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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 62

Part 62: 1985


MOVIES:

  • Amadeus (winner)

  • A Soldier's Story

  • Places in the Heart

  • A Passage to India

  • The Killing Fields (hidden gem)

Amadeus

Director: Milos Forman

Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Roy Dotrice, Simon Callow, Christine Ebersole, Jeffrey Jones, Charles Kay, Kenneth McMillan, Kenny Baker, Lisabeth Bartlett, Barbara Bryne, Martin Cavani, Roderick Cook, Milan Demjanenko, Peter DiGesu, Richard Frank, Patrick Hines, Nicholas Kepros, Philip Lenkowsky, Herman Meckler, Jonathan Moore, Cynthia Nixon, Brian Pettifer, Vincent Schiavelli, Douglas Seale, Miroslav Sekera, John Strauss, Karl-Heinz Teuber

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Makeup, Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Tom Hulce), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing


In Latin, the name “Amadeus” means “love of God”, or the object of God’s adoration. It’s a fitting title for this movie about Mozart, a gifted genius who wrote music as easily as one might create a grocery list.


Told from the perspective of Antonio Salieri, the Venetian court composer who so desired God’s grace, Amadeus is a story about the dichotomy of dear admiration and blinding jealousy. Despite its title, the film does not explore Mozart’s genius, nor does it recount the details of his life. Instead, Amadeus recounts the envy of Salieri, whose modest talent was no comparison when it came to the talent God seemed to bestow upon Mozart. For music was so important to Salieri that he denied himself the pleasures of women and food so that God might honor his dedication to the craft. Yet Mozart, who had frivolous affairs and didn’t seem to care about religion at all, was gifted beyond compare.

Amadeus opens with a suicide attempt. An aging Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) slashes himself with a razor when his long-harbored guilt over causing the death of his idol, Mozart (Tom Hulce) gets the better of him. However, like most things in his life, his attempt proves unsuccessful. Salieri is restrained in an asylum, where he decides to offer his story as confession to a priest. From here, we flashback to 1781, where Salieri is working as the court composer to Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones).


Still semi-new to the scene, Mozart is a rambunctious, albeit gifted, composer. Salieri is in complete awe of him – that is, until they meet. Salieri is not a great composer, but he’s good enough to know greatness when he hears it. He has stood in wonder of Mozart’s gift – a gift so profound that it could only have been granted by God. But, when Mozart is invited to compose a piece for the Emperor, Salieri is horrified to discover that the man he admires is nothing but a childish rogue who sleeps around, drinks excessively and has little to no respect for the manners of decent society. Worse still, Mozart doesn’t even seem to realize how good he is – which has Salieri questioning God’s judgment.

The hatred Salieri has for Mozart as a person only grows, causing Salieri to take matters in his own hands. Convinced God has given talent to someone undeserving, Salieri plots Mozart’s downfall. Yet, even as he attempts to destroy his enemy, he can’t help but be enraptured by Mozart’s music. In his coup de grace, Salieri even convinces Mozart to write his own requiem mass (which Salieri plans to steal and claim as his own).


The greatness of Amadeus is that almost all of us can understand the pain Salieri feels here. It’s almost impossible for most of us to stand alongside the geniuses in our fields. And the brilliance of it all is that Mozart is as far from a supposed “genius” as you can get. He’s goofy, immature and spoiled. Like many modern-day rock stars, he strides through the world, expecting everything to conform to him. Even his obnoxious laugh tells us that this is not a person to be taken seriously.

In his breakout role as Salieri, Abraham took home the Best Actor Oscar (beating out fellow nominee Tom Hulce in the same category…which seems slightly like poetic justice to me!). His portrayal of Salieri is not of a traditional villain, but of a man burdened by guilt, jealousy and the belief that he was abandoned by God. Even when Mozart is in his deathbed, Salieri seems conflicted. Yes, his plan is coming to fruition, but there’s also a real, emotional realization that the world’s greatest musical voice is about to be silenced.


One of the most moving scenes in the film comes towards the end. Exhausted and depressed, Mozart reaches out to Salieri for help transcribing the Requiem Mass (the piece Salieri planned to steal). Though Salieri had a vision that Mozart would have a grand funeral, with Salieri’s music playing in the background, the reality is that Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave, with only a handful of people in attendance. Salieri may have outlived this young genius, but it’s clear that Mozart is the one everyone knows and remembers today. His music is instantly recognizable, as is his face and his name. The fundamental question at the end, then, becomes whether or not we can learn to be grateful for the success of others. And, perhaps, whether or not we can recognize greatness in ourselves.

 

A Soldier's Story

Director: Norman Jewison

Starring: Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Adolph Caesar, Art Evans, David Alan Grier, David Harris, Denzel Washington, Dennis Lipscomb, Larry Riley, Robert Townsend, William Allen Young, John Hancock, Patti LaBelle, Trey Wilson, Wings Hauser, Scott Paulin, Mike Williams

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Adolph Caesar), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


There’s a moment in A Soldier’s Story when black US Army Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.) meets his white counterpart, Captain Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb). Davenport, who has arrived to investigate a murder, isn’t given a warm welcome. Taylor is convinced that, with a black man leading this investigation, they’re unlikely to get anywhere. But Davenport and his aviators will not be swayed. “Like it or not, Captain,” he barks, “I’m all you’ve got! Your orders instruct you to cooperate!” It’s not unlike In the Heat of the Night’s “Mr. Tibbs” moment – and with good reason: both films were directed by the same man.


The year is 1944. Sergeant Waters (Adolph Caesar), a black officer who is ironically no stranger to the watering hole, is stumbling back to headquarters when he’s accosted by an unknown figure and shot dead. Suspicion immediately points to racist white teens, who are not too happy about the black outfit stationed in their branch of the deep South.

The Department of the Army in Washington sends Captain Davenport, a military attorney, to investigate the murder. He’s the first black officer that anyone at the segregated base has ever seen…and his arrival causes a kerfuffle to say the least.


The story of what led up to Waters’ murder unfolds in a series of flashbacks as stories told to Davenport in the course of his investigation. Several recruits make it clear that Waters was far from being the beloved old sarge of legend. In fact, he was disliked by almost everyone, and few seem to be really mourning his demise.

Waters had a particular hatred for C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley), a popular singer/musician from Mississippi whose “cornbread lifestyle” was an affront to everything the sergeant held sacred. “I don’t intend to have our race cheated out of its place of honor and respect in this war because of fools like C.J.!” he says. The steps Waters takes against this heartwarming soldier eventually set in motion the circumstances of his death.


It also becomes more than apparent that Waters, who was decorated during World War I, sees it as his mission to transform his lazy black outfit into soldiers capable of winning the respect of white America. There’s an interesting commentary here on internalized racism as Waters has close to no respect for his fellow black soldiers, but works tirelessly to gain the respect of the white ones.

The screenplay was adapted by Charles Fuller from his Pulitzer Prize-winning stage production, A Soldier’s Play, which also starred Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington and Larry Riley in the roles they went on to play in the film. It is of course important that such a tale was written from the black perspective, but it’s a sad reflection on unchanging times that the executives at Warner Brothers declined to fund a film with a primarily black cast. Even when Columbia agreed to produce it, director Noman Jewison had to work for next to nothing in order to convince the studio to take on the project. The very fact that the movie was made at all is not only a testament to the importance of the story, but the commitment of everyone involved to make sure the story was heard.


In a time when movies like Moonlight and Black Panther can be honored with mentions in “Best Of” lists and bestowed with Oscar and Golden Globe awards, it’s easy to forget that, not so long ago, such films were regarded as box office poison. Considering that, it’s important that A Soldier’s Story is recognized not only as a good movie, but an important stepping stone in the development of black American cinema.

 

Places in the Heart

Director: Robert Benton

Starring: Sally Field, Lindsay Crouse, Danny Glover, John Malkovich, Ed Harris, Ray Baker, Amy Madigan, Yankton Hatten, Gennie James, Lane Smith, Terry O’Quinn, Bert Remsen, Jay Patterson, Toni Hudson, De’voreaux White, Jerry Haynes

Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Sally Field), Best Original Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (John Malkovich), Best Supporting Actress (Lindsay Crouse), Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Picture


When I think of 1980s cinema, the films that come to mind are those popular coming-of-age comedies and rom-coms: The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Moonstruck, The Princess Bride, and, of course, Top Gun. But the 1980s were also famous for another genre: the family drama. These human-driven stories of everyday Americans included such classics as Stand by Me, Dead Poet’s Society and the slightly forgotten Places in the Heart.


Conceived by Robert Benton during a trip to his hometown of Waxahachie, Texas, Places in the Heart tells the story of a courageous widow and her struggle for survival. It gave Sally Field her second Oscar win (spurring her famous “You like me!” acceptance speech) and features one of the most controversial endings in 80s cinema.

Although many families in Texas lost their land due to the Great Depression, the Spalding family found a bit of luck. Royce Spalding (Ray Baker), is the sheriff of Waxahachie, where he lives with his wife, Edna (Sally Field) and their two children.


When the Spalding family is shattered by a sudden, pointless tragedy, Edna and her children’s lives are upended completely. And, as is the case in things like this, when it rains, it pours. The bank that holds the mortgage on Edna’s home is asking for payment…but there’s no money to give. The banker urges Edna to sell her near 40-acre plot of land, but she’s determined to stay.

As if sent from the Lord, a superstitious black worker named Moze (Danny Glover) appears on Edna’s doorstep, asking for work in exchange for food. After a rough start, Moze is eventually given Edna’s grace and brought on to plant and harvest cotton. A rough life to say the least, but it turns out to be the only way she can make her mortgage payment.


The banker, who feels for Edna, also arrives with Mr. Will (John Malkovich), his blind brother-in-law who lost his sight during World War I (though he still makes eye contact with everyone, which is a weird flex, TBH). Edna agrees to take him on as a boarder and he spends his time making chairs and brooms.

At first, these individuals are all separate entities, trying to make due on a growing farm…but after Mother Nature sends a devastating tornado through the town, these misfits become a bit of a family, each risking his or her own life to save another.


I wish this was all there was to the plot. If it was, it would arguably have been a better movie…but, I digress. While Edna struggles to make a go of the farm, her sister Margaret (Lindsay Crouse) is also struggling to keep her family together. Margaret’s husband, Wayne (Ed Harris) has been having an affair with Margaret’s best friend, Viola (Amy Madigan).

There’s also a scene where the KKK randomly show up at Edna’s farm, angry that Moze has found work there. While there were certainly moments of racism throughout the movie, this scene felt very out of place…almost like they decided to throw the KKK in at the last moment in a last-ditch effort to drive home southern racism at the time.


This takes us to the controversial ending (you can stop here if you don’t want any spoilers)…

The closing scene takes place in a church. As the camera slowly pans the congregation receiving communion, we see all the characters – those living and dead – sitting together in the pews. It’s a moment when the lambs and the wolves, the wronged and the wrongdoers, unite as one. It’s a scene of great vision and power, but it seems too strong for the movie it concludes. Places in the Heart didn’t offer a strong enough message for an ending like this to really pack a punch, at least not in my opinion. If the film had suck with Edna, Moze and Mr. Will the entire time, or focused more on Moze’s relationship with the racist townfolk, maybe this ending would be more deserving…but with the addition of the Ed Harris plotline and the fact that we didn’t really get enough interaction between Edna and her rag-tag group of helpers, this whole ending felt out of place.


But I can certainly appreciate Places in the Heart for what it is – a heartwarming, southern pro-Bible story about forgiveness and acceptance. Though it tackles bigger themes than most family dramas today, it does so in a way that might spur a conversation…and, in that way, it’s an important addition to the 1980s family drama canon.

 

A Passage to India

Director: David Lean

Starring: Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft, Victor Banerjee, James Fox, Alec Guinness, Nigel Havers, Michael Culver, Clive Swift, Art Malik, Saeed Jaffrey, Ann Firbank, Roshan Seth, Richard Wilson, Antonia Pemberton, Sandra Hotz, H.S. Krishnamurthy, Dina Pathak, Ashok Mandanna, Z.H. Khan, Mohammed Ashiq, Rashid Karapiet, Ishaq Bux

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Peggy Ashcroft), Best Original Musical Score

Other Nominations: Best Actress (Judy Davis), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


Did you ever watch a movie that just goes in and out of your brain? That was me watching A Passage to India.


In this long-winded, meandering world, there are no connections. Indians and Englishmen speak the same language, but don’t understand each other. In this tale of innocent victims and unfair verdicts, director David Lean takes us on a near 3-hour journey that doesn’t even give us the satisfaction of a good ending.


It’s 1928. Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) have left England to visit Mrs. Moore’s son, Ronny (Nigel Havers) in India. He is the civil magistrate of Chandrapore and it is expected that Adela will move to India, where she and Ronny will marry.

Ronny and his merry men are quite content in their sequestered area of India (a place where native Indians are not allowed). However, Adela and Mrs. Moore feel deprived by the isolation – they want to see the “real India”. Eager to explore, Mrs. Moore wanders off to a mosque, where she meets Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), who is charmed by Mrs. Moore’s respect for Indian culture. They meet again, this time with Adela in tow, at a party thrown by a local college professor. During the party, Aziz offers to take the ladies on a sightseeing excursion to the Marabar Caves outside of Chandrapore. And it’s here where the story takes a drastic turn.


Overcome by heat and fatigue, Mrs. Moore rests while Adela wanders into the cave alone, with Aziz as a guide. Soon she comes rushing out, convinced that Aziz has raped her.

Though there were no witnesses to the crime, Aziz is arrested and brought to trial. At the trial, the British use the case as evidence of Indian inhumanity, while the locals rally around Aziz to expose the injustice of English rule. Meanwhile, the only one who can offer any kind of support – Mrs. Moore – has left for England and dies on the journey.


What we’re ultimately left with is a puzzle – a riddle that every viewer is challenged to decipher in light of his or her own perception of human passion and prejudice.

Nominated for 12 Oscars (winning two), A Passage to India marked the end of David Lean’s directorial career. It was a favorite with critics, though it failed to make the top ten list of 1984. In fact, none of these Best Picture nominations were even mentioned in the top ten US films of 1984 (a list featuring Beverly Hills Cop [1], Ghostbusters [2], Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [3], Gremlins [4], The Karate Kid [5],Police Academy [6], Footloose [7], Romancing the Stone [8], Star Trek III: The Search for Spock [9], and Splash [10].


Today this film has audiences torn…some stand by it, saying it’s Lean’s best work…others, like myself, were essentially bored to tears. In one scene in the film, Adela is speaking about the possibilities of adventures in India, to which Mrs. Moore says, “adventures do occur, but not punctually.” I can’t think of a better way to sum up this slow slog of a movie.

 

The Killing Fields

Director: Roland Joffe

Starring: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson, Spalding Gray, Bill Paterson, Athol Fugard, Graham Kennedy, Patrick Malahide, Nell Campbell, Joanna Merlin

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Haing S. Ngor), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Sam Waterston), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


After America withdrew from Vietnam in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia coerced most of the citizens into forced labor, murdering something in the region of 1.5 to 3 million people – about 20 to 30% of the entire population. The Cambodian journalist Dith Pran coined the term “killing fields” after his escape from the regime. In an authored article about his experience, he wrote, “…in the water wells, the bodies were like soup bones in broth, and you could always tell the killing grounds because the grass grew taller and greener.”


While the events of the Vietnam War are fairly well known, its effects on Cambodia are less so. Starting in 1973, New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) arrived in the capital city of Phnom Penh amidst absolute chaos. He eventually meets Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), a fellow reporter who bonds with Schanberg as the two men attempt to report on the war and the atrocities that surround them.

Two years later, the American journalists are forced to head home, leaving Pran to the mercy of the new regime. Several months after returning home, Schanberg launches a personal campaign to locate Pran, but struggles to find any information. Meanwhile, Pran has become a forced laborer. He tries to escape and stumbles upon one of the “Killing Fields”, where the brutality of the movie really comes through. Pran walks through literal fields of dead bodies, blood and skin soaking into the ground. Bones litter the waterways and the silence of the space around him is deafening to say the least.

While all the elements of The Killing Fields are noteworthy, some deserve special attention. Sam Waterston, who is most recognizable from his days on Law & Order, proves to be a capable movie star. The real Schanberg would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war and Waterston serves him well in this big screen representation.


However, the real star is Ngor, a Cambodian-American doctor who has an incredible biography of his own. Imprisoned in a labor camp before fleeing to the US, Ngor had no acting experience before being cast in The Killing Fields. Not only that, his performance would earn him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His raw emotions, which switch almost effortlessly from terror to anger, feel so real – probably because he’s pulling that from his own memory (sadly, Ngor was senselessly murdered in LA in 1996 as a result of a mugging).

While many films about the Vietnam War detail epic drama (Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, for example), The Killing Fields tells a story a little closer to the ground…an account of people who weren’t very important in the grand scheme of things, but who got caught up in monumental events. The human, more than the political, is the core of The Killing Fields. It’s a film about the ravages of war in general, not necessarily about one war in one place. The villains are not as important as the motives behind their actions, motives too common to the world at large. Likewise, the heroes are not American soldiers with guns, but everyday joes with cameras. The terrors of war are counterposed with the power of friendship…and with the end of the film set against the song “Imagine” by John Lennon, the ending of The Killing Fields offers hope (albeit cheesy hope) for a better relationship with our brothers and sisters all over the world.

 



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