An Honor To Be Nominated: Do The Right Thing

THE CONTENDER: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello); Original Screenplay (Spike Lee)

Number of Wins: 0

When Green Book took home the Best Picture prize at last February’s Academy Awards, many viewers and film pundits felt like they were experiencing déjà vu. It was eerily similar to the 1990 ceremony where Driving Miss Daisy unexpectedly won Best Picture. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Green Book, so I can’t comment on its quality. But there are undeniably some surface similarities between the two films. Both are about white people who learn valuable life lessons about tolerance from an African-American. Both are centered around cars. Both managed to win Best Picture without receiving a nomination for their directors. And both films had to share the spotlight with the eternally outspoken Spike Lee.

Which is not to say that absolutely nothing had changed in the nearly 30 years between ceremonies. Lee’s 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, was nominated in 7 categories, as opposed to Do The Right Thing‘s paltry two. Perhaps more importantly, BlacKkKlansman was not alone at the party. It was honored alongside other strong African-American films like Black Panther and If Beale Street Could Talk. Aside from Driving Miss Daisy, the other Best Picture nominees back in 1990 included Born On The Fourth Of July, Dead Poets Society, Field Of Dreams and My Left Foot. When people refer to “Oscars So White”, this is exactly the kind of thing they’re talking about. It’s hard to imagine a whiter lineup of films than that one.

Do The Right Thing inspired passionate reactions from the get-go. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was shut out of the awards despite rave reviews from critics and audiences. Lee, ever the diplomat, has long blamed jury president Wim Wenders for the loss, although Wenders denies that he had it out for the film. By the time it opened in the States in July, it was accompanied both by glowing reviews from the likes of Siskel and Ebert, as well as dire warnings of the potential for violence at screenings from folks like David Denby and Joe Klein.

Needless to say, Do The Right Thing failed to incite a single riot apart from the one depicted on-screen. The idea that audiences (and, let’s be clear, these articles were specifically talking about black audiences) would be so quickly and easily provoked into violence is condescending at best, outright racist at worst. Not only does it insult and underestimate the audience, it undervalues the film itself and fails to take in the entire scope of what Spike Lee was able to accomplish.

Taking place over the course of one very long, very hot day in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Do The Right Thing is, first and foremost, a master class in form and structure. By the end of the film, any viewer would be able to draw a reasonably accurate map of the neighborhood. That’s how thoroughly and clearly Lee, director of photography Ernest Dickerson, and editor Barry Alexander Brown have covered and depicted the space. It’s a cliché to say that the location is a character but in this case, it’s really true. The homes and businesses of Bed-Stuy inform everything about the film. It’s a vibrant, living neighborhood and you can feel the heat radiating off the asphalt.

Sharing this space are some of Lee’s most vividly drawn characters, played by an astounding ensemble of actors. In addition to Danny Aiello as pizzeria owner Sal and Lee himself as delivery guy Mookie, there’s Ossie Davis as local drunk Da Mayor, Ruby Dee as Mother Sister, Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin Out, Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem, Roger Guenveur Smith as Smiley, John Turturro and Richard Edson as Sal’s sons, Pino and Vito, Sam (not yet Samuel L.) Jackson as DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy and many more. Every character is so distinct and well-crafted that the names alone are enough to conjure up vivid images of each one. It’s a shame that the Screen Actors Guild didn’t start presenting awards until the mid 1990s. This almost certainly would have had a lock on Best Ensemble.

What’s fascinating about Do The Right Thing and, I think, what made its detractors so deeply uncomfortable is how thoroughly Lee delves into the lives of these characters and their beliefs. In 1989, this was arguably the most urgent and passionate film about race relations in America that had ever been made. Even today, it remains potent and timely. Lee digs deep, looking into what causes these feelings and beliefs and showing just how easily a simple question like “How come there ain’t no brothers on the wall?” can spiral into an argument and worse. Buggin Out has a point. Sal’s clientele is mostly black, so it’d be nice and respectful of him to make some concessions in the décor. But Sal has one, too. End of the day, it’s his place, has been for a long time and he can do what he wants with it. And with neither side willing to listen to the other, it’s not a conflict that’s going to be resolved easily.

It’s also interesting that when Buggin Out tries to organize a boycott of Sal’s, not only does he receive zero support from the community, he encounters outright hostility and disbelief. The idea of a boycott is ludicrous, especially over such an insignificant issue. The only people he can rally to his cause are Radio Raheem, who had his own run-in with Sal that day over his music, and Smiley, the mentally challenged street vendor who not only had gotten into it with Sal’s son, Pino, but was probably also just happy to be included in something. They’re looking for a fight when they confront Sal, so things rapidly spin out of control thanks to a multitude of factors: the lateness of the hour, the aggression on both sides, and, of course, that infernal heat that has everyone on edge.

The big question mark that hangs over the film is this: is the violence that follows justified? Lee seems to be leaving it ambiguous by concluding the film with contrasting quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. But I don’t think it’s really all that hard to interpret. After Radio Raheem’s death, the anger is entirely justified. Therefore, the violence that erupts is understandable, if not justifiable. It certainly doesn’t solve anything. But that anger needs an outlet. It’s been tamped down for too long. Of course it’s going to end up exploding.

Cooler heads need to prevail but when tempers and temperatures are running hot, there are none to be found. Certainly the police aren’t the answer. They should be there to restore order, not make things worse with excessive force. The cops in Do The Right Thing remain ciphers throughout and that’s appropriate for the story. This movie is about the community and the police are pointedly not a part of it. They’re outsiders who come and go. In a neighborhood where everybody knows everybody, they don’t seem to know anyone’s name except for Sal. They are not going to be the ones to fix this problem.

It’s disappointing but not terribly surprising that Do The Right Thing was shut out at the Oscars. Aiello ended up losing to Denzel Washington for Glory, which was certainly a deserving win, and Lee lost his category to Tom Schulman’s script for Dead Poets Society, which…um…was not. It was a strong year for the Original Screenplay category, with nods for Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape and Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally. Literally any of those other four nominated scripts would have been a better choice.

Perhaps even more disappointing were the categories that completely overlooked Do The Right Thing. In addition to Best Picture and several other actors and actresses, Ernest Dickerson would have been a deserving nominee for his shimmering, colorful cinematography. Dickerson was a phenomenal cinematographer before he turned his attention to directing. Astonishingly, he was never even nominated for an Oscar. Editor Barry Alexander Brown finally got an editing nomination for BlacKkKlansman (he had previously been nominated for co-directing the documentary feature The War At Home in 1980) but his work here is just as good.

And then there’s Best Original Song. Obviously the Academy just wasn’t ready to recognize a rap song back in 1990. But Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” is a phenomenal track, instantly iconic and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best examples of a song written specifically for a movie in my lifetime. As near as I can tell, the song wasn’t even eligible due to a rule that states only songs that are “original and specifically written for the motion picture” are considered. Which means that a song like “Fight The Power”, which is built on a bedrock of samples, is out. It would take a while longer for the Academy to catch up. Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” would become the first hip-hop track to be nominated for (and win) an Oscar…over a decade later.

We’ll see more Spike Lee joints in this column but not as many as you might think. Considering that he’s probably one of the most recognizable filmmakers working today, Spike Lee is curiously undervalued. He’s a risk-taker, a challenging and provocative director who has rarely compromised, making the films he wants to make. That is not a surefire recipe for mainstream success. His biggest hit, the 2006 thriller Inside Man, made quite a bit of money both domestically and overseas. Even so, Lee was still unable to get the funding necessary for a proposed sequel.

Both Lee’s best films (including Malcolm X, 25th Hour, Summer Of Sam, and especially Bamboozled, a movie I would dearly love to see Criterion release) and his worst (I can’t say I was a huge fan of Chi-Raq) are all clearly and immediately identifiable as his films. With BlacKkKlansman, the Academy finally started to catch up with what they’d failed to recognize almost 30 years earlier and it’s about damn time. The film world needs more Spike Lees, not less.

Do The Right Thing is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection and on Blu-ray and Digital from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Legend

THE CONTENDER: Legend (1986)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Makeup (Rob Bottin and Peter Robb-King)

Number of Wins: 0

There are a handful of filmmakers who make the concept of a column like this somewhat difficult. It’s a problem I discussed when I wrote about Star Wars. Namely, the version of the film that is widely available today is not the same movie that was nominated for ten Academy Awards. The movie won Oscars for its visual effects and editing but today, thanks to George Lucas’ tinkering, those elements have been radically altered.

The Star Wars movies are extreme examples since Lucas literally removed the original versions from circulation. But there are other filmmakers who are arguably worse when it comes to making post-release changes. And yes, I am looking directly at you, Sir Ridley Scott. His filmography is so cluttered with extended, unrated and director’s cut versions that it’s almost difficult to think of a movie he hasn’t continued to fuss over. Even Gladiator, a movie that most people liked just fine the first time around and won Best Picture, received a superfluous “extended edition” on DVD. Some people are never satisfied.

So what are we talking about when we talk about Scott’s fantasy epic Legend? If it were up to him, he’d probably prefer that we only discuss the 113-minute director’s cut released on DVD back in 2002. If that’s not an option, then he’d likely steer us toward the 94-minute version released in Europe in 1985. That at least includes the original orchestral score composed by Jerry Goldsmith. But neither of those variants nabbed an Oscar nomination, so we’re going to focus exclusively on the 89-minute version released in America in 1986 with the synthesized musical stylings of Tangerine Dream. Sorry, Ridley.

If you read Starlog or Cinefantastique magazine back in the 80s, you were very, very excited to see Legend. I subscribed to both so I’m speaking from experience here. At the time, Ridley Scott seemed like the savior of science fiction cinema. He had blown everyone away with Alien and while Blade Runner had been a commercial flop, a cult of devoted fans was already beginning to form around it. Just the idea of Scott tackling the fantasy genre was enough to build anticipation. Given that track record and with pre-release publicity photos centered squarely on Rob Bottin’s spectacular makeup effects, Legend seemed like it should have been a home run.

Well, it wasn’t. Sure, Legend looks spectacular with its jaw-dropping sets and lush cinematography. But you could say that about any Ridley Scott movie. The man seems to be incapable of crafting a bad image. But looks ain’t everything and Legend has a whole raft of problems, starting, unfortunately, with its script. The idea to make a fairy tale came from Scott and he developed the story with the man who would write the screenplay, the late novelist William Hjortsberg (he’s probably best known for Falling Angel, which became the basis for the film Angel Heart).

The story they came up with would seem to have all the basic ingredients of a classic fairy tale. Good vs. evil. Light vs. darkness. Goblins, unicorns, fairies, elves, magic pixies…it’s a fifth-grade girl’s spiral notebook cover come to life. But what it doesn’t have is much of a point. Our heroes, forest dweller Jack (a woefully miscast Tom Cruise) and vaguely-defined “princess” (of what is never quite clear) Lili (Mia Sara), remain blank slates throughout. Cruise and Sara have zero chemistry as an on-screen couple, so there’s no reason to care whether or not they live happily ever after. Sara, at least, is given more than one note to play as she falls under the corrupting influence of Darkness (Tim Curry). But Cruise is simply out of his depth, unable to make the florid dialogue sound even remotely natural.

Tim Curry, on the other hand, bites into this kind of thing like a rare steak. His Darkness is easily the most compelling thing about the film. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Rob Bottin’s makeup is that Tim Curry’s essential Tim Curry-ness isn’t buried beneath all that red paint, rubber and fiberglass. You can still see him in his eyes and his mouth and you can definitely hear him in his voice, despite the addition of kind of chintzy vocal effects. In fact, almost all of the characters have some kind of weird, distracting video-gamey voice. Curry actually gets off pretty easy in this regard.

The makeup work by Rob Bottin and Peter Robb-King is nothing short of extraordinary and more than deserved its Oscar nomination. Darkness is obviously the marquee piece that gets all the attention but all of it is quite remarkable, from Darkness’ goblin toady Blix (Alice Playten) to Meg Mucklebones (played by Joe Dante regular Robert Picardo, of all people), a swamp-dwelling creature that deserved more screen time.

So how is it that makeup this great didn’t win? Well, Legend was released everywhere in the world except America in 1985. In this country, the release was delayed until 1986 so that Jerry Goldsmith’s score could be replaced by Tangerine Dream. And hey, I like Tangerine Dream a lot. But this is a bad score that screams 1980s even more than Giorgio Moroder’s music for The NeverEnding Story does. Anyway, that delay put Legend in competition with David Cronenberg’s The Fly for Best Makeup. As great as the makeup is in Legend, Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis’ work on The Fly is arguably even better. Certainly the Academy would make that argument. They gave the award to Walas and Dupuis.

Not that an Oscar would have been a foregone conclusion if Legend had come out in ’85 like it was supposed to. In England, Legend was nominated for a BAFTA Award in the makeup category. Its competition included not one but two Oscar winners: Mask and Amadeus (which won). So no matter where they went, Bottin and Robb-King were up against some heavy hitters.

Rob Bottin is retired now but his work in special make-up effects has made him a legend in his own right. Movies like The Howling, The Thing, and RoboCop are classics today, thanks in no small part to his work. Remarkably, he never won a competitive Academy Award. He did eventually get one, as part of the visual effects team on Total Recall, but that was a Special Achievement Award presented in one of those weird years when the Academy can’t be bothered to nominate films and instead just hands it to you. And sure, I guess it doesn’t matter how you get your Oscar, just as long as you get one. Still, it seems like an odd injustice that one of the acknowledged masters of make-up effects never received an Academy Award for Best Makeup.

Legend is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

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: Erin Brockovich

THE CONTENDER: Erin Brockovich (2000)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Actress (Julia Roberts), Supporting Actor (Albert Finney), Director (Steven Soderbergh), Original Screenplay (Susannah Grant)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

When the nominations for the 73rd Academy Awards were announced, it was by no means a sure thing that Steven Soderbergh would pull off his double-nod hat trick. Traffic was definitely on most voters’ radar. But his other 2000 release, Erin Brockovich, had come out back in March, almost an entire year earlier. Oscar voters have notoriously short memories.

Only one nomination was really a lock and that was Julia Roberts for Best Actress. Roberts had been nominated twice before and the fact that she would ultimately win this time is about as close as the Oscars get to a sure thing. Her competition included Juliette Binoche for Chocolat, Joan Allen for The Contender, Ellen Burstyn for Requiem For A Dream, and Laura Linney for You Can Count On Me. Great actresses and fine performances all but if you missed that category on Oscar night, you should have seriously considered retiring from the office Oscar pool.

But Erin Brockovich ultimately did just as well as Traffic in terms of nominations, each film scoring five nods. Interestingly enough, the two films competed against each other in several categories, including Best Picture, Best Director (which Soderbergh won for Traffic), and Best Supporting Actor (Albert Finney lost out to Traffic’s Benicio Del Toro). If Erin Brockovich had been based on a book, the two films would have competed in the screenplay category, too.

Today, Traffic is more often discussed and analyzed while Erin Brockovich is mainly remembered as the movie that finally won Julia Roberts an Oscar. That’s to be expected. Traffic is certainly the more complex, ambitious, and technically impressive of the two. But Erin Brockovich definitely has more going for it than merely the sight of America’s sweetheart swearing like a sailor and running around the desert in push-up bras.

What’s most striking about Erin Brockovich is that it’s a big Hollywood movie disguised as a gritty independent feature. Soderbergh was the ideal choice for such a project. He was capable of taking the best elements of each, making something more complex than your usual mainstream legal drama but also more crowd-pleasing than a typical indie.

What Soderbergh and writer Susannah Grant realized was that for the movie to work, it needed to tell two stories. As a biopic of the real Erin Brockovich, a single, out-of-work mom turned legal researcher, part of the overcoming adversity story needs to be about the landmark lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric. And while it would be easy to just tell the PG&E story, the audience won’t really care about it unless we care about Brockovich.

To accomplish this, Soderbergh necessarily relies on movie shortcuts, first and foremost of which is the casting of Julia Roberts. Roberts was (and is) a hugely successful movie star, beloved and idolized but accessible. Before the opening credits have finished, we’ve seen her fumble her way through a bad job interview, learned she’s twice divorced with three kids, and get in a car accident. Within five minutes, the audience is already on her side.

But what makes Roberts’ performance so interesting is that she doesn’t soften the character to play for sympathy. As Roberts plays her, Brockovich is a fairly abrasive personality. Sure, she’s usually right and she’s undeniably smart, quick-witted, and frequently charming. But she’s also tactless, short-tempered, and rude. The audience isn’t turned off by this behavior because Soderbergh surrounds Roberts with actors more than capable of holding their own against her.

Albert Finney is terrific as Erin’s boss, Ed Masry. It’s satisfying when Erin tells off the prissy, button-down, high-priced lawyer who underestimates her ability. But it’s equally satisfying in the very next scene when Ed tells Erin that she went too far. Aaron Eckhart could have had a thankless role as Erin’s biker neighbor turned babysitter turned boyfriend, George. But he delivers a subtle, complex performance. When he leaves, we get that Erin is finally getting a level of respect and satisfaction in her work that she’s never before experienced. But we also kind of wonder what took him so long to get fed up with her.

More than ten years after its release, it’s tempting to view Erin Brockovich as one of those movies that snuck into the Best Picture race purely on the strength of a powerhouse movie star performance…such as, oh I don’t know, The Blind Side maybe? But revisiting it, it holds up better than you might think.

Steven Soderbergh is (or, I suppose I should say, was*) one of the few filmmakers who could comfortably move between the mainstream Hollywood and low-budget independent worlds. Given the subject matter and setting, some might consider classifying this with his indie work. But make no mistake. Erin Brockovich is a big, glossy Hollywood studio picture. It just happens to be an extremely smart and accomplished one. Those are rare but they do exist.

Erin Brockovich is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

*2017 Update: Nope, it’s “is” again.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Traffic

THE CONTENDER: Traffic (2000)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro), Director (Steven Soderbergh), Adapted Screenplay (Stephen Gaghan), Film Editing (Stephen Mirrione)

Number of Wins: 4 (Supporting Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing)

Steven Soderbergh released two films in 2000, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Both were critically acclaimed. Both were hits at the box office, each one making over $100 million. And when Oscar time rolled around, both received multiple nominations. In fact, Soderbergh became the first filmmaker since 1938 to receive two nominations in the same year for Best Director. But while the previous record-holder, Michael Curtiz, went home that night empty handed, Soderbergh actually won.

For a while, it seemed as though Traffic might also win Best Picture. But the Oscars played out differently that year. The year’s biggest prize went to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, making it one of the few Best Picture winners not to be honored in either the directing or writing categories. Even so, Traffic did extremely well, winning four of the five categories for which it was nominated.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Traffic won accolades and awards. But it is somewhat surprising that it was a hit. This is a complex, multilayered story with a sprawling cast of characters that rarely intersect in obvious ways.

Michael Douglas plays the newly-appointed drug czar whose new job takes a back seat when he discovers his daughter (Erika Christensen) is herself heavily addicted. Benicio Del Toro is a mildly corrupt Tijuana cop who finds his own limits when recruited by General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who wants to break the Tijuana cartel for reasons of his own. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a wealthy mother-to-be who only discovers her “legitimate businessman” husband (Steven Bauer) is a trafficker after he’s dragged to prison by the DEA. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are DEA agents assigned to protect the key witness in Bauer’s case. And those are just the main plot threads.

But Soderbergh, who almost always acts as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, developed a unique visual shorthand to keep the various stories clear. Working with color, different film stocks, and post-production tricks, Soderbergh gives each story its own individual style. It’s a brilliant move. The film runs slightly over two hours but never feels long. There’s simply too much story to tell for your interest to flag. But it’s also never confusing, a charge I’ve heard leveled at screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s similar follow-up, Syriana.

It’s fair to say that Traffic hit a nerve with the public that Syriana would never have been able to find. I admire Syriana quite a bit but the labyrinthine machinations of the oil industry are a lot more abstract to most people than the war on drugs. I imagine everyone has a story to tell about how drugs have affected their lives or someone close to them. One of Traffic’s great strengths is its ability to make us see not only our own story reflected back but the bigger picture we never dreamed existed.

If Soderbergh and Gaghan deserve credit for economy of storytelling, the ensemble cast earns most of the kudos for making us believe in these characters. We learn almost nothing about the personal lives of Cheadle and Guzman. But we can fill in the blanks thanks to their effortless chemistry. Zeta-Jones makes a thoroughly believable transformation from idle rich wife to a ruthless Lady Macbeth. And the Oscar-winning Del Toro is a smart, soulful survivor. The moment when he half apologetically confirms to a pair of American tourists that their “stolen car” is a police scam speaks volumes.

Traffic seems to view the war on drugs as futile but surprisingly ends on a note of some hope. The smile on Cheadle’s face as he walks away from Bauer’s home and the contented look Del Toro has as he watches a baseball game suggest that all is not lost. But there is a good chance that this “war” is being fought all wrong.

The world has changed a lot in the years since Traffic debuted. Drug cartels have turned Mexico into a war zone. The director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or the so-called “drug czar,” is no longer a Cabinet-level position. Yet, Traffic remains relevant. No doubt it will continue to as long as illegal drugs are bought, sold, and abused. Rather than the screeching anti-drug harangue it could have been, Soderbergh made a quietly powerful, thoughtful film examining the problem from multiple perspectives. Whether or not it’s his crowning achievement is debatable. But it’s a high-water mark that brilliantly displays Soderbergh’s ambitions and confidence as a storyteller.

Traffic is available as on Blu-ray and DVD from both The Criterion Collection and Universal.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Jaws

THE CONTENDER: Jaws (1975)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Picture, Sound (Robert L. Hoyt, Roger Heman, Earl Madery & John Carter), Original Score (John Williams), Film Editing (Verna Fields)

Number of Wins: 3 (Sound, Original Score & Film Editing)

If you look over all the films that have ever been nominated for Best Picture, you’ll find at least one common thread. Every year, there’s at least one movie whose reputation has faded since its release, that’s been virtually forgotten, or simply wasn’t very good to begin with. Every year, that is, except one: 1975.

That year’s winner, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, had to compete against some of the most acclaimed films and filmmakers of the 1970s: Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Whether or not Cuckoo’s Nest deserved to win is another debate. But if your knee-jerk response is of course it didn’t, you probably haven’t seen Cuckoo’s Nest recently.

Somehow, the Academy got it right in 1975. Since every one of these films is worthy of attention, I thought I’d spend the next four installments of An Honor To Be Nominated looking at each one. And with summer in full swing, it seems appropriate to kick things off with the movie that changed summer blockbusters forever, Jaws.

Jaws was never supposed to be an Oscar nominated film. In fact, during the tumultuous making of the movie, many doubted it would even be watchable. Steven Spielberg was just in his late 20s when he was hired to direct the film. He came from television, where he’d helmed episodes of Night Gallery and Columbo as well as the acclaimed TV-movie Duel. His only theatrical film, the Goldie Hawn vehicle The Sugarland Express, had been positively received by critics but hadn’t exactly set the box office on fire.

The screenplay for Jaws was in a constant state of flux, even during shooting. Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel, bowed out early on. Most of the shooting script was eventually written by Carl Gottlieb (who also appears in the film as the editor of the local newspaper) and John Milius, who did not receive screen credit for his work.

Considering the electricity generated by the three leads, it’s surprising to realize that not one of the actors was the production’s first choice. Spielberg originally offered the role of Chief Brody to Robert Duvall, who passed on the project. Roy Scheider was interested but Spielberg had to be persuaded that he was right for the part. For Hooper, both Jon Voight and Jeff Bridges were considered. Richard Dreyfuss initially rejected the part but eventually changed his mind. Quint is today considered Robert Shaw’s most iconic role but Spielberg first pursued Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden for the part.

The production on Martha’s Vineyard went notoriously awry. The expensive mechanical sharks, dubbed “Bruce” by the crew, steadfastly refused to do what they were supposed to do. It proved to be a blessing in disguise, as Spielberg honed the script and rethought how to tell the story while waiting for the sharks to work. Eventually, the movie went over-budget and 100 days over schedule. By the time principal photography was over, Spielberg was convinced his career was finished before it had even begun.

But when Jaws was released on June 20, 1975, it changed Hollywood forever. Until then, most films were given a platform release, slowly expanding into different markets and allowing word of mouth to build. Jaws opened wide, so to speak, following a previously unheard of promotional blitz. It became a nationwide phenomenon, becoming the first film in history to make over $100 million in domestic box office.

Despite its popular success and critical acclaim, Jaws was hardly a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination. The Academy has never given genres like horror and science fiction much respect. The Exorcist had managed to finagle a Best Picture nomination a couple years earlier but it was a more serious-minded type of horror film. Jaws was considered a straight-up popcorn movie that just happened to catch on.

That didn’t stop Steven Spielberg from feeling bitterly disappointed when the nominations were announced and he discovered that while his movie was up for the big prize, he himself was not. While Kubrick, Lumet, Altman, and Milos Forman were all nominated for Best Director, the Academy decided to honor Federico Fellini for his work on Amarcord instead of the new kid. Even so, Jaws won three of the four categories it was up for and Spielberg himself would receive his first Best Director nomination just two years later for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

Over 35 years later, Jaws remains one of the few films that’s as good today as it was at the time of its release. Almost all of this is due to the fact that things did not go as planned. Spielberg was forced to show his shark as little as possible due to the malfunctioning effects, making the impact of the shark’s on-screen appearances all the more potent.

But what really makes the film special is the work of Scheider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw. Spielberg excels at telling stories of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances and Jaws may be his crowning achievement in this realm. These three characters are vivid, well-rounded, and thoroughly believable. The chemistry between them is palpable. These three actors sell the story much more effectively than any mechanical shark ever could.

It’s little wonder that Jaws remains a touchstone film for movie fans of my generation. It’s scary, funny, breathlessly exciting, and entirely relatable. Despite almost four decades of pop culture ubiquity, including countless parodies and the transformation of John Williams’ Oscar-winning score from effective film music to iconic audio shorthand, it has yet to lose its power. Most movies that enter our pop culture subconscious become overly familiar. Jaws is somehow immune to that. Every time someone watches it for the first time, someone new thinks twice about going back in the water.

Jaws is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: A Serious Man

THE CONTENDERA Serious Man (2009)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Picture, Original Screenplay (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)

Number of Wins: None

For all their talk about the grand tradition of the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has never been shy about shaking things up. Many people don’t realize that there were essentially two Best Film categories at the very first ceremony. The Best Production award, what we know today as Best Picture, went to Wings. The Artistic Quality of Production award was given to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. It seems that even in 1927, voters didn’t entirely understand the difference between the two categories. It would be the first and last time the Artistic Quality of Production award was given.

In 2009, the Academy announced that the number of Best Picture nominees would increase from five to ten, returning to a system that had been abandoned, presumably for a good reason, back in 1944. Most everyone viewed this as a shameless grab for ratings and a response to the perceived snubbing of The Dark Knight in the category the year before.

A few populist favorites did get nominations that first year, including Avatar and The Blind Side. But critics complained that the rule change allowed movies to sneak in that didn’t deserve to be there. So after just two years, the Academy changed the rules again. Starting in 2011, there would be no fewer than five and no more than ten nominees in the Best Picture category.

During the 2009 awards season, one of the films most commonly considered a beneficiary of the ten-film rule was Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man. It received just one other nomination, tying it with The Blind Side as the least-honored nominee of the year. Most critics were impressed with the film but it was a far cry from the popular favorites the Academy had unofficially hoped would benefit from the new arrangement. Indeed, even by the Coen Brothers’ standard, it remains one of the most divisive movies of their career.

The Coens have never been easy to pin down, which is exactly what makes them such vitally important filmmakers. They have never courted popularity but popularity has occasionally agreed to meet them on their own terms. Movies like Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? go against every commonly held belief of what a mainstream success should be, yet that’s exactly what they were. Occasionally, audiences need time to catch up to their work. The Big Lebowski is now one of the biggest cult movies of the last quarter century, but critics and audiences alike didn’t know what to make of it in 1998.

A Serious Man is unlikely to ever reach that level of pop culture ubiquity. But dismissing it entirely is a mistake, especially for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the Coens’ entire body of work. This is one of their most personal films, although you shouldn’t necessarily mistake “personal” with “autobiographical.” Like Fargo, A Serious Man is set in their home state of Minnesota, but I would argue that the fundamental difference between the two is that Fargo is based on what they observed while growing up, while A Serious Man is rooted in what they lived.

Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor in 1967 Minnesota. His wife has been having an affair with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and is demanding not just a divorce but a get so she can remarry in the Jewish faith. His troubled brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is facing criminal charges. Larry is also up for tenure, but the voting committee has been receiving anonymous letters slandering him. With the stress piling on, Larry turns to his faith for guidance and meaning but the various rabbis he meets with confuse him even more.

The Coens are famous for ambiguous endings, as in Barton Fink and No Country For Old Men, but A Serious Man infuriates even their most devoted fans. Here, both the opening and closing scenes are open to interpretation. The movie opens with a completely unrelated prologue about a dybbuk set in a Polish shtetl fifty years earlier. The Coens are notoriously coy in interviews but they’ve said this prologue really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the movie other than to set the tone. But it’s hard not to read more into it. Is it a parable or part of Larry’s ancestral back story or simply an elaborate bit of misdirection?

As for the ending, Larry receives some bad news from his doctor while at the exact same time, his son Danny faces down a massive tornado that’s barreling toward his school. The end. Not only do you not get any answers, you’re not even entirely sure what the questions are supposed to be. And that, I believe, is exactly the point.

A Serious Man has its roots in the Old Testament, particularly in the story of Job. But to me, it’s not so much a religious movie as it is a movie about religion. It’s the Coens’ interpretation of what it felt like to grow up Jewish in the Upper Midwest. Larry feels alienated from everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike. Judaism is as much a mystery to him as any other belief system. He was taught that it should provide meaning and solace, but instead it’s a baffling, closed-off labyrinth of puzzling stories and arcane traditions.

It probably is true that A Serious Man would not have received a Best Picture nomination under the five-film rule. Based on this year’s snubbing of Inside Llewyn Davis, it probably wouldn’t have even been nominated under the current five-to-ten setup. Even so, I believe A Serious Man absolutely deserved its nod. This is a dense, difficult film. It’s dark, funny, and deeply philosophical in its own strange way. The Coens have never been particularly interested in meanings. Instead, they’re fascinated by the search for meaning and how it affects people differently. It’s a recurring theme in their work and A Serious Man may well be their most heartfelt expression of it. It disappoints me to see how many Coen fans have dismissed this extraordinary film. I’ve returned to it again and again, each time finding myself thoroughly engrossed and fascinated over the endless questions it raises.

A Serious Man is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.