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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 34

Part 34: 1989


MOVIES:

  • Mississippi Burning

  • Dangerous Liaisons

  • Rain Man (winner)

  • The Accidental Tourist

  • Working Girl (hidden gem)

Mississippi Burning

As a Gene Hackman fan, I've seen Mississippi Burning before…but, as luck would have it, I selected to watch it again on April 20, 2021 – the day Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd.


The film is based on the real-life deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights activists who disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1964. Their deaths sparked off the biggest manhunt in FBI history and led to the conviction of seven Ku Klux Klan members responsible for their disappearance, including the deputy sheriff of Neshoba County. Not only would this story form the backbone for Mississippi Burning, but would become one of the signature cases in the long and painful road towards racial justice.

But Mississippi Burning is in no way a documentary, nor is it even really that factual. The film is a police drama about the efforts of the two FBI agents who are leading the investigation into the disappearance of these three men. Though it sends a powerful message about Black life in the south, as well as corrupt police departments, it also fails to get to the real root of the problem.

FBI agents Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Ward (Willem Dafoe), who have been assigned the case of these three missing boys, could not be more different. Anderson, who used to be a small-town cop, believes in keeping a low profile, hanging around the local places, sniffing out the likely perpetrators. Ward, a young do-gooder, wants to use every government resource at his disposal to help locate the missing teens (2 of whom are Jewish, one of whom is Black).


The sheriff of this small Mississippi town is foolish enough to believe he can intimidate these men from Washington. He and his deputy, Pell (Brad Dourif) put up every blockade they can and work hard – probably harder than they’ve worked at anything ever – to convince the townsfolk that the feds are not welcome there.

And, as we now know all too well, when the police are the ones causing the injustice, there’s not much that can be done. Anderson and Ward find themselves in a rats nest of deeply ingrained racism. With the KKK running free around, and within, local law enforcement, getting any help proves difficult.


It’s not until Pell’s wife (Frances McDormand), who has taken her fair share of beatings by her racist pig of a husband, confesses that she knows where the bodies are. Even more important, she knows who’s responsible.

The heartbreaking part of this whole story is that there is reason to believe that the black community has a good idea of who committed the murders, but they’re too scared to speak up. The KKK trashes and burns the homes of those who provide any information to the FBI or beats them to within an inch of their life. It’s a terrible circle of injustice and it’s something Mississippi Burning got right.

However, there were a few things the movie got wrong, particularly its lack of a central black character. For a film so hell-bent on breaking down racism, it certainly has one heck of a white savior complex. The black characters in this film aren’t given nearly enough screen time or development…but what can you expect from a police drama nowadays?


Secondly, the film makes it seem like Mississippi is populated almost exclusively by racist monsters and rednecks. These people have no morality, no humanity, no understanding. While stereotypes such as these are not rare, it still provides an excuse for the rest of us to say they’re not like us. Bad things like this can only exist in a godforsaken place like Mississippi…but, as we’ve all seen now, that’s far from the case.

Dangerous Liaisons

In this game of love and lust, there are no winners – just cruel intentions.


The Marquise de Mertueil (Glenn Close) and the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) are indulgent, selfish pre-revolutionary French nobility. Once former lovers and now close confidants, these two take sport in seducing, lusting and betraying those they dislike.

When we first meet them, it’s in their separate bed chambers. They are getting massaged and adorned with elegant fabrics and jewels. Powdered wigs, makeup and perfumes add the perfect finishing touches. It’s as if they are getting ready for a play – or a war.


As the master manipulator, Mertueil is a power-hungry scorpion. She preys on other women, using Valmont as her pawn. Though they seem to enjoy each other’s company, they throw one-liners at each other like live grenades and plot their sexual conquests with the cunning and deviousness of military masters. In their private score-keeping, nothing counts more than a heart destroyed.

One day Mertueil comes to Valmont with a request: she wants him to deflower Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman in one of her first movie roles), the young daughter of her cousin, Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz). Cecile is to be wed to Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny (Keanu Reeves), a young boy who also happens to be Mertueil’s lover. If Valmont can deflower Cecile before her arranged marriage is to take place, she will be a disgraced woman. Valmont, who is already engaged in a game of his own to woo the virtuous Madame de Touvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) agrees to both conquests. In return, Mertueil will spend one night with Valmont re-living their former passion.

Valmont’s downfall is, of course, that in succeeding to seduce Madame de Tourvel, he ends up falling in love with her…and love has no part in this game. Mertueil, who is jealous of Valmont’s feelings towards Madame de Tourvel, plays on his vanity, which is stronger than his love, and forces him to break off the affair. And when all the pretend emotions of the game of seduction turn into real emotions of the game of betrayal, it’s a sad, miserable ending for everyone involved.

At first I wasn’t really sure what to think of this movie. Was it satirical? Was it a comedy or a drama? And WHY is John Malkovich in this?


Though Malkovich does bring a weird dimension to his slimy character, he honestly lacks the charm and seductiveness Valmont would need to carry off all these sexual conquests. Conventionally, he’s not very handsome and he comes across as more offensive than charming. A better choice may have been 1980s Johnny Depp, who had the looks to draw you in, the charm to overtake you, and the arrogance to then leave you for dead. But, alas, it’s out of my control.

Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, Dangerous Liaisons would win three: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design (DUH) and Best Art Direction. Both Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer got the only acting nominations the film would receive: Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.


For most of this movie, it almost feels as if you’re watching a charmingly wicked marionette show. Characters dance around each other on strings, clad in fabrics so beautiful they almost succeed in hiding the horror underneath them. And as these puppets, dressed in elegant, bejeweled armor, take to the battlefield, they become hoisted by their own petard – casualties of a war fought over lust, jealousy and that crazy little thing called love.

Rain Man

America must have been having some kind of mid-life crisis in 1988. Almost all of the year’s biggest hits were comedies about people venturing off into uncharted territory. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a gumshoe detective enters a world completely animated…in Big, a 13-year-old magically transforms into an adult…in Beetlejuice, a married couple ventures into the world of the dead…add to that list Coming to America, Twins, Working Girl, Die Hard and, the year’s Best Picture winner, Rain Man.


Though Rain Man is widely considered to be a movie about autism, it’s more about a man, used to a fast lifestyle, finally getting grounded by the things in life that actually matter. Fresh off the high of Top Gun, Tom Cruise was enjoying a lightening speed rise to fame (this was of course pre-Scientology and pre-action star). Pair him with one of the greatest actors of the time, Dustin Hoffman, and you’ve got the makings for a classic American buddy movie.

When hot-head Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) finds out that his father has died, he barely bats an eye. His only reaction comes when he realizes his father has left him nothing but an old Buick convertible and some prizewinning rosebushes. The massive $3 million fortune, which Charlie expected to receive, has instead gone to one Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman), the institutionalized autistic brother Charlie never even knew existed.


In a fit of angry jealousy, Charlie travels from LA to Cincinnati to meet, nay – kidnap, Raymond and basically hold him for ransom until he gets his fair share of the inheritance. Raymond, who is an autistic savant, is extremely limited in some mental areas, but extremely gifted in others. It matches perfectly with Charlie’s good looks and charm, as well as his very obvious limitations in the areas of kindness and understanding.

Without one regard to his welfare and necessity of routine, Charlie takes Raymond on a cross-country road trip back to LA, all the while threatening Raymond’s legal guardian, Dr. Bruner (Jerry Molen), with a custody battle unless he hands over half the fortune. Though their relationship is rocky at first, Charlie and Raymond eventually get to know each other on the open road.

The risk Rain Man takes is that it has to make Raymond’s care team competent, yet unable to crack through some barrier that only a close relative like Charlie can. Raymond’s doctors know he is a creature of habit and very dependent on routine, yet Charlie seems to be the only one capable of altering Ray’s routine – if only slightly – with any success. This begs the question: what’s better for Ray? Should he remain in a safe, secluded environment where he can watch Wapner at his set time, or does he need someone like Charlie to challenge him and help him gain valuable life experience? For anyone who has had to care for someone in this capacity, I’m sure it’s a valid contemplation.


Furthermore, Raymond has to remain the constant here. He never changes, learns or grows – not because he can’t, but because the one who needs to change is Charlie. Throughout the course of the film, Charlie has to go from being a nasty, shrewd businessman to someone the audience can empathize with – all while his co-star remains a wall of blank emotion and character tics. It’s an ego-less performance that Cruise has yet to match.

Nominated for eight Oscars and winning four, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Hoffman), Rain Man was the highest-grossing film of 1988. It was one of the first movies to put a mental disability front and center, though the film did receive criticism for not casting an actor who was actually autistic. Though it did open the door for discussions about mental illness in general, it also led to a lot of incorrect ideas about how autism works (not everyone with autism can do complicated math equations in mere seconds).


As a fan of Dustin Hoffman’s work, I like Rain Man…I’ve always liked it. However, watching it again as an adult, it brings up some issues I didn’t notice before. I have problems with how Charlie only comes to respect his brother after learning how he can use his abilities to count cards. I don’t like how Raymond only seems to exist to make Charlie a better person. But I also can’t ignore the fact that this movie did a lot for bringing autism into the spotlight during a time when most of the country still didn’t know what it was. Though it may not be the most accurate portrayal, it’s a respectful one.

The Accidental Tourist

Macon Leary (William Hurt) writes for businessmen “…so they can travel to the most wonderful exotic places in the world and never be touched by them.”


Macon also travels through life without being touched by it. Ever since his only son was murdered in a hold-up, he and his wife Susan (Kathleen Turner) have struggled to get their marriage back on track. Susan tries to come to terms with their loss, while Macon just buries it. Eventually she has enough and files for divorce, leaving Macon with their son’s exuberant Welsh corgi, Edward.

As Macon goes about his existence advising readers on where to find “American food” abroad, how to pack a carry-on and basically how to avoid all human contact, his own life begins to mirror his work. On a particularly bad day, Macon falls and breaks his leg, forcing him to move in with his sister and two brothers (who all, at 40, still live in the same house).

Since Edward’s jittery personality and continuous barking were essentially responsible for Macon’s fall, he decides to place the dog in obedience training. It’s here where Macon meets the wonderfully weird Muriel Pritchett (Geena Davis, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), who gives Edward, and Macon, a little lesson in good behavior.

Muriel is the pure distillation of what people mean when they say someone is “quirky”. She wears frilly socks with high heels, applies way too much makeup and combines too many animal prints in the same outfit. She literally pops out of Macon’s grey, blue boring-ass world like a sign of hope in the fog. She tries to bring Macon out of his funk, introducing him to her colorful, crazy lifestyle.

But Macon’s depression is libel to get the best of him. As Muriel gets closer and closer to getting to the heart of this untouchable man, her glamour becomes downplayed. With plain clothes and no makeup, Muriel becomes a vulnerable woman with relationship problems – making it more believable that attractive people are also human and struggle with romance, too.

As is the case with most movies like this, Susan eventually comes crawling back and it’s up to Macon to finally decide between his past and his future.

Unlike other rom-coms, The Accidental Tourist is not a grand gesture film. There are no big chases to the airport or articles that get published revealing everyone’s true feelings…this movie is very quiet and, in a way, lukewarm. The colors are all muted, it’s grey and rainy all the time, and Macon’s personality is about as exciting as a wet mop. No, this movie is more about simple, tiny moments. In one scene, for example, Macon’s sister Rose undercooks a Thanksgiving turkey and her suitor, Julian (Bill Pullman) still eats it. He doesn’t get sick, he doesn’t show disgust, in fact there’s no punch line at all. The humor is that it’s an actual, relatable situation. “He ate my turkey,” Rose says. She knows what Julian is saying by eating it, and he knows it’s the best way for him to express his feelings for a woman who might be closed off to more physical attention.


What we’re left with at the end of The Accidental Tourist is hope. Hope that happiness is possible, no matter what life throws at you. It shows us that ordinary, isolated people – and loud, eccentric people – can all find love, if only we open our hearts to it.

Working Girl

When I was little, I used to dream about being one of those classy girls who wore sneakers on the train and pumps in the office. I loved the idea of life on the go – a quick coffee here, a bagel to go there. For 10-year-old me, that was the epitome of success.


In Working Girl, Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) lives this rushed lifestyle as a secretary for a financial firm in New York City. The title of this movie could just as easily have been something like Cinderella Bites the Big Apple, since this sweet, urban fairy tale of a secretary who trades in her pencil skirt for suit pants is an unashamed comic fantasy. But still, more than 30 years after sky-high hair and shoulder pads have fallen out of fashion, Working Girl remains a timeless example of female-led stories that continue to inspire, encourage and motivate girls to go out and get theirs, even if they do have a mind for business and a body for sin.

Though Tess isn’t what you might call a ‘top dog’, she’s still hungry for success. She’s intelligent, determined and has a lot of good ideas about how to make money in the big leagues of high finance. However, Tess is also a secretary. Her voice is high and squeaky, cute when you’re a kid, not when you’re a 30-something working woman. Her clothes are eccentric, her jewelry is bold and her hair is way too big. She’s the perfect target for stupid, deprived men who get pleasure out of embarrassing women who are power-hungry, which is exactly why Tess decides to leave for a new position in mergers and acquisitions.


At her first day on the job, Tess walks into a room full of women who look just like her, quite the change from the sea of white button-downs and black ties. Her new boss, Katherine (Sigourney Weaver) isn’t even 30 yet (WHAT) and is everything Tess isn’t. Her voice is deeper. Her clothes are prim and proper. Her hair is maintained. Her hands, ears and arms bear little to no jewelry.

But Katherine and Tess seem to respect each other and they get along just fine, that is until Katherine breaks her leg on a skiing holiday, forcing Tess to take over some duties for her. While working on Katherine’s computer, Tess comes upon a file, revealing Katherine was about to steal one of Tess’s brilliant suggestions and claim it as her own. Ugh girl, been there.


Tess is infuriated, and rightfully so. In retaliation, she begins an elaborate deception, where she masquerades as an executive at the firm in order to promote and fast-track her idea before Katherine can lay claim to it. She scores a meeting with another executive, Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), who supports her idea. In fact, he thinks it’s pretty brilliant.

Together, Tess and Jack bring her idea to life (and, of course, fall in love because that’s how these things go), but not everything goes according to plan. Just like the real business world, there are unplanned obstacles and surprise endings…and Tess will have to keep her cool through all of it if she wants to succeed.

At the end of this urban fairy tale, Working Girl isn’t a movie about turning capitalism on its head or tearing down the patriarchy. It’s not even about falling in love with your boss. Rather, it celebrates the ambition it takes to maintain your values while fighting for a place in a system that isn’t designed to accommodate you. According to Griffith herself, “It’s an example of how to speak up and stand up for yourself and not sell yourself out for a job or a guy. You don’t have to acquiesce to a man or a woman.” This isn’t a love story between Tess and Jack or even Tess and her job – it’s about the love Tess has for herself. It’s a universal message that speaks to women today as much as it did 30 years ago. Clad in big hair and sneakers, Working Girl joins the likes of Legally Blonde, The Devil Wears Prada, Clueless, and Miss Congeniality as a film that helps women of all ages find their inner girl boss.


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