31 Days of Oscar: The Films of 1987

hope and glory7-07-gBy Jack Deth

Greetings all and sundry!
Having taken advantage of the much-hyped East Coast Snow Storm, and watched from my 23rd floor balcony as the surface dwellers dug themselves out, I’ve had time to contemplate the films of 1987 and their standing with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

A year sadly near void of the earlier risk takers and “All In!” gamblers of the previous decade, with many of the Academy choices leading toward less controversial, more palatable fare. So, keeping that in mind, allow me a few moments of your time to explore, excavate, and investigate the confusing, sometimes annoying choices of…

The 60th Academy Awards: Playing It Safe!

According to Box Office Mojo, a neat little reference source which proves useful in this treatise, 1987 was a rather prosperous year for film. With 238 entrants through the year, from the sublime (The Princess Bride) to the ridiculous (Ishtar, Real Men, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown), lots of diversions and variants in-between, and a surprising number of films in its Top 25 films nominated for Oscars.

For those uninitiated, I’ll be laying out this amalgam in the same way I’ve presented earlier critiques of the Academy’s decisions, entailing “The Top Six” categories, taking a “Top Down” perspective, plus a few personal bones to pick in the lower tiers.

So, without further ado, let’s start with the contenders for….

#1: Best Picture: A collection of five films, and one-half of a matched set of nominations and wins that has never sat right with me.

The Last Emperor is that particular culprit.

The story of Aisin Gioro Pu Yi, child emperor of China, from age three through later coups by Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Tse Tung decades later. To be held in place in the Imperial Palace and re-educated in Communist doctrine while being its historian, tour guide and docent.

A particularly splashy, resplendent and indulgent film that is a feast for the eyes while Pu Yi is a child, but grows grows duller, more dismal, bleak, off-putting, and oppressive during the last half of this more than two-and-a-half-hour tale.

Winning the top slot because Bernardo Bertolucci… And Hollywood’s overt love of foreign producers, directors and screenwriters. With some slick sleight of hand between Hollywood, the Academy, and its judges. Releasing The Last Emperor (#25: Box Office Mojo) to only five theaters on December 20th, right before Christmas, in Oscar prime time, then opening this well-executed period piece covering the time from anachronistic feudalism to post-WWII Communism for the viewing public nationwide (877 theaters), four days after the Oscar ceremony. April 15, 1988!

The other four films: Two comedies; a slow-boiling, ratcheting thriller; and a personal, semi-autobiographical WWII London Blitz and beyond film; fill out the competition.

Broadcast News (#18: Box Office Mojo). Written, produced and directed by James L. Brooks. Tells the tale of an inter office romance at a fictional Washington, DC television news station between Holly Hinter, Mr. Brooks and William Hurt. Klutzy and comedic at times. Especially between the two principals and Mr. Brooks’ New York neuroses.

The film nails the close quarters intimacy and noise of a newsroom and its sets. Opposite the banality of the DC cocktail circuit. Keeping the focus a television project that translates near flawlessly to the big screen!

Moonstruck (#5 Box Office Mojo). Produced and directed by long time veteran, Norman Jewison.

A well-executed throwback to 1940s Romantic Comedies. With hints of Ernst Lubitsch highlighting the film’s quirky Brooklyn locales, concept and cast. Cher plays 40-ish widow, Loretta Castorini, who decides to marry prosperous businessman, Johnny Cammereri (Danny Aiello), but falls for Johnny’s estranged younger, klutzier, oddball brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) instead. A unique female perspective on the effects of the fabled “Thunderbolt” experienced by Al Pacino’s Michal Corleone when first seeing Appolonia in The Godfather.

Fatal Attraction (#2 Box Office Mojo). Produced by Stanley R. Jaffe and Sherry Lansing.

An attractively compressed Manhattan thriller. That starts out with Michael Douglas and Glenn Close spending a long extra marital weekend together. And Ms. Close revealing her suspenseful inner Psycho Stalker from Hell afterwards. Laying bare the old adage for married men tempted to stray. “The screwing you get is never worth the screwing you get!”

Hope And Glory (#88 Box Office Mojo) Produced and directed by John Boorman through Columbia Pictures.

Still one of the best “War At Home” and beyond films depicting the Battle of Britain and its ensuing year long London Blitz. Seen from 9-year-old Bill’s and his mates’ eyes. Collecting scrap. Arguing over the model and manufacturer of German bombers and fighters high above. Trying to make sense of the chaos of impersonal industrialized mayhem and warfare.

Overall Consensus: One of those rare instances where the Academy judges kind of channeled The People’s Choice Awards in selecting nominees. Very popular films for the most part. Though the fix was in with Bertolucci from the start. The film’s late release date. And flooding the market afterward, A sleazy kind of tactic that would be used beyond strategically. Near boringly in the years to follow.

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Which brings us to:

#2: Best Director: A serious bone of contention with your humble host, with Bernardo Bertolucci winning again for The Last Emperor.

Though, I still maintain his nomination and win were due more to name recognition and previous offerings of 1900 (1976), The Last Tango In Paris (1972) and The Conformist (1970). And telling a unique, controversial, and solitary tale so far away from his familiar stomping grounds of Italy and Europe.

Leaving Peterborough-born Adrian Lyne and his third shot at the Gold Ring after his earlier Flashdance (1983) and 9 1/2 Weeks (1986). With Fatal Attraction. A very lean, yet fully developed thriller from a screenplay by James Dearden. And a very healthy dose of James. M. Cain for mood, suspense and atmosphere. Dealing with the succulent Prime Rib of infidelity, its ramifications and consequences when the Femme Fatale is not who or what she appears to be…

…while Mr. Lyne takes a page from Sidney Lumet in choosing rarely seen or appreciated locales around Manhattan, Midtown, and parts of the state of New York. It could only be better if it had been shot in grainy, shadowy B & W!

Next comes one of my favorite directors, Norman Jewison. Dating back to The Cincinnati Kid (1965). In The Heat Of The Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). A director with a reputation for getting maximum “Bang for the Buck!” with not a lot. His offering, Moonstruck, has those qualities writ large. Using Ontario’s Leslie Street Studios for all small, slightly cramped and intimate interior set work. In such detail that you believe you’re in Caroll Gardens. And a short sojourn from Brooklyn Heights, An affectionately executed exercise for veteran stage and just starting out film talent alike!

Creating an opportunity for master craftsman John Boorman to use nearly every trick and tool in his personal kit to create a small lower-class city and outlying town upon a deserted Royal Air Force Base, for his homage to family, childhood wonderment, humor, shock, and fear during the German air raids and early homefront days of WWII with Hope And Glory.

Leaving a final slot open for music video director Lars Sven “Lasse” Halstrom to test his Icarus wings with My Life As A Dog (#82: Box Office Mojo). A sibling rivalry, broken family tale about distant relatives from Sweden with subtitles. That clocks in at 110 minutes. Decent enough as a first real effort that would pave the way for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), The Cider House Rules (1999), Chocolat (2000), and The Shipping News (2001).

Overall Consensus:

An odd conglomeration of efforts, which I would have re-structured with the elimination of My Life As A Dog, which comes across more as a Short Subject than a full-blown film, and the inclusion of either Black Widow (Bob Rafelson; #49 Box Office Mojo), Empire Of The Sun (Steven Spielberg; #53 Box Office Mojo), or Angel Heart (Alan Parker; #66 Box Office Mojo) for its humid, sweaty atmosphere, and its sometimes over the top creepy weirdness, to fill the empty tier.

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#3: This slot in this Hit Parade, Best Actor is another odd conglomeration of talents. Young and old plying their craft to the best of their abilities… Or not. Starting with:

Marcello Mastroianni. Riding the coat tails of his win for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in Dark Eyes. A beautiful-looking film of long lost love between Mr. Mastrioianni’s wealthy businessman, Romano and his Russian mistress, Tina (Marthe Keller).

William Hurt. For effortlessly, near-flawlessly proving my decades long held belief, that if you are tall, driven, handsome, a bit klutzy, though with great hair, and able to empathize and emote on cue, while parroting questions whispered into your earpiece…you too can be a national news network anchorman! And Mr. Hurt’s Tom Grunick in Broadcast News is a deft template for others to emulate and learn from.

Robin Williams. His wide-eyed, naive Armed Forces Radio and Television’s Airman Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam (#4: Box Office Mojo) proved an intriguing, often fall-down funny exercise in what Hollywood would do with, and where they would comfortably pigeonhole, their latest hot comedic property.

Jack Nicholson. Plays against type and inwardly. As washed up, damaged ball player and bum, Francis Phelan. Trying to escape his past. Its demons and ghosts with alcohol. As he returns to his decades long estranged family around 1930s Depression Era Albany, New York in Ironweed (#96 Box Office Mojo).

Leaving Michael Douglas and his expensively, impeccably tailored and coiffed corporate raider, Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (#26 Box Office Mojo) to win the Oscar. With a meaty, complex role that Mr. Douglas delivers with sly untouchable arrogance.

Overall Consensus:

Another category and contenders that seems more than a bit too “pat”. With Mr. Mastrioanni’s inclusion to extend the allure of foreign culture and its purveyors from the 1960s and its links to “New Wave,” buttressed by Mr. Nicholson and his ability to perform magic with the right role. Toss in a very popular improvisational comic and put him in a very popular film that is 40% improvisation and centered around a just cooling, nearly quarantined topic. Then close off the ballot with a consistently delivering character actor in Mr. Hurt. And the choice and solution are clear.

Am I pleased? Not really. Mr. Douglas is a savvy Producer and dedicated actor. Though, possessing nowhere near the presence, gravitas and range of his father, Kirk. And Oliver Stone has never been a “Go To Guy” for me. His early works a bit too smug and far too pretentious for my tastes, But, he was at the time (and somewhat continues to be) Hollywood’s “Bad” or “Golden Boy”. So, it seemed to me that “The Fix Is In!” awards wise. Even as the last feet of film were put in their cans!

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#4: Presenting pretty much the same parameters and outcome for the Ladies in Attendance with the Best Actress category, with three of the five contenders attached to films already filling slots in the Best Film category.

Including Sally Kirkland also riding the crest of Golden Globe and Independent Spirit nominations and wins for Best Lead Actress in the fiercely independent, Vestron-backed and New York City centered Anna (#172 Box Office Mojo), where Ms. Kirkland plays a Czech actress leaving her recently invaded homeland to start a new life in the US.

Followed closely by Meryl Streep and her haunted Helen Archer, one-time popular singer, lover and drinking companion of Jack Nicholson’s Frank Phelan in Ironweed. Which did allow Ms. Streep to toy and play with her surprising vocal and singing range. Amid a grim, muddy, dusty and a representation of how bad things were during America’s Depression. Which moved it into the “One And Done!” category of personal films.

Leaving the field open for Holly Hunter. And her way-too-smart-and-clever-for-her-own-good News Director, Jane Craig, in Broadcast News, creating one of the most believable contemporary Cinderellas in film. As she juggles deadlines, advice from peers, and two beaus in Albert Brooks and William Hurt, while trying to rise above the smoke, mirrors, and general all-around BS that encircles the nation’s capitol.

With Glenn Close coming quickly up the outside after a Golden Globe nomination in the same category in Fatal Attraction. After incrementally making herself known in earlier works, The World According to Garp, The Big Chill, Jagged Edge and The Natural, Ms. Close is given the opportunity to throw reins aside as Alex Forrest. And play sweet, alluring, coy, and sultry in baiting a trap of her married boss Dan Gallagher’s (Michael Douglas) own design. Before things go slowly and frighteningly bad!

And the Oscar for Best Actress goes to Cher???!!!

I had a hard time wrapping my head around that decision (and still do!). Having endured Ms. Sarkasian’s singing voice (which I often likened to a banshee’s howl projected through a sonic boom!) through radio, vinyl and television of the 1960s. And single brand-name status of the ’70s. The talent was there. With admirable yeoman work in Mask, Silkwood, and The Witches of Eastwick to back it up. Falling just short (my personal opinion) in Moonstruck. And allowing Glenn Close to be robbed!

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#5: Best Supporting Actor

Another category which could have withstood some rearrangement and restructuring in regards to films and nominees. Five contenders. Though, I doubt that few of the Academy judges strayed too far away from Sean Connery and his veteran Chicago beat cop and mentor Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables. Basically because, Sean Connery.

Who proved that he could still deliver past age fifty-five, and create a niche and cottage industry for older talent keeping the youngsters in line, on time, professional and in place.

Against such a stoic obstacle, Albert Brooks and his slightly neurotic and kvetching news anchor, Aaron Altman, in Broadcast News pales in comparison. And whose nomination should have been replaced with Golden Globe nominated R. Lee Ermey and his profane, scary as Hell Marine Drill Instructor (D.I.), Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

Veteran Old School stage and film character actor, Vincent Gardenia, gave well-grounded life to his role as Loretta Castorini’s (Cher’s) father, Cosmo, in Moonstruck. The gruff and wizened paternal figure. And the kind of role Mr. Gardenia could easily do in his sleep.

While Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, two future forces to be reckoned with, were put on the map. Washington with his role as civil rights activist Steven Biko, uncovering and delving too deeply into the horrors of South African tribalism and apartheid in Cry Freedom. Directed with an occasional heavy hand, on location in Zimbabwe, by Richard Attenborough.

And Mr. Freeman as sly, clever, living-by-his-wits and -reputation New York pimp, Leon “Fast Buck” Smalls in Street Smart. “Fast Buck” does not take well to magazine reporter Christopher Reeve making up a character very much like “Fast Buck” himself to increase magazine sales, while the local cops and District Attorney take the tales as Gospel and start applying unwanted attention and heat. The film was a Cannon-Golan Globus low-budgeted personal project given to Mr. Reeve so he could get out of a less-than-spectacular multi-film deal.

Which brings us to…

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#6: Best Supporting Actress

This category and its winner created a schism that lost a lot of personal respect for the Academy in general. And politically tinged acceptance awards in particular. Am I saying that Olympia Dukakis was not worthy of winning for Moonstruck?

Certainly not. Though, I believe Anne Archer delivered a much better performance as the betrayed wife and shared target of Glenn Close’s psychological warfare and ire in Fatal Attraction.

Leaving a veteran of television, film, and stage whom I’d followed since I was a kid, Ann Sothern, with as close to a sop to a Lifetime Achievement Award with her nomination as longtime, vivacious friend of widowed and elderly sisters, Libby (Bette Davis) and Sarah (Lilian Gish) spending a final summer in Maine. Deftly aided by Vincent Price as former Russian aristocrat Mr. Maranov, in The Whales Of August (#169 Box Office Mojo).

Followed closely by Norma Aleandro as cerebral-palsy-wracked activist Florencia Sanchez Morales and her caretaker, Gaby Brimmer (Rachel Levin) in Gaby: A True Story. Filmed in Curenavaca, Mexico. Running at 110 minutes. And co-starring Liv Ullman and Robert Loggia.

And late-blooming, though stalwart of stage, television and film, Anne Ramsay as Danny De Vito’s horrific Momma in Throw Momma From The Train (#13 Box Office Mojo). A neat, nicely-edited and -executed take on Hitchcock’s Strangers on A Train, with the intended victims being Billy Crystal’s suddenly rich ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew) and Danny De Vito’s Momma, Ms. Ramsay.

Overall Consensus:

Once again, the “fix is in” with Ms. Dukakis for the win. This category and nominations portends the feel of contemporary “Participation Awards” that does not sit well with me. Buttressed with the inclusion of an arty foreign “Message Film” with Gaby: A True Story.Which leans a bit much like My Left Foot. And an icon-laden, “Where Are They Now?” offering in The Whales Of August.

Oh… And the microphone and dais for the awardees are for gracious acceptance speeches and “Thank You”s. Not political motivation or “social consciousness” rhetoric!

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Author’s Critique

1987 was not a great year for film when compared to the previous decade. It lacked massively-budgeted, big-grossing and seat-filling “blockbusters,” opting instead for smaller-budgeted explorations into long-standing genres, Three Men And A Baby, Lethal Weapon, Dirty Dancing, Predator, Near Dark and Less Than Zero stand tall, enjoyable, and profitable in this regard.

And a better than average year for fresh talent in small and independent films like River’s Edge, Evil Dead 2, Matewan, Barfly, and House of Games started those in front of and behind the cameras quite well, while establishing the lion’s share for future greatness.

Though also noticeably missing are offerings even hinting at the high-stakes stylistic gambling, refreshing off-the-wall weirdness, or day-to-day life, of films from the 1970s. The closest contenders being Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, which would effectively close off an embargo and quarantine on the subject of the Vietnam War for Hollywood. And Hellraiser, whose battles took place post production against censors and editing for an “acceptable” MPAA rating.

Making 1987 not a great year for films. Nor a bad year. Just a too safe and disappointing year!

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The opinions expressed here are my own. Agree? Disagree? All thoughts are welcome. For the Floor Is Open!

9 thoughts on “31 Days of Oscar: The Films of 1987

  1. Hi Jack, your description of Cher’s singing voice cracks me up, although I don’t necessarily agree with it 😉
    I have never been able to make it through either LAST EMPEROR or IRONWEED. As a teenager in 1987, I watched DIRTY DANCING and DIE HARD probably 10 times. HOPE AND GLORY though keeps me on the verge of tears for the whole running time…something about it is so moving, I don’t know if it’s the music or what. I really enjoy it…I’m not explaining myself very well at all. But it is a favorite, although I have to be in a certain mood to watch it.

    1. Hi, Paula:

      Thanks for starting off the conversation. And for letting me tackle an Oscar year that’s bugged me for awhile.

      ‘The Last Emperor’ is about one half of a great film. Whose last reels are a bit too dour and down beat. While ‘Ironweed’ is one of the few date films I’ve seen where I was more depressed after seeing it, than going in.

      John Boorman falls back on his strong suit and directs for emotion in his very personal ‘Hope And Glory’. Which delivers on all fronts. Especially family. And I still think is his best work. With ‘Deliverance’ and his Lee Marvin films, ‘Point Blank’ and ‘Hell In The Pacific’ not far behind.

      1. I’m in agreement re: Boorman’s best work, although I’m in no hurry to watch DELIVERANCE again. And for sheer entertainment there’s EXCALIBUR…nowhere near his best but very watchable to me.

        1. Yeah. ‘Deliverance’ is one of those films you need to be in the mood to watch. And not the best possible debut film for Ned Beatty, either.

          Great catch with ‘Excalibur’! A great shiny film full of old and new UK talent to get lost in as the tale unfolds.

  2. I had forgotten that ANGEL HEART was a film from 1987–not sure I’d have put in the top 5, but it sure was fun! Also, I will admit to never having seen THE LAST EMPEROR. I probably should, but your description of it means that it won’t be in my immediate future 😀 Thanks!

    1. Lol Jocelyn…I did try! If something feels like you “should” watch it though…it just might not be very entertaining. PS: I enjoyed ANGEL HEART too, though I saw it like 10 years later. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

    2. Welcome, Jocelyn:

      Thank you for such an insightful point of view. Which points obliquely to what has bugged me about the Oscars for 1987.

      The Academy seems too attached to Cannes, Golden Globes and New York Critics Awards. When there are so many films of various budgets, screenplays and talent that come from the U.S. With more than enough merit and enjoyment to stand on their own.

      I’ll secure my Soap Box now.

      And hope to see your comments more often.

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