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

1992

Okay, so, we’ve got one big award-winner and one colossal box office success that changed the game for a genre in one key and possibly problematic way, both approaching “hearts of gold” from opposite directions. One is about a thief who’s a diamond in the rough, the other posits that nobody has a heart of gold when you get down to it.

Let’s start with the one trying to deconstruct its director’s breakout roles.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Clint Eastwood deconstructing the genre that made him famous. Oh yeah, that’s the sweet Oscar stuff right there.

When a drunk ranch hand cuts up a prostitute’s face, then he and his pal who didn’t stop him receive only a fine, the rest of the brothel offer a $1000 bounty for their murders, something that irritates aggressive sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman). Former outlaw William Munny (Eastwood), his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and rookie would-be tough guy the Schofield Kid (some guy*) come to town to collect the bounty, putting them at odds with Little Bill’s ruthless “no assassins” policy. But it turns out murder is hard to do and harder to live with, old west gunfights were not as glamorous as the stories, and violence leads to violence. Nobody walks away clean, nobody is forgiven.

*I know I said “I named everyone else so I’m naming him too” last time but that guy won an Oscar, this guy did guest spots on TV until he quit the game, so screw it.

William Munny walked away from outlaw life 11 years ago thanks to the love of a good woman, but she died of smallpox three years back, so when the Schofield kid shows up with exaggerated stories of bad men and a legit story of a $1000 bounty, it seems worth getting back in the game. If this movie were made today, Eastwood would be playing The Man With No Name or Josey Wales or Frankie Silverado or one of his iconic roles, because in his hands Munny plays like one of his old characters pulled out of retirement for one last job. And I feel confident that the studio would push that angle, because “older version of the iconic character that made him famous leaves retirement to go on one last mission” perfectly describes Logan, James Mangold’s Old Man Wolverine dystopic future western. But here, it’s Eastwood closing the door on an archetype, not a specific character (he did wear his boots from the TV show Rawhide to bring his western career full circle, though).

The “exaggerated stories” part is important, because Unforgiven is all about demystifying western tall tales and stereotypes, and nowhere is that more clear than Little Bill’s encounter with well-known gunfighter English Bob, played by Richard Harris. As a kid, I did not understand why the marketing made such a big deal about Richard Harris, because he got one scene where he was a slick pistoleer, then Little Bill kicks the stuffing out of him and then he barely talked until he left the movie (he had a few more lines than I remembered). Now I understand that he was a big name, so fine, put him on the poster even though his only role in the plot is to be Bill’s cautionary tale to assassins. But the far more interesting character is English Bob’s biographer, W.W. Beauchamp (the great Saul Rubinek).

Beauchamp has been writing books about English Bob’s exploits, calling him “The Duke of Death,” but Bill (who insists on pronouncing it “Duck of Death”) was actually around for a bunch of them, and sets the record straight. He takes these tales of a legendary fighter defending a lady’s honour and defeating seven men single-handed, and reveals that the true story was a drunk Brit taking a shot at a rival out of jealousy and only winning the fight out of luck. Beauchamp is used as an audience surrogate to pull back the veil of how ugly old west street violence was. Because that is the movie’s thesis: stories of the Wild West have gotten blown up so much, but it was never as cool or glamourous or pretty as the movies told us. Murder is an ugly business, even if they do “have it coming.” The ugliest deaths, of course, come to people who utterly did not have it coming, be they one of the targets or one of the supposed protagonists.

Not that I’m about to sing the praises of misunderstood Little Bill, no. He suggests to the brothel’s madam that the assailant who maimed a woman’s face and his colleague are “good boys who made a mistake,” which is depressingly still a very relevant ugly moment for a law officer. And there is no good way to depict a white authority figure whipping a black man. No, Little Bill is a vicious bully, and the “law and order” of his town is built like the house he’s building for himself: crooked and full of holes.

Unforgiven isn’t a happy movie, but it’s a mostly compelling one, and has multiple scenes I could spend twice as long as this unpacking. The only thing I’m confused by is the bookend text narration, which is mostly focussed on Munny’s late wife’s mother. The opening text works fine, it succinctly and poetically tells us that Munny was a man of violence, but he found love and put it all aside, and his wife was lost not to violence (domestic or otherwise) but to smallpox. This shapes Munny’s character for the whole movie, trying hard to stay the man his wife made him despite planning two killings. The end one, in which his mother-in-law visits her daughter’s grave but Munny and the kids are all gone, and she never understands why her daughter chose this man… that one I don’t fully get. Weird end-note.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s at #25, under The French Connection but right over The Silence of the Lambs. Seems right, if anything it’s aged surprisingly well in places. It speaks to police brutality, violence against sex workers, and how “he’s a good boy who made a mistake” is still seen as a legitimate excuse for violence against women.

What’s The Real Best Picture? I mean I personally prefer A Few Good Men but I can’t back that argument in a debate. On that note, the year this won the Oscar I had to do a proper debate in English class, defending the book The Ox-Bow Incident, and I used this movie as an argument. I lost that debate. Pretty hard. So not gonna win this one either.

Unforgiven won Gene Hackman basically every acting award, and got Clint Eastwood his first directing Oscar, something he’d written off as a possibility for… well, kinda unpleasant reasons. What Unforgiven failed to do was make it into the year’s top ten box office. Because you see, in boxing parlance, the Disney Renaissance threw an elbow, and started a whole new world.

The Box Office Champ

Cartoons didn’t really do celebrity casts before this.

Sure James Stewart and Orson Welles made their final appearances in Fievel Goes West and Transformers The Movie, but those are outliers. Where Disney is concerned, The Rescuers had Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, the sequel added John Candy, Oliver and Company had Billy Joel, and The Great Mouse Detective had Vincent Price as its villain, but Disney movies didn’t sell themselves on celebrities. Nobody was going to Beauty and the Beast to hear David Ogden Stiers as Cogsworth. The Little Mermaid started the Renaissance without a marquee name to be found.

And then came Aladdin, which as anyone knows, prominently featured Gilbert Gottfried as Iago the Parrot. Oh and also Robin Williams as the Genie, in full-strength Robin Williams mode. Doing impressions that imply Aladdin either takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, or that the Genie can see through time. And before long, every Disney movie needed some comic actor in a support role. Danny DeVito in Hercules, Eddie Murphy in Mulan, and most lamentably Jason Alexander’s wisecrackin’ gargoyle in Hunchback of Notre Dame, the personification of that film’s massive tone problems.

But the Hunchback gargoyles aren’t why Williams as the Genie was problematic. No, it’s because now animated movies needed Big Stars just as much as other tentpoles. If you don’t know who Tara Strong is, look her up. She’s been doing voice work in popular cartoons and videogames for decades, she’s amazing, and I’ve seen her name prominently displayed in the credits once, one time, in Teen Titans GO! To The Movies, a big-screen adaptation of a kids’ cartoon that kept its TV cast but surrounded them with celebrity cameos. You don’t see Tara Strong on the marquee because she can’t book Rapunzel or Anna or other contemporary princesses, because those roles are going to Mandy Moore and Kristen Bell and Sarah Silverman.

Is Disney solely to blame for big time celebrities taking all the voice acting gigs? No. The same year Robin Williams also did Ferngully: The Last Rainforest for Fox (to Disney’s annoyance) alongside Christian Slater, Tim Curry, and Cheech and Chong. Things were headed in that direction. And even now, Disney might not cast nobodies as leads (except arguably the title role of Moana but now we’re into “indigenous actors aren’t famous because Hollywood wrote one role for a native Hawaiian and gave it to Emma Stone” territory), but they’re not as aggressive about stunt casting as Dreamworks. But Aladdin being a smash hit thanks to Robin Williams going all-out as the Genie certainly hit the gas on the process.

As for the movie itself? Well parts of it earned that “this contains racially insensitive material” warning Disney+ slapped on it, and it’s off-putting that the most provocatively dressed or sexualized Disney princesses are all princesses of colour, but other than that… yeah, it’s fun. Robin Williams is great and the animation pairs nicely. After so many years of Disney and Pixar doing “the person you thought you could trust is the secret villain” and “the villain isn’t actually a villain” bits, it’s nice to revisit a proper Disney villain like Jafar again, so confident in his wicked ways. Aladdin refusing to free the Genie having instant consequences when Jafar steals the lamp immediately afterwards works well as a wants vs needs moment. But you need to use your third wish to put the djinn back in the bottle, djinn are dangerous, saying otherwise is irresponsible.

Oh… and I don’t think it started here, it probably goes back to Little Mermaid or earlier, but can I take a minute to complain about the radio edits of Disney songs? They take a song that was sung in-character during the movie, then have some pop singer do it under the credits to sell it as a single, and I hate it, I don’t understand why they still do it.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 95% from critics, 92% from audiences, those are some A+ grades.

What Should Have Won? I want to go with Batman here but Burton went hella dark this time out.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Superheroes: Batman returns in Batman Returns, which starts the unfortunate trend of “Well you can’t have just one villain in the movie.” It makes it to number three at the year’s domestic box office, behind Aladdin and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, but only number six internationally, passed by Basic Instinct and Lethal Weapon 3. Tim Burton Batman movies didn’t travel well. Don’t know why.
  • Reservoir Dogs introduces the cinema world to Mr. Quentin Tarantino. He’s a little fond of the N-word but his movies are still a ride.
  • Further south, Tarantino’s future brother from another mother Robert Rodriguez gets attention with his low-budget cult hit El Mariachi.
  • Francis Ford Coppola tried to make the Universal movie monsters into Oscar-bait prestige pics, starting with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Someone once tweeted “Weird that none of the stars of Bram Stoker’s Dracula have noticeably aged in thirty years, probably nothing to worry about.”
  • Aaron Sorkin’s play A Few Good Men comes to screen and gets a Best Picture nomination thanks to director Rob Reiner, stars Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, and an Oscar nominated turn from Jack Nicholson. I like this one, it’s clever.
  • After losing the Oscar in both Godfathers, Al Pacino beats some significant competition for Best Actor with his over-the-top performance in Scent of a Woman, and then clearly says “Hey, if that’s what you’re into” for the next stage of his career.
  • If an acting textbook ever included a chapter on “Phoning in a genre movie after you win an Oscar,” surely Anthony Hopkins following Silence of the Lambs with the Emilio Estevez vehicle Freejack would be a case study. Still would be a better hockey team name than the Ducks, though, if we were determined to name an NHL team after a 1992 Estevez movie.
  • Wayne’s World is the second… and last?… actually good movie based on a Saturday Night Live sketch.
  • No Stephen King movie adaptation has ever, ever been less faithful to the source material than The Lawnmower Man. I think they only used the title and his name.
  • Joe Pesci’s My Cousin Vinny remains a top courtroom comedy.
  • Noises Off brings an all-time great farce to the screen with a top notch cast.
  • Brain Donors is a remake of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera that still basically works? John Turturro is the Groucho.
  • Alien 3 is the first to prove that maybe the 80s’ best sci-fi/horror franchises (Alien, Predator, Terminator) should have stopped at two. Director David Fincher would move on to better things.
  • Harrison Ford replaces Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan, taking on rogue Irish terrorists in Patriot Games.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns a cheerleader into an action hero. I dunno, might work better on TV.
  • The early 90s made a couple of tries at making Great Man Biopics out of genocidal monster Christopher Columbus, one from Ridley Scott and one that was the final film of Superman producers the Salkinds. Both received terrible reviews (the Salkind one did worse, including some saying it was Marlon Brando’s worst performance) and bombed hard. Good. Good.
  • David Lynch tries to give us closure on his cult TV show with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, but he’s David Lynch, so it raises more questions than it answers.
  • Sneakers is an early cyber heist thriller with Robert Redford, Sydney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, and Ben Kingsley, and it might not have aged super well, but I love it.
  • White saviour movie The Last of the Mohicans was no Dances With Wolves in terms of awards or box office.
  • The first movie anyone names when asking if Al Pacino really should have won Best Actor is Malcolm X with Denzel Washington.
  • Kevin Costner defends Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. It was kind of a big deal, I guess.
  • “Don’t spoil the twist” hits a new high in pop culture with The Crying Game. The twist didn’t stay hidden past the Oscars, it’s the only thing people know about that movie. Also that it’s woefully transphobic.
  • The Muppet Christmas Carol is enjoying a renaissance as a holiday favourite. Which I’m two months late reporting on.
  • Robert Downey Jr.’s take on the Tramp in Chaplin garners more Oscar buzz than Jack Nicholson as Hoffa.

Next Page: Everything’s coming up Spielberg

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