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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 40

Part 40: 1986


  • Witness

  • Out of Africa (winner)

  • The Color Purple

  • Prizzi's Honor

  • Kiss of the Spider Woman (hidden gem)


As a “Harrison Ford movie”, Witness falls a bit flat. There are no cyborgs, no Wookies, no stolen artifacts. There are no whips, no trench coats, no special effects, and no cheeky one-liners (though there are plenty of shots of Ford doing carpentry work which is arguably just as enjoyable!).

No, Witness boasts several non-Harrison-Ford things: Amish farms, milking cows, bonnets, and a kind, compassionate love interest. To call it ‘a crime thriller’, which is how it was billed, is technically correct – but it is so much more than that. It’s a love story, a fish-out-of-water tale about archaic values in a modern world. Ford’s John Book is quiet, just as unassuming as his name. He’s caring and sensitive, completely unlike his other 80’s action heroes. The result was a nuanced performance that gave viewers the chance to see Ford the actor, not Ford the icon…and gave Ford his first, and only (as of now), Oscar nomination.

In a men’s bathroom, an undercover cop has his throat slit by two of his fellow officers – Detective James McFee (Danny Glover) and his associate, Detective Ferguson (Angus MacInnes). The only witness is a young Amish boy, Samuel Lapp (Lukas Hass), who is hiding in one of the stalls.

Originally on their way to Baltimore, Samuel and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) are now stuck in Philadelphia, working alongside Detective John Book (Ford) to solve the murder. However, when Book learns the murderer is none other than a fellow detective, things get complicated…even more so when he learns his superior officer is also involved.

With nowhere else to turn, Book goes into hiding in Amish country, posing as a cousin of the Lapp family. While there, he nurses his wounds, both physical and emotional. He also takes well to the Amish way of life, helping out with the chores, milking cows and, of course, falling in love with his widowed hostess.

As is the case with tragic romances, these two lovers are doomed from the start. Born into different worlds, John and Rachel are separated by a cultural and religious divide that nothing can bridge. Though he fits seamlessly into this rural way of life, John can no more survive in the Rachel’s world than she can in his.

Ford was a common face in 1980s cinema and Witness certainly gave him the opportunity to escape his usual action-packed roles. For the most part, Witness is a quiet film. Characters are comfortable in their silence. In what is his only Oscar-nominated role to date, Ford radiates intensity and passion, communicating much of his feelings through expressions and body language rather than dialogue. This film gave Ford the opportunity to shine as an actor and prove that he could move beyond his iconic characters.

Like the great barn-raising scene, this film’s construction is both efficient and unhurried…functional and beautiful. The foundation of Witness is that it’s a compelling thriller, but the heart of it is built with a smoldering love story, a cultural study, and a respective exploration of a religious community most of us know nothing about. It’s about belonging and not belonging, being in a world but not of it, and feeling alienated in the world you thought you knew so well.


Out of Africa

Watching Out of Africa is like eating lukewarm ramen. It looks great, it smells great, but there just isn’t any heat or flavor. With lush cinematography and a beautiful score, Out of Africa is a feast for the senses, but the plot just seems to simmer, never quite reaching a full boil. Even with two titans at the helm of this sweeping romance, Out of Africa does more justice to the landscape than the plot.

It’s 1913 and Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep) is living the high life. Her wealthy cohorts spend their time sleeping around, shooting wildlife, drinking Champagne and making caddy remarks to each other. When Karen’s affair with a man named Hans goes wrong, she decides to elope to Africa with Hans’ brother, Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).

After packing up everything you would need on a trip to Africa, including fine China, fancy hats and an extra-large dog, Karen arrives in Mombasa and meets up with the local colonials, all of whom are sleeping around, shooting wildlife, drinking Champagne and making caddy remarks to each other. They sure know how to make a girl feel welcome!

While in Africa, Karen and Bror settle into married life. They start a coffee farm and make friends with the local tribes. All’s well until Bror’s philandering results in Karen contracting syphilis. They separate, leaving Karen free to pursue a friendship, and eventually a relationship, with Denys (Robert Redford), an American traveler who is also scared of commitment.

When Denys isn’t traveling, he and Karen enjoy a kind of Eat Pray Love adventure through Africa. He moves through life like a leaf on the breeze, coming and going as he pleases. He’s not unlike Rhett Butler – and Karen’s not unlike Scarlet – in this African take on love, loss and land.

And, much like Scarlet, Karen doesn’t come across as an easy person to love…or live with. She sweeps grandly into Africa as if entering a world created entirely for her. The native servants are “my Kikuyus”. The plantation is “my farm”. The continent is “my Africa”.

Denys believes otherwise. “We’re not owners here,” he says. “We’re just passing through.” Whether he’s talking about her small farm or the world at large is up to interpretation, but we’re still forced to accept Karen’s version of this ancient land. The land needs her, the people need her. She even takes on the king of the jungle in a few scenes, establishing her dominance over this wild, untamed wilderness.

Yet, the Africa we do see is a beautiful one. Many of the pleasures of Out of Africa are peripheral – the landscapes, the wildlife, the music. Many of these shots, several taken from Denys’s airplane, linger longer than they should – but it works. This is where the magic of the film is and it seems those behind, and in front of the camera know it.


The Color Purple

Every minority seems to have a movie that remains a cultural touchstone, even despite any racial or stereotypical undertones. For the Jews, it’s Fiddler on the Roof. For the Italians, it’s Goodfellas or The Godfather. And for many African American women, it’s The Color Purple.

Due in large part to its depiction of female relationships as a form of sanctuary, particularly in a world fraught with violence, it seemed The Color Purple wanted to talk openly about domestic abuse, rape, and incest…but it didn’t quite get there. Directed by Steven Spielberg, this interpretation of Alice Walker’s novel keeps its eyes on the sunny side. If the book is set in the harsh, impoverished atmosphere of rural Georgia, the movie unfolds in a cozy, comfortable, flower-filled wonderland. On par for a Spielberg movie, but ultimately resulting in a film that is, at its best, uneven.

Celie (Whoopi Goldberg’s film debut) is a loving girl in a cruel situation. She has birthed not one, but two, of her abusive father’s children and has had both ripped from her arms moments after giving birth. The only one who loves her is her sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia). They play games together, run through the fields and learn how to read and write.

When a much older man named Albert (Danny Glover) comes to ask for Nettie’s hand in marriage, the father disapproves, giving him Celie instead. Albert sexually, physically and emotionally abuses Celie into adulthood, forcing her to care for his other children and clean up his pigsty of a farmhouse so he can go off and woo his real love, Shug Avery (Margaret Avery).

Shug is a pathetic, alcoholic juke-joint singer who still manages to be beautiful even after life has thrown her through the ringer. She eventually moves in with Albert and Celie, and the two women form a tender and loving relationship.

Along the way we meet other colorful characters, including Albert’s older son Harpo (Willard E. Pugh) and his exuberant wife, Sofia (Oprah Winfrey). Celie learns to bond with these characters, despite her debilitating shyness and inability to express herself. They also offer plenty of comic relief, which is not always a welcome addition.

In this story about abuse and violence, Spielberg creates a film that feels…upbeat. True to form, there’s nothing that can’t be overcome with a little optimism, patience and family loyalty…and it’s this disjointed tone that causes The Color Purple to falter in its overall message. In the hands of Oprah Winfrey, Sofia is a bold and brash black woman who doesn’t think twice about slapping a white lady in the face. Cool? Yes. Realistic for the time? Not even a little bit. Even the villain becomes justified in the end by performing one act of kindness.

And this is why we need to stop allowing rich white men to tell stories they have no business telling. Spielberg can’t give the material the emotional push it needs because he doesn’t have the conviction, or experience, to do it. The very outdated notion that a kind gesture at the hand of someone who has abused you for your entire life can forgive a lifetime of hurt seems not only unrealistic, but borderline offensive.

Yet, like Celie, the story endures. The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Goldberg) and Best Supporting Actress (for both Winfrey and Avery); however, it failed to win any of them. Still it was ranked as the 4th best film of 1985 and continues to be a meaningful story for women the world over.

As a white woman, I know I have no business reviewing this film and speaking to its power. I can only look at it as I do films like Gone with the Wind: as an imperfect, yet interesting artifact of American film history.


Prizzi’s Honor

The greatest part of Prizzi’s Honor is when Jack Nicholson tells an old flame to settle down, get married and “work on your meatballs.” It’s the funniest line in an otherwise unfunny comedy. Well, to call it a comedy isn’t quite fair…it’s more of a cynical farce (black comedy?) that’s something like The Munsters Present ‘The Godfather’.

In fact, the film opens very much like The Godfather: with a wedding. As Charley Partanna (Nicholson) looks around the church, his eyes settle on a beautiful blonde. They eye-flirt throughout the ceremony, then share one dance at the reception before she disappears.

As a hitman for the Prizzi family, Charley is certainly dangerous, but not all that smart. He asks his ex-girlfriend, Maerose Prizzi (Angelica Huston) if she knows the blonde woman, oblivious to the fact that Maerose still has feelings for Charley.

Herself ostracized from the family for having an affair, Maerose is like a Brooklyn-born Morticia Addams, a high-fashioned Vampira with a honky accent and master control of her eyebrows.

Eventually Charley comes to learn the identity of his mystery woman – a fellow hitwoman by the name of Irene (Kathleen Turner). Throw in some contract killings, kidnappings and a bit with a baby and you’ve got a mobster movie like no other.

Like most mafia films, the joy of Prizzi’s Honor comes in what we don’t know. The less you know about this film, the better. Fans of The Godfather trilogy are sure to love the fun nods to the franchise – Charley’s inflated upper lip complementing Brando’s pushed out lower lip, for example – but is it enough to make it a GOOD movie? I’m torn.

I really wanted to like this – I mean, it’s hard to say I don’t like a movie that stars Jack Nicholson, but this one just didn’t do it for me. I don’t know if it was the slow pacing or the utterly distracting “accent” that Nicholson tried to have for, like, 1/3 of the movie, but Prizzi’s Honor – like Maerose’s meatballs – was just ‘meh’.


Kiss of the Spider Woman

Kiss of the Spider Woman is perhaps the most unusual ‘buddy movie’ ever made. It’s a moving character study of two men who would have little use for each other if they were to meet on the street but, locked together in a prison cell, their relationship deepens. It’s a tangled web of worlds colliding – the black and white codes of straight vs. gay, masculine vs. feminine, reality vs. fantasy, and power vs. submission. Eventually they erode enough until nothing is left but shades of gray.

Spider Woman takes place in a prison cell in South America and is essentially a two-actor drama featuring men of very different demeanors and ideologies. Louis Molina (William Hurt) is a flamboyant homosexual window dresser who is imprisoned for corrupting a minor. His cellmate is Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia), a journalist jailed for his leftist political activities.

To help pass the time, Louis entertains Valentin by retelling the stories of his favorite movies. He performs his favorite films with as much gusto as he can muster while Valentin slowly allows his rough exterior to soften, allowing a lovely friendship to form.

Though they continue to test each other’s patience, these two men eventually arrive at the core of each other’s being. Valentin, who begins the film by calling Louis a slew of derogatory names, comes to learn that, as a homosexual, Louis is but another oppressed victim of Big Brother’s regime. They are both enemies of the state, even if for very different reasons. And through understanding and kindness, Louis comes to learn what is at the center of Valentin’s anger. To avoid spoilers, I will leave it at that.

As Louis continues to weave his verbal movie plots, the movie uses fantasy scenes to bring them to life. There is a Nazi crime melodrama and a thriller about a spider woman. The femme fatale in both films is the same actress (Sonia Braga), who also plays Valentin’s lover later on in the movie, further blending the line between fantasy and reality.

The lines between masculine and feminine are blurred as well, with the question of what makes a man weaving throughout the film. When Louis tells Valentin he identifies as a woman, Valentin angrily asks, “What’s this between your legs?!” Yet, when Valentin cries in a fit of self-humiliation, it’s Louis who remains stoic, holding his composure and – more importantly, his judgement – while caring for his friend.

Nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture (the first independently produced film that was), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, Kiss of the Spider Woman would only take home one – a well-deserved Best Actor award for William Hurt.

Today, this film feels just as relevant as ever. It is, at its core, a love story, with a theme that endures nearly 40 years after its release: that of human dignity and compassion surviving within a society that denies it.


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