A touching moment in the desert: "Am I K in your book?"

The 69th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1996.  The nominations were announced on February 11, 1997 and the awards were held on March 24, 1997.

Best Picture:  The English Patient

  • Fargo
  • Secrets and Lies
  • Jerry Maguire
  • Shine

Most Surprising Omission:  The People vs. Larry Flynt

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Lone Star

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #14

The Race:  The Oscars actually started looking at the Cannes Film Festival.  Miramax had begun their Oscar hopes twice at Cannes with back-to-back Palme d’Or winners in 93 and 94: The Piano and Pulp Fiction.  In 1996, the Best Director winner was Joel Coen (even though it was well known that all of the films were co-directed by the brothers) for Fargo, the brothers’ dark crime-comedy that critics were busy adoring in the States.  But the Palme d’Or went to Secrets and Lies, the new film from British director Mike Leigh.  All of Leigh’s films had done well by the critics but it usually ended there and no amount of critical adoration had yet earned any of his films an Oscar nomination.  The Coen brothers themselves had seen three nominations for their Barton Fink (though none for themselves), but otherwise the critical adoration for their own Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing had been completely ignored as well.

By the time Secrets and Lies opened the New York Film Festival in the fall, only three films aside from Fargo had really made a critical impression and all were art-house films that had not ever played in more than 1000 theaters: Lone Star, Trainspotting and Emma.  In fact, major studios seemed to be missing in action for the awards run.  Only four studios had films that were considered major contenders for the Oscars: Disney had Evita (though they also owned Miramax, it was considered an independent), Fox had the new film version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Columbia had The People vs Larry Flynt (the new Milos Forman film about the Hustler publisher) and Tri-Star had Jerry Maguire, the big new Tom Cruise romantic comedy from Cameron Crowe.  Of those, only Jerry Maguire managed any significant box office.

The great reviews and the awards attention was all headed towards the independent films streaming into studios in the fall.  Aside from Secrets and Lies, there was The English Patient, the new David Lean-like epic adapted from the Booker Prize winning novel, Shine, the Australian biopic of pianist David Helfgott that was earning great praise for its star Geoffrey Rush and Breaking the Waves, a film from Danish director Lars von Trier that was getting great reviews for its new star, Emily Watson.

The National Board of Review kicked off the awards season on December 10, giving Best Picture to Shine but Director and Actress to Fargo.  Many of the major films were in their Top 10: Shine, The English Patient, Fargo, Secrets and Lies, Evita, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Breaking the Waves and Jerry Maguire.  Two days later, the New York Film Critics gave Best Picture to Fargo, but Director and Actress this time both went to Breaking the Waves.  The LA Film Critics didn’t split their awards; Best Picture, Director and Actress went to Secrets and Lies, though Fargo did win Best Screenplay, while Geoffrey Rush had won Actor in both New York and LA.  The final major critics group, the National Society of Film Critics, gave Picture and Director to Breaking the Waves.

Fargo, Shine, The English Patient and The People vs. Larry Flynt all had their major contender status sealed with Picture, Director and Screenplay nominations at the Golden Globes.  Evita was right behind with Picture and Director nominations, while Breaking the Waves and Jerry Maguire were in with Picture and acting nominations.  The English Patient had 7 nominations making it the favorite, as only one film (The Godfather Part III) had earned 7 or more nominations in the past fifteen years and not won Best Picture.  But the night of the Golden Globes brought a lot of surprises.  The English Patient did win Best Picture – Drama, but lost both Director and Screenplay to Larry Flynt, while Evita managed to best both Fargo and Jerry Maguire in Best Picture – Comedy or Musical and, even more surprising, Madonna beat out Frances McDormand for Best Actress – Comedy or Musical.  Pundits couldn’t decide if it made Evita a legitimate contender or made the Golden Globes a non-factor.  Meanwhile, in their second ceremony, the Broadcast Film Critics Association named Fargo Best Picture, but gave both Director and Screenplay to The English Patient.

The guild nominations began to chime in and cemented The English Patient, Fargo and Shine as front-runners.  All three films were in the Producers Guild, Directors Guild and Writers Guild races.  Jerry Maguire and Secrets and Lies joined them in the DGA and WGA nominations (where The English Patient seemed to rule over the Adapted category), while Larry Flynt and Kenneth Branagh’s four hour version of Hamlet were the final two PGA nominees.  Emma, Trainspotting and Lone Star had all faltered at the awards line and didn’t have much besides WGA nominations, while The Crucible surprisingly didn’t even have that.  Headed into the nominations, The English Patient was clearly the front-runner, with Fargo running second and Shine a distant third.  Jerry Maguire, Secrets and Lies and Larry Flynt were all vying for the fourth and fifth spots with Breaking the Waves and Evita outside shots.

The Results:  The nominations pretty much ended any remaining suspense.  The English Patient was up for 12 Oscars and no film with the many nominations had lost Best Picture in 15 years.  It had been joined by Fargo, Shine, Secrets and Lies and Jerry Maguire.  But, though Jerry Maguire was the lone film from a major studio, it was also the only one without a director in the race – Cameron Crowe had been passed over for Milos Forman.

Though it would have a stumble on the way to the Oscars – losing the WGA to Sling Blade, it would take the DGA and ride that momentum into a night of Oscar success.  It would stumble on Oscar night, again losing Best Adapted Screenplay to Sling Blade, but would be so overwhelming in the other categories that Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice thanked it for not having any original songs when they won their Oscar.  It would go on to win 9 Oscars, the most in nine years.

David Lean redux

The English Patient

  • Director:  Anthony Minghella
  • Writer:  Anthony Minghella  (from the novel by Michael Ondaatje)
  • Producer:  Saul Zaentz
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Williem DaFoe, Colin Firth
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Fiennes), Actress (Scott-Thomas), Supporting Actress (Binoche), Editing, Cinematography, Original Dramatic Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  620  (6th most ever)
  • Length:  162 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Epic)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $78.67 mil  (#19  –  1996)
  • Release Date:  15 November 1996
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #36  (nominees)  /  #15  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Fiennes), Supporting Actress (Binoche), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  530
  • First Watched:  second day at Tigard Cinemas

The Film:  There is a moment in the middle of the film, in the desert in the night.  Katharine Clifton (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas) says to Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), “Am I K in your book?”  Almásy turns to her and stares, then touches her cheek, tenderly, with the back of his hand.  This follows on an earlier scene when Katharine had complained about him following her home and only when he didn’t respond, realized that he had fallen in love with her.  There is tenderness and genuine romance here, in spite of Katharine being married.  There is love.

The English Patient is a film that often finds itself compared to Lawrence of Arabia.  Ralph Fiennes, the talented British actor with the haunting blue eyes, had already played T.E. Lawrence in a television film, this was a large epic, set in the desert amidst a world at war, with magnificent cinematography and it won the same seven Oscars that Lawrence of Arabia had won (and also lost Best Actor and Adapted Screenplay, as Lawrence had also done).  But this moment shows the essential difference between this and LawrenceLawrence was about one man and his experiences in the desert.  This is a story about a man and his experiences with a woman, most of which take place amidst the desert sands.

That is what we come to learn over the course of the film.  When the film opens, we see a man and a woman in a plane, high over the desert sands.  Then there is the battery that shoots them down and he is badly burned and the story proceeds to Italy, during the later days of the war.  It is not until much later that we learn who the people in the plane were, and much longer after that when we realize the circumstances of their flight.  The English Patient as a novel had won the Booker Prize, appropriate since it is a dense and complicated book, the very kind of work that the Bookers love to award.  But it is also one of the very best Booker Prize winners, a great novel in its complex story of a haunted love affair and the events that come after and the four people all affected by it.  The film itself moves in the same complex way.  The editing of this film, so artfully done by Walter Murch is a key to its construction.  We can only slowly realize the various strands of the story and how they weave in and out of each other.  In the meantime, we have those gorgeous desert sands, set to the strains of Gabriel Yared’s magnificent score.

Before we can ever come to that moment in the desert, before we even come to the story of Katharine and Almásy, we have the haunted nurse, Hana.  Everyone who ever gets close to her dies, and so she retreats to an abandoned monastery with her dying patient.  She slowly allows herself to heal as she learns his story of love and loss.  In Hana’s ascension (literally at one point, in a beautiful scene, where she is lifted by torchlight to look at paintings) and Almásy’s slow decay, they both find their stories overlapping.

Which brings us back to the desert, back to that tender moment that the two of them share, lit only by a flare in the desert night sky, bringing them help and security.  He believes that this touch is all he has, until after they return to Cairo and she returns to him, beautiful and angelic in a white dress and their passion for each other overwhelms their senses.

The English Patient is a beautiful film, brilliantly constructed at every level – writing, directing, editing, cinematography, score, art direction.  And perhaps there is nothing more crucial than the acting, then the looks in the eyes of Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ralph Fiennes during their moment, the look of desolation on Juliette Binoche’s face when she walks straight into the mines, not even knowing that death is a step away, the pain in Willem DaFoe’s face as he begs for his hands, the disgust in Colin Firth’s when it becomes apparent that he knows of his wife’s betrayal.  Yet, this film suffers from comparisons.  Film lovers compare it unfavorably to Lawrence of Arabia, in spite of their vast differences and complain that it won over Fargo, which quickly won a cultish following.  But this is an example of film-making at its very best.  It is not my number one film of the year because of the brilliance of Lone Star and Trainspotting.  But it is the best of the nominees, a truly epic film in a great year for films and it is the kind of film the Academy gives the Oscar to and which actually deserves it.  For all its technical brilliance, for all the ways in which it takes a complex and difficult book and makes not only a coherent, but a brilliant film, for the fine direction, and most of all for that look that the two of them share in the desert night.

The Coens win an Oscar for their "true" story


  • Director:  Joel Coen  (and an uncredited Ethan Coen)
  • Writer:  Joel Coen  /  Ethan Coen
  • Producer:  Ethan Coen
  • Studio:  Gramercy
  • Stars:  Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (McDormand), Supporting Actor (Macy), Editing, Cinematography
  • Oscar Points:  325
  • Length:  98 min
  • Genre:  Crime  (Black Comedy)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $24.61 mil  (#67  –  1996)
  • Release Date:  5 April 1996
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #46  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (McDormand), Supporting Actor (Macy), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score
  • Nighthawk Points:  365
  • First Watched:  Opening day at Tigard Theater with Kari Panger and Jonathan Miller

The Film:  It isn’t until 33 minutes into the film when it cuts to a painting of geese, pans across an artist’s workroom and we see Marge Gunderson asleep in her bed.  It’s weird to remember that this seminal performance, one that won the Oscar (deservedly) and instantly became a character out of film lore doesn’t even appear until 1/3 of the way through the film.  The character and the film itself leapt off the screen in early 1996 and immediately became one of the highest regarded American films of the decade.  It is an Ebert Great Film, it was the most recent film to appear on the initial AFI Top 100 list (though, oddly, didn’t make the second list) and at the Top 1000, no film since has been regarded as highly.

It deserves all of this praise.  That I rate it only at #4 on the year says much more about the year itself than the film.  In all the years since it would rank either first or second (except 2005, where it would rank third).  It is a film that manages to be a successful crime film while at the same time being one of the darkest comedies or funniest dark films of all-time, depending on which you want to take.  There was considerable discussion when it was first nominated at the Golden Globes because it was nominated as a Comedy, but in spite of the violence, in spite of the subject matter, the Globes actually got the category right on this one (even if they got it so so wrong by giving Madonna Best Actress over McDormand).

Like many Coen Brothers films, it is filled with fascinating secondary characters, all of whom are very well acted by lesser known performers, but the key to the film lies in two performances — Frances McDormand as Marge, the Chief of Police for Brainerd, MN and William H. Macy as Jerry Lundergaard, the car salesmen.  Both of them manage to inhabit characters without ever quite crossing the line into caricatures.  Both of them have scenes where you would think the lines were improvised, but both of them have been quite clear that what they were speaking was in the script – from Marge going “No, I just think I’m gonna barf,” to Jerry’s constant stuttering.  Both of them are also very believable in their marital roles – the way Marge lights up when she comes into her office and finds that her husband has brought her lunch to the way Jerry collapses inside when speaking of the future and he is told by his father-in-law that his wife and child never have to worry about money.

The relationship between Marge and her husband, Norm, is perhaps what keeps the film from going completely over the top.  Let’s face it – this is a profane and violent film.  We have several, quite brutal murders and we have a merciless beating that begins with fists and throwing people around and proceeds to being whipped by a belt.  But we also have that human heart of the film.  Look at the scene where Norm gets up to fix Marge some eggs before she goes out to look at the homicide.  In one shot, we see them together at the table.  Then, when she goes to leave, Norm takes her plate and proceeds to eat the food she didn’t.  In the same shot, without ever leaving the camera, we see her go out the door, try to start the prowler, then come back.  He looks up when he hears the door open again and he can already seem to guess that she will need a jump.  The Coens asked McDormand and John Carroll Lynch to decide on a back story for their characters and the time together obviously helped.  They seem more like a married couple than almost any other married couple in film history.

And even the violence is not without humor.  There is, of course, the woodchipper scene.  You don’t even have to explain that anymore.  It has become a part of film lore.  “I guess that was your accomplice back there in the woodchipper,” Marge says, so perfectly summing up the situation.  And look at what we are left with at the end.  In this film of violence, both physical and emotional, full of murder and ice, it is the beating human heart of the film that we end with, Marge and Norm lying there together in bed.

Mike Leigh's brilliance finally breaks through with the Academy

Secrets and Lies

  • Director:  Mike Leigh
  • Writer:  Mike Leigh
  • Producer:  Simon Channing-Williams
  • Studio:  October
  • Stars:  Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn, Phyllis Logan, Marianne Jean-Baptiste
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Blethyn), Supporting Actress (Baptiste)
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  142 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $13.41 mil  (#108  –  1996)
  • Release Date:  25 October 1996
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #184  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay
  • Nighthawk Points:  40
  • First Watched:  Opening month at the KOIN Center

The Film:  Mike Leigh is unlike almost any other director in my Top 100 Directors of All-Time.  He does not have the flash of a Scorsese or a Spielberg.  He does not have great films built around the studios like Capra or Wyler or Cukor.  He does not take on the epic scope of Lean or Kurosawa.  He does not have the biting humor of Woody Allen or the morose depths of Ingmar Bergman.  But he shares a little something of a lot of them.  His films are smart and self-assured.  They revolve around a group of actors, changing, with sometimes one or two coming back for several films.  They are not flashy names, not the kind of actors that become big stars and rarely even the kind of actors that get Oscar nominations.  (Although, at least now several of them have become well-known; David Thewlis, Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall were all starring in Mike Leigh films long before they were Harry Potter actors).  They have moments of depth and tragedy, but there is also humor breaking through.  Most of all, they have a human core.  This is because of the Leigh process, with the director conceiving of characters, then working with his group of actors to create the script as a process.  In a sense, there never is a finished screenplay, but what comes out of this process is always fascinating, always worth watching and almost always great.

Secrets and Lies is one of the best films from one of our best writer-directors.  It works so well because the characters are so real.  They don’t seem like movie characters.  They are real people, in the real world, trying to real with real family problems, the kind of problems that do crop up and linger, for years, for decades.  Every family has a few secrets of its own, no matter how much you might think they don’t (I was in my thirties before I learned that my grandmother’s cousin was a congressman who served for several terms before it came out that he had a wife in DC and a wife back in California).  And some of the things aren’t secrets – they are things that stare us straight in the face and we try to cope with.

“I have spent my whole life trying to make people happy,” Maurice (Timothy Spall) yells at his family at the climax of the film.  He is yelling because it is his family that he feels he is not making happy.  It is a good description of what he does.  We spend a large amount of the film following him in his work as a photographer.  He tries to capture just the right moments – like when he is trying to get a bride to buck up before the wedding, or find something kind to say to a woman who has been scarred in a car crash and wants pictures that make her look awful for the court case.  But outside of his work, he has a wife who suffers horribly when her menstrual cycle comes around (and is likely a reason why she can’t have kids), a sister who believes he has abandoned her after she, for the most part, raised him after their mother’s death, and a niece who doesn’t want to be around anyone, not even her boyfriend.  All of this comes amidst the revelation that there is another niece – one who was given up for adoption.  That the new niece is black is only relevant early on and barely plays a part of the later revelations.

It is the revelation that she exists at all that threatens to tear things apart.  The woman, now grown and a successful optometrist has sought out her birth mother after the death of the woman who raised her.  Now she is trying to go through her life while also working in this new film, one with a lot of its own problems.

That all of this seems to work out okay in the end for the miserable people involved has nothing to do with a Hollywood type ending.  It has to do with Leigh’s basic understanding of human nature, that anger will often fade, that love will win out, because what so many people want in life is to be loved, to be accepted, to have someone who cares for them.  So, the anger at discovering that the existence of a sister has been hidden from you will fade into the joy of finally having a sister to share things with.  The disappointment in a sister-in-law who has never given your beloved baby brother children will break down in the face of acceptance that a fellow human being is suffering and you never knew it.

Would all of this work in a Hollywood studio film?  Quite possibly not.  It relies on these actors that Leigh chooses to work with, some like Timothy Spall, brilliant and understated as ever, or Lesley Manville, so good and touching in a small role, to those that were new to Leigh (and to many of us), like Brenda Blethyn, who won the BAFTA for a performance that seems hard to take at first, until you realize it’s the role, or Jean-Marie Baptiste, so good in such an awkward position.

There is the tendency  (one I admit I indulge in) to over-rate films from directors who you love because of who the director is.  So you might be more accepting of trash from a favorite director than admit that the director made a bad film.  But with Mike Leigh, we don’t have to do that.  He’s simply never made a bad film.  And Secrets and Lies is one of his best.

Tom Cruise wasn't always known for being a crazy person

Jerry Maguire

  • Director:  Cameron Crowe
  • Writer:  Cameron Crowe
  • Producer:  James L. Brooks  /  Laurence Mark  /  Richard Sakai  /  Cameron Crowe
  • Studio:  Tristar
  • Stars:  Tom Cruise, Renee Zelwegger, Cuba Gooding Jr., Bonnie Hunt
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor (Cruise), Supporting Actor (Gooding), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  210
  • Length:  139 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $153.95 mil  (#4  –  1996)
  • Release Date:  13 December 1996
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #203  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay
  • Nighthawk Points:  40
  • First Watched:  Opening week at the Evergreen Theater with my father

The Film:  I wonder what stereo-typical males and females think of Jerry Maguire.  Do guys think there is a bit too much romance in what is really a sports film?  Do girls think there is too much sports, especially just before the end with the results of the key Monday Night Football game?  Am I in a lucky position in that I am a sports guy who loves great romantic comedies?

I wonder what people think when they come back to this film now as well.  Tom Cruise, at the time this film was made, was one of the biggest stars in the world.  At a time when making $100 million was a much bigger deal, this was his fifth film in a row to do so.  And Renee Zelwegger was practically an unknown – I had never even heard of her before Jerry Maguire.  Today, Cruise is thought of as the lunatic who jumps on the couch, is a big Scientologist and hasn’t had a really big hit in years while Zelwegger, since winning her Oscar has been in consistently smaller and smaller films and been ignored more and more.

But they are absolutely perfect for this film.  Cruise absolutely embodies who Jerry Maguire is.  He is a the rich, good-looking guy who suddenly grows a conscience and figures out there might be more to life than just a whole lot of money.  When he comes running back to his office and he trips and falls, it works perfectly on two different levels; the other actors weren’t expecting it because they didn’t think it was something to expect from Tom Cruise, and the audience doesn’t expect it because Jerry doesn’t seem that vulnerable.  But Cruise gives one of the best performances of what is a more impressive acting career than many people want to remember (Born on the Fourth of July, Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia) because he is able to find that core of vulnerability in someone who until that moment thinks of himself as indestructible.  On the other hand, Zelwegger is never more adorable – she clearly is in love with Jerry from afar long before she agrees to walk away from the company with him.  She is, as she describes herself, the “oldest 26 year old in the world” and she also finds a core of vulnerability.

Then there are the supporting performances.  Cuba Gooding, while he shouldn’t have won the Oscar, gave a performance that almost instantly became iconic because of the wonderful “Show me the money!” scene, Bonnie Hunt does a perfect job as the disapproving older sister and even Jonathan Lipnicki avoids becoming just another annoying child actor by giving lines exactly the way you would expect from a kid (one of the most wonderful scenes in the film is in the car when he and Jerry are bantering back and forth and he says “Did you know my neighbor has three rabbits?” which is exactly the kind of thing a kid would say and Jerry has the great line “I can’t compete with that.”).

One of the things about Jerry Maguire is that you have to believe in it (which isn’t so surprising – it certainly would become true of Crowe’s later films Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo).  When Jerry walks through those doors and says those words, you have to believe in it.  He does and what he finds out is that his wife does as well.  In real life, would such words walk?  They quite probably would – especially when you have had the kind of realization that Jerry has had.  But if you are too cynical, there is no way you will ever buy into it and the whole movie falls apart around it.  But if you do believe in romance, believe it when someone says “You complete me.”, then this is the film for you.

Australia makes the standard Hollywood biopic


  • Director:  Scott Hicks
  • Writer:  Jan Sardi  /  Scott Hicks
  • Producer:  Jane Scott
  • Studio:  Fine Line
  • Stars:  Geoffrey Rush, Lynn Redgrave, Noah Taylor, Armin Mueller-Stahl
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Rush), Supporting Actor (Mueller-Stahl), Editing, Original Dramatic Score
  • Oscar Points:  285
  • Length:  105 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Musical Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $35.89 mil  (#41  –  1996)
  • Release Date:  20 November 1996
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #64  (year)  /  #370  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • First Watched:  Opening week at the Broadway Metroplex

The Film:  A strange man stumbles across the room to the piano.  After a couple of false starts, with a drunk man in the bar egging him on, he begins to play “The Flight of the Bumblebee”.  It is a powerful opening scene, one that establishes the enormous psychological problems facing the man (he clearly has severe problems interacting with other people), but also clearly showing his talent.  He is not just another drunk off the street – he is a man with a considerable amount of talent that lies hidden under layers of mental troubles.

But there are two problems here.  The first is that David Helfgott is not as talented (or at least not as capable of tapping his talent) as this scene would seem to imply.  He is not just a hidden genius and the magnificent ability shown here isn’t really quite accurate to the technical abilities that he currently offers on the piano.  The second is that this isn’t the opening scene.  It builds off the opening scene and doesn’t actually appear until halfway through the film.  By this time, we already know who he is and what he can do, no matter how deeply buried his talent is.

The actual opening scene involves Helfgott wandering into the restaurant and meeting the owner and showing, full-force all of his problems in communicating with other people.  The opening scene, combined with the last forty minutes are probably what managed to win Geoffrey Rush the Oscar for a performance that takes up less than half the film – if he is considered the lead than certainly Noah Taylor, who has a more difficult job as an actor and whose performance as the adolescent David takes up just as much screen-time, should also be considered the lead.  Rush’s performance is full of mannerisms and won over critics and Academy voters because it plays into everything that people think of when they think of acting.  But Taylor had to start out as a person under much more control and gradually lose ground against the mental illnesses straining at his brain.  To watch this performance in light of other Rush performances is to see a man who treads a fine line between great acting (Shakespeare in Love, The King’s Speech) and ridiculous over-the-top hamming it up (the Pirates films).  But to watch this film in between watching Taylor’s performances in Flirting and Vanilla Sky is to see a truly remarkable actor who never gets much publicity.

Getting back to that opening scene – it establishes all of Helfgott’s troubles, but only then flashes back to his career and then comes back to that opening scene with the next night, when Helfgott sits down in the bar.  That scene is a much better scene and clearly establishes Helfgott, yet they wasted it away in the center of the film.  Which is one of the problems with Shine – it constantly bounces back and forth between being a smaller arty film and a typical Hollywood biopic.  It was clearly the latter part that won sway over the Academy – the kind of film that they have loved awarding, going back decades.

Now, as to Helfgott’s technical ability.   Certainly biopics are well-known for stretching the truth and any film should be given at least some lee-way when it comes to pure fidelity to reality.  So is it nit-picking to say that you walk away from this film thinking that Helfgott has much more ability these days than he really does (as made clear in almost any review of his recordings or performances from the last twenty years)?  I don’t think it is and here’s why.  The film would have you believe that the wonderful thing is that Helfgott’s mental illness hasn’t killed his talent.  But I think the more important thing is that he has been able to deal with his illness to the point where he can actually perform in public.  It’s not the ability to play that’s important.  It’s the ability to function.  They undercut that remarkable achievement by over-blowing how well he can actually play.  It shouldn’t be about the triumph of the artist.  This film is really about the triumph of a man.

But what about the rest of the film?  There is a good (if overdone) performance from Armin Mueller-Stahl as the overbearing father and a good (if a bit silly) performance from Lynn Redgrave as Helfgott’s wife, who deserves a considerable amount of credit for getting him to the place that he is at.  But a lot of it is typical biopic stuff, lead by a performance from Rush that won the Oscar in a truly great year for lead actors but really is more irritating than anything else.