After a lovely yet arduous Easter long weekend, I’m back with the next installment of my weekly feature: Ten Decades of Oscars. We’ve come a long way, covered a fair bit of ground, and now we’re here at the interminable 80s. And I must remind our readers that even though we’ve now reached the 80s, there’s no need for obnoxious hooting and hollering.
Last decade, I took the opportunity to speak about “following the artist,” and in this case we’re doing so with Jack Nicholson—not just in roles, but Oscar-winning roles to boot. Because this is what I did before I fully understood why I liked to consume most any film at such a young age: I found artists I admired or found a wealth of entertainment in and I followed them. My first memory of watching TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983) is still clear in my head: I told my mom I wanted to watch more Nicholson films and she suggested several, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT among them. Picture early-teen me, adorable as all get out, digesting this intimate film about a mother-daughter relationship too fraught with their intense personalities and self-centred attitudes, and becoming totally wrapped up in their lives—of which I have zero reference for, of which I cannot empathize whatsoever. This is the charm of James L. Brooks, and though I believe he reached higher peaks with later films BROADCAST NEWS (1987) and AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997)—again, follow the artist—TERMS OF ENDEARMENT has carved a neat hole in my heart since that indelible first watch and hasn’t let go. This is the kind of film I don’t think we’ll ever see win Best Picture again.
Or… perhaps I’m wrong? I developed a theory after GREEN BOOK won in 2018 when everyone called it a racially insensitive remake of DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989). We can talk all night about how GREEN BOOK handles its subject matter, but in terms of tone and approach, I thought the comparisons to DRIVING MISS DAISY were quite apt. To me it seems the Academy in the 80s is a little lost. They appear to lose their finger on the pulse of the monumental arthouse pictures of the age. Whereas in the 70s they understood the lasting relevance films like THE GODFATHER (1972) and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975) and THE DEER HUNTER (1978) would have, the 80s can be a mixed bag. Sometimes the voters swung for the excessive period piece epics like THE LAST EMPEROR (1987) and AMADEUS (1984) and GANDHI (1982), but even those films have, in my estimation, lacked the reverberating accolades throughout the following decades. What do I think of when I think of influential 80s cinema? RAGING BULL (1980), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1986). The era of Spielberg and Allen and Hughes. Larger-than-life blockbusters and down-to-earth stories of real people and well-written hammy comedies. The lightheartedness of the decade seemed to infuse itself to the films, which isn’t to say it dulled the artform’s teeth, but then again maybe it did for a while.
And so we received winners like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, which is a great film but divisive due to its praise and awards. I’ve read many criticisms of its slow, aimless plot or its saccharine piano score or its emotionally manipulative ending. These criticisms are fair, but the film is as imperfect as its characters and while I can’t dictate how anyone should watch a movie, that’s how I’ve always watched it. It’s a film that doesn’t judge its characters for their fence-sitting or their unfaithfulness or their impulsive decisions, or their occasional rage. It also doesn’t have an interest in viewing these complicated and sometimes overwhelmingly stressful lives in a maudlin vacuum; they are people and they laugh and they hope and they call each other and share stories and discover new things about themselves and their loved ones. Like many of its 80s counterparts, the film is not made in a particularly artful or flashy way. I don’t know if James L. Brooks knows how to make a more filmic film—he’s always seemed more interested in the human core of stories than how they’re conveyed.
But back to why I brought up GREEN BOOK: I believe that the 2010s winners can be usefully—or at least interestingly—measured against the 80s winners. Here, again, we saw a trend toward films that either told simple stories in engaging ways—less interested in politics than most award winners—or voters went for films they thought would have lasting waves on the medium. THE KING’S SPEECH (2010), THE ARTIST (2011), ARGO (2012), SPOTLIGHT (2015), GREEN BOOK (2018)—all films that, while perfectly enjoyable, I believe were chosen for their palatable and crowd-pleasing charms than their ability to influence future filmmakers. Let’s go back to the turn of the decade thirty years prior and see what won: KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), a non-flashy film about the non-flashy subject of divorce and child custody. From there we have ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980), CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981), TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983), RAIN MAN (1988), DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)—all films that were awarded because they were popular and palatable, their artistic merit or passion not considered. This doesn’t mean the films are bad, or even lesser (that’s a debate for your screenwriting workshop), but it does point to an interesting phase the Academy goes through. Even the bigger, ambitious works from the 1980s have their 2010s counterparts: GANDHI (1982) and 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013), AMADEUS (1984) and BIRDMAN (2014), THE LAST EMPEROR (1987) and THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)—none of these compare content-wise, but the art is part of the artform again. Heck, even take a look at prominent nominees from the two decades: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and INCEPTION (2010), THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) and LINCOLN (2012), RAGING BULL (1980) and THE REVENANT (2015), E.T. (1982) and MAD MAX FURY ROAD (2015), BROADCAST NEWS (1987) and THE BIG SHORT (2015), THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and THE MARTIAN (2015), TOOTSIE (1982) and GET OUT (2017). All films that will likely endure longer than those they lost against.
But don’t shrug off the winners. Even if they’re not all winners for you, it’s worth it to explore every avenue—to follow the artist. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT is a beauty that’s often discounted or forgotten nowadays. And maybe it does try to twist your emotions too heavy-handedly, but its heart is in the right place.
That’s it for the 80s. I ranted less than I’d planned to, so be grateful for that. Next up is the 90s, the decade that influenced me most growing up, and I gotta tell ya if you’re sick to death of all the 80s nostalgia STRANGER THINGS stuff that’s been in the mainstream the last few years, buckle up ‘cause the 90s are next and none of us are actually looking forward to that. Oh God, I just remembered they’re making another MATRIX movie. Remember BOBBY’S WORLD? It was a good show! And don’t get me started on the toxic plastic stink my Creepy Crawlers oven used to make. The other day I thought about buying a Lite Brite! What the hell for?! It’s coming, folks! The goddamn 90s nostalgia train is coming!
Anyway, next week’s contestants are:
DANCES WITH WOLVES
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
THE ENGLISH PATIENT
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
TERMS OF ENDEARMENT is available on Blu-Ray and for digital purchase on Apple TV, Google Play, or Microsoft.