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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 65

Part 65: 1990


MOVIES:

  • Driving Miss Daisy (winner)

  • Dead Poet's Society

  • My Left Foot

  • Field of Dreams

  • Born on the Fourth of July (hidden gem)

Driving Miss Daisy

Director: Bruce Beresford

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Jessica Tandy, Dan Aykroyd, Patti LuPone, Esther Rolle, Joann Havrilla, William Hall, Jr., Muriel Moore, Sylvia Kaler, Crystal R. Fox

Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Jessica Tandy), Best Makeup, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Morgan Freeman), Best Supporting Actor (Dan Aykroyd), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing


From Oscar and Felix to Anna and the King, there have been hundreds of Hollywood odd couples…unlikely partnerships…mixed marriages. These duos are popular in that they fuel a story with immediate conflict right off the bat, then proceed to use that relationship as a way to promote human understanding.


In Driving Miss Daisy, a black man and an elderly Jewish woman unite on a journey of 25 years, yet are almost constantly divided by skin color, class, and institutional racism. They’re an unlikely pair from the start, but come to discover they may have more in common than they originally thought.

Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) is nothing if not stubborn. As a wealthy, upper-class Jewish woman living a comfortable life in a Georgia neighborhood, Daisy will not have people doing things for her that she can do herself. Even into her early 70s, she’s self-sufficient and able to go about her life without much issue.


That is until she confuses the accelerator with the brakes on one driving trip and ends up crashing her car into her neighbor’s yard. When the insurance company cancels her policy, her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) has no choice but to hire Hoke (Morgan Freeman), a steadfast widower in his early 60’s, to drive the reluctant Miss Daisy to temple, the library, and her weekly mahjong games.


Daisy is initially against the idea, though she comes to warm up to the notion of being driven around like Southern royalty. Her hostility toward Hoke also erodes over the course of the film (about 25 years pass from beginning to end) and, by the end, the two admit that they are the bestest of friends. Aww!

Daisy and Hoke are not only divided by race, but by religion, class, and personality. Their relationship isn’t all that different from classic tales of property owners and servants, interactions that can be warm and kind on the surface but are anything but genuine. Ironically it’s not until the end of the film, with Daisy in her 90s and unable to feed herself, that she can finally admit that Hoke is her truest, most loyal friend.


Sheltered by her own self-righteousness, Daisy is blind to her own failings. She’s a perfect example of the kind of “good” person Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about in an archived speech later in the film: someone who believes in the equality of people but neither acts nor speaks out to affect any change. While she continually preaches that she’s not a prejudiced person (which she’s not, technically), she’s also oblivious to the fact that her lifestyle is built on a foundation of racism. She believes in human rights, yet still has black servants in her house. The only time she seemingly musters up any sympathy is when her temple is bombed in a terrorist attack. Only then does she come to realize that her and Hoke might not be so different after all.

Similar to other films in its class, Driving Miss Daisy was super successful at the box office. It was credited with presenting the issue of institutional racism in a fashion that wasn’t too “in your face” for mainstream viewers (unlike Do the Right Thing, for example). It’s a feel-good movie that makes “good” people feel better about still resorting to semi-racist stereotypes. But it’s also a film of great love and patience – a story that shows us that friendship is forged through small kindnesses, like sharing a slice of pie or a drive to the grocery store. It’s a story about our differences, but also our similarities…and a reminder that it takes empathy, patience, and compassion to overcome anger, hatred, and resentment.

 

Dead Poet's Society

Director: Peter Weir

Starring: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Dylan Kussman, Allelon Ruggiero, James Waterston, Norman Lloyd, Kurwood Smith, Alexandra Powers, Melora Walters, Welker White, Leon Pownall, George Martin, Carla Belver, Jane Moore, Kevin Cooney, Colin Irving, Matt Carey, John Cunningham

Oscar Wins: Best Original Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Robin Williams), Best Director, Best Picture


There is an understated innocence and sense of nostalgia about Dead Poet’s Society that’s hard to put into words. It’s something that speaks to your heart rather than your mind…and is profoundly spiritual at its very core.


If you look at it on a surface level, it’s no different than the dozens of other school-themed movies that came out in the 80s and 90s (see School Ties, Rushmore, and Dangerous Minds, just to name a few), but what makes Dead Poet’s Society top of its class is that it doesn’t focus so much on teacher-student relationships, though it would have you believe that, but on sucking the marrow out of life before we’re nothing but dirt in the ground.


Set in Vermont in 1959, Dead Poet’s Society tells the story of a group of teenage boys who all live and study together at an exclusive boarding school called Welton Academy. In this school, rules and guidelines are not only followed, they’re the very backbone of the educational program. At Welton, learning is something taken twice daily so you can wake up a doctor in the morning.

New arrival Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) soon falls into step with his new roommate, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) and his group of friends. Also new this semester is an English teacher named John Keating (Robin Williams), who himself is a former alumnus of the school.


At first, Mr. Keating’s teaching methods are a bit shocking to the students. They’re used to diligent notetaking, long reading assignments, droning lectures. But Mr. Keating will have none of that. In his first lesson, he teaches them the importance of thinking for themselves, of seizing the day, of making their lives extraordinary. He encourages them to see things from unique perspectives (by standing on their desks) and sanctions rebellious actions, like ripping boring passages out of their textbooks.

It doesn’t take long for these young minds to warm up to Keating. Neil, who is especially inspired by Keating’s unconventional methods, comes to learn that – when Keating was a student at Welton – he was a member of a secret club known as “The Dead Poet’s Society”, a group of men who would gather in a cave and read poetry in order to celebrate life and woo women. Neil then takes it upon himself to resurrect the club, with himself as the leader.


Over the course of the school term, Neil and his friends grow in confidence and decide to “…suck the marrow out of life”. Todd overcomes his shyness, Knox (Josh Charles) decides to pursue a girl he’s fallen for, and Neil finally finds something he’s passionate about: theater. He’s eventually cast as the lead in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, despite his strict father forbidding him to go through with the performance.


Through it all, Keating stands by his students, encouraging them to pursue those things that make them happy. But happiness has no place at Welton. Those boys are there to learn physics and math, not prance around on stage. And when Neil’s father sets an ultimatum for his son, no one is safe – least of all Keating.

Dead Poet’s Society takes its time building our connection with these young boys as we begin to understand why each one of them needs Captain Keating in their lives. He’s the teacher that will surely change them…the teacher we all wish we had. He made it easy for a group of well-trained, ivy league-bound boys to fall in love with poetry, theater, acting, storytelling, love, desire, want, passion. But the biggest lesson we all learned from Keating was to gather ye rosebuds while we may, to – in the words of one Jack Dawson – make each day count.


And that’s what makes Dead Poet’s Society so inspirational. Though it takes place in a school, this is not a film about learning, or poetry, or even teaching. It’s about death. In Keating’s lessons, we learn that time is precious, that those not busy being born are busy dying. We must lead lives of passion and conviction because we’ll all soon be “…fertilizing daffodils.” It’s that message that speaks to us, not as students or poets or doctors, but as humans.

 

My Left Foot

Director: Jim Sheridan

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Hugh O’Conor, Brenda Fricker, Ray McAnally, Fiona Shaw, Kirsten Sheridan, Alison Whelan, Eanna MacLiam, Declan Croghan, Marie Conmee, Cyril Cusack, Phelim Drew, Eileen Colgan, Ruth McCabe, Adrian Dunbar

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actress (Brenda Fricker)

Other Nominations: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to write this review with my left foot. As a matter of fact, I even tried typing one sentence with my left toe and, needless to say, it was quite difficult. But for Christy Brown, a brassy Irish boy born with severe cerebral palsy, it was the only way he was able to communicate.


The story of Christy Brown is one of great human courage and determination. His life struggles should put him on the same list as Helen Keller, Michael J. Fox, and Andrea Bocelli, yet it’s hard to imagine him being good company for any of those people. Far from a saint – or even an advocate – Christy was a mean, boozing, condescending Irishman who just happened to be handicapped. Yet he would grow into a gifted poet, novelist, and painter – tasks he could only complete with the one appendage he had control over – his left foot.

Born into a poor family in Dublin in the early 1930s, Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis) was diagnosed with a severe disability that left him with almost no communication or motor skills. His father (Ray McAnally) deems him an imbecile, but his mother (Brenda Fricker) can see the human trying desperately to function within the tangle of uncontrollable body parts.


The only appendage that seems to still work is Christy’s left foot, which he uses to write, play sports, and paint. Though life is hard starting out, Christy eventually grows up and finds help from therapist Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw). She helps improve the clarity of his speech and encourages him to follow his passion for painting. But there are troubles on the horizon. As Christy falls in and out of love and sinks into bouts of alcoholism, a combative, often explosive, personality makes it near impossible for anyone to get close to this troubled artist. Overtime, Christy gains prominence – but not necessarily acceptance. More than anything, he probably wanted to be accepted for who he was, but his frustrations at his own limitations were anything but well hidden.


DDL won his first Oscar for his part in My Left Foot, an award much deserved (though I can’t help but think Tom Cruise might have been more deserving for Born on the Fourth of July). However, the real standout was Hugh O’Conor, who plays Christy in his younger years. As a mere boy of 13, O’Conor had to manage the same acting level as Day-Lewis. Ironically, it was quite a physically demanding role (Christy would be in a wheelchair by the time DDL takes over), and one that must rely on expression to convey any and all emotions. Day-Lewis even honored O’Conor in his Oscar speech, calling him a “remarkable actor.”

The stories of how DDL prepares for roles are legendary. As a tried-and-true method actor, DDL completely immerses himself in his work. For his role in My Left Foot, he stayed in character the entire time. He worked closely with disabled people for three months while filming. He even painted all the pictures in the film with his own left foot. This man’s talent knows no bounds!


Though certainly inspiring, My Left Foot does suffer a bit towards the middle. With his speech impediment, it’s often near impossible to understand what Christy Brown is saying. Combine that with the thick Irish accent and half the dialogue is rendered pointless. While this is certainly authentic, it provides a less than engaging movie watching experience.

I am, however, thankful that the movie ends when it does. If you enjoyed My Left Foot, I would caution you to look up what actually happened to Christy later in life. Spoiler alert – it’s heartbreaking. This film spars us that sadness and allows us to simply wonder what Christy will do with his one, precious life.


All that being said, My Left Foot is still a wonderful film for many reasons. It’s not an inspirational movie, but it inspires. It’s not a sympathetic movie, though it inspires sympathy. Christy Brown may not be a household name, but he still should earn some credit for playing, quite brilliantly, the bad hand he was dealt.

 

Field of Dreams

Director: Phil Alden Robinson

Starring: Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, Gaby Hoffmann, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, Timothy Busfield, Kelly Coffield Park, Burt Lancaster, Frank Whaley, Dwier Brown, Lee Garlington, Michael Milhoan, Steve Eastin, Charles Hoyes, Art LaFleur

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Musical Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


I was 29 when my dad died. My dad was only 56. Though we were always close, we hadn’t had a chance to really get to know each other as adults, to talk about home remodeling, to pick the song we’d dance to at my wedding, to just sit and have a glass of wine together in the backyard.


My dad was a quiet guy, shy but engaging. If you knew him in passing, you’d probably say that he was funny and charming, that he loved his family, and that he had quite the collection of neckties. But those closer to him knew about his love of reading (particularly Tolkien), his famous cheese and sausage bites, and his deep – but not obsessive – love for baseball.

I’m not sure if my dad liked the film, Field of Dreams, but it seems like a movie that was almost made for him. It’s sentimental, imaginative, heartwarming, and whimsy – all the things my dad loved in a story. It also centers around the Chicago White Sox, a team my dad secretly supported (though he was outwardly a Cubs fan #chicagosports). But what I think my dad would have loved most about Field of Dreams is the simple message that there’s always money to be made from following your dream. My dad was never one to let money, or lack thereof, get in the way of doing what made him happy…and if what made him happy was to build a baseball field for a bunch of ghosts, you best believe he’d stop at nothing to round that home plate himself.


Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is a novice farmer who lives in Iowa with his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan) and daughter, Karin (Gabby Hoffman). While walking through his cornfield one night, Ray hears a voice whispering, “If you build it, he will come” and sees a vision of a baseball diamond in his field.

Indeed, Ray is experiencing – if not a midlife crisis – a point of reckoning. In baseball terms, he’s reached third base and is looking home…however, in this case, looking home means looking backward to his youth and the uneasy relationship he had with his deceased father. Achieving closure, in a personal sense, can only be done through baseball – the one thing both Ray and his father agreed on.


Ray tells Annie about his vision and his desire to build a baseball diamond in their backyard. Though skeptical at first, Annie finally allows him to plow the corn to construct his diamond, even though their farm is on the brink of bankruptcy. Months go by and bills continue to pile up. When all hope seems to be lost, Karin spots a baseball player on Ray’s field – a man Ray recognizes to be ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), one of the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox” who threw the 1919 World Series.

A series of events ultimately lead Ray on a cross-country road trip, where he attempts to seek out Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) and the aging Doc Graham (a wonderful Burt Lancaster in his final film). Now an angry curmudgeon, Terence was once a gifted author who dreamed of playing baseball professionally. In his youth, Doc played one inning of major league baseball, but never got a single at bat. I don’t want to give away too much here, but it soon becomes clear that all these guys might have a part to play in Ray reconciliating with his father.


If this sounds like a religious movie to you, you’d be right – except the religion is baseball. Like its title implies, Field of Dreams never tries to make the slightest explanation for the strange events that happen after Ray builds his diamond…and there’s something so brave in that. Movies today are often afraid to leave things to the imagination, yet this movie has a voice that tells some farmer to build a professional baseball diamond in his backyard so the ghost of Joe Jackson can hit a few fly balls. It’s the kind of movie Frank Capra might have directed, and Jimmy Stewart might have starred in – simply, a movie about dreams.

And that’s why Field of Dreams will not appeal to grinches and grouches and realists. It’s a fable, complete with one goofy situation after another. But it’s simple in its message: “If you build it, he will come.” It’s one of those quintessential American movies about family, love, and our connection to the past. However, what it does best is show us that our parents aren’t just authority figures or breadwinners, but people with hopes and dreams – some of which came true, some of which did not. They’re fragile, sensitive, and real. They’re people who aren’t perfect, who don’t have the answers for everything, and who have scars that they will carry into their elder years. And while we hope and pray they will be with us forever, the truth is they won’t. That’s the bittersweet beauty of Field of Dreams, and the heartbreaking reality of life itself.

 

Born on the Fourth of July

Director: Oliver Stone

Starring: Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe, Kyra Sedgwick, Jessica Purnell, Bryan Larkin, Raymond J. Barry, Jerry Levine, Frank Whaley, Caroline Kava, Cordelia Gonzalez, Ed Lauter, John Getz, Beau Starr, Michael Wincott, Edith Diaz, Richard Grusin, Stephen Baldwin, Bob Gunton, Vivia Fox, Jason Gedrick, Richard Panebianco, Anne Bobby, David Warshofsky, Reg E. Cathey, Josh Evans, Bruce MacVittie, Lili Taylor, David Herman, Andrew Lauer, Tom Sizemore, John C. McGinley, Wayne Knight, Tom Berenger, Richard Haus, Mark Moses, Holly Marie Combs

Oscar Wins: Best Director, Best Film Editing

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Tom Cruise), Best Cinematography, Best Musical Score, Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


Three years after Tom Cruise played the cocky flyboy in Top Gun, he played Maverick’s total opposite in Born on the Fourth of July. It was a strong performance, one that earned Cruise a number of acting awards, including an Oscar nomination (he lost the Oscar, but took home the Golden Globe).


His work in Born on the Fourth of July paved the way for a greater variety of parts to come, including serious, romantic, and comedic roles in A Few Good Men, Mission: Impossible, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia, and Eyes Wide Shut. However, this recognition was a double-edged sword. It seemed viewers weren’t as interested in Cruise movies that didn’t involve bare chests and aviators.

Furthermore, Born on the Fourth of July was a blatant deconstruction of American iconography – a direct contrast to the American advertisement that is the Top Gun franchise. And while both Fourth of July and Top Gun ask, in their own way, what it really means to be an American, only Fourth of July has the guts to question what it means to be a man.


The film begins in the early 1960s with footage of John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” speech. A Fourth of July parade in garish slow motion looks like a creepy Norman Rockwell painting in which everything is just a bit off.


Yet nothing stands in the way of Ron Kovic (Cruise) and his American pride. He believes everything he hears at the Fourth of July ceremonies in Long Island. He’s pure of heart, utterly patriotic, trusting of his mom, the Catholic Church, and the flag-waving values John Wayne stands for.

And nothing is more patriotic, more symbolic of one’s masculinity and ability, than joining the military. When a Marine recruiter (Tom Berenger) arrives at Ron’s school, claiming that recruits will “…find out if you really are men”, Ron is all too eager to sign up. He goes to Vietnam expecting to confirm his manhood, but instead has it taken away.


As Ron prays privately about going to Vietnam, he asks God to help him make the right decision. Quickly jumping from prom to the battlefield, the horrors of war are depicted for the next 20 minutes. In the total and utter chaos, Ron accidently kills one of his own, then is hit by enemy fire which paralyzes him from the chest down.


Sent to recuperate in a Bronx VA hospital, Ron endures rehabilitation in deplorable conditions, composed of rats, drugs, and failing equipment. He struggles to accept his paralysis and, upon returning home, finds himself in endless debates about war that leave everyone questioning their own values and patriotism. And, like so many before (and after) him, he finds himself turning to alcohol as a way to work through the pain.

Born on the Fourth of July’s final hour is devoted to Ron’s change from war-supporter to anti-war activist. These moments play out like a “greatest hits” collection, recounting key points in Ron’s life between 1970 and 1976, including his quest to apologize to the family of the soldier he accidently killed. By the end of Born on the Fourth of July, Ron (and Cruise) have a much different tenor – and not just because he’s in a wheelchair. There is an openness to him, a bittersweet understanding of the true cost of war. It seems that in losing his manhood, Ron Kovic gained his humanity.


Seeing this film as a tale of American masculinity undone might also explain why director Oliver Stone chose to cast Tom Cruise in the lead. What a shock to see a man – particularly an unstoppable bullet like Tom Cruise – stripped of his physicality. It wouldn’t be surprising if Cruise earned his Oscar nomination from one of the screaming matches he had with his mother, but I’d like to think it was that scene in the hospital where he was told he’d never walk again. Hanging limply from crutches, he insists he’s making progress, but it’s clear he’s just getting better at dragging his dead legs behind him. That’s a Tom Cruise moment if I’ve ever seen one.


Like Stone’s other Vietnam film, Platoon, Fourth of July speaks to the horrors of what can happen deep within the zone of chaos and bloodlust. It addresses the ineffective way in which men who fought in Vietnam were re-integrated into the society they had risked everything to protect. It’s one man’s political disillusionment, depicted with the aggressive intent of creating disillusionment in us all.

 



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