The two best performances of the year, in the best film of the year.

The 72nd annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1999.  The nominations were announced on February 15, 2000 and the awards were held on March 26, 2000.

Best Picture:  American Beauty

  • The Sixth Sense
  • The Insider
  • The Cider House Rules
  • The Green Mile

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Magnolia

Most Surprising Omission:  Being John Malkovich

Rank (out of 83) Among Best Picture Years:  #39

The Race:  Having come up short the year before to Miramax, Dreamworks decided to try a new Oscar approach.  Instead of having their big film in the summer (like Saving Private Ryan), or releasing their prestige film just before or at Christmas (the traditional method), they would open their big Oscar potential film in September.  Their theory was that with good word of mouth, they could build to solid box office and be the film that everyone was talking about when the awards season hit.  To that end, they released American Beauty in mid-September.  Directed by Sam Mendes, who was a first time film director, but was very well known as a theater director in London, it had Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in the star roles and all of them instantly entered the Oscar discussion from the minute the film debuted.  It played for a week in limited distribution, then slowly rolled wider as more and more critics raved and more and more people talked about it.

It was helped by the fact that there wasn’t much competition at the time.  The Matrix and Star Wars Episode I had thrilled people earlier in the year, but weren’t going to be competing for anything other than technical Oscars.  There was also Eyes Wide Shut, the final film from Stanley Kubrick.  But Kubrick, who had once been an Oscar nomination mainstay (nominated for Best Director four films in a row) had only managed one nomination for this last two films combined, and the division of critics on the film and the strong eroticism seemed to make it unlikely Oscar fare.  The only film that seemed to have any Oscar traction was The Sixth Sense, the sophomore film from M. Night Shyamalan that had been top of the box office for the entire month of August and was still going strong going into the fall.  The surprise ending, along with the stunning performance from 11 year old Haley Joel Osment kept audiences coming back and the film ended its run in the Top 10 all-time at the box office and received enough critical adoration to give it Oscar potential.

As The Sixth Sense ruled the box office and American Beauty wowed critics, other Oscar potentials finally started hitting theaters.  First there was Being John Malkovich, a very off-beat comedy from Spike Jonze about a tunnel in an office building that put you inside John Malkovich’s head.  Jonze was also on-screen, with George Clooney in Three Kings, a dark comedy about the Gulf War.  Clooney hadn’t gotten any Oscar love for Out of Sight and director David O. Russell was more likely to earn Independent Spirit nominations than Oscar nominations, but the film’s reviews were very good and it was doing well at the box office and both Clooney and Russell entered the Oscar conversation.

November brought more Independent Spirit fare (Dogma), more future technical award nominees (Sleepy Hollow) and big box office hits (Toy Story 2), but it also brought The InsiderThe Insider was from director Michael Mann and had Al Pacino and L.A. Confidential star Russell Crowe in the story of big tobacco and their run-ins with “60 Minutes”.  Though Pacino was the star of the film, it was Crowe who was getting all the attention for his performance whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.

With December came the awards season, begun, as usual, by the National Board of Review.  The NBR made Dreamworks look smart, bestowing Best Picture upon American Beauty.  But much of their Top 10 was filled with films that had not yet opened: The Talented Mr. Ripley, which also won Best Director (for Anthony Minghella, his first film since The English Patient), Magnolia (from Boogie Nights director P. T. Anderson), and Boys Don’t Cry (a dark story about the murder of a transgender person in Iowa, with a gutsy performance from Hillary Swank who won Best Actress), as well as The Insider (with Crowe winning Best Actor) and Being John Malkovich.  That was followed a few days later by the L.A. Film Critics, who gave their Best Picture award to The Insider, but gave Sam Mendes Best Director (and also gave awards to Crowe and Swank).  Almost a week later, the New York Film Critics went a different direction.  They gave Best Picture and Director, Topsy-Turvy, the new film from Mike Leigh all about the Gilbert and Sullivan play The Mikado.

Next up were the Golden Globe nominations.  American Beauty and The Insider were the front-runners, nominated for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay.  But also in the mix were The Talented Mr. Ripley (Picture and Director nominations), The Hurricane, a new film about boxer Ruben Carter and his struggle for freedom from a wrongful conviction from director Norman Jewison (Picture and Director noms) and The End of the Affair, Neil Jordan’s new adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, starring Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore (Picture and Director noms).  Being John Malkovich was still in the hunt with nominations for Best Picture – Comedy and Best Screenplay.  The Sixth Sense kept some award hopes alive with a Best Screenplay nomination, while the Screenplay race also saw the first appearance of Miramax’s big Oscar film: The Cider House RulesRules, adapted by John Irving from his best-selling novel had taken 15 years to reach the screen, but, like Ripley, Hurricane and Affair, it had a former Oscar nominee at the helm (Lasse Hallstrom) and it had the power of Miramax marketing behind it.

The next day came the Broadcast Film Critics Awards.  Mendes, Crowe and Swank were all winners again.  The Best Picture wouldn’t be announced for another month, but the nominees were announced, and they were quickly becoming a big deal.  In the first three years of the nominees, only one film, Secrets and Lies, had made the Oscar list without making the BFCA nominations list first.  Nominated for Best Picture were American Beauty, The Insider, The Sixth Sense, The Cider House Rules, Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Three Kings, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Man on the Moon (a biopic of Andy Kauffman from yet another former Oscar nominee, this time Milos Forman) and The Green Mile.  The last film, adapted from the Stephen King novel, had the box office power of Tom Hanks, an old fashioned feel and was directed by Frank Darabont, who had made King’s The Shawshank Redemption.  In the years since Shawshank had been a Best Picture film, it had grown to great acclaim and was the #1 film on the Internet Movie Database, the success of which was helping The Green Mile.

There were more critics to come.  The Boston Society of Film critics had their say (Three Kings for Picture and Director) and the National Society of Film Critics chimed in (a tie between Being John Malkovich and Topsy-Turvy, with Leigh winning Director).  American Beauty and The Insider continued to roll, with nominations from the Producers Guild, and they were joined by Malkovich, Cider and Hurricane.  Then, in one weekend, the BFCA named American Beauty their Best Picture, it took Picture, Director and Screenplay at the Golden Globes and it earned Sam Mendes his first Directors Guild nomination.  Joining Mendes were Michael Mann, Spike Jonze, M. Night Shyamalan and Frank Darabont.

With two key nominations denied to their film (Best Picture – Drama at the Globes, DGA), Harvey Weinstein pushed harder on the marketing for The Cider House Rules.  The cast and author were on talk shows and the ads were pushed harder.  But it wasn’t making much at the box office.  Then it got a boost from two key nominations: the Writers Guild, where it would be competing against The Insider and Ripley (while American Beauty would battle with Malkovich, Mangolia, The Sixth Sense and Three Kings for the Original Screenplay award) and a nomination for Best Cast at the Screen Actors Guild, where it would compete against American Beauty, Malkovich, The Green Mile and Magnolia.

With American Beauty winning the major awards and The Cider House Rules benefiting from Miramax’s marketing skills and The Insider solidly respected (though winning almost nothing except Best Actor awards), part of the field looked set.  Being John Malkovich seemed to have the fourth spot – after all, no film nominated for the DGA, WGA, PGA and SAG Ensemble had failed to earn an Oscar nomination, and only one film since 1990 with DGA, WGA and PGA nominations had failed, and that was the massive downer Leaving Las Vegas.  That left, competing for the last spot, The Sixth Sense, Magnolia, Three Kings, The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Green Mile.

The Results:  Harvey’s marketing push had succeeded.  The Cider House Rules was up for 7 nominations, including Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay (where it was the favorite to win).  But both The Sixth Sense and The Green Mile were in the race.  It was Being John Malkovich that had ended up outside the race, it’s quirkiness outweighing its precursors.  It was in the Original Screenplay race and had taken the Best Director slot that The Green Mile was unable to grab.  But it was all incidental, as The Insider seemed to be the only real competition to American Beauty, which lead with 8 nominations.

After the nominations were announced, the guilds started handing out their awards and it pretty much ended a race that didn’t seem that competitive in the first place.  The PGA, DGA, WGA, and SAG Ensemble all gave their awards to American Beauty (and the WGA didn’t even give hope with their Adapted award as that went to Election).

On the night of the awards, The Cider House Rules managed to take home Adapted Screenplay (and Supporting Actor) and Boys Don’t Cry kept American Beauty from winning the big five awards by winning Best Actress.  But American Beauty had become the first film to win the BFCA, Golden Globe, PGA, BAFTA and Oscar while The Insider, The Sixth Sense and The Green Mile all went home winless.

look closer . . .

American Beauty

  • Director:  Sam Mendes
  • Writer:  Alan Ball
  • Producer:  Bruce Cohen  /  Dan Jenks
  • Studio:  Dreamworks
  • Stars:  Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Spacey), Actress (Bening), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  475
  • Length:  122 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $130.09 mil  (#13  –  1999)
  • Release Date:  15 September 1999
  • Metacritic Score:  86
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #34  (nominees)  /  #15  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Spacey), Actress (Bening), Supporting Actor (Cooper), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  585
  • First Watched:  Opening Day at the FOX Tower

The Film:  Halfway through the film, we return to the dinner table.  It is the same shot that we have seen earlier, but so much has changed.  Lester Burnham, tired of feeling like he doesn’t exist, has defiantly declared his existence.  Here we have two magnificent performances, the best of the year, facing off against each other in a scene charged with electricity.  One, Annette Bening, as Caroline Burnham, is frustrated that so much is slipping away from the way she wants things to be.  The other one, Kevin Spacey, as Lester, is alternating humor (“Lose it? I didn’t lose it. It’s not like, “Whoops! Where’d my job go?” I QUIT.”) with unadulterated anger.  Caught in the middle is their daughter Jane (played very well by Thora Birch, who has to deal a hell of a lot just to avoid getting acted off the screen by Bening and Spacey).  Jane is a typical teenager, unhappy with herself, even more unhappy with her parents, whom she despises and looks down upon.

But what happens in this scene, as her mother loses it and then her father explodes, is astonishing.  Jane has been putting up this front, a cold detachment towards both parents, the typical sneer of so many teenagers.  But when her mother loses it, she is reminded that her parents are human, that they are people with their own emotional struggles, and that sometimes their struggles are much more overwhelming than the daily hormonal turbulence of a teenager.  But then, when her father explodes, we are reminded that she is just a teenager, that she is in over her head.  She’s just a girl who can still be frightened by what happens between her parents and that cold detachment really is just a front.

This scene works as a microcosm for the entire film itself.  It shows what is so brilliant and universal about the film all at once.  This is the shadow of American suburbia: the jobs that make us feel trapped, the marriages that feel dead and make us search for what made them alive in the first place, the alienation between generations, the breakdown of communication, yet all of it hidden behind that facade of the beautiful house with the beautiful roses out front.  It’s true, that most marital / neighborhood breakdowns don’t end with several people considering killing someone (and especially not with someone actually doing it), but that’s part of the satire of the film.  American Beauty, in one sense, is a drama, a heart-breaking look at the modern American family and the ways in which it breaks down.  But it’s also a devastating satire, filled with moments that make us laugh.  That sometimes we might not know whether or not to laugh or cry is part of the power of the film.

All of this makes perfect sense for this film of course, this boundary between satire and drama, this fuzzy line that marks the difference between drama and comedy.  Watching the opening moments, listening to Lester’s voiceover: “I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead,” we are reminded of nothing so much as we are of Sunset Blvd., with its brilliant initial voiceover from the dead Joseph Gillis.  (I remember my mother calling me and asking if Kevin Spacey died in American Beauty and I said yes.  She asked if that was ruining a surprise and I said, “You find it out in the first minute, so I highly doubt it.”).  Sunset, like Beauty, is a devastating social satire and a drama at the same time, and it has the same brilliant attention to its script and acting.  In both films, we fall under the spell of that voiceover, as good as they come in film, both in terms of the writing and the narration.

And in both films, the dead men don’t seem to lament too much that they are gone.  For Joe, it’s just the way things work out in Hollywood sometimes, and it’s probably better than heading back to Toledo anyway.  For Lester, well, he sums it up so well himself that there doesn’t seem to be much point in trying to put it any other way:

“I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday. ”

Surprisingly, it holds up well.

The Sixth Sense

  • Director:  M. Night Shyamalan
  • Writer:  M. Night Shyamalan
  • Producer:  Frank Marshall  /  Kathleen Kennedy  /  Barry Mendel
  • Studio:  Buena Vista  (Disney)
  • Stars:  Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Supporting Actor (Osment), Supporting Actress (Collette), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  220
  • Length:  107 min
  • Genre:  Horror
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $293.50 mil  (#2  –  1999; #10 – all-time, upon initial release)
  • Release Date:  6 August 1999
  • Metacritic Score:  64
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #10  (year)  /  #190  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor (Osment), Supporting Actress (Collette), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  85
  • First Watched:  Opening Day at Movies on TV with George Spaulding, Dustin Melton and Ben Colby

The Film:  It would take almost no time for the key line in the film, “I see dead people,” to become parodied.  It is remembered as an overly dramatic line, sounding kind of silly.  But to think that is to forget what it was like originally in the theater – or, indeed, what it is like when you watch the film closely.  The scene where poor, tortured Cole, a broken, almost shattered young boy utters these words is one of the great scenes of child acting in film history.  He slowly explains to his psychiatrist what it going on around him, what he sees but we cannot see (it is often forgotten that until this point in the film, we are never made to privy to the images that Cole sees).  Then, a film that has been frightening, turns even more so as the psychological horror that Cole has been living through becomes ours as well.  He explains that so well, lying there in his hospital bed, how lonely his world is, how much he desperately needs help.  And, of course, for anyone who has seen the film (or, by this time, even anyone who hasn’t seen the film), it adds more poignancy given the person that he is choosing to finally unburden himself to.

When I first saw this film, I had a distinct advantage.  I saw it on opening day and I didn’t know there was a surprise shocker at the end.  I just went because it was the film we were all going to see that day (not my choice – I don’t deal well with such psychological horror films – I actually left the theater twice while watching The Others).  I just knew what I could see unfolding on the screen.  A film that was expertly made – well written and directed – that had subtle horror (so much unlike the shocking horrors most bad horror films try to throw at you).  Instead of big scares, it had, at its heart, the relationship between two lonely people – the young boy who sees dead people, and the psychiatrist who can’t seem to recover his life.  They spend much of the film talking to each other, trying to help each other, and the film works because of their relationship and because of the performances from Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis (probably his best performance).  That line, which almost instantly reached Psycho status (it’s difficult to watch the film for the first time because the shower scene is so well known – likewise, the line “I see dead people” almost instantly became so well-known, not helped by the fact that it was prominently shown in the trailer, that it was impossible to really see it for the first time), is actually heart-breaking and brilliant.

But to go back and watch this film is interesting, because it really is as good as you might have remembered.  Films that are successful on this level (before its theatrical release was done it was #10 all-time) often have a strong backlash.  Successful horror films often have a strong backlash.  And, of course, there is the story of the rest of M. Night Shyamalan’s career – no matter at what point you believe the drop-off began, it was bad (he’s made six films in a row in which the Metacritic score was lower than his previous film – I wonder if that has ever happened before).  But, wandering in the dreck of The Village and The Last Airbender, people tend to cloud themselves to how good The Sixth Sense really was, how much the story and performances pulled you in.

Al Pacino keeps the hamming in check and Russell Crowe proves what he can do.

The Insider

  • Director:  Michael Mann
  • Writer:  Eric Roth  /  Michael Mann  (from the article “The Man Who Knew Too Much” by Marie Brenner)
  • Producer:  Michael Mann  /  Pieter Jan Brugge
  • Studio:  Buena Vista  (Disney)
  • Stars:  Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Actor (Crowe), Editing, Cinematography, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  240
  • Length:  157 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $29.08 mil  (#69  –  1999)
  • Release Date:  5 November 1999
  • Metacritic Score:  84
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #13  (year)  /  #200  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Crowe), Supporting Actor (Plummer)
  • Nighthawk Points:  105
  • First Watched:  Late in the first run at Cinemagic with George Spaulding and Mary Schneideman

The Film:  At the conclusion of the film, in the little epilogue notes that are so common to true stories being put up on screen that tell of what happens to the characters after the titles have come up, we get the disclaimer that, though based on a true story, the film takes certain dramatic liberties.  It’s so common of stories like this, and the liberties that this film take are certainly small when compared to so many other films.  The bigger question, as always, is how well does it do what it does?  What it does it give us sympathy for two different people in two different lines of work, watch them as they go through these events and come out the other side.  It does it extremely well, through the construction of the screenplay, through the quality of the film, and most of all, through the performances at the heart of the film.

First there is Lowell Bergman, the producer for “60 Minutes”.  Oddly, Bergman seems to be the central role of the film.  Though this is only odd when we look at it from a storytelling standpoint.  Because certainly, from the story, we would think that Jeffrey Wigand should be the key role.  After all, he is the man who blew the whistle on Brown & Williamson, who made it clear to the nation what so many of us had already suspected – that the tobacco companies were loading up their products with the worst stuff imaginable and that they were lying through their teeth about it to anyone who asked.  But then we look at this from the point of view of the filmmakers.  There are two main reasons why Bergman is the hero and Roger Ebert addressed both of them in his review.  The first is that Bergman is played by Pacino and Pacino is the star of the movie, therefore, Bergman must be the key role (for those people who would object to this, please try to remember that in 1999, pre-Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe was still mainly known for only one film: L.A. Confidential).  But, aside from the fact that Bergman is played by Pacino, this allows for a larger story to be told, one that actually demands the time the film gives it (unlike The Green Mile, which stretches two hours worth of material over the course of three hours): the story of what journalism has become in the latter half of the 20th Century, when a program like “60 Minutes”, aired on the same network that aired Edward R. Murrow’s bold stand against McCarthy, would cave to corporate pressure.

The film artfully takes two subjects that many people would find boring, journalistic ethics and science, and makes them interesting.  It steps back and allows itself time to look at the characters and what is going on in their lives.  In some ways, it functions the same way as All the President’s Men when it comes to its stand; the film believes that the truth is what is important and that journalism exists to find that truth and report it to the public.  In All the President’s Men, the problem was finding the truth; here, the problem is reporting it.  That, in essence, is why this film isn’t quite to the level of the previous film.  So much of the previous film was like a detective story, as the two journalists had to find out what had happened.  Here, we always know what has happened, and the main drama involved is in letting others know.  There’s not quite the same level of drama inherent in it.

Yet, it is a great film.  That owes much to its art.  It is skillfully directed by Michael Mann, who has proven, like in Heat, that he can reign in Pacino’s stylish excess.  The film looks good, moves well, sound good.  And, most important, it has some really great acting.  Going into the film, Pacino was certainly the star.  But coming out of it, it was Russell Crowe who was suddenly on everybody’s radar, and he would stay on it (in the next decade, he would make Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander, Cinderella Man, 3:10 to Yuma and American Gangster – one hell of a decade).  Though, in many ways, the performance of the film is the one that the Oscars missed out on: Christoper Plummer as Mike Wallace.  Every time that Plummer appears, his energy shines on screen, in just the way a man of Wallace’s stature would.  And he plays the man as smart, caustic and forceful.  He feels weak when he reads that he has betrayed Murrow’s legacy, but his anger erupts when a CBS exec cuts his commentary.

The character, as played by Plummer, is a reminder of the different world we are in here than we were in All the President’s Men.  In APM, their goal was to provide the story.  Here, as with all television journalism, the journalist becomes part of the story.  Don’t believe me?  Remember that Woodward and Bernstein will always be remembered for what they wrote, not how they wrote it.  On the other hand, a defining moment of American history, is not just the assassination of John Kennedy, but the look on Walter Cronkite’s face as he puts down his glasses and announces it.  Wallace needs to be that personality and Plummer plays him that way.  On television, we all become part of the story.

I recommend the film, but I really recommend the novel.

The Cider House Rules

  • Director:  Lasse Hallstrom
  • Writer:  John Irving  (from his novel)
  • Producer:  Richard N. Gladstein
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Michael Caine, Delroy Lindo
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Supporting Actor (Caine), Editing, Original Score, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  305
  • Length:  126 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $57.54 mil  (#41  –  1999)
  • Release Date:  10 December 1999
  • Metacritic Score:  75
  • Ebert Rating:  **
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #37  (year)  /  #292  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • First Watched:  Opening Day at Movies on TV

The Film:  The Cider House Rules is an illustration for the reasons that people watch film versions rather then read books.  It is also an illustration with why you should go read the book in the first place.  The film is well-made.  It is solidly directed, well written, has good acting (very good from Michael Caine), moves well, has a great score and good sets and costumes.  It tells an interesting story and the characters seem real.  And it takes a hell of a lot less time to watch the film than it does to read the novel.

On the other hand, people will come away from the film with several questions because a film can’t fully encompass a 600 page novel, no matter how well-made it is.  They will wonder at the personal indiscretions of Dr. Larch (they would wonder a lot more if he wasn’t played so well by Caine, though not quite good enough to break into a very tough field of Nighthawk nominees).  They will look at the action of the film and think that it feels somewhat compressed.  It will seem like Homer Wells hasn’t really been out in the real world long enough and that his homecoming, to a girl clearly too young for him, feels a bit forced.

Well, there are answers to all of those issues, of course, and they come from the book.  The original novel goes far back into Larch’s history and covers a period of decades, not just a year or so.  From the more detailed history of Larch’s past, to the long, slow set-up of Homer’s return after his mentor’s death (among the numerous things attributed as common links to John Irving’s novels – Vienna, bears, boarding school – one of the least discussed ones is how often characters who are older – past 60 – meet unnatural deaths), to the potential love interest lying in wait for him.

Now, Irving worked years to bring this novel to the screen.  It went through a lot of drafts and a lot of directors.  It finally made it to the screen and it is a very good film – complete in and of itself, a good story, a fascinating story.  I looked forward to it as an adaptation of the novel and I was not disappointed (I think most people would agree that it is the best adaptation of one of his novels, except for those who are overly attached to the film version of Garp).  I knew that there was no way that everything from the book could end up in the film and that Irving had done a good job of narrowing the focus.

But it is a reminder of the problems wrought with adapting a novel, especially a longer one, to the screen.  It does bring in new people – some will just enjoy the film who would never read the book, and several will find themselves seeking out the book who would have not done so otherwise.  But, it is extremely difficult to make a truly great adaptation out of any novel longer than a few hundred pages without taking great liberties with the book, and then you run the risk of just pushing people away.  You often either end up with dreck (Hotel New Hampshire), a rather bastardization or very shortened part of the book (The Door in the Floor) or both (Simon Birch).  The list of films that can overcome that are rare (Grapes of Wrath, L.A. Confidential, Lord of the Rings).

So what the film gives us is kind of a Cliffs Notes for the book.  It provides the plot and it provides mental images for us to latch on to when we go back to the book (or find it the first time).  There’s nothing wrong with that.  And it can make a very good but not great film.  But of course, sometimes, when you have Harvey Weinstein on your side, being a very good but not great film is enough to get you into the Oscar race and make you a serious contender.

The weakest nominee between Braveheart (1995) and The Blind Side (2009).

The Green Mile

  • Director:  Frank Darabont
  • Writer:  Frank Darabont  (from the novel by Stephen King)
  • Producer:  David Valdes  /  Frank Darabont
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Supporting Actor (Duncan), Sound
  • Oscar Points:  140
  • Length:  189 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Prison)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $136.80 mil  (#12  –  1999)
  • Release Date:  10 December 1999
  • Metacritic Score:  61
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #94  (year)  /  #405  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations: none
  • First Watched:  Opening Week at Movies on TV with Kari Panger, George Spaulding and Mary Schneideman

The Film:  This is like a 1930’s film come to life.  The idea works so perfectly to set in the thirties (where the novel was set, true, but still).  It feels exactly like the kind of thing that Warner Bros. used to produce, maybe starring Pat O’Brien.  It connects with people on an emotional level (clearly, because the film currently sits in the Top 100, ranked right above L.A. Confidential, Cinema Paradiso and Chinatown).  It has everybody’s favorite Everyman, Tom Hanks, in the starring role, as the good prison guard (there’s a phrase you don’t see very often).  It’s long and it allows its scenes to unfold and it has great melodrama to cover the time (the level of melodrama is great, not the quality).

But in some ways, that’s exactly what’s wrong with the film as well.  The film is way too long.  The film relies way too much on your emotional commitment – if you doubt it for even a minute, then the whole film seems like a pretty big waste of time.  It insists on setting up the whole framing device, which isn’t really that necessary and takes a good ten minutes before you even get into the film at all.  Then, it fills the characters with so much of one side or another – so much good or so much evil, that the shades of grey that the world actually works in seem irrelevant.

So, there are those who slide into its emotional content.  Clearly that works, because the film, at over three hours long, with not a whole lot to happen on the screen in that time, still managed to make well over $100 million and end up almost making the Top 10 for the year.  But there are those who don’t.  And what are they left with outside of that?

Well, there is a solid Tom Hanks performance at the center of it, and that was probably the smartest bit of casting, both because there’s no such thing as an unsolid Tom Hanks performance, and because he is the kind of person that people naturally root for.  There is a decent performance by Michael Clarke Duncan that the film centers around, but certainly not good enough for any awards attention, certainly not for the kind of attention that he actually received.  The film is solidly made – good music, good cinematography.  But it takes so unbelievably long.  It’s clear that Frank Darabont has a love of old films – look at the way he slowly develops Shawshank and the look of the fifties and old movie theaters at the heart of his The Majestic.  But the old Warner Bros. films weren’t anything approaching three hours and this film didn’t need to either.  Darabont could have gotten everything he needed into the film and done it in two hours, were he not so determined to use every last inch of the book and cram in as much about everything as he possibly could.

It comes down to this.  Take one minute and step back away from the emotions of the film.  Does it really suspend your disbelief?  Do you find yourself believing in the film at all?  In the characters at all?  Or when you stop to think about it for a minute, does it all seem just a bit ridiculous and more than a bit mediocre?  It always has to me.