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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 63

Part 63: 1981


MOVIES:

  • Coal Miner's Daughter (hidden gem)

  • Ordinary People (winner)

  • The Elephant Man

  • Tess

  • Raging Bull

Coal Miner's Daughter

Director: Michael Apted

Starring: Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Beverly D’Angelo, Levon Helm, William Sanderson, Phyllis Boyens, Bob Hannah, Grant Turner, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Bob Elkins

Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Sissy Spacek)

Other Nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


I wonder if it would be easier to name the country music stars that didn’t follow the popular path of being born into a poor family, discovering they have a musical talent, pursuing said talent, getting discovered basically overnight, becoming a sensation, then falling victim to the many pitfalls that come along with fame. It was the path that put so many popular singers on the map, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and – more recently – Shania Twain.


While most artists tend to shy away from drawing attention to their tragic past, some use it as inspiration. At 13, Loretta Webb (Sissy Spacek) is living with her parents and seven siblings in a ramshackle house in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky – a place where you either "...work in the coal mines, moonshine, or move on down the line". Her father works in the coal mines and it seems Loretta and her family will be destined for poverty for the rest of their lives.

But things start to look better for Loretta when she meets Doolittle Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones), a 22-year-old boy who immediately takes a fancy to Loretta and begins courting her. They marry when Loretta is just 15 years old…and she becomes a mother of four by the time she’s 19.


Eventually Doolittle (who goes by “Doo”), moves his family to Washington State, where Loretta passes the time singing at local honky-tonks. For her, music is just a hobby, but Doo is convinced she can become a star. He gifts her a guitar for their anniversary and gets her a gig at a local bar, which leads to a studio session where she records her first single, “Honky-Tonk Girl”.


Eventually, Loretta Lynn is a household name. “Honky-Tonk Girl” hits the charts and earns her a spot at the Grand Ole Opry, where she performs for 17 weeks straight. When country superstar Patsy Cline (Beverly D’Angelo) invites Loretta over for a visit, a friendship blossoms almost instantly. The two would perform and travel together, remaining close friends until Cline’s tragic death in 1963.

It doesn’t take long for Loretta to start seeing herself in a new light. Soon Doo bows out of the picture and stays home to take care of the kids while Loretta hits the stage. And as the money continues to flow in, Loretta feels the effects of emotional and physical exhaustion. The stress of extensive touring, keeping up her image and trying to keep her marriage and family together cause Loretta to have a nervous breakdown onstage. After a year off to refocus, she returns to the tour bus, establishing herself as the “First Lady of Country Music.”


The best part of Coal Miner’s Daughter depicts the world Loretta grew up in, the world she both immortalized and lost when she became a country music star. We see why Loretta’s childhood had such an impact on her music, and why she was so proud of her roots. However, we fail to see the connection of Loretta to music in general. Why was it so important to her to sing and write her own songs? We don’t get that there, but it in no way takes away from this entertaining and engaging story.


Coal Miner’s Daughter was also unique in that Loretta Lynn was still alive at the time of production, and was an active participant in the creation of the film. She single-handedly chose Spacek to portray her and spent hours talking to Spacek so that she could emulate her unique accent and speech patterns. Even more impressive, Spacek and D’Angelo both did their own singing and instrument playing in the film, a commitment rarely seen in today’s biopics.

Though Loretta’s life didn’t seem to take quite the hit that Johnny Cash’s or Elvis’ did (in terms of drugs and alcohol, at least), we’re not surprised, somehow, that immediately following the scenes where she becomes a superstar, there are moments where she starts popping pills. While we want to believe in that “ol’ time success story”, we also want to believe that success takes a terrible human toll. Perfection is boring. Introducing an element of suffering, even if it’s just chronic headaches, somehow makes our heroes more human.


Loretta Lynn wrote more than 160 songs and released 60 albums, 10 of which were No. 1 records. She won 3 Grammys, 7 AMAs, and 13 Academy of Country Music Awards, among many others. She remains one of the most awarded women in country music history. She was also the first woman in country music to receive a certified gold album for “Don’t Come Home a’Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind)”, the first woman named “Entertainer of the Year” by the Country Music Association, and was the first female country artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


The ending of the film highlights Loretta’s performance of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” to a sold-out crowd. It’s a lovely moment that both speaks to her rapid success, as well as her pride in her humble roots. Not only do we have her to thank for such bangers as “Fist City” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough”, but for encouraging people – women especially – to pick up that guitar. When we look at Loretta today, not only are we looking at country, but determination, commitment, and strength. She was certainly woman enough and then some.

 

Ordinary People

Director: Robert Redford

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton, Elizabeth McGovern, E. Emmet Walsh, Dinah Manoff, Fredric Lehne, James Sikking, Basil Hofffman, Quinn Redeker, Mariclare Costello, Richard Whiting, Meg Mundy, Elizabeth Hubbard, Adam Baldwin, Scott Doebler

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Judd Hirsch), Best Actress (Mary Tyler Moore)


By 1980, the list of films made about mental health included such gems as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Snake Pit, and The Caine Mutiny. Though all fantastic in their own right, it’s probably safe to say that mental health had rarely been portrayed within the context of, well, ordinary people.


In response to this, Robert Redford’s directorial debut attempts to defy the stigma that those struggling with mental health are some sort of outsider. In Ordinary People, he takes us straight into a wealthy suburb of Chicago, where a seemingly ordinary family is ultimately torn apart by their own disintegration.

The Jarrett’s are a picture-perfect family from the outside. Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), the mother of the family who is an active community organizer, does a wonderful job running her house, which looks like it’s taken straight from the pages of “Better Homes and Gardens”. The father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), is a successful tax lawyer who always wants to do and say the right thing. Rounding out the crew is Conrad (Timothy Hutton), an 18-year-old boy who attempted suicide as a method of coping with his brother’s tragic death a year and a half ago.


At the start of Ordinary People, Conrad has only been home from the hospital for just a month and is trying very hard to resume his life. He goes back to school, joins the swim team and the glee club, all in an effort to help him forget the fact that, just five months earlier, he attempted to end his life by slashing his wrists.


Anyone who looks at Conrad can tell he’s a wreck. He doesn’t eat, he’s nervous and is quick to anger. You’d think the poor guy could at least talk to mom and dad about it, but both deal with family drama like most troubled families: in silence. Love, once a feeling, is now nothing more than an expectation or an obligation.

Beth, for example, resolutely pretends that there’s nothing wrong with her son. She goes about her daily routine, playing golf, tennis, and bridge, with the determination of someone living the good life in Lake Forest, IL. Worse still, she can’t even manage to look at the kid. Not only does a part of her blame him for the death of her beloved Bucky, but Conrad even had the nerve to bleed on her bathroom rug when he attempted suicide. She’ll certainly engage him in conversation if they pass in the hallway, but she’ll refuse to take a picture with Conrad, even as the family celebrates Christmas.


Calvin can see there’s something wrong with his son, but he is unable to do much more than be enthusiastic in response to everything Conrad says. The best he can do is convince Conrad to see Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), a local therapist, to help him deal with his depression and anxiety. As Conrad’s sessions with Dr. Berger intensify, so do the Jarrett family tensions, which all too quickly reach a breaking point.


One popular criticism of Ordinary People is that this family is anything but ordinary; however, throughout the film, these characters – who are indeed anything but ordinary – try desperately to be what they consider “normal”. They have conventional breakfasts of toast and orange juice, they set the dinner table every night, show off perfectly manicured lawns. They play golf, go out with their friends, even wear the latest fashion – because that’s what “normal” people do…well, their version of normal, anyway. But their inner turmoil continually pulls them away from normalcy. Their house is beautiful, but there are no signs of life anywhere. Doors remained closed, feelings are swept under the rug. Beth can’t help her son because that would be admitting that her son has a problem and their façade of the perfect family unit disintegrates.

For as emotional as this movie was to watch, it’s even more heartbreaking to learn what was going on behind the camera. Timothy Hutton, whose stunning performance earned him a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, had just lost his father – actor James Hutton – to cancer a few months before filming began. Mary Tyler Moore was also dealing with the accidental shooting death of her son, as well as the death of her sister. On and off screen, Moore was in a declining marriage and grappling with alcoholism – far from the smiling girl we saw on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Redford, too, was dealing with his own failing marriage, as well as his troubled relationship with his own father. No question these folks were channeling their emotions bigtime during production.


The idea of contrast is apparent throughout Ordinary People, beginning with the title sequence – white letters on a black background. The only song we hear throughout the movie is Pachelbel’s Canon in D, a song most often played at weddings. The movie opens during Halloween – the holiday of deception – with Beth giving out candied apples to local trick-or-treaters. “That is the scariest ghost I’ve ever seen!” she says to one child. How ironic, since Bucky’s memory literally haunts her home. The fact that the film begins in fall – a season that marks the beginning of decline – and ends in winter – a time of death and remoteness – only echoes the fate of the Jarrett’s.


By the end of Ordinary People, our characters are still growing. There’s no end for them, only a beginning. This is a heartfelt, honest, and deeply personal look at what makes – and breaks – the American family.

 

The Elephant Man

Director: David Lynch

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Hannah Gordon, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones, Frederick Treves, Michael Elphick, Dexter Fletcher, Helen Ryan, John Standing, Lesley Dunlop, Phoebe Nicholls, Morgan Sheppard, Kenny Baker, Pat Gorman, Pauline Quirke, Nula Conwell

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (John Hurt), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Music, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Phantom of the Opera, The Elephant Man has a growing tension that resolves itself ever so slowly…yet, when it does, what we’re left with is a thing of strange beauty.


From the minds of David Lynch and Mel Brooks (one of the weirder Hollywood combos) comes the heartbreaking true story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a tormented soul we first meet at a carnival freak show in Victorian-era London. Most likely suffering from what we now know as proteus syndrome, Merrick was horribly deformed and could barely speak. The growths on his body made it near impossible for him to sleep, eat, even hold his head up correctly.

On first glance, The Elephant Man might come across as a horror film – especially with David Lynch at the helm. This version of London – cold and unsympathetic – is far from Merrick’s more romantic and hopeful view of the world, despite how he’s been treated. Thus, the true horror lies in people’s capacity for cruelty and the tragedy that Merrick, a tremendously kind and gentle man, falls victim to merely because he looks different.


The setting is London. The time: 1880’s. Those rich and fashionable folks who were educated and employed just continued to benefit as the Industrial Revolution succeeded in making the rich man richer. But beyond those elegant parks where kids played croquet was the real London…the place of crowded, narrow streets, slums, factories and sweatshops…the place where smoke, grime and noise were not just annoyances, they were ever-present.

It's in this London where Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) finds John Merrick, coined “The Elephant Man.” The main attraction at a Victorian freak show in London’s East End, Merrick is a kind soul inside a broken shell.


Treves, who is fascinated by Merrick’s condition, invites him to his hospital. Treves’ methods are 2-fold. Having Merrick there will not only help keep him safe, but will give Treves the opportunity to study his fascinating condition.


Over time, the entire hospital staff warm up to Merrick, as Treves works with him to improve his speech and overall quality of life. His residency also interests the upper class of London Society, including actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft), who come to drink tea and talk with Merrick in his room. Though Merrick willingly accepts guests to his quarters, many of the staff can’t help but wonder – is life as a professional medical specimen all that different from the carnival tour?


It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the message here: that internal ugliness is much more sinister than external. What’s so frightful in this film is not Merrick’s face, but the actions of those around him. The circus owner who manages Merrick (and later kidnaps him) locks him in a cage beside a pair of vicious monkeys. A swarm of people attack Merrick in the train station even though he has done nothing wrong (and he even tried to hide his deformities so as not to scare anyone), and the local drunk brings women and friends to see Merrick long after the hospital staff has gone home (somehow this hospital has no security???). This is the monstrosity of humanity. These are the people who deserve the cruel nicknames, the ones who should be exposed for what they actually are: monsters.

These actions that demonstrate a lack of humanity are what we should fear. As the film progresses, we start to look past Merrick’s physical appearance and we see a vulnerable, smart, good man. A man who’s genuinely interested to learn about people’s families, who wants to go to the theater, have friends over for tea, discuss the intricacies of Shakespeare. A man who loves his mother unconditionally, even if modern society can’t help but blame her for how he looks. “I must have been a great disappointment to her,” he says. “I tried so hard to be good.”


For most people, it’s hard to watch movies about outsiders being made to feel isolated for their differences rather than celebrated for what they have to offer the world. The famous scene in the train station is just as harrowing as it is heartbreaking, hearing John screaming for his dignity: “I am not an elephant. I am not an animal. I am a human being!” Even today we seem to endorse a culture that exploits those that are suffering or in some way less fortunate (Hoarders, Sixteen and Pregnant, or literally any show about those struggling with their weight). In our entertainment, are we still allowing the freak show’s modern-day equivalent to flourish?


While it’s not totally perfect, The Elephant Man still maintains a poignant sting…underlining the message that love and compassion are not a luxury or a privilege, but basic human rights.

 

Tess

Director: Roman Polanski

Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson, John Collin, Rosemary Martin, Carolyn Pickles, Richard Pearson, David Markham, Pascale de Boysson, Suzanna Hamilton, Caroline Embling, Tony Church, Sylvia Coleridge, Fred Bryant, Tom Chadbon, Arielle Dombasle, Dicken Ashworth, Lesley Dunlop

Oscar Wins: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design

Other Nominations: Best Director, Best Original Music, Best Picture


It’s a little sickening that Roman Polanski’s first film after fleeing from justice would be an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a story about a young girl who is raped by a man who pretends to be her protector. It was a story presented to him by his girlfriend of the time, Sharon Tate, who desperately wanted to play the lead. Released 10 years after her murder, Tess bears the dedication “For Sharon” after the title credits.


Set in England (but filmed in France because Polanski is a little, gross, pustulate coward of a human being), Tess is a long, long, long pastoral story about being the victim of circumstance. After her father learns that he is a descendent of one of the most prestigious families in England, Tess (Nastassja Kinski) is sent to visit the last of the rich D’Urbervilles, who reside on a wealthy country estate.

Alec D’Urberville (Leigh Lawson), the nephew of the mistress of the manor, offers Tess a job and eventually seduces her. Utterly shamed, Tess runs away – returning home to bear a child who dies in infancy.


She soon finds a job at a dairy farm, where she falls in love with Angel Clare (Peter Firth), the son of a preacher man. Knowing nothing of her past, he proposes marriage to her, which she willingly accepts. It’s not until after they are wed that Tess recounts her sad story. Angel is shattered and abandons his wife without so much as a goodbye.

With no money, Tess is forced to return to Alec, where she finds employment and settles down with him. All seems fine until a repentant Angel returns, wanting Tess back…but Alec isn’t one to give up so easily. It seems Tess will have to take matters into her own hands, finally deciding once and for all who her heart belongs to.


For her part, Kinski’s Tess is not unlike a soft doll, a young porcelain Peter Pan who never really grows up, despite her very adult problems. Even when she’s supposed to be much older, her face is childlike. While that can certainly just be chalked up to the nature of film, it almost seems an intentional choice. Tess’s actions are often immature and she almost needs someone to constantly be looking after her.

However, like mentioned above, Tess is a victim of circumstance. She’s constantly pulled down by history, mistakes, and – in general – by no fault of her own. She’s an innocent, forced into trying to live up to a name and class that doesn’t suit her. When she’s raped by a man she’s (somewhat) come to trust, it all starts to fall apart. Even the “savior” character (literally named ‘Angel’) steps all over her by accusing her of not being the woman he fell in love with after learning about her past. In the end, Tess must make a horrible decision, each with dire consequences. The poor girl never stood a chance.


Most of the issues with Tess are numerous, but forgivable. It’s way too long, but what period piece isn’t? It’s an interesting enough story, but everything exciting tends to happens off-screen. It seems the only unforgivable curse is its director. While it’s certainly a lovely film to watch, its association with Polanski puts a bit of a black mark on it. It’s unfortunate because, all in all, Tess is a pretty solid movie…but Polanski and his history leave viewers wondering if we can separate the art from the artist. It seems Tess is just another victim of circumstance...again.

 

Raging Bull

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, Frank Vincent, Lori Anne Flax, Mario Gallo, Frank Adonis, Joseph Bono, Frank Topham, Charles Scorsese, Geraldine Smith, Candy Moore, James V. Christy, Laura James, Peter Savage, Don Dunphy, McKenzie Westmore, Gene LeBell, Shay Duffin, John Turturro, Coley Wallace

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Film Editing

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Joe Pesci), Best Supporting Actress (Cathy Moriarty), Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Picture


It seems there’s no story the bromance of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro love more than the journey of a tortured, violent, guilt-ridden character. Taxi Driver is the obvious example, but you could also add Goodfellas, Casino, and The Irishman to that list. And this doesn’t even include the Leonardo DiCaprio-driven projects, like Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Something about a broken man touches Scorsese’s soul.


And while characters like Travis Bickle will almost always claim the top spot on the list of Scorsese’s best anti-heroes, the broken and tortured Jake LaMotta is not too far behind.

Based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull is the story of a psychopathic character whose uncontrollable violence is seldom matched, both in and out of the boxing ring. When LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is fighting in the ring, he’s a terror. Not only does he beat his opponents, he destroys them. Violence isn’t something he simply enjoys…he almost craves it.


It’s 1941 and LaMotta is battling his way to into the upper echelon of the Middleweight Class. Over the years, he wins several high-profile fights, including one against his arch-rival, Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes).

At home, he’s no less vicious to his wife, Irma (Lori Anne Flax) and brother/manager, Joey (Joe Pesci). Irma has one great scene (“You want your steak?!”) before she ends up leaving her abusive husband for good. It doesn’t take long for LaMotta to move on to wife #2, a 15-year-old named Vicki (Cathy Moriarty). For LaMotta, a wife is not a companion, but a possession, and Vicki becomes his greatest prize. However, his insecurity is so great that he cannot accept that a woman as beautiful as Vicki could be faithful to him. He’s constantly haunted by a belief that she is sleeping with someone else – perhaps even his own brother. Needless to say, married life isn’t GREAT for either one of them.


After a few wins and losses – both personally and professionally – LaMotta enters the 1960s a shell of his former self. He’s broke, he’s twice the size he used to be, and he’s fresh out of jail for corrupting the morals of a minor. He’s lost his wife and children and is forced to earn a few bucks by doing a cheap standup routine. Like Terry Malone, whose monologue from On the Waterfront bookends the film, LaMotta coulda been a contender, but he got in his own way. What LaMotta comes to realize, or maybe what he realized all along, was his biggest adversary was himself.

Like most non-fiction films, Raging Bull benefits from committed acting. After reading LaMotta’s book, Robert De Niro was instrumental in getting this project off the ground. He worked closely with Scorsese on the script development and jumped in head-first when it came to getting his body in shape for filming. He had a structured gym regimen, overseen by LaMotta himself, in order to learn the boxer’s distinct style. De Niro packed on 20 pounds of muscle and became so skilled that he even participated in three anonymous professional bouts, winning two of them.


Similar to Rocky, which came out a few years prior, Raging Bull is not a film about boxing…rather, the ring becomes a metaphor for LaMotta’s mental state. Though the bouts are as realistic as you’re likely to see on screen, Raging Bull is more a movie about a man’s capacity for self-destruction. Not only that, it offered Scorsese, a man losing track of his muse on a collision course with death after several cocaine and lithium stints, a second chance. Finally Scorsese saw a project he could relate to – one that echoed his own life. And even now, Raging Bull still packs a hell of a punch.

 



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