Art Vs Commerce: Rise of Oscar Season (90s)

1998

Nothing gets as big as Titanic without facing some backlash. Some say (as in that Lindsay Ellis video I embedded but you skipped, for shame) that in the wake of its success, the battle lines between Art and Commerce got redrawn even harder.

Perhaps that’s why the domestic Box Office Champ was the Oscar frontrunner then lost at the last minute, leading to a then-ultra-rare case of Director and Picture going to different movies.

Or maybe it’s something more insidious. Or both! Who knows. Let’s get into it.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Okay let’s get this part out of the way up front. I loved, loved this movie. I was moved by every passionate look between doomed lovers William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes, Ralph’s prettier but less successful brother) and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), I laughed repeatedly at the comedy beats, I was utterly swept up in every part of this story. It helps that a) I’m a lifelong theatre kid, so all of the wink-nudge reference jokes landed perfectly; b) I’m in theatre so the making-of-Romeo and Juliet setting and its commentary on the theatrical process delighted me ; and c) more than that, this is about a beautiful woman who falls for a writer because he writes well, and man that is the dream. I loved this movie so much that I considered its victory to be an apology to me for Titanic beating L.A. Confidential. (Okay look I know I still prefer Confidential but I was being too mean to Titanic, a movie I’d judged despite not having seen it until the day after it won.)

But you know what I didn’t care for at all? Saving Private Ryan. Sure it’s impressive from a technical standpoint, Spielberg cashing a paycheck for Ready Player One is better than most directors get, and this was Spielberg trying, so yes it’s well-shot, but I found it narratively wanting. A lot of the Big Scenes fell flat for me. Adam Goldberg getting slowly, painfully stabbed to death just made me so mad at the whole movie that finding out it was Spielberg’s big “America knew about the Holocaust and did nothing” scene didn’t help it at all. Nothing in Saving Private Ryan got to me even as much as Ben Affleck’s entrance as bombastic, egotistical actor/director Ned Alleyn.

But I was not in the majority on this. Saving Private Ryan was the presumed favourite, and a big hit for Spielberg. Not his biggest this decade by any means… in fact it was even $84 million domestic behind Hook… but the industry really thought this would be a second Schindler’s List for him. From the beginnings of Oscar Season (yeah, we’re in that now) all the way to the moment he won his second Best Director Oscar… then at the last second Shakespeare in Love pulled an upset. And the late-90s Film Discourse was… upset.

So is Lindsay Ellis right? Was it backlash against a Hollywood hit? Saving Private Ryan was one of the year’s biggest, while Shakespeare in Love only cracked the top 10 internationally (probably the British boosting that one). Well… maybe, but that doesn’t quite make sense. Shakespeare in Love has far more in common with Titanic. There’s even a near-identical doomed romance between a poor artist and a woman of standing who’s been forced into marriage to a cruel bully with Upper Class Entitlement in place of a soul (Colin Firth losing another wife to a Fiennes brother, playing it well enough I distrusted his characters on sight for years). The only differences are that this time he has the fancy title and she has the money, and also Will does have that wife in Stratford-on-Avon which is a complication. More than that, Saving Private Ryan is trying to make a Big Statement about how war is ugly, while Shakespeare is only saying that even when it’s doomed, love is pretty great. So it’s hard to see Shakespeare beating Ryan as some big statement about Art standing up to Big Blockbuster.

No, the answer here seems to be Harvey Weinstein.

I definitely still like this one more than Saving Private Ryan and I will never, ever, apologize for that, but Weinstein chased awards with all the uncomfortable aggression he brought to harassing actresses, and in the late 90s Miramax’s campaign engine was at the height of its power. While I wasn’t privy to anyone’s voting choices or strategies, it’s not hard to imagine that maybe Shakespeare in Love benefited more from Weinstein forcing the cast into an awards campaign of unprecedented scale while simultaneously running a smear campaign that Saving Private Ryan was only impressive for 15 minutes, than voters deciding they preferred this exquisite, funny, passionate, heartbreaking period romance over Spielberg’s brutal, visceral war film.

(It’s also not hard to picture Weinstein being the reason this movie didn’t get a PG or PG-13 rating. Look I think nudity is perfectly valid used well and sure it arguably is here, but I’ve seen the stage adaptation twice, we didn’t see Viola’s breasts either time, and we missed nothing. From what we know of the man, that feels like Weinstein’s influence.)

But I still dig it. The chemistry between Fiennes and Paltrow absolutely crackles every time they share a screen. The supporting cast, from Geoffrey Rush as theatre owner Henslowe, to Tom Wilkinson as the moneylender who becomes the show’s producer, to Rory’s dad from Doctor Who as a stuttering actor, to yes Judi Dench, winning an Oscar for eight minutes of screen time as Queen Elizabeth. Even Young Affleck does okay with it. No wonder the one warning sign it might beat Ryan was picking up the SAG Award for Best Cast. The comedy works, the final act is appropriately gutting, it’s good, it’s a good movie that had the misfortune of being produced by a monster hungry for prestige, power, and the perks society taught him come along with them.

(It did do fellow playwright John Webster dirty, though. Filthy little snitch John Webster.)

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s at #51, right between Patton and The Sting. Lower than I’d put it but right below The Sting feels accurate.

What’s The Real Best Picture? If you’re waiting for me to yield and say “Fine it was Saving Private Ryan” you are in for a long wait. No, it’s Elizabeth, the royal biopic with Cate Blanchett giving a magnificent performance as Elizabeth I. It shared two cast members with Shakespeare in Love, playing absolutely different characters. Geoffrey Rush was comic relief in Shakespeare, but cold, calculating, and a little scary in Elizabeth. Joseph Fiennes was our dashing, charismatic lead in Shakespeare, and a cowardly poncy fuckboi who sells out the woman he loves in Elizabeth.

Technically the movie that earned the most money in 1998 was Titanic, since 13-14 of its 15 weeks at #1 happened in ’98, but we’re talking in-year releases, so what movie(s) actually released in ’98 were on top?

The Box Office Champ: Domestic

Saving Private Ryan played well in the US, but got nudged out oversees by its runner-up at home. Maybe it didn’t travel great because of it’s insistence in ignoring every other country that was fighting in the D-Day invasion. Remember The Longest Day? There were a lot of armies participating. Eddie Izzard even did a bit about this.

As we covered earlier, I didn’t like this one. Once the D-Day sequence wraps, yeah, it lost some appeal. The Big Moments did not land for me. Arguing whether to execute a German solider or show mercy, then (if I understand correctly) having said mercy be actively punished? If I wanted to learn that war punishes the righteous, Platoon did it better. Trying to show the visceral horror of war? Other than the opening (which I want to decry as tacked-on and irrelevant to the narrative but it introduces the squad in action so that’s not gonna fly), honestly it’s done better in All Quiet on the Western Front and the much more recent 1917. And neither slapped on a typical “One squad of US troops holds back an entire unit of Germans” story. I will say it did the violence of Omaha Beach better than The Longest Day but also barely touched on how that went down. And the “America ignored the Holocaust” scene did not land for me.

Now feels like a good time to mention that as domestic/international splits become more common, I am not always going to rewatch both. I mean, as you might have noticed, we’ve been less concerned with hitting every Box Office Champ since the 30s.

Because screw Eddie Cantor and double screw Cinerama Holiday.

And frankly, our second contender brings up a different topic I want to get into.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 93% from critics, 95% from audiences, beating Shakespeare and Love’s 92 and 80, so maybe it is just me? Whatever, don’t care, I will also die on this hill.

International

And I don’t know about you, but Armageddon out of here!

Okay, readers, let’s talk Michael Bay.

Say what you want about Michael Bay, but he definitely has a signature style. One that critics might not care for at all but is consistently popular with audiences. The way he lights, or uses colour, that spinning telephoto shot in the video above, creating a sense of heightened drama in every scene through frequent cuts, constantly moving cameras, and epic scores. A style that distinct isn’t something every director can claim. Martin Campbell has directed my two favourite Bond movies and I can’t name a single signature aesthetic of his. Nor is Bay’s style something just any yokel action director can do: I know this, because the summer after The Rock Simon West directed Con Air, and the entire time I was watching it I was struck with the realization that he was trying to be The Rock, but just not getting there.

Beyond his camera and colour techniques, Bay has some frequent thematic elements that show up time and time again. Let’s see how they come to play in this movie, which as a refresher is about a group of deep-core drillers led by Bruce Willis tasked by NASA to fly to a massive asteroid so they can drill to the core and shove in a nuke, blowing it apart and preventing the death of all life on the planet.

First: the military is always Good, government bureaucrats are always Bad. Nowhere is this trend more clear than Bay’s Transformers series, each of which has minimum one government bureaucrat who doubts Optimus Prime and it never goes well, in contrast to Josh Duhamel as the always-noble soldier guy who maybe had a name but I forget. Now that doesn’t quite come into play this time, as the military damn near screws the whole thing up and kills Earth, but only because weak-stomached government bureaucrats were telling them to. No, in this case, lifetime drillers Harry (Willis), and his apprentice AJ (Ben Affleck), the blue collar workers, know best while the suits in Washington keep screwing up.

Second: male lead starts weak, learns to be strong. The prototype is The Rock’s Stanley Goodspeed, but the primary example is of course Sam Witwicky in the first three Transformerses. Here it would be AJ, who we meet getting chased through a deep-sea oil rig by Harry with a shotgun when he’s caught having slept with Harry’s daughter Grace (Liv Tyler). In the end, it’s AJ who gets that hole dug in the asteroid.

Third: lots of comic relief side characters. Lots. This reaches its most annoying apex in the first Transformers, which I described as feeling like every bit part in the movie was trying to polish their tight ten for open mic night. In Armageddon, they pick up a Russian cosmonaut (the always delightful Peter Stormare) who’s a little crazed from isolation, and Steve Buscemi’s character gets “space dementia” so that no matter how dire the climax gets, he’s still giving wacky quips.

(Yes all roads lead to Transformers, they are nearly a third of his filmography.)

Now as to Bay’s shooting style? Well, he has a lot to play with. The opening sequence has small asteroids shredding New York, pelting landmarks like Bay was mad about not getting to make Independence Day. His kinetic style helps breathe some life into the first half of the movie, which after New York gets hit is mostly the drilling team training to go into space. They do a series of training sequences while I say “how’s that 18 day countdown to extinction going” and critics put their hands up saying “Wouldn’t it be faster to teach astronauts to work a drill” like the text of the movie didn’t make a clear statement that no it wouldn’t. (Again, the text says “they can’t both get on the floating door,” that outranks all the research you put into the size of the door.) So yeah, a little frenetic camera work making every scene feel big, expensive, and Important… to the point where it’s hard for any scene to feel big or important… helps get us through that and back into Big Explosion Disaster Movie territory.

Or in other terms it gets us through the part of the movie without Peter Stormare until Peter Stormare can show up and improve things.

Is it perfect? No. It’s easy enough to poke holes in the movie that from what I’ve heard, Ben Affleck’s DVD commentary is a satirical legend. Everyone’s The Best At What They Do. Everything’s so dramatic the climax barely stands out (but the very end did get to me). Buscemi going crazy felt like a waste of some perfectly good Buscemi. And the training sequence eats up a lot of movie with the smallest number of explosions, more than “Harry needs to trust AJ’s instincts and accept his daughter’s choices” required.

But it’s never boring, the cast is fun, as Michael Bay films go it’s definitely top half. If you can roll with Bay, you should have an okay time.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 38% from critics, 72% from audiences. To quote Epic Rap Battles of History’s video in which Spielberg, Hitchcock, Tarantino, and Kubrick argue who’s best while throwing shade at Michael Bay, until Bay shows up to hit back…

I give the people what they love while the critics say I’m evil.
No time to read reviews while I’m working on the sequel.

What Should Have Won? Honestly? Aside from Saving Private Ryan, this was as good as it got. The late 90s got rough for blockbusters. We were really putting our hopes in Godzilla and if I’m honest it let us down.

(Sidenote 1: a street vendor killed by space rock in New York was hawking Godzilla merch, seemed like a shot at their competitor.)

(Sidenote 2: as we discussed earlier, the common thought, expressed in the play Matt and Ben, that Matt Damon was The Artist and Affleck was The Movie Star surely was helped along by Damon moving on to Saving Private Ryan and Affleck doing this.)

(Sidenote 3: to prepare to analyse Armageddon, I watched Patrick Willems’ two-part series on Michael Bay as an American Auteur, and I’d recommend you do likewise.)

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Superheroes: They say Batman and Robin and Steel killed the genre, but no genre ever dies forever, and also when a genre does get “killed” there’s probably one or two other movies in the genre already in production, so this year sees Wesley Snipes massacring vampires as Blade. It is the most successful Marvel Comics movie to this point. (Don’t bother saying “What about Men in Black,” Marvel later bought the publisher that made Men in Black, that doesn’t count.)
  • Wes Anderson makes his first big splash with Rushmore. I do wish I could spend as much time on Wes Anderson as I just did on Michael Bay, not doing so feels wrong.
  • Elsewhere in disaster movies… the makers of Independence Day make the first American Godzilla. They sell it as “bigger than Jurassic Park,” but also knock that movie off so hard they add raptor-sized baby Godzillas because they wanted a raptor sequence. It manages third place internationally, but only ninth domestic, and is not well remembered.
  • Eddie Murphy starts in the most successful Dr. Dolittle movie ever made.
  • Disney once again only makes the top 10 in the international market with Mulan. It’s better than Hercules and doesn’t have Hunchback’s tone problems but maybe audiences were a little over the Disney engine at this point.
  • Hollywood can’t have just one of a movie, so of course there’s a rival asteroid movie, Deep Impact. This one is less about heroic attempts to save the world and more about “We’re boned, now what,” so no wonder it’s the less successful one.
  • Nor could there be just one WWII movie: Terrence Malick shows up with The Thin Red Line, which I have no intention of watching, because Tree of Life did not endear me to man’s style. The Oscars were all WWII and Queen Elizabeth that year.
  • Jim Carrey tries to break out of comedy with The Truman Show. The Golden Globes liked what he did, the Oscars went with Roberto Benigni for his “Holocaust in Italy” movie Life is Beautiful.
  • Crude comedy auteurs Peter and Bobby Farrelly hit their high point with There’s Something About Mary. They’ll never be that good again, and yes I’m aware one of them has an Oscar now, I stand by what I said.
  • Maybe he did the international Box Office Champ and co-won a SAG award in the Best Picture, but sources agree: Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms.
  • Somebody let the Spice Girls do a movie in the style of the old Beatles movies, Spice World. I tried to watch it once. Didn’t get far.
  • Writer/director Jake Kasdan adapts Sherlock Holmes into the modern day with Bill Pullman as detective Daryl Zero and Ben Stiller as his long-suffering assistant Steve Arlo in The Zero Effect.
  • The Coen Brothers release The Big Lebowski, and even if you haven’t seen it you know multiple memes based on it. Also watch it.
  • Tommy Lee Jones reprises his Oscar winning role from The Fugitive in U.S. Marshalls, which was decent, but since Marshall Gerard was now the lead and title character maybe the guy he’s chasing this time (Wesley Snipes) didn’t need to be wrongfully accused? I dunno. I could do a Fugitive/U.S. Marshalls double-header at some point, see how they’ve aged.
  • Someone let Carrot Top star in a movie. It’s Chairman of the Board and I regret mentioning it already.
  • The Man in the Iron Mask is a “Three Musketeers but much older” movie that almost but didn’t quite unseat Titanic at the box office. Which would have meant Leonardo DiCaprio being the one to unseat Leonardo DiCaprio. The middle aged Musketeers are all well cast, there’s that.
  • Steve Martin gives drama a go in the David Mamet suspense flick The Spanish Prisoner.
  • Is The X-Files the first time a TV show gets made into a movie while it’s still airing? Or was that Batman The Movie?
  • Patrick Willems thinks you should know about The Mask of Zorro.
  • Marvel gets beaten to the punch for movies called The Avengers by a big screen adaptation of the British spy series of the same name, with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman as John Steed and Mrs. Peele. It is such a disaster.
  • Hollywood hits on the formula of “Pair Jackie Chan with a funny American” in the highly successful Rush Hour.
  • Dreamworks animation has its first go-round of releasing a worse version of whatever Pixar’s doing, as Dreamworks’ Antz is seen as a poor competitor to Pixar’s A Bug’s Life.
  • I want to say that the parody genre, which began with classics from Mel Brooks and Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker, dies an undignified death with Wrongfully Accused, again starring Leslie Nielsen because that’s what he could book. I want to say that. But no. It gets… even worse.
  • Gus Van Sant does a remake of Psycho, where he attempts to recreate every shot from Hitchcock’s original. Who was the helping, Van Sant? Who was this for? Who needed colour and a Norman Bates that definitely masturbates to enjoy Psycho? Why on Earth would you

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