Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 50
Part 50: 1982
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Chariots of Fire (winner)
On Golden Pond (hidden gem)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Before John McClane in Die Hard, Jack Colton in Romancing the Stone and even Rick O’Connell in The Mummy, there was another kind of action hero: James Bond.
In the years before 1980, James Bond sat comfortably atop the list of movie action heroes. The James Bond “formula” laid the groundwork for many self-respecting action movies, featuring undercover agents with serious drinking problems and large libidos. That is until an unsuspecting archaeologist blasted onto the scene and changed the game forever.
Indiana Jones represented a new kind of action hero. He’s as close to an “everyman” as you’re likely to find. He’s tough, but not necessarily buff. He’s book smart, but maybe not so street smart, and – of course – is a total nerd. His wardrobe is bland and tattered, he doesn’t drink fancyman drinks and he’s frequently on the receiving end of most of the violence in the film.
In the first film in the franchise, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy battles through a series of cliffhangers, most with narrow, death-defying escapes. He travels to exotic locals and is clearly a well-read man. He even has commitment issues, flaws and a very relatable fear of snakes. He was the very anthesis of his fellow headliner, 007.
When Raiders hit the big screen, it transformed the action movie landscape. In the years to come, almost every action movie would try to match the suspense and tension of Raiders, putting their heroes in death-defying stunts and swapping the suited star for one clad in leather and khaki. Even the Bond franchise would catch on.
At this point, it’s probably hard to find a movie fan who hasn’t seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, but for those that haven’t:
The time is 1936. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is an American archaeologist who comes to learn that the Nazis think they’ve discovered the long-lost resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, the golden casket used by the ancient Hebrews to hold the Ten Commandments.
Indy’s journey to find the Ark reunites him with an old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who possesses a key puzzle piece in this mystery of finding the lost Ark. Together they travel to Cairo, where it’s a race between Indy and the Nazis to locate the prize. After an epic chase involving planes, trucks, ships and a submarine, Indy finally arrives, only to discover the Nazis have already found the Ark. But – as the Germans are soon to find out – sometimes it’s better to lose than to win.
What’s still so great about Raiders of the Lost Ark is that the plot somehow holds together and makes sense, even though the film seems to function as a slew of action and stunt pieces designed to wow and entertain. Indy dodges huge rolling rocks, sliding murder gates, hidden traps and yes, even takes on his biggest nemesis: snakes.
While these action scenes were naturally rigorously storyboarded, the less intense stuff was more spontaneous. One of Indy’s most frequently quoted lines, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage,” was added by Ford on the spot. The famous gun flinger/sword swinger scene in the Cairo bazaar was also a last-minute change (and remains one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema!). Director Steven Spielberg supposedly encouraged an atmosphere of collaboration and companionship, which clearly works to the film’s advantage.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was the highest-grossing film of 1981, bringing in $363 million at the box office. Its recipe is a strong one, with a little something for everyone: smart writing, a likeable (and cute!) hero, a little dash of romance, plenty of comedy, and a lot of fast-paced action. Brought to life by one of the greatest blockbuster directors in Hollywood today, Raiders of the Lost Ark certainly sits as a bright jewel in Spielberg’s crown. Like most of his films, it wants nothing more than to entertain you…and Raiders does that brilliantly.
Chariots of Fire
This must mark the only time in movie history that a film was awarded Best Picture for a piece of music. It’s seriously the only reason I can think of (besides the fact that the Academy wouldn’t DARE give the award to a romance or a Communist movie) as to why Chariots of Fire took home the coveted Oscar.
Most films that take home this award are epics, like Reds; heartfelt and bittersweet, like On Golden Pond; have stunning cinematography, like Atlantic City; or have some combination of all of these, like Raiders of the Lost Ark. But Chariots of Fire soars on its iconic score…and not much else. In fact, I’d even argue that Raiders has better music but, I digress.
The film tells the story of two men who ran on Britain’s athletics team at the 1924 Olympics: Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson). Over the course of 5 years, Harold and Eric – both already incredibly gifted runners – just keep running.
While there are some training scenes, these men are really at the peak of their athletic abilities, so it’s not really an underdog story. The film tries to introduce some plot devices – Harold has to deal with antisemitism at Cambridge and Eric, who is ultra-Christian, struggles with running obligations that conflict with the Sabbath, but both of these are weak at best. We never get a sense of who these men are or what’s important to them (other than running, and God, and running for God).
It seemed like Chariots of Fire really wanted to say something about antisemitism and the human capacity to balance one’s religious beliefs with one’s passion or skill; but it didn’t quite get to the finish line. The personal and social message of the movie run into the same problem: no one cares. We don’t spend enough time getting to know Harold, let alone his relationship with Judaism, for the antisemitism to really mean anything. In my opinion, School Ties did this WAY better.
So, what we’re left with is a sports movie with no underdog story, no driving plot, and no personal character development. With two of the fastest runners in Britain, Chariots of Fire is ironically slow, devoid of active conflict or any sort of narrative engine. For me, it was about as exciting as running – that is to say, not at all.
On Golden Pond
Simple affection is in short supply in Hollywood these days. True emotion is often hard to portray in a movie, and those that attempt to show it are often labeled as “boring”. Those movies that bludgeon us to death with passion and lust keep our attention, but seem “unrealistic.” It seems no one is quite satisfied when it comes to Hollywood romance.
I don’t know if it’s my old soul or my utter love for elderly curmudgeons, but give me the simple stuff every time. A gentlemanly offer of the arm, a tip of the hat, a slight eyebrow-raising smirk…SWOON. For me, these are the most romantic moments – when characters are vulnerable, charming, realistic. And few movies have succeeded in showcasing a true romance, particularly of those in their golden years, quite like On Golden Pond.
On Golden Pond is a treasure for many reasons, but the best one – I think – is that it’s believable. Its characters have real feelings fueled by real emotional reactions. There are moments of great pain and sadness, but also moments of real growth and change. Any of these achievements would be a small miracle for any movie to achieve, but it’s especially important for this one – a story of a real father and daughter struggling to mend a broken relationship, as well as a swan song of sorts for two of Hollywood’s brightest and most talented stars.
The story begins with Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) and Norman (Henry Fonda) arriving at their lakeside cottage, where they have summered for many years. They know each other well, in the way a couple who has been together for 50+ years knows each other. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they know when to push and when to back off, and in some cases, they know each other better than they know themselves.
They’ve traveled to Golden Pond to celebrate Norman’s 80th birthday. Once a skilled professor and now a crotchety old man who loves fishing and sarcasm, Norman clearly puts on a façade to cover his ever-growing fear of death.
Ethel knows how to handle him, but the same can’t be said for the couples’ only daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda). Their relationship is complicated (we’re not quite sure why), so much so that she refers to him only has “Norman”, never “dad”.
But life still has a curveball or two to throw at this octogenarian. When Chelsea arrives at Golden Pond with her new beau, Bill (Dabney Coleman) and Bill’s son, Jr. (Doug McKeon), Norman’s life is thrown into a whirlwind. Through a series of events, Norman and Bill Jr. develop a kindship that’s always been lacking in both of their lives. Overtime, Jr. becomes the son Norman always wanted and helps break down his rough exterior…but will it be enough to mend his broken relationship with Chelsea?
Remarkably, On Golden Pond marks the first on-screen collaboration between legends Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, despite the two having many friends in common. With Jane Fonda adding a layer of realism to the strained dynamic between father and daughter, the film’s casting is perfection. And in what would become Henry Fonda’s final performance, as well as one of Hepburn’s final films, On Golden Pond gave these two titans of the silver screen the ability to enter the dusk of their lives with grace, pride, and plenty of love. Both stars deservedly won Academy Awards for their performances (Best Actor [Fonda] and Best Actress [Hepburn]).
Like any great romance, On Golden Pond is certainly sappy. Hepburn’s adoring love for her grouch of a husband is nothing if not doting and sweet…and Norman’s relationship with Bill Jr. is corny, to say the least, but there is so much truth in the quiet moments, in the simple affection of it all. Cheesy as it might be, On Golden Pond still has the bite of a fine aged cheddar.
It seemed the only way Paramount could market an epic film about communism was to bill it as a Gone with the Wind-style romance among the ruins…but John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) are no Rhett and Scarlett. Though interesting, these two revolutionists care more about politics, social change, and personal evolution than each other, which makes spending three-plus hours with them a little more than tedious.
But Beatty, who also directed Reds, fills in the gaps with some serious star power. Behind the camera, he had legendary Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, fresh off his latest film, Apocalypse Now (1979). Stephen Sondheim was brought on to compose the score and Jack Nicholson even signed on to play American playwright, Eugene O’Neill. Gene Hackman, Maureen Stapleton, Paul Sorvino and Edward Herrmann also had smaller roles in the film.
With all that oomph, Reds certainly has soul, but it still lacks heart. Beatty assumes we know more than we do about Reed and Bryant and the turbulent era in which they lived. He depicts all the important events but doesn’t quite put them into context, which makes Reds feel choppy and episodic. And, because it’s so dependent on our own knowledge, it never quite gives us that visceral gut punch or emotional pang we crave…making Reds a film I can appreciate, but only sporadically enjoy.
The Scott Joplin ragtime tune that plays behind the credits of Reds reminds us of pre-World War I America. It was a time of baseball, free love, and this new technological advancement called “moving pictures”. As the music fades out, voices fade in, contemporary voices bridging us back to the past.
Lined with the cobwebs of long life, these men and women make up “The Witnesses”, a kind of Greek chorus who knew the real John Red and Louis Bryant personally. They help give validity to a story that often seems to crazy to be true.
In many ways, Reds seems like what we’d now call “Oscar Bait”, with an epic love triangle of powerhouse stars set amid the backdrop of a massive historical moment. We see John and Louise travel from Mexico to Portland to Provincetown, where they join forces with Eugene O’Neill in setting up the famous Provincetown Players. From there, we go to France and Russia, where John and Louise spend the majority of the second half of this 3-hour film covering the successful Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Through it all, John, Louise and Eugene weave through each other’s lives, creating a love story on the canvas of history.
Though it didn’t win Best Picture, Reds still received a whopping 12 Oscar nominations, the most of any 1981 film. It’s also one of the few historical films to hold up since its release; however, it still lacks the resonance to both make it memorable and rewatchable. Yet, Reds still speaks to the younger generation of today…and shows us the excitement of being young, idealistic and foolish in a time when everything still seemed possible.
It’s a ghost story not unlike Taxi Driver…a haunted tale told not in a gothic castle, but in a decrepit city. This Atlantic City is stuck in purgatory, trapped in a point of transit where the living and the dead meet briefly, make love, then go on their merry way.
This is a place of almost hysterical flux. Elegant, old-fashioned buildings are blown up before our eyes, while new, glitzier hotels rise to take their places.
In one of these doomed buildings lives three people: an oyster-bar waitress named Sally (Susan Sarandon), an aging numbers runner named Lou (Burt Lancaster), and an elderly widow named Grace (Kate Reid).
Once a big name in Vegas, Lou now walks through Atlantic City’s urban decay, taking 25-cent bets on the numbers by day. By night, he stands behind the blinds of his darkened apartment, watching Sally slowly undress and rub her skin with freshly cut lemons.
Into this closeted world come two loose cannons: Dave (Robert Joy) and Chrissie (Hollis McLaren). Dave was once married to Sally, but ran off with Chrissie, Sally’s sister, and got her pregnant. They arrive in Atlantic City carrying a large amount of cocaine, stolen from the Philadelphia mob, which they attempt to sell in the Atlantic City underworld, with disastrous results.
Through a series of events, Lou becomes involved in this drug trade and is given one more chance to amount to something. Accepting his sudden influx of money as a gift from the gods, Lou attempts to recreate his glory days…but the world is a different place now.
In Sally, Lou finds a bit of a kindred spirit. Both have dreams they know they can’t achieve. Both have lived with pain and disappointment. Even though they could be lovers, they know they have no future together…and maybe no future separately. But they don’t need to say that out loud. Sally just needs someone to be there for her…Lou just needs someone to bear witness to him actually stepping up to the plate and acting like a man – a man like the men he admires, who may have done bad things but were still powerful and respected.
The film’s action is very time-limited (it all takes place in less than two days), which adds yet another element of pressure to the plot. Like Lou, Atlantic City knows that time is precious. Not all dreams come true, not everyone finds a place in this world. When it comes down to it, time marches on – with you or without you.
One of only a few films in cinematic history to be nominated for “The Big 5” (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress), Atlantic City strikes the line between genuinely depressing and darkly comedic. In this city of lost souls, it’s hard to find a character that’s truly likeable, but the film still has a realistic tone that reminded me of Leaving Las Vegas, in that it looks at flawed people in flawed situations.
On Golden Pond
Wins: Best Actor (Henry Fonda), Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Best Adapted Screenplay
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Jane Fonda), Best Cinematography, Best Director (Mark Rydell), Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Picture
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Wins: Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Special Achievement Award (Sound Effects Editing), Best Visual Effects
Other Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Director (Steven Spielberg), Best Original Score, Best Picture
Chariots of Fire
Wins: Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Ian Holm), Best Director (Hugh Hudson), Best Film Editing
Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Burt Lancaster), Best Actress (Susan Sarandon), Best Director (Louis Malle), Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture
Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton), Best Cinematography, Best Director (Warren Beatty)
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Warren Beatty), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Diane Keaton), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture