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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 43

Part 43: 1983


MOVIES:

  • ET the Extra-Terrestrial

  • Missing

  • Tootsie

  • The Verdict (hidden gem)

  • Gandhi (winner)

ET the Extra-Terrestrial

ET, like The Wizard of Oz, is a movie you can grow up and old with. At its glowing heart, it’s a simple “boy and his dog” story about friendship and love. For a good while, it was the highest-grossing film of all time (until Spielberg outdid himself 11 years later with Jurassic Park), but it didn’t get there with special effects. It didn’t capture audiences with CGI or roller coaster action sequences. Rather, ET told a story that was intimate and human-scaled, well, child-scaled. Though it’s told from a child’s perspective, it’s as much a movie for kids as it is the young at heart.


ET begins with a creature from another planet being left behind by his spaceship in a suburb of Los Angeles. After being chased by a group of menacing adults, he finds shelter in a shed on the outskirts of town.

The shed belongs to a young family made up of a single mom Mary (Dee Wallace) and her three kids, Michael (Robert McNaughton), Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and Elliot (Henry Thomas).


While grabbing a pizza for him and his friends, Elliot hears something in the shed. Ever inquisitive, he sits up outside all night with his flashlight, bating the lurker out of hiding with a nearly irresistible treat: Reese’s Pieces.

Needless to say, it works. The alien emerges, initially terrifying Elliot but then winning him over. Over time, Elliot teaches the alien, who he names ET, how to talk. He hides him in his room, then soon brings in Michael and Gertie in on the secret, who help keep ET hidden from their mom.


Though they try to make ET feel at home, it’s clear that he misses his family. Elliot, who is emotionally bonded with ET through a form of telekinesis, can feel ET’s pain and knows he has to help him call his home planet. And when ET falls sick and becomes property of scary government scientists, Elliot’s mission to bring ET back to where he belongs becomes ever more important.


Superlatively created by Carlo Rambaldi, the creature known as ET manages to project both a wonderous childlike quality and a sense of superior powers. He’s a strange combination of wise old man and innocent naivety. With his wrinkly face and large eyes, he appears to look like an ancient guru, not unlike his fellow 80’s mentor, Yoda…yet he’s so expressive in his shear wonderment of Earth that you can’t help but wonder what is normal to him.

ET also appears to have magical powers. Not only can he make a whole fleet of young boys take flight on their Shwinn's, he also brings a message of healing. When he touches a dead plant, it comes back to life. When he touches Elliot’s cut finger, it heals instantly. ET truly is an alien who comes in peace.


Sweet as it is, the sad reality of ET is that we know ET must go home. Like Dorothy in Oz, he doesn’t belong on Earth, nor can he survive here. The shadow of ET’s departure hangs over the film like a cloud and, somewhere deep down, Elliot knows that his hopes of he and ET “growing up together” are futile. Like all of us, he must face that fact that he has to grow up alone.


Like Peter Pan, who also took children flying until it was time for them to grow up, ET represents the wonder of childhood, of a time we must leave behind, though we may continue to carry it “right here”.

 

Missing

On September 11, 1973, Chilean dictator and general Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile in a coup d'état. With the support of the US, Pinochet toppled the Unidad Popular government and ended civilian rule in Chile. After his rise to power, he persecuted leftists, socialists and political critics, resulting in the executions of approximately 3,200 people, the internment of as many as 80,000 people, and the torture of tens of thousands.


Of course, the US publicly denounced the atrocities to the American people in Chile, but – in 1999 – it was revealed that the US not only supported the overthrow, but paid contacts in Pinochet’s government who were well-aware of the egregious human rights violations.

Missing is the true story of one of these injustices that the American government was aware of. Charles Horman (John Shea) was an American journalist who was arrested six days after Pinochet assumed power. His wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) and father Edmund (Jack Lemmon) desperately try to find him, with little to no help from the American government. Therefore, it’s up to Beth and Ed to piece together Charlie’s final few days and figure out what may have prompted his disappearance.


Both Lemmon and Spacek carry the weight of this film on their shoulders and they are both superb at portraying your average out-of-touch American. Their (unromantic) chemistry helps these characters feel as real as if you knew them yourself and the best scenes in the film are really when these two must hack their way through a political jungle in an attempt to get someone, anyone, to make a simple statement of fact.

Missing certainly offers viewers a harrowing true story, but also provides a vantage into the paranoid, genocidal regime of Pinochet. Dead bodies in the street, gunshots ringing in the background, even citizens hiding in the alleys come nightfall help portray a country that lived in fear. There was no methodology to those murdered under Pinochet’s dictatorship and, while Charles Horman was not personally invested with the Chilean government, he was somehow noticed – which is scary enough.


In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Beth and Ed visit a morgue, where they find the body of one of Charles’ friends. It’s one of the first clues that these American officials may know more than they’re telling, as they had certified this dead man had left the country in safety. Disheartened, Beth and Ed turn their gaze upward. The camera goes with them and we see that the floor above, semitransparent, is also covered with dead bodies, their silhouettes hovering like huge black moths. Death literally surrounds them.


It’s a heartbreaking moment – and one that makes us wonder, who would care about us if we disappeared? In this room filled with hundreds of unidentified bodies, two people must look at every face, every identification mark, in a futile effort to find Charles. Worse still, those officers who took them there knew it was a pointless endeavor.

The questions raised during this scene are not political. They may even be beyond our realm of understanding. But they do work to humanize this story. Ed and Beth are just two people looking for one man in a sea of 3,200 dead bodies. They never give up, never falter, never stray, until they find the answers they seek, heartbreaking as they may be.


Over the past several years, Chile has increased the total number of people killed, tortured or imprisoned for political reasons under Pinochet’s regime to more than 40,000, some of whom still remain unidentified. Some of the missing are lucky enough to have wives, fathers, husbands and children dedicated to identifying their loved ones and whether you would count Ed and Beth among them is up for debate (I won’t ruin the ending for you). But the real sadness here is that Ed and Beth weren’t only fighting the Chilean government, but their own government as well.

 

Tootsie

On a surface level, Tootsie is the kind of movie they used to make in the 1940s, when they weren’t afraid to mix absurdity with seriousness, social commentary with farce, and a little tenderness with a couple belly laughs. It reminds me of some of the best golden age comedies, like It Happened One Night or The Awful Truth, movies with moxie. It went through its fair share of writers, but finally ended as a king – well, maybe queen – of the comedy genre.


Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is desperate. As a mostly unemployed New York actor, Michael has to resort to teaching acting classes in between auditioning for parts he never gets.

Maybe not unlike Hoffman himself, Michael has been labeled “difficult”. His method form of acting (of which Hoffman is also a student) has earned him nothing but a bad reputation. He’s the type of actor who, when playing a tomato in a TV commercial, refuses to sit down because, “…tomatoes don’t move”.


With no help from his agent, Michael decides to take matters into his own hands. After his friend, Sandy (Teri Garr) is turned down for a role on a TV soap opera, Michael decides to prove just how great his talents are.

The next time we see him, he’s wearing a face full of makeup, a pair of high heels and some truly fabulous harlequin glasses. Thus, looking like a middle-aged writer of the newest self-help book, Michael pushes his way into the audition, not only winning the role, but becoming an overnight sensation.


This is the ‘gimmick’ of Tootsie, but unlike most cross-gender comedies, Tootsie is a lot more than that. It’s not a drag show, nor a knockabout comedy. Dorothy Michaels, the stage name Michael gives his alter-ego, does not wobble on shoes too small for her feet. She doesn’t set her bra on fire or joke about having to tuck something between her legs. She’s almost frighteningly well-groomed, as if she had followed every rule in every issue of every Cosmo magazine. She’s smart, sassy, and not about to be pushed around by the male chauvinist pigs on set – which is ironic since Michael himself is a bit of a pig. This dual awareness is what helps give Tootsie some unexpected sweetness.

As she becomes a soap opera personality, Dorothy wins the friendship of one of her co-stars, Julie (Jessica Lange). As is the case in this industry, Dorothy witnesses first-hand the way the soap opera’s chauvinist director (Dabney Coleman) mistreats and insults Julie. However, even more problems arise when the man inside Dorothy begins to fall for Julie as well.


There are other complications, too. Julie’s father, Les (Charles Durning), who has gotten to know Dorothy through his daughter, has developed feelings for her, not knowing the true nature of the situation. Michael’s roommate Jeff (Bill Murray) isn’t much help, either, though he offers some wonderful comedic highlights, as Bill Murray tends to do.

One of the amazing things about Tootsie is how Michael and Dorothy seem like different characters, rather than different manifestations of the same person. Dorothy posses a bigness of heart and no-nonsense approach to her life and career that Michael himself lacks and she begins to take on a life of her own. She’s a liberated eccentric, a woman who earns your admiration by standing up for what’s right. It’s truly a testament to Hoffman’s performance. This is not a man in drag – it’s a man, playing a man, playing a woman, which adds an interesting, albeit complicated, layer to the situation.

That’s not to say Tootsie doesn’t have problems. It certainly has those, too. But I’m almost willing to forgive those small parts for the overall whole of the movie (PS the ending sucks I hate it I don’t even want to talk about it).


The real question at the end of Tootsie remains this – did Dorothy do anything to change Michael? He claims so. In a moment of desperation, Michael tells Julie that he was a better man as a woman than he was as a man, but that remains to be seen. The real light bulb moment seems to happen much earlier on, when Michael, as Dorothy, realizes firsthand how shitty men are to women. It was a lesson missing from Mrs. Doubtfire, which this film is almost always compared to, and which makes this film stand out just slightly more than others in its class.

 

The Verdict

Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a “very fine attorney”…at least, he used to be. Over the years he lost jobs, suffered through a messy divorce and had to deal with a disbarment hearing, all of which are traceable, in one way or another, to his alcoholism.


Between occasional visits to his office, Frank visits the local bar, where he downs beer and whiskey while playing pinball. As he sinks deeper into the bottle, and his depression, his longtime friend and mentor Mickey (Jack Warden) offers him an easy, winnable case: a healthy woman was given the wrong anesthetic while delivering her third child, resulting in a permanent coma and the death of the baby.

Knowing their reputation will suffer if word of this gets out, the archdiocese and St. Catherine’s Hospital – where the delivery took place – are eager to settle. Represented by senior lawyer Ed Concannon (James Mason), they bring an offer of $210,000 for the young girl’s family. In a somewhat unorthodox move (maybe even an illegal one), the judge presiding over the case encourages Frank and his client to take the deal. Frank’s client even wants to take it, but Frank remains skeptical.

He decides to go visit the young victim in the hospital. Though alive, she is hooked up to a huge breathing machine and looks tiny and feeble curled up in her hospital bed. Something snaps inside of Frank. He becomes determined to try the case, if for no other reason than to prove that the doctors involved were guilty of incompetence and dishonesty. Furthermore, he’s unwilling to be bought off. This case is his chance to finally do something worthwhile – to actually be the voice for his client, who will likely never have one again.


Neither pro-lawyer nor anti-lawyer, The Verdict is a legal drama that points out several positives and negatives about the legal system. There’s certainly corruption, greed and backstabbing, but there’s also a real, believable underdog story here. Frank has made a lifetime of mistakes and is finally given the opportunity to do the right thing. After being an “ambulance chaser” his whole career, Frank has lost a little faith in his profession, which is part – if not all – of the reason he’s so dependent on his alcohol. And, by bringing this case to court, Frank is perhaps able to emerge from his own alcoholic coma.

Frank Galvin also provides Paul Newman with the occasion for one of his greatest performances. In The Verdict, Newman suddenly looks his age. His bright blue eyes seem somewhat duller and there are moments when his face sags and his body seems weary. His portrayal as a shattered and vulnerable drunk is nothing if not believable. And the exhaustion he must feel from carrying this film on his shoulders shows in every possible way, which only works to better his performance. In The Verdict, Newman hangs up his classic Hollywood look for an old, bone-tired, and hung over Frank Galvin – and we buy it lock, stock and shot glass.

 

Gandhi

Though he was small in stature, Mohandas Gandhi had the weight of his nation on his tiny, little shoulders. Today, the name “Gandhi” seems to be synonymous with nonviolence, civil disobedience, and Indian statehood. Along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, Gandhi was one of the giants of the human rights struggle. It might be said that, as a biography of a man who shaped a nation, Gandhi is not as penetrating as it should be, but this film certainly succeeds in capturing the “spirit” of the man and his passion for peace.

Clocking in at just over three hours, Richard Attenborough’s film traces Gandhi’s (Ben Kingsley) entire journey as a central figure in India’s independence, from his beginnings as a civil rights lawyer in South Africa to his assassination in 1948. The film attempts to cover 50 to 60 years which, as it admits in the title card, is a flawed approach:

“No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try to find one’s way to the heart of the man.”

Nevertheless, it almost seamlessly powers through nearly 60 years of arrests, fasts, speeches, meetings, agreements and betrayals. We’re witness to meetings with Hindu and Muslim Indian leaders, horrible acts of violence committed by both the British and Indian forces, and plenty of gentle, yet cutting monologues from Gandhi against British rule.


Over time, we see Gandhi transform from a national to a worldwide treasure. While he spends most of his days spinning cotton on a loom, he still finds time to collect followers from all walks of life with his simple, yet powerful, message of human dignity, nonviolence and self-determination.

As Mohandas Gandhi, Ben Kingsley is an utter delight. Not only does he have an uncanny resemblance to the man (Kingsley’s father is from the same Indian state as Gandhi), but his demeanor and behavior is exactly what you would expect to see. Virtually unknown in Hollywood at the time, Kingsley experienced a turning point in his career after the release of Gandhi. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his part in the film and is now among the most respected and recognized Indian-British actors in the world.

Before I watched Gandhi, I really knew nothing about him – other than he was bald and he refused to eat the most delicious food in the world. After watching this film, I feel like I know him a little better. What’s important about Gandhi is not the historical lessons, though it does have those, but that it reminds us that we all are human. Even those we idolize, look up to, cherish, and respect, are flawed. We all make mistakes, be them in our work or in our personal lives. But maybe the biggest lesson to take away from this film is the power of nonviolence, especially in a world that seems to breed it. As Gandhi himself said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

 

SCORECARD

 

Gandhi

Wins: Best Actor (Ben Kingsley), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director (Richard Attenborough), Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture


Other Nominations: Best Makeup, Best Musical Score, Best Sound


Tootsie

Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Lange)


Other Nominations: Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Teri Garr), Best Cinematography, Best Director (Sydney Pollack), Best Film Editing, Best Original Song (“It Might Be You”), Best Sound, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture


Missing

Wins: Best Adapted Screenplay


Other Nominations: Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Actress (Sissy Spacek), Best Picture


The Verdict

Wins: No wins.


Other Nominations: Best Actor (Paul Newman), Best Supporting Actor (James Mason), Best Director (Sidney Lumet), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


ET the Extra-Terrestrial

Wins: Best Musical Score, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects


Other Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Director (Steven Spielberg), Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture


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