Run Forrest, before the Academy realizes your film didn't deserve those Oscars.

The 67th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1994.  The nominations were announced on February 14, 1995 and the awards were held on March 27, 1995.

Best Picture:  Forrest Gump

  • Pulp Fiction
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral
  • Quiz Show

Most Surprising Omission:  Bullets over Broadway

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Ed Wood

Rank (out of 83) Among Best Picture Years:  #3

The Race:  When the summer movie season started kicking into high gear, things were looking pretty slim.  By the time The Lion King came out in mid-June, only one film had managed to get good reviews and solid box office: Four Weddings and a Funeral, a British comedy that had ridden good reviews and great word-of-mouth to spend several weeks at the top of a weak box office.  Then came The Lion King and though the reviews were strong and the grosses through the roof, no one thought that Disney was going to be able to again pull off a Best Picture nomination with another animated film.  Then, in July, all thoughts of films like Speed, Wolf and The Flintstones disappeared with the release of Forrest Gump.

The reviews were very strong, but the box office was through the roof.  With Tom Hanks following up his Oscar-winning role in Philadelphia and from the director of Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, people couldn’t get enough.  The novel, almost ignored when originally released in the mid-80’s became a best seller and the soundtrack seemed to just leap off the shelves.  It kept being bounced from the top of the charts by newer films, then coming back, with four separate stays as the top film of the weekend (eventually ending up as the third highest grossing film of all-time).  It seemed like the Oscars were headed its way as well as people couldn’t stop talking about the film and Tom Hanks suddenly looked like he would be the first person since Spencer Tracy in the late 30’s to win Best Actor back-to-back.

But there was this film at Cannes.  It was from Reservoir Dogs director Quentin Tarantino and it earned a big write-up in Time Magazine.  It was called Pulp Fiction and it would win the Palme d’Or, open the New York Film Festival and already be the most talked about film of the year before it even earned a stateside release.

Before Pulp Fiction could start wowing American audiences, came a slough of serious film-making in September.  There was Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, a first-rate story of the Quiz Show scandals from the late 50’s with Ralph Fiennes as the star, coming off his Oscar-nominated performance in Schindler’s List.  There was The Shawshank Redemption, with great reviews and great acting, adapted from a novella by Stephen King that had come from the same collection that produced Stand by Me.  There was Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s black-and-white tribute to the worst filmmaker ever that was earning him and star Johnny Depp the best reviews of their careers.  There was Bullets Over Broadway, the new Woody Allen comedy that was getting his best reviews since Crimes and Misdemeanors.  All of them were getting good reviews but none of them were packing the aisles.

By the time that Pulp Fiction got its release it was getting some competition as the most talked about film of the year.  First there was the 4 hour documentary Hoop Dreams about two gifted young Chicago athletes.  Then there was Clerks, the first film from Kevin Smith that had been shot for $27,000 using mostly his credit cards and, like Pulp Fiction, was a Miramax release.  But neither of those were expected to contend much for awards status.  Finally, Pulp Fiction saw the light of day.  The critics couldn’t stop saying how wonderful it was.  Audiences couldn’t stop quoting its lines.  It was an instant hit and suddenly Forrest Gump looked like it might have a race on its hands.

There was still the December crowd to look forward to.  Since the 70’s, at least one of the nominated films every year had been a December release.  But nothing looked strong enough to break into the crowd as it existed.  There was Little Women, starring Winona Ryder and Nell, with Jodie Foster, and Nobody’s Fool with Paul Newman and Legends of the Fall, the big epic starring heart-throb Brad Pitt.  But none of them seemed capable of breaking into the race just as the critics were beginning to kick off the awards season.

The L.A. Film Critics began the race on December 10 by awarding Pulp Fiction Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor.  That was followed by a tie between Pulp and Gump from the NBR (with Tarantino again winning Best Director).  Joining the big two in the Top 10 were Quiz Show, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bullets Over Broadway, Ed Wood and Shawshank Redemption (it would be the first time in five years that all five eventual nominees would make the NBR Top 10).  The New York Film Critics gave their award to Quiz Show but still gave Director and Screenplay to Tarantino.  The National Society of Film Critics finished off the major groups by again awarding the big three awards on Pulp Fiction.

In the mean time, two other films that had been winning a slough of awards suddenly got involved in the Best Picture race.  Hoop Dreams, which had won Best Documentary in LA and New York and from the NSFC failed to make the longlist for the Best Documentary award at the Oscars.  Critics like Siskel & Ebert who had been championing the film were outraged and a push began to try and earn Hoop Dreams a Best Picture nomination.  Likewise, Red, the final film in the Three Colors Trilogy from Krzysztof Kieslowski, which had won Best Foreign Film from those same three groups was declared ineligible for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars and a similar push began to get it nominations in the other categories (which it was eligible for).

The Golden Globes didn’t do Pulp Fiction any favors in deciding that it and Forrest Gump were both dramas.  In fact, Pulp was facing Gump in all six of its nominated categories, including Director and Screenplay.  Quiz Show, also nominated for Picture, Director and Screenplay was expected to sit out the race while Legends of the Fall was considered an also-ran in spite of its Picture and Director nominations and Nell had somehow managed to best Shawshank Redemption and earn the final Picture slot (Shawshank did earn Actor and Screenplay nominations).  Over in the Comedy category, the competition was between Ed Wood, Four Weddings and a Funeral (also a Screenplay nominee) and The Lion King.  Like Dances with Wolves in 1990, which had been thumped at the critics awards only to begin its real run at the Golden Globes, Gump took Picture and Director over Pulp Fiction, though Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary did rack up yet another Screenplay award.  The Lion King, meanwhile, added a bit to its credibility by winning Best Picture – Comedy / Musical, as Beauty and the Beast had before its historic Oscar run.

The race began to tighten up as, for the first time, the Directors Guild and Producers Guild nominated the same five films: Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shawshank Redemption.  Of those, only Pulp Fiction, which was ineligible, failed to earn a Writers Guild nomination to go with it, with Ed Wood and Bullets Over Broadway managing to stay alive with WGA nominations as well.  Even the Screen Actors Guild, finally establishing their own awards, kept Gump and Fiction at the top, giving them 4 and 3 nominations respectively.

The Results:  The race seemed over from the minute the nominations were announced.  While Four Weddings and a Funeral had made it into the race, it had the fewest nominations for a Best Picture nominee since 1951 with only 2.  And Shawshank Redemption was in the race, but was missing a Best Director nomination (the two nominations had instead gone to Kieslowski and Woody Allen).  Quiz Show had Picture and Director nominations, but only 4 total nominations.  Even Pulp Fiction, with its 7 nominations, including Picture, Director, Screenplay and 3 acting nominations was an also-ran.  Forrest Gump had a whopping 13 nominations, the most in 28 years, and though the last 2 films to earn that many nominations had lost the Best Picture race, this race was a foregone conclusion.  This became even more obvious after Gump won the DGA, PGA, WGA and even Best Actor at the SAG.

Sure enough, while Pulp Fiction took home yet another Screenplay award, it was the only award won by any of the Best Picture nominees except for Forrest GumpGump would race away with 6 Oscars, including Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor.

Forrest Gump - stupid is as stupid does

Forrest Gump

  • Director:  Robert Zemeckis
  • Writer:  Eric Roth  (from the novel by Winston Groom)
  • Producer:  Wendy Finerman  /  Steve Starkey  /  Steve Tisch
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, Robin Wright Penn, Sally Field
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Actor (Hanks), Supporting Actor (Sinise), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  580
  • Length:  142 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  6 July 1994
  • Box Office Gross:  $329.69 mil  (#1 – 1994;  #3  –  alltime upon initial release)
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #35  (year)  /  #320  (nominees)  /  #67  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Editing, Cinematography, Visual Effects
  • Nighthawk Points:  70
  • First Watched:  Opening day at Westgate with Kari Panger

The Film:  This is Ronald Reagan’s America.  That wasn’t my idea.  It was something that my sociology professor told me after Forrest Gump came out.  This was a chance to look at the several decades of American history and feel good about all of it.  It would be Morning in America.  The Civil Rights Era?  Accomplished almost by accident.  Vietnam?  Fought by idiots who didn’t know any better and who came home to protests they couldn’t quite understand.  The seventies running craze?  Brought about by one man who really had nothing better to do.  If you watch Forrest Gump, you get a small little Idiot’s Guide to Recent American History and learn absolutely nothing.  And if it didn’t want to be so damn sincere about it all it really could have been a wicked good time – a satire on the modern era.  Instead, it’s a chance for everyone to feel good.

Let’s begin with the basic story.  Amazing, people said, look at the way Zemeckis so seamlessly weaves him into American history with his effects.  And look at how someone so incredibly simple (stupid and simple are not the same thing – the film wants to always focus on Forrest’s stupidity, but it is his simplicity that is the key to the story) could manage to live such an extraordinary life.  It could only be being an American and having all these amazing things come about, for only in the land of opportunity could this happen.

Well, except for the fact that the story is one big rip-off.  What Gump does is take the basic idea from two films – two far superior films – and weave them together.  There is the whole idea of a character who has been there at all the key moments in history and using digital effects to place him right in the action.  Did no one who watched this film ever see Woody Allen’s Zelig?  Well, probably not, given Zelig‘s box office ($11 million, or less than half of what Gump made in its opening weekend).  And then there is the idea of a simple character, who, through silly ridiculous maxims that people think are deep because they don’t realize they’re so shallow, becomes a great advisor and powerful figure.  I’ve seen that too and it’s called Being There.  And what Sellers does with the character of Chance the Gardener is far more impressive than the performance that made Tom Hanks only the second lead actor to win back-to-back Oscars.

So why is Gump such an overwhelming success?  There’s certainly no denying it – one of the biggest films of all-time (when it ended its theatrical run it was only behind E.T. and Jurassic Park on the all-time list), the highest number of Oscar nominations in a generation and 6 wins, including Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor.  Well, for three primary reasons.  One, it really did make people feel good.  There is precious little in it to make you feel bad – he wins back over everyone who seems to oppose him, in a sense gets the happy ending (the child, if not really the girl that the film builds up as bad for him anyway), rich, with the great Lt. Dan always by his side.  It makes you feel like America really is the country where this can happen.  Two, it has a performance from Tom Hanks that seemed designed to take the Oscar – far short of his later great performances that wouldn’t win Oscars (Saving Private Ryan) or even earn nominations (Road to Perdition).  It allowed him to play the likeable goof that everyone could root for.  Third, it has one of the great soundtracks of all-time, a two-disc set that immediately became a best-seller and allowed everyone my age to get a great collection of two decades worth of hits in one place.

So why did the Academy love it?  Because it didn’t challenge it.  After a year where they knew they had to give the Oscar to Spielberg for Schindler’s List, they longed for something lighter.  They didn’t really want to see that needle plunging into Uma Thurman’s chest.  They would much rather watch Tom running across a beautiful landscape with Jackson Browne playing in the background, even if, for some bizarre reason, the song wouldn’t end up on the soundtrack.

Pulp Fiction - the most influential film since Star Wars

Pulp Fiction

  • Director:  Quentin Tarantino
  • Writer:  Quentin Tarantino  /  Roger Avary
  • Producer:  Lawrence Bender
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Travolta), Supporting Actor (Jackson), Supporting Actress (Thurman), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  295
  • Length:  154 min
  • Genre:  Crime
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  14 October 1994
  • Box Office Gross:  $107.92 mil  (#10 – 1994)
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #21  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Jackson), Supporting Actress (Thurman), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  285
  • First Watched:  Opening day at Westgate with Rebecca Gardiner

The Film:  Those who were there know.  It’s hard for me to imagine the impact of Citizen Kane or Psycho and though I saw Star Wars in the theater, I didn’t know what movies were like before that.  But I had been hearing all the news from Cannes and been waiting for it and there it was and it was like . . .  Well, it was like a needle of adrenaline to the heart.  There’s really no other way to put it.

It wasn’t that things like this hadn’t been done before.  Godard had made great use of quick cutting and flashy stylezation in BreathlessLa Ronde had the idea of multiple story-lines that didn’t necessarily progress properly through time.  For the past few years, Tim Burton had been showing how stylish a director could be and ended up making the best film of 1994 by finally finding enough substance to go along with his style.  But there was no one who had quite put things together in the way that Tarantino had.  Unlike Burton, who needed great writers to come in on Ed Wood and bring him his best success as a director, Tarantino had the best ear for dialogue and for story, making his name first as a writer before ever getting his directorial chance.  And unlike Kevin Smith, who shared Tarantino’s ear for great, quotable dialogue that hit all the cultural touchstones in 1994 with Clerks, Tarantino was absolutely one hell of a director.  Unlike Godard, Tarantino understood the importance of story to a film.  And what Tarantino did with his fractured story and timelines was the amazing – create a happy ending in which people walked out of the theater marveling at how those we were rooting for walked away together, into the sunrise.

When you stepped back to think about it, instead of being disappointed like with Gump and realizing that there was much less than it seemed at first glance, you realized how brilliantly Tarantino had done his job.  You realized that Travolta’s Vincent Vega dies in the film.  But there he is walking out the diner into the happy ending.  Because Tarantino understood the importance of an ending to a film – as a lifelong student of film, watching them endlessly in his job as a video store clerk, he grasped that it was more important to have a good feel at the end of the film than to actually have the key moment at the end of the film.  So, yes, Travolta is dead.  But we still get to watch him walk away into the happy ending and that is one hell of a thing.

There are, of course, the things that people walked away talking about.  There is the dance scene in Jackrabbit Slim’s.  There is the needle straight to the heart.  There is the bullet in the backseat of the car and the cleaning that comes afterwords.  Then there are the lines – “I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.” or “Zed’s dead, baby.” or ” ‘I think I cracked a rib.’  ‘Giving me oral pleasure?'” or “We’re gonna get medieval on his ass.”  Then, of course, there are the great dialogues – the one in the car about a Royale with Cheese becoming an instant cultural milestone before the film even ended, or the discussion of the five dollar shake, or the discussion of whether or not a dog is a filthy animal.  And of course, it’s unlikely that anyone who has ever seen this film will ever forget where Christopher Walken stored that watch.  The language and lines instantly resonated with an entire generation of filmmakers.  They kept trying to copy Tarantino – his fractured filmmaking, his great way with lines – but nobody was able to quite do what he had done.

But there is also the question of which actors Tarantino chose for his film.  Think of where the careers of these people were in 1994.  John Travolta’s career was floundering with the Look Who’s Talking films until this suddenly revived him and made him an Oscar nominee for the first time in 17 years.  Bruce Willis was in the same boat, with a series of flops.  Samuel L. Jackson was just a small-time character actor until this film established him as the coolest man around.  Uma Thurman had made stunning impressions in Dangerous Liaisons and Baron Munchausen, but hadn’t managed to do much since.  But after Pulp Fiction, none of them could be ignored any longer, nor could Christopher Walken (who was suddenly looked at like the complete madman he had seemed back in Annie Hall), Ving Rhames, Amanda Plummer or Tim Roth.

If you weren’t there you can’t remember what it was like before Tarantino.  But suddenly, even though they had earned Best Picture nominations before with My Left Foot, The Crying Game and The Piano, Miramax became the single hippest company on the planet.  Tarantino was the man that no one could wait for what he was going to do next (and those who were disappointed were those who had been washed over with the style of Pulp Fiction and couldn’t understand how great the dialogue and story-telling had made it, because those aspects are brilliant in Jackie Brown).  None of us expected the film to win much in the way of Oscars outside of Screenplay.  But it was step up for the Academy to even acknowledge a film like this with a Best Picture nomination.

The Shawshank Redemption - so loved by the IMDb voters

The Shawshank Redemption

  • Director:  Frank Darabont
  • Writer:  Frank Darabont  (from the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King)
  • Producer:  Niki Marvin
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, James Whitmore
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Actor (Freeman), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  220
  • Length:  142 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Prison)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  23 September 1994
  • Box Office Gross:  $28.34 mil  (#51 – 1994)
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #42  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Robbins), Editing, Cinematography, Sound
  • Nighthawk Points:  240
  • First Watched:  Special Preview Screening one week before opening day with Jamie Lucero

The Film:  This was the film that I ever got to review in advance.  In high school, I had reviewed some films, beginning with Dances with Wolves, for my school paper.  In college, due to college politics reasons, I was never on the school paper.  But I did write the occasional piece for them and one of them was a review of Shawshank.  Because I was able to see it on a special sneak preview, it was the first time that the paper ever had a film review run on the same day that the film was released.  And, given the amount of money that Shawshank grossed, I would say that my review convinced exactly no people to see it.  The review now is kind of lost to time, which is probably for the best.  I’m not exactly sure I want to read the review of a 19 year old who was already inclined to love the film given how much he had loved the original novella it was based on.

In fact, I loved the novella so much that I had already begun a script for it.  That never got very far as the production of this film began and because I was busy being a Sophomore in college.  But the first thing I had done was change the title.  Granted, the filmmakers at Castle Rock had also changed the title, but my title Hope Springs Eternal (the name for the part of the book – the four Different Seasons of the title all play into the stories), while a bit generic, is clearly far less of a turn-off than The Shawshank Redemption, which has long been acknowledged to be a terrible title.  It’s easy to name a short story and have it be a great name for a story and a terrible name for a film.  That was clear when, in spite of great reviews, no one was really going to see the film.  Hell, when the film first dropped out of theaters it had made only 2/3 in its whole run of Forrest Gump‘s opening weekend numbers.  Only a post-Oscar nominations re-release that almost doubled its gross allowed it to even make what it cost.  I kept telling people that they should see it and people kept not listening – pushed away by the title and the depressing subject matter rather than the cries of someone who, at 19, was already viewed as a film snob, telling them how good it was (in those days before Ed Wood and Pulp Fiction came out, I was certainly describing it as the best film of the year).

Then something amazing happened.  Enough of the critical support seemed to break through.  The Golden Globes noticed it a little (Actor, Screenplay).  But then the guilds picked it up; it was clear they had seen what the audiences had not grasped.  It earned DGA, PGA and WGA nominations and SAG nominations for both Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins.  With the DGA and PGA agreeing for the first time, there was little surprise when it all five of those films earned Oscar nominations.  The seven nominations coupled with a re-release meant that people started actually seeing the film and appreciating its worth.  Though it would win no Oscars, it would find a nice middle ground between those who thought Forrest Gump a bit too stupid and Pulp Fiction considerably too violent.  It was the film that everyone could agree on.  And they continued to agree on it.  When the IMDb debuted, it did not take long before the voters started flocking towards Shawshank, embraced by every demographic.  It soon found its place at the top of the IMDb’s Top 250 list and has pretty much sat there for well over a decade now.  It has considerably more votes than any other film on the list.  Hell, it has far more votes from IMDb voters outside the U.S. then most films have votes.

So what is it about this film?  I know what I love about it – its has great story-telling, which comes straight from Stephen King’s novella.  It focuses on what was always Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite motif – the wrongly accused innocent man.  It is well directed, and extremely well made, but without any flashiness.  It doesn’t try to be a grand epic like Gump or an edgy new film like Pulp Fiction.  It is a throwback to good old fashioned Hollywood story-telling.  That’s why it didn’t win any Oscars, but it’s why it ended up with all those Oscar nominations.  It contains a very strong performance from Morgan Freeman, an actor that almost everyone loves (a performance that threw me very badly at first, since Red, in the book is a red-headed Irish man, but Freeman plays it off so well).  Yet, it contains an even more remarkable, more subtle, subdued performance from Tim Robbins, as he slides into the character so perfectly.  Freeman earned the Oscar nomination, perhaps because of his likeability, perhaps because Robbins was still quite odd to a lot of people (everyone cheered when he finally won an Oscar for Mystic River, but what everyone was forgetting was that it was actually his first acting nomination because the Academy kept overlooking him for roles like this and The Player), perhaps because in his narration, he moves the film forward and becomes the face of the film.

But what draws everyone else towards it?  Is it that it is so unobjectionable?  It is smart, well-made, but not overly stylistic and certainly not a difficult film.  Or is it the Freeman performance?  Or is it that the film gives us that wrongly accused man and in the end, we see him escape.  It gives us someone that we truly want to root for and in the end rewards us.  It keeps holding to that notion of hope and the hope finds us.  Hope indeed can set you free.

In a sense, that ending, that hopeful, wonderful ending, is what draws people in and was the smartest change the producers made.  In the book, we never see the conclusion of Red’s trip south.  We see him struggle with adapting to the outside and we know he finds the rock and heads south.  But we never see the reunion, just his endless mantra “I hope.”  But here we get that final moment of two men smiling and walking towards each other on that white sand along that blue ocean and it gives us the closure that the film needs and perhaps in that moment is what all those people love.

In what seems like a direct slap to the Farrelys, the Brits prove with Four Weddings and a Funeral that comedies can be smart and funny

Four Weddings and a Funeral

  • Director:  Mike Newell
  • Writer:  Richard Curtis
  • Producer:  Duncan Kenworthy
  • Studio:  Gramercy
  • Stars:  Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, Kirstin Scott-Thomas, Simon Callow
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
  • Oscar Points:  90
  • Length:  117 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  11 March 1994
  • Box Office Gross:  $52.70 mil  (#21 – 1994)
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #117  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Scott-Thomas)
  • Nighthawk Points:  120
  • First Watched:  Two months into the run at the Valley Twin

The Film:  The very best romantic comedies do more than just make us laugh.  It is true that they do make us laugh, often make us laugh uncontrollably, and Four Weddings and a Funeral is one of the best at that.  In fact, it’s difficult to think of a romantic comedy that makes us start laughing so hard right off the bat.  As soon as the opening credits are done, we see poor Charles wake up and realize how late he is and the fun begins.  Does any other film begin with “Fuck” said so many times?  We’re laughing ridiculously hard already and we don’t even know anything yet.

But the best romantic comedies also make us think and they make us feel.  The standard romantic comedy formula seems to be to take two good-looking people, find a way to make them come together, find something to keep them apart and then bring them back together, usually with some roommate or best friends who gets all the funny lines while the stars do the romance part.  Here, of course, there is more than that.  This film, like great films do, creates a group of characters, gives them depth and personality and then lets us see what develops.  It is done so well, focusing so strictly on those weddings and the funeral (with one other day thrown in for good measure – “It’s a Saturday and for the first time in my life I don’t have a wedding to go to.”) that we never know what this group does for a living, don’t get to know how they all met (though, if you think about it, you can figure it out).  All we see is who they are and how they interact with each other and that is more than enough.  We learn to love these characters and we not only root for the lead couple to end up happy, we root for all of them.

But those best of comedies also make us feel the low moments as well as the sad.  There is the funeral, of course, the great use of Auden’s wonderful poem, the melancholy of learning that your friends can’t stay together like that forever.  But is that really the sad moment?  To me the saddest moment is the one that happens to so many of us, on one side or the other.  Just before Gareth dies, we learn that Fiona loves Charlie, has always loved Charlie, will always love Charlie.  But he doesn’t love her and he can’t change that.  I’ve been there, both in Fiona’s position and in Charlie’s and there is nothing worse than knowing how much you love someone and knowing they will never feel that way about you.  It is in that moment where this film really shows how well written it is and reminds us that a great film like this isn’t just about making you laugh.

But getting back to that.  There is plenty to laugh at, of course.  When you have a group of friends like this, there are always things that are bound to make you laugh, just from being together.  Of course, we don’t all get so lucky as to witness a catastrophic performance by the minister at a wedding, but that’s what a film like this is for.  There are so many great moments that I don’t even mind that one of the best ideas I ever wrote, the idea of someone ending up at a wedding reception table with all of his exes, ended up in the film, forever ruining my chance to use it (though in my version, it was done deliberately).  And I would totally be up for the idea of the practical joke where you convince someone that they’re late for their own wedding.

But what really struck me as I was watching the film this time (one of at least 25 times I’ve seen it – there was a time one summer where it was the only film I owned that my mother was willing to watch so we watched it a lot) was how poignant it can be.  I was watching it with my wife several states away at a conference and all I could do was think of how much I missed her and how lucky I had been.  I wanted so desperately, like Tom, not to end up alone, just to find someone who was interested.  But in the end, I got lucky, like Charles, and found that lightning bolt, that absolutely perfect person and it makes it feel like a triumph, that no matter what else goes wrong, I married who I should have married.

It is a film so wonderful in its awkwardness (“I felt it was important to say.”  “What exactly did you say?”  “You know, what I said, about David Cassidy.”), in its sardonic humor (“Having a good night?”  “Yes.  It’s right up there with my father’s funeral for sheer entertainment value.”), in its belief in the power of love (all of the honest things that Charles says after his hilarious start of his best man speech), in its hilarious little throwaway lines (“I thought U2 was a type of submarine.”), in the way it perfectly marries romance and comedy with heartfelt poignancy.  Let’s just say this: it’s so wonderful a film that even Andie MacDowell giving one of the worst line deliveries of all-time at the end (“Is it still raining?  I hadn’t noticed.”) can do nothing to mar the wonderful feeling you get from watching every minute of it.

Redford makes it back into the Best Picture race with the great Quiz Show

Quiz Show

  • Director:  Robert Redford
  • Writer:  Paul Attanasio  (from the book Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties by Richard Goodwin)
  • Producer:  Robert Redford  /  Michael Jacobs  /  Julian Krainin  /  Michael Nozik
  • Studio:  Buena Vista
  • Stars:  Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Paul Scofield
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Supporting Actor (Scofield)
  • Oscar Points:  165
  • Length:  133 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  16 September 1994
  • Box Office Gross:  $24.82 mil  (#56 – 1994)
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #137  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Fiennes), Supporting Actor (Turturro), Supporting Actor (Scofield), Sound
  • Nighthawk Points:  200
  • First Watched:  Opening night at Westgate with Jamie Lucero and Matt Hoffman

The Film:  Dick Goodwin comes out to Connecticut for a dinner with the Van Dorens.  As in Van Doren, Van Doren.  The family of Charles Van Doren, the man who was wowing the audiences every week on “21”, the big quiz show on NBC.  That the family also included a well known poet and Columbia professor (Charles’ father, Mark) and a Pulitzer Prize winner who was one the fifth person to be granted his own title in the Viking Portable Library (his uncle Carl) was an extra treat.  But, the key aspect was the dinner itself – guests gathered around a table in suburban Connecticut quoting Shakespeare – a dinner party of smart, sophisticated people, the intelligentsia of New York escaping into their own world.  Goodwin is not of this world – he is a Brookline Jew who pushed himself through Harvard, first in his class at Harvard Law, a clerk for Justice Frankfurter and now working on a Congressional subcommittee.  He believes in the power of hard work, but he also believes in the power of being smart and being driven and that those things can open doors.  This world seems to represent everything he longs for.

Then comes the point where Goodwin is meeting in a hotel with Herb Stempel.  In many ways, Stempel is extremely smart.  But it is Stempel himself that seems to turn Goodwin off – forever complaining about how good things have been taken away from him, that his brains don’t seem to matter, that everything good comes to the WASP who already had everything.  Stempel expected to find a core of common experience in Goodwin, a fellow Jew, and finds nothing that can win him over to his side.  Then, as Goodwin is leaving, Stempel blurts out a fact that brings Goodwin back.  He mentions that he knows that Van Doren must have been getting help on the quiz show because Stempel himself was getting help.

Suddenly, this isn’t about the pursuit of knowledge anymore.  It is about the pursuit of truth and something in Goodwin seems to remember why he has come up to New York from Washington in the first place.  Something in him, the same thing that drove him to be the best, is looking for that truth, and any potential friendship, any potential doors that could be opened into the world that Goodwin longs for are no longer the issue.  It becomes about the truth.

None of this is said out loud.  It is subtly fashioned in the smart script that Paul Attanasio sculpts from a very small part of Goodwin’s book (most of the book deals with Goodwin’s career working for JFK, LBJ and RFK).  It comes to life in a very well-directed film by Robert Redford.  But it comes to life mostly because of the performances that fill the film.  First, there is Rob Morrow, in a very underappreciated performance as Goodwin.  Then there is Paul Scofield in a small performance as the poet Mark Van Doren, stuck trying to understand the decisions that his son has made (a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination).  Then there is the best performance of John Turturro’s career, as the whining, desperate, pleading Stempel, trying to remind people that he is as smart as that damn WASP Van Doren.  And there is Ralph Fiennes, as Van Doren himself, in a performance light-years away from the performance that had earned him an Oscar nomination the year before, the heinously evil Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List.

The film does what the best historical films do.  It crafts history into a great story, never making us feel like we’re getting a history lesson, but letting the story come to life, breath with characters and depth, and then develop as its own pace.  And when Morrow, as Goodwin, looks at Van Doren, played so perfectly by Fiennes, and makes the choice he knows he has to make, understanding that the core of truth is more important than the flashiness of publicity, we can reflect on something else in Goodwin’s book, something that makes us look away from the mistakes that Van Doren made and look towards Goodwin’s later employer:  “Style is the archway though which power enters into historical memory: the judicious, dignified Washington, the poetic Lincoln, the ebullient Franklin Roosevelt.  Kennedy has not yet won a place in that company, but if he does it won’t be because of the space program or the missile crisis.  It will be be because what he was helped remind us of what we could be.”