Akira Kurosawa had a lot of trouble raising the money to finance Kagemusha, and rightly so - it was to be the most expensive film ever made in Japan. When Toho Studios couldn't fulfill the budget demands of the film, American film directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola stepped in to help Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa was visiting San Francisco in July 1978 and met Lucas and Coppola. The two convinced studio 20th Century-Fox, still riding high after the success of Lucas' Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977), to advance-finance the film and fund the remaining portion of the budget. This was done in exchange for the film's worldwide distribution rights to the picture outside of Japan. This was the first time that distribution rights to a Japanese film had been pre-sold to a major Hollywood studio.
Kagemusha (1980) became an international hit, received two Oscar nominations, and allowed Kurosawa to secure funding for his next movie, an even more ambitious effort. (In Kurosawa's own words, Kagemusha was a "dress rehearsal" for his next film.)
That next film would get Kurosawa nominated for Best Director in 1985, knocking Steven Spielberg out of the nominees' list. Spielberg, also a great admirer of Kurosawa, was Lucas' "bosom buddy" and collaborator in many projects. A bit of dramatic irony there.
Ran is the last great masterpiece of Akira Kurosawa. He made other great movies after that, but Ran is the epitome of his art; magnificently epic and simultaneously hauntingly humane. the film runs variations on the themes of King Lear. The aged lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) hands power to his eldest son, at the same time banishing the youngest, the only one to speak honestly to him. Betrayal is piled on betrayal as the eldest sons turn against the old man, relentlessly spurred on by Kaede (Mieko Harada), malevolent, viperish wife of the new ruler.
Moments of poetic delicacy – the youngest son cutting boughs of blossoms to make an arbour to shade his father as he dozes under a soundtrack of glorious birdsong – give way to sequences of battle so intense and violent that they beggar the imagination. The first battle – one of the most impressive in Kurosawa’s entire oeuvre – opens after Hidetora says the words “We are in hell” at the one-hour mark. All direct sound drops out and Tôru Takemitsu’s Mahler-inflected score takes over, rising and falling over exquisitely edited images of repeated arrow-showers, hundreds of soldiers with colour-coded uniforms and banners rushing headlong back and forth, corpses by the dozen, blood everywhere, the murder of six concubines by gunfire, and finally the burning of the castle to the ground, with the old lord slowly going catatonic amidst all the mayhem. It is a staggering six minutes of cinema, reminiscent of Bruegel’s great painting The Suicide Of Saul, whose titular event occurs off-centre, almost unacknowledged, as giant armies of ant-like soldiers swarm over the rest of the painting.
The film had universal critical acclaim: Marc Savlov in the Austin Chronicle said it best: "One of the 10 best films ever made, period."
Steven Spielberg's film was equally ambitious, if ultimately less satisfying. The Color Purple follows the life of Celie, a young black girl growing up in the early 1900's. The first time we see Celie, she is 14 - and pregnant - by her father. We stay with her for the next 30 years of her tough life.
The film, based on a novel by Alice Walker, was proposed to Spielberg by Quincy Jones. Before production, Spielberg felt very insecure about taking on the project. In fact, his initial response to Quincy Jones' request was no. Spielberg felt that his knowledge of the deep South was inadequate and that the film should've been directed by someone of color, who could've at least related to the struggles faced by many blacks living in the old south. Jones then argued, "No, I want you to do it, and besides, did you have to be an alien to direct E.T.?" Spielberg appreciated his friend's logic and decided to take the role as director of the film.
The film was the acting debut of two women that would go on to become household names and rise all the way to the top: Whoopi Goldberg was a stand-up comedienne before Spielberg chose her for the leading role of Celie. Oprah Winfrey (Sofia) was already a talk-show host, whose talk-show would explode to national fame during the following year. You surely know them both, right?
Chaka Khan, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Phyllis Hyman and Lola Falana were considered for the part of Shug Avery; the role finally went to relative unknown Margaret Avery, who until then mainly worked on TV. The film's main male protagonist was Danny Glover, while Laurence Fishburne and Adolph Caesar were also cast members.
The film was a big hit. In fact, it was at #4 on the year's list of highest grossing films. Not everything was rosy though: Some critics, especially those in the black community, slammed this as "male bashing and racist". Still, others slammed Spielberg, a white male director, as being out of touch with the themes of racism and sexism in the novel, and for soft-pedalling the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug in the novel.
The reviews were mixed; some were enthusiastic, while others were condemning. Variety was somewhere in the middle: "There are some great scenes and great performances in The Color Purple, but it is not a great film. Steven Spielberg’s turn at ‘serious’ filmmaking is marred in more than one place by overblown production that threatens to drown in its own emotions. But the characters created in Alice Walker’s novel are so vivid that even this doesn’t kill them off and there is still much to applaud (and cry about) here."
Speaking of the year's list of highest grossing films, Out Of Africa occupied position #5, right behind The Color Purple. A sprawling epic that carried us from early 20th century Denmark to the plains of Kenya, it was based on Karen Blixen's autobiography. This was the sixth out of seven times experienced director Sydney Pollack worked together with Robert Redford; their collaboration included classics like Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were and Three Days Of The Condor.
Redford initially intended to play Denys Finch Hatton as an Englishman. Pollack felt it would be too distracting for audiences. Redford had to overdub some of his lines from early takes when he used a trace of English accent.
While Klaus Maria Brandauer was always Sydney Pollack's first choice to play Bror Blixen, Meryl Streep was not his first choice for Karen Blixen. The part was originally offered to Audrey Hepburn. When she turned it down and Streep was mentioned, Pollack was against the idea, as he didn't think that she was sexy enough. Streep landed the part by showing up for her meeting with the director wearing a low-cut blouse and a push-up bra.
Having obtained the part, Streep once again showed the world what a dedicated actress she was. She developed her faultless accent by listening to recordings of Karen Blixen reading her own works. She worked close to an accidentally unrestrained lion and then even closer to some very territorial hippopotamus, without losing her cool (not too much to affect the scene, anyway).
The most characteristic example of her dedication to the part, in my opinion, is this: Early in the film, Baroness Karen Blixen is introduced to her servants. Although the scene is intercut with close-ups and other inserts in the film, the first take was filmed as one long shot that required Streep to meet and exchange dialogue with several other characters. As soon as director Sydney Pollack yelled "Cut," Streep, wearing a high-collared shirt and snug jacket, yelled "get this thing off of me!" and ripped open her jacket. A beetle the size of Streep's hand had crawled down the front of the jacket moments after the camera rolled, yet she continued filming the scene, Much of it remains in the final film.
Meryl's dedication paid off. Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times: "In Meryl Streep, the film has a Karen Blixen of such intelligence, intensity, and obsessiveness that you can believe she would one day be able to write the cool, dark, bewitching prose for which she later became known." He also mentions that Bror Blixen was "beautifully played by Klaus Maria Brandauer."
Streep was on her way to become the ultimate Oscar goddess; Jack Nicholson was on his way to becoming her male counterpart. At the time Nicholson was seeing Anjelica Huston, so it was only natural that they would make a movie together. The fact that it was to be directed by Anjelica's dad, the legendary John Huston, was an added bonus. Prizzi's Honor was a funny but incisive look at the question of honor, which, at least in the world of organized crime in which the movie takes place, is synonymous with greed. Nicholson portrayed a professional hit man who fell in love with a hit woman, portrayed by the "it" girl of the early 80s, Kathleen Turner. Anjelica portrayed the shrewd boss's granddaughter, while veteran William Hickey was the mob boss. Robert Loggia and Stanley Tucci were also part of the good ensemble.
Prizzi's Honor was released on June 13, 1985, to universal acclaim. Film critic Pauline Kael wrote in her review, "If John Huston's name were not on Prizzi's Honor, I'd have thought a fresh, new talent had burst on the scene, and he'd certainly be the hottest new director in Hollywood."
Fresh off the huge success of the two Indiana Jones movies, Harrison Ford kept making the right career choices. This time he took on a role that was rejected by Sylvester Stallone (he said it was one of the worst decisions of his career) in Witness, by up-and-coming Australian director Peter Weir. The film, a crime drama set in Amish country, did great at the box-office (#8 in 1985) and received great reviews. Empire glowed: "Arguably Harrison Ford’s finest performance, and one of the strongest thrillers to emerge from the heady gloss of the ‘80s, this is director Peter Weir at his most adept."
An actor who seemed to be everywhere in the 80s was William Hurt. For such a rising star, it was a huge risk to take on a gay role. Yet he trusted Brazilian director Hector Babenco, who made his mark internationally four years earlier with the powerful Pixote, the story of the life of a boy in the streets of Sao Paulo, involved with little crimes, prostitution, etc. The film that Hurt and Babenco collaborated in was Kiss of the Spider Woman, the story of a gay man and a political prisoner together in a prison. The film, an independent production, also cast the charismatic Puerto Rican actor Raul Julia as the political prisoner and the equally talented Brazilian Sonia Braga as the Spider Woman.
Hurt initially struggled with developing characterization and mannerisms for Luis, until he became inspired to portray the character not necessarily as a homosexual, but more like "a woman trapped in a man's body." Also, during rehearsals, the two male actors had trouble finding the chemistry they needed for their scenes together. To better understand what each needed from the other's role, Hurt suggested they try an experiment where they would switch roles. The role-switching rehearsal went so well that Hurt initially suggested to director Hector Babenco that they should switch parts for the film as well. Obviously, the switch did not occur but Hurt states that it was a very useful experiment in helping them more fully understand their own characters.
It indeed worked: F.X. Feeney in L.A. Weekly said: "Leonard Schrader adapted the screenplay from the novel by Manuel Puig, and his fearless willingness to explore every corner of human nature serves what is greatest and sweetest in the performances of William Hurt and Raul Julia."
Another director who rose to fame in a non-english speaking country was Russian Andrey Konchalovskiy. After impressing the West with movies like Dyadya Vanya (1972) and Siberiade (1979), he was invited to work for Hollywood, and his first movie there, Maria's Lovers (1984) was a hit. In 1985 his offering was a fast and thrilling action adventure called Runaway Train, amazingly based on an original screenplay by none other than Akira Kurosawa!
As renowned film critic Roger Ebert said: "Andrey Konchalovskiy has given the story the kind of wildness and passion it requires; this isn't a high-tech Hollywood adventure movie, but a raw saga that works close to the floor." Also noted were the performances of the two leads; CineVue opined: "The true winning formula, however, is found in Jon Voight and Eric Roberts' double-act. Their eccentric characters are funny, violent and heartwarming all at the same time, where we root for them despite the fact that they're basically psychopaths."
Let's return to the highest grossers of the year. Here's the top 10:
We have already presented Nos 4,5, and 8, now let's deal with the rest. There are two original comedies at 9 & 10, there are three sequels in Nos 2,3, and 7, of which the two (Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV) were the recipients of the most Razzies (the awards for the worst pictures) that year.
At #6 is the story of a strange success: who would think that a movie whose heroes were senior citizens would be such a hit? It was one of the first films directed by Ron Howard, who had made a splash with Splash the year before. He was by no means a stranger to Hollywood, however. Appearing in movies since the tender age of two(!), he was a highly visible child actor who exploded to fame when he was cast as the lead in Happy Days, a TV show that was a smash hit in the 70s. For the film in question, Cocoon, he gathered a group of veteran Hollywood and Broadway actors (Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Gwen Verdon, Maureen Stapleton, Wilford Brimley, Jack Gilford) and gave them a chance to shine. The story of a group of trespassing seniors who swim in a pool containing alien cocoons, and find themselves energized with youthful vigor resonated with both public and critics alike.
The highest grossing film of 1985 was produced by Steven Spielberg and his team: Back To The Future established director Robert Zemeckis as an A-list Hollywood player, and gave former child actor Michael J. Fox, who was also starring in a hit TV series, Family Ties, his most memorable screen role, which was to be repeated in the film's two successful sequels. The time-travelling comedy-adventure was also a big hit with the critics. The Boston Globe wrote: "The best mainstream film since "E.T.," is an uplifting reminder that Hollywood can still produce truly great entertainment."
Considered by many to be one of the greatest American actresses of all time, Geraldine Page had not yet taken home the prized golden statuette. By having been Oscar-nominated 7 times already (3 times for Best Actress and 4 times for Best Supporting Actress), she had the title of the most nominated loser, as far as actresses were concerned... Would she get lucky the 8th time? Her potential winning vehicle was a small movie called The Trip To Bountiful, adapted by Horton Foote from his own play. The movie, the tale of an elderly woman in 1940s Texas who is determined to visit her childhood home for one last time, is a meditation on the mental process of accepting old age. As Roger Ebert wrote: "Geraldine Page inhabits the central role with authority and vinegar. The movie surprises us: It's not really about conflict between the generations, but about the impossibility of really understanding that you are even a member of an older generation, that decades have gone by."
Another small movie was Martin Ritt's third collaboration with Sally Field, after the Oscar-winning Norma Rae and Back Roads. The film was a low-key romance set in a small town between a divorced woman with a teenaged son and a widowed pharmacist, touchingly portrayed by veteran James Garner. Reviews were generally favorable and the film's grosses were rather good.
John Pielmeier's play, Agnes of God, had three meaty female parts. So, when it was decided that it would be made into a movie by Norman Jewison (The Russians Are Coming, In The Heat Of The Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler On The Roof) a director who knew how to best showcase his actors, all the top actresses of that time leapt at the chance; the lucky ones were Jane Fonda as the psychiatrist, Anne Bancroft as the Mother Superior, and Meg Tilly as the young pregnant nun.
The film was well received; Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times: "Miss Tilly makes a radiant Agnes, and Miss Bancroft a shrewd, forceful Mother Superior."
Best Picture: The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Out of Africa, Prizzi's Honor, Witness.
Best Director: Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman), Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa), John Huston (Prizzi's Honor), Akira Kurosawa (Ran), Peter Weir (Witness).
Best Actor: William Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman), James Garner (Murphy's Romance), Jack Nicholson (Prizzi's Honor), Jon Voight (Runaway Train), Harrison Ford (Witness).
Best Actress: Anne Bancroft (Agnes of God), Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple), Meryl Streep (Out of Africa), Jessica Lange (Sweet Dreams), Geraldine Page (The Trip To Bountiful).
Best Supporting Actor: Don Ameche (Cocoon), Robert Loggia (Jagged Edge), Klaus Maria Brandauer (Out of Africa), William Hickey (Prizzi's Honor), Eric Roberts (Runaway Train).
Best Supporting Actress: Meg Tilly (Agnes of God), Margaret Avery (The Color Purple), Oprah Winfrey (The Color Purple), Anjelica Huston (Prizzi's Honor), Amy Madigan (Twice In A Lifetime).
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Back To The Future, Brazil, The Official Story (La Historia Oficial), The Purple Rose of Cairo, Witness.
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Out of Africa, Prizzi's Honor, The Trip To Bountiful.
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Brazil, The Color Purple, Out of Africa, Ran, Witness.
Best Costume Design: The Color Purple, The Journey Of Natty Gann, Out of Africa, Prizzi's Honor, Ran.
Best Cinematography: The Color Purple, Murphy's Romance, Out of Africa, Ran, Witness.
Best Film Editing: A Chorus Line, Out of Africa, Prizzi's Honor, Runaway Train, Witness.
Best Sound: A Chorus Line, Back To The Future, Ladyhawke, Out of Africa, Silverado.
Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing: Back To The Future, Ladyhawke, Rambo: First Blood Part II.
Best Effects, Visual Effects: Cocoon, Return To Oz, Young Sherlock Holmes.
Best Makeup: The Color Purple, Mask, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.
Best Documentary, Features: Broken Rainbow, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, Soldiers in Hiding, The Statue of Liberty, Unfinished Business.
Best Foreign Language Film: Argentina: The Official Story (La Historia Oficial), France: Three Men And A Cradle (3 Hommes Et Un Couffin), Hungary: Colonel Redl (Oberst Redl), West Germany: Angry Harvest (Bittere Ernte), Yugoslavia: When Father Was Away on Business (Otac Na Sluzbenom Putu).
As usual, we left the music nominations for the end. Here are the nominees for Best Music, Original Score:
For Agnes of God, Georges Delerue:
For The Color Purple, a football team (soccer to you Americans) of 11(!) composers: Quincy Jones, Jeremy Lubbock, Rod Temperton, Caiphus Semenya, Andraé Crouch, Chris Boardman, Jorge Calandrelli, Joel Rosenbaum, Fred Steiner, Jack Hayes, Jerry Hey, Randy Kerber:
For Out of Africa, John Barry:
For Silverado, Bruce Broughton:
For Witness, Maurice Jarre:
How about the songs? Here they are. Best Music, Original Song:
Surprise Surprise from A Chorus Line • Music: Marvin Hamlisch • Lyrics: Ed Kleban. Sung by Gregg Burge and cast:
Power of Love from Back To The Future • Music: Johnny Colla & Chris Hayes • Lyrics: Huey Lewis. Sung by Huey Lewis & The News:
Miss Celie's Blues from The Color Purple • Music: Quincy Jones & Rod Temperton • Lyrics: Quincy Jones & Lionel Richie. Sung by Táta Vega:
Say You, Say Me from White Nights – Music & Lyrics: Lionel Richie. Sung by Lionel Richie:
Separate Lives from White Nights • Music & Lyrics: Stephen Bishop. Sung by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin:
Here are a few songs that, although eligible, didn't make the final five.
Don't You (Forget About Me) from The Breakfast Club • Music & Lyrics: Keith Forsey & Steve Schiff. Sung by the Simple Minds:
Maybe God Is Trying To Tell You Something from The Color Purple • Music & Lyrics: Quincy Jones, Andraé Crouch, David Del Sesto, and Bill Maxwell. Sung by Táta Vega:
Into The Groove from Desperately Seeking Susan • Music & Lyrics: Madonna & Stephen Bray. Sung by Madonna:
Out of Africa and The Color Purple led the pack with 11 nominations each. Then came WItness and Prizzi's Honor with 8 nominations each. Ran, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Back To The Future had 4 nominations each. Runaway Train, Agnes of God and A Chorus Line had 3 nominations each. All the rest had one or two nominations each.
A few pertinent facts: The Color Purple equaled the record of The Pride of the Yankees (1942) by having eleven nominations without its director being nominated. Nobody has equaled or broken the record since.
Out of Africa was the first movie nominated for Best Picture that had the actual name of a continent in its title. There have been a few "American" nominees, but none with the actual word "America" in its title. None of the other continents were represented in this category either. Australia came close with the Baz Luhrmann film, but it only managed a Costume Design nomination.
Jessica Lange got her fourth nomination in four years with Sweet Dreams, in which she portrayed country music legend, Patsy Cline.
Glenn Close, on the other hand, who had 3 nominations in the 3 previous years, failed to get a fourth one in a row. Her starring vehicle though, the courtroom drama Jagged Edge, nabbed one nomination for veteran supporting actor Robert Loggia. The fact that he was also good in Prizzi's Honor obviously helped.
With his screenplay nomination for The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen was on his way to becoming the most nominated person of all-time in the writing categories. He has had (until today) 16 nominations and 3 wins. Add to that the 7 nominations and 1 win he's had as a director, as well as the one nomination he's had as an actor, we arrive at the grand total of 24 nominations and 4 wins. Meryl Streep, eat your heart out...
Brazil was probably ex-Monty Python Terry Gilliam's best movie; it received two nominations. It would start a series of four movies of his in a row that would receive two nominations or more. The other three were The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, and Twelve Monkeys.
The two Honorary Award receivers were two very famous Hollywood people with multiple nominations and no wins. Paul Newman and composer Alex North. A sort of consolation prize. Paul Newman would waste no time; he would go on to win a proper Oscar the following year. This wasn't the case with Alex North. With 15 nominations and no wins, he's still the most nominated loser as far as musicians are concerned. Although Thomas Newman is close behind; with 14 nominations and no wins, it will take one more fruitless nomination to share this unwanted record with Alex North.
You would think Ran would certainly be among the Foreign Language nominees. The thing is, the Academy members couldn't vote for it because Japan didn't submit it! It submitted MacArthur's Children instead. Do you know it? Neither do I. It wasn't nominated... As for the foreign language films that were actually nominated, there are interesting stories to tell.
Argentina's The Official Story by Luis Puenzo, a political drama that examines some unexpected consequences of the reign of the relatively recently deposed military junta (dictatorship), was fortunate to have a very well-written (and Oscar-nominated) screenplay, as well as an impressive lead performance by Norma Aleandro. At the time of the Oscars, the film was already the winner of the Golden Globe for best foreign language film.
France's Three Men And A Cradle, a buddy comedy by Coline Serreau, was such a hit, that it was remade by Leonard Nimoy a couple of years later, as the hugely successful 3 Men and a Baby.
Hungary's Colonel Redl was István Szabó's second part of a trilogy that dealt with some dark aspects of the history of Central Europe in the first half of the 20th century. The previous one was Mephisto and the next would be Hanussen. All three were nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar. Mephisto would go on and win. Also, all three starred Klaus Maria Brandauer, the actor who was nominated for his supporting role in Out of Africa.
West Germany's Angry Harvest, a wartime drama, introduced to the world two people who would receive personal Oscar nominations in the years to come; director and screenwriter Agnieszka Holland and actor Armin Mueller-Stahl.
Yugoslavia's When Father Was Away on Business, an excellent political satire, was the film that made its director, Emir Kusturica, a household name in the festival circuit. The film was that year's winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
A few words about the nominated songs: three of those were huge international hits, including going all the way to the top of the US Hot 100 chart. Of the three, I like Power of Love the most. I find Say You, Say Me and Separate Lives rather bland. My favorite of the five, however, is Miss Celie's Blues. I like its old-time-blues quality, plus it serves the movie perfectly. Surprise Surprise, written especially for the movie version of A Chorus Line so that it would be eligible, is OK, but there as so many classics in the original stage musical that this pales by comparison.
As far as the non-nominated songs are concerned, I think that both Don't You (Forget About Me) and Into The Groove would have been good winners.
It was Out Of Africa's year; it won seven Oscars out of eleven nominations (Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Music/Score, Art Direction/Set Decoration, Cinematography, and Sound).
Geraldine Page was eighth time lucky and won hers for The Trip To Bountiful, leaving the title of the most nominated loser to others. Also, William Hurt's daring paid off, he was the first man to win the Best Actor Oscar for the portrayal of a gay man. A historic moment. Anjelica Huston's win for Prizzi's Honor meant that John Huston would have the distinction of directing both his father (for Treasure Of Sierra Madre) and his daughter to an Oscar win.
Witness had two wins, for Original Screenplay and Film Editing, while Ran got a very well deserved Oscar for Costume Design.
Best Supporting Actor went to veteran thespian Don Ameche; his one and only nomination was fruitful. Cocoon also won a second Oscar for Visual Effects. Sound Effects Editing went to the year's top grosser, Back To The Future.
Mask, an excellent film that further solidified Cher's status as an A-list actress won for Makeup, while the Oscars agreed with the Globes as far as the foreign language winner was concerned; it was Argentina's first Oscar win with The Official Story. The Best Documentary Oscar went to Broken Rainbow, a documentary chronicling the government relocation of 10,000 Navajo Indians in Arizona.
The big loser of the evening was The Color Purple: 11 nominations and no wins. It managed to equal the record held by The Turning Point for the most nominated loser. Definitely not Spielberg's happiest moment.
As far as the best song winner was concerned, blandness emerged victorious: Say You Say Me made Lionel Richie an Oscar winner. It wasn't the worst of Best Song wins, but it certainly wasn't the best either...