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

1996

Okay, so, I promised you two things as a result of blockbusters pushing prestige pics out of the spotlight. First, a sort of scrambling to find Best Pictures when the studios gave up on arthouse movies. We saw that the last two years, as Forrest Gump and Braveheart walked away with the top honour. Braveheart especially, because the awards industry was clearly floundering last year. Second… the dawn of Oscar Season, and For Your Consideration campaigns of attrition from Miramax.

Well guess what it’s time for.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Full disclosure: before starting this project, The English Patient was my very least favourite Best Picture winner, and yes I’ve seen Crash. But I watched it again, and paid attention rather than playing video games with this movie in the background, and I did it for you, readers, for you. You mean the world to me.

Is it still my least favourite? No. But not because I’ve found new appreciation for it, simply because I’ve learned there were worse. Looking at you, Cavalcade. I’m not mad but I am very disappointed.

Short version:

In the closing months of World War II, a French Canadian nurse named Hana (Godzilla’s Juliette Binoche, the only person to win an acting award for this), whose loved ones keep dying in combat, asks permission to take an ailing patient to an abandoned monastery to make his last months more comfortable than shipping him around Italy. Said patient’s two-person plane had been shot down in 1939, leaving him horribly burnt and claiming amnesia. While Hanna tends to him, we see flashbacks to his life. He’s Hungarian Count László Almásy (Skyfall’s Ralph Fiennes, playing a real person Michael Ondaatje borrowed for the fictional novel this is based on), and before the war got going, he was a desert explorer in Egypt who had a passionate (sometimes) affair with Katherine Clifton (Mission: Impossible’s Kristen Scott Thomas), wife of fellow explorer and British agent Geoffrey Clifton (Kingsman: The Secret Service’s Colin Firth). Almásy at first shows Katherine nothing but disdain, but despite being married to a spy played by Young Hot Colin Firth, she goes for it, and they have an affair until Geoffrey tries to kill all three of them by crashing his plane on Count Steal-Yo-Girl.

Which only kills him but creates circumstances that gradually kill his wife and eventually kills the Count, so… well done, I guess?

Also Aquaman’s Willem Defoe is there as a Canadian spy named Caravaggio, codename “Moose” (goddamn, Ondaatje, was “Beaver” too on-the-nose?) who lost his thumbs because of, in a very roundabout way, something Almásy did, and Hana eventually has a brief romance with Lieutenant Kip (Lost’s Naveen Andrews), a Sikh bomb disposal expert.

And that last paragraph is my first complaint. Apparently the novel goes into greater detail on Hana and Kip and Caravaggio’s arcs, but the movie (already bloated at two hours forty minutes) skims through it to put all the focus on Count Von SnootyPants and Katherine’s affair, and without ever having read the novel, I could still tell that. Caravaggio feels at best half-formed as a character, and I could absolutely tell that a whole bunch of Kip/Hana scenes were missing, because the end of the movie (which falls short of earning the term “climax”) makes a big deal out of their relationship, which existed for three whole scenes. Wish I could be surprised that the white lady’s romance with the brown guy got cut short so they could spend more time on Fiennes and Thomas, but I am annoyed.

Second complaint… I really don’t care about Count GrumpyPants and Katherine, I just don’t. I think in an earlier post (maybe talking Love Story?) I mentioned video essayist Sarah Z’s discussion of LGBTQ+ fanfic, and her assertion that cishetero couples never have to justify why they’re together. We just assume that the two pretty white people of differing genders will end up together, and the film feels no need to explain why these two fall for each other. And that is what happens here. Is it just that the Count spends his time with Gentleman Desert Explorers, and Katherine is the first woman he’s seen in a minute? He’s a dick to her at first, what attracts her to him? I don’t get it, I’m not on board with Count StealYoGirl’s need to possess Katherine, which means I don’t care about so much of this movie.

So why did it win the big prize? Am I just some random grump who didn’t get it? I wouldn’t say so, there’s an entire Seinfeld episode devoted to mocking this movie. I have four words to explain how it took Best Picture (and Best Costumes despite having serviceable-at-best costume design).

Executive Producer Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein’s push for prestige was now in full force, and with the industry still short on great prestige pics (Best Picture competitor Jerry Maguire was pretty good, buuuut…), he was able to talk everyone but the Critics’ Choice Awards into lobbing the big trophy at this languid, half-assed adaptation of a much richer novel.

I feel Weinstein’s involvement also explains why Kristen Scott Thomas had to get naked repeatedly but Ralph Fiennes didn’t. Weinstein is a bad, bad man.

Still don’t like this one. And I tried, readers, I tried.

Here’s a Twitter thread. I still do those sometimes.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Down at #71, over Dances With Wolves but under The Life of Emile Zola. Fitting. Good call. I’d probably put it over Dances With Wolves just for being 20 minutes shorter and having a lead who can act.

What’s The Real Best Picture? Fargo. The Coen brothers’ quirky kidnapping flick is far more beloved and inspired a fantastic TV series. It also won Frances McDormand her first Oscar. Or failing that, Danny Boyle’s addiction drama Trainspotting. That’s better than English Patient by almost any metric.

The Box Office Champ

Aw yes, now this is what I am talking about, 1996.

Boom, the Disaster Movie is back! It’s back so hard that a difference of under $8 million at the domestic box office is all that came between me and having to discuss this and tornado movie Twister, which is good, because I don’t want to have Twister takes other than “Having a plucky independent team of tornado chasers trying to stay one step ahead of the greedy corporate tornado chasers felt a little ridiculous.” (Internationally, it was a blowout, Twister was still second but it wasn’t even close.)

…Okay you could also make the case for Jurassic Park being a disaster movie, and The English Patient was a disaster of a movie (rimshot), but Independence Day feels like a more pure strain.

All it took to revive that early 70s genre for the late 90s was a massive increase in scale. Instead of disaster striking one plane or cruise ship or towering infrastructure, we have a global alien invasion laying waste to major cities, because before 9/11, watching major landmarks and the cities they’re in getting obliterated was something we did for fun.

It matches elements of the 70s disaster movie. There’s a big cast of familiar names playing characters at all levels of the crisis, led by Will Smith, Bill Pullman, and a perfectly used Jeff Goldblum as the solider, the president, and the scientist. (I wanted to call Pullman’s fighter pilot-turned-president Tom Whitmore a blend of Harrison Ford from Air Force One and Maverick from Top Gun but if anyone’s Maverick here it’s Will Smith’s Stephen Hiller.) There’s Randy Quaid as the drunk pilot trying to keep his family safe, Vivica A. Fox as Hiller’s girlfriend trying to find him in the ruins, Harvey Fierstein as someone fun Goldblum can do exposition to, and Judd Hirsch reliably killing it as Goldblum’s father. There’s love and laughs and tears, as befitting a disaster movie we lose people along the way, people we’re cued up to like.

There are solid arcs for multiple major characters, the comedy lands, the cast is great, President Whitmore’s big speech still works for me, I was repeatedly more moved by this dumb explosion movie than anything that happened in The English Patient, and the fact that The English Patient won Original Score at the Oscars instead of David Arnold’s amazing work here is an actual crime against the concept of music. That one is even worse than Patient winning Best Costume Design for “they wear scarves sometimes.”

Sure some of Fox’ dialogue plays like “What a white man thinks a black woman talks like,” but only a couple of lines. And you could complain that the alien fleet is brought down by malware, instead of realizing that the alien systems were already compatible with human satellites so why shouldn’t it be possible, or you could just appreciate the War of the Worlds reference of a virus stopping the invasion and understand that this is another case where trying to be smarter than the movie is less rewarding than just going with it.

As Lindsay Ellis said in her video comparing this 90s alien invasion movie to the post-9/11 War of the Worlds… “It is dumb as a bag of rocks, and it is one of my favourite movies, I love it.” Wise words, Ms. Ellis.

Also he very clearly says “Welcome to Earth,” not “Earf.”

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 67% from critics and only 75% from audiences!? Y’all need Jesus.

What Should Have Won? I watched this three, maybe four times in theatres and loved it every time so I don’t think I’m the guy to say it was overvalued at the box office.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Superheroes: Billy Zane plays King Features newspaper strip hero The Phantom, and that sentence screams “This movie will tank” now, but I’m confused why it sounded like money in the bank then. I should also mention Barb Wire with Pamela Anderson. And now I have, let’s move on.
  • Hollywood couldn’t even let just one studio make a volcano movie in the 90s, so of course there’s another alien invasion movie. It’s Mars Attacks! from Tim Burton and honest to god I don’t know what to tell you about it, except that being the second one released did it no favours. There’s also the smaller scale The Arrival with Charlie Sheen, which I saw in theatres and remember nothing about.
  • Wes Craven’s meta horror/comedy movie Scream starts a new wave of horror movies, and a new trend. 70s/80s horror flicks did not think they needed a “whodunnit” element with the killer.
  • The single best Star Trek movie with the Next Generation cast is First Contact. I was dispatched by my friend group to acquire tickets to opening night. On my way back, my car got lodged deep in a snow bank. Not one person I was getting tickets for helped me dislodge it, despite me hiking back to campus to ask for help before returning to my car. That has nothing to do with the movie but I am still a little mad.
  • Michael Bay fully makes his bones as an action director and recent Oscar winner Nicholas Cage gives action movies a go with The Rock.
  • Baz Luhrman, best known for Simply Ballroom, makes a splash in the US with Romeo + Juliet.
  • [Finds note] Don’t cry for Webber’s Evita, it managed to win an Oscar. Just for the new song, not for Madonna, I didn’t see it, I didn’t wanna.
  • Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rogriguez team up for From Dusk till Dawn, which is 50% tense crime drama and 50% “Aggh so many vampires,” and the shift is sudden. The TV series based on it found a better balance.
  • The Disney Renaissance takes another hit with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It does better overseas than in the US, but has massive tone problems and loses Disney their grip on the Original Song Oscar.
  • New Zealand indie filmmaker Peter Jackson comes to the US with horror comedy The Frighteners with Michael J. Fox.
  • The experiment of prestige pics based on Halloween monsters came to an end with Mary Reilly. Patrick Willems links this and 1994’s Wolf to Francis Ford Coppola’s attempts with Dracula and Frankenstein. I can’t confirm that right now, but he knows better than me. Anyway it flopped. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t interested in a movie about Dr. Jekyll’s maid.
  • The 90s were all about turning old TV shows into the movies, especially after The Fugitive. I’ve ignored most and will continue to do so because they’re footnotes at best, but I would like to flag one TV adaptation from 1996: Brain De Palma directs Mission: Impossible, and makes some unexpected choices, like killing off most of the team (including Kristen Scott Thomas and an uncredited Emilio Estevez) in the first act and switching focus from Jim Phelps (the team leader on the TV show) to new character Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise. These choices worked out well.
  • Not technically a TV show adaptation: Canadian sketch troupe The Kids in the Hall give movies a try with the pharmaceutical satire Brain Candy. It’s hard to find these days, but has its fans. I (and others) feel it might have done better if Dave Foley had been willing to take a larger part in its production.
  • Meanwhile the least probable TV-to-movie project has to be Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie. I enjoy Mike/Joel/Jonah and the bots plenty but it’s not a show designed for theatres. And took some flack for mocking This Island Earth, a movie some inexplicably thought wasn’t bad enough.
  • No, I take that back, the weirdest TV-to-movie adaptation, objectively speaking, is taking a Nike ad featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Michael Jordan and turning it into an entire movie in Space Jam. I love me some Looney Tunes and I did watch this in theatres (partially to escape a blizzard) but wow that was a weird thing to do. And trying to make a second one because Lebron James has some demented need to play “Anything you can do I can do better” with Jordan is even weirder.
  • Disney says “What if we made a live-action remake of one of our animated movies” with 101 Dalmatians. That idea gets worse before it gets better.
  • There have been a lot of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies this decade. Like a lot a lot. More than I remembered. Enough that they let him direct and star in The Quest, co-starring Roger Moore. The influence from John Woo is noticeable.
  • Shawn and Marlon Wayans enter the parody game with Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. This won’t end well. In related news, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer help write the “Hey remember this scene” so-called parody Spy Hard. If someone were to travel back in time and try to protect comedy, and parodies specifically, these are the productions to hit with the quantum bombs or murderbots or whatever you have.

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