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

1990

The Godfather Part III came out in 1990. Long-awaited final chapter of Coppola’s epic mob trilogy.

Or, elsewhere in mobsters, Martin Scorsese did Goodfellas.

That one’s a classic. Woulda… woulda been nice. Kicking this entry off, talking about Martin Scorsese and his career-defining crime flick. Woulda been real nice.

[Deep sigh]

So Kevin Costner likes him a long-ass western, huh.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Union army lieutenant John Dunbar, after an attempted suicide-by-Confederate that turned into a miraculous Union victory, requests a post on the frontier, and is sent to a remote hut… but the two people who know he’s there end up dead. He bonds with the nearby Sioux tribe, especially Stands With a Fist (President of the 12 Colonies Mary McDonnell), a white woman raised by the Sioux after rival tribe the Pawnee slaughtered her family. But a day comes when Dunbar, known to the Sioux as Dances With Wolves, must make a choice… his new friends, or his own people. It’s not a hard choice. His own people are assholes.

It’s the first western to win Best Picture since Cimarron, one director Kevin Costner and writer Michael Blake spent years trying to make happen. Blake was unable to sell the original screenplay in the 80s, but Costner was in the one screenplay he did sell, and convinced Blake to write it as a novel to improve his prospects. After multiple failed attempts, he sold the novel, at which point Costner bought the rights and made it his directorial debut.

Now you hear that story, and you want to be inspired that after so many roadblocks Blake sold his story, and I guess you certainly can be because it was an immense hit, but statistics tell us that the more likely result is “Well there must have been some reason it was so hard to sell.”

Again, it was a massive success and let Costner write his own ticket for most of the decade, but this movie has some flaws.

First off Costner is bad in it. I’m sorry but it’s true. Especially his voice-over narration. The indigenous cast acts circles around him, including Hollywood’s go-to indigenous actor Graham Green and Stumptown’s Tantoo Cardinal.

Second it’s slow. It’s so slow Dunbar doesn’t get called “Dances With Wolves” until we’re almost two hours in. Yeah I get that it would take time for a white man to win over the Sioux or conquer the language barrier (something that only happens because of Stands With a Fist doing her best to remember English), but that doesn’t make it interesting.

It came at a time when the United States was having a come-to-Jesus moment about their own history and their treatment of the people who lived there first. So the with the exception of Dunbar, the Sioux are presented as much better, kinder, nobler people than the whites. The major who sends Dunbar out to his remote post (Maury Chaykin) is out of his mind. The man who accompanies Dunbar to his hut (Murphy Brown’s Robert Pastorelli) didn’t deserve what the Pawnee did to him but was a bit of a douche. The third-hour conflict is all about scumbag white soldiers picking fights that don’t need picking. White people destroy everything that’s beautiful in this movie. It’s pro-native beyond even what Cimarron managed, and I shouldn’t have to go back to 1931 to find another example of a western that’s cool to indigenous people but I did.

That said. It is still very much a White Saviour narrative, with Dunbar finding the Sioux buffalo to hunt, and being key to repelling a Pawnee war party. And on that note, the Pawnee are there, being as mean and vicious as any Evil Natives from an old-timey western, or in terms of this project Around the World in 80 Days.

…Not gonna lie it is very weird that the last movie I saw with more than one indigenous character was Around the World in 80 Days but here we are. Unless we count Pacific Islanders, in which case it’s Hawaii, and… not much better.

Costner does a better job as director than actor, if not good enough that we don’t need to be mad he beat Scorsese for the Best Director Oscar (that definitely stings). Maybe he needs an external director to help his performance. Or maybe early 90s Costner just wasn’t good. And I guess it deserves some props for taking a shot at colonialism and the genocide of the native Americans, since in the early 90s that was still depressingly rare.

But good lord it takes longer to cover all of this than it needs to. This could have been done in an hour forty-five if someone with an understanding of pacing took a crack at it. Like, maybe we didn’t need two scenes where the Sioux try and fail to steal Dunbar’s horse.

Dances With Wolves made an absurd amount of money. Its international gross demolished most films from the 80s, with the obvious exceptions of E.T., the Star Warses, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Which means that in 1990, it came fourth. This is what I mean about blockbusters getting bigger and bigger; a global cume that was nearly unthinkable a few years back only takes fourth place now. And of course today, if a big tentpole movie makes less than a billion dollars worldwide, someone gets fired.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s way down at #72, over A Man For All Seasons and Chariots of Fire. Good. Good.

What’s The Real Best Picture? Come on. It’s Goodfellas. Obviously it’s Goodfellas.

Having lost some street cred in the last decade, or because 1990 was a little thin on big classics, the year’s actual big hit managed to slip onto the Best Picture shortlist. Or maybe the Academy voters also got junior-high-dance horny watching Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore do erotic pottery.

The Box Office Champ

I mean look at that poster. Pioneer Sexy Halloween Monster Movie Ghost knew what it was selling itself on. That scene where the leads do pottery as foreplay accompanied by Unchained Melody isn’t vital to the plot but hoo golly it packed them houses.

The perfect life of banker Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) comes to an end when he’s killed in a mugging a few hours after finding a mysterious account irregularity at work. Now a ghost (get it, like the title?), Sam watches over his mourning girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore), but finds out that a) he was not killed in a random mugging; b) his best pal and co-worker Carl was in on it because he was embezzling money to pay off drug dealers or something, and c) since Sam locked all the accounts while tracking the error, Molly is still in danger. At first Sam can only watch helplessly, but he gets two boons: first, a medium named Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg), surprised to find she isn’t a fake, gives him an ally in the living world; and much later (just over halfway through), Sam convinces an angry subway ghost (underrated character actor Vincent Schiavelli) to teach him how to poltergeist. Sam hatches a plot to screw with his murderers, one Molly manages to screw up because a police detective (Stephen Root! Love that guy!) convinces her Oda Mae is a fraud.

So we have a lot of genres happening here. We have the tragic and heartfelt love story of Sam and Molly, we have the suspense thriller of Sam vs Carl and Carl’s muscle, and we have Oda Mae providing such effective comic relief that Whoopi won an Oscar for it, and the Oscars aren’t often one to give awards to comedy. That sort of blend of genres can go one of two ways… it can be utterly wonderful like 1999’s The Mummy, or it can be a tonally clashing disaster like 2017’s The Mummy.

Ghost, I can report, is the former. It all works, and it all works together, thanks largely to Swayze, Goldberg, and the increasingly frantic performance of Tony Goldwyn as Carl. The direction by Jerry Zucker… yes, one of the Airplane! guys, who was clearly done with parody… works well, with some ingenious camera moves and reveals, and a tracking shot of Ghost Sam trying and failing to hit his assassin that the two actors clearly had to film separately but syncs up perfectly. I don’t care if the “Sam moves through something” effects have dated poorly, that shot was impressive.

Honestly I’m glad it got a Best Picture nomination, it’s a hell of an achievement. My only note is that Demi Moore is given an utterly thankless role as Molly, who is basically a prop in the fight between Carl and a murder ghost.

Were I to try to do a Hot Takes Discourse, I might dig into how only good people get to be ghosts in this world. Because while the specks of light that welcome you to Heaven seem okay with letting you stay on Earth to try to complete your worldly business, the shadow monsters that drag you to Hell are… more insistent. Which is a mild shame. If Carl’s trigger man, Willy Lopez, had been able to duck Hell for a while, they wouldn’t have needed to introduce “Possessing people drains your Ghost Strength for a minute” to give the climax some suspense, given that a fight between a finance guy and an invisible, intangible murder ghost can only go one way. And maybe we didn’t need to be shown what happens to the bad people when they die before it happens to Carl, maybe the old man ghost Sam meets mentioning that not everyone gets beckoned into a peaceful light was set-up enough.

But all of that said, Sam getting his revenge on his killer was pretty satisfying, and if it had only led to said killer dodging Hell and being able to punch Sam back, it would have been a disappointment, so fine, wandering the Earth in ghostly torment is only for nice people, roger that.

A couple of scenes drag, like Carl quite obviously trying to seduce Molly while Sam, who knows Carl got him killed, sits and watches, but overall? Ghost holds up. The final scene got to me a little. Not, like, E.T. levels of “got to me,” but definitely more than The Deer Hunter or, quite frankly, Dances With Wolves.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Critics only gave it a 74%, which still makes it Certified Fresh, while audiences gave it an 80. Which means that most people preferred Dances With Wolves. Sometimes I don’t get people.

What Should Have–

Wait hold on… getting a call here… you say Ghost was the International champ but not Domestic? Well what managed to–

Domestic

Yeah, I might have known.

Early 90s comedy smash hit Home Alone saw Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) accidentally left behind when his absurdly large family all flies to France for Christmas. While his mother (Canadian icon Catherine O’Hara) desperately tries to get home, Kevin finds his blissful solitude threatened by burglars the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci, just everywhere in the early 90s, and Daniel Stern).

Okay, so, Home Alone might seem like another doofy comedy that history maybe should regret making this big a success. Sure, all the quality “Ingenious kid fights off burglars” stuff happens at the very end, and yes most of it was in the trailer. Sure all of his Saw-esque booby traps only serve to piss off the Wet Bandits and he needs the kindly misunderstood older person to save him, and yes that exact sentence happens again in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, a movie Donald Trump cited in the most unhinged withdrawal from the Screen Actors Guild you’ve ever read.

But as a kid I ate this movie up.

I don’t rightly know how many times I’ve seen it but I didn’t have to look up the main character’s name, I just instantly knew it from memory, and I’m terrible with character names, I had to look up all Three Men with the Baby and I’d literally just watched that movie. And their names were “Mike” and “Peter” and something, not exactly difficult. I had the Home Alone soundtrack and listened to it over and over. I owned the Super Nintendo video game adaptation, despite the fact that it was very clearly more of a game you rented and beat in a weekend. I watched the sequel in theatres, on purpose, knowing that other than some Tim Curry stuff it was going to be basically the exact same movie.

So it’s a kids’ movie is what I’m saying. Kids loved it, adults could enjoy it, because it had O’Hara and Stern and Pesci and John Candy to liven up the non-slapstick sequences.

And if you need more, I leave you with this. Video essayist Patrick Willems has some thoughts on the matter that cover the expert filmmaking involved and throw more praise to Catherine O’Hara.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 67% from critics, another 80% from audiences. Yeah sure. Patrick Willems didn’t make a video defending it because it was a critical darling. (Also they absolutely put the best stuff in the trailer, that’s never great)

What Should Have Won? Society should have appreciated Tremors more when it was in theatres, in which Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward face off against underground monsters. That flick holds up.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Superheroes: So Batman was a huge hit. What did Hollywood follow it up with? The X-Men were more popular than ever, James Cameron was trying to land the rights to Spider-Man, The Flash was debuting on television… but no. None of that. Pshaw to your contemporary super-heroes, said the aged studio heads. Hollywood decided to go alllll the way back to 1930s radio dramas and newspaper comic strips, starting with Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. Which was incredibly stylistic, got Al Pacino an Oscar nomination (which Godfather Part III did not), and frankly I feel I should give it another look.
  • Also Sam Raimi took a spin at superheroes with little-known Irish actor Liam Neeson as Darkman. Also starring… Frances McDormand!? What the what?
  • The Disney Renaissance follows the success of The Little Mermaid with… The Rescuers Down Under. I want to say it’s the first animated sequel from Disney? First in theatres, at least? Anyway America’s fascination with Australia was now in its downswing.
  • Nobody expected Disney to make a romcom about a sex worker but they did and it was Pretty Woman and suddenly Julia Roberts was a huge deal.
  • With Back to the Future Part III, we as a society said “Yes, good, that was a good ending, and we’ve now had the exact right amount of Back to the Future movies.”
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles combined the story of the original comics with the personalities of the cartoon Turtles to make the best possible Ninja Turtles movie. Unequalled five attempts later.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger both got his ass to Mars in Total Recall (which won a special achievement Oscar for visual effects) and did a kid-friendly movie with Kindergarten Cop. Both made the year’s top ten box office.
  • Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan makes his cinematic debut in The Hunt for Red October.
  • Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan did a bunch of romcoms together but the one I’m choosing to remind you of is the pleasantly weird Joe Vs. the Volcano.
  • Cadillac Man is an underrated Robin Williams comedy, where Williams is a used car salesman forced to play go-between with a man who’s taken the dealership hostage, looking for the salesman fooling around with his wife, and the police response. After about an hour Young Me realized that they weren’t going to wrap up the hostage plot and go back to Williams selling cars in amusing ways, this was the movie.
  • Gremlins 2: The New Batch is both an excellent sequel to and delightful satire of its predecessor.
  • If you lived in Australia for a while, dealing with their monster spiders, but aren’t 100% afraid of them yet, Arachnophobia with Jeff Daniels and John Goodman will fix that for you.
  • Jack Nicholson stars in and directs a Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes.
  • If you haven’t seen My Blue Heaven, with Steve Martin as a mobster forced into small town life by his FBI handler Rick Moranis, maybe see to that if you can.
  • Meryl Streep plays the lead in Carrie Fisher’s thinly-veiled autobiography Postcards From the Edge.
  • Parody movies begin their slide from the heyday of Airplane! to the depressing depths of Disaster Movie with The Exorcist parody Repossessed, starring Leslie Neilsen, Exorcist star Linda Blair, and Return of the Killer Tomatoes star Anthony Starke. I was always a little sad his career didn’t take off like his co-star George Clooney. Anyway I’m not in a rush to rewatch this one.
  • The Coen brothers make Miller’s Crossing and the world is better for it.
  • Troll 2 was so legendarily bad they eventually made a documentary about it.
  • Tim Burton inspires a thousand romances for 90s emo kids with Edward Scissorhands.
  • Fans of the podcast How Did This Get Made will want to note the release of Jason Mantzoukas’ beloved running gag Jacob’s Ladder.
  • Awakenings was blatant Oscar bait starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro but more importantly featured the cinematic debut of one Mr. Vin Diesel.

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