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

1995

Remember 1966? Best Picture went to A Man For All Seasons and the Box Office Champ was Hawaii because what else was there? Welp. Welcome to 1995.

This year above all this decade backs my reading of big, classic art movies being thin on the ground this decade. 1995, even at the time, felt like the Academy picked a shortlist while shrugging and saying “I guess?” Like… “Okay, fine, the talking pig movie, I guess, if that’s what we’ve got.”

I also feel this is the most divided the major awards have been on their Best Pictures. Ang Lee directed Emma Thompson’s screenplay of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which took the Critics’ Choice Award, the Golden Globe for Best Drama, and the BAFTA. The Producers, Directors, Screen Actors, and Writers Guilds all favoured Apollo 13. And Babe the pig got the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical.

So it seemed only the Oscars liked Scottish Spartacus.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Okay let’s get this said. Mel Gibson is Hollywood’s poster child for “Aw come on, give the guy another chance.” Gibson’s been in some decent movies, but he’s said some horrible things, and I’ve been given little reason to believe that’s not how he thinks. But no matter how many times he gets caught saying something vile, he seems to get another shot. He got a Best Director nomination four years ago, reopening the whole “Do genius and madness walk hand in hand” debate like Steven Spielberg and Greta Gerwig don’t exist.

(Greta Gerwig hasn’t, like, praised Pol Pot’s agricultural policies or anything since I wrote this, has she? Probably not. Hopefully not.)

For the kids in the bleachers, “cancel culture” is something the right wing endlessly complains about when they’re the only ones actually doing it. Gibson hasn’t even suffered the worst career consequences of actors who played Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon, for Pete’s sake.

Anyway, Braveheart. Gibson’s biopic of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace, who led a rebellion against British king Edward I, aka Edward Longshanks, and in death finally, finally convinced Robert the Bruce to unify the Scots against their oppressors. Didn’t take. The worst enemy of the Scots was always the other Scots. But it’s a nice story while it lasts.

So when a friend first demanded I watch this, stunned I hadn’t yet, I said “From what I hear, the first hour is all build-up and the third hour is all torture,” to which he said “Ah, but that second hour!” Now, I wasn’t entirely fair. It’s forty hours of build-up and maybe 20, 25 minutes of betrayal and torture at the end. And in between there are a couple of good battle sequences (one much more satisfying than the other) and some decent speeches, and an okay montage of Wallace continuing to inspire Scottish resistance even without the lords behind him. It’s okay? I can see the appeal to certain mindsets? But it’s a lot of movie.

I’m not surprised the BAFTAs gave this one a pass. It is very anti-British. Between Longshanks being so over-the-top evil that he makes Bond villains look reasonable, his son the future Edward II being portrayed as weak and ineffectual in a definitely homophobic way, and the whole primae noctis thing which most reputable historians consider a myth, the film was accused of being Anglophobic, which isn’t a word you hear often but given most of the previous millennium maybe it should be?

Also it was not concerned with accuracy. In fact it was called one of the most historically inaccurate movies in living memory not so long ago. Gibson had his preferred visual of Scottish warriors in blue face paint and kilts, even though the 13th century was 1000 years too late for the former and 500 too soon for the latter. There was not a language barrier between the King of England and France, as the official language of the British court was still French at that point. And Longshank’s daughter-in-law definitely didn’t have Wallace’s baby, unless Wallace babies took seven years to gestate.

So you can’t look at it as a biography, not really. Gibson has abandoned painting an accurate portrayal in favour of just making something exciting to watch, not unlike how The Greatest Showman threw out or made up so much about its subject they may as well have just invented a protagonist instead of claiming this was based on the life of P.T. Barnum. Except The Greatest Showman was at least more fun.

I do find Braveheart interesting as a precursor to two later Gibson films. The way he makes us bear witness to every bit of Wallace’s painful death is a small taste of what he’d bring to his 2004 torture porn flick The Passion of the Christ. The gory battle sequences and story structure of “one act of backstory, one act of visceral battle, one act of torment for the hero” would return in full force for Hacksaw Ridge. But since unlike Wallace, Hacksaw’s Desmond Doss died of old age, the visceral battle act comes at the end in that one. Which, honestly, preferable.

And it’s not like there’s any follow-up to this we could holy crap there’s a sequel. Robert the Bruce. A recent sequel. Like “came out during COVID” recent. Admittedly the only person from Braveheart who worked on it is the actor who played Robert, reprising the role in a story of Mr. the Bruce’s more successful attempts to overthrow the British for a minute, but it is considered a sequel just the same.

Further signs this was just a weak year for Best Picture nominees? Braveheart only picked up five Oscars: Picture, Director, Cinematography, Makeup, and Sound Mixing, the one they normally throw at a blockbuster. Sense and Sensibility is the only other Best Picture nominee to win a major Oscar, Adapted Screenplay. Not one acting Oscar went to any of the Best Picture nominees.

An off year. A very off year. But I once again posit that the studios had noticed Merchant Ivory movies didn’t pay the bills and weren’t putting a lot of effort into prestige pics.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s down in the “Maybe this was a bad call” ghetto with Forrest Gump at #82, four spots over Forrest and just above Terms of Endearment. At this time I would like to renew my objection to Gentleman’s Agreement being at 81.

What Should Have Won? A very promising young screenwriter named Christopher McQuarrie, currently making the best action films you can find, put out The Usual Suspects. Won a screenplay Oscar for it. Maybe that was worth a closer look. And there was a perfectly serviceable Scorsese they didn’t even nominate. I’m not saying Babe didn’t have charm, but come on.

It was kind of an off year for box office, too. The international champ made just over half what The Lion King pulled in, and somewhat north of a third what Jurassic Park did. There were fewer big gaps, though… only $30 million separates the number one movie at the international box office from #6, compared to $300 million between Forrest Gump and True Lies.

So there was no runaway hit, but it’s not like there just wasn’t anything worth seeing like 1966. In fact, we have some solid frontrunners here.

The Box Office Champ

I didn’t mean for John McClane to be side-eyeing Buzz Lightyear but I’m not mad about it.

Domestic: Toy Story

Toy Story was Pixar’s big entry into feature films, and yeah, I guess you could say it worked out for them. Let’s dig into it a little.

No I’m not going to talk about animation quality of 1995 vs today, what kind of monster do you take me for, people are allowed to improve over time.

Much like Snow White was a prototype for the Disney Princess brand, so too does Toy Story serve as a prototype for Pixar. What’s that? You want examples? Oh I gots examples. And I’m not talking about the Pizza Planet truck, we all know about the Pizza Planet truck.

Human stories about things that aren’t human. Sure this one’s not a hard, fast rule, as Up, The Incredibles, and Soul (mostly) are all primarily about humans, even if some of them are super. But a lot of classic Pixar is based around fantasy creatures and inanimate objects getting into adventures that lead to extremely relatable personal revelations. Or the exact plot of Doc Hollywood. In this case, your toys are alive! Simple premise that led to an utterly classic trilogy and also the fourth one.

Simple thing is very hard. A lot of Pixar movies’ climaxes, or entire stories, come down to needing to do something very simple (put a plant in a scanner, get a girl through a door, in this case get Buzz back in the house), but encountering a mounting stream of increasingly frantic obstacles. That’s on full display here: things for Woody and Buzz spiral quickly once we hit the second act. It’s a decent hook: it keeps Pixar movies (and one Mission: Impossible) moving.

Want Vs Need. This isn’t a Pixar thing, it’s just good storytelling: give your character a want that they chase after, and along the way realize that what they need is quite different. It’s happened to Rey, Captain Kirk, Jesse Custer, Oliver Queen, and to a lesser extent Spider-Man, it just so happens to happen in most Pixar movies. Except Finding Dory and maybe that’s why that one fell flat for me? Woody wants to be Andy’s #1 toy, but that’s not what he needs, and it’s a want he’s actively punished for. It’s certainly a less mean want-vs-need resolution than Onwards, I mean I get what Onwards was going for, but damn.

That’s a pretty winning formula. The oddity of your characters is the hook, “simple thing is very hard” provides reliable mounting action, and their delivery of want vs need typically provides a powerful and moving conclusion. Pixar typically knows what they’re doing, save for the fact that nowadays they try to keep things simple. Easy to translate into Chinese.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: A 100% from critics. 100%. That’s unadjusted. You don’t see many of those. Audiences gave it a 92% but whatcha gonna do, people are weird.

International: Die Hard With a Vengeance

Die Hard With a Vengeance was number one internationally, but only number nine domestically, barely cracking $100 million. It made almost three quarters of its money overseas, while Toy Story made over half of its cume in the US and Canada. Didn’t expect John McClane to be the one who travelled well this year.

Die Hard became a genre. The simple premise of “Ordinary cop is stuck in a place, must fight elite bad guys” spawned imitators for decades… we had Die Hard on a boat (Under Siege), Die Hard on a bus (Speed), Die Hard on a train (Under Siege 2), three different Die Hards on planes (Passenger 57, Executive Decision, and Air Force One), and decades later, two actively competing Die Hards in the White House: White House Down and the worse reviewed but far more successful Olympus Has Fallen, which spawned a trilogy of movies about Secret Service agent Mike Hasfallen (that was his name, right?) defending American democracy from non-specific Koreans, middle eastern terrorists, or Blackwater-style private military.

Which is the thing about Die Hard imitators. They always forget the “regular cop” part. Off-brand Die Hards almost always have some ex-special forces guy with magic violence powers as their lead. But John McClane was not an elite supercop in the first Die Hard, he was just a schlub trying his best in impossible circumstances. Of course all action franchises must grapple with escalation, so by the fourth movie he basically has superpowers, but that’s just a consequence of spending multiple movies doing bigger and bigger stunts against cunning masterminds. People don’t buy you’re Joe Average anymore.

But we’re not here to talk about how Live Free or Die Hard lost the plot, or how A Good Day to Die Hard is an absolute embarrassment. No, we’re here for Die Hard With a Vengeance, which is my absolute favourite Die Hard including the original come at me.

Vengeance solved the sequel problem of Die Harder, which was trying to replicate the original to the point where they had to do a lampshade hang about it. Vengeance says “Look maybe he doesn’t need to be stuck in a building at all.” No, McClane is running all over Manhattan trying to stop an apparent mad bomber with a secret agenda.

Vengeance did its best to re-ground McClane after two movies of big stunts fighting elaborate heists. We join him at a very low moment: after giving him an LAPD badge in Die Hard 2: Die Harder to show he and his estranged wife Holly had reconciled since Nakatomi Tower, he’s back in New York, hasn’t talked to Holly for a year, is suspended from duty, and fighting a hangover. It takes him a minute to get back in the swing of things, and needed help for the intellectual challenges.

Also, while they’ve dropped the entire supporting cast of the first two movies, they give him a new partner in Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus, a civilian caught in the plot because he tried to do the right thing, and the two of them play amazingly off each other. The addition of Zeus combined all the things we love about Die Hard (minus the claustrophobia) with what we loved about Lethal Weapon, and it works like gangbusters. His line “I stopped a white cop from getting killed in Harlem. One white cop gets killed today, tomorrow we have a thousand, all with itchy trigger fingers,” lands pretty well here in the ACAB era. Because after all, racism and US policing are fraternal twins. (That said, accusing the black guy of being the real racist is a bad take, black men have never needed reasons to distrust white cops.)

And they build a decent supporting cast out of McClane’s precinct: his captain, other detectives (including Graham Greene), and Charlie the over-enthusiastic explosives expert who gets his own hero moment. I’d say it’s a pity none of them came back for the fourth one, but that would involve me caring about the fourth one, and I have not yet managed to do that.

What about the villain, you hypothetically ask? Who could live up to Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber? Well it is a tall order, but since you asked, (I assume), the answer is Jeremy Irons. As we discussed with Lion King, Jeremy Irons gives great villain, and he excels as Hans’ brother Simon, out to make a fortune and screw with the guy who dropped his brother off a building. Sure, “Oh no it’s [villain]’s previously unmentioned sibling” can go very wrong, but in this case, I find it makes Vengeance a better follow-up to Die Hard than Die Harder’s “same thing happens to the same guy twice” approach. Simon’s possibly my favourite 90s action villain, and he’s only a voice on the phone for the first 47 minutes of the movie.

Well that’s a lot of words. Suffice to say, I really dig this movie, I’m glad overseas audiences agreed with me.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 59%!? Oh screw you, critics, this movie is a delight.

What Should Have Won? If I’m naming a favourite blockbuster from 1995, it’s either this one or Goldeneye.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Superheroes: After Batman Returns was deemed (with cause) too dark, Joel Schumacher takes the franchise in a new direction with Batman Forever. It’s trash, it’s the worst one, the way they write Two-Face is unforgiveable. But with time and perspective, I now feel it doesn’t work because he didn’t take it far enough. It’s a half-measure between what the franchise was and what he wanted it to be.
  • Also Sylvester Stallone gave comic book movies a try with Judge Dredd, which hinged itself on replicating the white-hot chemistry Stallone had with his Demolition Man co-star… Rob Schneider. If that sentence doesn’t tell you how well it turned out, let’s just say “not well.”
  • This Year in Bond: Legal battles concluded, Pierce Brosnan debuts as 007 in Goldeneye. It’s one of the best ones, and also features Judi Dench’s debut as M, a casting that would outlast Brosnan and survive a full reboot.
  • This Year is Scorsese: Casino is kind of just Goodfellas again but Goodfellas was really good so why not?
  • Al Pacino and Robert De Niro share the screen together for the first time (having had no scenes together in The Godfather Part II) in Michael Mann’s Heat.
  • The Disney Renaissance began its gradual decline with the controversial Pocahontas.
  • We’ve been tracking international vs domestic box office for a while here, but foreign markets became more important to studios than ever in 1995, as Waterworld became the most expensive movie ever made, and needed every dollar it could get.
  • David Fincher makes a splash with Seven.
  • I doubt Richard Linklater knew he was starting a four film saga with Before Sunrise, but it surely happened. I’ve never watched them, but people keep demanding he check back in on the central couple, so there must be something there.
  • TV stars Martin Lawrence and Will Smith combine sitcom shenanigans with big action in Bad Boys, the feature directorial debut of Michael Bay. We’ll come back to him.
  • Proving that Hollywood has to chase every possible hit with a knock-off, there’s a rival “Scottish hero opposes the British” movie, Rob Roy with Liam Neeson. The BAFTAs prefer it to Braveheart if nothing else. Two movies about famous Scotsmen, leads played by and Australian and an Irishman, seems off.
  • 1995 was way too early to do a biopic of Mike Tyson, just way too early.
  • Crimson Tide was almost as bad at putting the whole movie in the trailer as Free Willy, but less successful. Well, it made slightly more money but had fewer sequels.
  • Mortal Kombat is, like, 70-80% faithful to the video game it’s based on, and somewhat successful at the box office? Is this the best video game movie?
  • Robert Rodriguez brings the action of El Mariachi to Hollywood, replacing his lead with Antonio Banderas in Desperado. Quentin Tarantino has a cameo in it. He and Robert are Friends now.
  • Aaron Sorkin experiments with the lives and loves of White House staff in the presidential romcom The American President. He might have a future in this.
  • Cutthroat Island, an attempt by Renny Harlin to make his wife Geena Davis into an action star, bombs so hard it damages multiples careers and kills pirate movies for over a decade.

Next Page: Disasters personal and global

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