Bad Choices and Women’s Sexual Agency: The 1989 Oscars

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As we’ve seen already, the 80s were not a time when the Academy rewarded movies for visual artistry or innovative storytelling. Many of the movies nominated were not great. Yet a subset of these nominees (if not winners) had some interesting things to say about women’s sexuality, and the way white women have used it in society. I’m going to proceed by acting award, and then I’ll conclude with the didn’t-win nominees.

Lead Actor-Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man 

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I saw Rain Man when I was like 14 and thought it was a fine enough way to spend a Saturday night. I never want to see it again. It’s just such a down-the-middle movie. Selfish, privileged white man gaining some humanity through his disabled brother is not a particularly inventive or interesting narrative. Today Hoffman’s casting would probably get some blowback–you could cast an actor with a disability in that role. He’s been better elsewhere (like 9 years earlier when he won for Kramer vs. Kramer). I’m just over rewarding actors for parts where they have to “transform” (see Colin Firth in The King’s Speech or Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant). I find it much more interesting when they portray someone going through some serious internal turmoil.

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Hoffman’s competition included Gene Hackman for Mississippi Burning, Tom Hanks in Big (yeah, really), Admiral William Adama in Stand and Deliver, and the Three-Eyed Raven in Pelle the Conquerer.

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Rain Man also won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. I mean, okay? I haven’t seen Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, but I know it has a more artful and interesting direction (see its trailer) than Rain Man.

Lead Actress: Jodie Foster for The Accused

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Yeah, deserved. Unlike most of the winners, The Accused has a political and social message that unfortunately is still very relevant today. Foster effectively conveyed the way that class affects our understandings of sexuality, consent, and victimhood. This was her first win and second nomination. She is undeniably a great actress, if a bizarre human being. Her acceptance speech rambled about her various families or “tribes” that had supported her with a throwaway line at the end about human cruelty. I was expecting something more…feminist?

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Her competition was Glenn Close for Dangerous Liaisons, Melanie Griffith for Working Girl, Meryl Streep for A Cry in the Dark, and Sigourney Weaver for Gorillas in the Mist. Such a bizarre collection of female parts, but undeniably stronger than the Best Actor category. See my thoughts on Close below.

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I had not expected Tropic Thunder gifs to be so relevant to this Oscars

 

Supporting Actor: Kevin Kline for A Fish Called Wanda

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Like Beyoncé, I love Kevin Kline. But I can’t bring myself to watch or care about this movie. I hear a lot of people like it. While I don’t think that only dramatic movies should be rewarded at the Oscars, I am always skeptical when someone wins for a comedy. Especially when the performance is so broad. Was this really the best supporting performance of the year? I don’t know, but I kind of doubt it.

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A Fish Called Wanda is certainly the only movie represented by the Supporting Actor nominees that has endured in the public imagination. I haven’t even heard of most of his competition: Obi-Wan Kenobi (the old one) in Little Dorrit, Martin Landau in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (I swear that’s a real movie title), River Phoenix for Running on Empty, and Dean Stockwell in Married to the Mob. 

Supporting Actress: Geena Davis for The Accidental Tourist

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This movie is about a damaged, conservative, emotionally-stunted man (William Hurt) and the woman (Geena Davis) who heals him with her vagina. I was excited for it, as it reunited Lawrence Kasdan and William Hurt after The Big Chill and Body Heat. But it is not a great film.  Roger Ebert loved it. The New York Times writes that it “is the kind of literary adaptation that forgets that films have a language of their own.” I agree. Many of the lines of dialogue, which apparently come straight from the book, fall flat on the screen. Hurt and Davis have negative chemistry (and I find him wildly sexy).

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I couldn’t find any gifs of this movie, and I wasn’t about to spend time on it

William Hurt is a shell of a man who makes his living writing travel guides to help white male businessmen shelter themselves from the outside world. Like he tells them how to find American foods and goods abroad. Davis’ character isn’t particularly interesting on her own; she just seems like a freewheeling hippie because Hurt is so robotic. Their relationship is completely unbelievable, as is his semi-Amish family.

BREAKING NEWS: I JUST REALIZED DAVIS WAS MARRIED TO JEFF GOLDBLUM WHEN THIS HAPPENED. This changes everything. This is my new favorite old loves pairing.

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This GQ cover is everything

This was Davis’ first nomination and only win, which boggles the mind. I was wondering if this was the sorry-you-didn’t-win-for-Thelma-and-Louise pity award, but the Accidental Tourist was before Thelma and Louise. I don’t get it.

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Here she is thanking him during her acceptance speech

Fun fact: Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson presented the award with Dakota in utero.

Her competition was Joan Cusack in Working Girl, Frances McDormand in Mississippi Burning, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons, and Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl. I think they all deserved it more than Davis. Weaver has the distinction of being nominated in both Lead and Supporting Actress categories in the same year (winning both Golden Globes). I’m not sure this is allowed anymore. Pfeiffer is good in Dangerous Liaisons but not amazing.

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Forced to choose between these options, I would give Supporting Actress to Weaver because she has never won an Oscar, and this way they could indirectly recognize her work for both Working Girl and Gorillas in the Mist (see Alicia Vikander’s wins in 2015). Plus, her kind iciness in Working Girl is part of what makes the film so believable and interesting–she easily could have overplayed her villain role.

And now for Best Picture. Rain Man won over The Accidental TouristDangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, and Working Girl. 

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I can’t review Mississippi Burning because it has been inexplicably scrubbed from the internet. As far as I understand it’s a story about the Civil Rights struggle told from the perspective of white people. Thus while its subject matter is certainly more important than the other nominated films, it had some serious #OscarsSoWhite issues.

And now for the movies that were nominated and have something interesting to say about the role of women in society.

  1. Female Sexuality as a Weapon: Dangerous Liaisons. It is impossible for me to discuss this movie without comparing it to Cruel Intentions. Both are at turns funny, contrived, and biting.

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Did Ryan Philippe set out to mimic John Malkovich’s stilted and distanced manner of speaking? Ironically, both Philippe and Malkovich began romantic relationships with the co-stars they were supposed to be seducing in real life (Reese Witherspoon and Michelle Pfeiffer respectively). Witherspoon and Philippe got married in real life (RIP to that relationship), and had a far more convincing love story on screen. Malkovich was married at the time, and his affair with Pfeiffer is widely credited with breaking up his marriage to Glenne Headley. Whoops.

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Dangerous Liaisons didn’t set a sex scene to “Colorblind,” which was probably the problem

The biggest difference for me between the two films was Glenn Close/Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character. Gellar wanted to be the top plastic in school, and appeared to act out of jealous teenage rage.

 

Close, on the other hand, is motivated by a desire to upend male privilege in society. She vows never to remarry so that she will never be subservient to a man again. She knows that sexuality (and money) is one of the few tools women had at their disposal, and she used hers to control the men (and sometimes women) around her.

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The movie ends with this scene of Close wiping her face after getting booed at the opera. It’s a moving scene; the cherry on top of a great performance. Perhaps Close should have been nominated in the Supporting Actress category (studios commit category fraud all the time), and then she should have won. She’s been nominated for 6 Oscars (5 of them in the 80s), and has lost to: Jessica Lange in Tootsie; Linda Hunt in Year of Living Dangerously (in which this white woman played a male Chinese-Australian dwarf, which is wrong for so many reasons); Peggy Ashcroft in A Passage to India; Cher in Moonstruck; Jodie Foster; and Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady. She should have beat at least half of these nominees.

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Yikes, Linda Hunt

2. Sexuality in the Workforce: Working Girl. Three of its actresses were nominated (Melanie Griffith, Joan Cusack, and Sigourney Weaver). Working Girl is a movie about women’s relationships with each other masquerading as a romantic comedy. Melanie Griffith’s journey is one of gaining respect in the work place, not finding romantic love. Yet sexuality is inextricably tied to both Griffith and Weaver’s struggles in the film. Their respective relationships with Harrison Ford helped them make deals for their job. Both of them learn that deploying their sexuality a certain way is both advantageous and necessary for upward mobility.

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The negotiations between Weaver and Griffith involve that tricky calculus of gender, class, and privilege where what you say and what you feel are often so opposite. They cannot utilize their sexuality in the same way with each other that they can with men, and the false sense of sisterhood they feel pressured to form cannot overcome their differences.

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Working Girl addresses how inclusion does not mean equality, and demonstrates how the workplace was still a site of struggle for many women, particularly those with less educational or financial means.

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While I don’t think it’s a perfect movie, it’s certainly funny, timely, and quite enjoyable.

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The fashion and technology make it a beautiful time capsule

 

3. Men Strike Back: Bull Durham. Shut out from the acting awards, Bull Durham was nominated for Best Original Screenplay (losing to Rain Man). In it, Susan Sarandon plays a woman whose vagina is so powerful that she can help amateur baseball players become pros.

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She takes in one man-child every season, teaching him both sexual and athletic lessons. Until she meets Kevin Costner, an alpha male who already has been a pro ball player both sexually and literally. He doesn’t want her to have all the power in the relationship, and thinks that women are happier in relationships if men take charge. She ends up falling for him because their chemistry is electric [although this is where she and Tim Robbins fell in love in real life], and he’s a “real man” who will both tie her up and paint her toenails.

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He also looks pretty good in her robe

 

So there we have it. Some not-so-great movies were rewarded, Glenn Close was denied yet another Oscar, and Tropic Thunder proves its wisdom to be endless.

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One thought on “Bad Choices and Women’s Sexual Agency: The 1989 Oscars

  1. I have so many (not profound but enthusiastic) thoughts I just have to list them out.

    1) That Kevin Klein gif haunts me. I remember watching A Fish Called Wanda after reading that a man had a laughter-induced heart attack while watching it in theaters. That set some high expectations. It’s an undeniably pleasant and clever movie, but I agree, it’s hard to imagine it being Oscar winning, until the read the (lack of) competition. This comment didn’t add much, did it? Moving on.

    2) I totally get your attraction to William Hurt, but your comment on his complete lack of chemistry with Geena Davis reminded me of this horrific movie called Michael, where he was the love interest of Andie MacDowell (which is a tough job) and they had negative chemistry. I was 10 and I’m not sure I even understood the mechanics of sex, but I knew they weren’t having any. So maybe he’s just lacking when paired with curly-haired brunettes?

    3) I never knew Geena Davis was married to Jeff Goldblum, and now I mourn. Cause holy hell do they make sense as a couple. That GQ cover is something to aspire to.

    4) I haven’t seen Dangerous Liaisons in years, but my question is, could someone really be amazing in Michelle Pfeiffer’s role? I mean, it’s not a bad role, but is there much room to shine in it? It’s not like she got to lose her virginity as ‘Colorblind’ played in the background.

    5) I STRONGLY contest your description of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character’s motivations. Sure, she wanted to be the Queen-B, but she clearly expresses her frustration at the narrow expectations for her behavior and activities. Her motivations are less grand then upending the Patriarchy, sure. But c’mon. In her own words,

    “Eat me, Sebastian! It’s okay for guys like you and Court to fuck everyone. But when I do it, I get dumped for innocent little twits like Cecile. God forbid, I exude confidence and enjoy sex. Do you think I relish the fact that I have to act like Mary Sunshine 24/7 so I can be considered a lady? I’m the Marcia fucking Brady of the Upper East Side, and sometimes I want to kill myself. So there’s your psychoanalysis, Dr. Freud.”

    She’s rebelling against the social constructs of polite society that reinforce the capitalist hierarchy that subjugates women while pretending to elevate them. Yes her motivations are revenge, and you could dismiss her actions as a petty teenage tantrum. But she rages against a society that seeks to curtail and punish her sexuality and free expression, yet sets few other metrics for her to succeed by.

    6) It seems like a cruel joke of history that Glenn Close and Jodie Foster had to compete against each other. I hate that Close lost, and I would have hated it if Foster had. Shoulda put her in supporting.

    7) Is there a cut of Working Girl that removes Harrison Ford’s character? Is there a strong justification for that character being in the movie, besides offering prime 1980s Harrison Ford eye candy? I know it’s an important cog in the plot, but would the plot have been better with a rewrite removing that element?

    8) Bull Durham is stupid and I hate myself for loving it as much as a do.

    Liked by 1 person

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