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

1993

I asked back in the 70s if any director had a better year than Mel Brooks the year Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein took number two and three at the box office, then said yes and that we’d get to it.

We’ve gotten to it.

It’s 1993 and it is all about Steven Spielberg.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Okay, crank the music, let’s cover this one to the tune of, I’m thinking, Hyperactive by Thomas Dolby.

Kidding, I am kidding. I mean can you imagine.

I’m pretty sure I don’t need to spend a lot of time on the plot here. In the One Good Great Man Biopic, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is convinced by accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to save people from the Holocaust. Get ready for a no-holds-barred look at one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities.

One of. We are a flawed species sometimes.

Okay. So. I feel like the best way to approach this one is to cover why Schindler’s List works as a Great Man Biopic where so many others fail.

1) Nuance in the characterization. Gandhi never made its title character a full person, it just wanted to cover his actions while showing him as pure and noble. When we meet Schindler he’s throwing money around to get his photo taken with prominent Nazis, making friends so he can cash that in for favours in pursuit of getting rich. A goal he chases by exploiting the Jewish population, who have money but can’t own businesses or leave the ghetto other than for work. We’re halfway through the movie before saving people for reasons beyond his own convenience even starts to be his priority. Before that, it’s Stern who’s trying to pull people out of the camps with both hands. And even after Schindler begins to change, he’s still a shameless womanizer, which almost gets him sent to prison (kissing Jews in public was… frowned on).

1.5) Also it takes a while for Schindler to see the situation for what it is. He’s convinced that sadistic Kommandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) isn’t really that bad, the war just brings out the worst in people. Whereas we can see he’s an absolute monster and that Schindler just doesn’t want to think bad of his drinking buddy. Still, his faith in Goeth having a good side does help bring the number of random executions down a bit.

2) Schindler isn’t the whole story. Yes, Schindler’s efforts (and great personal expense) save over 1,000 people, but the people he’s saving are made characters just as much as Schindler and Stern. Spielberg isn’t just trying to say “This guy was neat-o!” like The Imitation Game or The Darkest Hour, he’s exposing the horrors of the Holocaust in ways visceral (everything Goeth does) and subtle (workers sorting through luggage the owners won’t be needing, piles of photographs of lives ended). The ways people tried (and failed in brutal fashion) to hide from relocation. A paperwork snafu sending Schindler’s women and girls to Auschwitz, where they’re convinced their mandatory shower is their final moments.

It’s a parade of horrors that Spielberg never flinches away from, and he makes you see the victims as people in a way their tormentors never did. The King’s Speech didn’t do that. This is driven home by the end sequence, which features the surviving “Schindler Jews” alongside the actors who played them. Here’s the little girl with the glasses who thought she would die in Auschwitz due to a clerical error; here’s the boy who tried to hide in the latrine, only to be told “get out, we’re hiding in this pit of excrement;” here’s the cabaret singer-turned-maid Goeth beat for making him horny. Here are the real lives that suffered under the Nazis but were kept alive by Schindler and Stern.

3) There’s no Big Star chasing an Oscar. Sure Ben Kingsley’s in there, and he was already Ben Kingsley, but Liam Neeson’s only big lead role at that point was Darkman. Ralph Fiennes had some some TV credits and two movies nobody saw. Schindler’s List made stars out of Neeson and Fiennes, and the only thing weird is that Fiennes wasn’t boxed into villain roles by the sheer evil he put into Goeth. I mean he does get villain roles, and he gives great villain, but he was never confined by the role like poor William Atherton was by Walter Peck from Ghostbusters. Watching this we’d never have guessed that 20 years later Neeson would be an action hero and Fiennes would be doing comedies (very well) and be M in three Bond movies. Neeson and Fiennes both got Oscar nominations, but Neeson lost to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Fiennes to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive of all things.

I mean The Fugitive was a great movie, just a perfect suspense thriller start to finish, and Jones was brilliant in it, I’m just, I’m just saying.

The performances aren’t showy, save maybe for Schindler’s breakdown at the end, lamenting how many more he could have saved if he hadn’t frivolously thrown so much money around earlier. That scene’s still killer, even if Seinfeld felt the need to parody it with Judge Reinhold.

Judge Reinhold Tangent Incom–

Kidding, still kidding.

4) Most importantly… It has something important to say. Now more than ever. And that is when evil is being committed by your country, you do what you can, you save who you can, even if it never feels like enough.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s at #23, right over The French Connection and you might not like what’s right over it. I told you the mid-20s were a cluster of 90s prestige movies. But honestly I’m surprised it’s that far down: if a movie’s out of my top 20 here, I’d expect to be able to say something bad about it, and other than “it’s intensely hard to watch at times” I have nothing, and I don’t think that should count because it’s supposed to be hard to watch.

What’s The Real Best Picture? Nope, nope, not this time, move on, move on.

Must have been tough selling Universal on this one, it’s not what you’d call a crowd-pleaser. They didn’t know it would ultimately come in fourth at the year’s international box office (9th domestic). But it might have helped that he said “Don’t worry, I’ll also make you more money than you thought was possible.”

Because Spielberg didn’t just take the Oscar, oh no. No no no. He also needed to smash box office records. He needed all the directing crowns. That… sounded judgemental. Didn’t mean it to. Because I’m not kidding. He’s Steven Goddamned Spielberg. He needs all the directing crowns.

The Box Office Champ

Jurassic Park, readers, The New Grand Champion Biggest Hit of All Time Unless You Factor In Inflation In Which Case It’s Still Gone With the Wind Damn Those Roadshows! Internationally, it didn’t just come first, it outgrossed the second and third place movies (Mrs. Doubtfire and The Fugitive) combined.

A smash hit novel, Spielberg directing, next-level visual and practical effects bringing dinosaurs to (inaccurately featherless) life, yeah, that right there is a recipe for a smash hit. I’d have let Spielberg make anything he wanted in exchange for this one too.

Nearly two decades after Jaws, Spielberg still absolutely knew how to put together a suspense sequence. I’d need more space than I have here to break down everything that works about the t-rex attack or evading the raptors. The shots involved are absolute classics. I do want to give one specific shoutout to Spielberg: he knows exactly what a powerful tool in his arsenal John Williams is, but when the t-rex attacks Grant, Malcolm, and the kids, he says “John, take five, the dinosaur has this one,” and it works perfectly. The tension is, if anything, boosted by the lack of score.

The one thing I most want to flag here is how of all Jurassic Park movies, Steven Spielberg best handled here the two very different reactions the characters, and via them we in the audience, have to dinosaurs: awe at their majestic beauty, and terror at the possibility of being eaten by one. By the third movie, those are very awkwardly juxtaposed, but here they both land perfectly.

Is it perfect? No. The science is off… we now know dinosaurs had feathers, and raptors were the size of chickens, and only one of those inaccuracies can be blamed on the frog DNA of it all. Also of course a t-rex can see you when you don’t move, that assertion fell apart so fast even author Michael Crichton was denouncing it in the book’s movie-influenced sequel. A different, douchier paleontologist says no predator’s vision would be based on motion, and dismisses Grant not getting eaten with “If it had eaten anything larger than a goat, it probably wasn’t hungry,” and also debunks the clone raptors being skilled pack hunters, as they lack an older generation to teach them how to be raptors.

And where on Earth did that cliff come from after the t-rex shows up?

But honestly who cares. Nitpick culture has gotten far too devoted to trying to be smarter than the movie. These are all things you notice later: in the moment it’s all perfectly thrilling, the cast is fun, and it gave us Come Hither Jeff Goldblum.

Ladies.

Anyway it holds up.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 91% from both critics and audiences, meaning it was slightly more popular with critics but slightly less popular with audiences than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

What Should Have Won? Look we’ll come back to this bit next page, okay? Obviously this wasn’t the year for it.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Superheroes: The single best Batman movie… a feature length outing for the classic animated series, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. It’s basically perfect. I have to move on but Patrick Willems can explain.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Action Hero had the misfortune to open one week after Jurassic Park. Meaning it got trampled. Meaning it even lost at the year’s box office to Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger, which you had forgotten existed until just now. This is a shame, as writer Shane Black and director John McTiernan’s satirical homage to 80s action flicks is better than you remember.
  • Harold Ramis directs Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the comedy that became a genre.
  • Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer star as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in the incomparable Tombstone.
  • There are two important things to know about Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. 1) Tim Burton did not direct it; 2) it’s amazing.
  • Demolition Man is incredibly dumb for several reasons and I love it utterly.
  • Harold Ramis directs Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the comedy that became a genre.
  • Hollywood gets into John Grisham adaptations as legal dramas become the new hotness with Tom Cruise in The Firm and Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief.
  • Kim Basinger loses a civil suit with the makers of Boxing Helena and is ordered to pay $9.6 million in damages for bailing on the movie. The concept of Good Taste never gets around to filing a countersuit against the people who thought Boxing Helena was a good idea.
  • Super Mario Bros. is the first movie based on a video game, which made the curious choice to throw out everything from the game but the character names. It was an unmitigated catastrophe.
  • I think I enjoyed cop-movie send-up Loaded Weapon 1, the first starring role I can name for Samuel L. Jackson, when I saw it in on video, but it’s another step down from the madcap genius of Airplane! to the “Hey remember this scene from that movie” so-called “humour” that parody movies sunk to. They even make an extended joke about how star Emilio Estevez’s brother had been the lead of Hot Shots!, whose Rambo-themed sequel (which I recall as funnier than Loaded Weapon 1) also came out this year.
  • Harold Ramis directs Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the comedy that became a genre.
  • Sam Raimi completes the Evil Dead trilogy with Army of Darkness, which is a confusing jumping-on point for anyone who missed the first two and is just watching it to see the star of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. just saying
  • The Three Musketeers borrows heavily from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, down to having an end-credit song by Bryan Adams and remaining the best movie with those characters between now and at least the 70s.
  • Falling Down is about an angry, abusive man lashing out at the parts of society people don’t like, and if it’s aged well at all I owe you a Coke.
  • Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story ends with Lee fighting what seems to be the personification of a curse on his family, before it can target his son Brandon. By the time the film came out, Brandon had been killed on the set of The Crow. So… sour note to end on, really.
  • Harold Ramis directs Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the comedy that became a genre.
  • For some reason Free Willy was a commercial success despite putting literally the entire story, every twist and turn and that final money shot of Willy jumping to freedom, in the trailer. No trailer has ever spoiled its movie quite so thoroughly.
  • Mel Brooks was so mad at Kevin Costner’s accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that he made Robin Hood: Men in Tights to take pot-shots at it. He had to… borrow some jokes from his earlier movies.
  • Hong Kong action director John Woo comes to America with Hard Target, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.
  • Roberto Benigni also attempts to break out in America in Son of the Pink Panther, from original Pink Panther director Blake Edwards. Doesn’t go great.
  • Quentin Tarantino wrote True Romance, and it shows, but Tony Scott directed. That wouldn’t happen often.
  • Harold Ramis directs Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the comedy that became a genre.

Next Page– Look you have to make that Groundhog Day joke, I don’t make the rules.
Next Page: How Green Was the 20th Century’s Valley

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