of Gandhi’s life – it was so important to show all the major events, make certain that people could understand them and Gandhi’s centrality to it all.  On the other hand, almost no one in the West would have known or even cared who Pu Yi was.  That allowed Bertolucci to completely create his film in the fashion that he wanted to.

And he does a remarkable job of creating it.  We understand the circumstances which have led to this child emperor who is unable to adapt to the changing times – to the loss of power, to the rise of the Japanese, to the war, to Communism.  It is not a perfect film (Bertolucci was never much of a writer and this weakness shows through).  The film lags in considerable parts and you can’t help wondering if the film could have been significantly shorter and tightened up without losing any of the majesty or beauty.  It has stunning cinematography, wonderful music, absolutely stunning art direction and costumes.  It is a feast to look at.  Yet there were no acting nominations.  Perhaps because the solid acting – and there was very solid acting from John Lone, Joan Chen and Peter O’Toole – was lost among the the epic scope.  So we get a beautiful film, a wonderfully made film, even a great film, but not quite as great as one that would truly deserve 9 Oscars.

Hope and Glory (1987) - #88 in box office for the year, but my #3 film

Hope and Glory

  • Director:  John Boorman
  • Writer:  John Boorman
  • Producer:  John Boorman
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Sebastian Rice-Edwards, Sarah Miles, Sammi Davis, Derrick O’Connor
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Cinematography, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  180
  • Length: 113 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (War)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $10.02 mil  (#88 – 1987)
  • Release Date:  16 October 1987
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #128  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  225

The Film:  John Boorman turned down Fatal Attraction, a film that would end up being the second biggest box office success of 1987 to direct Hope and Glory.  In the 21 years after Hope and Glory, until the Best Picture category was doubled in size, no nominee made as little money at the box office.  Boorman insisted that he had made the correct choice because he wouldn’t have allowed the new ending to Fatal Attraction and it would have badly hurt the box office.  I say he made the correct choice because he made a bold, smart, funny film, something that you never would have though possible, a comedy about the Blitz, while Fatal Attraction was a piece of crap.

First, the boldness.  The Blitz was a terrifying time for those in London.  As I mentioned in The Diary of Anne Frank, it must have been interesting for those British audiences watching the film – the sounds they saw as their liberation wasn’t so different from the sounds they had seen as their potential death every night.  Even in 1987, almost 50 years later, there were many alive who had lived through the Blitz, many who had lost people in it.  For Boorman to make a film is one thing.  For him to make a comedy about growing up during it, well, that is pretty damn bold.

But it is also smart.  It understands what it means to be a kid, even in a time of war.  It recognizes that children sometimes see a lot more than you realize, that they will understand things about their parents relationships that their own parents won’t want to admit.  It understands that kids will forms strange bonds and climb in the ruins and look for treasures and that they will turn on each other in moments of desperation.  It knows that a child’s introduction to sexuality can come secretively or strangely or accidentally, through coercion or spying.  This film displays for us how one man’s war can be a child’s playground.

It is also funny.  It is funny how his sister will draw lines on the back of her legs to make it seem like she is wearing the stockings they can not afford.  It is funny when you pray for the bomb to miss your house, but to hit the next house because “she’s a fat cow.”  It is funny to be sitting in gas masks and be asked to recite times tables, and especially funny if you come to school only to find that it has been destroyed by the bombs.

All of these are parts of this film, a wonderful memoir of a time when Boorman felt free to run on the streets of London, to watch his sister’s escapades, to understand the depths of feeling between his mother and his father’s best friend.  It is a wonderful, charming, funny, touching film.  And I only wish more people would watch it.

A third straight nomination for Actor and Picture for Tufts alum William Hurt in Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News

  • Director:  James L. Brooks
  • Writer:  James L. Brooks
  • Producer:  James L. Brooks
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Holly Hunter, William Hurt, Albert Brooks
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Hurt), Actress (Hunter), Supporting Actor (Brooks), Editing, Cinematography
  • Oscar Points:  240
  • Length: 133 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $51.24 mil  (#18 – 1987)
  • Release Date:  18 December 1987
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #132  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor (Hurt), Actress (Hunter), Supporting Actor (Brooks), Editing, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  305

The Film:  This is a comedy for adults.  By that, I don’t mean it has excessive profanity (in fact, it doesn’t actually have that much, except in a great scene where one person, not wanting to be interviewed keeps yelling fuck at the camera and then asks “Can you use that?” – the reply he gets from a very smart, quick-witted reporter is “Depends on how slow a news day it is.”).  I also don’t mean that it has excessive amounts of sex.  In fact, it has very little sex.  The characters are much more interested in the news than they are in each other.  There is, in fact, a great scene where one character tells another how much having her in his head telling him information a split-second before he was telling it to the world was so wonderful, like great sex.

It is a comedy for adults because it is a comedy that understands adults.  It understands the way that relationships can be complicated, that friends can be so close and never be more even though one of them wants that so much: “I would give anything if you were two people so I could call up the one that’s my friend and tell her about the one I like so much.”.  It understands that the things people say aren’t necessarily the things they mean and that sometimes friendship is more than just hearing the words: “I just want to be alone this time.”  “It’s okay.  I’ll go with you.”  “Thanks.”.  It understands that sometimes the words that other people would need to understand aren’t even necessary: “I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time.”

The film revolves around three characters, all of them absolutely brilliantly portrayed.  The first is a top-rate news producer, who knows exactly how to get things done, exactly how close she can cut it and still make it on the air, who is so focused on how to make things work in the newsroom that she has lost all touch with how to make anything work outside of the newsroom.  It is only fitting that she is told at the end of the film “Except for socially, you’re my role model.”  She is, of course, played by Holly Hunter.  At the time people didn’t know who Hunter was.  They might have remembered that she had been in Raising Arizona earlier that year, but she was basically an unknown.  And she gives a performance here that blows everyone away.  She somehow lost both the Globe and the Oscar to Cher, but she won four critics awards in a performance that I think is better than her actual Oscar winning performance in The Piano.  She is smart and sexy and funny and also the woman who sits on her hotel bed and cries.

The second is a hell of a good reporter.  He is smart and funny and very quick with a retort.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t test well for television and when he does finally get a chance to anchor the news what happens is too funny to describe.  If you haven’t seen it, you need to and if you have, you already know what happens.  He is played by Albert Brooks in what is, by far the best performance of his career, the kind of performance where he can just easily rattle off such a great line as this:  “If anything happens to me, you tell every woman I’ve ever gone out with I was talking about her at the end. That way they’ll have to reevaluate me.”  And he loses out on the Nighthawk Award only because he has the bad luck to be in the same year as the iconic performance by Mandy Patinken as Inigo Montoya.

Then there is the guy who does test well – the very good looking blonde anchor (“He must have been great looking.”  “Why do you say that?”  “Because nobody invites a bad looking idiot up to their bedroom.”).  Except he doesn’t know anything.  That’s what so impressive about William Hurt’s performance – someone who could play so smart in The Big Chill, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Children of a Lesser God, does such a magnificent job of playing dumb.  Michael Douglas won the Oscar for his strong performance as Gordon Gecko, but it is Hurt’s performance here, so much more understated, that is the more impressive work.

The film perfectly maneuvers around all three characters, bringing them together, drawing them apart, working them perfectly into the storyline.  And even in the midst of the sadness at the end of the film, we still get some magnificently funny lines (“Now if there’s anything I can do for you.”  “Well, I certainly hope you’ll die soon.”).  That is the mark of a great comedy for adults.  It knows exactly when to make us smile and laugh and exactly when to make us stop and think.

Cher won the Oscar for Moonstruck in 1987 but Holly Hunter should have won

Moonstruck

  • Director:  Norman Jewison
  • Writer:  John Patrick Shanley
  • Producer:  Patrick Palmer  /  Norman Jewison
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Cher, Nicholas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, Danny Aiello, John Mahoney
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actress (Cher), Supporting Actor (Gardenia), Supporting Actress (Dukakis)
  • Oscar Points:  335
  • Length: 102 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $80.64 mil  (#5 – 1987)
  • Release Date:  18 December 1987
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #27  (year)  /  #284  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Cher), Supporting Actress (Dukakis)
  • Nighthawk Points:  65

The Film:  I put off seeing Moonstruck for a long time for two main reasons.  I don’t particularly like Cher and I didn’t particularly like Nicholas Cage.  I had seen the clip where she slaps him and yells “Snap out of it!” any number of times and really didn’t have much interest in the film.  But, getting in to the Oscar routine, it was only a matter of time.  So imagine my surprise when I finally did see it and really enjoyed it, not only the film, but every aspect of the relationship between Cher and Cage.  I still don’t much like Cher, and my opinion of Cage wavers (because he can be so good in films like Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation and he spends so much of his time being so incredibly bad in most of the rest of his films), but the film is still great fun to watch.

That having been said, I don’t think it belongs anywhere near the Best Picture race for 1987, it shouldn’t have won Cher the Oscar and it definitely shouldn’t have won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  It is a very charming film.  It is wonderfully acted all the way through and Cher does give one of the best performances of her career and Dukakis is not a bad winner in a not so great year for supporting roles (my top pick – Kathy Baker for Street Smart, wasn’t even nominated).  And it is typical of the Academy that the weakest of the three strong supporting performances – Vincent Gardenia – is the one nominated for the Oscar rather than Nicholas Cage or John Mahoney.  It is a wonderfully romantic film and everytime you go back to it you are glad you did.

But, this is the same year as Broadcast News and Holly Hunter’s absolutely amazing performance.  This film was nominated for Best Director over Brooks for Broadcast News and Spielberg for Empire of the Sun – even more surprising that Jewison was nominated for a Comedy when he failed to get nominated for A Soldier’s Story and failed to win for In the Heat of the Night.  And looking at the other scripts that Shanley was given the Oscar over – Broadcast News, Hope and Glory, Au revoir les enfants and Radio Days, it is typical of the Academy that they go for the most romantic, the most charming rather than the best script.

What can be said other than that this is a very good (but not great) romantic comedy, that Cage is wonderfully, perfectly over the top (his speech about losing his hand is so ridiculous and perfect at the same time), that Mahoney is very charming and the scene of him and Dukakis walking in the street is perhaps the best of the film.  But it wraps things up a bit too perfectly in the end.  It exists in the kind of New York where it is perfectly safe to walk along the streets at night and it seems to perfectly belong in that kind of Fantasyland.

Fatal Attraction (1987) - the worst Best Picture nominee since 1970

Fatal Attraction

  • Director:  Adrian Lyne
  • Writer:  James Deardon  (from his short film)
  • Producer:  Stanley R. Jaffe  /  Sherry Lansing
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Actress (Close), Supporting Actress (Archer), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  225
  • Length: 119 min
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $156.64 mil  (#2 – 1987)
  • Release Date:  18 September 1987
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  *.5
  • My Rank:  #110  (year)  /  #473  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  Fatal Attraction is an embarrassment to the actors involved.  It is a bad film, very badly written, badly directed, badly edited with a moronic script, unforgivable scenes and one of the most idiotic endings ever thrown on in response to an early screening.  That Close and Archer were able to be nominated for their performances (and possibly Douglas even might have been had he not already been on the way to the Oscar for Wall Street) is a testament to how well they are able to overcome this idiotic film.  That the film, the direction, the editing and worst of all, the script, were nominated shows that several branches of the Academy clearly have lapses from time to time.  Either that or, they are the type of people who either hate the idea of a woman taking power in a situation or, more likely, the type of people who have had affairs that have turned out badly (as most affairs are wont to do) and love the idea of just being able to end it in such a final way without paying any real cost.

Do you not know the story?  Douglas is (it would seem) happily married to Archer with a child, but when she and the kid are out of town he has a fling with a business associate played by Close (who, clearly, has been eying him for a long time and hoping for the affair).  He thinks of it as a brief fling, she does not and manipulates him to keep him involved.  Eventually she stalks him, even kidnapping the child at one point (a ridiculous ploy for power since nothing actually happens – the kind of bad thrill with no payoff you can expect from a director like Lyne who is responsible for 9 1/2 Weeks and Indecent Proposal – that he will not be ranked dead last among the list of Oscar nominated directors when I finish that list soon is only because of the sad directing careers of Roberto Benigni and Frank Perry).  And, of course, we have the rabbit in the pot – an utterly disgusting moment thrown in only to rile the audience.  In the end, Close must be killed through the teamwork of Douglas and Archer, and even then, they make the ending even more idiotic by having her be one of those super-women who seem to keep not dying (she is clearly dead in the tub, yet leaps up and is ready to attack them again – one of the single worst things ever put on film – so bad that as I am writing this, I have re-graded it from ** down to *.5).

How idiotic is the ending?  Well, if you saw the Boorman quote above, you will know that it was not the original ending.  In the original ending, Close’s character commits suicide and frames Douglas for her death.  Instead, audiences didn’t like the off-screen solution so they went back and reshot the whole ending, giving it the big bang that apparently audiences wanted, showing that audiences clearly have no interest in watching anything good.  Rather than a smarter, more interesting ending (which, also, happens to have an actual sense of responsibility for what Douglas has done – clearly Close’s character is psychotic, but the lesson of the film seems to be, if you sleep with a psycho and she acts psycho, you can eventually kill her and your relationship with your wife will be fine), they went for the bang – and the very big bang with the character who will not die, one of the most annoying cliches in all of film.

Douglas does a more than creditable job in a role that we would like a lot less if Close’s character wasn’t so deranged.  Archer does a solid job with an extremely thankless role.  And Close, even though I don’t nominate her for a Nighthawk, is quite good and pulls off her role with great gusto, no matter how ridiculous scene or how bad the dialogue.  But none of them can save this piece of crap.

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