The 1984 Oscars (honoring movies from 1983) was a bit more traditional than 1988. But several of the films honored featured ensemble casts that I think threw off the awards that year, and it led to some odd nominations.
Here were the Best Picture Nominees. I’ve decided I can only do one of these if I’ve seen at least 3/5 Best Picture Nominees, so here they are:
I didn’t love Terms of Endearment. My father told me he loved the movie, but then added that his relationship to it is enhanced by the fact that it was filmed in his hometown of Lincoln, NE and that during the filming Debra Winger started dating the then-Governor Bob Kerrey. I must admit, if that happened when I was in my early 20s I would love the movie, too.
Since that was not the backdrop for my viewing, I thought the movie was oddly-paced and not overly interesting in its portrayal of mother-daughter relationships. I liked that the men were side characters without much substance so as to maintain focus on Winger and MacLain. But I didn’t buy their relationship. They were at once clingy and estranged, which I read as confusing instead of nuanced. I never felt that I had a good read on their base-line relationship so it was difficult for me to chart change over time.
I think it was one of those book-to-movie adaptations where something important was lost. The movie moved through time quickly, only showing us little vignettes, which also made it hard for me to cobble together their relationship. And the tear-jerking ending made me feel like the whole thing was a sappy Hallmark movie marketed to women because we like being emotional.
This said, the acting performances were quite good. My favorite part of the movie was the relationship between MacLain and Nicholson; she’s a prim widow and he’s a philandering ex-astronaut. He wanders around the movie with his little paunch and his hair all wild. I love it. This performance was all Nancy Meyers needed to write/cast him in Something’s Gotta Give.
Shirley MacLain completely deserved to win. It’s a meaty, Oscar-friendly performance: tension, drama, comedy, romance.
Terms scored Oscars for Nicholson (Supporting Actor) and MacLain (Lead Actress). But the nominations pitted costars against each other (John Lithgow against Nicholson and Debra Winger against MacLain). I don’t know if the rules have changed, but today Nicholson would probably move to the Lead Actor category and Winger to the Supporting Actress so that they had a full slate of nominees, even if this stretched the definition of “lead” and “supporting” (see Rooney Mara’s Supporting nomination for Carol this year).
Perhaps because of so many ensembles, the Supporting Actor nominations were a bit insane. Lithgow was in like 3 scenes of Terms while Nicholson was an integral part of MacLain’s story arc. Sam Shepherd was also nominated for his 6 scenes in The Right Stuff, which again made no sense to me. Perhaps in a year with so many ensembles the Academy split their votes and smaller performances ended up getting nominations while bigger, better performances were left out. If it were up to me, I’d nominate William Hurt or Kevin Kline (The Big Chill) and maybe Ed Harris (The Right Stuff) before Lithgow or Shepherd.
Ultimately, Robert Duvall won Best Actor for Tender Mercies and Linda Hunt won Best Supporting Actress for The Year of Living Dangerously. I didn’t see either movie, but there was no one nominated in those categories who I felt was robbed.
I’ve expressed my love for The Big Chill elsewhere, but I do want to say a few things about some of the characters. Glenn Close was the only one nominated for an acting award, and I’m fine with her not winning. She’s good, but her character just isn’t that meaty. In fact she and Kevin Kline both bugged writer/director Lawrence Kasdan to give them different parts because they were the more boring “mom and dad” of their friend group. Of course that means they were also the glue, essential to group functioning even if they’re boring.
But I find their sacrifice/gift to Mary Kay Place to be one of the most emotionally satisfying moments of the entire film, hence my desire for Kline to get a nomination.
Jeff Goldblum is great as the skeevy friend, Tom Berenger is delightful as the actor trying to make meaningful connections, and Meg Tilly is powerful as the damaged ex-girlfriend of the newly deceased. JoBeth Williams, however, didn’t work for me at all. She was the girl all the guys wanted in college, but I didn’t believe she was really part of their friend group outside of the fact that she was sleeping with the guys. She seemed incapable of strong female friendship, namely because she couldn’t connect without sex (I would have loved a lesbian subplot). Her friendship failures went unexamined, and I think was a weakness in an otherwise near-flawless movie.
Mary Kay Place is pitch-perfect. Her story arc required her to proposition all the men in the house, and she managed to do that in a way that was familiar over sexual. Her role was less outwardly dramatic than Glenn Close’s (which is probably why Close got the Oscar nod), but if Place had overacted her part it would have given the movie a completely different tone. William Hurt’s character, the impotent veteran, also could easily have been overdone. He’s so subtle and reserved yet you can see that everything’s just bubbling under the surface with him.
As you might have guessed, this would have been my pick for Best Picture. It checks in with the protesting baby boomers and it has some profound things to say about friendship, love, loss, politics, and change over time.
More astronauts! The Right Stuff should have been a mini-series. It was over 3 hours long and it never seemed to figure out what story it wanted to tell. It was about Chuck Yeager and the shift from test pilots to astronauts. It was about the Mercury 7 astronauts (Cooper? Glenn? Shepherd? Grissom?). It was about the hyper-competitive performance of masculinity among pilots in the 1950s and 60s. It was about America daring to do something bold and then achieving it. All of these are interesting stories, but combined it made a mess of a movie that sprawled aimlessly for 193 minutes.
HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon (1998) and ABC’s The Astronaut Wives Club (2015) depicted many of the same events with more nuance and depth because they had more time and space to do so. I prefer them both to the reboot-the-space program propaganda piece that was The Right Stuff. And I really like the space program, hence me watching the two series above. Nominated for 8 awards, it won 4: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Film Mixing, and Original Score. I’m okay with all of those, and I’m glad it was shut out of acting and directing awards.
That said, John Glenn is a god-damned national treasure.
I was going to watch Silkwood, but I didn’t have the energy/will to do so after The Right Stuff. #sorrynotsorry