Not That You Asked…Some Thoughts On Twin Peaks: The Return

And now come the think-pieces.

(Note for those of you new to the internet. This piece will be discussing David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return {or Season 3 or whatever you want to call it} in its entirety. This will include what are popularly referred to as “spoilers”. If you are invested in this show but have not yet watched all eighteen episodes, you may not want to read this.)

From the very beginning, to be a fan of Twin Peaks has involved a certain degree of frustration. Not merely tolerating it but actively thriving upon it. To truly appreciate the show, you had to love mysteries more than solutions. When a show’s co-creator admits in interviews that he has little to no interest in solving the murder mystery at the root of the proceedings, you should realize that frustration will be woven deeply into the fabric of the program.

Over the years, Twin Peaks has frustrated its viewers and fans (two groups that shouldn’t necessarily be mutually exclusive but kind of are) in a variety of ways. A lot of viewers got frustrated and jumped ship when the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer was still unrevealed at the end of the first season. Others became frustrated over the course of the second as the show became more esoteric and eventually rambled its way through a bevy of subplots (Ben Horne’s Civil War obsession, the DEA’s investigation into Cooper and, most notoriously, James Hurley’s dalliance with wealthy abused femme fatale Evelyn Marsh) that mostly went nowhere. And everyone who stuck around for the season two finale was frustrated by a series of escalating cliffhangers that were unlikely to ever be resolved.

All this frustration arguably reached its apotheosis in 1992 when the few remaining die-hards went to see Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Never forget that despite its recent re-appraisal by fans and critics, FWWM was a major disaster when it first came out, despised by virtually everybody who saw it. People were frustrated that it was a prequel focusing on the murder of Teresa Banks and the last days of Laura Palmer instead of a continuation that would provide some resolution to the series. They were frustrated that beloved Special Agent Dale Cooper was relegated to a relatively minor (and somewhat baffling) supporting role. And they were frustrated to learn that over an hour of footage, including both material featuring some fan favorite characters as well as stuff that actually helps you make some degree of sense of the damn thing, had been cut from the film.

So it came as no surprise when the recently concluded Showtime revival introduced an entire summer’s worth of frustration to Peaks viewers old and new. But a lot has changed in the years since we were last in Twin Peaks, not least of which is the way we engage with television. These days, the water cooler has moved online. Each and every television show worth discussing (and quite a few that aren’t) is given an online post-mortem, recapping the events of the week and giving fans a place to congregate, theorize and speculate. I followed a few of these for Twin Peaks: The Return and I was amazed to see that the level of discourse and criticism rarely rose above that of Homer Simpson: “Brilliant! I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”

The Return seemed to defeat the week-by-week analysis method of television criticism. Even something as simple as recapping the events of each episode ultimately proved futile as entire weeks would go by where seemingly very little happened. But without knowing where any of this was headed, the vigilant recapper would gloss over a scene at their peril (“Meanwhile, Andy and Lucy have a heated discussion over what color chair to order…”), resulting in some absurdly detailed articles that somehow still managed to miss the forest for the trees.

But despite all the virtual ink spilled over The Return, very few people attempted to analyze it at its most basic level: as a piece of motion picture storytelling (whether you consider it to be cinema or television is up to you). In other words, what about this thing actually works and what doesn’t? Everyone seems to have collectively decided that David Lynch is above such things. Whatever he’s doing can’t be discussed in terms of traditional filmmaking. Frankly, that’s a crock of shit. Regardless of whatever other artistic pursuits he chases down, Lynch is still a filmmaker, working with a script, actors, a crew and all the other stuff everybody else works with. Whether you’re a fan of his work or not, your initial response to his work, whether it’s positive or negative, is based on how it works as a movie, not as some esoteric puzzle that requires 60 minutes of transcendental meditation a day to decipher.

Now don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I felt that Twin Peaks: The Return worked beautifully. I certainly wouldn’t call it a disappointment. If anything, it was much better than we had any right to expect from such a belated follow-up. But it’s worth taking a look at what worked and what didn’t work here because I feel far too many people are reacting as though every minute of these 18 hours was an unassailable masterpiece. Twin Peaks has never been perfect and it does the show, David Lynch, Mark Frost and all involved a disservice to pretend like it is.

But before we look at what we got, I’d like to express my disappointment at a few of the things we didn’t. You can’t really criticize a show for not giving you what you want, especially this one, and this really isn’t criticism. This part is just the whining of a longtime Twin Peaks fanboy.

Sheriff Harry S. Truman/The Man from Another Place – I don’t know what happened that Michael Ontkean and Michael J. Anderson couldn’t be persuaded to return to Twin Peaks, whether it was something personal, health reasons, money or something else entirely (probably money…it’s usually money). Whatever it was, their absence reverberated throughout. Ontkean’s Truman was the heart of the original series, an audience surrogate who guided us into the strange world of the Black Lodge. Likewise, he was able to ease Cooper (and us) into the every day weirdness of Twin Peaks that was simply business as usual for him. The relationship he and Cooper forged over those two series was a key element in Twin Peaks’ success. As much as I love Robert Forster (more about him later), he was no substitute for Ontkean. But at least he was replaced with another human actor. Anderson’s Man from Another Place, a.k.a. The Arm, evolved into a tree skeleton with a blob of flesh on it. Of course in the Twin Peaks world, this evolution actually makes more sense than Harry’s job being taken by a previously unheard-of brother but still. Anderson was one of the first iconic, indelible actors who helped define the look and feel of Twin Peaks. Without him, The Return didn’t feel quite the same.

Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley – I may be the only person who was hoping for a return visit from Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland’s characters from Fire Walk With Me. Sutherland’s Stanley was a long-shot. The forensic specialist was newly paired up with Desmond to investigate the murder of Teresa Banks, maybe a test run arranged by Director Gordon Cole (Lynch) to see if he could handle a Blue Rose Case. It’s safe to assume he didn’t pass the audition. But Isaak’s Desmond disappeared without a trace, just like Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) and Coop. If Jeffries could come back despite Bowie’s death AND we could make time to catch up with former DEA Agent Denise Bryson (David Duchovny), an amusing but peripheral character, surely we could have spared a thought for poor Agent Desmond.

How’s Annie? – This one really irked me. Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) provided the whole reason Cooper went into the Black Lodge at the end of the second season in the first place. And as we glimpsed in Fire Walk With Me, she’s still in there. The fact that neither she nor her captor, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), were even mentioned in The Return felt like a disconnect to me.

(EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that Annie did indeed get out of the Black Lodge at the end of season two. I forgot about that. It’s also confirmed in a deleted scene from Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces showing her in the hospital. Mea culpa on that one, although I stand by the larger point about how nobody even refers to her or Windom Earle.)

As much as I would have liked to see all of the above turn up in The Return, I knew full well that none of them would be appearing before the first episode even aired. Considering the intense veil of secrecy surrounding the show’s production, it’s a bit surprising that Lynch released a complete cast list well in advance of the premiere. That information turned out to be 100% accurate, with no surprise omissions or red herring inclusions. It was the only scrap of information we had in the months leading up to the premiere and it was a far more effective teaser than any trailer or clip could be. It told us everything and nothing at the same time.

Even armed with this knowledge, one of the biggest question marks hanging over The Return was how Lynch and Frost would deal with the large number of prominent cast members who had died over the past 25 years. Apart from Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and the constant presence (felt if not always seen) of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), no one member of the cast seemed to have any more or less importance than another. It would have been fairly simple to acknowledge these passings with a nod and a line, or even ignore them entirely, and move on.

Instead, The Return’s resurrection of its late actors and treatment of death in general became one of its greatest strengths. Who could have predicted that Phillip Jeffries (originally Bowie, now an enormous steampunk kettle voiced by Nathan Frizzell) or Major Briggs (Don S. Davis, who died all the way back in 2008) would be key players in The Return? And yet, these revivals never came across as cheap, exploitative or crass. They were all deeply reverent, a tacit indication that no one other than these men and women could embody these characters. The touching dedications at the end of each episode served as a fitting, final goodbye.

In many respects, saying goodbye seemed to be the entire point behind The Return. Part of the reason the second season cliffhanger proved so frustrating was that we didn’t know at the time that it was the end of the road. Sure, the writing was on the wall as ratings continued to drop but that episode was never meant to be a series finale. It just became one by default after ABC pulled the plug.

In the years since, Lynch may have realized how much he underestimated our need for closure. That isn’t the same as resolution, something The Return steadfastly refused to provide. But watching The Return, steeled with the knowledge that whatever happened, this was probably the end, was a much different experience than watching that second season finale all those years ago. This was particularly true in the series’ second half. Our last glimpse of Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton), together and happy at last, or Margaret Lanterman’s (Catherine E. Coulson) heartbreaking final call to Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) felt like the end of a long road. And when Cooper says, “See you at the curtain call” to Cole and Diane (Laura Dern) in Episode 17, it felt like an acknowledgment that the folks who brought us Twin Peaks would finally be getting a chance to take a long-overdue bow.

What then are we to make of the fact that the curtain call never quite materializes in Episode 18? In the end, we’re left with Dale Cooper (or really, I guess, “Richard”) and Laura Palmer/Carrie Page, MacLachlan and Lee, the two constant presences, standing alone on the street in front of what used to be (or maybe will someday become) the Palmer house, asking “What year is it?” The episode works as a powerful visualization of the nostalgic impulses that drove this series, as a thematic epilogue to Twin Peaks in its entirety, and even as simply a tone poem exploring the quixotic urges inside Cooper’s quest to avenge and retroactively “save” Laura. But it’s a far cry from the traditional victory lap we usually envision as a curtain call. And how does it function within the overall narrative of Twin Peaks? Is there meaning here or is it completely inscrutable?

There’s certainly enough to unpack in this episode that I’m confident that it’s scrutable, given enough time, analysis and careful reviewing. But I’m less sure that’s the case with the series as a whole. Many of The Return’s best moments came in its second half, following the astonishing high point of Episode 8, 60 minutes of nonstop I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this-on-American-television mind-fuckery that only David Lynch could have delivered. Prior to that episode and even in several that followed, there were several blind alleys and detours that simply didn’t work. What’s astonishing is that The Return’s strengths overshadowed its weaknesses to such a degree that we all just kind of forgot about them.

The problem here, I think, is that David Lynch hasn’t been all that interested in narrative storytelling for a long, long time. All of his films have grace notes and superfluous sequences that don’t necessarily add anything to the forward momentum of the story being told. And that’s great in a single two-to-three-hour movie (although three hours is pushing it…overlength being one of several problems that sunk Lynch’s Inland Empire). But that kind of meandering becomes maddening over the course of 18 hours.

Did The Return need to be 18 episodes long? Absolutely not. As far as I’m concerned, if this had been a trilogy of movie-length episodes it would have been one of the towering television achievements of all time. First on my chopping block would have been, I’m sorry to say, Robert Forster and Candy Clark as Sheriff Frank Truman and his wife, Doris. I love both actors but Forster’s presence was too close to the heart of the series. He was never going to fit in entirely, despite his best efforts. The addition of Doris should have distinguished him more from his brother. But her few scenes, harping at Frank about minor offenses, felt like rehashes of stuff we’ve seen played out before between Ed and Nadine (Wendy Robie) or, for that matter, Pete and Catherine Martell (Jack Nance and Piper Laurie). If you’re going to go back to the well, at least come back with some fresh water.

There were plenty of other subplots that seemed to portend much but added very little, including Dr. Jacoby’s (Russ Tamblyn) new gig as podcaster Dr. Amp, most if not all of the goings-on at the relocated-for-some-reason Fat Trout Trailer Park run by Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton), and the various relationships between Shelly the waitress (Mädchen Amick), her daughter Becky (Amanda Seyfried), Becky’s cheating, drug-addicted husband Steven (Caleb Landry Jones) and drug dealer Red (Balthazar Getty). If you were paying attention to the credits on Episode 11, you were probably shocked to discover that the woman Steven was having an affair with was Gersten Hayward (Alicia Witt), youngest sister of Laura’s best friend, Donna. This seemed like it should be important. Turned out, it wasn’t.

Perhaps the worst offender in the Things That Went Nowhere Department was virtually everything that happened at the Roadhouse. Almost every week, in addition to some admittedly excellent but somewhat intrusive musical performances, we met a variety of locals, most of whom we’d never seen before and would never see again. Their conversations were intense, elliptical and full of references to people and events we didn’t know anything about. I found it easier to care about and become invested in the now-notorious floor-sweeping sequence in Episode 7. At least I knew what they were doing and why they were doing it.

Having said that, the best sequence in the Roadhouse makes me want to revisit the entire series and watch all of the scenes there more carefully. That’d be the arrival of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) and husband Charlie (Clark Middleton) in Episode 16, culminating in the reveal of Audrey waking up in that white room. I’d suspected something was off about Audrey’s situation from the first time we saw her. The dialogue, the situation, everything seemed stilted, even by Twin Peaks standards. So when it turned out that her trip to the Roadhouse was possibly not real, it made sense. Now I wonder if everything in that location was unreal. There’s also the question of Audrey’s missing lover, Billy. His name comes up throughout the series in a few different contexts. I’d be willing to bet that if you could piece together a plausible theory about Billy, you’d get a lot closer to figuring out what’s up with Audrey.

What’s frustrating (there’s that word again) is that even if you did all that, it’d still just be a theory. I really don’t believe Lynch and Frost have given us enough information here to know what’s happened to Audrey. She’s only the most egregious example. You could say the same about many of the other minor characters. But considering what a popular character Audrey was/is…she was even a favorite of Lynch’s…her treatment in The Return stings more than a little. She deserved better.

But we, the audience, got exactly what we deserved. Maybe even a little bit more. After all this time, we now have 18 more hours of imperfect television to add to the 30 or so imperfect originals and one very imperfect feature film. Happily, the best moments of The Return can stand toe to toe with the very best work Lynch has ever done. That’s a remarkable achievement for a guy who seemed to walk away from filmmaking completely over a decade ago. If The Return isn’t as cohesive or consistent as one might like, that’s OK. Consistency was never Twin Peaks’ strong suit anyway.

This kind of years-later creative reboot is rare, perhaps because it’s so risky even with the original creative team at the helm. The X-Files wasn’t able to pull it off and they only had half a dozen episodes. Lynch and Frost came much closer to recapturing the magic of their original creation than most. They knew they had lightning in a bottle back in 1990. And if there’s one thing we know about lightning, it never strikes in the same place or in the same way twice. They had the bottle but they were smart to go chasing after a different storm.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Shampoo

THE CONTENDERShampoo (1975)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Supporting Actor (Jack Warden); Supporting Actress (Lee Grant); Original Screenplay (Robert Towne and Warren Beatty); Art Direction (Richard Sylbert, W. Stewart Campbell and George Gaines)

Number of Wins: 1 (Supporting Actress)

Several months ago, around the time Rules Don’t Apply was released to thunderous waves of indifference, I was surprised to find myself having to explain who exactly Warren Beatty is to a few younger people. This wasn’t an isolated incident and, while I don’t think any of the people I spoke to would necessarily describe themselves as hardcore movie buffs, they certainly aren’t entirely ignorant of film history. They were very aware of Beatty’s contemporaries, including Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. But Beatty and his work had made little to no impact. By the time the Oscars rolled around, social media reactions to this year’s Best Picture snafu confirmed what I already suspected: an entire generation has grown up without a single clue who Warren Beatty is.

As I rattled off titles of Beatty’s most famous films to these twenty-somethings, it gradually occurred to me that it was no wonder they’d never heard of him. He’s only made half a dozen pictures since around the time they’d been born in the early 1990s and none of them really lit the world on fire. His biggest hit, 1990’s Dick Tracy, didn’t leave much of a footprint after it left cinemas. Today, it’s warmly regarded by certain fans as sort of a cultish curiosity but nobody has clamored for Dick Tracy Returns in the years since (except, perhaps, for Beatty himself and he’s in no hurry). Both Bulworth and Bugsy have their admirers and supporters but that isn’t the same as having fans. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to speak up for Love Affair or Town & Country, the latter of which is the nadir of multiple careers.

But even the movies that made Warren Beatty an icon have had surprisingly little staying power. Odds are the first movie that jumps to mind with Beatty is Bonnie And Clyde. But Beatty was already a huge star by the time it came out in 1967. He struck it big in his debut, 1961’s Splendor In The Grass, a soapy potboiler that really has not aged well. None of his other movies of the decade made much of a mark (although some are worth checking out) until Bonnie And Clyde. That film’s impact should not be underestimated but, for whatever reason, it’s no longer a movie many people check out just for the hell of it. I first saw it myself in a film history class. It wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to see. It was something I was required to see.

As both a movie star and a filmmaker, Warren Beatty is inextricably linked to the late 60s and 1970s. Many of his movies were very popular at the time of their release but they remain trapped there in amber, occasionally revisited by those who experienced them first but rarely discovered by new audiences. There is no better example of this than Shampoo, Beatty’s first venture as hands-on star-as-auteur following the success of Bonnie And Clyde. It was one of the biggest hits of 1975, was nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes, and is even ranked at #47 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list of the best American comedies. But while I was certainly aware of it, I’d never actually seen it until recently and, judging by its relatively low popularity ranking on such sites as Letterboxd and IMDb, I suspect I’m not alone in that.

Beatty (who also produced and co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Towne) stars as George, a Beverly Hills hairdresser whose talent as a stylist is equaled by his proficiency as a lover. He’s eager to open his own salon but when the bank won’t take his request for a loan seriously, he agrees to meet with Lester (Jack Warden), the conservative business tycoon husband of his client/lover Felicia (Lee Grant). Lester, who assumes George is gay, agrees to consider the partnership. He asks George to escort his mistress Jackie (Julie Christie) to an election night dinner party he’s hosting, unaware that she used to be George’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, Jackie has become something of a mentor to George’s current girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), and invites her to come along as well.

Shampoo is an unusual film in many respects. Beatty and Towne took William Wycherley’s Restoration-era comedy The Country Wife as their inspiration and it’s easy to see how Shampoo could be translated back to the stage. The action takes place in a tight 24-hour time span and the characters and their histories are woven together in the style of a classic sex farce.

The film takes place during the 1968 election and televised results feature prominently throughout. The deliberate foregrounding of the first Nixon/Agnew victory, coming just a year after Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, calls attention to the fact that Shampoo is a period piece, albeit one where the “period” was less than a decade earlier. But America had changed substantially in those seven years in both mood and style. Beatty, Hawn and Christie don’t even look the way they do in the movie on the poster. There, they’re given a contemporary makeover that looks more like the cover of a 1975 issue of Esquire than a bit of movie marketing. But this is very much a movie about the end of the 60s and the counterculture, the rise of conservatism, and the ultimate failure of both of these value systems. I can almost imagine a remake of Shampoo set during the Trump/Pence election coming out in 2023, although who knows what the world will look like then.

But while Shampoo is explicitly political and the sympathies of noted lefties like Beatty and director Hal Ashby aren’t exactly difficult to crack, its sexual politics are a bit harder to pinpoint. I do think it’s a mistake to view art of the past through the prism of today’s societal attitudes. So while Beatty’s casual dalliance with Grant and Warden’s sexually aggressive teenage daughter (played by Carrie Fisher, no less, in her film debut) probably wouldn’t pass without comment in today’s world, the fact that it does here shouldn’t necessarily ruffle too many feathers.

Also, while the movie isn’t exactly progressive in its views of homosexuality, it’d be a stretch to call it homophobic. George certainly isn’t bothered by the fact that Lester and other men think he’s gay. Indeed, it’s in his best interest that they do. And only once does Beatty start to edge toward the clichéd, limp-wristed flamboyantly gay caricature that most movies would use as their default mode and even in that moment, he stays a safe distance away from it. But actual gay people are pretty much invisible in this movie. This is homosexuality as a plot contrivance, not as a way of life, which may be offensive in its own way to some but it isn’t really what the movie’s about.

On the other hand, the movie is very much about women and that’s where its perspective gets a bit muddled. You’d be on thin ice if you called Shampoo a feminist movie. Sure, the women here are all sexually liberated and sleep with whomever they please, whenever they please. But for the most part, they all want to sleep with Warren Beatty and define themselves based on how much Warren Beatty wants to sleep with them. Goldie Hawn’s Jill is a model (or an actress…even her job is vague) weighing a job offer that’ll take her to Egypt for a few months. It’s annoying that she even has to think about it. There’s no indication that George loves her even half as much as she seems to love him and Jackie tells her as much.

George eventually realizes that Jackie’s the one woman he’s ever truly loved but that epiphany comes too late for him. Unfortunately, it isn’t because Jackie realized she doesn’t love him. It’s because Lester has decided to divorce his wife and run away with her. Jackie defines herself entirely by the men in her life, ultimately aligning herself with the one most likely to take the best care of her.

The film’s only Oscar win went to Lee Grant for her supporting turn as Lester’s wife, Felicia. Grant had been nominated twice before in this category, for her debut in 1951’s Detective Story and in Ashby’s The Landlord in 1970, and would be once again the following year for Voyage Of The Damned, so it’s fair to say that the Academy had been wanting to give her one for awhile. A victim of the blacklist after she refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, there was likely an element of Hollywood Survivor Reward to her victory. Her competition included Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin, both for Nashville which may have split their votes, and Sylvia Miles and Brenda Vaccaro for Farewell, My Lovely and Once Is Not Enough, neither of which were recognized in any other categories. Not that Grant wasn’t a deserving winner. She gives a strong, funny performance in an unfortunately underwritten role. Towne and Beatty’s script simply isn’t all that interested in developing the women in George’s life. That’s the weakness that prevents Shampoo from being truly memorable.

In many ways, Warren Beatty’s insistence on controlling nearly every aspect of the films he agrees to do is what has prevented his legacy from reaching new audiences. For one thing, he is not a fast worker and in Hollywood, out of sight does often translate to out of mind. But more importantly, other filmmakers haven’t had the opportunity to collaborate with him and use his persona and talent in new and interesting ways. One of Beatty’s best roles is in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller but it’s hard to imagine him agreeing to be in that picture if it had been made even five years later because he wasn’t the one calling the shots.

I’m sure even Hal Ashby would concede that Warren Beatty was the driving creative force behind Shampoo. And in the end, the film isn’t much more than a very interesting, intermittently entertaining time capsule, simply because the star at the center of the action fails to recognize that he is the least interesting thing about his own story.

Shampoo is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: X-Men: Days Of Future Past

THE CONTENDERX-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Visual Effects (Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer)

Number of Wins: Zero

By now, it’s widely accepted that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a blind spot when it comes to superhero movies. Even though the decision to increase the number of Best Picture nominees was largely seen as a corrective to the specific omission of The Dark Knight back in 2009, there still haven’t been any superheroes in the category since then. (Unless you count Birdman and you shouldn’t.)

Granted, there hasn’t been an overabundance of superhero movies recently that have really deserved a Best Picture nod. Deadpool’s surprise nomination for a PGA Award only raised its Oscar chances from impossible to unlikely. But perhaps more surprising is how poorly superheroes have done across the board, even in categories they might be expected to dominate. It barely requires two hands to count the number of superhero movies that have won any kind of Academy Award: Tim Burton’s Batman, Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles (which wasn’t based on a comic book but I’ll allow it), The Dark Knight, Big Hero 6, and now (sigh) Suicide Squad. If you want to stretch it, we could include Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which received a comparatively warm reception from the Academy, and Men In Black, a movie most people either don’t realize or don’t remember was based on a comic book. That’s almost as bad a showing as movies based on toys, games and theme park attractions.

Today, superheroes are an inescapable part of the pop culture landscape, generating billions of dollars and dominating both movie theatres and television. But when 20th Century Fox gambled on X-Men back in 2000, superhero movies were still risky. These days, we seem to get a new superhero movie every few weeks. But that first X-Men movie was the only one of its kind that year and the first real superhero movie we’d seen since Spawn and Batman & Robin fizzled out back in ’97.

(Note: Marvel did have its first taste of success with Blade in 1998 but the marketing downplayed its comic book DNA to focus more on bad-ass vampire action. And yeah, M. Night Shyamalan’s deconstructionist take on superheroes Unbreakable also came out in 2000 but I think we can agree that it’s a different type of beast than the movies we’re discussing here.)

Perhaps because it was a little early to the party, the X-Men franchise has never quite received the respect some of its contemporaries have enjoyed. At first, it lived in the shadow of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. The fact that Bryan Singer’s X2 outperformed the original both with critics and at the box office was soon overshadowed by how much Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 improved on its predecessor’s reputation. Both franchises were damaged by their third installments. But while Raimi decided to cut and run and Sony chose to start over after Spider-Man 3, Fox kept on truckin’ after Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand stumbled with critics. After all, the money coming in was still good.

Shortly after the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, the X-Movies entered the spinoff/prequel stage with the misbegotten X-Men Origins: Wolverine. While Marvel was being lauded for their ambition and scope, Fox was beginning to look like they didn’t know what they were doing with the X-Men. At this point, it would have been easy for Fox to follow in Sony’s footsteps and do a hard reset on the franchise. Instead, they doubled down on their previous work with X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days Of Future Past, two movies that allowed them to keep all of the elements that were working and get rid of those that didn’t.

The culmination of all these years’ worth of world-building, Days Of Future Past is, if anything, a little too ambitious for its own good. By its very nature, it was always going to be a little complicated in its attempt to reconcile multiple timelines. But while the X-Men movies have always featured sprawling ensemble casts, DOFP seems to go out of its way to introduce even more characters, some of whom are barely given more than a minute or two to establish themselves. At times, it feels like the movie should come with a cheat sheet just so you can keep track of who’s who.

Still, whenever a franchise can still surprise and impress audiences and critics with its seventh installment after over a decade, it must be doing something right. After Marvel and Sony worked out an arrangement to incorporate Spider-Man into the MCU, fans began to hope Marvel might work out a similar deal with Fox. Besides the X-Men, of course, the studio also has the rights to the Fantastic Four. Since that property has been thoroughly botched, fans would love Marvel to just take control of the FF lock, stock and barrel. But even fans who want the X-Men to fight alongside the Avengers don’t want to see these movies wiped clean. Ideally, they’d like the timelines to somehow merge or blend together so that they can be incorporated into the MCU. It isn’t likely to happen but it does prove that Fox has made more right decisions than wrong ones when it comes to the X-Men.

Despite fan loyalty, critical acclaim (most of the time) and box office grosses of over 4 billion dollars, no X-Men movie received a single Oscar nomination until Days Of Future Past was recognized for Visual Effects. Why this one? Not that the effects work isn’t impressive but is it truly that much better than what had come before?

Well, it is and it isn’t, which is probably a big reason why it didn’t win (it lost to Interstellar). Visual Effects is actually a tough, somewhat strange category. It’s one of those categories where, if the voters aren’t all that impressed by the year’s eligible films, there can be only three or two nominees or they’ll just give it to somebody outright. Some years, it’s not unheard of for the Academy to turn this car around and nobody gets an award. Lately there’s been no shortage of effects-heavy movies for their consideration but if you want a shot at this prize, be prepared to show audiences at least one thing that is impossible.

The effects in the X-Men movies have always been a bit workmanlike. They’re fine. There’s nothing really wrong with them, for the most part. But there also isn’t anything like the opening sequence in Gravity or that tidal wave in Interstellar that lingers in your memory and has audiences asking how they did that. Claws coming out of hands, girls walking through walls and folks massaging their temples or waving their hands in the air while they manipulate ice or fire or whatever? That’s all very nice but we’ve seen it plenty of times before.

The post-apocalyptic hellscape of DOFP’s future scenes and the shape-shifting Sentinels certainly didn’t hurt the movie’s chances at a nomination. But if one thing put the movie over the top, it was the “Time In A Bottle” sequence featuring Evan Peters’ Quicksilver making short work of an attack in a cramped, sprinkler-soaked kitchen. As entertaining as previous entries had been, none of them really had this kind of conversation starter setpiece before. Nightcrawler’s infiltration of the White House in X2 came close but it wasn’t scored to a Jim Croce tune. Never underestimate the power of a pop song to help land a scene in the film history books.

Even though the X-Men’s first time at bat didn’t bring home a trophy, there’s no reason to suspect Days Of Future Past will be the franchise’s last nomination. Even though Hugh Jackman (and apparently Patrick Stewart) are saying goodbye to the series with Logan (out this weekend), the series itself will continue. Considering the rapturous reviews Logan has been receiving, it isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility that it may find itself in contention next year. Jackman’s 17-year stewardship of the character is unprecedented and an impressive achievement in its own right but arguably the biggest hurdle standing between him and a Best Actor nomination is the calendar. Oscar voters are not known for their long memories and nomination time is a long way away. And while actors aren’t often recognized for this type of role, it would be kind of nice to see Jackman’s work given the validation of a nomination.

The X-Men movies have been taken for granted for too long. They’ve been doing this longer and more successfully than most of their contemporaries. And they haven’t been content to simply rehash the same formula over and over again. Movies like Deadpool and Logan (not to mention TV shows like Legion) show a willingness to innovate and expand the genre’s parameters. After all these years, you’d think they’d have more than a single Oscar nomination to show for it.

X-Men: Days Of Future Past is available on Blu-ray, DVD and 4K Ultra HD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated Redux

Well, another Oscar season has come and gone, along with the usual surprises, upsets and disappointments. Boy, who could have predicted Deadpool would become the very first write-in candidate to win Best Picture? Pretty crazy!

Actually, I started writing this on the Friday before the Oscars, at which time I had no idea what won or even if this year would bring the usual surprises, upsets and disappointments. As it turned out, this was a particularly unusual year. But in the days leading up to the event, a remarkably boring year would have meant that La La Land won every single award it was up for. But even the fact that nobody really thought that was likely…and that nobody could have predicted what actually happened…means that very few Oscar scenarios can truly be described as boring.

For those of us who aren’t likely to be receiving one any time soon, it can often seem like the only thing the Academy Awards are good for is complaining. No matter how many “substandard” movies take home the big prize, we still cling to the belief that the Best Picture winner should in fact represent the very pinnacle of cinematic achievement. Our own personal tastes coincidentally match the Academy’s just enough to make us believe in the inherent fairness of the system, despite the fact that a case for a superior alternative can be made for virtually every year the Oscars have been given. The argument is the same every year. Only the titles change.

This recurring theme was part of the impetus behind the creation of An Honor To Be Nominated. I introduced the column several years ago over at The Morton Report and it’s floated around the interwebs since, cropping up at The Digital Bits, One Perfect Shot and, of course, right here. The original concept was pretty simple: taking a look back at the movies that did not win Best Picture and seeing how they withstood the test of time.

Regardless of what site was publishing it, Honor never really set the world on fire. Obviously, some columns were more popular than others. Pretty much anything about Star Wars is gonna attract some eyeballs. But by its very nature, the column was going to have to look at some movies whose cultural moment had passed. I wasn’t exactly shocked that my analysis of The Blind Side didn’t prove to be click-bait. But considering how hugely popular the movie was at the time, I thought it was interesting to see how little lasting impact it had.

While I truly loved the original concept for Honor, I found myself running into a hurdle greater than public indifference that sapped a little of my enthusiasm for the project. Namely, most of the movies that have vied for Best Picture are pretty good. I realize this doesn’t sound like it should be a problem. But what I mean by this is that while only some of these movies are true masterpieces, and just a handful are outright terrible, the majority are simply above average. Their ratings on Rotten Tomatoes tend to land in the high-80-to-low-90 percentiles. That commitment to competence and professionalism doesn’t exactly inspire passion.

But if I cast the net wider to include ALL the nominated films in every category, an interesting thing happens. The pool now includes cult movies, blockbusters, bloated would-be epics that Oscar didn’t quite take the bait for, and odd outliers that had no business being there but crashed the party anyway. For all the pomp, circumstance and importance placed upon them, you’d think that an Academy Award nomination would at the very least guarantee a measure of immortality. It really doesn’t.

When you think of the films of 1977, you probably think Star Wars, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Annie Hall, all of which were nominated for and indeed won Oscars. But when’s the last time you spared a moment for I Never Promised You A Rose Garden? Or The Other Side Of Midnight? Or The Slipper And The Rose? All of them were up for trophies too, believe it or not, and Oscar history is littered with countless such forgotten also-rans. Hell, in the early years of the awards, some categories had so many contenders you’d think an Academy Award nomination was the equivalent of a participation ribbon.

Taking a broader look at the other categories reveals all kinds of interesting quirks and trends. For instance, people always seem surprised when a foreign language film is nominated in any category other than Best Foreign Language Film. But they’ve actually done reasonably well at the Oscars over the years, especially if your name happened to be Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa. It’s interesting to note that some but not all of the Harry Potter, James Bond and Star Trek movies have competed for Oscars. And while the Academy is unquestionably lax in diversity across the board, representation of women at least becomes a lot more interesting when you take the focus off of the Best Director category and look at writers, designers and editors. In some cases, better. But in others, a lot worse. For example, did you know that Best Cinematography is the only category (apart from Actor and Supporting Actor, obviously) that has never had a female nominee? Now you do.

From now on, An Honor To Be Nominated will be reconsidering all the movies nominated in any category. The title is remaining the same. Sure, a handful of movies have been nominated for just one or two awards and won everything they could. But most movies come up as a bridesmaid in at least one category. Even Ben-Hur and Titanic lost a couple of awards. (Trivia note: the biggest sweep so far was enjoyed by The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, which went 11 for 11.)

In rethinking the parameters of this column, I’ve settled on a few ground rules. One, I’ll be ignoring short films, except for those very rare instances where shorts managed to compete alongside features. Those are few and far between, however. Second, the movies had to be nominated and compete for their awards, so no special recognition and honorary awards like those given to Fantasia or early makeup winners like Planet Of The Apes. While most of these honorary appointees ended up competing in other categories anyway, a few slip through the cracks.

Finally, I’ll be making a best effort at tracking down some of these movies but, as anybody who has been following the JET’s Most Wanted project knows, even Oscar nominees aren’t guaranteed an afterlife. So there are some nominees and winners (particularly documentaries, foreign films and early contenders) that simply aren’t available. Rest assured that I’ll continue to spotlight these orphans as Most Wanted picks.

The new (and hopefully improved) An Honor To Be Nominated debuts on Thursday, March 3, and will appear biweekly every Thursday. The Academy doesn’t really have a special day of the week that they announce their nominations on but they’ve most often fallen on a Thursday lately, so I’m going with that. I know this announcement doesn’t rate as high as Red Vines and Junior Mints parachuting down from the sky but I hope you’ll enjoy this new direction and that we can rediscover some interesting movies together.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

THE CONTENDER: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Number of Nominations: 10 – Picture, Director (Ang Lee), Adapted Screenplay (Wang Hui-Ling and James Schamus and Tsai Kuo Jung), Foreign Language Film, Original Score (Tan Dun), Original Song (“A Love Before Time,” music by Jorge Calandrelli and Tan Dun, lyrics by James Schamus), Art Direction (Tim Yip), Cinematography (Peter Pau), Costume Design (Tim Yip), Film Editing (Tim Squyres)

Number of Wins: 4 (Foreign Language Film, Original Score, Art Direction and Cinematography)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is frequently (and justifiably) criticized for seeming to favor certain movie genres over others. It is highly unusual to see a broad comedy, a horror flick or a superhero epic compete in any category, much less Best Picture. But there are really only three types of feature film that the Academy treats as completely separate entities, relegated to their own categories: animation, documentaries and foreign language films. These movies are expected to stay within their own little niche groups, competing only against each other, and for the most part, they do. Only three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture so far (Beauty And The Beast, Up and Toy Story 3) and no documentaries have ever broken out of their race.

Foreign language films have had slightly better luck but not much. As of 2016, less than 10 non-English-language movies have been up for Best Picture, and that’s including Clint Eastwood’s US-produced, Japanese-language Letters From Iwo Jima. They’ve competed and occasionally won in other categories, including acting, directing and writing, but Best Picture remains just out of reach for most international productions. Of course, it hardly comes as a surprise that an organization that has struggled with diversity should remain stubbornly America-centric.

In theory, the Best Foreign Language Film category ought to provide a thoughtful alternative to the Best Picture category, a true lineup of the best in international cinema. But the rules in that category are both convoluted and restrictive. For example, each country is required to submit one, and only one, film for nominating consideration. This effectively turns the category into the Olympics of moviemaking. These submissions reflect the prevailing current attitude of each country, so there’s no way that someone like acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, officially banned from filmmaking by his country’s government, is ever going to have one of his movies submitted for Oscar consideration.

Considering how narrow a field the Foreign Language Film category has to select from, it’s a bit disappointing how many foreign-language Best Picture nominees were already represented in that category. This includes the strange case of Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1972 and then nominated for four additional awards, including Best Picture, the following year thanks to some of those convoluted rules I mentioned. But by far the most honored foreign-language film in Oscar history is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nominated for 10 Oscars back in 2001, coming in just behind Best Picture winner Gladiator as the most nominated film of the year.

Ang Lee is undeniably one of the most respected filmmakers working today but it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s also one of cinema’s most quietly eclectic and innovative directors. Unlike many international directors, Lee achieved crossover success outside of his home country early on. He received consecutive Best Foreign Language Film nominations for his second and third films, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. He successfully transitioned to Hollywood with Sense And Sensibility and The Ice Storm but suffered a high-profile setback with the costly western Ride With The Devil (although that too has enjoyed a bit of a re-evaluation since). Returning to Taiwan for his next feature may have seemed like a lateral or even backwards step. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved to be an enormous stride forward in both Lee’s career and for filmmaking in general.

While mainstream Western audiences had never seen anything like Crouching Tiger before, Eastern audiences (as well as hardcore Western movie buffs well-versed in the Hong Kong movie scene) immediately recognized this as a traditional wuxia movie, albeit one with a classier pedigree than usual. Wuxia tales are essentially Chinese martial arts fiction and they’d been part of the Chinese and Hong Kong film industries for about as long as those countries had been making movies. They exploded in popularity in the 1960s and 70s thanks to such producers as the Shaw Brothers and actor/directors like Jimmy Wang. But movies like The One-Armed Swordsman, Master Of The Flying Guillotine and even the acclaimed A Touch Of Zen didn’t really reach Western shores until much later. And when they did, they were often relegated to the drive-in and grindhouse circuit, all but guaranteeing that no one would ever take them seriously.

A truly international coproduction, Crouching Tiger was the first real attempt at reaching both Eastern and Western audiences simultaneously. And despite the fact that nothing in his filmography up ’til then suggested that a martial arts movie would be in his wheelhouse, Ang Lee proved to be the ideal director to bridge that gap. Lee has always been a meticulous filmmaker, paying careful attention to the details of his film’s specific periods, be it contemporary Taiwan, 18th century England or suburban America in the 1970s. Crouching Tiger was his first foray into a more fantastic realm but Lee takes his time and works up to that aspect of the story, grounding it in sets and costumes that feel both authentic and lived-in.

But Lee’s greatest gift as a filmmaker lies in his ability to find the emotional truth that lies beneath scenes of grandly sweeping romance. (He can also reverse that, turning very ordinary gestures into symbols of aching romance, as in Brokeback Mountain). This was evident in Sense And Sensibility, where his humanistic worldview meshed beautifully with Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel to create a film both sardonic and sweet. In Crouching Tiger, he crafts two towering romances with such subtlety that you’re barely aware he’s doing it. Indeed for about half the movie, aristocratic governor’s daughter Jen (Zhang Ziyi) is presented as a rebellious spirit, rejecting her arranged marriage and having secretly trained to be a warrior for years. We don’t learn anything about her clandestine relationship with the desert bandit Dark Cloud (Chen Chang) until we’ve fully started to know her as a strong, independent character in her own right. When that aspect is finally introduced, it doesn’t weaken her in the slightest. She rejects him as well, continuing to forge her own path, right or wrong. Her literal leap of faith that concludes the film is no empty romantic gesture. It’s transcendent because she fought long and hard to reach the top of that mountain. That choice…that wish…is nobody’s to make other than Jen’s alone.

But the truly timeless romance at the heart of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the unrequited love between master swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). Both warriors have sacrificed their own personal happiness in the name of duty and honor. They are clearly meant for each other, two souls tied together by common history and extraordinary ability, but doomed to remain separate. Given that both move with a grace and agility that defies the laws of physics, it makes perfect sense that their love also exists on a higher plane. Chow is given one of the most yearningly romantic lines in movie history to drive the point home: “I would rather be a ghost drifting by your side as a condemned soul than enter heaven without you.”

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was also the first real indicator of Ang Lee’s tremendous technical skill. In recent years, he has proven himself to be every bit as fascinated by and adept with the most cutting-edge filmmaking technologies as James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and George Lucas. But in Lee’s hands, these tools are used much differently, creating indelible images of visual poetry. Even a movie like Hulk, which even the most ardent Ang Lee supporter has to admit is kind of a misfire, looks and feels like no other superhero movie before or since.

Lee’s key collaborator on Crouching Tiger is undeniably the legendary action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Yuen made his name in the 70s and 80s working with such icons as Jackie Chan and Jet Li. He had just broken through internationally a year previous, helping to transform the look of movies forever alongside the Wachowskis with The Matrix. Largely thanks to the success of that film, wire fu was not an entirely alien concept to Western audiences when Crouching Tiger debuted. But hardly anyone had used the technique with such style and fluidity prior to this. Lee and Yuen start slowly but steadily build on their use of the effect. The actors genuinely seem to be defying gravity and yet still seem to be accomplishing this feat through their own physical effort. By the time Chow and Zhang take to those vertiginously swaying bamboo trees, it’s clear that this has moved far beyond a simple visual effect and entered the realm of magical realism.

In the wake of Crouching Tiger’s success, a wave of sumptuously filmed, serious-minded wuxia films hit cinemas. Zhang Yimou delved into such wildly colorful efforts as Hero, House Of Flying Daggers and Curse Of The Golden Flower. Chen Kaige produced the middling The Promise and, more recently, Monk Comes Down The Mountain. Wong Kar-wai, who had experimented with the genre early in his career with Ashes Of Time, took a stab at a more contemporary martial arts film with The Grandmaster. Even the Kung Fu Panda franchise owes its existence to the success of Ang Lee’s film.

Surprisingly, it took over a decade for an official sequel to arrive, despite the fact that the movie’s source material is just one in a series of five books. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny debuted theatrically in Hong Kong and China and on Netflix in the rest of the world this past February. (It also received a cursory release on a tiny handful of American IMAX screens.) With choreographer Yuen Woo-ping taking over as director and only Michelle Yeoh returning from the original cast, Sword Of Destiny is an odd, unsatisfying but not entirely worthless follow-up.

Where Lee struck a perfect balance between Eastern and Western sensibilities, Yuen immediately tips things in favor of the West. The movie was shot in English, not Mandarin, and digital effects are much more of a factor this time out. Sword Of Destiny essentially retells the original movie’s Quest for the Sword plot with less focus, tossing in a quartet of comic relief warriors-for-hire and a pair of would-be romantic relationships that are pale shades of those in the first film. But many of the action sequences are impressive, especially those involving the always-incredible Donnie Yen. If this was just a direct-to-video martial arts flick, you’d probably think it was pretty good. But as a follow-up to a bona fide modern classic, it can’t compete.

When the Oscars were finally handed out on March 25, 2001, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had virtually no chance of winning Best Picture. It had already overcome nearly insurmountable odds just by landing a nomination. And for Ang Lee and everyone involved with the film, the awards were no doubt appreciated but they were kind of beside the point. The real prize was how well audiences around the world responded to the film. Even today, it remains the highest grossing foreign language film ever released in the United States, proving that there are indeed some things that transcend borders and language.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Classics.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Born On The Fourth Of July

THE CONTENDER: Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)

Number of Nominations: 8 – Picture, Director (Oliver Stone), Actor (Tom Cruise), Adapted Screenplay (Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic), Original Score (John Williams), Sound (Michael Minkler, Gregory H. Watkins, Wylie Stateman and Tod A. Maitland), Cinematography (Robert Richardson), Film Editing (David Brenner and Joe Hutshing)

Number of Wins: 2 (Director and Film Editing)

If you won the Oscar office pool back in 1990, you earned some serious bragging rights for the rest of the day. (Also, if you actually remember that as a particular source of pride, you may want to explore some other hobbies. For real.) There was no clear front-runner going into the ceremony. Indeed, most of the conversation leading up to the event had revolved around what hadn’t been nominated, most notably Spike Lee being passed over for Best Picture and Director for Do The Right Thing.

The battle for Best Picture that night was really between two films: Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July and the genteel Driving Miss Daisy (or, as Spike Lee calls it, Driving Miss Motherfuckin’ Daisy). Miss Daisy led the field with the most nominations, nine of ‘em in total, but it was by no means a lock. Its biggest perceived obstacle was the fact that director Bruce Beresford had been ignored in the Best Director category. At the time, only two films had ever won Best Picture without securing a director nomination, the last one being Grand Hotel back in 1932. It’s still exceedingly rare. Argo pulled it off a few years back. But in 1990, those kinds of long odds were about as close as the Oscars got to science.

Born On The Fourth Of July, on the other hand, seemed like a pretty safe bet. Oliver Stone had already mined his Vietnam experiences for Oscar gold with Platoon a few years earlier. In fact, the Academy seemed to be quite fond of Mr. Stone and his work in general. He’d won his first Oscar for writing the screenplay to Midnight Express and was also nominated for Salvador, while Michael Douglas had just won the Best Actor trophy for his work in Wall Street. After Stone won the Best Director award that evening, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Born On The Fourth Of July would be that year’s Best Picture.

Not so fast, Sparky. As we know, the Academy decided for whatever reason to honor Driving Miss Daisy instead. Whatever else you may think about Spike Lee, he is absolutely correct in his assessment of that film. Today, Driving Miss Daisy is mostly forgotten. Nobody studies it or talks about it. It’s soft-edged, inoffensive and the best thing you can really say about it is that it’s a nice movie you can watch with your grandparents. But as satisfying as it may be for ironic purposes to say that Do The Right Thing lost to Driving Miss Daisy, it’s not true. Lee’s movie wasn’t even in the race. If anybody should be pissed off at the triumph of Hoke and Miss Daisy, it’s Oliver Stone.

On paper, Born On The Fourth Of July looks like a road map straight to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It’s the true story of Ron Kovic, a gung-ho, anti-Commie supporter of the war in Vietnam who volunteered for the Marine Corps, was wounded and paralyzed on his second tour of duty, and eventually became one of the most visible and best-known anti-war activists of the 1970s. The material is tailor-made for Stone, a fellow Vietnam veteran and self-appointed chronicler of the Secret History of the United States of America. But honestly, half of Stone’s work was done the second he cast Tom Cruise as Kovic.

In 1989, Cruise was already an enormous movie star thanks to his instantly iconic turn in Risky Business and the runaway success of mega-blockbuster Top Gun. He was even able to make Cocktail, a movie that is actually dumber than a bag of hammers, into a smash hit. And to his credit, Cruise has always been very smart about his career and the projects he picks. He had already started the effort to be taken seriously as an actor and not just as an impossibly good-looking movie star by teaming with respected filmmakers and well-established Hollywood stars. First, he joined forces with Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman for The Color Of Money. Two years later, he hooked up with Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman on Rain Man. Both Newman and Hoffman won Best Actor Oscars for their work in those films, while Cruise wasn’t even nominated.

Born On The Fourth Of July would be Cruise’s first shot at carrying a Big Prestige Picture on his own. And if it’s easy to see why Stone wanted Cruise, it’s even easier to understand why Cruise said yes. The role of Ron Kovic is straight out of the Movie Star’s Guide to Getting an Oscar Nomination. Are you playing a real person? Check. Do you age noticeably over the course of the film, say a decade or more? Check. Do you suffer some form of physical impairment or disability? Check. Is this character reflective of a broader political statement on either historic or current events? Check. Does the role fit comfortably within your wheelhouse as a movie star while still stretching you somewhat as an actor? Check and check again. Well, right this way, Mr. Cruise. We’ve been expecting you.

To be fair, Cruise is actually good in the role. He isn’t done any favors by the series of unflattering and unconvincing hairpieces he’s required to wear. Also, at 27 years of age, he was a bit long in the tooth to pull off playing a high school senior in the film’s early sequences. Stone’s solution to this, surrounding him with equally aging classmates played by the likes of Kyra Sedgwick, Frank Whaley and Jerry Levine, gives the impression that Ron Kovic went to the same high school as Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married. But Cruise/Kovic goes on quite a journey in this film and the actor sells the moments that matter most, whether it’s his steely-eyed determination to walk again, his eventual despair over being trapped in a body that no longer obeys his commands, or his growing disillusionment with the government and his rebirth as an advocate for change.

Cruise is such a uniquely American movie star (himself born, improbably enough, on the third of July) that his casting here is used as a canny bit of cinematic shorthand by Stone. Cruise is one of the few actors who could go from “America, love it or leave it” to “the war is wrong and the government lied to us” without making one extreme or the other sound hollow. The mom, baseball and apple pie Tom Cruise at the beginning of the film who volunteers to go end Communism in Vietnam is the same god-fearing, flag-waving guy at the end calling the government a bunch of thieves and rapists. A lot of other actors probably could have played Ron Kovic. But none of them would have been able to drive home Oliver Stone’s thesis about America as effectively or efficiently as Cruise.

Perhaps the strangest thing about revisiting Born On The Fourth Of July today is how conventional it is. Stone will never be accused of being a particularly subtle filmmaker but his movies are usually more dynamic, challenging and provocative. His earlier films courted controversy with their subject matter. Later films like The Doors, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon would push boundaries stylistically. Say what you will about the historical accuracy of JFK, it’s tough to argue with its Oscar wins for Cinematography and Film Editing. But Born On The Fourth Of July is a pretty straight-forward biopic, told linearly with helpful subtitles to establish time and place every time we jump ahead a few years. The two Oscars this movie took home, one for Stone as director and one for Film Editing, feel in no way inevitable.

In fact, a look at the entire list of winners and nominees for the 62nd Academy Awards inspires a collective shrug. Of the five movies up for Best Picture, perhaps the one that has had the most lasting cultural impact is Field Of Dreams, another perfectly nice, crowd-pleasing movie of the sort that almost never wins Oscars. At the end of the day, the great American movie of 1989 really was Do The Right Thing and the Academy dropped the ball by only recognizing it with two nominations (Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello and Original Screenplay for Spike Lee). But righteous indignation had no place at the Oscars that year. Born On The Fourth Of July was the most incendiary movie up for Best Picture but it doesn’t burn hot. Instead, it’s one of Oliver Stone’s warmest, most sun-dappled movies. It isn’t angry so much as it is mournful and nostalgic, from Robert Richardson’s lush cinematography to John Williams’ elegiac score. Perhaps Stone won the Oscar simply for delivering the least controversial movie of his career.

Born On The Fourth Of July is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: The Blind Side

THE CONTENDER: The Blind Side (2009)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Picture, Actress (Sandra Bullock)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten back in 2009, it was supposed to increase the likelihood of audience-pleasing blockbusters getting into the race. It was a move intended to boost the ceremony’s dwindling viewership by giving Joe Sixpack and Suzy Chardonnay a horse in the race. It wasn’t necessarily a terrible idea, although it hasn’t really worked out that way in practice. This year’s highest-grossing nominee, The Martian, was only the 8th biggest hit of 2015. That’s certainly respectable but not the kind of fanbase that inspires the Titanic-level passion AMPAS was counting on. Viewership for last February’s telecast was down from last year, ranking as the least-watched Oscar ceremony since before the rule change went into effect.

But the new rule did actually seem to have the desired effect that first year. Viewership went up, with almost 42 million Americans tuning in (as opposed to about 34 million this year). The year’s highest-grossing movie did indeed secure a Best Picture nod (although, to be fair, Avatar probably would have received it anyway), as did Pixar’s Up, which is still one of their biggest hits. But arguably the biggest beneficiary of Oscar’s bigger tent that year was the feel-good smash The Blind Side.

Movies like The Blind Side very rarely get nominated for Academy Awards. On the surface, this belongs to the subgenre of inspirational real-life sports dramas that became increasingly popular in the 2000s. Disney practically created an algorithm dedicated to cranking them out, from The Rookie (also directed by Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock) to Miracle to Glory Road to the more recent Million Dollar Arm. As much as Oscar is a sucker for a good biopic, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of use for sports movies (unless that sport happens to be boxing for some reason).

Even more unusual than its subject matter, however, is its politics. People have complained about Hollywood’s “liberal agenda” for so long that it’s no longer even a cliché. It’s now simply an assumed fact. But The Blind Side is unabashedly a Red State movie, even if its politics are more implicit than explicit. The closest the movie gets to party politics is a moment when Kathy Bates, interviewing for the job of tutor to Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), cautiously tells Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) that she’s a Democrat as though she were confessing that she’s a convicted felon.

Hancock never foregrounds the movie’s conservative nature, an approach that works for the most part and is often refreshing. The Tuohy family’s Christian faith is neither denied nor overly emphasized. Too often, movies treat religious belief in either a condescending manner or, in the case of the increasing number of faith-based features, as a means to proselytize. Here, it’s simply an inherent part of their lives, as it is for most people of all faiths.

Even a later moment that invokes a more contentious Republican issue works in context. Leigh Anne responds to a threat from a street-level drug dealer (Irone Singleton) by warning him, “I’m a member of the N.R.A. and I’m always packing.” That line is a lot more loaded today than it was even seven years ago. But in the context of the movie, it works. It’s less a pro-gun sentiment than an anti-bullying one, displaying Leigh Anne’s protective, maternal instincts. It’s an important, effective moment precisely because of how underplayed and matter-of-fact it is. Standing up to this guy is not a big deal or a supreme act of courage for Bullock’s character. It’s simply the way she goes through her life every day.

The Blind Side does a lot of things well, especially in its depiction of Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family. And that’s great but it also ends up turning Michael Oher into an observer to his own story. A lot could be said about where this movie fits in to the long history of “White Savior” films. But the fact that this is based on a true story makes that a trickier landscape to negotiate. I have no doubt that Michael Oher loves his family very much. But I’m also quite confident that his rise to football stardom wasn’t just the result of genetics and a puppy-dog-like devotion to protecting the people he cares about, which is essentially what the movie suggests.

Quinton Aaron plays Oher as a sweet, shy, instantly likable guy. With his soft eyes and wounded expression, he may be the least intimidating 6’8” giant in movie history. And for all the adversity and hardship Oher had to overcome as a kid, almost none of it is actually in the movie. Literally everybody likes him to some degree, even the dealers and addicts in his old neighborhood. They only threaten him after he loses his temper on them defending his new adopted family. If The Blind Side has any bad guys, it’s just the abstract concepts of Ignorance, Poverty and Racism.

In many ways, race is The Blind Side’s blind side. Apart from Aaron, practically the only people of color are the people who live below the very clean and art-directed poverty line on the other side of the tracks. Which is odd, considering that Oher is brought to Wingate Christian School by an African-American mechanic trying to enroll his own son as well as Big Mike. The school’s board of admissions quickly approves the other boy but he’s never seen or heard of again. The film goes to great, almost absurd lengths to isolate Michael when it really doesn’t need to. What it ought to do instead is put us in his head so we can feel the drive and survival skills he clearly possessed. He’s far too passive for too much of the film.

But the filmmakers clearly decided early on that they weren’t making The Michael Oher Story. This is The Leigh Anne Tuohy Story but even there, it’s only marginally successful. Sandra Bullock’s nomination (and win) for Best Actress was considerably less of a surprise than the movie’s Best Picture nod. Here was a very well-liked movie star in a juicy role that played to all of the strengths and attributes that made her an audience favorite in the first place. The Oscar was practically a foregone conclusion. But it’s a bit of a curious role in that it doesn’t really have a dramatic arc. Bullock nails the character and is extremely effective and moving in moments tamping her emotions down beneath her all-business exterior. But when one of her ladies-who-lunch friends comments, “You’re changing that boy’s life,” her response (“No. He’s changing mine.”) feels more like it was dictated by the Screenwriter’s Bible than a genuine reply. By the end of the movie, she seems like pretty much the same person she was to begin with, only now she has an adopted son.

Had it been released a year earlier, The Blind Side would probably not have received a Best Picture nomination (although Bullock would certainly still have been a contender in her category). While it’s hard to argue with the movie’s crowd-pleasing success, John Lee Hancock isn’t a particularly inspired or challenging filmmaker. There are important issues to deal with inside The Blind Side but the movie itself is uninterested and incapable of addressing them. And maybe that’s OK. After all, there are plenty of other movies capable of taking a more nuanced look at these themes and ideas. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie that simply wants its audience to be a little bit more compassionate toward each other.

The Blind Side is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: A Touch Of Class

THE CONTENDER: A Touch Of Class (1973)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Actress (Glenda Jackson), Original Screenplay (Melvin Frank & Jack Rose), Original Song (“All That Love Went To Waste,” music by George Barrie, lyrics by Sammy Cahn), Original Score (John Cameron)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

In box office circles, you’ll occasionally hear talk of the “Oscar bump”, the supposed lift in a movie’s revenue after it’s nominated for Academy Awards. It’s a temporary effect, of course, but it’s curious just how short-lived the Oscar bump can be. You might think that an Oscar win would give a film some kind of immortality but it isn’t true. Case in point: the almost-forgotten Best Picture nominee and Best Actress winner A Touch Of Class.

I’m an active user of Letterboxd, the movie-lover’s social network, and one of the features I enjoy is learning who else has seen a particular film. When I watched A Touch Of Class, I was surprised that only 105 other people had seen it. Not 105 of my friends, 105 Letterboxd users period. By comparison, 5,839 people have watched that year’s Best Picture winner, The Sting. What makes that low figure even more of a shock is the fact that A Touch Of Class was actually a pretty good-sized hit back in 1973, riding a wave of popularity to those five nominations.

The movie itself is a trifle and, like the dessert, it hasn’t aged particularly well. George Segal stars as an American insurance adjuster living in London with his wife and family. He has a chance encounter with Glenda Jackson, a fashion designer and divorced mother of two. Sparks fly and soon the two of them are off to Spain for an illicit affair. After a rocky start that almost has them calling the whole thing off before it even gets started, the pair begins to fall in love. Returning to London, they decide to keep the affair going, renting a cheap flat in a shady part of town (all the girls who live in the building have the surname “French”) and getting together for secret trysts whenever possible.

A Touch Of Class was co-written and directed by Melvin Frank, a member of the old guard in Hollywood who cut his teeth writing for Bob Hope and Danny Kaye vehicles. On the surface, A Touch Of Class seems very modern and sophisticated. But deep down, it’s a resolutely old-fashioned movie that only works as well as it does thanks to Segal and especially Jackson.

George Segal was at the height of his popularity in 1973, coming off of such hits as The Owl And The Pussycat. Glenda Jackson, on the other hand, was actively looking to change her image. She’d already won an Oscar a few years earlier for her role in Ken Russell’s Women In Love and was nominated again for John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. In other words, she was considered a very capital-S Serious Actress. With A Touch Of Class, she was making a bid for more mainstream commercial success.

Segal and Jackson have an undeniable chemistry and that rapport makes it easy to gloss over some of the movie’s bumpier patches. Because it’s fun to watch their banter, you can almost overlook the fact that Segal’s character is a fairly unlikable cad, eager to cheat on his wife for no good reason. We don’t see a lot of his wife but she seems perfectly nice and inoffensive. It never seems like there’s trouble at home or friction in their relationship, so Segal’s really just a bastard, albeit a charming one.

At least Jackson is fairly upfront about her desires and expectations. She’s looking for something less than a relationship but something a little more than a one-night stand. She seems to realize that the smart play would have been to end things after the trip to Spain. The fact that she keeps seeing Segal anyway doesn’t make her seem stupid or weak, just human. On screen, Glenda Jackson had a presence that always made her seem much smarter than everybody else in the film (probably because she really was). Her work in A Touch Of Class probably wasn’t the most-deserving performance up for the Oscar that year. Personally, I would have given the award to Ellen Burstyn for The Exorcist. Perhaps a more appropriate award for Jackson would have been Most Valuable Player.

Even at the time, A Touch Of Class was an unlikely Oscar contender. It would be a similar situation twenty years later when the fluffy Four Weddings And A Funeral found itself battling it out for the top prize with heavyweights Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. There have certainly been worse movies nominated for Best Picture than A Touch Of Class but very few as inconsequential.

A Touch Of Class is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Tootsie

THE CONTENDER: Tootsie (1982)

Number of Nominations: 10 – Picture, Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Teri Garr and Jessica Lange), Director (Sydney Pollack), Original Screenplay (Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal & Don McGuire), Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Sound (Arthur Piantadosi, Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander & Les Lazarowitz), Original Song (“It Might Be You,” music by Dave Grusin, lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman), Film Editing (Fredric Steinkamp & William Steinkamp)

Number of Wins: 1 (Supporting Actress, Jessica Lange)

It’s a commonly held belief that when it comes to the Academy Awards, comedies get no respect. There’s an element of truth to that. Comedic actors are rarely recognized for their performances, at least in comedies. The best way for a comedian to nab an Oscar is to get serious, as in the cases of Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Mo’Nique. There are a handful of examples of actors winning for a comedy, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda leaps to mind, but these are rare.

When it comes to Best Picture, comedies are infrequently nominated and almost never win. The last comedies to win were The Artist in 2012 and Shakespeare In Love back in 1999. Neither of those movies are exactly what you’d consider typical contemporary comedies. Prior to them, comedy winners included Annie Hall, The Sting, Tom Jones, The Apartment, You Can’t Take It With You, and It Happened One Night. You might be able to make a case for a couple others but not many.

The Academy seems to think that making comedies is easy. After all, they’re fun, right? They look like everyone was having fun. So making them is a lot simpler than recreating World War II or showing someone suffering from a debilitating disease. The reality is that making a great comedy is extraordinarily difficult. Every single element has to work in perfect harmony, from the script to the performances to the direction to the cinematography to the editing. If just one thing is out of sync, the whole operation falls apart.

In 1982, the Academy momentarily recognized how much work went into crafting a great contemporary comedy and honored Tootsie with 10 nominations. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, that may seem excessive. But rewatching it again recently, it struck me as entirely appropriate. Tootsie is indeed a great comedy, one of the best of its decade, and it more than holds up over 30 years later.

The movie was a passion project for Dustin Hoffman and he spent several years developing the script with playwright Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart, among other, uncredited writers. The attention to detail pays off. The movie could easily have been an unbelievable, cross-dressing farce. But the characters are so richly developed that the movie strikes a chord. You never for one second question Hoffman’s decision as difficult actor Michael Dorsey to put on a dress and audition for a role on a soap opera as Dorothy Michaels.

Both of Hoffman’s performances are relaxed, engaging, and hilarious. The movie cannily plays off the star’s own reputation as an intense, difficult method actor. Tootsie features him at his warmest and most sympathetic. Hoffman takes what could have been a broad caricature and creates a wholly relatable human being.

The film’s supporting cast is no less perfect. Stalwart character actor Dabney Coleman has one of his juiciest roles as the lecherous TV director. Bill Murray graciously removed his name from the opening credits and advertising so audiences wouldn’t expect a Bill Murray movie along the lines of Stripes. But his appearance is crucial. Hoffman needs a foil that’s his equal and the two of them have an easy rapport that immediately conveys the characters’ history.

Perhaps the movie’s shrewdest casting was director Sydney Pollack’s appearance as Michael’s agent. Hoffman had to persuade Pollack into taking on the role. In fact, Dabney Coleman was originally cast in the part. But Pollack turned out to be the right choice. His incredulous reaction upon meeting Dorothy Michaels for the first time is worth the price of admission.

In particular, Tootsie was a tremendous vindication for Jessica Lange. She’d made her film debut in Dino De Laurentiis’ disastrous 1976 remake of King Kong. After that debacle, she found it almost impossible to find work. She subsequently made only a few film appearances until returning with a vengeance in 1982 with acclaimed performances in both Tootsie and Frances, eventually winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Her win was not without controversy. After all, her role in Tootsie was the leading lady. It was widely assumed she was promoted in the Supporting Actress category so she wouldn’t be competing with her own work in Frances for Best Actress. Sure enough, she was nominated in both categories, much to the annoyance of costar Teri Garr. When both women were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Garr resigned herself to the fact that she would probably lose to Lange, especially since it was widely (and correctly) assumed that the Best Actress race already belonged to Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice.

Sydney Pollack would go on to win Best Picture and Director a few years later for Out Of Africa, an interminable slog of a movie which is nevertheless exactly the kind of prestigious, sweeping epic the Academy loves to throw Oscars at. Tootsie is a far superior movie but despite its many nominations, it never had much of a shot. It’s funny, it’s contemporary, and it makes it all look easy. That isn’t the kind of movie that wins awards. But it is the kind of movie that has a legacy far beyond its initial run.

Tootsie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.