Doonesbury from April of 1998 says it all

The 70th annual Academy Awards for the film year 1997.  The nominations were announced on February 10, 1998 and the awards were held on March 23, 1998.

Best Picture:  Titanic

  • L.A. Confidential
  • Good Will Hunting
  • The Full Monty
  • As Good As It Gets

Most Surprising Omission:  Amistad

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Sweet Hereafter

Rank (out of 83) Among Best Picture Years:  #27

The Race:  By Labor Day of 1997 over 200 films had been released but there was hardly a Best Picture contender to be seen among them.  Even the art house theaters weren’t finding anything – there were some films that would probably contend for acting nominations (Donnie Brasco, Mrs. Brown) and films to far in the independent world to be considered contenders for anything other than the Independent Spirit Awards (Chasing Amy, In the Company of Men).  The only thing even approaching Oscar talk was The Full Monty, a British comedy about down and out Sheffield men stripping to make ends meet.  It was just moving into a wider release and was getting strong reviews, but didn’t really seem to be Oscar fare.

The start of the Oscar season was 19 September and the opening of L.A. Confidential.  This was Oscar fare, an old-fashioned hard-boiled mystery with unknowns in the leads and big stars in strong supporting roles (Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito).  The critics couldn’t fall over themselves fast enough to praise the film to the heavens and though the box office wasn’t quite there, it wasn’t too bad either.  This was followed in the next two months by a slew of smaller films in the art houses.

There was The Ice Storm, a 70’s drama from Sense and Sensibility director Ang Lee.  There was Boogie Nights, the Altman-type ensemble drama from young director P.T. Anderson about the porn industry in the late 70’s and early 80’s that was threatening to turn Mark Wahlberg into a serious actor and was earning serious awards buzz for Julianne Moore and the best reviews of Burt Reynolds’ career.  There was Helena Bonham-Carter in another bodice for The Wings of the Dove, but not only earning the best reviews of her career, but also ditching the bodice for some sexy scenes in bed.

But the real box office giants and Oscar bait would be coming in December.  There was a mix of new films.  There were former nominees like Martin Scorsese (with a film about the Dalai Lama called Kundun) and Quentin Tarantino (his much awaited follow-up to Pulp Fiction was an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, re-titled Jackie Brown and starring blaxploitation star Pamela Grier) and James L. Brooks (who was re-uniting with Jack Nicholson for a new comedy called As Good As It Gets).  There were two directors who had never really been part of the Oscar race, but definitely were now: Gus Van Sant, whose indie sensibility had been curbed a bit with his new film from Miramax, called Good Will Hunting and there was James Cameron, who had always been a bit too Hollywood, but whose new film Titanic was the most expensive film ever made and was aimed right at the teen market and the Oscar crowds.

In the mix of all of this was Steven Spielberg.  After his double whammy of 1993, when he had made one of the biggest films of all-time in the summer (Jurassic Park) and his serious film at Christmas that won Best Picture and Director (Schindler’s List), he was back with the same plan.  His summer dinosaur film, The Lost World, was a big step down from Jurassic Park, both in quality and in box office (though still big enough to be #3 of the year) and his Amistad, a film about the slave revolt on board a ship in 1837, wasn’t getting quite the reviews that Schindler’s List did.

The critics did no good with sorting out the Oscar race.  While the acting awards were split between several films (with Boogie Nights winning more than its share for Reynolds and Moore), the most important awards, Picture, Director and Screenplay were a sweep.  L.A. Confidential took home the big three awards from all six of the major critics organizations.  It was the undisputed champion of the awards and the only question would be whether Cameron or Spielberg’s boats could get in its way.

Titanic opened the same day that the Golden Globes were announced and it was a bonanza.  Cameron’s film had 8 nominations, tied for second most all-time and was nominated in every category except Supporting Actor.  Also in the Picture, Director and Screenplay running were L.A. Confidential and As Good As It GetsGood Will Hunting and Barry Levinson’s satire Wag the Dog were both nominated for Picture and Screenplay (and Actor).  Amistad was nominated for Picture and Director.  Having seen in 1993 how In the Name of the Father began its run to the Oscars with Globe nominations for Picture and Actor (for Daniel Day-Lewis), the Globes seemed to be trying again, giving Picture, Director and Actor nominations to the new Jim Sheridan / Daniel Day-Lewis film, The BoxerThe Full Monty was nominated for Picture – Comedy but nothing else while Boogie Nights, Wings of the Dove, Jackie Brown and The Ice Storm were relegated to the acting races.

The Broadcast Film Critics Association did nothing to narrow the race, giving Best Picture and Screenplay to L.A. Confidential, Best Director to James Cameron and Picture nominations to all the major contenders: Titanic, Good Will Hunting, As Good As It Gets, Boogie Nights, The Wings of the Dove, Wag the Dog, Amistad, Donnie Brasco and The Full Monty.  In the meantime, the Globes finally broke L.A. Confidential‘s hold on the awards, giving Picture and Director to Titanic and Screenplay to Good Will Hunting, while As Good As It Gets became the first film in eight years to sweep Picture, Actor and Actress in the Comedy category.

When the Producers Guild and Directors Guild agreed on their five nominees it seemed that the field had narrowed considerably.  L.A. Confidential and Titanic had been joined in the front-running by Good Will Hunting, As Good As It Gets and Amistad.  But Amistad was hampered by weak box office while Good Will Hunting had moved into wider release and was joining As Good As It Gets as the weekly also-rans behind the juggernaut that was the record-breaking Titanic.  Every week Titanic continued to make more and more money, never dropping off and seemed quickly destined to make back all the money it had cost.  It suddenly had become the film everyone was seeing again and again and the critics awards for L.A. Confidential were starting to look far away.  Meanwhile, the Writers Guild and SAG awards brought some life back to Boogie Nights and The Full Monty, especially when the latter film triumphed over Titanic and L.A. Confidential in the SAG Ensemble Award.  But Titanic was the king of the rest of the guilds, setting new records for nominations (13) and wins (10, taking home everything except Actress, the SAG Ensemble and the WGA).

The Results:  As the box office records continued to fall, Titanic challenged Academy records.  It tied All About Eve with a record 14 nominations.  While All About Eve had the benefit of twice as many nominees for Cinematography, Art Direction and Costume Design (thanks to B&W / Color splits), Titanic benefited from two categories that didn’t exist in 1950 – Sound Effects Editing and Makeup.  And it wasn’t nominated for its Screenplay – something which every winner since 1965 had been nominated for (also not for Leo, much to the pain of many a teenage girl).  But it was still way out in front of the rest of the pack.  L.A. Confidential and Good Will Hunting were both nominated for 9 awards, including Picture and seemed to destined to win the two Screenplay awards as consolation prizes.  As Good As It Gets was up for almost the same 7 nominations that Brooks’ Broadcast News had been up for in 1987, with Comedy Score inserted in place of Cinematography.  And like Broadcast News, while it was up for Picture, Actor, Actress and Original Screenplay, Brooks again had been ousted from the Best Director race, this time in favor of Atom Egoyan, the Canadian director of the bleak drama The Sweet Hereafter, which up until this point had only gotten the Best Supporting Actress award from the Boston Society of Film Critics.  But it wasn’t Amistad in the final spot and Spielberg himself wasn’t in the Director race.  Amistad earned only 4 nominations, as did The Full Monty, but the latter’s nominations included Picture, Director and Original Screenplay, while Amistad only had a Supporting Actor nomination and technical nominations.

The talk quickly centered as to whether Titanic could best Ben-Hur‘s record of 11 wins.  It seemed unlikely to win Actress but that left 13 other categories.  It had guild awards for Picture, Supporting Actress, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction and Sound Editing and Golden Globes for Score and Original Song.  That left Visual Effects (which was in the bag), Costume Design (likewise) and Makeup (which was a less likely proposition, as it was up against Men in Black).

One week before the Oscars it made even more news.  Even including the re-release in January of the year before, it had passed the box office performance of Star Wars and was now (not accounting for inflation) the #1 film of all-time.  The only thing left to conquer was the Oscars.

The first award of the night was Best Supporting Actress and it would be the only time in their 8 head-to-head battles that L.A. Confidential would beat Titanic.  Halfway through the show, it lost both Actress and Makeup (to Men in Black).  It had 5 Oscars already, but at best, could sweep the rest of the awards and tie Ben-Hur for first all-time.  But even though the other Best Picture nominees all won something (Good Will Hunting and L.A. Confidential split the two Screenplay awards, As Good As It Gets won Actor and Actress and The Full Monty took home Comedy Score), Titanic took home the rest of its nominations and secured a place alongside Ben-Hur on the all-time Oscar list.

$600 million dollars - never underestimate the spending power of teenage girls

Titanic

  • Director:  James Cameron
  • Writer:  James Cameron
  • Producer:  James Cameron  /  Jon Landau
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox  /  Paramount
  • Stars:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Gloria Stuart, Billy Zane, Frances Fisher
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actress (Winslet), Supporting Actress (Stuart), Editing, Cinematography, Original Dramatic Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Song (“My Heart Will Go On”)
  • Oscar Points:  625
  • Oscar Record:  Most Oscars (11 – tie with Ben-Hur); Most Nominations (14 – tie with All About Eve)
  • Length:  194 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Romance / Disaster)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $600.78 mil  (#1  –  1997;  #2  –  alltime;  #1  –  alltime, upon initial release)
  • Release Date:  19 December 1997
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #39  (year)  /  #322  (nominees)  /  #68  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  175
  • First Watched:  Opening month at the Evergreen Theater

The Film:  There is a fascinating human drama in the story of the Titanic.  It isn’t the one that James Cameron tells, but you can see it there, peeking out around the edges.  Look at Victor Garber and Bernard Hill as the architect and captain of the fated ship.  Look at the information they know – that there aren’t lifeboats on the ship, that it’s a bad time of year to be making this voyage.  Look at the look on Hill’s face when he sees the ice or listen to the tone in Garber’s voice when told that the ship can’t sink and he replies “She’s made of iron, sir.  I assure you, she can.”  We still would have room for Rose’s most dramatic line: “Don’t you understand? The water is freezing and there aren’t enough boats. Not enough by half. Half the people on this ship are going to die.”  And we wouldn’t have had the cliched love story, the cartoon villain and probably not such a ridiculous running time.

Titanic isn’t a bad film, not by a long shot.  It’s actually a pretty good film.  More importantly, it’s a very good looking film.  That doesn’t mean we need to nominate it for Best Picture.  After all, in the mid 60’s, Jane Fonda was extremely nice to look at, but there wasn’t a whole lot beneath the surface.  There wasn’t any depth.  And you don’t give her an Oscar for things like BarbarellaTitanic is essentially a Cecil B. De Mille film – but with better acting (especially from the two leads) and production values beyond compare.  And for a long time, the Academy has loved the whole notion of giving Best Picture to something that showed off Hollywood like this, that catered to the flash and the glitz, even if there really wasn’t much to it.  It comes down to the question of what you think Best Picture means.  They used to call it Best Production.  But if you think it means the best film of the year, well then, Titanic isn’t the boat to be sailing on.

The problem with Titanic always comes down to the Screenplay.  Well, that and the Editing, because the two are tied together.  If you can deviate from the ridiculousness of the script, you could whittle this down to two hours and still have one hell of a film.  That won’t take away from the sumptuous art direction, the amazing costumes, the fantastic cinematography, the breath-taking visual effects.  What it would do is reduce two parts of the story that make it so silly: the framing device that encompasses the film and makes it drag on forever and the love story at the heart of the film that was always a pathetic cliche to begin with.  Rich girl finds the real world in the life of a poor boy.  The heartless fiance becomes a dastardly villain.  The mother only cares about the money, not her daughter.  None of these storylines was particular new when the Titanic itself sank and here they run so thin.  We even get the historical cliche, when the pathetic fiance doesn’t recognize the genius of Picasso, when of course his smarter, future bride does.  I give full credit to Leonardo DiCaprio, and especially Kate Winslet, for surviving these lines and giving really solid performances in spite of them.  Of course, that Winslet was nominated for “I’m flying, Jack,” when she wasn’t nominated the year before for possibly the best Ophelia ever put on screen, it shows how the Academy can be taken in.  As for the rest of the cast, well Gloria Stuart gets her nomination more for pure survival and her career story than performance, while Frances Fisher, Billy Zane and David Warner never overcome the cartoon aspects of their characters.  It’s the character performances in the background, from Kathy Bates, and especially Garber and Hill that really do a much better job.  But, quite frankly, it’s a miracle that any good performances come along with such a script – I suppose you could earn a nomination just from not cracking up during the shots.

Perhaps Titanic would have just worked best as a silent film.  Then we could see how wonderful it looks, we could still see the depth of acting (when there is some), and, hey, we wouldn’t have to be subjected to the dialogue.  Even better, we also wouldn’t have to be subjected to Celine Dion.  Maybe that’s how they should re-release it next year instead of in 3-D.

Do critics have better than the taste than the Academy? Yes. Oh yes.

L.A. Confidential

  • Director:  Curtis Hanson
  • Writer:  Curtis Hanson  /  Brian Helgeland  (from the novel by James Ellroy)
  • Producer:  Arnon Milchan  /  Curtis Hanson  /  Michael G. Nathanson
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Published or Produced, Supporting Actress (Basinger), Editing, Cinematography, Original Dramatic Score, Sound, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  350
  • Length:  138 min
  • Genre:  Mystery
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $64.61 mil  (#24  –  1997)
  • Release Date:  19 September 1997
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #18  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Spacey), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  530
  • First Watched:  Opening night at the Tempe Centerpoint 11

The Film:  This is the City of Angels, in all its glory and squalor.  It succeeds on three completely different levels and does so to the highest degree all three times.  It not only makes the Academy look foolish for getting suckered onto Cameron’s boat, it makes all the people who paid to go see it again and again and again rather than going to see this, a work of pure cinematic art, look like they have no business making decisions about what movie to go see on a Saturday night.  It is that rare kind of film that can be placed on the same level with The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown and remind us that when we need a mystery film, to hell with Sherlock Holmes, put it in California, enshroud it in darkness and hold on tight.

The first level is pure cinematic artistry.  It succeeds on every part of film art – it has incredible direction (the first film to win all six major critics awards for Best Director), a perfect script (“She is Lana Turner.”), a perfect cast (the brilliance of casting the right two actors and being certain of their ability to overcome their natural accents – just look at the extras on the DVD if you don’t believe me, as well as perfectly filling out the rest of the roles, with both big names (Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Kim Basinger) and big actors (David Strathairn, James Cromwell)), cinematography that finds all the right shadows in the bright California sun, great costumes, wonderful art direction, a magnificent score from Jerry Goldsmith (probably his best score outside of his iconic Star Trek score and a nice connection to Chinatown) and editing that keeps scenes the exact length they need to be and expertly balancing three different storylines before finding a way to bring them together.  I rank it as the second best film of the decade, behind only GoodFellas.

The second level is the way in which it gets at Los Angeles.  For so many people, Los Angeles is Hollywood and Beverly Hills, the magic of the movies, the bright sunshine, Randy Newman singing “I Love L.A.” and all the good things that go with it.  But Los Angeles has a much darker history as well and James Ellroy, who grew up in the city where his mother was murdered knows it better than most.  We saw it in Chinatown, in a fictional version of the dark story of how L.A. stole the water from the north, sucked an entire valley dry to make sure all the lawns could stay nice and green and the stars could flourish.  Then came the darkness of the L.A.P.D..  In Dragnet, Dan Aykroyd may have called it the “finest fighting force ever assembled,” but my final year of high school was spent in the underside of that department, engulfed in shame and violence, whose worst moment, codified by a cowardly jury caused the city to erupt in flames.  That darkness, the racism and brutality of the Gates era didn’t spring up over night, but came passed down over decades from the force ruled by Chief Parker.  Bloody Christmas wasn’t invented for the film or the book, it was, like the Black Dahlia case, a pivotal moment that James Ellroy chose to build the novel around.  The film also understands the kind of cops needed to move the force forward – the sheer stubborn brutality of Bud White, the showmanship of Jack Vincennes, the ambition of Ed Exley.  These together form the core of the film and seem to form the core of the L.A.P.D. and the film knows it and understands it.

Then there is the third level.  I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of film based on books I’ve read (15 alone in 1997) and there are very few that manage to do with Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland do with this film (it’s a measure of Helgeland’s work here that he was the only person that Dennis Lehane was willing to let do the adaptation of Mystic River).  They take a long and complicated novel with a lot of secondary characters, a plot that covers years with any number of subplots, and manage to make, not only a coherent film, but a brilliant film that manages to maintain the spirit of the novel even when it veers far away from the actual storyline as it was on the page.  When one character is suddenly murdered, it is absolutely unexpected, not only by those who have never touched Ellroy’s novel, but by everyone who had.  That character died in the book only at the end, in a very different circumstance.  But in both cases, the character suddenly found himself haunted by his moral failings and, working to fix them, found only a sudden death at the end of a bullet.  It keeps to the spirit while allowing the film-makers to go the direction they need to go to make the film coherent and sound in a two and a half hour framework.  To read the novel and then to go watch the film are two entirely different experiences – like hearing a really great cover song.

Is L.A. Confidential a perfect film?  Of course not.  There is no such thing.  There’s a reason that my film scale ends at 99 – there are no 100 films.  And I can tell you the exact thing that keeps it from being perfect – that it goes on for two minutes longer than it should.  It should end with that wry smile on Ed Exley’s face as he says “You’ll need two.”  But that’s a small bit to argue over.  It takes everything you need in a great film, a truly great film, not just a great spectacle, or a great entertainment (even though it is that), but a truly great film and fits them together in all the right ways.

A Portland director in Boston. It's a montage of my life.

Good Will Hunting

  • Director:  Gus Van Sant
  • Writer:  Matt Damon  /  Ben Affleck
  • Producer:  Lawrence Bender
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgärd
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Damon), Supporting Actor (Williams), Supporting Actress (Driver), Editing, Original Dramatic Score, Original Song (“Miss Misery”)
  • Oscar Points:  360
  • Length:  126 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $138.43 mil  (#7  –  1997)
  • Release Date:  5 December 1997
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #194  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Actor (Damon), Supporting Actor (Williams), Original Song (“Miss Misery”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  10
  • First Watched:  Opening month at the Evergreen Theater

The Film:  Gus Van Sant slowly worked his way up.  His Mala Noche earned good reviews from the few who saw it.  Then he earned great critical acclaim for Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, but they were very much indie films and didn’t earn any Oscar nominations.  Then came the film we’ll skip.  But then there was To Die For, with a big name star (Nicole Kidman) and a Golden Globe win, and though it was very dark, it was moving towards more mainstream Hollywood film-making.  But, in spite of being better than 4 of the 5 Oscar nominees (including the winner), it failed to earn a single nomination.  So, Gus connected with these two young actors who were quickly becoming the go-to guys for Miramax and he made a film that was even a bit more mainstream and suddenly, lo and behold, he bursts onto the Oscar scene – a nomination for himself and the film and five more as well.  Later, he would go even more mainstream (Finding Forrester) and back to his indie roots (Gerry, Elephant), but would find success again with this same formula – a bit of indie mixed with a bit of Hollywood and produce his finest film (Milk).

But, what do I think about this film?  When I first saw it, I had been gone from Boston for five years.  Now I have been back for six.  And this is very much a Boston film.  Not just in the accents (of course, if you want to get the accent right, cast the people from here, and though not from Southie, Damon and the two Afflecks are very much from here), not just in the cinematography (all those nice shots of Will alone on the Red Line or the big shots of the Boston skyline or the MIT buildings), but in the very feel of the film itself.  It is very easy to go from this to Gone Baby Gone and see how much Affleck understands about the under-current of violence that runs through Boston.  These guys, trolling around in their car, watching the ball game, getting in fights (even the way Morgan doesn’t want them to get in the fight – “If you wanted to fight them, why didn’t you do it then?  We got snacks now.”).  Yes, Will has been badly abused, but the abuse is part of the life here, part of that violence always simmering just below the surface.  That’s what makes Will such a fascinating character and such a great performance from Matt Damon – not just that he is brilliant (“my boy’s wicked smaht,” Morgan tells Skylar in the bar), but the anger buried deep to the core.

Perhaps that anger is the key to the scene that unleashes Will, that allows him to float away from the protective bubble he has built around his life.  It’s not the fight with Skylar, or the realization of how much he truly cares for her and that she is worth the risk that he might get hurt.  It’s not the session with Sean where Sean makes this so clear and makes it clear what Will has always known, but buried deep down, that this isn’t his fault – not just the abuse and pain, but being born into this life with these gifts that no one else has.  It’s the conversation with Chuckie.  Chuckie makes it clear – you do this for me, because you owe it to me.  And that under-current of violence makes it all so real.  He’s making a threat that he doesn’t want to have to carry out, but the anger will build up and he will act on it if he has to.  In Boston, you have to take that kind of threat seriously.

Good Will Hunting is a smart film.  It has wit and it has humor and those are two things you can never get enough of.  It is very well directed by one of the great underground directors, peeking out at some light, and there’s nothing wrong with doing that.  It has a fantastic lead performance from Matt Damon and an excellent supporting one from Robin Williams, whose only real drawback is that it makes us take less notice of the great performances surrounding the two of them, from Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgärd and Ben Affleck (yes, I said Ben Affleck – he has gone, since this film, to the height of fame, down to a complete joke, and back again to a good actor and a very good writer and director).  It is well made and it is entertaining and it holds up after well over a decade, both as a film, and as a portrait of Boston.  And yes, I still laugh when Will says “How do you like them apples?”  And then I pop down to the Dunkin on Bow Street where they filmed it and smile.

Well, it's bloody well funny, in't? Don't be daft. Course it is.

The Full Monty

  • Director:  Peter Cattaneo
  • Writer:  Simon Beaufoy
  • Producer:  Uberto Pasolini
  • Studio:  Fox Searchlight
  • Stars:  Robert Carlyle, Mark Addy, Tom Wilkinson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Original Comedy or Musical Score
  • Oscar Points:  185
  • Length:  91 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $45.95 mil  (#44  –  1997)
  • Release Date:  15 August 1997
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #10  (year)  /  #222  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay
  • Nighthawk Points:  40
  • First Watched:  Thanksgiving with all my high school friends at Cinemapolis

The Film:  The Full Monty easily could have been a film that slipped away and was forgotten.  There have been lots of comedies over the years, after all, that have dealt with the battles between the sexes.  Hell, it seems to be the only reason for a comedy a lot of the time.  And there have been films about the economic depression in Britain as the jobs went away from the big cities and so many proud men ended up on the dole.  Ken Loach seems to have made a career of such films.  This very same year, at the beginning of the year, there had been Brassed Off, also starring one of the Trainspotting alumni, and also a comedy that had the economic hard times in the background affecting everything that happens.  So you ask yourself two things.  First, what was it about this film that made it the biggest hit in British history?  And what was it that made it so damn good?  Not just fun – though it definitely is that, but good.  Really good.

It was the kind of film, that when I was back in Southern California over Thanksgiving break in 1997 and seeing my old high school friends, this was the film we all decided to go see.  L.A. Confidential and The Ice Storm seemed too downbeat for this reunion and Boogie Nights definitely wasn’t the right film.  So we all went and saw The Full Monty and we loved it.  Then, at Christmas, when my sisters and I were debating what film to go see as a family, I vetoed Titanic and they refused to go see Deconstructing Harry.  So even though my older sister and I had both already seen The Full Monty, it emerged as the consensus choice.  It was the kind of film you could go see with your mates and then enjoy again with your mum and dad.

I don’t have to explain what makes it so funny.  The very notion that six guys, none of them particularly good looking and most of them known to everyone in the town who would be going to the show, would be stripping down all the way in order to make some money was already a pretty amusing notion.  It was also amusing to see the psycho Robert Carlyle from Trainspotting play a much more normal role.  That this would be the first really meaty role for Tom Wilkinson, who would emerge, within a few years, as one of the best actors around, is a nice add-on.  Then there is the dancing of course, and the soundtrack (the brilliant use of two songs that quite frankly are pretty horrid – “Hot Stuff” and “You Sexy Thing” make them forever bring a smile to my face).

But really, it’s the fact that the film has a heart (Brassed Off had a heart as well and is an under-appreciated film, especially for the lines “Is this man bothering you?”  “Of course he is.  He’s my dad.”) that makes it so damn good.  In particular, there are two scenes that really pull at the heart in unexpected ways.  When Gary has to chase off after his kid yet again and explain why he’s doing this, that he knows he’s being a dick, he knows he’s embarrassing his son, but he has to do this, because he’s his son.  Nothing matters more to him.  He may be on the dole, and not willing to take a pathetic job that sucks away his spirit and his pride, but he will not hesitate to make it clear how much he loves his son.  Then there is the moment when Gerald returns to Job Club after the horrid interview, ready to kill someone.  Gary and Dave have been giving him a hard time, just taking the piss out of him.  They don’t understand his desperation.  They don’t understand how much this means to him, what kind of chance this is.  People pull pranks all the time.  Sometimes they have dire consequences, beyond what you might have considered.  And this is one of those times and they realize the stakes are much higher than they knew and the humanity shines through.  It is these human moments, the way in which people who have been tread upon find common ground that provide a heart to the film.  So we’ll laugh during the film, especially as we get closer to that final moment, but we’ll cheer too, because we know why these men will take that chance.  The film has won us over before it ever gets to that moment and that final freeze frame just finishes it off in perfect style.

Could the poster for As Good As It Gets be any more boring?

As Good As It Gets

  • Director:  James L. Brooks
  • Writer:  Mark Andrus  /  James L. Brooks
  • Producer:  James L. Brooks  /  Bridget Johnson  /  Kristi Zea
  • Studio:  TriStar
  • Stars:  Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Hunt), Supporting Actor (Kinnear), Editing, Original Comedy or Musical Score
  • Oscar Points:  310
  • Length:  139 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $148.47 mil  (#6  –  1997)
  • Release Date:  23 December 1997
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #23  (year)  /  #278  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Hunt)
  • Nighthawk Points:  70
  • First Watched:  Sneak preview two weeks early at the Ahwatukee Foothills Town Center

The Film:  In a way, I wonder how this didn’t become a sitcom.  We have the crotchety old guy (could have been played by Carrol O’Connell), the good looking down on her luck waitress and the gay guy.  It seems like something written designed to be a sitcom.  So how is it that instead of wasting away on CBS, it ended up nominated for seven Oscars and was the last film to win both Best Actor and Best Actress?  Well, some of it is luck.  Mark Andrus wrote his original script and James L. Brooks bought it and decided that he could make something out of it.  Then he went to work on it when he decided to direct it and we have the film as we know it.  So how much of it is Andrus and how much of it is Brooks?  We’ll never quite know.  And given the collaborative process involved, unless you’re a Soderbergh or Rodriguez who insists on doing nearly everything himself, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters are the results, and if they seem like pure Brooks, well then, that’s how it seems.

At the time this came out, I thought of it as Brooks’ third film, and thought he was again going to end up with a Picture and Screenplay nomination (and I was even right in that he didn’t get nominated for Director).  That, of course, is because I, like everyone else, had forgotten all about I’ll Do Anything – the James L. Brooks film that didn’t have Jack Nicholson.  But Nicholson and Brooks work well together (or, they did, until their latest collaboration, which was so bad I can’t even remember the name of it at the moment).  Nicholson won an Oscar his first time out with Brooks and his recurring cameo in Broadcast News worked very well for the film.  Now here we go again.  Except, unlike the last time, Brooks doesn’t make Nicholson hold back.  Playing an OCD sufferer, he is allowed to rule over the film, to say what he wants (it also helps that he’s rich) and get away with things that most people would cringe at.  In Grosse Pointe Blank, made in this same year, Minnie Driver notes “People joke all the time about the horrible things they do, they don’t do them! It’s absurd!”  That’s kind of how we feel about the things that Melvin (Nicholson) says aloud in this film.  Many of them are things that people watching the film might have thought.  But they’re not something that we say (not in a polite society anyway).  But we laugh because they are so horrible.  When a devoted reader asks him how he writes women characters so well, he answers (supposedly in a line swiped from Updike) “I think of a man.  And I take away reason and accountability.”  It’s a vicious line, especially to a devoted female reader, but it got the biggest laugh of the night.  Nicholson is finally set free with his anger and nastiness, but his performance is restrained by Brooks’ direction, giving us of his most enduring performances.  But that could have been expected from their previous work.  What was unexpected was the other two performances, and those are the ones that really make the movie soar instead of crashing down into sitcom idiocy.

Greg Kinnear gives an unexpected performance that elicits both disgust (at the idiotic way he allows himself to be used and abused) and complete sympathy (for the horrible beating he takes, both literally and metaphorically).  But he wins us over in a way that he has never really done, before or since.  And Helen Hunt was coming out of the real sitcom world and proved that Mad About You would be a leaping off point, not the zenith of a career.  She finds both the heart and sexuality of a single mom, and when she looks at Melvin and makes it clear that if he mentions her son again that he loses all rights to eat in that diner, she has never been more believable.  Unlike a lot of glamorous movie moms, she actually looks like she’s a mother, yet, in the bathtub scene, she sparkles with sensuality in a way you never could have guessed before.

So, Brooks dialogue, the nastiness of Nicholson, the sensuality of Hunt and the sincerity of Kinnear all come together and make a film that somehow works and finds a place so much higher than it easily could have and instead of another bad sitcom we have an Oscar winning film.

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