The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1984
1984 is the other bright spot of the 80s. As you can tell from all the films that won in the 80s, the decade was a complete rejection of the 70s by the Academy (and Hollywood). Everything became standard and mainstream again. Fortunately, though, sometimes standard and mainstream does yield amazing films. Like Amadeus.
Outside of Best Picture, Amadeus also wins Best Director for Milos Forman (talked about here), which makes sense, and Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham (talked about here), which was terrific. Best Actress this year was Sally Field for Places in the Heart (talked about here). She didn’t give the best performance in the category, but she was probably the best choice, since — the category was so bad. Best Supporting Actor was Haing S. Ngor for The Killing Fields (talked about here), which I don’t like purely because he wasn’t an actor. It felt like awarding a dude an Oscar for what he had to live through. Which I can’t fault, it’s just — I’d rather have it be about the performance. And Best Supporting Actress was Peggy Ashcroft for A Passage to India (talked about here). Yawn… veteran Oscar. Terrible category, too.
The 80s are by far the weakest Academy decade in terms of nominees and winners, and this year might be the overall weakest of the bunch. But fortunately, as we learned with 1986, good decisions can really help save a year. And alongside 1986, this is really one of the sole good years the Academy had.
BEST PICTURE – 1984
And the nominees were…
The Killing Fields (Warner Bros.)
A Passage to India (Columbia)
Places in the Heart (TriStar)
A Soldier’s Story (Columbia)
Amadeus — I find it hard to believe people haven’t seen this movie, probably because I saw this long before I was even interested in movies. Pretty sure I watched this in class in middle school. So I just assume that people would have seen it.
The film is about a rivalry between Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s a frame story, narrated by an old Salieri to a priest, talking about how he was the court musician for the emperor and then Mozart shows up — this musical prodigy — and basically becomes the belle of the ball. And Salieri’s thing is — Mozart has more talent than he does in two fingers, and he doesn’t care at all. He’s carefree, he drinks, he puts what seems like no effort into his music, and it pisses Salieri off. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Salieri, trying to figure out how Mozart does it, has Mozart’s wife bring some of his recent compositions to him. And he looks through them, going, “Where are all the mistakes? The crossed out notes and the edits?” And she’s like, “He doesn’t edit, he just writes it down in one go and that’s the music,” and it basically blows Salieri’s mind that Mozart produces note-perfect music on the first try.
It’s a really great film, and again, just see it. Don’t bother with the synopsis. This is one of the best movies ever made. It so deserved this it’s not even funny.
The Killing Fields — This is a film that — it’s just a bit much to me. It’s not a bad film, it’s just, on a topic that I am not even remotely interested in. So to me, sitting through most of this movie was a chore, even though it was really well-done.
Sam Waterston is a journalist who travels to Cambodia in the middle of — well, it was the 70s, you know what happened there (and if you don’t, read up on it. You should probably know about it. Genocide is a pretty major historical issue). And we see him there, covering all this, and he gets help from a Cambodian journalist, who acts as his translator. And eventually the Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran (played by Haing S. Ngor, who actually lived through this) is thrown into a prison camp for many years. And then we follow the journalist as he returns home and wins all these awards, yet is wracked with guilt over not really helping out Pran. And then Pran escapes the camp and ends up being reunited with Waterston.
It’s a good movie, but again — not my cup of tea at all. These movies — this with Cambodia and Salvador with South America — I know they’re socially significant, but they’re just not entertaining to me. So I can’t really be objective about this one in terms of this category. I don’t think it should have won. As a film, I think it’s just good but not great. I don’t mind the nominations, but I don’t think it should have won.
A Passage to India — Every time I see this movie, my first thought is always, “Oh, David Lean…how the mighty hath fallen.” This is a man who made Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. And after Doctor Zhivago, man was it all downhill. Zhivago is where you see it start to happen. Bridge on the River Kwai is kind of the upswing, him working toward perfection but not quite getting there (even though that movie is amazing. Even coming close to perfection puts him above most of everything else), Lawrence of Arabia is perfection. There’s not a second of wasted film in that movie. And then Doctor Zhivago — it’s a bit overly long and indulgent at times. Still really good, but after those other two — there’s a reason it didn’t win like those first two did. And then he did Ryan’s Daughter, which is just a long, incoherent mess. There’s not really any interesting story worth telling, and he tells it for three hours. Man, was that a hard film to get through. And then this one — it’s like watching paint dry.
The film begins with Judy Davis going on vacation to India with her chaperone, Peggy Ashcroft. And while they’re there, they meet a kind Indian doctor who befriends them and shows them around. And then one day, they visit these caves. And while they’re in the caves, all of a sudden, Davis comes out, covered in blood and screaming. And she says the doctor tried to rape her (which seems totally against his character). And he’s put on trial by the bloodthirsty Brits (keep in mind, this is British-occupied India). And there’s a long trial, which, thank god it’s in the film. Trials, as I always say, exponentially make every film more interesting, and this is no exception. Here, it gives the film a faint pulse. And at the trial, Ashcroft vehemently defends the doctor (which is kind of like if an American, in 2002, defended an Arab in court), and then is sent home and dies en route. And Davis takes the stand, and eventually says the doctor didn’t do it and he’s freed an everyone goes home. That’s basically the film.
This film could have been good — had it been an hour shorter. At this length, it’s just so long and boring. They count have cut out so much and it could have been watchable. But here — no way. This is like watching Cheyenne Autumn if it were nominated for Best Picture, knowing that John Ford made all those other films. It’s just not something I can even consider. Plus it’s so horribly on the nose I actually am glad a film like this didn’t win. The 80s are just so bad, and this is one of the very few years from the decade that were actually good. Amadeus and Platoon are really the only two really great decisions. So I’m glad this didn’t win.
Places in the Heart — Here’s a film that’s 110 minutes and has filler. I love that. It tells a good, interesting story, and then decides to add filler to it anyway.
Sally Field lives on a farm with her husband and kids. And one day, a young black boy is drunk and accidentally shoots the husband. And the husband dies, and Field is forced to tend to the farm alone. And they tell her she’ll never be able to do it and that she’ll have to sell it, but she says she’s gonna save the farm on her own. And she gathers a motley crew, which includes Danny Glover, a drifter, and John Malkovich, the blind son of the town banker, and together they go and plant cotton in order to save the farm. And there are great moments, like Field bartering to get a fair price for the cotton seed, and the Klan coming to lynch Glover and Malkovich shooting at them despite not being able to see them. It’s actually a strong film. But then there’s this whole subplot with Ed Harris and Sally Field’s sister — and I just don’t get why it’s in the movie at all. It literally feels like filler. And that, I feel, took what would have been a really strong movie (albeit a light one, in the vein of Driving Miss Daisy) and just dilutes it and adds unnecessary fat to it. Not that it should have won either way, it’s just — I don’t really get why they’d do that. Even so, it’s still a good film.
A Soldier’s Story — Now this is a film. I had no idea this film even existed before this Quest, and man, did I enjoy it.
The film is very much a mystery, in a way. It begins with a black soldier being sent down south to investigate the killing of a black officer. No one knows who did it, and the white officers believe the Klan may be involved. And they give the soldier four days to figure out the murder. So he goes down there and starts questioning the dead soldier’s men. And we get flashbacks during each of the interrogations, showing just what conditions were like for them. Basically, the officer (who was light-skinned, and as such carried himself as if he were white, even going so far as to suck up to the white officers) was a real cruel son of a bitch, torturing his men for no good reason. It was almost as if he, a black man, hated blacks. And he made life hell for his men. And over the course of the film, we find out that every single man in his regiment had reason and cause to kill him (though we do find out which one did it). And believe me — Adolph Caesar, who played the officer, deserved to win an Oscar for his performance. Holy shit was he good. And the film is really, really great. His performance alone carries this film. Watch it. You’ll see. It’s so deeply engrossing. It’s a great, great movie. Shouldn’t have beaten Amadeus, but is probably the second best film on this list. It’s just terrific.
My Thoughts: It’s Amadeus all the way. It’s not even close. The film blows everything else out of the water. I’m so glad it’s here, since without it, this decade would have been so much worse (which is saying something).
My Vote: Amadeus
Should Have Won: Amadeus
Is the result acceptable?: Great choice. Maybe not as big a slam dunk in a stronger category, but here — beyond perfect.
Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Amadeus, it won’t be me laughing at you. It’ll be God.
A Soldier’s Story is so, so good. You should definitely see it. Adolph Caesar’s performance is incredible. Trust me on that. This is a film that you probably don’t know about, and you’ll thank me for telling you about.
Places in the Heart is okay. It’s half a good film. The Ed Harris part is filler, but the Sally Field saving the farm with Danny Glover and Malkovich part was entertaining. So it’s worthwhile, just — as an Oscar film, a bit lacking. The film itself isn’t bad, though.
The Killing Fields— others like it more than I do, but I think it’s okay. But it’s definitely a good film by all accounts. You may or may not get more out of it than I did. (I’m not particularly inclined to like those social films, like Hotel Rwanda and things like that. I respect them, but they’re usually just not my cup of tea.)
A Passage to India — how the mighty hath fallen. This is David Lean, a man who made Lawrence of Arabia! He made Doctor Zhivago, Brief Encounter, and The Bridge on the River Kwai! This film — it’s just not good. It’s like 90 minutes too long. Trust me. Watch one of his older movies instead. It’s the better decision.
5) A Passage to India
4) The Killing Fields
3) Places in the Heart
2) A Soldier’s Story