The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1983

1983 is another one of those weak 80s decisions. It’s not horrible, it’s just — not ideal. But considering the pile of shit we got in the 80s, this year’s not as bad as some of those other ones.

Terms of Endearment is probably not a film that should win Best Picture. But it did. It also won Best Director for James L. Brooks (talked about here), mostly because the person who should have won Best Director (Philip Kaufman) wasn’t nominated. It also won Shirley MacLaine her long overdue Best Actress Oscar (talked about here), and won Jack Nicholson a somewhat unfair Best Supporting Actor Oscar (talked about here). MacLaine needed to win, Jack didn’t. Putting him in Supporting is like putting Meryl in Supporting — it’s just not fair to everyone else. Best Actor this year was Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies (talked about here). Not the best performance, but he was so due by this point it didn’t matter. And Best Supporting Actress was Linda Hunt for The Year of Living Dangerously (talked about here). She plays a man in the film. And nobody notices. I rest my case.

So, 1983 could be worse than it is. I think of it as more effective than anything. It got Shirley MacLaine her Oscar. It got Robert Duvall his Oscar. And Best Picture — meh. I guess it’s okay. I still say The Right Stuff was a far better film, though.


And the nominees were…

The Big Chill (Columbia)

The Dresser (Columbia)

The Right Stuff (Warner Bros., The Ladd Company)

Tender Mercies (Universal, AFD)

Terms of Endearment (Paramount)

The Big Chill — I was really surprised at this one. I knew of the film, I sort of had it as one of those quintessential “hangout” films of the 80s. Or rather, one of those films with big casts of famous people, like St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club. I knew nothing about it, and yet I had that sort of preconception of it. But then I watched it — and all of that just went away. What a film this is.

It begins with a group of people coming to attend a funeral (fun fact, the body is Kevin Costner, who was completely cut out of the film), all of whom used to be close in college but have since gone and lived their own separate lives. And they all come and stay at one house for the weekend, and we basically see them catching up. And that’s the film. You don’t need any more than that. It’s just great. Stuff is revisited, stuff comes out, things happen. Don’t worry about it. Watch the movie. It’s amazing. It really is. I’m so glad it’s here, because it totally deserves it.

The Dresser — This film is essentially a play. It surprised me at how much of a play it was, and how it somehow managed to be nominated here. This seems like a film that’s better-suited to acting nominations and a writing nomination. I guess it’s because the year was so weak.

The film is about Albert Finney as a brilliant Shakespearean actor. On stage, no one compares to him. However, off-stage, he’s a fucking lunatic. He’s literally insane. He is the craziest person in the world, and we see him freaking the fuck out between acts and being corralled and calmed down by his assistant (played by Tom Courtenay). It’s a weird movie, a gloriously over-the-top performance by Finney, and a really solid movie to watch. Courtenay, I’ll also say, I felt gave the better performance simply because Finney got to have the big flashy role, but Courtenay had to back him up and make him look good, and he was with him every step of the way. Anyway, while I did enjoy this and it was good — it shouldn’t be here. It’s literally a play. Voting for this in this category is basically like voting against cinema. I can’t do it. I can’t vote for what is essentially a play on screen.

The Right Stuff — This movie might be the definition of badass. How badass is Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager here?

The film is about the first astronauts. We start with Chuck Yeager attempting to break the sound barrier, and then we segue into the first space missions, and we see NASA being started and the astronauts training, and we see John Glenn and people get sent on the first Apollo missions, and then we cycle back to Yeager being a badass. It’s just a great film. All around, this is the best film on this list. I don’t know what it is with the Academy and space movies (Apollo 13 twelve years after this), but they just won’t vote for them. It’s weird that this is actually one of the only “movies” on this list. Cinematically-speaking. I mean, Terms and Big Chill and Tender Mercies do feel like movies, but — not in the way this does. I just think that’s weird, how theatrical 1983 is.

Tender Mercies — You know the movie Crazy Heart? Well that movie was trying to be this movie.

Robert Duvall is an alcoholic country singer who is trying to avoid his life. He’s basically hiding out at a gas station with a woman and her kid, avoiding fame. People come and recognize him and he says he’s not who he is — he just wants to sever all ties with his past. Mostly because he was a terrible drunk and did some bad things. And we see him trying to redeem himself in way, like, he goes and tries to sell a song to his ex-wife (who is now a huge country singer), and you think that’ll be his big song that’ll bring him back on top, meanwhile her manager is like, “Nobody listens to that stuff anymore.” And then he reunites with his daughter — it’s one of those movies. Quiet, low-key. Good movie. Strange to see it here, though. It seems like the product of a weak year. Then again, it’s a film I’d expect to see here, so it’s more one of those films that, in a strong year, is just, “Okay,” and in a weak year, only serves to make the year look even weaker. So that’s what it does. Shouldn’t have won, basically a filler nominee. Kind of the way The Reader was a filler nominee.

Terms of Endearment — Everyone knows about this film. I don’t think everyone’s seen it, but they know about it. This is like, the quintessential “weepy.” When I was growing up, the weepies you’d bring up were this, Steel Magnolias, and maybe Bridges of Madison County. Those were the films. Now people bring up The Notebook. I usually avoid those people. Anyway — I knew all about this film, yet absolutely nothing about it. I knew nothing that was gonna happen when I put it on (well, I knew the end, obviously, but otherwise, nothing).

The film is basically about a mother-daughter relationship. You get a nice picture of it in the very first scene, when Shirley MacLaine (the mother) brings home her daughter from the hospital, and she’s sleeping in her crib peacefully, and Shirley goes, “She’s not breathing,” and panicked, climbs inside the crib to see if the baby is breathing, and then the baby wakes up and starts crying because she was woken up. She’s a very stifling mother. And the baby grows up to be Debra Winger. And she marries Jeff Daniels and they move away and start a family. And we see the two of them have their issues, and also living their lives. Daniels starts having affairs, and then Winger has one of her own, and then confronts him, and there’s all that. And then MacLaine starts sleeping with Jack Nicholson, a retired astronaut who lives next door to her who parties all the time. And eventually everything comes to a head at the end with the illness and all that. It’s one of those films that I’m watching, going, “Yeah, this is good, I’m enjoying this…. oh, oh, now they’re gonna transition to that. Oh, yeah, I can see where they’re going with this. They’re gonna turn on the tears.” And then they turn on full melodrama at the end, and, I’ll tell you — I knew it was coming, and this movie still destroyed me. The two scenes in the hospital, when Shirley MacLaine freaks out about giving her daughter the morphine and then the goodbye to the kids — man, I lost it.

This is one of those movies where — that end is so strong that it’ll make you forget everything else and say, “Yeah, I gotta vote for that one.” These movies do that. That’s what happens with the Oscars. They cry and get emotional and they just vote for that movie. I’m not saying that was a bad thing, since, from this list, this is one of the top two movies. So it’s not like voting with their hearts was a bad thing in this case (not like it was in 1980…). But I just think it’s interesting how, if I weren’t emotionally destroyed by the last act of this movie, I don’t think I’d consider this a contender to win Best Picture. I’m not even sure if I liked the first 2/3 of this movie all that much before it happened. I don’t. I don’t remember what my feelings on it were. If it was strong, if it was just okay. I have no idea. That’s how strong this third act is. You stick with it (and you have the capacity to feel), it’ll get you. There’s a reason this has the reputation it has.

My Thoughts: This is somewhat tough for me, since I love Terms, I love The Big Chill, and I love The Right Stuff. But to me — The Big Chill is too laid back and hangout to win (while I do love it the most, I am somewhat cognizant of the “Academy” and do, if I can, try to make a decision that fits with what I like and what is classically a good fit with the Academy). Terms, to me, is just a solid melodrama, and is really worth the acting awards more than it’s worth Best Picture. And since I love The Right Stuff, and it works as a classical Best Picture winner, I’ll vote for that.

My Vote: The Right Stuff

Should Have Won: Hmm, either The Right Stuff, The Big Chill or Terms of Endearment.

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah, it’s okay. Not great, but look at every year in the 80s except ’84, ’86 and ’88 — this is okay.

Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Terms of Endearment, you need to get on it. It’s essential.

If you haven’t seen The Right Stuff or The Big Chill, we’re not friends.

The Dresser is a decent film. Albert Finney is batshit crazy, and it’s pretty funny. That alone makes it worthwhile. Trust me. He really is batshit.

Tender Mercies — okay. Decent film. Not everyone will like it. But it’s okay. Worth a watch.


5) The Dresser

4) Tender Mercies

3) Terms of Endearment

2) The Right Stuff

1) The Big Chill

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